Fourth grade teacher Noelle Kennedy-White began teaching at Browning in 2016. Prior to joining us, she taught in the DOE and abroad. Ms. Kennedy-White earned a master's degree from the Relay Graduate School of Education and a bachelor's degree from Georgetown University.
A powerful aspect of human nature is the ability to learn, grow and change. Our success as a species is driven, in large part, by the desire to strive for better, search for meaning and make connections. My experience in education has taught me that children epitomize the best of human nature. I have found children to be curious, constantly evolving and ready to embrace new experiences. Children are capable of deep learning and engaging with material at a high level, as well as developing a keen understanding of complex concepts. In order to reach their potential, children deserve an education that pushes them to challenge themselves, reflect, grow and change.
Fellow teacher Gary Norcross and I began working to modify the fourth grade curriculum in order to foster our students’ curiosity and give them the tools to tackle deep and important societal issues. Our desire to do so was born from our belief that with the proper guidance and instruction, our fourth graders could discuss complex and nuanced topics such as slavery, revolution, immigration and “otherness” with sensitivity and empathy. Through thematic units in social studies, reading and writing, we integrated subjects under a few Essential Questions and Enduring Understandings. Our task was made easier with the assistance of our amazing colleagues with whom we were able to collaborate to further extend learning. Our efforts allowed students to approach the themes and ideas in several different ways to deepen their understanding of these “big topics.”
In order to provide our students with entry points into these concepts, we curated a list of novels to encourage our boys to step out of their comfort zone while capturing their imaginations. We wanted to give the boys an opportunity to hear voices and stories that they might not be exposed to otherwise and to provide a space for discussion and debate. Since reading is an amazing way to stretch our understanding of the world, the novels were natural entry points. Reading novels provides a mechanism to understand different perspectives and broaden our views of the world. In short, novels help us lay an educational foundation for the students to help them develop the critical reading and reasoning skills they will need to be successful in their academic careers.
Our fourth grade novel studies allow the boys an opportunity to use the stories as windows into the lives of others and as mirrors to explore their place in the world. In this way, our ELA curriculum allowed us to broach subjects such as otherness with them. As with any topic, one must meet students where they are and consider what otherness means to a nine-year-old. In our novel studies, the boys encounter a wide range of settings. The protagonists of these novels include a young enslaved girl seeking her freedom during the American Revolution and a young Mexican girl trying to help her family survive during the Great Depression. These glimpses into the lives of other children help students to expand their horizons and world view. The children witness other children struggling to achieve a more just society, and they begin to think about their own role in doing the same.
An initial yearlong Essential Question was, “Are all men created equal?” In the classroom the boys had several discussions around this question, and the answers became more nuanced as time progressed. What began as a simple “Yes, of course,” evolved into a “Yes, but not everyone is treated equally.” Which evolved into “Yes, everyone is created equally, but we have come a long way.” Their gut belief never changed, but their understanding of society did. They never faltered in their belief in human dignity and were affronted by slavery and segregation. They have seen how the nation was built and how we have improved beyond the dreams of our founding fathers. Yet, they still feel the need to grow and improve as individuals and as a society. They have lots of terrific ideas about how to ensure the promise of America!
Through these novels the boys have been able to grapple with problems that we have faced as a nation and better understand the human element of these issues. Their innate curiosity is fostered and their critical analytical skills are developed through the exploration of their world, which is achieved by the discussion of our class novels. We used the study of these novels to encourage students to think broadly, ask questions, and articulate answers to difficult questions. They can develop the skill of constantly growing and changing and striving for better.
This year my classroom has been filled with intelligent, thought-provoking conversation, driven by the students. This group of boys has exuded empathy, curiosity and respect, and I feel lucky to have had the chance to guide them through this year. I am eager to continue working with my students to think big and tackle big ideas. I am excited to reflect on my practice and continue to work with my wonderful colleagues in adapting the curriculum. Such efforts will allow the boys and I the chance to explore larger-than-life ideas and hear what each other has to say.