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How I Teach: Why one Memphis teacher can’t teach her first-graders without wooden blocks

Katie Kaplan's show off their Spielgaben creations.
Katie Kaplan's show off their Spielgaben creations.
Caroline Bauman

Katie Kaplan knows firsthand how much energy first-graders have.

“It’s hard to imagine asking these kids to sit still at a desk for most of the day,” Kaplan said, motioning to the first-grade students behind her. They’re crawling around on a spacious carpet, creating shapes out of wooden blocks from a toy kit called Spielgaben.

To most, this would look like play time. But it’s actually Kaplan’s favorite lesson of the day, and a regular part of her classroom activities.

Originally from North Carolina, Kaplan moved to Memphis for Teach For America before joining Memphis Delta Prep, a new charter school in south Memphis. The school made home visits a key part of its teacher training before opening its doors this fall.

Chalkbeat sat down with Kaplan to learn more about how she makes hands-on learning work. (Her comments have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.)

What’s your morning routine like?

When my students come into the classroom every morning, the first thing I like to do is give them a choice. They can tell me they either want a handshake, a high five, or a hug. That gives me a feel for how they are doing that morning; where they are coming from. I can tell pretty quickly who is having a good morning and who I’ll need to pay a little more attention to.

We go through a morning meeting where we talk about things like what day of the week it is and the weather. We go through a few literacy rotations [where she reads out loud to her class or has her students read to one another], and then it’s time for Spielgaben.

Tell me about Spielgaben. Why is it your favorite teaching tool?

It’s definitely my kids’ favorite part of the day. They get so excited about what they can can make. It’s been amazing to see the impact hands-on learning can have on first-graders. You can integrate it into every lesson — from literacy to math.

Students talk about different ways to create shapes of numbers.
Students talk about different ways to create shapes of numbers.
Caroline Bauman

Run us through a typical lesson you would create with Spielgaben.

I start every lesson with a challenge. For example, the other day I told the class we were just going to use blue shapes. Today, I told them that we were going to make a number out of the blocks and shapes. From there, I try not to give too much direction. The point is for them to be creative and problem solve.

The students also always work with a partner, and this really builds their communication skills. I’ll do several “turn and talks,” where they will stop building and turn to their partner to talk about what they have built so far and why. Oftentimes, the kids will want to argue about why what they built is better than someone else’s. This is a great opportunity to start to teach them that their opinion matters, but they need to learn how to disagree without hurting someone else.

Besides Spielgaben, what can’t you teach without?

I have a huge heart for reading. It sounds cheesy, but I can’t imagine teaching without my chapter books. I love reading to my students, and they love reading to me. “Reading is power” is a line I say almost daily.

We’ve read five Junie B. Jones chapter books since we started school. I make that into a huge deal, so they feel empowered and excited. If I’m crazy excited about reading, the hope is that they will be, too. At the end of the day I give them “choice time,” where students can choose to read, play, color. It’s amazing how many choose to play teacher and read to their peers. They mimic my movements and phrases. My words matter to them. To me, that’s so encouraging.

Memphis Delta Prep is a brand-new charter school. What’s your advice to teachers starting out at a new school?

You’ve got to keep an open mind. Founding a school is such hard, chaotic work. And there’s a lot of responsibility.

You and your fellow teachers are the school culture. That’s really exciting, but can be intimidating. So, collaborating with your colleagues on the kind of school you want to create is so important. And when a student shows you what he or she has created or asks to read to you, it’s all so worth it.

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