Sharing Early Literacy Learning Journeys

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Starting School Series, Part 6: Reading and writing on the first day – afternoon sessions

It’s easy to forget how quickly the ‘new children’ finish drawings, yet how slowly some eat their lunches. Such a contrast to the ‘end of year children’ who, just six weeks ago, took time with detailed drawings and gobbled their lunches so they could race to the playground.

Middle session: 11:30 – 1:30

Returning to the classroom
After lunch play, the children put hats in their bags, have drinks and move to the mat area.

Children settle and listen to funny read alouds. These read aloud books are first day favourites – the stories are humorous, contain delightful illustrations, use lots of rhyme and big print makes it easy for the children to see the words: Mem Fox’s Where is the Green sheep? Boo to a Goose and David Shannon’s No David and David Goes to School

The children love David Shannon’s ‘David Goes to School’
and laugh at David’s antics (pg. 10-11, here).
One first day we read it 4 times!

Introducing the calendar wall¹
Reading, writing and number are key ingredients of the calendar tasks: from left to right… date, day, attendance and number of days at school. Children are actively involved: e.g. girls stand to be counted and boys stand to be counted for attendance. After the first day, the calendar routine is first thing in the morning and by week 4, the children take turns to be the ‘calendar person’ and lead the class through the calendar tasks.

The calendar wall is in the mat area for all to see and participate in.


Transition from Calendar to Class Book with action rhymes

Draw name pages for Class Book²
On the mat, the children read their names on prepared A4 papers. Each name is in big print at the bottom of the paper. The children draw large, colourful self-portraits on their papers. The completed pages go into an A4 display book to become a Class Book for shared, independent and home reading. Children are excited to read a Class Book about themselves, on the first day!

One teacher extended this strategy by putting the completed pages into youblisher for the children to read from the IWB. A great idea!

The children draw pictures of themselves
on the prepared pages

All the name pages/pictures are put into
an A4 display book for class reading.

¹Dates with the Calendar, p. 22,  and ²First Day Names and Portraits, p. 34, are detailed in Teaching Strategies for Literacy in the Early Years 

Activity time
Before free play ‘activity time’, the class reads the ‘expected behaviours’ on the board, that were compiled in the morning. The children practise the behaviours as they ‘play/work’ at blocks, duplo, pattern blocks, magnetic letters, small whiteboards, home/drama, puppets, collage, drawing, writing and reading.

Go slowwwww… to establish the routines for packing up. I help the children read the labels and put materials back in the ‘right’ places on the shelves.

Outdoor play and toilet break
Establishing orderly routines for line ups and exits helps keep children safe . Walking quietly to the playground helps the children understand their responsibilities in not disturbing other classes en route. Children play on the playground equipment (15 minutes), have drinks, go to the toilets, wash hands and walk back to the classroom.

Journals: drawing and writing (or as a Prep colleague says, ‘driting’)
To ensure the children write on the first day, I introduce ‘journal’ writing on A4 papers. Children write their names and draw and write about an experience or item of interest. It’s a perfect time to observe which children tackle drawing and writing with confidence.

On ‘sticky notes’, I record names of children who write their names and/or attempt writing words and sentences – and tuck the ‘sticky notes’ in my pocket for use later.

(The Botany books that become Journals, aren’t unpacked yet. Children will start using them tomorrow).

Sharing time
Some children volunteer to share their ‘driting’ with the class.

A child’s free drawing and writing

Some children draw and I scribe their stories.

1:30 – 2:00 Afternoon Tea: snack and play outside
Starting 10-15 minutes early helps establish the routine of children getting their food and going out for afternoon play.

Last session: 2:00 – 2:50

I’m at the line up area early to reassure children they are at the right spot.
Children put hats in their bags, have drinks and move to the mat area.
Mozart wafts from the CD player as children cool down and relax on the floor for 5-10 minutes.

The children settle on the mat for read alouds of ‘easy read’ books. Beginning readers and those already reading, usually join in and read. Children’s comments about sentences, words and letters reveal their understanding about written language. Four ‘easy read’ books, with big print, rhythmical and/or repetitive language include: P. Horacek’s What is black and white? Strawberries are red, Flutter by, butterfly and Bruce Deegan’s Jamberry. Then children hear the repetitive sentence pattern in Mercer Mayer’s Just for You.

Children join in the repetitive sentence pattern of:
‘I wanted to….    but I was too… ‘

Maths activities at tables
Children explore and play with pattern blocks, beads, geo boards, puzzles, buttons and plastic chain links. They count/sort plastic coloured bears, dinosaurs and insects. They sequence numbers on a small 100 board. And they build shapes with plastic coloured polyhedrons.

Go slowwwww… to establish the routines for packing up. I help the children read the labels and put materials back in the ‘right’ places on the shelves.

Getting ready for home
Children sit on the mat with backpacks and check they have their hats, drink bottles and lunch boxes. We re-read the Class Book revising the children’s names. If there’s time, we finish up with a read aloud story and/or sing familiar songs, reading the words from charts.

2:50 Happy children meet their happy parents at the door after their first day, talking, reading and writing in Year One!

Quiet Reflections

Doing lots of reading, writing, drawing, talking on the first day allows me to begin to know the children: their interests, personalities, maturity, creativity, confidence and which children struggle with making sense of print.

At home this evening, I make notes in my reflective journal…
– use big book ‘Where’s Spot?’, struggling readers can take turns to lift the flaps (active participation)
– start small group ‘Co-operative Show and Tell’ to get George talking
– invite Dorothy to tell her ‘story’ to the whole class to curb her incessant commentary (a time to talk, a time to listen)
– model positive language to get Peter to talk nicely
how do I get Christopher to do anything? (see Guidance Officer)

 The first day always reminds me of starting over again…

Coming next: Starting School Series, Part 7: How many ways did I read today? A child’s perspective


Starting School Series, Part 5: Reading and writing on the first day – morning session

Morning session 8:20-11:30

Morning message board
I welcome children and parents as they arrive. They read the morning message and children find their names on the A3 class list (removed from the picture below for privacy reasons).

Morning message board,
without the list of children’s names

Name tags
Children read their names as they choose from two groups of 25 sticky-backed name tags spread on separate tables: one name tag goes on their shirts for identification and one labels his/her backpack spot on the shelves.

Each child chooses a spot for his/her backpack
and blu-tacs his/her name card in place

Children (and parents who stay) choose an activity: drawing, writing, reading, blocks, duplo, mobilo, small whiteboards, pattern blocks, puzzles, polyhedrons, nuts & bolts, home corner, puppets, science/discovery table, etc. Some children read activity area labels, e.g. Our block area, Our book corner

Parents leave as their children settle.

Children gather on the class mat. I say my name and write ‘Mrs. Swan’ on the whiteboard. We read it. Someone says, “Swan starts with S.” Another exclaims, “My name starts with S too!” I ask the ‘S’ children to stand and later, we write a list of the ‘S’ names on the whiteboard (phonics from the children). 

Children’s names
Children stand up, one at a time, as I show the name cards. Today, everybody recognises and reads their name. We also read the names on the A3 class list (in alphabetical order) on the whiteboard.

Shared reading: action rhymes
Using a metre-stick, I point to the words on a big, rhyme chart and read:  Jump, jump, jump all day…  Children jump and act out the rhyme. Those who can read, join in.  The class reads and moves to all four rhyme charts: Jump, Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, Tall as a House and
Jack be Nimble.

Four action rhymes hang on overhead wires and
children can easily read them from the mat area

(Note: few charts and cards are displayed on the first day because most literacy displays are built with the children from day one).

Finish name cards
Using coloured markers, children draw small self portraits on their pre-printed name cards.  Sharing name cards with the group, children re-read their names. I collect the cards and after school, laminate them for use all year. The name cards go into a plastic tub (labelled Our Names) for children to use for reading, copying friends’ names, word matching and spelling.

Each child personalises the larger name card with a picture of him/herself.
Both name cards are laminated and placed in a container
for children to access all  year as needed.

Shared writing: establishing classroom behaviours
The class g
athers on the mat in front of the whiteboard. ‘Now that we are in Year One (or Prep) how will we behave in our room?’ The children discuss expected behaviours and I quickly scribe their suggestions on the whiteboard (in positive language), then read them with the class. Talk is about things we DO, e.g. we walk; we use quiet voices; we share; NOT things we don’t do.

The class re-reads the behaviours together. Usually, a child points out the repetition of ‘we’, so we start building sight words immediately by writingwe‘ on a designated board and label it: We know these words…

During shared writing, we establish the expected classroom behaviours.
At the same time, it gives me an idea of the children who are
reading and understanding letters in writing and reading.

After school, I type the ‘behaviours’ on an A3 chart in enlarged print (using positive language) and blue tac it to the whiteboard. We refer to and read the chart frequently in the first weeks to acknowledge children doing the right thing and to reinforce the expected behaviours.

Walk around outside 

Time to walk around outside to familiarise the children with locations of the library, play areas, office and toilets. Children read the labels: Toilets, Boys, Girls. Before the toilet break, I emphasise hygiene and washing hands. Children walk quietly back to the classroom so as not to disturb other classes.

Read alouds
Children hear stories about beginning school: Little Critter Goes to School (Mercer Mayer), Spot Goes to School (Eric Hill) and discuss feeling safe at school.

Shared reading: action rhymes
Children read and move to action rhymes. Rule of thumb: children sit fairly still for their age plus 3 minutes, i.e. age 5 plus 3 = 8 minutes. Not long!  Children, especially in the early years, require plenty of opportunities for large muscle movement! 

Shared writing: class news
The children sit in front of the whiteboard and I talk about children learning to write.  Suggestions are encouraged for sentences about the first day and I scribe what comes up (see picture below from 2011). Several children notice words that are the same and early sight words (is, we, a).

On the first day, children are talking about language, writing and reading.

A second short session of shared writing helps reveal which children
are understanding how letters and sounds ‘work’ in writing and reading.

Shared reading: action rhyme
We use the pocket chart for reading and moving. Children read (and predict) words as I put the word cards into the pockets, one at a time. We re-read and act out the rhyme.

In manipulating the word cards, children begin to understand that each
word stands alone, as well as being a part of a sentence. 

10:50 – 11:00  Lunch
To establish the lunch routine I start around 10:30 and go slowly so children understand the procedure: get hats, lunch boxes, drinks and sit/eat in the balcony area, put lunch boxes away, go out to play.

11:00 – 11:30 Lunch play time
On the first day, I take the class to the play area to ensure the children know where to play and on which equipment.

11:30  Line up
I am at the line up area early to reassure children they are at the right spot.

Return to the classroom
Children put hats in their bags, have drinks and move to the mat area.

Quiet reflections

The morning goes well. I’m happy to see that all children can read their name cards.

I constantly make mental notes about which children appear to understand print and letters and which ones don’t. Sometimes you know right away. Some times it’s a hunch and you need to gather more evidence.

Establishing routines is necessarily slow and deliberate, especially packing up materials, getting lunches from the fridge, eating lunch and lining up downstairs. Experience has taught me that it’s worth doing the extra work this week to ensure that children understand the steps in routines and the need for routines.

Coming next: Starting School Series, Part 6 : Reading and writing on the first day – afternoon sessions


Thinking of teachers on your first day…

“Every day comes bearing gifts. Untie the ribbons!”
(R. Schumacher)

To all the Australian children and teachers starting school tomorrow, or next week, for a new school year…

Have a wonderful first day! I’ll be thinking of you.

And to Northern Hemisphere children and teachers, I hope your new semester is going well.


‘Give them wings…’

Starting School Series, Part 4: Finishing touches and preparation for the first day

Excited. A new class of children arrive tomorrow morning. Is everything ready? Yes, mostly – a few finishing touches will do it. Well… more than a few!

If I had a checklist, it would look something like this:

• Welcome notice and list of children’s names on the door
• Morning message board just inside the door

Clip poster size paper on the morning message board
and write a welcome greeting for children and parents

• Alphabet chart beneath the whiteboard in the mat area
• Pocket chart on the whiteboard ledge

Alphabet chart beneath the whiteboard in the mat area:
low enough for children to touch and trace over the letters.

1 -2 Buckle my shoe rhyme in pocket chart –
low enough for children to manipulate the word cards within the pockets.

• Number cards beneath the calendar wall
• Months and day charts beneath the calendar wall
• Laptop linked to the data projector
• CD player at the mat area (for music and interactive stories)

Calendar wall in the mat area. 100 grid board swings out for easy viewing.
CD player and laptop are on the small table for easy access.

• Shelves for children’s backpacks & hats are wiped and clean
• Refrigerator is clean and ready for lunch boxes and drinks
• Class printer and four computers are ready for use
• Coloured textas, markers, scissors, clag, pipe cleaners and collage materials are in the art/collage trolley

Art/collage trolley is equipped and
accessible in the art area

• Activity areas are labelled: block area, maths area, computer area…
• A3 charts of class names are on the door and the whiteboard (for name recognition)
• Two A5 name cards are prepared for each child (to draw self on name card tomorrrow)
• A4 papers are prepared with child’s name in big print at the bottom (for the class book tomorrow)¹
• Journal covers are printed, ready to cover the children’s journals, tomorrow after school
• Containers of writing pencils, coloured wind-ups and crayons are on each table for children to share
• Construction materials (eg. duplo, lego, mobilo) are in their containers ready for use
• Drawing/writing papers are on a table with pencils, wind-ups and markers

¹(Read more about using names for the class book in  Teaching Strategies for Literacy in the Early Years ‘First Day Names and Portraits’ Pg. 34).

Papers ready for children’s free drawing and writing

• Puzzles, construction materials and maths materials are on the shelves
• Hands-on materials are on tables for children (and parents) to use in first 40-50 minutes tomorrow

 Hands-on materials: polyhedrons, plastic links, teddy bears, nuts/bolts, dinosaurs

• Large rhyme charts hang on wires near the mat area
• A variety of books are in the bookshelves for children to read/share
• Large cushions are in reading areas for children to sit on whilst reading
• Assorted soft toys are in reading areas for children to play with and read to
• Maraca, pens and textas are in small containers, strategically placed around the room for easy access

 Soft toy, Gruffalo is ready to go in the reading area.

The maraca is useful as a ‘signal’ to get children’s attention –
it’s a pleasant sound and saves my voice when
transitioning children from one activity to another.

The maraca is in a small container with textas and sits on the whiteboard/big book stand at the mat area – for easy access. Two other small containers of markers, pens, pencils and maracas are placed on the maths shelf and the art trolley, for use as needed.

Teacher information and school procedures

Notices are pinned on the display board near my table for quick reference:

  • specialists’ schedules
  • yard duty roster
  • teacher aides timetable
  • emergency procedures and exits
  • wet day procedures
  • draft timetable

Quiet Reflections

Whew! Today was fun–not a chore at all. I feel a joyful sense of satisfaction knowing that the room is ready. A draft timetable is also ready so I know all the things I’m going to do with the children tomorrow.

First, the children and parents will see the welcome notice on the door. Then, they’ll see a greeting and list of children’s names on the morning message board.

The room is bright, colourful and ready with an array of inviting activities for children: blocks, legos, books, puzzles, drawing, writing… to start at right away. Occasionally a child may be upset and teary—and parents stay longer until s/he settles—so it’s nice to know things are ready in case upsets occur.

Half a dozen books for ‘read-alouds’ are stacked beside my chair in the mat area: books about starting school, books with rhyming words, funny books, alphabet books, number books. The big book of ‘Where is the Green Sheep?’ is set on the big book stand for shared reading.

But for now… it’s time to go home!

Coming next: Starting School Series, Part 5: Reading and writing on the first day – morning session 



Starting School Series, Part 3: Gathering ‘hands-on’ materials and books

Today promises to be hectic. With only two days before children start, there are hands-on materials and books to gather and organise. The Resource Room is open for the first time and there’s scarcely an hour to get into it before our Professional Development (PD) session starts at 9 am.

8 am… First stop: Resource Room

It takes three trips to cart the books and hands-on materials to my room:

* Big books (and small copies of big books: Sing a Song, Mrs. Wishy Washy, Jigaree)

* Levelled books  (colour-coded, levels 1-10, Prep; levels 6-20, Yr 1 to start)

* Hands-on literacy materials (puzzles, magnetic letters, giant foam letters, letter-word cards)

* Hands-on maths materials (100 number board, large plastic clock, pattern blocks, solid shapes, geo boards, sorting/counting toys)

* Class maths box (containing unifix cubes, popsticks, small clocks, laminated 100 grid boards, egg timers, stop watch, ‘fan’ numbers, large and small dice)

* Hands-on science materials (fish tank, magnifying glasses, magnets, shells)

* Children’s whiteboards (larger and stronger than class set already in room)

* A
ssorted bottles of paint (for easel painting)

* Assorted art materials (oil pastels, dry pastels, charcoal sticks, plasticine)

Big Book with small copy

One of my favourite big books for the big-book stand and
a small copy for children to take for home-reading

Colour-coded 'levelled' books
Colour-coded ‘levelled’ books
for independent reading and home-reading

Maths shelves for ‘hands-on’ materials:
shapes, insects, bears, pattern blocks,
polyhedrons, beads, number and alphabet ‘cars’,
geo boards, frogs, straws, blocks and counters.

Puzzles and maths shelves:
jigsaw puzzles, nuts and bolts, plastic chain links, calculators,
number bean bags, dinosaurs, dominoes,
puzzles and floor puzzles, polyhedrons and unifix cubes (at right)

Going to the Resource Room can be mind-boggling for teachers new to a school. Knowing what you’re looking for really helps. In my case, it’s big books, levelled books and lots of hands-on materials:  literacy, maths, science and art; that’s what my physical environment is set up for and it reveals what I believe about how children learn.

9 am – 1:30 pm: Professional Development
1:35 pm…. Next stop: school library

Time to gather books from the library. Lots and lots of books. Armloads of books. It takes three trips to get them all to my room: a broad mixture of ‘start-the-year’ books, ‘easy-reads’, ‘flap’ books, old favourites, ‘classics’, books with rhyme, non-fiction books, alphabet books, number books, poetry books…

???????????????????????????????Two sides on a triangular bookshelf:
two sides for books and two spaces for reading cushions.
 Four of my starting-school favourites: Boo to a Goose (rhyming words),
No David (funny), Spot (flap) books, Hairy Maclary (rhythmical language).

2 pm… last stop: my library

Books are gathered from around the room and sorted:  books about children starting school, books to read on the first day, books with rhyming words, alphabet books, number books and books by authors like Dr Suess, Mem Fox and David Shannon. Some books go on shelves, some books go in boxes and baskets – in the mat area, in the reading area….

Having our own personal library of children’s books is vital to our becoming better early childhood teachers and it allows us to share our love of books with the children in our classes.

In these three blogs I talk about 22 favourite books in my personal library:

My top ten ‘must-have’ picture books
Ten Special Picture Books
Two more Grug books

Quiet reflections

It’s late afternoon. Professional Development for today is finished. My head is swimming with information. Ahh, home…

It would be impossible for me to imagine living without books, especially children’s books. It was during the first weeks of Teachers’ College many years ago, that I started buying children’s books for my future classrooms. Over the years I’ve collected children’s books from bookstores, second hand stores, garage sales, school fetes and discarded book sales at libraries.

Eventually I had enough books for every occasion: a new baby, a loose tooth, a birthday, co-operating, sharing, imagining, finding a green tree frog, caring for tadpoles and competing in the ‘bush’ Olympics.

I remember reading ‘No David’ (Shannon, 1998) to the class on the fourth day of a new school year, when one boy said, “You sure do read a lot of books, Mrs Swan. This is the sixth one you’ve read today!” “You’re right,” I laughed, “I just love children’s books! And we’re going to read hundreds and hundreds of books this year.”

Coming next: Starting School Series, part 4: Finishing touches


Starting School Series, Part 2: Sorting materials and starting the calendar wall

The old, brown, metal cupboard lurks at the back of my classroom. It is full – very full! Materials, made and collated over recent years, are stacked inside. The latch is stiff. On the second attempt to open the doors, I lean into the cupboard with my shoulder. The doors burst open. A mini avalanche of books, charts and cards cascades into my hands!

Yesterday focussed on the physical environment of the room – getting the class ‘areas’ organised and placing the furniture. Today is about sorting materials and constructing the calendar wall.

Sorting literacy and numeracy cards and charts

Sorting cards
Literacy and numeracy cards are sorted into broad categories:
* alphabet
* numbers
* days
* months
* colours
* sight words
* sentence starters
* high-interest word/photo cards
* CAFE labels

Literacy and numeracy cards feature big print. This enables children to read the cards from various parts of the room and is especially helpful for children seeking spelling support during writing times. The cards are A4 size, colourful and laminated to last.

Alphabet rhyme cards (Ants on the apple, Violent volcanoes),
colour cards and two sets of number cards

Yesterday, today and tomorrow cards for the calendar wall,
early sight words, sentence starters (I am…, I like…, We went…)
and months cards.

Some of the cards are bundled with elastics and bulldog clips and stored on shelves for easy access. Number cards are taped beneath the calendar wall and colour cards are pegged on the wires near the mat area. Alphabet cards will go up one-at-a-time, according to class interests, children’s names, curriculum and handwriting sequences, etc. over the next few weeks of first term.

Sorting charts
Literacy and numeracy charts are sorted into categories:
* alphabet charts for phonics and handwriting (will go beneath the whiteboard)
* word lists, e.g. people we know, time starters (various walls and wires)
* months of the year (will go beneath calendar wall)
* days of the week (will go beneath calendar wall)
* attendance chart (will go on calendar wall)
* songs, chants, poems (will hang on wires)
* action rhymes, number rhymes and nursery rhymes
* simple starting school rhymes (see picture below)

Literacy and numeracy charts feature big print enabling children to read the charts from the floor and tables in various parts of the room. The charts are A2 or A3 size, colourful and laminated. Four rhyme charts are pegged on a wire so they are easy to read from the mat area.

Rhymes, reading and a ‘rule of thumb’

Children, especially young children, need to move – and they need to move often.  Yet, we frequently ask them to sit for long periods of time for shared reading, shared writing and explicit teaching. Here’s a ‘rule of thumb’ that works for me:

Time a child can sit ‘fairly still’ = child’s age + 3 minutes

Thus, a Prep or Year 1 child may sit ‘fairly still’ for 8 – 10 minutes, but then s/he needs to get up and move – really move; jump, hop, wriggle, stretch!

Rhymes play a fun and purposeful role here as they give opportunities for children to move their bodies to the rhymes and at the same time, hear rollicking, rhythmical language. Reading is also involved; children see, say and hear the words simultaneously as I point to each word with a metre stick.

Rhythmical rhymes:
Jump, Teddy Bear, Tall as a House, Jack be Nimble

Starting the calendar wall¹

Back to work! The calendar wall takes shape from left to right – the same direction we read/write and the order in which we will do the calendar tasks:

* January chart at lower left corner (for children to touch/write on) 
* yesterday, today and tomorrow cards
* days of the week cards
* attendance chart
* 100 board
* 100 grid

The month chart is at the bottom left for L – R reading
and for children to reach and write on.

The January month chart is ruled up and labelled on large ‘poster’ card.

 ‘Yesterday, today and tomorrow’ cards are pinned/stapled to the board.
‘Blu-tac’ is used on the back of the day cards so they can be moved easily.

The attendance chart goes up next to the days of the week.
(Counting, adding and subtracting in a meaningful context).

The 100 number board goes up next.
It’s heavy and needs to be secured with strong hooks and string.
(Counting by ones, tens, fives and twos).

Great! I don’t have to do anything here.
The 100 grid is already painted on the hinged
blackboard in the corner of the calendar area.

Finally, months of the year chart, days of the week chart and number cards are stuck on the bottom half of the calendar wall, with blu-tac (see photo above).

In the first two weeks of school, a large chart of the children’s names and a schedule of days and times of specialists’ classes (music, computers, library and physical education) will be added to the calendar wall.

For the first 4-5 weeks I lead the class through the calendar tasks, then children take turns to complete the tasks as the ‘calendar person’:

* day, date, month, year
* counting children in attendance
* adding boys and girls
* subtracting absent children
* sequencing numbers for the number of days at school
* talking of days and times in sessions with specialist teachers
* recording happenings like a child’s birthday, a class event and a school activity

¹ (Read more about the Calendar Wall in  Teaching Strategies for Literacy in the Early Years  ‘Dates with the Calendar’ Pg. 22).

Quiet reflections

Looking around the room I reflect on what has been accomplished today…

Cards and charts, constructed, collected and collated over the years (some by me, some by my teacher aides) are sorted.

Some cards are displayed. Others, like alphabet cards and sight words, are more relevant and meaningful when the class is involved in placing them on walls and wires over the next few weeks, as we build literacy and numeracy displays together.

Almost completing the calendar wall is a relief – it’s a big job and it has to be ready for the first day with children.

Two more days to complete finishing touches before children arrive. But for now…it’s time to go home!

Coming next: Starting School Series, Part 3: Gathering hands-on materials and books


Starting School Series, Part 1: Organising the physical environment

Excited and a wee bit apprehensive. A new school year. A new bunch of kids.  An adventure. Take the short-cut between the demountables.  What state will my room be in? Things are always moved for holiday cleaning! I’ve set aside four days to organise my room and prepare materials for the arrival of the children. Time to think, plan, experiment and create.

Four days to go: physical environment

The physical environment of a classroom reveals what a teacher believes about how children learn.

Walk up two flights of stairs to my room.

Put down my bag, insert the key and open the door. What will I see?

It’s quiet and dark.

Turn on the lights. Look around the room. Can’t miss the big pile of furniture – small tables, chairs, shelves – off to one side. Folding doors that separate the two classrooms are open. The fishnet ‘word wall’ that stretches across the doors is intact. Wonderful!
Most of the room is clear – a clean slate on which to design our learning environment. Perfect! Can’t wait to start moving things.
But first…

Where to start?

1. List the class ‘areas’ we need: 

mat area for the whole class
reading, library, bookshelves
calendar wall
word wall(s)
computers and printer
art /wet area

wooden blocks
construction materials
home corner/drama
morning message board
display areas
children’s storage (backpack/hats/lunches)

2. List the stationary items – things that can’t be moved:

whiteboard (a major part of class mat area)
IWB /data projector and screen
shelves/hooks (for children’s backpacks/hats)
refrigerator (for children’s lunches)

electrical outlets
computer connectors (computer area)
sink/counter/wet area (art area)
display boards on walls
built in cupboards
folding doors (word wall)

When I start the year in a new classroom I make a rough sketch and label possible class areas. But it’s my third year in this room and the sketch is in my head! One year I did a ‘proper’ plan of the classroom for my Doctoral Thesis in 2004 – not to scale!

Doctoral Thesis Classroom Plan

Plan of a classroom physical environment.
Different room. Different stationary items. Different layout.

Stationary items determine some class areas

1. Mat area and whiteboard
The mat area is what makes my classroom ‘tick’. The placement of the mat area is determined by the whiteboard (for shared writing, explicit teaching and teachable moments), the screen (for a ceiling-mounted data projector) and a large display board that becomes the calendar wall. Presto! Class mat area.

The mat area is essential for whole class sessions – BIG enough for children to gather together comfortably. BIG enough for children to sit, stand and stretch. BIG enough for class story time, small group ‘co-operative show and tell’ and class circle for reporting/sharing times. For ease of class sharing, the following items will be adjacent to the mat area:

  • calendar wall (for morning maths sessions)
  • big book stand (for shared reading)
  • pocket chart (for interactive reading)
  • audio and CD player (for music and interactive story books)
  • laptop (to use through the data projector onto the screen)

The mat area is the ‘hub’ of class gatherings
for shared literacy and learning practices.

2. Children’s backpacks/hats/lunches
That’s easy. Two long shelves for backpacks and hats are near the classroom entrance. The refrigerator stands against a nearby, out-of-the-way wall.

3. Computers
That’s easy. One printer and a bank of four computers are near electrical outlets and internet connectors – although wireless technology makes a difference now! Some older classrooms don’t have enough power outlets – for a laptop, data projector, fish tank, CD player, electric pencil sharpener, battery rechargers…  power boards may solve outlet problems but be aware of safety issues: no loose cords across the floor for children to trip over.

4. Art
Another easy one. My art area is a wet area with vinyl floor, sink and counter. I add a collage trolley, a painting easel and tables for playdough/clay and collage.

5. Display areas
Two wires are strung across the room about a metre below the ceiling. Wonderful! Peg up and display children’s work – paintings, drawings and writing. Display boards are on several walls for longer term displays.

6. Word wall
The fishnet word wall stretches in front of the folding doors – these will be closed before the classes arrive.

Things are going well. Six ‘areas’ are placed around the stationary items – things that cannot be changed. Now for the other class areas on my list…


Once again, dig into the pile of furniture to construct the remaining class areas. Be creative!

Lifting, dragging, pushingbit by bit the pile shrinks.
One at a time, pull out:
metal, triangular bookshelf  (library/reading area)
*large floor cushions (library/reading area)

*pink, plastic, play stove (home/drama area)
*big book stand/small white board (shared reading, near mat area)
*pocket chart (whiteboard ledge, near mat area)

*morning message board (reading, door entrance)
*block shelves (block area)
*maths materials and shelf
*construction materials: buckets and boxes of mobilo, lego, duplo, etc.

*children’s tables and chairs

The pink, plastic, play stove goes in the home/drama area

Reflection: bigger area or smaller area?
‘Can the block area be improved?’
Last year it never seemed big enough. Can’t find anywhere else to put the out-of-the-way defined space (roads and buildings are often left up over days and nights so the area cannot be in a class walkway). Make the block area bigger?
Make the maths-shelves area smaller?
Yes. That’s OK. Children don’t ‘work’ in the maths area – they take materials from the shelves and work at tables or on the floor.

Decide on the block area.
Do not want to move the ‘blocks’ shelf too many times!

Establishing remaining class areas
Block area done. Maths shelves done. Home corner done. Bookshelves and reading area done.
Mobilo, lego, constructions and puzzles – not yet done.

Brightly coloured covers on big cushions brighten the reading areas –
where children sit, read, rest and talk.

Place tables and chairs where children will ‘work’, putting tables together to make hexagonal tables or clusters of rectangular tables.

Children face each other to interact, discuss, co-operate  and
share – essentials in my beliefs about how children learn!

Finding a home for the last table
Finally… the pile of furniture has vanished! The last table finds a home in the science /discovery area. Improve the tatty table with a cream, cotton cloth. That’s better!

Stand back and survey
I’m happy. Six areas are established around stationary items. Five other areas fall into place:
bookshelves/cushions/reading area
hands on materials/maths area
science/discovery area
blocks area
home corner/drama area.
Construction materials, like lego, duplo and mobilo are still without a home. Maybe tomorrow?

Survey the scene.

The physical environment of the classroom is taking shape. Tomorrow, sort materials, put in their places and create the calendar wall for ‘real world’ maths.


Stop by the office. Pick up my class list. Check for familiar names – wonder if there are younger brothers or sisters of children in previous classes? Tomorrow, use the class list to make name charts, name cards and class book pages for the children’s first day. But now, put the list away. It’s time to go home.

Coming Next:
Starting School Series, Part 2: 
Sorting materials and making a calendar wall.


Talking Teaching

“Where have the holidays gone?”

“And where do I start?”

Although not full-time teaching any more, it’s still exciting for me to hear friends, parents and colleagues ‘talking teaching’ – to hear of their hopes, plans, ideas and concerns for beginning another school year.

In response to requests and encouragement from Early Years teachers, I will re-publish over the next 14 days, my Seven Part ‘Starting School Series’ of blogs for ‘old’ and new teachers of Prep, Year 1 and Year 2, in particular for Early Years teachers in Australia, who are busy preparing for their new school year.

I have revised and enhanced the series; clarifying, simplifying and reorganising each of the seven parts. A scanned photo from my Doctoral Thesis of the physical layout of a previous classroom, has been inserted in Part 1 of the series. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, all the photos have been edited and enlarged for easier viewing.

Here’s what you’ll find in the new Seven Part ‘Starting School Series’…

Part 1: Organising the physical environment

Part 2: Sorting materials and starting the calendar wall

Part 3: Gathering hands-on materials and books

Part 4: Finishing touches – in preparation for the first day

Part 5: Reading and writing on the first day: morning session

Part 6: Reading and writing on the first day: afternoon sessions

Part 7: How many ways did I read today? A child’s perspective

Copyright © More than Reading 2014

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