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Rachel Chamberlain

Taking First Graders From Zero to 60

BY LISA CANNON

“Some of [my students] would be here seven days a week if they could.”

First-grade teacher Rachel Chamberlain doesn’t strike us as a braggart. But early in our conversation, she says, “The range of materials we use in a year is vast. We start here and end here. So, my closet is full with no extra space.” First graders make so much progress, so quickly, and many different types of learning materials are needed along the way. After pausing to reflect on what a cool metaphor that is, she continues: “We go from zero to sixty so fast. At the beginning, some kids say, ‘I can’t read,’ or ‘I don’t like to read,’ but by the end, they see reading time as a reward.”

Imagining the excitement of a room full of boisterous young students learning everything for the first time, we think, out loud, “Can you imagine what kind of world we’d have if people continued to learn at the pace you learn in first grade throughout their lives?”

Rachel laughs, a wonderful full laugh, and notes that they really do love learning. “Some of them would be here seven days a week if they could,” she says. We wonder why that spark dims for many students as they grow older and ask, tentatively, if she thinks we—adults, society—dampen their spirit. She suggests that there are just so many seeds being planted, and it’s natural that some will germinate more than others as children mature.

In her 33 years of teaching, Ms. Chamberlain has taught a lot of folks in Waverly. She often runs into her former students, who will say that they had her for first or second grade, or that their parents did. She has yet to have anyone say, “You taught my Grandma.” When that happens, she jokes, well, “That’s not going to happen!” She does, however, really enjoy being able to follow students and families over the years. Students who have a good experience at Waverly, or whatever school they attend, are more likely to want to continue to engage in education and sometimes that leads them back through their school doors again. She and Melissa Saxter, the other first-grade teacher, currently share assistance from Emma, a student teacher who is a Waverly alumnus.

Ms. Chamberlain’s contributions to Waverly are many and include a major role in helping to develop and update the curriculum (that was the subject of a previous interview with her and Matt Jokisch in one of our previous issues). It’s great to see how the school draws on her knowledge to institutionalize her experience and best practices for other teachers and students down the road. First grade is such a foundational year—it’s important that the “concrete gets mixed right.”

We note how challenging it must be to teach students entering school from such a wide range of backgrounds, families, and situations. Some children may arrive already reading, while others are still working on cracking the alphabet. And yet, almost all leave her classroom able to read—one of the most important educational building blocks.

Rachel has watched education up close for some three decades. We wondered what has changed the most during that time. Without hesitation, she says, “Technology.” She maps the progression from a time when classrooms had no computers to now when her first graders all have their own Chromebooks and often show her how to do new things on them. They use Google Classroom and Seesaw in their lessons.

How has that impacted their attention spans? Ms. Chamberlain notes that screen time is definitely a factor, but again, they are so interested in everything it is relatively easy to get them to engage with new material.

We also discuss the ongoing value of working with paper and pen, concrete things that can be touched and hung on a refrigerator. Rachel also notes how important experiential learning is. She cites an example of having a beekeeper come to the classroom and show the kids what a live hive looks like (encased we presume!) and how to find the Queen Bee. That really wowed the kids.

While Ms. Chamberlain doesn’t seem to be slowing down in the least, she is technically eligible for retirement soon. We asked her about her plans for retirement. Gardening and travel are her big interests. She wants to go to Greece, and to revisit some of the places she has been to before because it can be such a different experience to go back to a place ten or twenty years later. Noting a recent visit to New York City, she was struck by how everyone walked around with their faces glued to their phones. They didn’t even have cell phones the last time she visited! Rachel continues that she loves to bring what she learns from travel back into the classroom and share it with her students.

Somehow, we imagine that in one way or another, Ms. Chamberlain will stay connected to Waverly, its students, and the community for many years to come. And we will all be better for it.

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