Recruit and Retain: The Future of Education

Teaching Inspiration: First Grade in Seattle

I don't know if everything I needed to learn was in kindergarten, but so much of what I need to see-- and so much of what the leaders that shape educational policy need to see-- is right there in the first grade rooms in Seattle.

What can you find on a first grade tour?

The Day Begins

You’ll see children sitting in a circle, greeting each other at the start of the day, perhaps saying hello in the language selected for the day: “Guten Morgan, Jenna.” “Guten Morgan, Emil”.

You’ll see children reading from their book bags or book boxes: some children at the very beginning level, others reading hefty chapter books. You’ll see teachers reading with individual students, reminding them of their strategies, conferring with them about their progress. You’ll likely see tubs of books marked with letters; these correspond with reading levels. You might see a chart on the wall telling whose day it is to ‘book shop’: to fill their bag or file box up with self-selected books at the level their teacher has said they’re on. You’ll likely see some children seated at computers doing literacy programs – that’s because it's their turn on the rotation.

You’ll see children practicing the skills they'll need in higher grades. The class may be gathered at the easel with a book or a copy of Scholastic News “citing their evidence” for conclusions they have drawn from the text: "My evidence is..." Other children may be using their hands to give signals that they agree or have a personal connection.

You will see multi-level activities. There may be a number for the day (perhaps the number of days the children have been in school) that they will come up with equations for. There may be some math whizzes -- perhaps children with parents in academia or technology -- coming up with equations that have six or eight parts. They’ll add a few (large) things, subtract a few (large) things, use math processes not usually taught in first grade: “times 2…plus 200… minus 100… minus 50… minus 50…plus ½ … plus another ½ ” (You can tell their working memory is getting a workout; every so often they'll stop and check the running total in their head.)

The Day Progresses

Some children will be in and out of the room. Some will come with an aide and stay for a short period of time before returning to their (mostly) self-contained special education classrooms. Some leave for academic services, some go to social skills clubs or groups at lunch.

You’ll see children in the lunch line selecting from various fresh fruits and vegetables, some of which were grown on Washington farms. At some schools, a whole class snack will appear in the afternoon, parked in a cart outside the classroom. Chances are good it will be produce. In other schools, the children bring their own snacks, or at least most do. While many are taking out Bento boxes, a few may be standing by the teacher’s desk, hands cupped, waiting for raisins or cereal or popcorn.

You might see someone enter the room and discretely unzip a backpack or two and put a parcel inside. If it's a Friday and it's a school where there are children from food-insecure homes, what's inside the bag may well be healthy, easy-prep food for weekend meals.

You may see children doing a hands-on lesson from one of the district science kits. They may be testing hypotheses like just what it is that makes some balls good bouncers. At some point, they’ll be sitting with their science notebooks, organizing what they’ve learned on paper, following the model that their teacher is making at the document camera. The teacher will circulate, helping those that are at the beginning stages of organizing thoughts on paper.

You’ll see children walking to other classes to get math instruction at their tested level. You may see them waiting in a hushed line outside their homeroom door later, anxious to find out whether they have earned whatever their teacher feels first graders should earn when they stand in a quiet line outside a door without swinging their lunchboxes or swinging their impromptu dance partners or slamming their locker doors. Perhaps it’s a little choice time. Perhaps it’s some marbles in a jar (with a reward coming when the jar fills!)

If you travel around the district, you'll find innovative schools, like dual language schools where the children spend half the day doing literacy in English and the other half doing subjects like math and science in (depending on the school and program) Japanese or Spanish or Mandarin Chinese.

Ready for the World

The children will probably gather their back packs relatively early in the day and be in a dismissal line around 2:30. They've been here since before 8:00 -- a good deal earlier than children began school here a couple years back. That's because the district responded to research that says adolescents learn better when they have a later start to their school day; it’s the way their biological clocks are set at that age. The district flip flopped the elementary and secondary schedules, giving the younger ones the early start and early finish. It was a surprisingly expensive budget item in a world of buses and aftercare, but there was enough evidence that it was these little ones and not the high schoolers who would come in bright and early and refreshed the next day and ready to greet each other with an “Hola” or a “Bon Jour”.