by: Jonathan Wall
First Grade Head Teacher
“It’s ok, you don’t have to be sad,” one student reassured me. Summer may be over, but our first graders were quick to assert that September brought plenty to be excited about. Of the many wonders the beginning of the school year brings, the prospect of making new friends ranked high, along with the opportunity to meet new teachers. This initial glimmer of excitement soon subsided. The buzz of forging new relationships was soon overtaken by the joyous roar of having the chance to “learn stuff you don’t know.” This last thought, however, came with a qualifier. In the words of one precocious first grader, before one is ready to tackle the joys and challenges of a new year’s academic work, “you have to get your mind ready.”
The work we do in September could not be more succinctly put, and during the first month of school, students throughout the building were busy preparing themselves for a year of learning and growth. In doing so, each classroom engaged in conversations about what it means to be in school, what they hope to achieve over the course of the year, and what kind of community is required to support students in attaining their lofty goals. These conversations naturally took many forms throughout the building, depending on the ages and grades of the students participating. I had the opportunity to sit in amongst a group of first graders puzzling over these questions.
Shuffling onto their knees and stretching their hands towards the ceiling, first graders had many ideas about why people come to school. They quickly rattled off reasons such as learning new things and becoming better readers. More exciting, however, were the opportunities to grow as musicians, explore the library and make new friends.
Generalities aside, first graders were then pushed to make the experience more personal: of all the reasons people come to school, what do you hope to learn this year? Here they took a pause — Why do we come to school? — their furrowed brows seemed to say. How could we choose just one dream from the boundless prospects of the year? Hesitating to raise their hands, first graders almost seemed to ask permission to speak what was on their minds, to voice their actual hopes and dreams for the school year, to utter something other than learning to read and write.
Before long, however, their ideas and excited voices ricocheted off the walls of their classroom as they listed off everything they dream of doing in first grade: learning about town helpers, playing the drums in music class, and, yes, reading more nonfiction books all made the cut. Once everyone decided on their hopes and dreams for the year, a question was posed. How can we make sure everyone has a chance to accomplish their goals for the year? The question hung in the air among them while children considered its weight.
After exploring ideas and experimenting with concepts, first graders landed on three big ideas, or rather, three behaviors that should guide their decisions: we will take care of ourselves giving our full attention to our work and ideas; we will take care of others by giving them the space to do their best and ensure they are being supported as community members; and finally, we will take care of our space by cleaning up after ourselves and using materials with their intended purpose. Their classroom expectations agreed upon and their minds readied, they are prepared for the challenges to come. They are ready to begin.