Sunday, March 6, 2011

What a Difference a Day [In First Grade] Makes

My day in first grade began at 9:15 a.m. on Friday, March 4, 20011 at Morley Nelson Elementary School in Boise, Idaho. I went to first grade with my granddaughter, Kayla, and planned to help Mrs. Buckles, Kayla's teacher, any way I could. I received an education in the vital groundwork lower elementary teachers give their students, groundwork that lays the foundation for students' success in high school. Here's what I learned:

Games Make Learning to Read Fun:

Students in Mrs. Buckles' class rotated around reading circles. After finishing a reading/vocabulary exercise called "Drops in a Bucket," students practiced reading by playing games, listening to an aide read a story, listening to audio stories of their choice, and working on a story matching exercise about a dog named Rags and his new dog house, which included some tough words, such as terrific and creation. This interpretive activity required students to "read" the picture to understand the written story.

I helped manage students at the game table which required students to take turns, read cards printed with questions about pictures, and move spaces on a board when they answered correctly. Some of the questions: "Am I a pup in a cup?" and "Am I a dog on a log?" exposed students to rhyme, repetition, and parallel sentence structure, all important literary and syntactical techniques in high school English classes.

What we called the silent e in the 1960's teachers now call bossy E because this letter makes the vowel preceding it talk. How cool and how fun games make the same phonetic concepts we learned in the 1960's! First graders like to give directions to one another, but few like to be bossed around, so they can easily relate to the vowel predicament.

The Statue of Liberty is Green:

Morley Nelson Elementary has students representing 19 languages enrolled. These include Korean, Bosnian, Russian, Somalian, and 15 others. My granddaughter's class is indeed a melting pot. "Did you know I'm from Mexico?" one student asked me. One little girl wore the distinctive scarf of Muslim women.

Yet students in Mrs. Buckles' class learn about important American symbols: the bald eagle, the Statue of Liberty, the flag, the Liberty Bell, and the White House by watching a video called "The Symbols of the United States" and by making symbol books, which the students read aloud after they finished coloring, cutting and gluing their pages. At the end of the day, Mrs. Buckles gave each a Statue of Liberty foam crown, donated by Liberty Tax Service. Hey, it is the U.S.A., after all.


Some of Mrs. Buckles' first grade students above.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Environmental Ethics Begin Early:

A student scolded me for putting paper in the wrong container: "It goes there, not there!" I hope I was able to redeem myself during story time when I read the award-winning "Joseph Had a Little Overcoat." When Joseph's overcoat wears out, he doesn't throw it away; he recycles it into a jacket. Each recycled item experiences a new incarnation in Joseph's world. The book has little cutouts to emphasize the idea of reducing our environmental footprint and is beautifully illustrated. The English teacher in me loves the allusion to Joseph's coat of many colors in the bible, and I suspect there will be students who make the connection in time. I think Morley Nelson, a naturalist and environmentalist, would be pleased.

Character is Pretty Evident in First Graders:

Not all students come to school prepared to play in the sandbox of learning. Some present real behavioral challenges: from keeping their hands to themselves, to taking turns, to being honest when moving their game pieces, and to keeping their eyes on their own papers, elementary teachers juggle all kinds of challenges in addition to teaching the curriculum. I'm in awe that they do so with grace and poise. To assist students in keeping their eyes focused, Mrs. Buckles uses "offices," three-sided cardboard screens students propped on their desks during their spelling test, available through Really Good Stuff. Still some tried to game the system and peer over, around, and under the screens.

Teachers Teach Together in an Open and Caring Collaborative Community: 

At Morley Nelson, teachers and staff work as a team in a synergistic relationship to optimize the learning of all students. Mrs. F., the school counselor, taught a health lesson about the risks of smoking and gently reminded students how to encourage their parents who smoke to quit. The music teacher used puppets and movement to weave a physical activity into rhythmic movement. Jessie, an aide from Americorp traveled from classroom to classroom assisting teachers with reading and math. Even though each classroom has walls and  doors, the staff had has created a feeling of openness throughout the school community.

The Boise school district and community can be proud of creating a place of learning that's new and fresh and that serves many at-risk and lower economic students. In fact, the school's demographic includes over 85% eligible for the free and reduced price lunch program, yet these students attend school in a cutting-edge, new facility with superb and caring teachers.

I have four personal days left this year, so I hope I get to go back to first grade in the near future, where there's always something for a senior teacher to learn.