This potential chapter for the upcoming Crowdsource Wisdom book attempts to use a first grade classroom as an example of how people need and respond to giving them a structure within which to work. But I’m not sure it works itself — analogies are the devil. I’d be glad to know if you think this works, or can be salvaged, or… chuckeroo.
Chapter 3: Mrs. Brenner’s classroom.
As I said in the Introduction, I started out my professional life as an English teacher. I taught middle school for a couple of years before I started down a rather winding career track. When I was in my undergraduate, I learned the teaching method that’s going to form the foundation for the how-to recommendations later in this work.
But before I get there, let’s contrast our usual public meeting, the way I’ve described it in the last two chapters, with Mrs. Brenner’s first grade classroom. A particularly good first grade classroom. My older son’s first grade classroom, where I filled the age-old Room Mother responsibility, about 10 years ago.
Have you ever been around a first grader? 20 of them? At one time? In one room? If you haven’t, or it’s been a while, let me paint a picture of what we’re dealing with here.
The kids come into the room more or less in a crush. Backpacks, boots, jackets, hats, umbrellas everywhere. Most of these kids still have to be reminded constantly to put their things away at home, let alone in school, where everything is still strange and new.
Each comes in with his or her own mental baggage, in addition to their stuff. Some are not used to leaving their parents yet, and their fear distracts them from what they’re supposed to be doing. Some are so excited that they can barely sit still. Some talk like grown ups. Some suck their thumbs. Some do both.
Skills for getting along with other kids are still works in progress. Basic manners, like raising your hand when you want to say something, frequently get lost in the excitement, and when hand-raising does work, sometimes the hand goes up in the air before the brain knows what it was going to say. Activities that require taking turns have less than ideal odds of turning out the way they were intended on the first try. Tears over some slight, some bump, some quabble, occur pretty much every hour. Impulse control is hard to come by when you’re 6.
Academic skill levels are all over the map, too. Some kids already know how to read. Some can’t consistently identify their letters yet. Some struggle with the fine motor skills needed to hold a pencil and trace the dotted shapes in the notebook. Some can do pages on pages of arithmetic problems without looking up.
In this context, with this potentially chaotic mix of strengths and instabilities, skills and limitations, a first grade teacher is supposed to enable each child to reach a level of skill and content mastery by the end of the year. Each of these hugely varying creatures must participate actively and as fully as possible in achieving that goal. The teacher cannot do the learning and growing for them. And at any moment, one of these buggers might burst out with something inappropriate, or fall off a chair, or spill the glue, or start wailing over a boo boo, or who knows what. They’re cute, but they’re incredibly unpredictable.
How do you educate anyone within that context? Here’s how.
When the kids come in with their backpacks and hats and all, each has an assigned place to put them – a hook, a shelf, labelled with their name. At the beginning of the year, they were shown that this is where their things belong. And that gets reinforced every day – visually and verbally. And since most of the other kids put their things in similar places, each kid sees his or her peers modelling what they’re supposed to do.
The kids go to assigned seats (again, with a name placard on them, both to make it clear whose desk it is and to reinforce reading and writing skills). When they walk in the room, they can see that there is an activity for them to do right away. Maybe it’s a sentence to copy down, maybe it’s a simple math problem, maybe it’s a puzzle of a bear made by connecting dots. The expectation is clear, and (with a little gentle prodding for the more excitable ones), the activity gets done.
On the board the kids can also see a daily schedule. Even if they can’t read all the words and numbers yet, they soon develop a sense of the routine. There’s a whole-class activity at the beginning where they talk as a whole group about some major issues, like what day of the week is it and whether the sun or cloud sticker should be velcroed to the Daily Weather Chart. Then they move into a different activity – a reading group, or a math lesson, or a book read to the class by the teacher or a guest. Some activities involve smaller groups, some the whole class together, some the students complete by themselves.
Most activities have different spaces in which they occur – reading out loud happens in a corner with a rocking chair and a fuzzy rug, group math activities in a circle of chairs with flashcards, art at a long table near the teacher’s desk. Each activity, each space, has specific rules and expectations – we sit crosslegged on the rug, we show the flash cards to our friend on our left, we put our worksheets in the purple box when we are done. And each activity only lasts a short time before the participants move to a different one.
For a lot of the tasks, the teacher stays nearby in case someone needs help or mediation, but the students work together or independently. Students create their own answers, but the rules within which that task is set up quietly guide the students. Those rules, those expectations, give the kids a structure. It helps them understand what they are supposed to be doing and when. Their work is their own, but they know what they are supposed to be doing and how they are supposed to do it.
And here’s the most impressive part. That classroom, with all those little chaotic marginally-controlled humans, runs about as close to clockwork as you can imagine. Kids move from one activity to the next with a relatively low level of fuss, they need only minimal reminders of how to do the tasks, they know where papers and musical instruments and glue go when they’re done.
The kids follow the routine not only because it’s what they were told to do, but because it gives them a sense of predictability, of clear expectations, of control. Of being in a place where they know how succeed. They were consistently the happiest first graders I had ever seen.
We’re going to unpack what we might learn from how good teachers work in future chapters, but for a moment, think about what the first graders learn from this classroom, beyond the reading and writing and math and all:
- I know what I need to do to be successful.
- I know what’s going to happen next.
- I know how to do the work that’s in front of me
- I know that this activity (which I might or might not like) isn’t going to last forever
- I know that I’ll get to do something different soon
- I know that I can do it right.
First graders have a whole lot more faith in their teachers than most adults have in their local government. And what we ask of adults can (and should) be a whole lot more challenging than what we ask of first graders.
But that first grade classroom shows us a few fundamental things about what people, big or small, want out of group experiences – especially when they take the time to participate in a group activity that is supposed to result in something beneficial:
- Ground rules and fairness
- A predictable pattern of events
- A variety of activities that use different skills
- A situation that is set up to enable me to succeed.
In my talks, I have sometimes referred to what Mrs.Brenner did as channeling — guiding a powerful force so that it flows in the direction where it can make the most positive impact. Think about a river: if it bursts its banks, the river waters flow uncontrolled into places where it wasn’t supposed to be – fields, cities, houses. The flowing water has power, but it’s wasted, in a sense. If the river flows within its channel, it can power a water wheel or a turbine, grind grain, make clean power.
My premise to you: if we want to meaningfully engage the power and potential of our people, we need to give them a channel.