School doors open for first day

1st-day 1st-graders learn lessons good for politicos and others

Posted: Wednesday, August 28, 2002

At first there doesn't seem to be much connection between the politicians who ended their primary races Tuesday and the Juneau first-graders who started school today, strapped to over-sized backpacks, and who left the shelter of their parents' embraces to sit in a "family group" at Gastineau Elementary.

But what children at Gastineau learn about citizenship on the first morning of school might be good advice for legislators who have been slugging it out over taxes and values in the primary election, the incumbents who have so far failed to build consensus around a fiscal plan, and, for that matter, any adult who can't get along with others, according to Paige Merriam, a first-grade teacher room at Gastineau.

"I like to think of the classroom as a microcosm of the whole, big, wide world - you have small space that you have to share with others, and there are always difficult people," said Merriam. "The first day is really about building community and learning rules and boundaries."

Her students were among about 5,400 local public school students who returned to school today.

Merriam spent Tuesday evening preparing her classroom to reflect the social skills she wants to impart to her students. A banner that reads "Attitude's a little thing that makes a big difference" hangs on the wall. As with the legislative seating chart, where people sit in first grade is very important. Unlike the isolated desks on the floor at the Capitol, however, students in the primary room are seated at circular tables, Merriam said.

"We do it to promote collaboration," Merriam said.

At 9 a.m. students and parents flooded in the doorway of the classroom shared by Merriam and her team-teaching partner Dirk Miller. Mother Liz Landen, holding a camera, sang a few nostalgic bars of "Sunrise, Sunset." Her daughter and oldest child, Sarah, clung shyly to her hand. Landen went through baby pictures the night before, which made her a little emotional this morning.

"It's the neurotic, Jewish mother in me," Landen said, encouraging her daughter to "say hello" to an acquaintance from kindergarten who was standing coyly nearby in a pair of sparkly jeans.

Soon, all the students donned name-tags that hung around their necks with bright yarn, and took their seats, cross-legged, under a dry-erase board at the front of the room. Miller, also wearing an over-sized paper and yarn name tag, stood ministerially before the congregation of wiggly 6- and 7-year-olds, and began the day's first lesson. The subject was what he called "tribe agreements," or the rules for working in a group, and by extension, living in the "whole, big, wide world."

"Who remembers some things that are important for tribes?" Miller asked.

Tiny hands shot up. A few girls chatting in the back of the group looked over their shoulders.

"Mu-tu-al respect," a boy in an over-sized T-shirt chirped.

"Doing your best work, even if you might mess up," chimed a girl.

"And, attentive listening. Attentive listening is when you focus on the speaker and your hands are to yourself," Miller said, giving a deliberate glance at a young man who waved a ruler like a sword at his neighbor. Meeting Miller's eye, the small swordsman let his poised weapon wilt to his side.

"We treat the other people in our tribe with respect. We have these rules because a tribe that can work together, learns together, like a family," Miller said.

Soon Miller and Merriam sent the children to their tables, where the students, seated in miniature chairs, shared a set of markers from communal construction paper-covered soup cans, and made colored diagrams of the tribe rules.

"Imagine if every adult could learn these things," Merriam said. "That is why teaching feels to me like the most important job in the world."

Julia O'Malley can be reached at

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