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First-grade teacher Katie Aboudou says her class is a good bunch of kids. "They like to take care of each other."

Maybe that's why the first thing her students do when they arrive is ask how they can help the class. They'll put away chairs, move boxes, sharpen pencils. Then it's time for morning choice—a calm period when students choose to read, draw, write or maybe make a paper airplane or two. When choice time is up, everyone sits around the edge of the rug. Aboudou draws a name from the cup of popsicle sticks and the chosen student picks the day's greeting—high fives, hugs, a secret handshake, hello in different languages.

Every day has a morning message, too. Tuesday, for example, is tally Tuesday, where the class votes to make a decision about something—like whether they prefer hearing over seeing—and discusses their choice. "My class is really good at debate and discussion in a polite way," Aboudou says. "I think it's partially responsible to tally Tuesday where we agree to disagree about small things because of how wonderful it is that we’re all so different. We’re all very different people in this class but for the most part we really get along because it’s better that way."

Learning through choice

During the day, activities vary from independent work to partner and group work. Choice is a constant, however, and extends beyond morning choice time, including those teaching moments about not always getting what you want.

For example, when it's their day of the week to go 'shopping,' students visit the classroom library and fill their book bags with independent reading on their level. This week, students also signed up for their science projects to create different plays, songs, stories and objects to teach about light and sounds.

"All of the centers in math right now deal with place value in the same way but it looks and feels a little different," Aboudou says. "Kids feel this sense of ‘I’m choosing to go to this station because I really enjoy the bean counting activity’ but they’re still getting just as much place value work as kids at another station who are estimating how many snaps they can fit on a shoe puzzle."

Room to grow

With a classroom of 19, Aboudou tries to let her students be kids. "We don’t have silent transitions. We do have quiet times in the day," she says. "If there’s extra time, we’ll have a dance break. Whenever we’re cleaning up, I’ll play music."

Letting her students be kids also means giving them enough room to grow. "I try to let them solve their own problems. Some people are really good at tattling, for instance. I try to encourage, especially those people, to think about what they can say or do or how maybe their choices impacted that person to react that way. They’re 7. They have the power to solve their own problems."

Aboudou also leads by example and explains that adults are learning, too. "If I feel like I’ve lost my cool or if I’ve been overly strict and I recognize that, I apologize as I would expect any of them to apologize to their friends," she says. "I try to make it really clear that I'm working on things. We all have things we're working on."

Success through togetherness

Thanks to her small class size, Aboudou can keep better track of her students' progress. "I have a two-week conference schedule. I can see each of them and see how they're doing and progressing every other week," she says.

During independent reading, students find a spot where they feel comfortable and read for up to about 35 minutes. This gives Aboudou a chance to work one-on-one with students. Reading time is also when Aboudou's theatre background shines.

Having originally moved to New Orleans to work in film with her theatre degree, Aboudou changed her focus to teaching. “I did film for about three years. It was just not the same as theatre—working together, scrapping what you can to get the final finished product. Film was very different from that. It didn’t feel cooperative.”

Step into Aboudou’s room and you’ll feel a cooperative spirit. Although the final finished product isn’t a play, she’s setting the stage for her students to land their dream roles.

LAGNIAPPE Q&A

What attracted you to Bricolage?

I knew it was going to be a diverse school. That was and is a huge draw for me. I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area going to schools filled with everyone on an international level. I think that from a mix of people, great ideas are born.

What's the best thing about your job?

I really like the people I work with. I really like that I get to work with kids. I just feel lucky. If I come in and I’m not a great mood for some reason, I could sit down next to anyone and ask them to tell me about what they had for dinner and it’ll be a great story. It’s a good place to be with good people—adults and kids alike. 

How would your students describe you?

They’d probably say I have funny hair and that I really like first-time listeners—people who listen the first time, hear that direction and go for it. One might say I’m cuckoo. One might say I misplace things a lot. I wonder how they would describe me. I don’t know. I feel like you should ask them. I would love to know (laughing).

What are you excited about for the upcoming school year in a new building?

Space. I’m looking forward to having a PE room and having an art room. Right now the art teacher has to go from class to class. I think they’ll have such a fuller experience. The classroom will be the classroom. The lunch room will be the lunch room. It won’t sometimes be a play room. I think there will be clearer boundaries and it will make everything easier, even mentally, for them. I think space is going to make the biggest difference. We’ve got a lot going on. And more faculty too. That'll be cool. We’ll grow one whole grade level.

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