Tips for Teaching Owning Up Upper Elementary
by Gus Kraft
My name is Gus, and I am a teen advisor at Cultures of Dignity. I attend a K-12 school in New Jersey and last year I implemented the Owning Up Upper Elementary School curriculum at my school with a fourth grade class. The Owning Up Upper Elementary School Curriculum is designed to help fourth and fifth grade students build social skills and learn how to understand their emotions.
Due to the pandemic, many fourth grade students across America missed out on the end of their second grade year, and were most likely in some sort of a hybrid learning environment for the majority of third grade. Prior to 4th grade, almost forty percent of their formal education had been with strict COVID restrictions. This led to fourth grade students at my school and many other schools across the country to be much less acclimated to a classroom environment and daily social interaction compared to elementary school students in prior years. We started lessons in January and met once a week for about 45 minutes. I remember being in fourth grade and feeling like I was one of the big kids, so I couldn’t imagine how old they must have thought I was. I was very excited to see what today’s fourth graders are like.
On my first day teaching, I wanted to learn a little bit about them so I asked them each some random questions and also told them to feel free to ask me any questions. I learned that fourth graders are really into Roblox, watching anime, and coloring. The second thing we did that day was lay down some ground rules and group agreements. We created a chart, one side had rules for the students, and the other side had rules for Gus (me). The main thing I asked of them was that they always be honest, and treat others with respect during our time together. They agreed, on the condition that I never give them homework. I knew right away that I would have a very fun and exciting experience with this group. They all seemed excited to learn and hear what I had to say. Although, they were probably more excited because my lessons would usually cut reading time short.
Over the next few sessions I started to teach them about the core concepts of dignity, being an ally, giving advice, and more. I discovered early on that these kids really like drawing activities. During one lesson, I had them break off into small groups and create a poster with words, symbols, and drawings that they thought represented dignity. Each group presented their creation to their classmates. They had a lot of fun with this project and got really creative with it. Watching the students work together and apply the concepts I just taught them was fascinating to watch. However, the lessons don’t always go perfectly. I learned early on that managing fourth graders can get out of hand quickly. When this happens I remind them of our classroom rules and group agreements and concepts of respect, dignity, and listening that we went over previously. Sometimes this worked and they are able to work through problems and calm down, other times it didn’t. After some time, I was able to figure out which types of activities would produce the most engagement. For example, drawing and group activities really work well, whereas individually-focused activities don’t work as well; they seem to get off topic or don’t complete the assignment.
While it took a few lessons to discover what activities produced the best response from the students, I think that the students developed a better understanding of dignity, managing emotions, and social interaction in general. I was glad I spent the first few lessons getting to know the students rather than pushing content onto them instantly. This way I was able to form a bond with them and understand what type of activities they liked and disliked. This understanding was so important because it allowed me to adapt some of the curriculum and activities to fit my students’ interests. For instance, I knew that my fourth graders didn’t like to write, so most of the writing activities I turned into drawing or symbolic activities. Small modifications like these really helped me make the curriculum feel like my own. Overall, this experience was really special and productive for both myself and the students.