Every year I begin the year by reading Hellen Keller's biography to my students. Her story is about overcoming adversity. It was not her fault that she lost her abilities to both see and hear. It was not her fault that she could not talk. This book is a springboard for teaching tolerance. Over the next month the class and I have several deep discussions about how it is important treat others the way we want to be treated. We talk about how we do not know what other life experiences have shaped the other person. We discuss how our experiences change us and how to reach out to others. We learn to stand up for other people and how to handle bullies. We also learn that there are NO EXCUSES why we cannot learn. If Hellen Keller can learn to talk without being able to hear and learn to read without being able to see, there is absolutely no excuse why you cannot learn to read. We discuss how everyone learns at his or her own pace it may just take some people a little longer and that's okay. The key is to never give up and to surround yourself by people who care about you.
As you can see, this book is a springboard for deep conversations (even amongst first graders). The key is to check frequently for understanding and present examples that the children can relate to. I tell my class we are a class family for the year so we need to learn how to get along. Everyday we work towards that goal. Everyday there is a mini lesson in tolerance or conflict resolution. Everyday I refer back to Hellen Keller.
I also like to teach the children the alphabet in sign language. This is an amazing transitional tool. When we are standing in line to go to lunch or we have to wait patiently for an extended period of time, we practice the alphabet silently in sign language. Once everyone knows all the signs, we practice spelling each others' names, high frequency words, and words we see around the school. In the classroom, the children can practice signing their spelling words or words posted around the room when they finish their work early. At the beginning of the year, I have a poster with a picture of the signs at the front of the room. When the children come to circle time, they practice quietly. This is a great activity for the kinesthetic learner. You would be amazed at how engaged the children become in this activity.
Click on the book image to link up to amazon.com, if you want to read more about this book. They have it set up where you can look inside the book and read some of the pages. I really feel it is a powerful teaching tool. It is worth finding time to squeeze it in to your schedule. I usually read an excerpt before lunch, recess, or the end of the day. The conversations we have are short but frequent. They get deeper over time as the children build understanding.
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