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Just dropping by ... First grade again after 30 years

Yevet Tenney Published on 20 September 2013

I just started teaching first grade again after 30 years. When I looked in the faces of those sweet children, I told them that I taught first grade many, many years ago.Some of my students became dentists, UPS drivers, teachers, loan officers and policemen.

They are all grown up and have children of their own. The children stared at me in wide-eyed wonder when I told them that they too would one day be grown up and be professionals. They would have a career and a family of their own, but first grade was the best grade.

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I was telling the truth. I have taught school for many years in many different grade levels, but none of the grades are as important as first grade.

In first grade, students learn the basics of math and reading, but more importantly, they learn the “I can do it” attitudes that will shape the rest of their academic careers. If students think they can, they will learn to read, write and do math.

If they think they can’t, they will struggle in every future grade until a teacher turns on the light and gives them confidence. Sometimes that takes years.

Some never get it. I never want students to leave my class without knowing for certain they can do anything they set their minds to.

Learning basic academic skills of reading, math and writing is a team effort. Students, teachers and parents must work together. From the beginning, parents must be strong team players.

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They must work with their children daily – read to them, go over concepts, listen to their children tell what they learned in class and hold them accountable.

It is not a shuffling of paperwork. It is a face-to-face endeavor. This awesome responsibility belongs to students, parents and teacher.

There are five principles that will help children be good students:

  • They must be held accountable for the vocabulary of academic subjects.
  • They must rehearse or practice until concepts become second nature.
  • They must discuss and connect the relevance of concepts to life experiences.
  • They must share their own ideas.
  • They must create something that will bring them to further understanding.

It is easy for a teacher to assume just because he or she writes information on a white board, does a PowerPoint presentation, gives a lecture or has the student do a worksheet, that the student is educated.

Education comes as the student internalizes information and makes it a part of his or her life.

Unless a child can hear the information, repeat the information, discuss the information, share the information and finally create ideas about the information to connect it to world experience, the child does not know the information. It boils down to a pattern: Hear, say, share, create and connect.

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Every subject in academic areas has its own unique vocabulary. In math, you talk about numbers, integers, equations, fractions and division. In reading, you talk about alphabetical order, phonemes, synonyms, antonyms and idioms.

In writing there is grammar, thesis statements, main idea, topic sentence, and so on. Science has hypothesis, observation and scientific experiments, and so on. When you get to social studies, there is another entire vocabulary.

A teacher must methodically teach a subject’s vocabulary. He or she must use the vocabulary, repeat it often and have the student use the vocabulary by having them discuss it with their peers and then help them create something that will remind them of the vocabulary.

Then the students must be guided to make connections to the real world.

There are some vocabulary words and processes that cross curriculum which students need to master as well as academic vocabulary. Words like predict, attributes, process, compare, contrast and many other words that will help students in every subject.

For example, I taught my first-grade students, in the first week, the word “predict.” That is a big word for a little 6-year-old. Some of them couldn’t even pronounce the word, but they understood it when we were finished.

I first introduced the word “predict” by writing it on the board. I asked the students what they thought the word meant. One student knew what it meant. Then I gave the students the definition. Predict means to tell something that might happen.

Then they did a snake-around to help them memorize the definition. How do you do a snake-around? The teacher says the definition; the first student repeats the definition and asks the next student, “What does predict mean?”

The next student says, “Predict means telling something that might happen.” If the student struggles, the teacher says the answer and the student repeats it to keep the flow moving.

By the time the last student says the definition, the students will have heard it as many times as there are students in the class. The teacher asks, “What does predict mean?” Students respond in a group. “Predict means telling something that might happen.”

Every student could say the definition. Was the education complete? No. That is just the surface. They could say the definition, but they needed to use the definition.

We read a story, and I asked at the beginning, “By looking at the picture on the cover of the book, can anyone predict what might happen in the story?” Several children raised their hands and were able to make predictions. But I wasn’t finished there.

As we read the story, I stopped many times, asking, “What do you predict the character will do in the story?” This process helped the students be more engaged in the story, but it also helped them use the new vocabulary word.

In math, I asked the students to predict what would be the next picture in a pattern of things. For example: There are three pencils, two erasers, then three pencils. “According to the pattern, what do you predict will come next?” I asked.

Later in the day, just for fun, I opened my desk drawer and asked, “What do you predict I have in my desk?” They loved the game. Students were able to predict with accuracy items that belong in a teacher’s desk: pencils, pens, stapler and other things. I was impressed.

For homework, I instructed the children to teach their parents the new word. It wasn’t a big assignment, but it would reinforce the concept in the student’s mind. The parents’ job is to be there for the child to share what he or she has learned and to help correct any misconceptions.

Parents need to be fully engaged in education, especially in first grade, because first grade is a time when students build a firm foundation for the rest of their academic life. They learn vocabulary for math, science, reading and writing.

They establish study patterns and a student’s self-image of confidence, or the students learn that they are second-best and can’t do what other students do. It is sad when one so young establishes that pattern, but it happens. We must guard against it at all costs.

That is why I spent so much time on the word “predict.” We stated the definition, we played games with it and we used the definition, but it didn’t stop there.

Later for review, students designed their own patterns and had other students predict what would come next. I will continue to use the little game of predict as we categorize things that belong or do not belong in a group of items.

Every day, we will predict what might happen if make certain choices. For example: What do you predict will happen if Johnny hits Bill? Or what do you predict might happen if you cheat on a test? What do you predict will happen if you mix red and blue together?

What do you predict the weather will be like? As the student grows, they will encounter more complex predictions that will be called hypotheses in the science field and a theory or thesis in the literary field. They will predict the weather and outcomes in every walk of life.

As you can see, education is a process. It is not a paper or computer print-out factory with grades attached to it. Students must be totally engaged in the thinking and creating process.

They must learn the academic vocabulary for each subject area; then they must use it. They must learn to solve problems at a very young age and part of that problem-solving process is predicting outcomes then trying out the prediction to see if you are correct.

It is nice, after 30 years, to be back in first grade, but I feel an awesome responsibility for shaping the future of 21 sweet little children. PD

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