Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

On Distances: From Campus to First Grade and Back Again

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

On Distances: From Campus to First Grade and Back Again

Article excerpt

A yearlong return to a first-grade classroom had important implications for Ms. Fitzgerald's teaching at the college level. She shares her new insights here.

IT WAS the end of the third week of teaching first grade when a friend called to ask how things were going. "Wow, I'm exhausted and overwhelmed!" I responded. "You know how much I had planned and how much prep work I had done? It just wasn't enough. If I had spent a whole year preparing, that wouldn't have been enough. This is so different from how we talk about it back in our campus classrooms. There are light years between what happens day to day, moment to moment, and my expectations and grand theories of how this was supposed to work."

This article is about the distance between doing instruction in classrooms with children on a day-to-day basis and talking about it in college courses. Three years ago, I had the unusual opportunity of being reassigned from my position as a literacy professor to a one-year position as a full-time first-grade teacher. After having taught in a university for 16 years, I went over to the other side and became one of "them." It was a fantastic year; a difficult, anxious, stressful year; a year of trials, successes, failures, illness, fatigue, sadness, joy, and more. I discovered that the emotional and intellectual understandings bound up in my first-grade experience were far distant from the impassive theories and prior learnings I took to school with me. I have now given much thought to that distance - to what it is that contributes to it and how the gap might be closed.

Returning to Campus

Returning to campus after my year in an elementary school was tough. I was physically but not emotionally distanced from my first-graders and my life as a classroom teacher. I was here at the university, but I wanted to be there. "There" was home now, not this sterile, empty-halled, cold, bleak place. I felt displaced, and ironically I felt it intensely when I went into a room on the third floor of Peabody Hall twice each week to teach 21 undergraduate seniors about "Teaching Reading and Writing." I say this was ironic because this was the course that was closest to what I had just been doing for a whole year! I so wanted to share every detail of what had happened with various lessons, activities, and books - in short, everything that had to do with literacy in my first-grade classroom - and "Teaching Reading and Writing" was the best place to do that. I had taught this course many times before and always enjoyed it. This time I had been especially excited about returning to it. Yet by the end of the third week of classes, I wrote in my journal:

It's much harder than I anticipated. I'm really having trouble feeling like I belong here. . . . The preparations seem overwhelming. Am I ever "ready" enough? The actual teaching is draining. . . . I wonder how much of what I'm doing is really important. It's hard to gauge from the students' reactions whether what I'm doing with them strikes a chord or seems to "matter" to them. . . . Do I belong here? Will I make it through the year? Will I fit in? Will my work matter?

No doubt some of my dissatisfaction was related to my own need for connecting with others. I had connected with my first-graders and now was painfully separating from them. I wanted to know my college students and to have some sort of closeness with them. I had thought that sharing examples from my first-grade experience would create a space for personal connection. The students in the course were bright and eager, and they were nice to me. But try as I might, through the entire semester I never managed to close the emotional distance enough to satisfy me.

Talking about a shared reading lesson felt flat; doing it back in first grade had bubbled with energy. As we approached each new topic, I worried more and more that I just wasn't capturing enough of what teaching reading and writing really was. …

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