Article #29
Caroline, Colorado and Community: 4-Blocks Brings Us Together
Cheryl M. Sigmon

Because this website has a pretty wide readership, I'm willing to bet that there are a few of you who have shared a similar experience as the unfortunate one my family and I experienced ten years ago. My first grader, Caroline, had eagerly entered school, ready to learn to read and write and learn new things. In the first week of school, all of the first graders were given a readiness test. One-on-one with a teacher whom they had just met, each child was subjected to a battery of questions and performance tasks: What's your address?…Skip for me.…Hop on one foot.…etc. Some kids, of course, don't warm up to strangers---and that's virtually what a new teacher is for the first couple of weeks---and, therefore, don't do well on tests administered by those strangers. Within another couple of weeks, Caroline came home in tears, announcing that she didn't want to go to school anymore. But you've been so excited about going to school with your older sister! What's the matter? I asked, wiping tears from her eyes. I'm dumb! she replied. What do you mean? Who told you you're dumb? I said, expecting that some child had struck out at her with some meaningless, hurtful words.. Instead, she replied, My teacher put me in the dumb group. All of my friends are in the smart group.

My heart was broken to know that within the first week of school the system had managed to label a bright, eager first-grader, so that she had already lost her zeal and desire to learn. I hurt for all children and parents who have suffered that blow. Schools don't mean to brand kids or hurt them, but they've been doing it for decades. And, although I was aware of the labeling, I really didn't realize the impact until it was my own child who was hurt.

At the time this happened to our family, I tried to trust that the school would do what was best for Caroline. But, things didn't get any better. Caroline continued to lose her spark for learning. It seems that the children in her group received more skill and drill, less challenging work, more rote learning. The social environment began to change as well as the academic climate. The friends Caroline had had for years now went their separate ways, clustering with those in their own peer-ability groups. She became increasing more anxious and troubled about her achievement and ability, even with the encouragement of family members.

I still have a resurgence of anger and sadness when I think back on those elementary years and the transformation of that bright, active, inquisitive child into one with self-doubts, worry, and apathy. Private testing revealed some learning difficulties but also revealed that Caroline was indeed a bright child, off the scale with her abstract reasoning and verbal skills. The doctor said she needed to be engaged in her learning to excel---sometimes difficult to achieve with mere worksheets, which were still what the school mostly prescribed.

I won't recount for you the years that have passed now with many similar experiences inflicted upon this young girl. She searches for ways to assert herself and define herself. She expresses herself mostly through her writing, her art, and her music---where she excels. Along the way, some teachers have labeled her charismatic and a trendsetter. We've gone through stages of black-cherry hair and laced boots, electric guitar and bongo drums, and a ring in the belly-button (her dad let her do it!). One thing, however, has remained constant: Every new test along the way has continued to draw new lines, new divisions, new barriers. And so she struggles and she climbs…she struggles and she climbs. She will one day, I believe, emerge strong and passionate from this battle.

Now, what in the world does this very personal story have to do with Colorado?

As I have watched the events of the monumental tragedy unfold in Littleton, Colorado over the past couple of weeks, I have been struck by the comments so many of the teachers and students have made about how different and unaccepted the boys where who ravaged this city. So many comments have reminded me again of how easy many of our public school system---certainly not just in Colorado---have made it for kids to discriminate against each other. We, as teachers and administrators of schools, are often times the first ones to draw the lines, the first to label the kids. Placing them in ability groups plainly says, You're smart, You're average, and You're dumb---(or 'less able' might be more politically correct!). When we send kids to Title 1 programs, we send this message again, and sometimes we pull them out in front of the whole class. When we send in our federal reports, we label some kids as poor. When we have Fun Friday and exclude the same kids every single week (that is what happens, isn't it?), we reaffirm for those same kids that they are bad. Added to this is the known fact that kids had rather be perceived as being bad than being dumb, and they act accordingly. When we grade children in the first grade, we set the record straight for them immediately, You're smart…you're dumb. I've written in this column before that I cannot fathom being a failure in the first grade. What could we be thinking to do that to precious little children?

When kids are ostracized by others, we need to get to the heart of the problem and we need to do it quickly. We should not allow children to sit alone without a friend in the cafeteria or on the playground. We should not allow children to threaten others without serious pursuit of the underlying cause for their aggression. We should not label kids in any way that causes them to feel different---superior or inferior to each other.

The scars of prejudice are deep and lasting. As resilient as kids are about some things, they are wounded for life over other things---sometimes very simple things, sometimes things done with the best of intentions. It should be our duty as teachers to protect these children who come to us.

Now, what in the world does all of this have to do with 4-Blocks?

4-Blocks has become my passion mainly because of two specific benefits. One, it is a balanced approach that is raising the academic performance of kids all across the country. This column is often devoted to this benefit and its refinement. It is the second benefit that fits in the context of this personal, editorial column: it is a model that promotes community and equality for ALL children. This latter benefit is at the heart of 4-Blocks.

For a long time, many of us have known that segregating children, isolating them one from the other, causing some to be elitists and some to be outcasts was wrong---even if done in the name of education. We did it to children, though, because we had no clue how to help them grow in any other way.

But, now that has changed! Data support that we have had great success teaching children in heterogeneous classrooms without ANY labeling whatsoever. In 4-Blocks classrooms, children thrive in an environment in which they learn to appreciate their differences, to nurture each other, and to care about each other. Within the school and within the classroom, children work together to support and celebrate their growth. Kids are encouraged to share and collaborate throughout the day with value placed on speaking and listening and learning from each other as the teacher facilitates this learning.

Evidence of this spirit of community is seen clearly in the dissipation of behavior problems in 4-Blocks classes and in 4-Blocks schools. In the beginning of implementation, many teachers find themselves saying, I have the best class ever this year! Then, when several teachers begin to compare notes, they find that it just can't be coincidental that they ALL have the best classes ever! Some schools have begun to keep statistics on discipline referrals. One large school I have visited has cut discipline referrals more than in half from the year prior to 4-Blocks.

What causes this phenomena? It is simple! Kids in 4-Blocks classes feel like they fit and they feel safe. They feel accepted by their teachers and by their peers. They learn to be more than tolerant of each other. Tolerance still has the connotation of division. 4-Blocks kids know that they all have something to share with each other in the classroom. They know that they are safe from prejudice and ridicule as they won't have to be in the buzzards group, they won't have to be pulled out of the class for special treatment, they won't have to be embarrassed Instead, they will be in mixed classrooms (real world), will sit in collaborative groups throughout the day (real world), will read and share (real world), will write and share (real world), will support each other's strengths and weaknesses (real world), and will celebrate everyone's growth and achievement from wherever they start.

Further, data support that 4-Blocks does not work to the advantage of some kids and to the disadvantage of others. For quite some time, many of us feared that perhaps 4-Blocks was a remedial model or was only advantageous to high at-risk populations. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth! Data gathered proves that there could even be a greater advantage to higher achieving children, at least academically speaking (See Lexington 1 in The Teacher's Guide to Four Blocks). But, again, all kids are winners, academically. Socially speaking, I think that all kids are winners with this model, not just the lower achievers or the at-risk children. 4-Blocks teaches appreciation above tolerance, collaboration more than single-mindedness, and nurturing rather than elitism.

I can only dream of how different things might have been if Caroline had had the opportunity for a 4-Blocks environment---how much happier she might have been, how much more eager she might have been about school and learning. I have no idea whether a more equitable environment would have made any impact on the situation in Colorado. That's an impossible hypothesis to ascertain. In my heart, though, I truly believe 4-Blocks can make a difference for today's elementary children. We need to stop labeling, sorting, dividing, and categorizing our children. We need to let them know no bounds, especially in the beginning of their lives where they are so prone to being victims of many circumstances. My vote is to follow any proven method that helps me to achieve that goal, and 4-Blocks, for me, has been that method.

4 Blocks Goodies