Life is packed if you are a first grader learning English Language Arts (ELA) from teacher Debbie VanNostran’s at Fairfax Elementary School, and in ways that probably differ from most of our memories of elementary school. During an action-filled 90 minutes of reading, writing, and word play, each of her 22 students was busy learning.
These first graders are physically active, academically engaged, and expected to manage their own behavior to a high standard. “My goal is to teach up,” explained VanNostran. “I try to challenge these students to reach to their highest abilities. I want them to read more, write more, think more and talk more about what they are learning.”
The morning began with the students seated on the floor in front of the Smartboard, an interactive white board. They sang a song about nouns and watched a quick music video about the vowel of the week, “O.” Students enjoyed the playful repetitions and writing the letter shape in the air with their hands. Next they reviewed spelling words that ended with ot, og, or op by standing up and moving their bodies while chanting the spellings. The teacher would call out a theme and the class would spell out the word together. There was “disco” with an arm raised to the right for the first letter and then the same arm pointing down to the left for the next letter, “frog” with a deep squat jump for each letter and “cheerleader” with call and response.
The discussion moved to reading comprehension and writing with a review of the concepts of setting and character. The teacher asked, “Who can tell me what a protagonist is and what an antagonist is?” Hands of these six- and seven-year-olds shot up and Van Nostran called on a student who said, “A protagonist is the hero and an antagonist is the villain.” Using a mystery bag, they began learning about main ideas and supporting details. Each item withdrawn from the bag was a supporting detail that offered a clue to the main idea. First a spoon, then a measuring cup, a pan, and a brownie mix. The teacher asked, “What’s the main idea?” and the students answered, “Making brownies!”
Later, students moved into small group work at learning centers around the room. In groups of two or three, they used computers to listen to stories and answer questions, used the Smartboard touch screen to sort words by their endings, searched for special words taped around the room, and constructed sentences and then wrote them on a worksheet. A larger group met with the teacher to learn more about main idea and supporting details with a game about placing houses (supporting details) on three streets (main ideas).
Then it was Snack and a Story time. Each student managed their own snack brought from home while the teacher read a funny book about what children think teachers do after their students leave school each day. Then it was back to the learning centers for two more sessions.
In the final ten minutes, the teacher asked her students to form a circle on the floor. She clapped her hands quickly and called, “All set?” Students answered in unison, “You bet!” To introduce descriptive writing, Van Nostran placed a handful of pencils on the floor and pointed to a sentence on the Smartboard that said, “I have a pencil.” As each new sentence was revealed, students searched for the pencil that had all the characteristics listed – yellow with a little bit of eraser and a sharp tip. Van Nostran held up the pencil and asked her class, “How could you describe this pencil so that I would know it was this pencil and not any of the others?” Several students offered parts of the answer. “Descriptive writing is better writing,” explained the teacher.
During this 90-minute ELA block, students could excuse themselves once to get a drink of water and once to go to the restroom. There were only two issues that required Van Nostran to pause her teaching; a student burst into tears because she wanted to finish her worksheet even though it was time to switch learning centers, and another student spent a little too long telling a story to a friend. Both were resolved quickly and learning continued.
– By Krista Hawthorne, Reaching Heights Assistant Director