Focus on friendship

Dear Toad,

I am glad you are my best friend.

Your best friend,

Frog.

—Arnold Lobel

First grade can be a big year for students. In addition to laying foundations for academic learning, it’s a time for children to develop socially and get to know what it means to be part of a community. With this in mind, first-grade teachers Orlando Torres and Carin Peacock are leading their class in exploring feelings and friendship as a key part of their curriculum. 

“Beginning our work with a focus on empathy was critical to setting the tone for the remainder of the school year,” Mr. Torres says. So, he started his first graders off with a fall field trip to see A Year with Frog and Toad, based on the books by Arnold Lobel, at the Chicago Children’s Theatre. The musical’s theme of friendship served as an entry point into the class’s focus on socio-emotional learning. Since then, the students have embarked on a variety of exercises highlighting the role of words, body language, and facial expressions in identifying and expressing feelings.

Through these lessons, which the instructors planned with assistance from Kate Surmeier, a counselor for grades N–2, the children have been learning to express their own feelings to others, as well as to intuit the emotions and needs of their peers, families, and community members. Mr. Torres says the value of these skills extends far beyond the classroom: “When our students learn, at a young age, the value of healthy coping skills and the value of being there to help another person, it’s not only our classroom that wins, but our society.” 

Thus far, this focus on feelings and friendship has had a positive impact on classroom dynamics. “We now have students who have improved their ability to self-regulate and have strengthened our sense of community by reaching out a helping hand without a teacher asking,” Mr. Torres says. “This is what the Lab community is all about: seeing the true value of an individual and his/her sense of self-worth.” 

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