Building Our Classroom Community

with Mrs. Vaage's Grade 1's

Each year our school administration chooses a story for our staff to use as inspiration and professional growth. The story for this year was "I Wish I Was a Butterfly" by ... This incredible story is about a cricket who feels very ugly because he believe what the frog at the edge of the pond had told him. It wasn't until his friend, the spider, showed him that he was beautiful to him because of their friendship.

I chose to use this story to introduce community building for my own classroom. I created a display on our prayer table with the book, a vase with symbols for all of the story characters, and a pond made from a blue Pyrex pie plate with green grass surrounding it.

We read the story, then created a circle with the pond in the center. Each child selected a stone to represent him/her, wrote their name on it, and placed it in the pond. We noticed that every time one new stone entered, it bumped and touched others. We have used this metaphor so many times this year to have a visual of "whatever we do affects others." If we say hurtful thing, we hurt the entire class. If we say caring and loving things, we improve our entire class.

Following is an example of how this was used to center our class meetings when any issues needed addressing.

It was Chinese New Year's, but because we were immersed in space study, I chose not to focus any learning activities for this holiday. Our class was doing spelling, practicing writing "oy" chunk words, like boy, toy, and so on. The adjacent kindergarten class came in with their dragon dance and to wish us a Happy Chinese New Year! I wished them 'Gung Hei Fat Choy' in return. After they left, we continued with our spelling, and I added the word "choy" like in Happy New Year's in Chinese.

One child interjected, "Hey, we should write it in Chinese characters" and I replied that I had the materials in a prop box and could do it, but that we would not do it on this particular day. "Perhaps some other day, " I said.

Three children started to "Boo-oo," so I called for a class meeting. We placed the pond in the center and I asked the children to tell me why I had called the meeting. The usual answers came up - too noisy, not listening, but then one child said, "It was because of the boo-ooing."

I showed them my rock in the pond, and pushed at some of the outlying rocks, which made them all shuffle and bump into each other. I asked them to tell me if they noticed what happened to my rock. They all saw that it had moved and bumped into others. So I asked if it was safe for me to do my job? Or was it safe for others for learning? The children understood the impact of their impulsive action.

One child, A., offered to say a prayer. "I pray that our class can be the best we can be, that we will all try our hardest, so we can learn."

Another, the initiator of the boo-ooing, also offered a spontaneous prayer, "I pray that we care for and love each other, to help us all to be the best we can be."

This metaphor is so strong and so visual, that it is perfect to illustrate complex and abstract concepts very simply. Kids get it.  Every meeting we have, they understand to deeper and deeper levels. They also have come to understand that the frog had been marginalized - their word is "bumped out" because he had been hurt by someone else before. They recognize and have used words like "swamp" or "muddy" because our pond is not as balanced as it could be. Our life lessons refer back to the pond every single time - the children understand with their intuitive and spiritual natures how it should be - that we should all be trying for our best to improve our class, our world.



Involving Children in Choosing our Topics of Study

Over the past many years I have come to realize that when children have a voice in their topics of study, they apply more effort and are more keen and involved. Following is our initial brainstorming of things that the children "wanted to learn" before Grade 1 was over.


It seems a dilemma of controversial pulls - do we teach the curriculum or do we follow the children's interests and cover the curriculum through these topics. But in actuality, if the children follow their own interests, they also become more engaged learners for all topics. They always cover the curriculum in addition to having a wonderful, extended learning adventure. For this class, the main topic of interest ended up being Space. We have been covering this all year long, and the passion for learning is incredible. We have diverted to cover other timely topics, but this has been our main study, and cohesive bond.


Creating Classroom Guidelines for Behavior

If children are involved in helping create guidelines for behavior, they are more likely to have ownership for them. I always share my philosophy for creating an optimal learning environment. "It has to be safe for your body, safe for your heart (feelings), and safe for learning." How the children interpret this came out with the following statements.

We did not rewrite these statements, to make it look "pretty" because it is a living document. We have gone back to it several times to ask if anything needs to be added or changed, so children understand that sometimes statements need to be brought up to date.

Welcome Song

We have a standard song that we use to welcome anyone into our class. After the first week or so of introducing it to the children, they are now the conscientious ones to welcome newcomers. "Mrs. Vaage, don't forget the Welcome Song!" are the words I hear now. The words are to the tune of Skip to My Lou.

Welcome, Mrs. ..., come on in,
Welcome, Mrs. ..., come on in,
Welcome, Mrs. ..., come on in,
We're so glad you're here.