First Grade Essentials and What I Have Learned in my 15 Years as a First Grade Teacher

03 August 2015

I have taught first grade for the past 15 years...I think.  I am losing track of the years now!  Every year I change it up a bit and see what works for me and my students.  I embrace change!  I have made mistakes over the years; I am human.  I have had years where all the stars align and I think to myself, "I LOVE my job and I am making a difference."  That was me last was my favorite year teaching: nineteen students, a marriage proposal (from a student), lots of laughs, lots of love, lots of caring, and lots of learning.  Then you have years where you feel defeated, stressed, and ready to turn in the towel.  You have to look at the big picture and ask why do I feel this way.  Sometimes, you get students who you can't fix.   Sometimes there are psychological issues going on there that have yet to be diagnosed.  Or your class size is maxed out. You just have to do what you can and choose your own sanity.  Remember the good years and don't get defeated.  If I had turned in the towel, I would not have had experienced my amazing year last year.  Also, don't forget to take care of you:  have fun outside of work, exercise, eat well, say no, and laugh often.

Here are some things that worked for me:
Is your phonics program outdated?  Ours was!  My colleague, Janine Every, and I decided to revamp it.  We asked ourselves what phonics skills our students needed to decode grade level books.  Our old program introduced Magic E/Silent E way too late in the year.  Our WHOLE SCOPE and SEQUENCE is free.  Download it here for free! It includes our word lists.  We made print and go activities to go with these lists {not free, sorry}.  You can check it all out below:

 You can click any of the images to download our preview file.

To see is a bit more of what is included in the packet, you can go to this past post {here}.

Literacy Centers
Over the years, the focus of my literacy centers has changed.  In the beginning the centers were just whatever I could grab.  Then they followed a theme for the week that mirrored our Harcourt Reading Series.  So if the story was about fish, all my centers would be fish themed.  Then, as we did away with our reading series, I began to create centers around a phonic theme.  I was finding in hard to fit phonics instruction into my already jam-packed day and putting them in literacy centers was the solution.  I have to say, this was one of the best things I ever did.  The students loved the centers and they were learning at the same time.  I kept my activities consistent to save on instructional time and just changed the phonics skill.  I always include a recording sheet to hold the students accountable for their work. 

Here is a sample image from my Magic e Center Packet:
You can get a bundled version of my phonics based literacy centers {here}.

If you are interested in seeing how I run literacy centers, check out this packet:

For reading I follow a balanced literacy approach.  I pull groups for guided reading during centers.  I am working on updating my Guided Reading Packet.  My students have book baggies for DEAR time and at home reading.  Included in their book baggies are five books on their independent reading level, a word ring with their Words of the Week, a reading comprehension ring, and a reading strategies bookmark.  I have recently updated my Reading Comprehension Cueing Cards with cuter graphics and higher level thinking questions.  

This is what a typical book baggie looks like:

These are freebie in my friend, Janine Every's store about what Fountas and Pinnell levels the students are expected to be on:

Here is a freebie from my store, that I use at the beginning of the year:

My Discrete Trials Kit is great for those one or two students who cannot retain sight words.  I just started this with a student last year and the results were amazing!

The reading strategy posters above were made by sending a png image to Costco photo department.  The png's are included in this packet.

I just started using interactive notebooks last school year.  I LOVE them and so do my students.

I found this idea on Pinterest, I am not sure where the original pin is...but whoever thought of this...genius!  You tape a ribbon in the back of the book and then flip it over and the kids use it as a bookmark.  No more opening their notebooks to the middle of the book or searching for the next page.

I love these interactive reading notebook resources by my friend, the ever talented, Deanna Jump:
And these Guiding Readers packets by Deanna Jump and the amazing, Deedee Wills.

I am looking forward to using this new packet by Deanna and Deedee this year:

If you are new to guided reading, I say ease in.  Don't feel like you have to do it all.  I have been doing guided reading for years and was ready to change it up a bit.  I added interactive reading notebooks for my top students for guided reading.  This coming school year, I plan to use interactive reading notebooks as a whole class and also have them also use them for guided reading.  I will have to vary my level of support and expectations based on the level of the guided reading group.  I also don't expect to get to interactive notebooks every time I pull a guided reading group.  I like my guided reading groups to only last for 25 minutes or less.  

Math has just been one of those subjects that I don't get much choice over.  We are a Common Core state and our state has its own FREE curriculum, Engage NY.  Don't get too excited, it is written in Comic Sans font, has poor graphics, is extremely confusing, does not have enough physical space for little learners to use, and the parents HATE it.  I have to say that I am getting used to it and I am impressed with what first graders can do, given the push.  I have some free resources and links in this {POST}.

Since, there is not much FUN in the Engage NY program, I supplement my math instruction with Math Centers like these:


I love to add a little art into graphing with these Graphtivities, which are awesome and easy hallway displays.  I have bundled all mine at a deep discount!  I still have three more to add to it and will be updating the bundle soon!
Here is what is included in the bundle:
Beginning of the Year Graphtivity {Coming Soon this week}
Gingerbread Graphtivity
End of the Year Graphtivity {Coming Soon}

I have just been pulling from here and there for Grammar over the years.  I love anything by Lindsey Erickson.

My colleague Janine, also made these packets which I am anxious to try out:

I have had a lot of fun with science over the past few years.  I always start a new science unit with a Schema Chart.  The students love these!  We fill out the "What We Know" part and "Our Wonderings" first.  Then we move our post-its or add more as we learn.  I am so proud when a student comes up and informs me we have to move a post-it. 

This past year, was the year I tried my hand at science notebooks.  By the middle of the school year, I was creating my own. You can click the images for the sources/posts or click {here}.

If you are looking for a great resource to get you started on science notebooks or something to add to your collection, I highly recommend Cheryl Saoud's packets:

Social Studies is a bit harder to fit in and find age appropriate content.  What I do is focus on the holidays and classroom community type activities.   You can click the images to check out the packets.



I have a Writing Resource Unit that I use in conjunction with the following packets.


These packets by Deanna Jump and Deedee Wills have really helped me stay focused and committed to teaching writing in my classroom.  They are also written in a way that a sub can even follow!  These ladies did a thorough job.  

There has to be some fun in school!  One of my favorite FREE sites is GoNoodle.  You can read more about GoNoodle {HERE}

This next one is a ton of work on my part, but the parents and students LOVE it: Student Scrapbooks!
You can read more about my Student Scrapbooks {HERE}.

I like to give homework directions on Monday in my classroom news.  I include a math activity for each day and spelling/words of the week activity from my Spelling Homework Menu Packet.

Now, here is where I tell you about one of my BIG mistakes.  It took me a while to realize the behavior system I was using was not working for me.   I was using a "Warning Board System"  pictured below.
Here is why it did not work:
1.  There was no going back from a "Warning."  Students who were on the board were on the board.  This would lead some students to a defeated attitude.  Though, I always stressed that "Warnings" were not a big deal and that they just meant "don't do that again."  
2.  Parents thought "Warnings" were a big deal and then the students got upset about getting a "Warning."   Parents would write notes asking why their child got a warning.  Often it was hard for me to remember the next day.  To me it was just a warning.  All of this made me reluctant to give out "Warnings."  
3.  I had to send a student to the Principal's office if he/she had their card moved five times in a day.  What if the principal was out?  Or the principal did not care?  

How it did work:
1.  Students were conscious of their behavior.
2.  I could easily keep track of how many times a student misbehaved during the day. 

The end result...I gave up on the system.

What I do now:
I LOVE Classroom Dojo and so do the parents and students.  I am able to customize positive and negative behaviors on the app.  I can use the app on my phone or the computer.  Parents have access to their child's behavior with a specific code for their individual child only. Students can work their way out of a negative by earning a positive behavior point.  It is fun, cute, and easy to use!  You can read more about it {here} in this older blog post.  I have no clue how the company makes money off this FREE site, but I do hope it stays FREE.   

I have my classroom plans for free here on my blog.  You can just click the "Visual Plans" tab to the right of this post.  You can also check out the plan book I use below. 

Don't forget to check out my store:

Thanks for reading this post!  If you have any questions for me, please leave them in the comments.  I can always add to this post. 


  1. Loved everything about this post!! I've never seen a schema board like that before, and it is amazing- I'm going to make one ASAP!


  2. Great blog post Erica!! I enjoyed reading it!!

  3. Wow! This is such a great post! I enjoyed reading every word!!! Isn't it amazing how fast time flies? I'm blessed to call you a friend!

  4. Thank you for this post! Thank you for the Scope and Sequence! As a first year teacher, I was stressing about where to start and this will really help me get started on the right track!! Thank you, thank you! I really appreciate all your recommendations and ideas! Love your work, keep at it! I will be following!

  5. Awesome post. I'll definitely be perusing your store again soon. I do have a question: my school just adopted eureka math(engage ny), I am trying to figure out how best to incorporate centers. If you have any advice that would be awesome! You can email me at

    1. Rachel, I just do the centers once a week right now. I take a day off from the Engage NY math to do them. I think it really helps the students and they enjoy it.


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