First graders at Fairfax manage themselves and their learning

Debra Van Nostran introduces the concept of descriptive writing by asking her first-grade students to describe the pencil she is holding.

Life is packed if you are a first grader learning English Language Arts (ELA) in Debbie Van Nostran's class at Fairfax Elementary School. During a recent, action-filled 90-minute period, students managed themselves and their work as they participated in reading, writing and word play.

The morning began with the students seated on the floor in front of the classroom Smartboard, an interactive white board. They sang a song about nouns and watched a quick music video about the vowel of the week, “O.” Students enjoyed the playful repetitions and writing the letter shape in the air with their hands.

The discussion moved on to reading comprehension and writing with a review of the concepts of setting and character. The teacher asked, “Who can tell me what a protagonist is and what an antagonist is?” Hands of these six- and seven-year-olds shot up and Van Nostran called on a student who said, “A protagonist is the hero and an antagonist is the villain.”

Using a mystery bag, they began learning about main ideas and supporting details. Each item drawn from the bag was a supporting detail that offered a clue to the main idea. First a spoon, then a measuring cup, a pan and a brownie mix. Van Nostran asked, “What’s the main idea?” and the students answered, “Making brownies!”

Later, students moved into small groups at learning centers around the room.

In the final ten minutes of their morning together, Van Nostran asked her students to form a circle on the floor. She clapped her hands quickly and called, “All set?” Students answered in unison, “You bet!”

To introduce descriptive writing, Van Nostran placed pencils on the floor and pointed to a sentence on the Smartboard that said, “I have a pencil.” As each new sentence was revealed, students searched for the pencil that had all the characteristics listed—yellow with a little bit of eraser and a sharp tip. Van Nostran held up the pencil and asked her class, “How could you describe this pencil so that I would know it was this pencil and not any of the others?” Several students offered parts of the answer. “Descriptive writing is better writing,” explained Van Nostran.

Van Nostran's ELA class meets five mornings a week. “My goal is to teach up,” explained Van Nostran. “I try to challenge these students to reach to their highest abilities. I want them to read more, write more, think more and talk more about what they are learning.” 

Krista Hawthorne

Krista Hawthorne is assistant director of Reaching Heights.

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Volume 6, Issue 3, Posted 4:37 PM, 02.11.2013