I taught 1st grade for 4 beautiful but grueling years. I say grueling because I taught in a title one school, in a hard part of town. Title one schools are schools identified in an area with a high percentage of low income families. These schools receive extra funds to support the children in meeting the education standards. In these title one schools there are often children who come from extremely difficult home lives.
The majority of my students were English language learners, so getting help at home with homework was often difficult because of the language barrier. Some of my students lives were absolutely heartbreaking. I had children that were late everyday because they had to wake their parents up to bring them to school. I had several students with parents in prison. I had children that had experienced things no 6 year old should ever experience. I had to be alert and pay attention for signs of abuse, which unfortunately were seen all too often.
There were many parents who worked 3 jobs to keep their family afloat, leaving their children at home alone often watching the younger siblings. Their lives were anything but easy. Most of my students were so very loved by their parents/guardians. They were mostly families made up of loving parents just trying their best. I say most because there were definitely a select few kids that I just wanted to adopt and give them a warm bed to sleep in with a hot meal.
Because of these circumstances behavioral issues were just the norm. I had students with extreme defiance and physical and verbal aggression, and it often felt like my days were spent teaching social skills with a splash of academics.
But remember when I said I taught for 4 beautiful years? Despite all of the hard, I had the most beautiful groups of 1st graders enter and leave my classroom doors each year. Even the really difficult ones, the ones that were hardest to love, I worked hard all year to see their inner beauty and to show them love and compassion. They were darling, tender hearted, and innocent children entrusted in my care each day. What a daunting responsibility!
One of my favorite Harry Potter quotes reads:
“It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.”
I tried my best to see what they could become. I would constantly talk to them about why they come to school. We would discuss what they wanted to be when they grew up, and how they needed to get there. I hope in those moments they were able to digest what I was saying. I hope they were able to see themselves as I saw them–as great and capable individuals. I hope they will carry in their hearts that their 1st grade teacher believed in them and told them they could do anything they wanted to do if they worked hard and treated others with kindness.
There was a quote that was posted outside of our school library, which we passed by daily as a class. I must have read that quote hundreds of times.
Whenever I saw that quote I would think about my little first graders and their uniquely difficult lives. Lives they had to stay in despite the fact that many desperately wanted to escape. I wanted them to know what it felt like to disappear into a book. I grew up losing myself in a good book, and have always felt there is something so magical about letting your mind take you to another world, place, or time.
Over the years I realized that I was a key individual in opening the gateway to the magic of reading. 1st grade is an essential year for reading. Children are heavily exposed to phonics and sight words. They also begin learning about reading comprehension strategies such as visualization, compare and contrast, making predictions, and more. Many of my students didn’t have books at home, so their time in the classroom was precious time to expose them to a variety of literature.
I worked tirelessly to create engaging activities that would excite them and motivate them to love reading. After every reading lesson I would say, “Kiss your brain and say ‘I’m a reader!'”. I saw their confidence rise each time we did this, and I believe the repetition and positive praise made them stronger readers! I strongly believe that giving your child multiple opportunities to engage in the reading process at a young age, whether it be through books or reading activities, will develop a strong and confident reader early on.
My favorite moments with my students was watching the light bulb turn on as they connected what we learned in small group or whole group lessons to the a book they were reading. I loved when they would rush up to me holding a book and say, “Look teacher! I know ‘ow’ says ‘long o’ like in this word snow!” A developing reader is more than just someone who can memorize words over time and become fluent. A reader is someone who has learned the art of putting sounds together to make words and is able to fluently read those words and comprehend them.
Now, as a new parent, I continue to realize the role I have in my child’s education. Even at the tender age of 11 months. I am in awe watching my daughter bring me book after book all day. She looks up at me with her big green eyes and turns around and backs into my lap holding a book as big as her. In those moments together I try so hard to drop what I am doing and sit and read her a book. I want her to know that her momma has a love for reading, that books are special, and that we take time each day to read and discover a new world together. I want her to know that reading is a key to unlocking millions of doors that lead to growth and opportunity in this life.
I hope my sweet firsties will carry that knowledge with them as they break through barriers and become the next generation of leaders, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, dreamers, and educators of this world.