Students enter first grade with great expectations, feeling the importance of the step they are taking from the dreamy world of play to the challenges of academic rigor. Changes are taking place in the growing child and the teacher meets the class with tender respect for the budding forces of thinking that eagerly look for challenge and guidance.
Children in first grade still delight in imitation and learning from the world around them and they look to the authority of the teacher who begins to lead them in exploration of the world from the whole to the parts: in language arts the child discovers that inside the poem are words, inside the words are letters, and behind the letters are sounds. In math, through creative storytelling, the child learns about all four math functions: adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, returning time and again to the whole. As the children follow the teacher in this exploration they begin to learn the skills that are the tools of learning throughout life.
Each child meets the teacher at the classroom door with a handshake, and the teacher acknowledges the individuality of each. Inside the classroom, students become members of a class community, and they learn to extend and harmonize their individuality with others. Students challenge one another, compare and contrast, find support from one another, and find the beauty and power that comes when all work together toward the goal set by the class teacher.
The work with the class teacher begins in the morning with the extended study period called the Main Lesson. In this morning work, the class devotes attention for three or four weeks to a particular piece of the curriculum, which through the year works deeply in language arts and mathematics, laying the foundation for the science and history blocks that follow in later years.
Main Learning Objectives
Fairy tales are the vehicle for the study of reading and writing in first grade. As the teacher tells stories rich with folk wisdom from the past, children delight in the recognition of universal truths.
Their ears open to new words, their minds to new ideas, and they make the words and ideas their own as they review the stories they hear, drawing pictures and writing words in Main Lesson books they create following the instruction of the teacher.
The language arts work includes speech exercises, singing and recitation of poetry, and drama work often presented to the school community as a class play. The teacher introduces the alphabet pictorially, enlivening letters in the imaginations of the children, and the artistic and phonetic study of letters, the K may be drawn as a king or the B as a bear, as she leads the class to skill first in writing and then in reading what they have written. These handmade Main Lesson books become the record of each student’s journey to literacy.
In first grade mathematics, the teacher directs the attention of the class to the world around them where students find the quality of numbers in things that they can count, such as the moon and the sun, and the eight legs of the spider. The teacher employs movement, rhythm, stories, illustrative drawings, and manipulatives to awaken the students’ understanding of number relationships and brings to their conscious control the fundamental arithmetic operations of addition, multiplication, subtraction, and division. As the students learn to handle numbers, they create Main Lesson books illustrating these basic relationships and processes.
Foundational work for the study of science begins in first grade as the teacher brings nature stories to the class and offers exercises to strengthen powers of observation and memory in the students. As students learn to follow instructions and create an accurate representation of the symbols of written language and mathematics, they are preparing for the more direct study of science in later years.
Art permeates all lessons of first grade, be it the artful telling of a story, a beautiful illustration from that story, or the careful drawing of letters to make words. Children use colored pencils and beeswax crayons in regular practice throughout the day, and at least once a week explore the world of color with watercolor paintings on paper. Modeling with beeswax awakens the students’ artistic sense in three dimensions, and teachers sometimes work with sand and clay to strengthen the students’ experience of form.
Form drawing, capturing the movement of line on paper, begins in first grade with the important study of the straight and curved line. This drawing practice challenges the student to coordinate eye and hand, helps develop care and concentration, and educates the eye to proportion, beauty, and harmony.
Children in first grade receive an introduction to spoken Spanish in class periods taught by specialty teachers. Experiencing the language and its culture in story, games, verse, and song, the children begin to build vocabulary and incorporate within themselves the sounds and feelings of cultures outside their own.
Children in first grade learn knitting in handwork class. Handwork supports the basic math skills of counting, addition, and multiplication, stitch on stitch, row on row, and it helps support the development of fine motor coordination. Children learn that with natural materials, time and attention, they can create beautiful and practical objects that are useful in the world. The children create pentatonic flute cases and simple animal forms as stuffed toys.
Music carries the students through the day in first grade as they greet the day with verse and song. The teacher leads the class through transitions from activity to activity with verse and song as well. Singing together, children learn to blend their voices with one another.
Students also learn to play the pentatonic flute, a beautiful wooden instrument tuned to the tones of childhood. Flute playing helps the students regulate breath and helps with the development of finger coordination even as it tunes the ear and provides each student the pleasure of making beautiful music together as a class.
The specialty movement teacher introduces circle and cooperative games to help the children develop physical skills, stamina, and whole body integration. These games support the development of collaborative skills and help the children move freely as individuals and as a class.