Sometimes getting into the best colleges starts with six bottles of glue, seventy-four popsicle sticks, and two extremely invested teachers.

“The first grade teaching team exudes passion, commitment and enthusiasm for teaching and learning.  My child is known, accepted, understood, guided, and nurtured each day.  I am continuously impressed by the richness of the curriculum and the depth of meaning embedded in each lesson.  My child is being challenged and supported.  He is learning and having so much fun each day.  We couldn’t hope for more.”—Parent, First Grade 

With two lead teachers, there are two sets of eyes on each child throughout the day. What one teacher might not notice, the other will. We constantly check in with one another and say things like, ‘I noticed this about Student A. Will you observe her to check for the same thing?’ This collaborative care truly sets GUS apart from other settings. Together, as a team, we see the whole child.” —Marnie Potish, First Grade Co-teacher

“When I came to GUS in first grade, I wasn’t sure if I would fit in or what people would think of me, but as soon as I stepped into the classroom, I knew I was in the right place.”—GUS student

Science and Social Studies (Theme)

Our theme in first grade is “Who Am I?” Students learn about themselves and the living world around them. We engage in projects that focus on the five senses, the human body, and the life cycles of animals, plants, and humans. Hands-on projects integrate science, social studies, art, math, and language arts. To activate their thinking, first graders begin by illustrating what they think is inside their bodies on a small-scale outline.  Then they learn about the respiratory system, the nervous system, the skeletal system, the circulatory system, the muscular system, and the digestive system. As the students discover the complexity and function of each system, they record their understanding by building life-sized internal self-sculptures, using bubble wrap for lungs, streamers for veins and arteries, and buttons for teeth. This project encourages students to think beyond the facts and visualize the complexities of who they are as human beings. We turn from this self-exploration to the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly; we observe, care for, and record the progress of chrysalises in our classroom and set our hatched butterflies free. The unit ends with a much-anticipated visit to the Butterfly Place in Westford.

Language Arts

Literacy work is everywhere in first grade, from focused reading and writing time and journaling about interpersonal issues to recording scientific observations and acquiring vocabulary in mathematics. Theme units have a broader and deeper impact because they connect to other disciplines, such as literacy. For example, when first graders study the human body in theme, they reflect on losing a tooth and write stories chronicling their unique and often humorous experiences.

First graders spend at least 90 minutes each day on language arts. They practice phonics work and engage in such activities as writer’s workshop, author chair, and a nonfiction research paper and presentation. They create many written pieces to collect in their black books. Literacy work also includes daily direct reading and writing instruction in both individual and small groups. Having two skilled teachers in the classroom allows us to tailor individualized literacy instruction for each student.  In first grade, literacy work is engaging, dynamic, and appropriately challenging to build confidence and mastery and ensure continuous growth.

  • Small group instruction ensures that a range of learners is being challenged at their individual levels.

  • Reader’s Theater, taught in small groups, is one engaging way students learn fluency and expression.

  • Opinion, narrative, and informational writing are three genres the students explore.


Our goal in first grade math is to create mathematical thinkers who understand how numbers work and can apply that understanding throughout their lives. Our program goes far beyond the simple memorization of number facts and operations; instead, students build a strong foundation for solving complex mathematical problems. Cuisenaire rods, a math manipulative, form the basis of the program across all grades. The rods provide both a physical representation of quantities and operations and a common mathematical language that applies to basic addition as well as complex algebra.  

For an hour every day, first graders focus on mathematics challenges that require the manipulation of concrete materials to answer abstract questions. Using the Cuisenaire rods, we present addition and subtraction facts in multiple, concrete ways so that the concepts are accessible to all learners. Next, we present students with number models that match the rod examples. Children who benefit from visual support create number flashcards that are color-coded to match the Cuisenaire rods. Students move on to word problems and pictorial models and the task of creating number sentences that represent those problems. As children progress in their understanding, we challenge them to create their own addition and subtraction problems.

  • Visual models help students develop a deeper conceptual understanding of addition and subtraction.

  • First graders explore fractions, transformational geometry, and volume.

  • Math block is divided into whole group activities, small group stations, and individual practice.

  • We use the whole school campus for math—measuring tulip bulbs, hunting for symmetrical objects on the nature trail, counting leaves by tens—we encourage first graders to find uses for their math skills all around them.

Social/Emotional Curriculum

Twice a week we engage the first graders in a lesson from our Open Circle social/emotional curriculum. We gather in an open circle—open because we include one extra space to underscore that there is always room for another voice and no one is ever left out—for a short lesson and conversation and a story or an activity. As an example, in the Beginning Together unit students learn that getting to know each other will help them work well together in their open circle. They talk about what makes them different and the same and hear the story Shades of People, by Shelley Rotner. They consider what it means to reflect—to pause and ask themselves questions about an experience. How am I doing? What did I learn? They work together to choose some rules they will follow in their open circle and they talk about the importance of being honest and how they communicate with body language and tone.


First grade Spanish class emphasizes listening, acquiring vocabulary, and giving complete answers to basic questions. First graders learn Spanish words for introductions and greetings, shapes, colors, numbers 1–30, and also words related to their theme, including the five senses, animal features, parts of the human body, the life cycles of plants and animals, and hibernating and nocturnal animals. They listen to various stories, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar (La Oruga Hambrienta), A Happy Day (Un Día Feliz), and La Historia del Coqui ( Coqui frog story).  The Spanish curriculum fosters cultural awareness and appreciation through the use of traditional literature, stories, music, songs, rhymes, and food.  Students learn about Puerto Rico, its flag, land, animal life, and El Carnaval celebration.  They learn how Mexican families celebrate La Navidad (Christmas), Three Kings Day, and Cinco de Mayo (the fifth of May).  

First graders also participate in the Ambassador Butterfly Symbolic Migration project. They track the migration of monarch butterflies throughout the year and learn about Mexico. In the fall, as the monarchs make their journey south, students write notes in Spanish that are gathered in a large paper monarch butterfly and sent to Mexico. In the spring, as the monarchs make their journey north, the children receive notes in a large monarch sent by children from somewhere else in North America.

Visual Arts

Many first grade art projects relate to their theme and, particularly, to the unit in which students explore the places that make up their world. As they learn about themselves in the classroom, in the art room they paint self-portraits with tempera paints, create portraits of their families with oil pastels or watercolor resist, draw their bedrooms with colored pencils and markers, and help each other make full-size body portraits using tempera paint. As they consider their environment, they engage in place-based projects like drawing their house at night with oil pastels on black paper, making owl prints with ink and foam trays, collaborating to create a winter animals mural, using tracing paper and scissors to make snowflakes; building three-dimensional representations of shelters they invent for animals to live in in winter, and sketching flowers outside their classroom and then painting them in the style of Georgia O’Keefe. First graders use different media, such as pencils, tempera paint, watercolors, clay, pastels, glue, and tape, to engage in techniques of painting, drawing, sculpture, collage, ceramics, and printmaking.  


In music, first graders learn the difference between a steady beat and rhythm, they master simple percussion and barred instruments, they learn to listen to music, they sing and practice synchronized rhythmic movements, and they prepare and perform songs at all-school assemblies. The teacher presents music concepts aurally, visually, and kinesthetically and teaches the children songs and rhythms from around the world.


In dance class, students create, express, communicate, and secure confidence through the study of movement. They participate in exercises that foster creativity, challenge them physically and expressively, require teamwork, develop identity, promote problem solving, and require that they describe their creative process. Children gain body awareness, coordination, locomotor skills, musicality, and choreography techniques through formal and improvisational modern dance lessons. The K–5 dance curriculum spirals from year to year, increasing in complexity. As an example, first graders devote a unit of study to learning about all the different muscles and joints in their feet and how they are used to bend and balance and move the body around.

In addition to the modern dance curriculum, students are introduced to a variety of cultural dance styles. To broaden our global education and dance advocacy, the entire GUS school participates in Dance Anywhere, an annual worldwide simultaneous celebration of dance!

Physical Education

First grade physical education focuses on games that emphasize physical movement (running, skipping, hopping, leaping) and cooperation. Our goals are to encourage healthy habits of physical activity, develop strong motor skills, and foster respectful play. We add chase and tag games so students can begin to develop strategies for enhancing their own performance. All students participate in all games and activities. While many children at this age have already begun playing competitive town sports, we create a noncompetitive environment in the lower school community to cultivate good sportsmanship as the children mature.

Community Service

First graders sponsor an annual book drive for children in underserved areas as their primary community service project. The students create and hang posters around the school advertising their drive; they compose and rehearse requests for donations, which they present at all-school meetings; and they practice their math skills as they count, organize, and pack up the donated books.


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