HMH: Which is amazing.
Amanda: Absolutely! The goal is to get them reclassified by fifth grade because studies have shown that students that are not classified as English proficient by fifth grade or by the time they go into middle school aren't as successful. . . . Once they get into middle school they get pushed into "I'm an English language learner. I have to be in these classes. I have to be on this track." And it keeps them from doing other things that other students who aren't English language learners get to do.
HMH: So, does that make you feel pressured to try and have students especially at, you know, you teach first grade, at this is early level to really make those kinds of gains in a year?
Amanda: I think I feel a lot of pressure as a first-grade teacher altogether because . . .
HMH: It's a big year.
Amanda: It's a big year.
HMH: So much happens.
Amanda: Yeah. And I'm responsible for teaching them the one tool that they need to be successful for the rest of their lives, which is reading. And if they leave my room and they can't read well, that's going to hinder them from grade to grade to grade. There's a lot of pressure there, but it's also why I love first grade because it's really rewarding. Watching students start the beginning of the school year and not know how to read or have limited reading skills, and to hear by the end of the year their parents saying, "Oh, we're driving in the car, they're reading every sign. They're reading to me at home. They're reading to their siblings." To me, that is the gift of being a first-grade teacher. So yeah, it’s pressure, but it's also super rewarding.
HMH: It's sort of a miracle, right?
HMH: And of course, all the science shows that our brains actually aren't really organized to read. They're very much organized to speak. And even writing is a more familiar kind of activity than reading to our brain. So, the amount of systems that have to engage to make that happen is amazing.
Amanda: Well, especially with the English language. I mean there's phonics patterns and you teach them these patterns and then there's 40 words that are an exception to the rule, and you can't really explain to them why. It's just that's the way it is. We were just teaching long "e" with double "e" and "ea." And it's hard because I have to tell them, "Well, you just have to figure out which one looks right," because there's no rule.
HMH: Right. Do you think literacy and how you've taught it has changed a lot in the last decade or so that you've been teaching?
Amanda: Absolutely. Because when I started teaching, it was all whole group, this is how we teach reading, here's a book, let's talk about it. This is a whole-group lesson. And now, I feel like we use both. So, we do a lot of whole-group activities, but then as you saw my reading block really is small-group guided reading. I can determine which groups are having more difficulty with fiction text and which ones are having more difficulty with nonfiction, because for some kids, fiction comes really easily and nonfiction is really challenging. And then vice versa. So, I think it's changed a lot. There's a lot more focus on reading comprehension, and I also think that we are expecting a lot more out of kids than we used to. I'm amazed by what these first graders can do. But I have learned over the years that if you keep the level of expectation low, that's where your kids will sit. If you raise the level of expectation, they'll rise and they'll meet you there.
HMH: And even 6-year-olds know.
HMH:They know when something significant is expected of them, and they know when frankly it's lower, and often I think kids get that sense that you don't care enough about them to set high expectations.
HMH: Thinking about literacy is something not just a set of comprehension skills or phonemic skills that you teach, what are some of the things you do to create a culture of literacy that's different and perhaps not part of the standards or academics?
Amanda: Well, one thing I've been really trying to work on with literacy this year is, as a team, we kind of talked about trying to introduce more diverse books to our students.
HMH: You mean as a first grade team?
Amanda: As a grade-level team, yeah.
HMH: How many on that team?
HMH: Six, so six Grade 1 teachers and you all plan together?
Amanda: Not always. Sometimes we do. But it was a conversation we started having around Dr. Seuss' birthday about Read Across America and that the kids already have a lot of exposure to Dr. Seuss. So, instead of spending a full day talking about Dr. Seuss, why don't we actually read across America and introduce the students during that week to books that come from all different places? So, we found books from different cultures. We had books that had children that were different races, that had different beliefs and values. And I think it's important with bringing diverse books to the classroom because I want to make sure that every child can connect to that book by knowing that there's someone in that book that maybe looks like them or has a family like them. And with trying to have more diverse books in the classroom, it gives kids two things. One, it lets them see a reflection of themselves, but it also lets them see past themselves and to see characters that are different than them and realize that that's okay, too. It's okay to be different. So, one thing I've I always used is Donors Choose. Donors Choose is a website that teachers can put up projects that they would like to get funded for their classrooms, and community members donate. Sometimes parents donate. So, I made a Donors Choose project for getting diverse books for our classroom, and it got fully funded, which I was really excited about.
HMH: How much was it for?
Amanda: It was about seven hundred dollars.
HMH: That is great. Congratulations!
Amanda: Yeah, thank you! And so, I got 37 new hardback books for our classroom that have diverse characters, they're from diverse backgrounds, and so we've been reading a lot of those. Every day I try to choose one, and we read them just to kind of show them that things can be different. Yesterday we ended the day with a circle and we all, they all went around and talked about what makes them unique and special and why they like that about themselves. And I just really want them to start realizing that who they are is special and that it doesn't mean that they need to be like somebody else to be special.
HMH: Yeah. Yeah, that's fantastic. And it seems like you've been able to get hold of enough kinds of diverse books, right?
Amanda: Yeah, and I couldn't have done that, I couldn't have done it without that support. I spend a lot of money on my own classroom and buy lots of books.
HMH: Have worked out how much you do spend every year?
Amanda: Probably a couple thousand dollars.
Amanda: Even with the school supplies, I buy all the school supplies at the beginning of the school year.
HMH: Like what?
Amanda: Pencil boxes. All the glue sticks. Their crayons. Making sure that they have all their folders, all their notebooks, labels for all of that, all the clipboards I have in my classroom, whiteboards.
HMH: So, does the school tell you that you have to buy them?
Amanda: No, I mean those are things that I provide because I know that it's going to make their learning more successful and make our classroom run more efficiently. We do get donations from parents which is great, but I do work at a low-income school and so . . .
HMH: There really isn't a budget for buying actual . . .
Amanda: Yeah, we do get supplies at the beginning of the year. We can order certain things. We can order crayons. We can order glue sticks. But it's nice to be able to make sure that everyone has the same thing and that there's . . . it's not like we could do a supply list.
Amanda: You know where all the parents bring something. We get three reams of paper a month, and that's all we get to use for copying.
Amanda: So, I ask for donations for copy paper, and sometimes I go buy it at Costco, so I think I spend probably a couple thousand dollars a year on school supplies and even just to make my classroom look the way it is.
HMH: Yeah, which is beautiful by the way.
Amanda: Oh, thank you.
HMH: Going back to the topic of students who come to you from other countries. The immigration debate that's happening nationally and certainly there are local conversations around immigration. Other teachers tell me that this is impacting their schools and sometimes their classrooms. I mean has that been an issue for you over the last period?
Amanda: I don't think it has been as much of an issue I think because of where we live. Being so close to the border and living in San Diego, I feel like it's not as much of an issue because it's just the culture of our neighborhoods.