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 Harvards 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 artists 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 Hoppers 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, thats how I know.
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