Teaching the Early Grades

Teaching the Early Grades

by Aaron Counts

Recently, I made the move from teaching writing to the seasoned veterans of high school for a group of third-grade classes in North Seattle. I can admit now that even after a long career working in high school re-entry programs and correctional facilities, the thought of facing down a gang of 8-year-olds had me a little shook. What kid-friendly poems do I have in my arsenal? How can I get at those higher-level ideas that I was used to discussing in classes with students twice the age of these not-quite-tweens? In building day-one lesson on the elusive definition of poetry, I called back to the words of the sage and legendary rapper, KRS-One. “Poetry is the language of imagination.” I had found my guiding principle.

In the era of high-stakes testing and curriculum aligned to national standards, there is an increasingly-small window in which students are free to exercise their imagination. Writing can be fun, and learning about writing can (and should) be fun, too. No matter how sharp a lesson we plan, and whatever great mentor texts we bring in to instruct and inspire students, one of the most important is making it something our students can look forward to. And like most things, we can get more excited about participating when we’re doing so in a relaxed, supportive environment. In that realization, it makes sense to me that the work of a teaching artist is much about building a community around words and imagination.

Before we even met, I set about to get to know this new group of students. I came early on my first day and scoured the schoolwork hanging in the hallways outside their classrooms for examples of their own writing. I saw essays about the life of groundhogs, plot summaries from book reports, and captioned drawings of the number 100 (from the 100th day of school art project). From those I pulled examples of sensory details, onomatopoeia and strong imagery—things like the grizzly fur of the groundhog, or the 100-shaped robot that smelled like marshmallows. But more importantly, I got to call the names of students I’d never met and use their writing as our first mentor texts. In the first minutes of our workshop series, we’re already building that community.

Not to be forgotten, though, is the students desire to connect with you, the teaching artist. To many of them, our visits to their classroom are still be a big deal. This is evidenced by how many questions they have about our lives and our writing, how high their hands shoot in the air when we’re looking for volunteers to read, or how they crowd around the stack of publications, looking for our pictures on the back of book jackets. They want to know as much about us as we’re willing to share.

Take for example, Larissa (not her real name) asked almost every day if she could touch my head. “I’d rather you didn’t,” I said. Then added, “but you can write about it.” There is a writing lesson in there, right? Well, there is for at least one poem, which included exactly what intrigued her about my shaved head:

I wonder.

it squishy?

Is it smooth?


In another class, I read a poem, called “Grind” that I had written for younger audiences, sort of an ode to skateboarding. Before I read, Pablo (again, a pseudonym) explained to the class in detail all the types of grinding tricks one can execute on a skateboard. Afterwards, he asked for a copy of the poem. The next day I walked into class with a freshly printed copy of the poem, with a new epigraph “for Pablo” under the title. Before I left for the day, he made a point to walk me to the door. “Mr. Aaron, thank you for bringing that poem for me. I really like it.”

But the best reminder of how younger students view our class visits comes from Christopher, who asks every day to read “The Jail Book”—his name for my non-fiction publication Reclaiming Black Manhood. He calls it that since I told them the bulk of the work in that book was conceived in a weekly class I taught at King County Jail. The book, despite its subject and title, had captured his interest. But one day, he decided he needed my autograph as well. The conversation went like this:

“Can you sign this for me?”

“Sure, but it isn’t valuable. I promise”.

“Well, can you like misspell something on purpose, that way it will be worth more.”

“Um, sure.”

“And write, ‘To my biggest fan’, but remember to make some kind of mistake.”

So I wrote, ‘Two my biggest fan’ and signed my name. In reply, I got a whispered “Yes!” and a small fist pump.


So despite my trepidations of working with early grades, I’m having a blast. The writing is fun, everyone wants to share what they’re working on, and I don’t have to compete with cell phones for attention. In fact, teaching young kids is a great reminder of what it means to be a writer. To put it the most simply, our job is Imagining, and imagination is as real as it gets.




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