Gary Norcross, Fourth Grade Teacher

Gary Norcross, a veteran of the United States Air Force, earned a master’s degree in educational leadership from National-Louis University. Mr. Norcross also earned a bachelor's degree from Hampden-Sydney College and an associate's degree from the Community College of the Air Force.

When Noelle Kennedy-White and I had the opportunity to restructure and augment the fourth grade curriculum this past summer, we looked to the work of our colleagues and to various Browning initiatives to inspire us. Our goals were many: seamlessly integrate ELA and Social Studies into thematic units; create meaningful opportunities to collaborate with each other and with colleagues; link core content learning with character education and social-emotional learning; identity Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions, and differentiate instruction that allows for inquiry and exploration.  

As we developed the units (“Human Dignity and the American Dream,” “Conflict & Change (Revolutions),” and “Courage & Perseverance (Movements)”), I realized that one of my fundamental beliefs about personal growth was woven into the curriculum: As a student is exposed to the world beyond him, he begins to develop a clearer version of himself, his identity.

Through the course of the first unit, students were “exposed” to big ideas (“Otherness,” Immigration and Slavery) that linked back to two Enduring Understandings: Ideal societies honor the dignity of every human being, and how we treat other people reflects our own character. Initially, the overarching – and very intentional – connections between two novels, a research paper, the character tree in Browning’s lobby, and several field trips were not apparent to students.  

As a student is exposed to the world beyond him, he begins to develop a clearer version of himself, his identity.

With time and without prompting, students began having “aha moments” when they linked a novel character who has a brother with autism to the big idea of “Otherness.” They realized that the compassion and sensitivity exhibited by the character was shaping their own lives when they partnered with a student with autism on our bi-weekly trips to the Manhattan Childrens Center (MCC). They learned that “Otherness” was helping them to understand that different people learn, face challenges and find meaning and purpose in different ways. These experiences also provide an ongoing safe space for our students to reflect on how different students process information, express emotion, and socially interact with peers. MCC educators always allow for a period at the end of each game play session for Browning students to reflect and ask questions about observations they made. During these discussions, it is clear each Browning student is wanting to honor the dignity of their MCC Buddy by being sensitive to their challenges and circumstances, and all of the boys recognize that building relationships by playing games and having fun is part of a natural desire for all kids. In the first few months of this school year, our Browning fourth graders have already expressed how these Buddy interactions have made them think about their own feelings and character. They have talked (and written) about times when they have felt “Otherness” themselves.

Thanks to the collaborate effort of our head librarian Ms. Louis and study skills teacher Ms. Brenner, the fourth graders were able to apply their understanding of immigrants and slaves as they researched and presented a biographical profile of individuals who have and who continue to impact our nation. They read “Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan and made the connection between migrant farm workers in the early 20th century with our field trip to the Tenement Museum and the plight of European immigrants who lived and worked in undignified settings. At the same time, our art teacher Ms. Bancroft taught the students about a slave in the book, “Dave the Potter,” by Labban Carrick Hill, and they created original art pieces with inspirational sayings. These works will be proudly displayed at this year’s Art Show! Through these lessons and activities, the students grew to have a respect for the dignity of every human being and to reflect on how they personally value that ordinary people can do extraordinary things – not only in the past but in the present.

As we concluded this first unit, we developed a Google Form survey that allowed all fourth graders to privately reflect on the identity of the characters and people we studied: what motivated them; what priorities changed when her environment, circumstances or economic status changed; what shaped their identity and sense of self. In the survey, students were also asked to reflect on their own identity traits and to select traits that reflected what they value in their own lives, which led to both an analysis of the overall data as well as a self-reflection about what’s individually important about themselves at this moment in time.

Luckily, there is more time in the year to continue this work of self-reflection and identity, as we continue in the two remaining units. I am always grateful that my sense of self and identity continues to evolve as I am exposed to and explore more of the world and people around and beyond me, and I wish the same for any student I am lucky to encounter. I am blessed to be here at Browning and to share in this important and rewarding work.