Classroom of the Week | Egremont Elementary first grade blazes path to discovery, from literature to decomposition

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PITTSFIELD — In Elaine Hunter's first-grade classroom, students are tackling big words and big concepts, from "differentiation" to "decomposition," without hesitation.

The teacher, who is new to the school this year but is a 17 year-veteran of the education field, said she introduced the former word to her students on the first day of school, along with an exercise in building trust. In education, differentiation is the practice of providing different students different pathways and different kinds of support in the same classroom in a way that best meets each individual student's needs. This approach recognizes that all students are not created equal and, therefore, teaching them should be done in a dynamic way.

The second word came up in class later in the fall, as part of a science experiment. The class carved a jack-o'-lantern, aka "Pumpkin Jack," then studied the rate and effects of decay of their pumpkin, keeping science journals of observations on the change of look, smell and, yes, even signs of developing mold.

They later planted the remains as another experiment: to see if the old pumpkin and its seeds can spawn a new one for next fall's first-grade class.

"Thank you to Ms. Hunter. She is awakening students minds so nicely and effectively," writes grandparent Judy Condron, who nominated Hunter and her students as a Classroom of the Week.

"My grandson, Vincent Greer, is always talking about her and the way she teaches or special things that he does [in class]," Condron said.

For example, the pumpkin trials in decomposition continue. The class has since hollowed out another, and filled it with lunchroom debris, from empty milk cartons to plastic spoons to leftover raisins, among other things. They will let these things sit inside the pumpkin and open it after a period of time to see how quickly these items decompose, if at all.

"We just have to keep raising the bar for these kids," Hunter said. "At this age, they are so eager and ready to learn and truly absorb things like sponges."

Hunter said she is pleased to have a principal, Jared Materas, who invites Egremont Elementary teachers to be creative in how they meet their curricular requirements. She also credits her fellow first-grade teachers, who meet on a weekly basis, to discuss student needs and ways to address them through differentiation.

"I'm part of an incredible team, a supportive team that goes above and beyond. I started here on the second day of school, and the other teachers all helped me to set up my classroom," Hunter said.

Condron said that readiness to teach and for students to learn is transparent. She noted how Hunter wears a "utility belt" every day, stocked with items that the students might need. The pockets of Hunter's apron are filled with everything from markers to highlight work to bandages for boo-boos and Kleenex for runny noses.

"I don't want them to leave what I'm doing, because we have so much to do," Hunter explained. Having the items students regularly ask for at her side reduces the time it takes them to walk to another desk or the nurse's office.

The classroom is constantly in motion, guided with the help of Hunter and special education paraprofessional Melinda Lucier, also in her first year in the class. Desks are arranged in small groups, which allow for teamwork. In lieu of a desk, Hunter has a "teacher table," which can accommodate about a half-dozen students at a time for more directed learning.

During a recent literacy hour, while Hunter taught phonics and onomatopoeia to one group, other students worked independently at audio-visual stations run on Chromebooks; simultaneously, some pairs of students sat side by side, taking turns reading to one another, while other small groups sat together but worked independently on a vocabulary worksheet.

Condron said the the varied ways of learning to read, write and recite are translating to her grandson, who, she says, is "reading like a trouper and loves to go to school each day."

The grandmother, who often picks him up after school, said that the boy regularly talks about the teacher and activities in class. By the end of the year, Greer and his classmates will have a lot to show, from science journals to binders of "guided drawing" activities, to writing and math samples and other projects.

In addition to the Reading Street Literacy Program they use, Hunter has been teaching the works of author and illustrator Jan Brett, who keeps a summer home in the Berkshires, and classic folk and fairy tales, which many of her students have yet to be exposed to. Recently, the kids wrote four paragraphs comparing and contrasting the three bears in "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" and those in Brett's tale, "The Three Snow Bears."

Hunter said that while a lot of her students face challenges in their lives and learning abilities, they never seem daunted by the activities she poses to them.

"These kids are amazing," she said.


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