I’d like to think that if you walked into my classroom on any given day, you would see students engaged in learning. My classroom is a place where students have lots of choices. I believe in the workshop model, a quick minilesson, and lots of opportunity for practice. I also believe in teamwork and collaboration. My students learn quickly that a huge part of first grade is learning how to work with others. After all, I tell them again and again that “none of us are as smart as all of us”. And when they start coming to me with stories of how “so and so” is sooooo hard to work with, I remind them that working with others is not always easy. And yet I believe that even our youngest students can learn to work with anyone, no matter how difficult the personality. I will confess that getting first graders to collaborate is messy. And sometimes it’s just plain hard. And yet when I heard that teachers in classrooms around the world were actually setting aside time for students to plan their own learning I was intrigued.
I started We Wonder Wednesday in my classroom two years ago. We Wonder Wednesday is similar to 20% time, or genius hour. The idea, simply put, is that students are given the time and opportunity to pick their own project, to wonder and learn about anything, to have complete voice and choice, even in a first grade classroom. In the beginning, I struggled. There is always so much that we have to make sure we are teaching day to day and I wasn’t quite ready to use that time and just hope that I would get results. So I dabbled in “we wonder” – I did it a few weeks on, a few weeks off, you get the idea. But even then I saw results. So last year, I decided I wasn’t going to waffle in wonder anymore. I would commit one 45 minute block of time every Wednesday morning to students and let them direct that time. And what do you know? It worked. Soon my first graders were researching pollution and interviewing our school custodian to find out how much garbage we were creating at school. That led to an interview with our school secretary who was worried that we were wasting paper in our building. Another group was studying elephant conservation efforts in Africa and ended up creating maps that highlighted elephant habitat. I had two students who wanted to learn more about Ruby Bridges and so they read books together and watched video’s and then created their own book about her.
These girls got the opportunity to show this book at a gathering of Seattle educators and parents who wanted to learn more about how students were using these devices in our classrooms. After their presentation, I asked them, what they were going to do next, and without hesitation they told the audience that they had learned so much they wanted to write a new book about other heroes in the civil rights movement.
I will say that having a 1 to1 classroom made our “we wonder” time even more successful. These devices gave my class the opportunity to research, to do interviews, to make videos, and to keep all that research and work in one place. But not everyone wanted to use their iPad. I had many students who did their work on paper and poster boards. One group of students spent several months writing their own play. Their idea was to mash-up some of their favorite characters, Dr. Seuss, Koala Lu, The Grouchy Ladybug, and create a new story. The result a 3- act play that was produced, written, directed and performed by first graders.
These are just a couple of examples of the learning that I didn’t plan or expect this year. Every Wednesday my students were choosing their own adventure in learning. And while they were learning they were also collaborating, sharing, and lifting each other up. And after awhile, this learning didn’t just happen on Wednesday. Most of my students worked on We Wonder during choice time or asked me if they could stay in at recess to continue working. I have always called my classroom a community of learners and this year it truly was. I learned that by lifting my expectations and giving students a chance to lead the way, we all learned more than expected.