Fourth graders are curious, young observers of society, aware of the struggles and complexities that impact their families and communities.
Internationally-renowned artist Judy Gelles has documented the stories of more than 300 fourth-grade students from around the world in her photography series, The Fourth Grade Project, on display now through Jan. 3, 2019, at the RSM Art Gallery in City Square.
“Tonight is inspiring to read the walls and think about what goes on in the minds of fourth graders,” said Chris MacKenzie, RSM Office Managing Partner, during the Sept. 24, opening reception. “Some students are worried about getting into MIT. The teachers are doing well educating our kids in the community.”
The exhibition on the first floor of the Charlestown accounting firm is a diverse selection of 20 images captured from schools in South Africa, China, England, and Italy; and is paired with wire and clay sculptures created by Charlestown fourth graders from the Harvard-Kent Elementary and Warren-Prescott schools.
Gelles’ began the project in 2009 while volunteering at a Pennsylvania school, where she noticed that students were unable to relate to the books they were reading. To help improve students’ literacy skills, Gelles asked them to write the answers to personal questions and read their responses aloud to her.
“It’s all about sharing the stories,” said Gelles. “They’re the perfect age. They’re sophisticated and they don’t censor.”
Gelles has traveled to 16 schools in 10 countries, spending a week interviewing and photographing students during individual, half-hour-long conversations. On the final day she shows students the projects created by students from around the world.
“Nine-year-old children are aware of how social policies affect their families,” observed Gelles. “What I found is that all schools are homogeneous. Integration is rare in schools. Kids go to school with other kids like them, and that’s true all over the world.”
In each portrait, the child anonymously faces away from the camera, with his or her distinctive personality shining through expressive postures –handstands, foot digs, and hands on their hips.
The images are combined with answers to questions regarding who students live with, what they wish for, and what they worry about. ‘The Fourth Grade Project’ reveals common human experiences such as family dynamics, career dreams, medical care, violence, immigration, and hunger.
“I look at this as a way to amplify and clarify a message of what is going on with fourth graders,” said Ernie Almonte, RSM partner. “If all of us could be kind and teach our children and community to treat each other with respect, it would be powerful.”
Gelles is now creating a curriculum with fourth grade teachers based on 10 lessons plans, which is being used in four schools in Philadelphia to develop character education in students.
“My art project has turned into a social justice project, and we are now raising funds to create a website for teachers all over the world to have access to,” explained Gelles. “The lessons will be teaching empathy and understanding. This is what we all need.”
View The Fourth Grade Project, by Judy Gelles, at the RSM Art Gallery, located at 80 City Square, Charlestown, during weekly business hours, from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Proceeds from the exhibition fund the RSM Boston Foundation that provides education, health care, housing, and food assistance for youth. Visit www.FourthGradeProject.com to support the initiative.