Reflections on Kindergarten

It is difficult not to be in awe of the imagination of children.  I placed some dominoes and letter cubes on the floor and began to play with them.  I spelled the word boat, and then created a little boat out of the dominoes.  I internally gave myself a gold star for creating such a good learning opportunity for Kellen.

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Kellen began to assemble the cubes in a long row without thought to the formation of words.  I reminded myself that this was a good motor skill activity, and that even though he wasn’t forming words, he was most likely engaging in some type of letter recognition.

Then he began to sound out the letters to form a word of his own creation.  He laughed at his nonsense, and a light bulb went on inside my head.  There was more going on than I gave him credit for.

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When he had used all the cubes, he began to surround the “word” with dominoes.  I asked what he was doing, and he said he was building a force field around the word to make it invisible.  My “boat” cubes inside my domino boat were looking less and less creative by the minute.

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Perhaps I took special notice of his activities because I had read an article that day denouncing the curriculum of modern kindergarten.  I can no longer find the exact article, but if you are the parent of a young child, you have likely read a similar essay or had the same discussion with friends.  Kindergarten is no longer learning to use scissors and engaging in imaginative play with friends.  It is reading drills, homework, and hours spent in desks.  Many feel this type of instruction is at odds with child development.  Children learn through play.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/01/29/a-tough-critique-of-common-core-on-early-childhood-education/

Last year at this time, I was apprehensive about sending my son to Kindergarten for that reason.  A friend pulled her daughter out of public school because her daughter struggled to adapt to the curriculum.  She opted for a Montessori school with a gentler approach.  Another friend advised that her daughter spent the first few months coming home from school in tears, exhausted from the length of the day.  Most of my friends with children who have summer birthdays were opting to hold their children back a year- starting them in Kindergarten when they were six, in hopes that the extra time would buy extra maturity.  What was I sending my son into?

I can only speak from my experience, and the school we chose.  We are lucky to attend school in an affluent neighborhood, with lots of parental support.  I should also say this school is not our home school- I drive my son five minutes to this school each day.  I toured and researched many types of schools.  I looked at test scores, reviews, and other data.

I chose this school based primarily on the feeling I got when I toured there.  I liked the principal.  She seemed to care about me, and my child, and all the students under her care.  I believed in her, and her ability to lead a team to educate children.

I am fortunate to have the time to volunteer in my son’s classroom frequently.  If you have any questions about your child’s education, I believe this is the best thing you can do.  There is no substitute for seeing your child’s learning environment first hand.  I know this can be tough with work schedules, but if you are able to make it happen, I strongly recommend it.  If it is impossible for you to visit during school hours, see if a friend or relative can volunteer.

I am adamant about seeing the environment because it is so much different than I expected from all the negative stories I had heard.  My son doesn’t sit in a desk.  He sits at a table with other children.  He also sits on a rug.  Sometimes he doesn’t sit at all.  His teacher is smart and knows that children need to move, and learn information better when they incorporate all of their bodies.  When she teaches letters and reading, she is not drilling them mercilessly.  She is teaching with dance, movement, music, and other fun activities.

Each day, the students go to one of five centers for reading.  Some of the stations are student led, and some are spent interacting with the teacher.  One of the stations is called “word work.”  There are a variety of games to play and activities to do- writing words with play doh, using stamps to create words and then practice writing them, games with dice and cards.  In the reading area, they can pick a book to read, and then practice reading the book to a stuffed animal.

The day is long.  There is a school in our district that offers half day Kindergarten, and I sometimes wonder if that would have been a better option.  At one point, Liam asked if he could go to another school for first grade.  He thought if he attended another school, the day would be shorter.  When I told him all schools have the same school day, he cried.  It is a lot to ask from a five year old boy. But other mothers with children in varying programs are reporting the same complaints, so perhaps as the year wears on, children are just ready for a break.

I do love that included in that long day are art, music, physical education, library time and technology classes. My child is getting a chance to explore a lot of activities I could not provide in full at home.  I think it creates a well rounded experience.  I know many schools do not have the financial means to make this part of the curriculum.  We are fortunate.

When Liam returned from school with a homework packet, my first thought was “Homework? In Kindergarten? This is ridiculous.”  This is another instance where communication with the teacher is key.  At first, I was diligent about the homework, wanting to set up a good routine for future work.  But there were days when Liam was very resistant.  After the long day, he needed time to unwind and engage in his own activities.  I discussed this with his teacher.  She responded:

“It’s Kindergarten.  When I check the homework, I put a smiley face on the packet.  If it’s taking more than five minutes, just stop.  Don’t worry about it.”

I got a better understanding of her expectations of homework.  Maybe it was there for kids who enjoyed it, or who might need more practice, or who might feel more comfortable working at home with a parent.  It was not a demand.  I still encouraged Liam to do his homework, mostly so I could see what he was learning.  But some nights, I knew his play time was more important.

Yesterday, I went to a musical performance at Liam’s school.  I expected his class to sing a song or two.  They sang six songs in a musical performance called “The Rodeo.”  There were costumes and choreography.  It was adorable.

I went to his class afterward, thinking I would take him home early- there were only 45 minutes left in the day.  Liam was so excited to have his little brother and I in the classroom.  I knew we wouldn’t be leaving.

We came during “free choice”- a time where the kids can work in any area of their choosing.  The teacher uses this time to work one on one with students, fill out their daily folders, and any other activities she might need to work on.  Liam was excited to show Kellen around his classroom.  I took the opportunity to visit different stations.  I checked out art center.  I played with play doh.  I built a house with Lincoln logs.  I ate at the play kitchen.  I played with blocks and bears.  It wasn’t so different from the image I had from my own Kindergarten 35 years ago.

At the end of the day, the teacher said “I see a magic piece of trash.  I wonder who will find it.”  All the kids got to work cleaning up the room, hoping to find the magic trash.  I contemplated how lucky Liam was to be placed in her classroom.  She is always positive and kind. She finds innovative ways to teach the curriculum. She understands kids.

It wasn’t by accident we ended up there.  I talked with people who had children in Kindergarten the year before, asking for recommendations.  Her name was the one that came up.  No matter what school you go to, a great deal of success is dependent on finding a teacher who matches your child’s learning style.  As we look forward to first grade, I am talking with parents, getting their feedback on teachers who might be a good fit for my son.

I am a huge believer in children learning through play, and I’m not sure the standards we are assigning to the Kindergarten curriculum are the way to go.  But more than ever, I believe in teachers.  They are the epitome of innovators and creative thinkers.  They face tough challenges every day and come out smiling.  They do it because they love children.

Now, time to recharge the batteries, hit the road for the summer, and head on to first grade!

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