by Maria Walther
This fall, I began my 32nd year of teaching first grade. As I inch closer to retirement, I find myself ponderingwhat’s most important in the life of a learner. I certainly don’t claim to have all of the answers, but my research-guided practice has led me to conclude,“Keep it simple.” In other words, I’ve observed that kids thrive in a predictable environment with ample time to read, write, talk, and think together. I learned this from Lucy Calkins (1983) decades ago when she said that creative environments are “deliberately kept simple to support the complexities of the work-in-progress. They are deliberately kept predictable so the unpredictable can happen” (p. 32). In this post, I offer three ideas to guide you in creating a classroom culture where the unpredictable can happen—surround students with peace, joy, and books (a lot of them!).
In our classrooms, we work to promote a calm learning environment and also harmonious interactions among students. Fairly early in my career, I was fortunate to hear the wise Debbie Miller speak. From her presentations and book, I discovered the power of music in the classroom (2013). To help children remain calm during transitions, I play short song clips to signal them to move from one learning experience to the next. So, instead of my voice, they hear snippets of “Food, Glorious Food” (from the musical Oliver!) when it’s lunchtime and “The Happy Working Song” (from the movie Enchanted) announces it is time to clean up. To end our day, we gather together to sing tunes fromsong picture books. Year after year, my students’ favorite song book is John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads (2005)!
A Few of MyFavorite Song Picture Books
Footloose (Loggins, 2016) *Includes CD
We also read aloud and discuss books that promote peaceful interactions among children. We converse about the importance of friendship after reading Friendshape (Rosenthal, 2015) and brainstorm ways to resolve playground conflicts like the children did in Rulers of the Playground (Kuefler, 2017). Although these small, peaceful happenings may appear simple, they are key for kids. Peter Johnston reminds us that, “In productive classrooms there are routines and rituals that give a sense of stability and control” (2012, p. 29). When children feel in control, they are more willing to challenge themselves to grow as thinkers and learners.
Joyful learning occurs in classrooms where approximations are honored and mistakes are viewed as opportunities to further understanding. We can nurture joyful learners by adopting and promoting a dynamic learning frame—the belief that the more you learn, the smarter you get (Johnston, 2012). Again, I turn to books to help lead the way. Stories like Dan Santat’s After the Fall (2017), help students see the importance of getting back up and Rosie Revere, Engineer (Beaty, 2013), demonstrates persistence. We also promote
joy by laughing together the antics of The Wolf, The Duck, and the Mouse (Barnett, 2017) or the toddler portrayed in Rodzilla (Sanders, 2017). Learning, in and of itself, is an enjoyable endeavor. When you look at your students’ faces as you energetically read aloud or watch a pair of learners rereading (for the one hundredth time) their favorite Elephant and Piggie book, you witness pure joy. When kept simple, by sharing engaging children’s books, creating purposeful writing experiences, and offering opportunities to inquire, collaborate, and share, the excitement of uncovering new understandings thrives.
You can probably tell by now that children’s literature is at the center of almost everything I do with kids. In fact, I’ve collected 32 years’ worth of books for my students because I know that the right book can entice a reluctant or vulnerable reader. Books spill out of every nook and cranny in my classroom (and my home office). Thus, instead of calling it a classroom library, I call it our library classroom. A robust classroom collection of books is crucial. Kids not only need to read a lot, but they also need lots ofbooks right at their fingertips. Books that “entice them, attract them to reading” (Allington, 2006, p. 85). So, if you are going to spend your hard-earned dollars on teaching materials, take my advice—shut down your computer, visit an
independent bookstore, and buy a books with a specific child in mind. You and your students will be thankful you did!
I hope this post gave you a few ideas to ponder. I’d love to learn from you. What are the three words that guide your teaching?
Allington, R. (2006). What really matters for struggling readers (2 nd ed.). New York: Pearson.
Calkins, L. (1983). Lessons from a child. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Johnston, P. (2012). Opening minds. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Miller, D. (2013). Reading with meaning (2 nd ed.). Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Maria Walther has taught first grade since 1986. In 2008, Maria earned the ICARE for Reading Award for fostering the love of reading in children and in 2016 she was presented with the Illinois Reading Council Hall of Fame Award. She has co-
authored five professional books and the Next Step Guided Reading Assessment.
Her latest book The Revved-Up Read Aloud will be published by Corwin. Learn more about Maria at #CCIRA18, on her website or follow her on Twitter @mariapwalther.