This year was surprising in a lot of ways. When the year began, I felt immediately behind and a little out of sync. This was in part because I started the year with 10 more students than the year before, but I wouldn’t put all the blame on that change. It wasn’t just the number of students that threw me off, but the personalities, performance and behavior of many of my new students. It was clear early on that this was a talkative group, there were more “rebels” than my previous years, I had five students who weren’t speaking English, including three who were brand new to the country, and six students were reading at an early kindergarten level. It was clear early on that this year would be a challenging one, and I admit to feeling a little overwhelmed.
But despite feeling myself on somewhat shaky footing, there were glimmers of hope. There was also a surprising confidence and persistence to try new things and create a classroom culture this year where my students learned to love to learn. This was an exciting realization, the moment when I understood that it was exactly because this year was going to be a great challenge, it was also a great opportunity.
Looking back on this year, there were many highs, and some pretty low lows. At times I feltdiscouraged with my own teaching, a lack of confidence from my administration, and I felt anxious about the needs and progress of my students inside and outside of the classroom. However, I think this past year, perhaps more so than any year prior, I rose to the occasion.
This was a year where I really tried to follow through on my intent to try new things. These weren’t all groundbreaking changes. For example, on each week’s homework sheet this year, I included an inspirational quote. I introduced an idiom of the week to mixed success and each week my class read a poem of the week, which the kids truly enjoyed. Instead of using a prepared spelling list each week this year, my students were given a spelling sound to study, similar to the program Words Their Way. I believe this helped my students get a stronger grasp of phonemes than in past years. These were somewhat minor changes, but they refreshed my teaching all the same.
This year I also tried some changes to the fundamental approach to my teaching. One way I did this was in the development of a project-based approach to my social studies lessons, and the other was a yearlong study of art as storytelling. In social studies, the third grade curriculum is communities around the world. This year, each of my students was given a passport, and when we traveled to a new place we “visited” different landmarks that allowed us to learn about the culture, history, geography and economy of that community. While I think these lessons were more effective practically speaking in terms of what students learned, I also saw a new level of enthusiasm in my students that was truly exciting for me.
It was our year long study of the visual arts though that was my proudest accomplishment of the past year. It was an astonishingly simple idea, but it was perhaps the most powerful project I’ve attempted as a teacher. This year we took eight field trips to seven different museums around New York City – The Met twice, Museo del Barrio, The Whitney, The International Center of Photography, Bronx Museum of Art, the MoMA and the Rubin. Each of these visits was accompanied by a literacy focus — setting, characters, plot, author’s purpose — and supported by a pre- and post-visit lesson. Several of these lessons and almost all of the tours were carried out by museum educators who were incredibly helpful, cooperative and friendly towards the students and me.
This year-long project was inspired by a simple goal: I wanted to take my kids on more field trips. I was surprised to find the depth and breadth of learning that this project opened up for my students and me. Getting my students out of their neighborhood to see world-class art was definitely a worthwhile goal in itself, but in the meantime, my students had a chance to learn about artists like Chagall, van Gogh and Hopper. These visits also tied into other content areas like social studies, sometimes in unexpected ways. Each visit also included at least one art project for the students, so they had a chance to develop their own artwork, and hopefully see themselves as artists in their own right by the end of the year. At the end of the year, thanks to DonorsChoose.org, each of my students was able to choose from a dozen pieces of art he or she had made, and frame one to take home.
I know I’ve expressed plenty of disappointment in myself, when I feel I haven’t met the mark in helping all my students progress. I think these frustrations are valid, and something for me to build on in the future. However, I also look back at this year, one full of challenges, some new and some old, and I see a lot of excitement and promise in the changes I made and the risks I took.