11 Must Haves For Teaching 1st Grade

Moving to first grade next year from an upper grade?  Coming back to teaching first grade after a few years at home or in another grade? First time teacher getting a job in first grade?  It can be a daunting task moving to a new grade level and setting up a classroom!

I remember my first year as a teacher moving into my new first grade classroom.  My parents had helped me move the stuff I had collected during college.  We piled it in my brand new classroom and it all fit in like a 5 by 5 square.  No lie.  My sweet, sweet principal came down to check on me and said, “Where’s all of your stuff?”  I’m a minimalist by default, but I knew I had to get to shopping to fill up my classroom and be ready for day one.

So, after 10 years of experience in first grade, here is my list of things you just can’t live without in your first grade classroom from a minimalist’s perspective!

1. Easel

Easels are a MUST for any primary classroom.  They are great for an up close dry erase board on the carpet, a place to hang and write on current anchor charts, and perfect for holding big books during shared reading.

Even in this day of tons of technology, don’t sacrifice the easel!

This is the easel that I got my first year teaching.

Now these were the days before interactive whiteboards (think teaching with overhead projectors and vis-a-vis markers…remember those??) so this easel was fabulous!  It has a ton of storage, a perfect holding place for charts and big books.

The down side?  It’s huge.  It has a large footprint.  And even though it does work well for big books, the books sit lower on that than on a taller easel so the words can be difficult for everyone to read in the back.  If you are worried about these issues, try this easel that I have also taught with.

This one is great, but lacks the storage!  Whatever your priorities are, an easel is a must!

P.S. I know a lot of first grade teacher friends that have these short easels for small group/guided reading.

I had one and never used it.  Just didn’t work for me because it took up space on my table or back counter. #minimalistprobs #iloveclearcounters

2. Rug

Ya’ll!  Forget shopping for any old rug.  It won’t cut it.  Trust me.  In my first 4 years of teaching I went through 4 rugs.  That’s a rug every single year if your math is bad! 🙂 Some were too small and a few didn’t match my theme well enough, but all of them unraveled at the corners and were basically threads by the end of the year.  And I’m a carpet Nazi, ya’ll.  Like, don’t you even think about messing with my carpet, kids!  But it just happens.  They are 6 and the basic rugs just don’t hold up.  Finally, 7 years into teaching (and 6 carpet rugs later) I bit the bullet and bought this carpet rug.  Yes, it’s expensive.  No, it didn’t match my western themed classroom.  But it was the best investment.  Hands down.  No messed up corners and roomy enough for all 25 of my firsties.  Plus, everyone had their own square already made on the carpet so I didn’t have to tape off squares anymore! #winning

This rug lasted me 3 years and counting (I left the classroom temporarily to stay home with my baby after 3 years).

So, trust me.  Do yourself a favor and fork out the money for this rug.  You won’t regret it.

3. Word Wall

So this isn’t necessarily a purchase you need to make…just a space you need to reserve.  A word wall is a must and it’s going to take up space.  I intentionally planned my word wall to be easily seen from all areas of the classroom and went out of my way to make sure it was right in front of my writing station in my classroom!  If you need some word wall alphabet cards and word cards, you can find tons of themed options here.

4. Big Book Organizer

You’ve moved down to the primary grade land…you know the land where everything is BIGGER!  Including books!  You’re gonna need to find a way to organize your big books and poem charts if you still have those.  (I had poem posters when I first started teaching until our interactive white boards came along and I went completely digital with my poems!)

I was lucky enough to have my sweet daddy offer to make me this big book box organizer that I painted.

But there are other options you can find out there too!

5. Math Manipulatives

Yes, math manipulatives are important.  I’m a math junkie so I should know.  Math is one of my favorite things to teach.  I was blessed my first year because I opened a new school and our principal gave us a budget for purchasing math tools for our classrooms.  Our team got a LOT of stuff!

But what I learned over the next 10 years is that just a few, high quality math manipulatives are much better than having a ton of bug counters, dominoes and tangrams.

Here are my go to math tools that I use every single day in my classroom during Guided Math Workshop (read about my CGI math routines here).  I’ve divided them into tubs for each table group to make it easy for kids to get to quickly.  They are stored on their group shelves.

unifix cubes: I use these for 2 digit addition and subtraction in place of base 10 blocks…which I threw in the trash years ago.  You can read about that here. Also, I prefer these to pop cubes which were bought for me in my classroom.  Pop cubes allow you to make 3D objects…which might be good for a shapes project, but is super distracting during problem solving! 🙂 (Allow about 50 per kid… really each kid needs at least 100, but during problem solving not all of my kids use tools so I have about 200-250 for a group of 4 kids and that works just fine.)
two sided counters: great for composing/decomposing numbers, using with ten frames and simple addition and subtraction to 20. (Allow about 25 per kid…kids don’t use these for double digit problem solving, so even 25 per kid is very generous)
counting bears: These are good for the same reasons as the 2-sided counters, but they have more colors so it’s an easy way to show intervention groups 3 addends or decomposing into 3 parts. (Allow 10-15 per kid and you will be just fine.  These are only used by my lowest babies it seems like each year.)
rekenreks: These are fantastic for math talks and making 10’s to add and subtract. This set has 30 student rekenreks and one teacher.  It’s perfect for sharing with a partner teacher.  (Having one available for each table would be sufficient for problem solving.  If you want to use them for math talks, it’s nice for every kid to have one, but not necessary…I had 1 for carpet partners to share and it worked just fine!)

And here are a few others I use outside of problem solving:
pattern blocks: for geometry skills (Allow 200 per table group to share–about 4 kids)
colored squares: for measurement (Allow 200 per table group to share–about 4 kids)
Judy clocks: for time (one for each kid is ideal, but 1 for partners to share would work just fine too!)

6. Classroom Library

Every teacher loves books.  Finding books that are perfect for emerging and beginning readers can be a challenge though.  I’ve found that organizing books by topic is the easiest for my young readers.  You can find my classroom library tub labels here.

And here are just a few of my favorite easy reader series that I keep in my classroom library:

Scholastic non-fiction readers
I Can Read books

7. Browsing Boxes

Browsing boxes is the term I use for our book boxes.

Each kid has one and they store their library books they check out each week as well as abc and blends charts and readers they get from guided reading.  My firsties use these to read from if they finish early or during buddy reading or read to self during literacy stations.

My browsing boxes are ice buckets that I got from Wal-Mart for a little over a dollar each 10 years ago.  You can also find them here.

8. Calm Down Corner

After 10 years of teaching first graders and having lots of friends with special needs or emotional issues, a calm down corner became a must in my classroom.  This is a tiny area (yes, tiny is better) where any kid can go when he/she feels overwhelmed.  You can read more about it here.

This is my list of must haves in our calm down corner:

>>something soft like a stuffy to cuddle.  This is the one we had and we named him “Telly the Turtle” and shared all of our worries with him! 🙂
>>a mirror for looking at ourselves to determine our emotion
>>a great book about emotions like Today I Feel…
>>a chair…mine was just a normal hard chair.  It may have been more inviting to have a small bean bag or something that could “hug” an upset kid, but I found that anything that could be torn apart would be when an irritated child needed the calm down corner.  So I stuck with my wooden chair. 🙂
>>stress balls or sensory balls for squeezing.
>>Instruction posters on what to do so the child stays focused on regulating his/her emotions and returning to the group
>>sand timers to make sure my kiddos don’t overstay their welcome!

9. Flexible Seating Options

These days, flex seating is all the rage.  I left the classroom on a temporary mommy leave just before the craze hit my area!  But, I think flex seating has always been a part of who I am as a teacher.  Yes, I still had desks and chairs (although I definitely want to try more flex options when I return!), but I also had other options around the room.  Here are some simple ways I incorporated flex seating without having to go “all in.”  If you’re wanting to dabble in flex seats, these are a great starting place:

>>stools: I found some of these on clearance and repainted them for our writing station table.  These were a kid favorite for sure!

>>pillows: perfect for our classroom library!  I had both throw pillows and floor pillows to choose from.

>>ottomans: I had teammates that swore by these for guided reading groups!
>>old student desks: I used this for my student of the week and during group or partner work, my kids flocked to this desk to be the first ones to be able to use it!

>>the floor: it’s the cheapest flex seating option ever and what 6 year old doesn’t love to lay around on the floor and work!

10. A Touch of Home

From even my first year, it was important to me to include parts of our classroom that reminded my littles of home–and reminded me of home!  I added curtains to our windows,

lamps around the room,


touches of fabric,

and plants!

These plants were my favorite because it was a bit of the outside in our classroom which I loved!  Also, each group had the responsibility of keeping up with their plants which was fabulous!

11. Lots of LOVE

Above all else, you need lots of love in your first grade classroom!  There is a reason the Bible tells us “The greatest of these is LOVE.”  It’s your greatest asset.  It’s the one thing you can’t go out and buy.  And it’s the single most important thing your firsties will feel and learn from in your classroom!

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