Monday, October 8, 2012

Teaching My Own: Don't Settle For This

Oh, the universe can be so full of irony sometimes.

My eleventh-hour conversion to homeschooling was met by a kindergarten-obsessed five-year-old with the determination of Noah.

My new homeschooling acquaintances told me to ride roughshod over her wishes to attend school and force her to stay home.

Despite my eager desires to begin an experiment in home-based education, I decided that the wisest course of action was to allow my daughter time to experience kindergarten classes for herself. Once she saw what school was all about, I trusted that she might choose another option. So I sent my daughter off in a big yellow bus to our local public school.


Here's what happened next.

* * * * *

Remember all that drama about having kindergarten classes in a strip mall? Well, it seems that after the district administrators thought things over a little longer, they discovered some extra space at another elementary school in town. So our school's kindergarten teachers packed up their classrooms and moved down the road to this school, where our students met for their half-day sessions. A much better solution.

As is the custom in our local kindergartens, the students' mothers were invited to come into the classrooms once a week, to help with whatever the teacher needed help with. Usually, this involved cutting out paper shapes. Still, I jumped at the chance to see my daughter's class in action.

My daughter's teacher was a kind, nurturing, gentle soul who had infinite patience with her young charges. As far as I could tell, she truly had the children's best interests at heart, and loved her work. It was the classroom routines that I found stultifying and dull.

Pre-reading was an important focus. Toward this end, the teacher featured a letter or two from the alphabet each week, and the students practiced writing this shape over and over again, and learning about its sound. Also, during every class, they completed a worksheet that was simply a white piece of paper covered, at first, with scattered 'a' and 's' shapes. The teacher would say something like this: "Students, please circle all the 'a's that you see on the page." Over the weeks, the sheet progressed to include upper case versions of the letters, and on the last week of class before the break in December, a third letter was added to the mix.

Another major segment of each day was station time. Five different centers, or learning activities, were set up around the room and the students were allowed, within a set of restrictive rules, to move around to their station of choice. But each student was required to spend exactly ten minutes at each station, and could not return to a station already visited that day. The station activities seemed a little dull to me. One, for example, consisted of a tub of dozens of small plastic teddy bears which I suppose were designed to be counted and sorted. The boys mostly engaged the bears in various forms of conflict, and the girls looked on and laughed. Another station focused on free reading, which was one of my daughter's favorite pastimes  But the books available were simple, one-sentence-per-page picture books, like Clifford the Big Red Dog, quite below the interest level and complexity desired by the average five-year-old.

Art was another typical classroom activity. Unfortunately, rather than being a time of exploration and experimentation, the projects allowed no creative freedom whatsoever. For example, one week, the students each made a paper reindeer. The children were told to trace one of their feet to make the reindeer's face and both of their hands to make its antlers, then they were given identical piles of pre-cut shapes for eyes, ears, collar, and other details. Painstakingly, the teacher gave the class copious detailed instructions about where, when and how they were to assemble these pieces into a finished product.

* * * * *

I found these activities so odd and unappealing that I asked my daughter's teacher to help me understand why they were part of the classroom routine. 

The pre-reading routines, she explained, were an essential first step in helping the students learn to read. The worksheets were designed to teach letter discrimination  so that someday, when she was reading, my daughter would be able to distinguish an 'a' from an 's'. I pointed out that my daughter, bless her heart, was already able to write in complete sentences and read at a third- or fourth-grade level, so wouldn't it be possible to excuse her from these very basic lessons? No, she explained, it was never possible to customize educational experiences for the students. That would quickly become impossible for her to manage.

The station activities were designed to provide a variety of pre-math and pre-reading instructions, and plus, she emphasized, the kids loved the variety. When I explained that my daughter had the kind of attention span that preferred to focus on an activity for longer than just ten minutes at a time, she relented and said my daughter could stay in one station for two rotations in a row, as long as the other students didn't notice. My daughter read all the books in the reading station on the first day of this new arrangement.

When I asked about the inflexible art projects, the teacher explained that these activities were actually designed to be lessons in following directions. By comparing each student's finished piece to the teacher's creation, she was able to determine which students listened to her instructions most closely and copied her work most precisely. Which clearly she considered to be a good thing. 

* * * * *

Well. I shut my mouth. And I kept my opinions to myself. And as the first few weeks went by, I cheered my daughter on, each step of the way.

But on the inside, I was screaming mad at the insanity of this system, and the infuriating calm with which my daughter's teacher dismissed my perfectly logical questions and concerns. It wasn't that I thought my daughter was smarter or better than the other students; they all deserved to have their own needs met. Yet I could only represent for my daughter and I was still hoping we might be able to negotiate some improved conditions for her until the day her teacher uttered these words to me:

"The purpose of kindergarten is to learn how to go to school."

My blood ran cold. NO. The purpose of kindergarten, dear teacher, is to light your darling students on fire with a passion for learning. The purpose of kindergarten is to experiment, explore, play, grow, discover and solve problems, in the company of a kind and caring adult and some like-minded adventurers. The purpose of kindergarten - or all of schooling, for that matter - is to help my daughter be more, rather than less, of who she already is.

John Holt whispered in my ear, Don't settle for this. Stick to your principles, and don't let the system wear you down.

And this time, right away, I knew he was telling me the truth.

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