Poetry Friday:“Learning in the First Grade”by Jane Kenyon


Poetry Friday is hosted by Heidi Mordhorst @  My Juicy Little Universe

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When my children were still in school, and in the days before everything was online and just a click away, the last Thursday of the last week of August was momentous.  This was the day when we would jump eagerly into our mini van and race over to the elementary school to checkout the class rosters posted on the main door; this was the day when my kids would learn the all-important, must-know bit of information that would determine so much of the shape of their new school year –  who their classroom teacher was to be.

Our rides back home would be filled with conversations about these teachers: what had you heard about him/her from friends? what had you observed about this person as you had made your way through the earlier grades? what did you know you had to look out for – good and/or  bad?  By the time we’d arrived back home, each of my kids would have already formed a stance about what their new school year would be like, an impression of the long months of school life ahead, based just on this one piece of information: who their teacher was.

On Wednesday, alerted by a colleague, I opened up my 2016-2017 grade book and read through the names listed on my student rosters: morning block and afternoon block, there they were…the names of the children who I would be spending my teaching year with. Somewhere in the suburban New Jersey town in which I teach, I thought, these kids were also discovering my name…they were forming an impression of what their sixth grade year in reading,writing, and social studies would be.  School has not yet begun, but they are ready, now, to take their first stance as sixth graders, as “Smithlings”.

What would I want them to know at this moment?  What do I want them to believe about the learning year to come?

I want them to be like the Galileo Galilei in Jane Kenyon’s poem below – intent on finding their own truths in the work we do, invested in discovering their own answers, unafraid to be finical.

Learning in the First Grade by Jane Kenyon

“The cup is red. The drop of rain
is blue. The clam is brown.”

So said the sheet of exercises–
purple mimeos, still heady
from the fluid in the rolling
silver drum. But the cup was

not red. It was white,
or had no color of its own.

Oh, but my mind was finical.
It put the teacher perpetually
in the wrong. Called on, however,
I said aloud: “The cup is red.”

“But it’s not,” I thought,
like Galileo Galilei
muttering under his beard….

Celebrate this week: Conversations matter!

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres @ ruth ayres writes  …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get!

conversations matter

This week I want to celebrate conversations…the kind of thoughtful conversations in which thinking is shared, mulled over, nudged, and encouraged.  The kind of conversation that leads to changed thinking and reflective action.  The kind of conversation that helps us to become, simply put, better teachers.

I began the week thinking about all the “first week of school” business that I need to think through and settle on: the first day letter, supply list items, reading and writing surveys, welcome back letters to parents, assessment checklists, conferring tools of the trade.   My thoughts turned to organizing first day activities, and then settled upon something I’ve been wrestling with ever since I read Harvey Daniels and Sara Ahmed’s inspiring book, Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry – the idea of the soft start.  Here’s how Sara describes such a start to the school day:

When we come in, we have to get in “the zone” right away.  That means our bodies and minds are focused and ready to take on the day. The same way we get ready before a big game or a performance, our actions show we are ready to be our best selves.

I especially valued the “why” of a soft start:

Soft starts create less of a police action for tardies.  No one is standing at the front of the room, itching to teach and playing security guard at the door.  The expectation is that learning has already begun though a series of routines and mutually understood practices.  These routines can be up to ten minutes long and begin with a simple note on the board; a quiet beginning and autonomy.

I began to think about the way I began my morning and afternoon teaching blocks (writing workshop, reading workshop, and social studies – 3 back to back periods, 50 minutes long each) – my kids come in, and we get right to work: mini lesson, inquiry circle, book clubs…whatever it is that is planned, once the bell rings we get to it right away.  My philosophy and justification has always been that we have not a moment of learning time to lose, so let’s get started right away.

But…I loved the way Sara’s soft start  inculcated a sense of autonomy, “so kids know what it takes to create a positive and calm learning environment”, her students “have ownership and agency when they walk through the door”, and they are “centered and ready to learn”.   My sixth graders begin block either first thing in the morning when they are barely awake, or right after lunch when they are in a lunch coma.  A soft start would be the perfect way to ease them into productive learning time, it would also be gentler and simply more humane.  They would certainly appreciate it.  Perhaps it was time?

But…I worried that such a start would not help them in their 7th. and 8th. grade years – when they would be expected to go from period to period, and get to work right away.   Would my soft starts lead to tricky transitions? Would I be setting them up for difficult times later on?

I turned to my Voxer community with these questions. Here are my thoughts, I said, what do you think?  Within minutes, my friend  Justin Dolcimascolo responded with this:

Why not reframe your thinking? he asked.  Could it be something your kids could advocate for themselves in the future?  Could you sow the seeds for something your kids will come to value and then advocate for in the years to come?  If you value this, Justin said, do it…my view is that what comes after, comes after, but what I can do for them at this time is everything I can do for them.

Justin’s advice was echoed by Julieanne Harmatz – it makes a big difference to have that quiet time to read, she said, and I give my kids the option to write as  well; choice leads to a greater feeling of autonomy and empowerment – kids get to make decisions about how to prioritize and attend to their reading and writing work.

Dr. Mary Howard had been listening in to our conversation and pushed my thinking further by suggesting a smooth close to end the day as well – a quiet time to read which would also serve as a bridge between school and home, for this independent reading time would sow the seeds of conversations about books kids were reading and their thoughts about these stories.  You are planting seeds of possibilities...Mary said, good work that will serve as cognitive fuel for the future.

So, what had begun as a tentative exercise in wondering about whether it was time to start new routines morphed into a resolution.   My new sixth graders will be introduced to the idea of a soft start and a smooth close at the very beginning of the school year, and together we will make these routines something that my kids treasure and grow from.  Questions and ideas, merged with wisdom and experience in those conversations…I am a better teacher for it, and I celebrate that!