I always remember fourth grade as a beacon of light and hope in an otherwise dreary time of my school life. Most of this can be attributed to fourth grade's location between grades three and five. That may seem like a reflective reason, but my third and fifth grade experiences were pretty dreadful by any ten-ish-year-old's standards.
In third grade my teacher was an overly-charismatic woman with an angry-black-woman attitude and a tendency to lecture the entire class for hours over some minor offense committed by one child. My chief memories from that year consist of vowing to read every book in the classroom—and then accomplishing that task well before the end of the term and thus living in the dire straits of having nothing to read (something I still consider a possibly terminable illness).
In fifth grade I was put into a class of combined fourth and fifth graders where I spent most of my time lonely, bored and wishing I had a desk so my book was close at hand—rather than in the cubby across the room. We spent several hours a day doing "CGI math" which was ninety-eight parts story problems, and less than two percent actual math. I was quite literally jealous of my friends in other classes who got to learn multiplication—from a book no less.
In fourth grade I had friends, three of them to be exact—one of whom remains my best friend seventeen years later. I learned things; spelling, basic math, Wisconsin history. I was encouraged to read (or I figured out how to hide my book in my desk so I could read but look like I was paying attention, which amounts to the same thing), and the teacher was enthusiastic, humorous and full of great new ideas about how to teach and what to teach.
A few weeks ago my best friend, Sarah, called me up to say that her mother had seen our fourth grade teacher somewhere and had gotten his email address. Sarah said she was thinking about seeing if he'd like to get together for lunch sometime; would I like to go along?
I said yes.
About a week after that the three of us met in a local Thai restaurant.
It was strange seeing my fourth grade teacher again after so long, because he hadn't changed all that much. He looked older, but not really. Perhaps my memory of him aged as I did, or perhaps seventeen years ago he was at the start of that long period of middle-age where you look almost exactly the same the whole time, although later, when I mentioned that the librarian had been old, my teacher was jokingly offended because he was the same age as her. I didn't have the heart to tell him I'd thought he was old back then, too. Of course, everyone is old when you're ten.
Either way, he's now retired and spends his time training and encouraging new teachers, and trying to push experimental education, like outdoor education—which is my field when I'm working. He says it's strange because he'd been so out of energy when he retired, but now that he's had a few years of retirement, he's got all the enthusiasm back again and is ready to take on the world—or at least to take on convincing teachers to teach their students about the Big Issues like global warming and the end of easy oil; issues that the kids will have to deal with when they are old enough to post things on Etsy and reflect on their fourth grade memories.
I learned a lot of things back in fourth grade. We went on a five-day-four-night field trip around the state to learn about it, and we preformed traditional dances from other cultures to learn about them. There were pet rabbits in the classroom, beaded Native American fans and making wooden cutouts of ducks. I remember fruit flies, spelling and story problems, all of them presented in a way that made me love school.
My teacher not only taught to us, but he made learning fun in a way that very few of my other teachers ever did. I'd worried before seeing him that he'd be less now that I was older; a polished diamond of a memory that turned out only to be glass. Happily, this wasn't the case and the longer we talked the greater my respect and admiration for my teacher grew—he was no glorified memory but genuine diamond of a teacher.
Towards the end of our conversation I remembered a question that had been bugging me for years. See, I've always had a bone to pick with my fifth grade memories over all that CGI math, but whenever I tried to explain it to people, they had a tendency to bring me up short with a simple "what does 'CGI' stand for?" question.
And I had no idea. I'd barely realized that the name was letters instead of a word—Cegeai, perhaps—and while I hated it immensely, and could passably explain what it was, I had no real conception of what the name meant. My teacher laughed when I asked him, and said that knowing what the letters stood for wouldn't help me understand it better, but he also told me what they meant; Cognitive Guided Instruction.
Turned out my teacher was right; that didn't help me understand it at all.
He also said that there was a reaction against CGI Math some time after I left fifth grade—after the retirement of the math teacher who considered it her life-duty to teach CGI Math to elementary students. The whole process was phased out and replaced by a newer method of learning math that incorporated some parts of CGI, some parts of what went before and some parts of entirely new things, which made for a wholly better method.
I don't think I have the words to explain how liberating it was to have my teacher agree with me over how foolish it was to teach CGI exclusively. I'd been unwittingly carrying a question about how justified my feelings against CGI Math were—had I just been a silly fifth grader who hated anything to do with math simply because it was math? But now, here was the proof that I wasn't, and never had been. Children don't hate learning when it's presented properly, they don't hate school when it's fun, interesting and challenging, and maybe—just maybe—they know more than they are often given credit for.
I can't remember much from before fourth grade, so I don't know if my kindergarten, first or second grade teachers were as amazing as my fourth, or if my love of learning started back then or waited until fourth grade to fully bloom. But I do know that fourth grade was a very formative year for me, I'm certain that most of that came from having an absolutely awesome fourth grade teacher.