Classroom Beautiful - Jennifer Larson
First Grade Teacher, Alexandria City Public Schools, Virginia
I have been teaching for 15 years in kindergarten, fourth, and first grade. For my first nine years, I worked with a very challenging student population. Many students had both emotional and academic concerns.
Many had little book exposure prior to kindergarten. While it was exhausting, demanding, and required daily reflection, those first nine years molded me and created who I am today.
I learned to reduce down time. I carefully thought through all the transitions. I learned to anticipate and prevent problems instead of always solving them.
In the beginning of my career, most teachers used the "pull-a-card" behavior system. This is where students pull a card (similar to soccer penalties) when they break a rule. I found it was NOT effective, especially with students who were already on the edge of anger. If a child pulled a card first thing in the morning and it made him/her angry, they continued to spiral down until there were no cards left. Then what do you do after the cards are gone? I use a positive-focused behavior system. Praise is the most motivating tactic! I often whisper compliments in a child's ear. If I do need to whisper a redirection, it is also done privately. I learned that respect is something you earn by showing it to students first. I learned that loving goes farther than any other quality you can have. I know that students want to be in school, they want to learn. If something is not working for a child, there’s usually something you, as a teacher, need to change.
I believe in building community in the class. I don’t make all the rules. The kids make many of them. It’s based on the Responsive Classroom system. The kids are a family. They want to do the right thing because it feels good to them. Most of our learning takes place in centers. The students rotate through centers starting with one table and working around the room. They sit in groups at tables, with a common supply box for each table. They don’t have their own desks and are not assigned seats at a table. This encourages all students to learn to work together. Soon into the school year, they know the routines and are quite independent workers. This independence frees me to work on individualized instruction with small groups.
I like a spacious open room. I need to have a clear view of all students from my small group table. I like to have all materials out and available for student use. I label everything in the room. When you have kids who can’t read well yet, or are English language learners, use pictures as well as words to label the room. When the students are ready, they will begin to connect the words to the pictures. If they are not ready, they have the visual support they need.