CLASSROOM OF THE WEEK | 'Hocus pocus, everybody focus!' Lee 1st-graders find structure, support in Lori Curtin's class

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Jenn Smith — The Berkshire Eagle
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LEE — When first-grade teacher Lori Curtin checks in with her students at Lee Elementary School, she does so to better understand how to meet their needs.

Using a chart displayed with facial expressions ranging from a smiling, happy face (a "1") to a grimace of distress (a "5"), students are equipped with a simple language to explain how they're feeling. "A kid might be a 1, because they had a good breakfast that day, or because their friend said something nice to them. But they might be a five because there's some separation in their family and they might miss their brother or sister," Curtin explained.

Students can also leave her notes to share their feelings and let her know what's happening. Curtin strives to respond with empathy.

"It may not be popular to say, but sometimes academics have to be secondary," she said. "But if students are feeling safe and supported, they're going to work harder because they feel comfortable. They can focus on other things versus trying to internalize what's happening in their lives."

On Thursday morning, after Wednesday's snow day, Curtin led a class that combined her 16 students with half of a colleague's class, due to activities and scheduling. Supporting her was reading specialist Mia Darone. The teaching team helped students transition between subjects by offering them a "brain break," during which they all gathered in the center of the classroom on a colorful carpet, and danced along to a song that instructed them to show off different dance moves.

"I like to do these. It's something to get us going," first-grader Leah Face said.

As soon as the music stopped, the students instinctively, quietly and orderly, returned to their seats; at their desks, students are offered different seating options, from standard chairs to yoga balls and flexible stools.

Once seated, Curtin called out, "Hands on top," to which the students responded by placing a hand on their heads, looking at their teacher and replying "everybody stop!"

The catchy rhyme is a fun way to get students' attention and prepare them to hear directions for class activities. Other alternative calls and responses include "macaroni and cheese / everybody freeze" and "hocus pocus / everybody focus."

Principal Kate Retzel said Curtin best helps her students succeed by creating "a great learning environment" where mindfulness is practiced and Curtin strives to be an expert at teaching the core subjects of math and English language arts in different ways to accommodate various students' learning needs.

"In the classroom Lori motivates her students in so many ways," writes parent Jen Carlino, who nominated Curtin's group as a "Classroom of the Week." Carlino is also physical education leader for Lee Public Schools.

Carlino's daughter, Giana Carlino, a student in Curtin's class, says her favorite classroom incentive is the "marble jar." Students earn marbles for jobs well done, and literally watch their good deeds stack up. Once the jar is full, the class gets to choose an incentive to enjoy, like extra recess time or a movie day, or a dance party.

"It's fun and it makes us want to work harder," Giana said.

Jen Carlino says Curtin literally cheers on her students, and others in the school.

"When her class comes to PE, she stays for the first part of class, missing some of her prep period, to cheer her students on when they run their rising runners laps," Carlino said.

As of last month, "because of her support and motivation, the first grade is currently leading the school in total miles run, having run 569 miles so far this year, beating even the sixth grade," Carlino said.

Curtin's class seems cohesive. "They work well on being kind to one another and helpful to one another," the teacher said. "Most of them are very willing to participate and very inquisitive. They want to learn."

When Lisa Lesser, an educator from the Flying Cloud Institute visited the classroom on Thursday to lead a science lesson on understanding light, she was amazed by the response students had. "Look at all those raised hands," she exclaimed.

Emilia "Millie" Toombs said the best thing about her class is that she and the other students, "get to learn a lot of things we didn't know." She particularly likes a phonics and language-building program called Fundations.

Her classmate, Mason Lucy, said he's more a fan of recess, but he appreciates class, too. "It's fun and you have to do a lot of work, but the best part is that we have the best teacher," he said.

Carlino said Curtin's efforts to see students succeed goes beyond her own classroom. Curtin, a Lee Elementary alumna, organizes and runs the school's annual Veteran's Day assembly, Community Reader Day, Read Across America week, and a "screen-free" week to encourage students and staff to unplug and enjoy a world without being attached to electronic devices.

Curtin said that despite challenges in teaching and childhood development — which involves everything from teaching first graders how to compose data tables and essays to how to wash their hands and tie their shoes — she loves her job and to see her students shine.

She said, "At the beginning of the year, I set forth clear expectations and rules. I don't want to set up anyone to fail."


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