Some years back I was asked to sit in on a meeting for a 3rd grader who had been a kindergarten student of mine. I was probably asked to sit in on this meeting because I was close with the family and the mother had asked me to at an upcoming conference as a translator. This first meeting was to go over test scores and teacher’s observations. Julie, the student in question, had fallen behind in language arts and math. After the test results had been gone over one of her third grade teachers commented with a sigh, “This little girl can’t do anything”. I was angry, but not necessarily angry with the teacher who had made the remark. I had worked with this teacher for years and knew she was a good and caring teacher. No, I was angry at a system that had reduced all that was important to these two areas that Julie was struggling with. I thought to myself that, if the teacher feels like she can’t do anything, I wonder how Julie must feel.
This hadn’t been the case in kindergarten. We were quite aware that Julie had some difficulty with pre-reading and numeracy. She came to us knowing few letter names or sounds and her concept of number was very immature. But in kindergarten there were a wide range of activities to choose from everyday and Julie, her teachers and her peers knew there were things she could do quite well.
Julie sang like a bird. Music was a big part of the kindergarten curriculum. We sang at least two songs a day as well as various transition tunes. We used song charts as part of our literacy program and Julie was beginning to recognize some sight words from singing the songs frequently while a teacher or student pointed. She memorized the words fairly quickly. Julie was also a talented artist. She often chose easel painting as an activity. In all my many years of teaching kindergarten, she was the only child I can recall pulling a chair up to the easel and asking her friends to pose while she painted their portraits. These portraits became treasured possessions. It was clear to all of her teachers in kindergarten that Julie didn’t feel like she couldn’t do anything. She was an honored member of our classroom community and, because of this, was willing to work at those tasks that were hard for her. In first grade, art and music became once a week events. And school became much harder for Julie.
One of my goals for my students as one of their first teachers was always to find that special something that each child was an expert at. After some years it even became formalized. Let me explain.
There is school choice in my district. Parents visit many schools and make their choices. Once children have been assigned to their school for kindergarten, the system holds an Open House at all schools. This is a day when incoming kindergarteners visit the classroom with their parents while school is in session. The way the schedule worked out, the visit took place during our morning meeting. So for the first few years of this process, the new students and their parents joined the meeting. They were encouraged to ask questions, but of course they were intimidated and didn’t. It wasn’t very successful. After a few years of this we decided to go in a different direction. Weeks before the visit we began discussing who in our class was an expert at what. Mind you, this was in May of the school year so we all knew each other pretty well. It was an intriguing process. I remember that quite a few kids wanted to be the block expert. But a boy name Kalier was selected because he was the only child who had ever made a ball out of blocks. He had taken some arch blocks that weren’t very thick and used masking tape from the collage table to hold them together in the shape of a ball. Everyone agreed that this qualified him as an expert.
Eventually everyone was satisfied with the area or skill they had been given as his or her area of expertise. Then we rehearsed what we would say and show to the visitors on the day of the Open House. Finally we made nametags with our names and the phrase…’Ask me about the blocks….or the library corner….or the playhouse….or our published books’. When the visitors came they roamed the room interacting with the children and we were free to interact with the kids and adults however we wanted. It was a great success for both our visitors and our student hosts. Needless to say, we never did it any other way.
As we rush to push formal academic curriculum into kindergarten, many of these activities, which are full of active learning for 4, 5 and 6 year olds, are squeezed out. And as we shrink the chances for creating experts, we diminish the possibility that young learners will develop the strong feelings of competence that lead to the self-confidence that allows them to take risks in all areas of learning. Children can begin to see themselves as self-propelled learners, as having a say in what and how they learn and this can be the strongest foundation for a lifetime of learning. And they’ll embrace and love school. Isn’t this exactly what kindergarten should do ?
James St. Clair is a former kindergarten teachers in New York and Boston. He is a member of the Defending the Early Years' National Advisory Board.