Teaching Fourth Grade

April 1989By Robert Coles

For two years I taught a fourth-grade class in a school just a few blocks away from the college classrooms where I give my twice-a-week lectures. I hope to continue that elementary school teaching, because not only does it help me understand how children think — my job in life, I guess — but in ad­dition I am helped by the spirit of those nine-year-old boys and girls, to the point that their words and reactions give me a much needed boost sometimes, when I find myself cringing with irritation, annoyance, or worse as I talk with someone called a professor or university student.

In our fourth-grade class I taught reading and I also brought over from Harvard’s Fogg Art Muse­um some slides, which I showed the boys and girls each day I taught. I suppose during that time we were engaged in an “art history” class. I would pro­ject on the wall a picture of a drawing or painting, and then ask the children to respond as they wish­ed to what they saw — to describe the scene, to speculate about the artist’s intentions, to say what looking at the picture brings to mind. I was able to offer the children a range of pictures — those of El Greco and Rembrandt, those of Turner, Degas, Re­noir, Cezanne, Pissarro, those of Picasso, Kollowitz, Rouault. At first I was timid; I showed only the most realistic of art. But in time I showed some contemporary art which gets called “expressionist” or even “surreal.” I delighted in showing Edward Hopper pictures, because I love his work, and, accordingly, the children took to him, put themselves in those barber shops, drug stores, beauty parlors, tenement apartments, and those houses of his — large, somewhat imposing, sometimes spooky or haunted, or so the children thought.

One day, as we discussed Hopper’s work, a girl who ordinarily kept quiet during most classes spoke up rather insistently. She wanted to know whether Hopper liked people. She answered her question as soon as she asked it — told us she thought the artist was “probably shy.” A girl sit­ting beside her immediately had a question to ask her: “How do you know?”

The initial commentator was not at a loss for words: “Because, Silly, I looked, that’s how I know.”

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