Saturday, September 30, 2006

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in...

Well okay, Kindergarten. Kindergarten in Texas as a child, kindergarten in Alaska, New Mexico, and now Kansas, as a teacher.

In Texas, I learned I was strong. At the age of four-and-a-half, **I** was the one who broke the pinata at Halloween. To this day, I still have the memory of being blindfolded, with a stick of some sort in my hand, hearing "hit it Mica, hit it!" Then the feeling of contact, and the sound of hard candies hitting the bare floor. "Get the candy, get the candy!" I couldn't. I was too busy holding the corner of the blindfold up away from my eyes, watching the swarm of kids at my feet grabbing for the candy I had released from the paper mache prison. I'm strong. God bless the teacher who probably held the pinata down still where I could hit it.

I endured, sometimes enjoyed, and in the end survived the next twelve years of school, and attended college hoping to be a Broadcast and Journalism major. One horribly inappropriate instructor and enough views of news reporters on television shoving microphones into the faces of families who just experienced some horror, and my mind was forever changed. Back to "what I knew," since it was easier to draw upon my life's experiences as a teacher's kid... freed me up to go out and socialize, meet people, learn the right ways, and several wrong ways of interacting with others. Ta da, six years later (darn that socializing), and I had a Bachelor's Degree in Education.

I was hired late into the school year as a kindergarten teacher. Frankly, it was the **last** grade I ever thought I'd want to teach. I cried. Yes, cried, the night before I was supposed to meet my new students. The next day, with stinging, puffy eyes, I survived my re-introduction to the kindergarten world, thanks to wonderful students, and two amazingly terrific teachers. While one would move on to a principalship in another town, the other would become not so much a mentor, but a role model (I tend to observe, think things through, try them out on my own, and gauge the result BEFORE I ask for help) and eventually, the treasured shoulders, ears, and insights of a true friend I respected not only as a teacher but a human being. She observed, fine-tuned, overhauled, and encouraged my successes, and occasionally was hit by the shrapnel resulting from my clueless lack of experience. When one of her own former student teachers was added to our kindergarten team, I had yet another wonderful teacher from whom to learn. Our colleagues, their families, and our school's neighborhood, children and all, imprinted upon me so many memories, so many opportunities to build my own opinions, so many experiences... I had no idea how they would help me when I had to leave a decade later.

Uncle Sam decided to move my husband and thus, our family, to New Mexico, where I became employed in my second school district ever. Meeting my new colleagues, my new administrators, and my new students and families was quite the experience. No matter how diverse I had thought my decade teaching in Alaska had been, it turned out there was a great big world out there! Even in my own country, attitudes, biases, prejudices, beliefs and practices vary widely. Thankfully, I had taught long enough to recognize the social and professional choreography displayed at my new school. I was able to compare and contrast differences in office procedures, school routines, social cliques, curriculum, socio-economic boundaries, school culture, teaching styles, and school-wide discipline. Some practices, not many, were aligned with my own teaching philosophy and goals. Redundancies abounded, communication never made it completely around the loop, and in a predominantly Hispanic school district, I was asked several times WHY I had number and color words on my bulletin board in English AND in Spanish. On the upswing, my class size was limited to fifteen, and my students got along wonderfully with one another. They were happy, healthy, bright, eager, and kind, and their parents were extremely supportive and helpful. I had two wonderful practicum students who were more colleagues than pupils, and was able to build fun and supportive friendships with subs and parent volunteers. An occasional tray of homemade cookies left in the lounge always garnered thanks and smiles, so there weren't too many social obstacles for me to overcome.

Now, in my third state, and my third school, I'm still teaching kindergarten. Yet again, I've had to sit back, get the "lay of the land," and learn my steps in the new choreography. As I'm able to now compare and contrast practices between three schools, districts, and states, I feel comfortable that my experiences are adding up to help me pick and choose the best of all I have observed, been given, thought up on my own, and in some cases, endured, for the benefit of my students, their families, and my colleagues. My personal and professional philosophies have four supporters at this time: my husband, my kindergarten colleague, the speech therapist, and another teacher at work. Most everyone else with whom I've interacted has been taken aback, not quite sure of what they are observing. My discipline plan, my instructional practices, my vocabulary and tone with my students (and the students of other teachers), have all been questioned by support staff, colleagues, administrators and parents. My students' parents and the four supporters listed previously, seem to be the only adults who understand why I find it necessary to build relationships with my students, to help build relationships between my students, and work as much with the social skills as the academic. Relationship-building with colleagues who possess a similar amount of teaching experience or more has been awkward. I don't FIT. How I think, what I think, and what I do, are evaluated from a distance. My perspectives on discipline, developmentally appropriate practices, support for kindergarten teachers, relationship-building, and my regard for my students' emotional safety at school during this very special year are apparently perceived as odd, not the norm, perhaps even "off by a few bubbles." To feel so outnumbered by professionals who are consumed by what they themselves want from their students instead of what they want for their students is an odd position in which to find myself.

I recently attended a districtwide grade level meeting where most of the debate and discussions revolved around how to make the S.F.A. observers happy. How to get through the entire required curriculum when students wanted to spend more time on certain activities than others. How five year olds still weren't demonstrating perfect penmanship (we're only a month and a half into the school year as of this posting), and how teachers were thrilled their schools' "academic support" staff were allowed to take children into a back room of the building, and "put the fear of God into them" when they wouldn't comply. I was appalled, not only as a teacher, but as a mother. Only a small handful of teachers volunteered suggestions to help with curriculum issues, and our time at the meeting was limited to an hour. Feedback was requested which my grade level partner and I gladly provided, but I left the meeting feeling so outnumbered, and therefore not nearly as open to helping my fellow kindergarten teachers. While I have been providing feedback and hopefully supportive shoulders and ears like my very first role model did, I can't help but feel that without a public and high-enough-on-the-food-chain supporter and advocate, my hands are tied, and frankly, my philosophy is not a good match for this district.

Don't yell. Don't hurt peoples' feelings. Don't hit. Say "please" and "thank you." Eat a snack. Take a nap. Share. Walk with scissors. Don't eat glue. Remember to write your name on your paper, and share your books. Help your friends, smile at your teacher, at least be polite if you can't be nice. Life lessons taught in kindergarten don't often carry over into adulthood. And it's a shame. It's an even bigger shame when they don't carry over to the very people trusted to provide educational and emotional support to children for twelve or thirteen years.

We accommodate students, not the BRAND of the curriculum materials. Not the S.F.A. saleswoman or product support staff who come in and "spot observe" several times a year. I would never consider a doctor, lawyer, or mechanic truly qualified if they only came in to see me on their own schedule, on dates they chose as best for themselves. If they only did a looksie at my car without ever looking under the hood, smiled at me but didn't take my blood pressure and vitals, or only asked if I had a will or not, I wouldn't find them very helpful. Observers who only come in to see if each cutely named activity is being performed at the exact minute of the prescribed schedule... or to see if a poster is hung at the appropriate spot in my classroom , are completely missing out on what they should be there to observe: My students. Learning.

Other issues have had my attention in previous blog postings, and taking them into consideration with my latest observations, it's clear I have to go back to what I learned in kindergarten that October, thirty-two years ago: I'm strong. It's time to find a Master's Degree program, and then a Doctoral Program after that. Perhaps when I have enough letters of the alphabet after my name, my ideas won't seem alien, they'll seem revolutionary. And worth some contemplation and adoption.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Helpful Kindergarten Web Sites

Here are some helpful kindergarten web sites- good links with lots of info for those of us tending the "kidney-garden:"

Kindergarten Teacher

"The purpose of Kindergarten Teacher is to provide a comprehensive and organized collection of substantial educational content available via the Internet and of value to those who teach or intend to teach kindergarten."

The National Kindergarten Alliance

The National Association for the Education of Young Children

The Top 10 Signs of a Good Kindergarten Classroom

Kindergarten ChatBoard at

Can you recommend any others?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Catch a CLUE about Kindergartners

There are as many different perspectives as there are people and animals in the world, right?

Which makes what I've been pondering for the past few years frustrating: how do people (leaving other animals out of the equation for the time being) reach agreement on "big issues" so that we can best function and work toward a common goal? Let's use education and teaching for this examination.

There are at least twelve different grade levels in the public school system. There are different developmental stages that most humans experience (and observe others working their way through) over the course of a lifetime. Most teachers and other adults acknowledge and generally comprehend which differences exist between a kindergarten student and a fifth grader, between a second grader, and an eighth grader, between a seventh grader and a senior in high school, thanks to Vygotsky, Piaget, heck, even Freud and the college professors who introduced many of us to their findings and assertions! Curriculum materials, social scripts, vocabulary are all supposed to be geared in an appropriate way for each age group or grade, and there **are** differences to be found in all of the materials offered up to students in grades very near to one another. First graders build upon skills learned in kindergarten, second graders build upon skills developed in the first grade and kindergarten before that, etc.

But many teachers, administrators, parents, and politicians tend to blur the lines when it comes to what they (teachers et al.) want from and expect of children. Students are now expected to reach A.Y.P. no matter their age or grade. To quote a former student of mine, "Teacher, how come the principal keeps telling me about L-M-N-O-P?" Yes. "L-M-N-O-P." The response that popped into my head was "Because Honey, the principal has no clue what kindergarten students think, see, or feel, because if she did, she wouldn't be wasting your time with fifty dollar words and abbreviations that make no sense and are of no relevance to how you perceive your school experiences." No, I didn't say it. I had some other, more developmentally appropriate answer for her that 1) reassured her that she wasn't in trouble and that she'd understand when she was older (because yes, she appeared concerned that she had upset the principal) and 2) kept me from jeopardizing a nice letter of recommendation for future use.

Number crunched data obtained from students in abnormal testing situations once per year (or MUCH more often!), or obtained from a computer program that cannot and does not take a student's personality, needs, quirks and feelings into consideration are considered very accurate and reliable indicators of who and what those students are. Of what they are capable, of what they "need" in order to make L-M-N-O-P. So tests and computers are the most utilized "tools" in schools now. And all children, regardless of age or grade, are expected to use them efficiently and accurately, as well as operate within the school's own set of rules and expectations. "Accomplish NOW." "A magic sprinkling of perfect-walking, perfect lining-up, perfectly-quiet-in-the-hallways, perfect potty-flushing, perfect indoor-voices, perfect test-taking, perfect social-skills" dust has been dumped on your heads as you walked in the door. No matter your age, your previous life experiences (or lack thereof, after all, some of you are only five years old), your cultural background, your socio-economic status, or your gender, you WILL be PERFECT. Because I said so. And if you're not, I get to yell. A lot. Or blow a whistle at you. Or berate you and your teacher for not making sure that you behave PERFECTLY. Oh, and hey, YOU obviously didn't try hard enough, and neither did your parents because YOU are part of the sub-group that made US fail to meet L-M-N-O-P." No pressure. And don't you find the message oh-so-appropriate for children of all ages?

This type of message wouldn't work for any adult in any workplace- in fact, it would be considered abusive. A lot of employees would quit, transfer, or, if forced to stay in the job by financial need, would do the bare minimum each day and dread every moment he or she had to spend on site. How do people in the arena of public education, those guides for our children, allow who and what children ARE to be replaced by percentages and data sheets? Relationship building, once so important, and necessary for helping keep students IN SCHOOL and keeping parents and families involved, has been thrown by the wayside. So in walks the discrepancy that has been frustrating me for a while now and that makes me wish I could say the following things in the following situations:

"Excuse me, but your students aren't displaying appropriate audience behavior."

Response: Thank you for noticing. Appropriate audience behavior is a skill that needs to be practiced and developed over time. Obviously my students have not had such practice before coming to my class this year. Have you noticed how eager they are? Behaving as all NORMAL children do when thrust into a new situation? They're looking, they're expressing themselves verbally, they're stimulated by all of the new faces, sounds, the decor, and it's all hitting them like a freightrain. And somehow you expect them to sit quietly, eyes forward, and participate in choral responses they've never heard before. Hmmmmm...... we'll be WORKING ON IT.

"Your student wouldn't answer me! So I told him/her that I was going to talk to his/her teacher and we'd get this straightened out because I expect all students to respond to me appropriately and follow our school rules!"

Response: Thank you for bringing me your concern. And please, let me tell you what realm kindergarten students are in when they see an adult, who is a stranger, coming down on them like a ton of bricks.

1) If the child is from a large family, where using loud voices is probably the only way he or she is heard.... or where parents have to use loud voices to get the child's attention because of the mayhem in the house... that child is going to NOT HEAR YOU, **OR** WILL TUNE YOU OUT JUST LIKE HE/SHE DOES TO HIS/HER PARENTS. It's not a conspiracy. I promise. Most five year olds don't wake up each morning thinking "Oh yeah, I think I'll mess with the third grade teacher today- she thinks she's got authority over me, but when that bell rings at recess, I'll show her who's the MAN." Stop taking it so personally. As much as you hate it, you're not that important a person to my students. Why not? Because **I** am. Most parents and adults who deal with young children understand that kindergarten students still occupy their own universes. Learning to share resources, toys, and a teacher's attention requires each child's acceptance that he or she is no longer the king or queen of his or her domain. Yep, it's a real "stage." Developmental even. **I'm** lucky to have been given permission to wear the crown! As a result, I too, live in the ME-ME-ME world: My students will respond to ME. They will watch ME for my signals, for my facial expressions, and will work primarily toward obtaining my acceptance. See, it's really MY world (wink!)! Put down your whistle, take a deep breath, count to ten. Eat some chocolate.

2) If the child has never experienced some stranger (yes, YOU, even if you wear a name-badge, even if you walk in the same hallways that we do each day- you're a STRANGER) telling him/her what to do, demanding behavior of him/her, and forcing a consequence on him/her for behavior and skills still being learned and fine-tuned, the child will be scared. Terrified in some cases. Which is apparently what many teachers are hoping for. They want to scare children into "behaving." Most kindergarten students will not be scared into "behaving." They will be scared of YOU. They will be scared of school. And they will dread the thought that if they're "good at school" and finish kindergarten, first, second, or whatever grade, they get YOU as their next teacher. Nice going. Way to get those kids happy, involved, eager to please, and performing optimally for your L-M-N-O-P. Oh and by the way, you turn me into their defender, instead of their guide and teacher. Thanks so much for building an aura of fear into a place where children are a captive audience for at least twelve years. I'm sure they'll want to fulfill your expections (and become healthy, productive, life-long-learners) just the way you want. Yes, that would be sarcasm.

3) By the way, would you EVER let another person speak to you the same way you spoke to and about my student? Yes? Then get a spine and the voice to back it up. If you wouldn't, then why on Earth would you ever consider speaking that way to a child who lacks the emotional coping skills to deal with what you are saying and how you are acting? Hellooooooooo, McFly! How would you feel if a teacher spoke that way to your child? Your niece or nephew? Your grandchild? If it wouldn't be okay for them, it's NOT okay for anyone else (hello Golden Rule!), whether you're in a grumpy mood or not. Oh and by the way, if it WOULD be okay for your child or any of your other relatives? Your parenting skills aren't the only ones out there. Some parents will NOT appreciate your approach. And they would be correct. And yes, you'll have to respect their input and directives when they correct you, even though you won't agree with it. And you'll have to compromise. You're a grown up. Do it.

4) Were you aware that there's a great big world out there? Full of different cultures, different languages, different abilities and disabilities? As you raise your voice with my students, I hope you remember that yes, to some, you really ARE speaking Greek! To others, you're moving your facial muscles in a really interesting pattern, because hey, they can't hear you. For some of my culturally diverse students, your insistence that they look you in the eye, or refrain from moving backward as you invade their personal space is considered MISBEHAVIOR in their homes. And no, being five year olds, they're not used to discriminating between home, family, and school yet, though I can guarantee that they're certainly developing a strong bias against YOU. Ever heard of ADD? Autism? Auditory or visual difficulties? How about speech and language delays? Learning disabilities? Of course you have. Now, tie into your professional knowledge the following reminder: my students are only five years old. Not thirteen, not twenty-three. Not forty-five. FIVE. They do not, and will not have the skills to self-moniter or self-accomodate in order to address whatever their individual needs might be. Right now, they're still trying to remember that it's okay to leave the blocks center to use the bathroom in enough time to prevent an "accident."

5) You are a role model. And you're modeling horrible behavior. You've just taught my students that grown ups tattle after throwing their own hissy fits. You want my students to "know" you're "right." Well, you've taught my students that you will threaten them, and no, they won't think you're "right" to do it. Because little kid logic is an element in and of its' own. You want a kindergartner to think like you? To walk around in your shoes? Dream on Baby. YOU need to get down on your knees and crawl around in the classroom, the hallways, and on the playground, not because I'm trying to make you submissive or punish you, but because you need to see the world through a five year old's eyes. And remember, you're still probably half a head taller than my students when you are on your knees. You have a lifetime of experiences and coping skills (kind of) that they don't. That they won't for years to come. Who knew the ceiling was really that high? Who knew the teachers were really that frighteningly tall? Who knew the water fountain was so hard to operate with such tiny hands? Who knew how hard the walls were when older and bigger students pushed you into them? My students will not learn how to put themselves in the shoes of their friends, their teachers, or anyone else in two weeks' time. Get used to it. And by the way, put yourself in their shoes. Regularly. You'll be a better teacher and person if you do.

I belong to a profession whose members can't make up their collective minds HOW to "be" with students. With children. These are smart, highly educated adults, professionals. Who read the journals. Who read the articles. Who attend the inservices. Who share the books and recommend educational authors. Who have forgotten that the children they serve are human beings, and not numbers to crunch. Who have themselves, broken every appropriate rule when it comes to building trust, encouraging imagination, and helping the whole child and their families, emotions and all. Who then look at children today and say "I remember when students were well behaved. I remember when kindergarten students knew the rules. I remember when...." all the time.

Here's a hint to educational old timers, teachers, administrators, politicians and parents alike: When you start saying "I remember when" phrases with negative follow ups about your students and mine every day, it's time for you to quit. You've lost the big picture, you're burnt out, and you, yes, you, are doing more harm than good. You're not a failure, you're just DONE with this part. Time to regroup. Move on. Solve the problem, shift the paradigm. You know, the way you expect all children to be able to do. Right now.

And of course, most of you won't quit. You need your retirement. You need your paycheck and it's too difficult to "start over" again. Or, you're too lazy. Hmmmm.... now you've taught the kids that it's okay to do a bad job. To settle. To hurt others because of your own lack of initiative. And you wonder why children behave the way they do. I think the kids have gotten the message loud and clear, and frankly, I'd appreciate it if you'd keep your mixed messages to yourself. Please stay out of my room, stay out my students' faces, and let me, and my kids, do our jobs. Safely. Emotionally and physically. Effectively. On an appropriate timeline, not your ridiculous one-size-fits-no-one model. If you'd like some recommended titles or authors to help you reconnect with the mindset of young children so that you can return to your days as an effective and respected teacher, let me know. But stop with the bullhorns and barking. I for one, am NOT scared. I for one, know better. I know the truth and the bottom line. And it's not "A.Y.P."

It's "L-M-N-O-P."