by Cheryl Ristow (Aggie)
Around The Block With... First Grade
To teach first grade is to witness a small miracle every year. Each September I receive a group of what are little more than babies---some are only 5 years old, all need to be reminded daily to use the bathroom at recess, most arrive at the door the first day looking scared and clutching a parent's hand. The miracle occurs at different times for each of them. For some, it's beginning to happen in September and October; for others, it happens about Christmas time. If you are lucky, by Spring Break the miracle will have happened for all of them. And just what is this miracle? Learning to read!
During the 1999/2000 school year I was fortunate to have one of the most delightful classes of my teaching career. The children were cute, sweet, eager to learn, and for the most part, well behaved. While there were some challenges in teaching them to read (as there always are!) by mid-year they were doing very well. This was the class that I wrote about in my chapter of Pat Cunningham and Dorothy Hall's book titled True Stories from 4-Blocks Classrooms.
This year's class, however, presented some unique challenges. For part of the year I had 16 boys and only 4 girls. I had 6 (for a while it was 7!) major discipline problems. As is true in most California classrooms, a majority of my students are learning English as a second language. And, of my 20 students, 19 were non-readers in September. There were times when I began to wonder if the miracle was really going to happen this year. However, I am happy to say that recently I looked out at my class of 20 students during SSR time (Self Selected Reading time for you non-4 Blocks people!) and realized that they were all reading! Every single little head was bent over a book and there was a quiet hum of voices reading away. Let me tell you-this was an emotional moment for Miss Ristow!
When I first began teaching, in 1987, California was in the midst of promoting and encouraging teachers to use a Whole Language approach to teach reading. While in college I was told that the best way to do this was to give the children lots of time to explore books and language-a phonics program wasn't really necessary nor was teaching them a lot of skills. Basically, if you read to them and let them look at books they would learn to read. This was a little scary to me-it seemed a lot more like magic than science--and for several years I said I'd never want to teach first grade. However, 11 years ago I decided to go from Kindergarten to first grade. As a new grade 1 teacher, I decided to follow the Teacher's Guide for our Whole Language based reading series to the letter. Daily I would read all the notes and tried to follow the plans exactly as they were written. I vividly remember reading in the TE one day, "have the children read to find out... " and thinking, "wait a minute! When did they learn to read?? I must have missed something here!" and frantically searching back through the pages to see what I had missed doing! While at the end of the year, in those days, some of my students were reading--a lot weren't. Those were the times when my fellow first grade colleagues and I would say that reading is a developmental thing-some children learn to read at about age 4, for others it doesn't occur until they are 8. While this is still very true, I know that at the time I was using it as an excuse for sending non-readers on to 2nd grade. I lacked a lot of basic skills and knowledge in how children learn to read and in how to teach it.
Of course, over the next few years, I learned and developed a lot of techniques and skills. Every year I was improving and sending on more readers. However, at the end of the year there always seemed to be a group of 5-7 students (out of a class of 32 or more! These were the days before class size reduction in CA!) who were not reading or doing as well as the rest of the class.
After a few years phonics was again a part of our reading instruction. This helped a lot! I always knew that children needed to learn sight words and I knew that writing was an important part of the process as well. After the Class Size Reduction law went into effect here in CA, reading instruction was put under the microscope. I was being in-serviced, it seemed, monthly in new techniques and skills. Having fewer children made small group instruction a lot more feasible. I felt like I had the secret to reading instruction at last. My top students seemed to be making a lot of progress and so did my middle students. However, there were still 3-5 students---almost a quarter of my class-who were not reading as well as I would have liked despite my best efforts.
It was at about this time that I began to hear about the 4-Blocks Literacy Model right here at Teachers.Net. I read and learned more and began to use some of the ideas in my classroom. At first I was only comfortable implementing the Word Wall strategies and Writer's Workshop. What a thrill it was to see my students learning to read, remember and use the sight words! What a wonderful surprise to see them using their phonics skills in their writing! And, the next year, it was a terrific boost to my ego to hear the 2nd grade teachers compliment me on how well my last year's students were doing! I knew I was onto something really good here!
During the next two years I slowly became more comfortable using all 4 Blocks---Working With Words, Guided Reading, SSR and Writer's Workshop. While I'm still learning and trying new things, I know now that I'm truly a 4 Blocks educator. I can't imagine teaching language arts any other way.
And then I got the class I have this year! I've had to use all the tricks I've learned over the years---and learn some new ones! But, looking back, it has probably been my most successful year as a teacher. They are all reading and writing-all of them passed or exceeded the school district's benchmark for writing. All but one met the benchmark on spelling. And, while I haven't finished assessing their reading levels, I know that all are reading at a recognizable and measurable levels. I will send this class on to 2nd grade knowing that I've done my best with them. What a change from a few years ago!
During this past week I have had my students write about what they learned in first grade. While most said they had learned to read during the year, I was tickled by some of their comments on the word wall, SSR and Writer's Workshop. One little girl wrote, "I like writer's workshop because you can make letters to friends and you can make books, too." Another wrote, "I love writer's workshop because I love learning to spell." Still another student wrote, "I like doing the word wall because the words get stuck in my brain!" But the paper I liked the best, the one that makes me know that I've done a pretty good job with this class comes from a student who wrote: "I like to read because it helps you. Reading is smart and important. You should read every day. Reading is fun. Reading helps you get special. I like reading!"
It's been quite a school year! It's been full of ups and downs and unexpected pleasures and problems all of which seem to be the norm for most of us. While I am looking forward to the summer with great anticipation, I know that, around August 15, I'm going to start getting excited and start getting ready to start another year-another year when I can witness the miracle happen once again.