Friday, February 6, 2009

Kindergarten: Not for Babies

The other night our five-year-old came home with a workbook from Starfall, which is a new curriculum I understand is being incorporated into her kindergarten class. First we had to staple together a little story about a rat named Zac (who encountered some ants, incidentally). Next she read the story aloud to me, and then she was to complete some exercises in her workbook.

One of the assignments was to examine a picture and circle the objects with short vowel sounds. Now, my husband and I have had to learn the distinction between short and long vowel sounds, since it's obviously not intuitive (Me: "Honey, long vowel sounds SOUND long, you know, like treeeeeeeeeeeeee." Him: "Huh? What about baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?" We've since surmised that long vowels say their name, a helpful way for at least the parents to remember). I watched our daughter circle ants and the rat and a bag and grass in the illustration. Then she put a circle on part of the tree.

"'Tree' has a long vowel sound, honey," I offered helpfully.

"I know, Mom," she concurred, circling the flag and a mat.

"And 'leaf' has a long vowel sound, too, right?"

"Yep," she agreed. "But that's a braaaaaaaaaaanch, Mom. Branch. Short vowel for branch."

Duh. Thanks, kiddo.

The last activity was to write a narrative based on a picture related to the little stapled story starring hapless Zac. The workbook helpfully provided a Word Bank (I had never heard of one until I became a teacher) for this writing venture so that one didn't need to worry so much about spelling and could also practice writing and using all those words with short vowel sounds.

But of course, my daughter didn't want to write about flags and mats and ants and bags and grass. So she ignored the Word Bank and used her own invented spelling to write about the playground and swings--which, to be fair, were present in the picture, so who can blame her? Off she went writing whatever the heck she wanted, basically, and I didn't feel like stifling her long-vowel narrative. And when she wanted to write the word "were," she sounded it out: "w," "e," "r"...pause. "Oh yeah," she nodded. "There's a silent 'e' at the end of it." Her tongue popped out of the side of her mouth as she added that "e" on to the end of "wer."

Meanwhile, I was shaking my head like a dog does when it's about to shake water from its entire body. Like, "Silent WHAT?"

So my daughter knows what "Silent E"s are and the difference between Short Vowels and Long Ones. What the heck are they teaching in kindergarten these days, anyway? It turns out I don't even know what my kid knows. I don't know what she knows, and I don't know what she knows, if you know what I mean. It's crazy. I'm pretty sure this kindergarten is not my kindergarten. It's both heartbreaking and reassuring.

Here's what's reassuring: all this focus on No Child Left Behind means someone has to be paying attention to every child's ability to learn. Conceivably, gone are the days when nice children who try hard can slip through the cracks and make it through 12th grade without knowing or showing much. According to NCLB tenets, each child will be achieving at grade level standards by 2013, or ELSE. Educators all over our state are working hard to make this happen. Children are learning about things and using terminology invented since our grade-school years. What's more: they're learning about their learning. It's impressive.

But it's heartbreaking. As a school administrator, I have sat in many meetings about Accountability and Achievement and Mastery of Skills, and the theme is always We Must Get Every Kid There. It sounds really noble but also simple: We Can Do This! However, any ONE of us who has sat with ONE kindergartener at the kitchen table doing homework for ONE evening has to wonder how ONE kindergarten teacher gets 20 kids through ONE activity successfully in ONE day, while identifying who needs extra help and then providing it. And here we are the fortunate parents of a well-prepared kindergartener with no special needs. She is well prepared because we have books and read to her but also because she is just That Kind of Kid who wakes up in the morning and wants to go write stuff.

Frankly, she's the kind of kid who delights so much in the structure of school that she almost needs breaks from it. Which is not to say that the children who struggle with the structure of school--or for whom structure is a foreign concept in and of itself--don't need those breaks too. I worry that No Child Left Behind makes assumptions based on every child's ability to learn that are spot-on and important--but that don't account for the magic and beauty of a child's spirit, which can get lost somewhere in that shuffle of standards and vowel sounds. A spirited teacher can help make sense of standards, and put them in their place. Our daughter is fortunate to have such a teacher.

Every so often, we've got to back off Zac the Rat and the Word Bank and just laugh at how silly is his picnic at the playground. We've got to search for the meaning--and the joy--in short and long vowel sounds. We've got to continue to challenge children, showing them and ourselves just how much is possible, but we also must allow them to show us what is relevant. Every child can learn; every child can achieve at standard. We are banking on that. But I am not sure every child's talents and gifts will properly emerge and fluorish in this institution of schooling as it is currently designed.

We all know people who sucked at school and who thrive at life.

The question is, are we properly prepared to listen and respond to the Children Left Silenced?


Mama Deb said...

I know what you mean...No Child Left Behind really quashes a lot of creativity. I hate thinking that the teachers I adored--the ones who made learning so much fun--aren't able to teach in their own ways anymore. And you are right...those kids that aren't on point in their learning skills; what happens to them? I guess I'll find out soon enough :(

me said...

I agree with you. I cringe to think about how the NCLB standards teach children "things" leaving out the bigger picture about how those "things" can be relevant in their lives because teachers aren't given enough time, freedom, and allowed to explore their own creativity and that of the children in their class. I think it's sad that that kindergarten is so academic these days. For cryin' out loud, they're only 5, do they NEED that much structure at that age, they're KIDS!!!

KT said...

congrats to daughter 1 who officially knows more about spelling than I do. I never knew that words with short vowel sounds had an e at the end. I learned with phonics and still can't spell for anything! In fact, if it were not for spell check, I would have to change my major.
Love you!