- In The Classroom
Guest post from our 1st Grade Teachers: Audrey, Karla, and Paije
1st Graders line the main hallway with signs in hand, singing protest songs, and giving speeches. What are they protesting? They have recently been told that Janine, the Lower Elementary Division Head, made the decision that 1st Grade classes can no longer take walks to Forest Park because the students are too young and it’s just too dangerous. 1st Graders pulled together their knowledge of persuasive writing, changemakers, and protests to speak up to Janine and convince her to change her mind.
With such a passionate display, you may think that we teachers delivered a knock-out writing unit, with children invested and motivated the entire time. But, in reality, we as teachers hit several stumbling blocks along the way. We struggled to find ways to make our students’ writing work authentic and relative to their lives. In a unit that was supposed to be filled with learning to give strong reasons and evidence to back up their thinking, we were met with apathy and disengagement.
In other years, our go-to would have been to sneakily travel throughout the building to look for problems to solve! In these COVID times, this strategy became impossible to enact in a genuine way. Our hope continued to be that we could connect this writing unit to being a changemaker, but our students’ lives seemed so disconnected from a true problem that needed immediate solving.
Enter Janine! In a problem-solving meeting with our team, we decided to manufacture a pressing problem for our 1st Graders. Janine would write to us with a decision that we could no longer walk to Forest Park, a beloved part of the 1st Grade curriculum for our students. The authenticity of this problem was an important hook for students. As teachers, we delivered the news, and listened and watched as they processed their disappointment. In each room, it only took some very gentle prodding for students to want to respond.
First, they wrote letters. Finally, we had a genuine reason why students needed to convince someone of their perspective! Their passion grew from there, and they soon decided they needed to do more than write letters—they needed to use some of the tools they learned about during our study of The Civil Rights Movement.
Students looked at photos, listened to protest songs, and were inspired to make signs, write speeches, and compose songs. The variety and quality of contributions amongst our three rooms was impressive. Collaboration and engagement within our classrooms were at an all-time high. Our kids used initiative we hadn’t seen before: they jumped in to help one another with spelling on their signs, worked together to write lyrics, taught each other their songs and melodies, and gave feedback on speeches. Kids spread out on the floors to work together, while the teachers shrunk to the wall and became bystanders. Without much coaching, our students showed us what real Multiple Intelligences learning and authentic work looks like.
Students tapped into their own strengths and reached out to one another when they needed help. A fragile reader became a helpful editor of a speech. A student who struggles with focus and engagement during lessons became a go-to engineer for their class’s protest signs. The connections being made were endless. Students were using what they had learned about Black Lives Matter, biographies we had read about Audrey Faye Hendricks, Greta Thunberg, Martin Luther King, and Maya Angelou, not to mention the real-world application of the skills we had taught directly in the persuasive writing unit. The things we had thought had fallen on deaf ears were really just seeds, waiting to be watered.
Yet another unforeseen positive outcome from this project was the ability for our students to work together as a whole 1st Grade. In past years, we often spend much of our time mixing students fluidly within the grade, and we have many things we do together as a whole group. As a result, our students definitely feel part of a 1st Grade community that has a strong identity as a whole. COVID-19 protocols have made all of that impossible, and our students were missing that bigger sense of belonging in their grade. After the protest, many students commented on how powerful it was to have all of them there. They loved listening to each other and having a joint purpose.
Our reflection on this unit has reaffirmed our belief in the strength of our Four Pillars—joyful learning, academic excellence, diversity beyond the numbers, and the personal intelligences were all the keys to the success of this project. We also had to be problem solvers ourselves—and in that process realized that we wanted to give the same pressing motivation to our students to spark their own creativity. We are grateful for all the levels of communication this brought us between administration and our students. What a meaningful lesson for all of us!