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Fourth Graders Are Learners,
But Still Kids

Natalia J. Garland

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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 was important."

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 trusted adults?

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 again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2008 Natalia J. Garland