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What I Learned in First Grade on Monday

Six words I thought I’d never say: On Monday, I taught first grade.

Actually, last week was one of those interesting and unusual weeks where I found myself in a multitude of teaching situations. In addition to my students at the university, I taught the aforementioned first grade class, alternative high school English, a group of twenty-five teachers, a class on disciplinary literacy for graduate level pre-service teachers, and finally a methods class for future English teachers. All of these teaching situations were tied together with respectful dialogue and conversations about ideas and text.

But it was those first graders who inspired this entry.

What a fabulous start to the week (i.e., learning experience) these students provided me. I learned that one can’t be “stingy” with their learning, an idea repeated by several students in an attempt to encourage their classmates to talk in our discussion. I also learned that in first grade, one has to get their ideas out there so they shouldn’t raise their hand in order to talk. I witnessed respect and compassion from these small but mighty people.

I was invited into their classroom by their teacher to help lead a Socratic Circle, a text-based conversation strategy that I learned from Matt Copeland. Matt wrote what I consider to be a fantastic book on the Socratic teaching strategy back in 2005. In addition to being a gifted teacher and author, Matt also taught down the hall from me and became one of my mentors and best friends while I was learning to how to be a teacher.  With his support and the support of our mutual friend who taught history, I started using Socratic Circles in my classroom on a Tuesday morning about 12 years ago, finally mustering up the courage to empower my students to talk. On my mentors’ recommendations I decided that the “The Pledge of Allegiance” would be my first Socratic Circle with students because it is a short yet surprisingly complex piece, one that students had rarely paused to think let alone discuss analytically.

Then during second hour, the second class of Socratic Circles I’d ever led, Matt knocked on my door and interrupted class.

“We don’t know what’s happening, but a plane just flew into the World Trade Center in New York.”

The horror that unfolded the rest of that day was temporarily shut out as I listened to ninth graders talk about “The Pledge of Allegiance.” My head was spinning—I was 23 at the time—as I wondered if our country was under attack, whether this was the beginning of a war in which I’d be called to serve or worse yet, a war that might claim the lives of students sitting in my classroom that day. Watching television or listening to the radio was banned as our school was under strict orders to maintain business-as-usual, so when I sat down on my couch at 4:30 that evening, I sobbed as the stunning images of that day were played over and over again on the news.

One of the lasting impressions of that first day of Socratic Circles was that my students were not used to having civil discussions with each other. Before the announcement, the first class of students nearly broke out in a skirmish of their own. This is a trend we can easily see beyond our classrooms as well.  Anyone can turn on the news—even ESPN—and see antagonistic debates and arguments about almost any topic. Instead of a country living in dialogue where disagreement and debate can happen in productive ways, we seem to be a country living in divisiveness. Soledad O’Brien constantly and consistently raises her voice on CNN (I’ll not bother to discuss the MSNBC/Fox News tomfoolery) and shows that promote this behavior are frighteningly popular. Their popularity attracts advertisers, which then leads to the creation of more shows that reward talking heads with the loudest voices and most pathetic rhetoric. Maybe I’m old fashioned because I don’t want to be yelled at when I flip on the TV but I can’t stand it.

And we carry this behavior into the conversations we have in our own lives, especially those that happen online where anonymity often leads to behavior that many people would never actually display in the “real world”.  For example, last Tuesday I read a piece by a colleague on the Get Schooled blog from the Atlanta Journal Constitution in which anonymous responders attacked him personally and professionally in the comment section for no other reason than they disagreed with his views. Scroll down to the comment section of almost any article posted online and you’ll see the same thing—vitriolic rage motivated by political or other beliefs. Is free speech destroying our country in this age of anonymity? Perhaps the online world needs to have the white sheets pulled away from the angry virtual faces.

But there is hope and it resides in little Americans who are too young to have been tainted by our addiction to being right at all costs.

Throughout this past week, the 1st graders’ voices stayed strong in my memory. They showed such support for each other by using sentence frames like, “Building on what Ariana said…,” and “Similar to Jack’s idea…,” actually furthering the conversation we were having about an article on wind energy. The patience they showed while waiting for their peers to find the words to say what was obviously spinning around at lightning speeds in their heads stayed with me. Their ability to listen to each other and wait before blurting out the first idea that came to mind are skills I fear they’ll be forced, maybe even encouraged, to lose.

And as I worked with the other groups throughout the week, I brought up these stories as a reminder of what school, learning, and discussion could look like. For the alternative high school students, it served as a positive memory of school. For the teachers, it served as an example of what productive discussions and a culture of learning can mean when students are unfettered by rules and procedures and are trusted to talk. For the future teachers, it served as an example of how first graders could engage in a productive discussion meaning that older students could as well.

But what we can learn as a nation from these first graders could be paramount to our very survival. Take just a cursory glance around the world right now to see what happens when nations are divided. While we don’t have literally warring factions yet, there are threats of that very thing being murmured in the name of our president, guns, and immigration. The demise of those other nations should serve as a reminder that the level of animosity towards our fellow man, the constant bickering and belittling of one another, and the serious lack of honest, civil, and respectful dialogue in our country must be reversed. Those first graders are counting on being or becoming Americans and contributing to a potentially great country, not being forced to shed their respect, dignity, and civility as part of growing up.

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Christian Z. Goering

Chris Goering is an Associate Professor of Secondary English Education at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He received his Ph.D. (2007) and M.Ed. in Cu...