Bringing Symbols to Life with Fourth Graders

A MiddleWeb Blog

Every New Year I make a resolution NOT to make resolutions. Every year, I break that pledge, as the first four months of a new school year come to a close and I find myself focusing on the six months ahead of us.

Focusing might not be the right choice in wording. Obsessing is more accurate when it comes to describing my own, personal growth mindset at this time of year.

If I’m not careful, I can start heading toward a fixed mindset, getting lost amidst all the road barriers that seem to be forcing us into one, congested lane of slow-moving political traffic and small-minded personal agendas.

My self-perception about how effective I am in the classroom can become skewed if I look in the wrong places for validation of my teaching – like those barriers.

For me, looking ahead toward change and looking to grow in my profession requires taking a glance back, in an attempt to assess the progress of my kids in 4-T thus far, and to set worthy goals for the road ahead (especially since it’s becoming abundantly clear that I am going to make resolutions, regardless of any solemn oaths that I plan on NOT making).

Time Square’s glittering New Years Eve ball is a symbol, an image I can conjure, to help me adjust my mental GPS to head toward yet another fresh start in living in the realities of education today.

The ball in Times Square is also a symbol of my personal annual review…the annual review that happens in between my ears. There are times when the traffic in there makes Times Square look almost bucolic. But thankfully, a few short hours into this year’s break, I was given some very hopeful glimpses into how things are progressing so far in 4T.

The objects in the rear view mirror became visible when I glanced at them to assess the traffic situation. The noise subsided as I settled on the couch in my apartment, in front of the pile of student cards and gifts that awaited, to begin twelve days away from our classroom. I was ready for a closer look back at 2018.

The horns stopped honking completely when I picked up Emma’s card.

Emma captures the year in images

Emma hadn’t written me a typical Christmas card. Emma had drawn a large Christmas tree on a piece of white computer paper. It must have taken quite some time to draw. I could tell she’d used great care in decorating it because of the incredible amount of detail there was in her illustration. That meant a lot to me.

When I looked more closely at the ornaments on Emma’s tree, though, I noticed they were actually small illustrations she’d drawn to represent some of the highlights of our time together so far this year as a class. Emma’s tree was decorated with book titles, Sudoku boards, a few math and science-related algorithms and concepts, and various and sundry other symbols of things that we had explored in the four months we’d been together as a learning community.

Nothing can truly describe what I felt when I read the note she had written in the top corner of her beautiful illustration, but I can tell you that my heart caught, and I was filled with something that felt like pure joy. All of the doubts about why I do what I do in our classroom each day seemed to evaporate with Emma’s words.

Here’s what Emma wrote:

These “ornaments” represent some of 4-T’s laughter. When these “ornaments” come together they form a Christmas tree. With a Christmas tree, comes presents. Those presents are Love, Laughter, Good Memories, and everything this class does together that is worth our time. Everything we do in this classroom is worth our time. It’s more precious than gold because everybody in this classroom is gold. Therefore, every week day is Christmas.

Emma’s note was proof positive that nine and ten year olds are quite capable of grasping big concepts like symbolism, and that they aren’t too young to appreciate the artistry that can be found in the written idea. And it’s okay to own that I play a part in helping them explore their own, valuable perspectives on things.

Lila revisits airplanes’ symbolism

Lila’s note was next. Her card was somewhat bulky, and her note was much shorter than Emma’s. Lila simply wrote, “Happy Holidays! Hope you have a Merry Christmas! A fun one too. Love Always, Lila.”

There was something folded up inside the card. I unfolded it gently and, the moment I saw the word “Choice” written in neat cursive along one of the folds, I knew what Lila had done. She’d made a paper airplane. A paper airplane was the first example of symbolism I’d introduced to the kids on the second day of school, with Peter Brown’s amazing story, My Teacher Is a Monster.

Paper airplanes, thrown or not thrown in a classroom, symbolize choice.

Mooish’s gift to start the year

The third present I opened centered on a character named Ramon. He was a gift from a young lady we call “Mooish.” Her gift included a small picture book entitled, ish, and written by Peter H. Reynolds.

I’d never heard of it, but I smiled at the title. And after reading it, I knew exactly how we would start our first day back, on the reading rug in 4T, using the last few months as a learning tool to set new goals for ourselves, with the new book from Mooish. Here’s a document to use any time of year to take a closer look with at embracing who you are.

Following students’ voices

If I want a good look at how effective I truly am as an educator, hearing it straight from the source, from the children I work with each day, outside of political debates and egos, was the real source of enlightenment into my role as a teacher, and if I am working toward change or staying stuck in traffic.

The choices I make as an educator matter. The choices I make as an educator don’t always match up with the priorities and expectations of people who don’t work inside a classroom, people who don’t work day-to-day with children.

It is their voices that I allow to make too much noise in my head. Emma’s tree, Lila’s airplane, and a beautiful picture book about being perfectly 4Tish helped me see that, since September of 2018, 4T has done some serious learning.

We are two weeks into 2019, and we are doing a darned good job so far…not nearly perfect, but darned good. I need to remind myself that what we accomplished in our first four months together has been perfectly 4T-ish, and that’s enough.

Maybe the best gift I can give my students in return is validation from me that it’s okay for each of them to be perfectly who they are. And Merry Christmas, Emma…it’s today-ish, right?

Unfolding 2019

Here are some links to some goals we’ve made for 2019 in 4T and the gift I gave each student this year, in an effort to enhance their school-world with some BIG vocabulary words — a Happy Holidays! homework pass.

We began 2019 where we left off in 2018, with Pax, Peter, and some explorations into symbolism, meaning, and the art of the story, thanks to Sara Pennypacker’s inspirations.

Mary Tarashuk

Mary Tarashuk teaches 4th grade at Wilson Elementary School in Westfield, New Jersey. Mary has been an educator for over 20 years. She has served as content writer and creative consultant for the national, award-winning initiative The Walking Classroom since its inception in 2005. Mary’s work has been published in Education Digest and was honored with the SmartBrief Education 2016 Editors’ Choice Content Award. Trying to balance her old-school teaching style with New Age methods that integrate ever-changing technology keeps her on her toes. She believes that fresh air and exercise enhance learning and engage students of all ages. Follow her on Twitter @maryrightangle and visit her personal blog (launched in 2021) Behind the Doors of the Teacher's Room for some adult conversation.

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