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Forming the Class: The September Work of the First Grade Teacher

Forming the Class: The September Work of the First Grade Teacher
Emma Hamlin

On the first day of first grade, there are so many firsts. The first time the children greet their teacher at the door; the first time making their way to their coat hook, putting on their new indoor shoes, and then making their way to their very first desk. In a Waldorf school, this may be the first time they have a name tag (on their desk and on their cubby) with their name written on it — in the kindergarten, their “names” are symbols (the snail, the rabbit, the moon) that keep the space in the imaginative realm rather than the academic.

Sitting upright and at attention, ready to learn, is one of the many, many factors taken into consideration when we assess first grade readiness. It requires so much core strength and impulse control that until a student is truly ready, academic learning will always take a back seat to physical need. In our first grade classrooms, often the teacher will choose to utilize what is called the Moveable Classroom — a set of low benches and cushions — in order to create a bridge between the kindergarten and the upright traditional desks of the next grades. The cushions allow for sensory seekers to get the input they require, and the benches can be turned over and used as balance beams, stacked into tunnels, and used creatively for building. In my class, we used to make a “math tunnel” where one-by-one we drilled math facts and then once they answered, students would crawl through the tunnel to work on retained reflexes. Here is a helpful infographic illustrating the primitive reflexes and how their retention might present barriers to learning.

Another opportunity to exercise impulse control is the skill of forming a line. Transitions can be extremely difficult for children and are the time during which we see so-called unwelcome behaviors because the children feel disoriented and overwhelmed. Giving direct, simple, clear instructions, rather than stifling a child, can allow children to breathe easier knowing that someone is running the show. (The energy it takes to run the show is extraordinary — on the first day of first grade, I walked through the front door of my house after school and fell asleep face down on the living room floor. I heard somewhere — no source to cite — that the only profession that requires more on-the-fly decision-making is an air traffic controller. But the effort that teachers put into the first six weeks of school allows for learning with more ease and attention.)

While there is much more to forming a class than just these few topics, the last one I’ll stress is the formation of relationships. I wrote about this a bit in the post on storytelling, and how I shared a bit of my personal life with the children through stories of my dogs’ antics, but the cultivation of a true and deep connection with each individual child is unparalleled. Children know authenticity better than anyone, and a genuine enjoyment of them as people cannot be undersold. That’s not to say to play with them or interact in a child-like way, but simply listening, responding with delight, asking thoughtful questions — all these play into folding the individual into the whole of the class. 

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