“The 4th grade retreat is one of my favorite Lower School traditions each year because of the way it fosters teamwork, collaboration, communication skills, and self-awareness in our oldest lower school students. We’ve watched many of them grow through the years, and at the retreat, they have the time together to reflect on what it means to be leaders within their community.”
-Shea Egger, Head of Lower School
This year’s 4th Grade Retreat took place a couple of weeks ago on Friday, October 8. At the risk of mixing metaphors barely two sentences into this recap, it has to be said: this year’s retreat was considered on all accounts a slam dunk smashing success!
Buses rolled out about a half hour after Chapel in the gym, students were encouraged to eat a snack on the short ride to north campus, and I suddenly found myself in possession of a hefty bag filled with medical supplies, EpiPens, and fancy-looking asthma inhalers.
Since I’ve already decided on employing a narrative voice which assumes we’re already all dear friends on intimate terms, let me also say this: being responsible for a medical bag full of things–God Willing–no one will never, ever need is a shockingly potent way feeling like a mildly competent human. Trust me, it does wonders for your self-esteem.
…which, funnily enough, was one of the supporting tenets of the retreat. Shea was kind enough to elaborate on this by adding:
Shea Egger, Head of Lower School, and Chelsea Freeman, Associate Head of Lower School, kicked off the retreat with a short introduction that was immediately followed by several songs led and performed by a few musically (not to mention, comedically!) talented representatives from the SA high school. The kids ate it up, the grown-ups were chuckling; on all accounts, it was good, old-fashioned fun. Would. it be fair to say that most all of us, no matter what age, have missed that at some point during these last 2 years?
Shea and Chelsea explained to students that this year’s theme was Community Building that challenged the 4th grade to take collaborative approaches to 4 different rotations of activities including arts, cooperation exercises, teamwork, strengthening connections amongst their peers, and developing reliance on personal self-worth.
After cheese pizza for lunch, we then all indulged in a much-needed gymnasium break. The day would conclude with an exciting, multifaceted activity requiring focused group participation that would ultimately reinforce the importance of We over I.
A rough schedule for the four rotations that morning:
Rotation I: Ropes Course
Rotation II: Strength Flags
Rotation III: Cup Stacking
Rotation IV: Teamwork/Unity Activity
Before deep-diving into these rotations, would you mind terribly if I introduced a second narrative thread of a more personal flavor which I hope will make sense to you–its reason for inclusion–in a couple more paragraphs? And if it still doesn’t make sense, contact me directly, for I have failed, and someone needs to tell me.
On several separate occasions, when glimpsing children deep in play or hard at work world building or otherwise bewitched by the promises of playtime, recess, etc., my grandmother—according to the story my uncle told to me earlier this summer—was known to say things like, “Don’t you wonder what all kinds of things are going on in those little heads right now?”
For the next several days I found myself more and more frequently returning to that image of my grandmother saying these things. It was as if the story had registered her presence in my life again, somehow. The force of my grandmother was strong with me, if you will. I have always thought that the concept of a ghost is suspiciously similar to that of a well-digested memory.; the kind you keep with you throughout life as hybrid talisman-scars, relying on them like the oldest of friends. Despite the 17 years since her death, I recall my grandmother’s finely boned face with spooky accuracy, her cat-scratch ballpoint pen handwriting in the margins of my homework. My favorite way of remembering her goes something like this: she looks up from her desk in her 3rd grade St. Andrew’s LS classroom, it’s the late seventies and I don’t exist yet. Since I’ve edited this memory to fit my specific needs, she still acknowledges the great perhaps of me with a trademark gentle deadpanning she was famous for. My grandmother’s southern accent was mellow, opaque, more lilt than drawl. Children adored her long after they stopped being children anymore and in turn she remembered them as they had been. I’ve had the moderately awkward pleasure of meeting several of my grandmother’s former students over the years and each of them described the same thing, just in different ways and with different words based on different memory touchstones.
She’d remembered their joy for them, keeping it safe long after they’d completed the messy business of growing up. Fossilized Joy. I don’t think it’s going a step too far to argue that this is what a truly great, exquisitely gifted teacher can offer students. St. Andrew’s has–and has always had–startlingly high percentages of these sorts of teachers.
Which is where I’ll now take a moment to shout out the 4th grade team in particular.
I am still frequented by my trusty imposter syndrome and compulsively wonder how I of all people got to be the person who gets to support, eat lunch with, laminate for, and simply sit back and drink in the 4th grade team’s combined power, force of will, capacity for radical kindness, and my favorite–the easy laughter, the graciousness. In their case, the sum is very much equal to the parts. These last two months have shown me how certain contrasts actually beget the most surprising and productive of intimacies. Learning how to work for and towards the right kinds of tension(s) in a place with so much raw radical kindness feels a little like magic when left in the measured, meticulous hands of the St. Andrew’s community. At least, that’s what it looks like from over here.
There was a moment during the 4th grade retreat when I bore witness to something I’d never seen before and it reminded me of something Caroline Pratt wrote in her book I Learn From Children:
The child, unhampered, does not waste time.Caroline Pratt
As the 4th grade teaching assistant, I was helping out with one of the four activity stations set up for students. A team of four had just successfully been the first in their class to stack all of their solo cups using the ingenious string and rubber band method Chelsea had demonstrated for them.
But wait, there’s a catch…
The only way for a team to accomplish the cup stacking was to work together, with each member pulling one of the four strings knotted to the rubber band; this simultaneously served as a great equalizer and motivator.
Fourth grader Mia Machost especially enjoyed the Hula Hop rotation, while Madison Thornton and Bella Klein enjoyed the Cup Stacking and dodgeball rotations.
Bella adds that her favorite part about being in the 4th grade is having Mrs. Buggage as her homeroom teacher. Parker Purnell on the other hand thinks the extra freedom allowed to 4th graders is the best part.
Nina Craddock is confident that getting to change classes and getting to spend time with all four of the 4th grade teachers is one of the best parts. She also thinks that getting to eat pizza outside with everyone was one of the retreat’s highlights.
I walked around the room in an effort to both supervise and encourage, knelt to watch particularly nail-biting close calls, and offered a few stray (hopefully helpful) tips about aforementioned gravity and elastic potential energy (less helpful, as I successfully avoided ever having to take a Physics class, circa 2009).
It soon became clear that this was an exercise in power dynamics. It was about teaching our students the intricacies of the necessary give-and-take required in any successful, healthy relationship. Like any unique and self-sufficient organism, each of the 16 teams went about finding their own complex equilibriums in unpredictable starts and stops. Some big points of frustration. A few tears mixed in with a little hope and a major heaping of gritty resolve.
Honestly: I’d never been prouder of them.
A few groups achieved equilibrium within minutes of a few initial trial and errors. Other groups required a couple of detours nmbefore establishing functional checks and balances systems for the interplay of their group members’ powers.
CUP STACKING CHALLENGE
Time: 10-15 minutes
Supplies: Solo cups, rubber bands, and strings
Each member can only touch one string.
Questions/Things to Think About:
- How did your team communicate with one another to solve this challenge?
- What actions/ideas helped your group find success?
- How did your group overcome challenges or frustrations?
- What did you learn about cooperation from this activity?
- All credit goes to Chelsea Freeman, Empath Wizard / Associate Head of Lower School who led this rotation and originally provided these instructions and takeaways
Later that day, I started thinking about how annoyingly necessary tension is for almost everything we set out to do in life. This eventually led to me googling “symbiosis” on my iPhone while on the school bus ride back to the lower school. If I’m being completely honest, I wasn’t really expecting to be too interested in any search results because as a child–actually not too much older than the students I currently serve–I developed my own problematic, entirely self-defeating relationship with tension.
Instead of learning how and when and how hard or how soft to push back against challenges, I’d just stop, play dead; in other words: avoid! avoid! avoid! It wasn’t until I was 29 years old with nearly a decade gone by since I’d taken my last math class that a close and monumentally brilliant high school friend of mine suggested I do research on something called Dyscalculia. That’s another story for another time.
The fact that I was a generation and a half too early to benefit from Chelsea’s cup-stacking exercise and Emotional Learning doesn’t matter. There’s only the honest-to-god raw delight and something that feels an awful lot like the hope of knowing there are schools brimming over with teachers and administrators and staff members like the St. Andrew’s Lower School.
Thanks to Rachel Scott, the retreat’s finale was a brilliant, complex, multilayered, reading comprehension heavy group project that culminated in each group creating their own battery-powered lights. Honestly, chef’s kiss for that seamless blend of poetry, hope, and technology. As I walked around and spoke to groups once the project was over, I saw lots and lots of awe and delight on our students’ faces.
My grandmother had a quiet kind of intelligence. It ran deep and was deceptive in its stillness which oftentimes led to other adults prematurely discounting her and her talents. By today’s standards, she’d probably be considered as having had a genius-level E.Q. for her proven ability to know something was going to happen before it happened and not know how she knew.
By the time I met her, she openly maintained the opinion that children were far more interesting than most adults she knew. I tend to agree with her.
I think part of the hard work of growing yourself up and grasping at maturity is recognizing when you don’t have the proper lens with which to view a situation or someone(s). And I also think we all do this to some extent–fail to bear witness to the real truth of a thing because we’re too busy sussing out the bottom line of The Something, too infinitely looped into valuing the outcomes over the answers. Because outcomes and answers are two entirely different beasts, although they are oftentimes mistaken for each other. St. Andrew’s is doing its best in so many ways to change this kind of thing for future generations.
Special Thanks to:
Shea Egger, Chelsea Freeman, Rachel Scott, Julie Rust, Greg Buyan, Sarah Spann, Abram Jones, Hailey Allin, Anna Frame, Susan Pace, April Cosgrave, Chandler Buggage