Upon entering first grade, students are just beginning their reading and writing journeys, with varying levels of literacy experience. By the end of the school year, thanks to the guidance of a dedicated team of teachers, these first graders have become confident, age-appropriate readers and writers.
Rowland Hall’s first-grade team—April Nielsen, Galen McCallum, Susanna Mellor, and Lizbeth Sorensen—puts their hearts and souls, and more than 70 combined years of experience, into the art of teaching first graders how to read and write. These teachers are the backbone of Rowland Hall’s uniquely engaging literacy program, a key educational pillar that serves as a launchpad for students’ love of reading and writing, which continues to grow throughout their time at the school.
Our students leave first grade loving reading and writing. They feel empowered as word professors, readers, writers, and learners.—April Nielsen, first-grade teacher
“Our students leave first grade loving reading and writing,” explained April, lead first-grade teacher. “They feel empowered as word professors, readers, writers, and learners.”
During their first-grade year, students have a variety of opportunities each day to strengthen their skills and foster a foundation of empowerment. They practice reading, writing, and phonics, and learn about different genres and how to use authors’ techniques in their own writing. “Students feel empowered to take control of their own learning,” April said. “They’re excited about their progress as readers and writers.”
What sets Rowland Hall’s literacy program apart from others? Undoubtedly, it’s the devotion and hard work of the first-grade teachers. The team uses the best research-based practices, as well as their combined years of teaching experience, to create joyful and engaging classroom communities of children who feel safe trying new things while actively learning. “The first-grade literacy program is highly engaging, developmentally appropriate, and thorough,” said Susanna. “It includes explicit, teacher-directed instruction, as well as many components that are discovery-based, requiring students to investigate and explore.”
The program also offers individual support for each student throughout their reading journeys—and this has been especially true during the pandemic. The teachers were proactive following distance learning in spring 2020, identifying students who would benefit from additional support over the summer to ensure they wouldn’t fall behind when they returned to school in the fall. These students were offered a two-week summer learning program where they could focus on reading and writing, as well as mathematics, in ways that would keep them excited about learning. Once students returned to the classroom, the teachers worked tirelessly to offer them individualized literacy instruction, while also being proactive about reaching out to families about progress and how to support children at home. Thanks to Rowland Hall’s small class sizes and administrative support, they used formative assessments to guide their instruction. “We meet with each student individually to find out exactly where they are and what they need instructionally,” explained April. “Then we are able to work with students individually and in small groups to practice the new skills being taught each day.”
As the year progresses, the teachers use methods that encourage students to examine language and build meaningful literacy knowledge and skills. One of the most impressive aspects of Rowland Hall’s program is how they weave together reading and writing units to optimize student success and retention. “One nice thing about our program is when we’re reading nonfiction books,” April explained. “That’s when we’re learning how to write nonfiction, too, so students are really learning how these books are organized both during reading and writing time.”
The first-grade team is constantly hard at work implementing new and innovative strategies for writing workshops that make learning both inclusive and fun for students so that they want to explore those skills.
The first-grade team is also constantly hard at work implementing new and innovative strategies for writing workshops that make learning both inclusive and fun for students so that they want to explore those skills. (In fact, Galen highlighted how, during choice time, students often choose to do reading and writing activities. “I love writing workshop because I can use my imagination to write my very own books,” commented first grader Scarlett M.) Writing workshops allow the first graders to use a variety of skills to write and illustrate their own stories, building confidence and ownership of their own literacy learning. Students create everything from narratives to persuasive writing to nonfiction stories, and at the end of the year participate in an authors’ celebration where they read a story of their choice to their classmates and parents. This May, for example, student Ozzie S. chose to read his story about a “sushinami”—a tsunami made of sushi.
“It was fun writing my story and I'm excited to read it for the class,” Ozzie said. “I really liked drawing the pictures of the sushinami.”
The literacy program has been a longtime strength at Rowland Hall, and during an unconventional year, the program has been especially beneficial to students. Due to the consistent hard work and dedication of the first-grade team and their students, April is confident this year’s first graders will be well-prepared for second grade.
“I am extremely proud of our first graders and my team,” said April. “All of my students have made great reading and writing progress this year because they received intensive, systematic reading and writing instruction.”