Fourth Graders Are Learners,
But Still Kids
Natalia J. Garland
How far should schools go in attempting to teach the whole child?
That is to say, along with teaching math, science, history, English,
music, etc., should schools also address the child's emotions or
psychological states as part of the curriculum? And, if so, are
teachers qualified to assess emotions and, as a result, develop lesson
plans meant to alter emotions or perceptions, construct personal
meaning, or stimulate a sense of community?
For example, a teacher
in California took her class of fourth graders on a field trip to a
day-labor site located near a Home Depot. Why? Her students were
afraid of the laborers. Some students thought the men--apparently
illegal immigrants--were bad, dangerous, and thieves. The purpose of
the field trip was to reduce the children's fears and to change their
supposedly erroneous impressions of the 80 - 110 men at the
site. In other words, people should not be judged until you have
gotten to know them and their circumstances.
While the children were
talking with the men (some children served as translators), one man
began crying because he missed his own family. One of the fourth-grade
girls had the following reaction. "She (the student questioner)
didn't know a word of Spanish, but she had this incredible empathy on
her face I'd never seen before. It was beautiful," said the
teacher. "She had no idea what he was saying, but she knew it
How does a school
teacher detect or assess a look of empathy on a child's face? Should
teachers use this interpretive skill, and to what extent should they
possess such expertise? Could the teacher have misunderstood the
little girl's affect, especially since the teacher had never seen an
expression quite like this before? What are some other feelings that a
nine-year-old girl might have in reaction to seeing an adult man cry?
Could the child have felt overwhelmed? Confused? Sad? Afraid?
Guilty? Responsible? And why should a little girl have to witness
and absorb such sorrow, anyway?
Fourth graders, like all
children and teenagers, have different levels of cognitive functioning
and emotional stability. Some of their fears might be irrational, and
some might be healthy, intuitive and protective. The field trip was a
follow-up to a classroom lesson on "the impact of immigrant and
migrant workers on California." Did the classroom lesson or the
field trip teach the children about laws and lawbreaking? Were the
children aware that the day-labor site was taxpayer-funded? Would this
fact have influenced their feelings toward the men?
In the attempt to
validate emotions--an aspect of the whole child approach--did the
teacher accurately assess the girl's emotional state? Would the girl
have felt the same if she knew that the tearful man had broken the law,
and that he had possibly taken a job away from a U.S. citizen? Would
that make him a bad man in the mind a child? Would this possibility
have obstructed the lesson on non-judgment? Did the teacher clarify
that although the men's motivation for seeking work might be
understandable, the men had nevertheless entered the country illegally?
Should fourth-grade kids be expected to balance emotional reactions
with concepts of fairness and justice?
After the field trip,
the children decided to try to raise money to purchase tools for the
laborers. Again, it must be questioned if this decision was based
solely on emotional reaction and social interaction, or if the
complicated dynamics of illegal immigration were also considered.
Would the children be breaking the law by aiding illegal immigrants to
remain in the United States? And, has there been a role-reversal?
Should children be placed unnecessarily in a caretaker role for adult
men? Should the men, or their employers, be expected to purchase their
tools? Should the men, who entered the U.S. voluntarily, be expected
to find ways to cope with or resolve any difficulties associated with
their illegal status?
What will the children
do the next time they see a gathering of strange men? What if the
children felt afraid of some gang members hanging out on the corner?
Will they hesitate to judge, even intuitively, that such a situation
could be dangerous? Now that the children have a familiarity with the
laborers, what if one of them returns to the site by herself? What if
she wants to go back and say hello to her new friends? Who will be
held accountable if such a child is harmed? Certainly, there must
be a turnover in any grouping of 80 - 110 illegal immigrant
laborers. Will the children generalize their experience to include
all strange men? Did the teacher warn them not to approach
strangers without a trusted adult? Or, are the laborers now felt to be
Perhaps fourth graders
would do better with a field trip involving non-controversial and
non-political circumstances. What's wrong with an old-fashioned trip
to the zoo? Let them learn about animals, have fun, write a report,
draw pictures, and have some pleasant memories without risking
anyone's emotional upset. They're kids. Let's teach and nurture them,
and also protect them.
[NOTE: In order to
afford the children some anonymity, due to their young age, names of
people and exact places were omitted from the essay. However, sources
are documented in the Bibliography Notes. Moreover, it should be noted
that some parents accompanied the children on the field trip, that all
children had parental permission, and that the trip was apparently
conducted under the supervision of the day-labor site coordinator (a
woman). The author recognizes that the concerns and questions
expressed in this essay may have already been addressed by the teacher
and/or the school. This essay is not intended to pre-judge or accuse
anyone involved but to open discussion on possible flaws in the whole
child approach, using the field trip as a pattern to work from.]
(Written 09/08/08: bibliography available.)
Until we meet