Thursday, February 13, 2014

Kindergarten Too Easy?

There have been a lot of articles and blog posts lately about how kindergarten is the new first grade based off a working paper coming out of UVA. In 11 years of teaching I can verify this. When I began teaching I was a first grade classroom teacher. The same lessons we did in first grade are now being taught in kindergarten. So, yes, this revelation doesn't surprise me. I've certainly seen it myself.

Another study due to be published in the American Education Research Journal does not contradict this, but still says that kindergarten is actually too easy. You read about the article here, on the Education Week blog. The study shows that children learn more when they are introduced to more academic concepts- instead of simply teaching letters and numbers teachers should be teaching the sounds that correspond with the letters and addition concepts. The study states that most kindergartners come in already knowing what is taught in kindergarten and are ready for something harder. Those who don't come in with the background knowledge needed learn the basic concepts while learning the advanced information.

I'm torn on how I feel about this stance. First of all, I agree with the concept. When we "teach up" kids do tend to learn more, often because we are giving more meaning behind the basic, rote concepts we want them to learn. This is why I saw so much progress in my intellectual disabilities class last year. Not knowing another way to teach I simply taught the class the way I would run a general education classroom- and the kids responded by soaking it all in.

Of course this also had to be paired with differentiation. I couldn't assume that just because I was teaching high frequency words in connection with letters and letter sound when we did word wall work that they would automatically know the information. I still had to provide small group work and individual, direct instruction that worked on basics like what is a word vs a letter, or even what is a picture vs a letter. While the children benefited from being exposed to the more academic content they wouldn't have gotten anything if they hadn't also had the information paired with instruction at their individual level. This takes a lot of time and flexibility throughout the day, and a lot of pre-planning on how to daily make sure everyone is getting the exact instruction they need. I believe it is how every classroom should be, but I also recognize the difficulty of putting it in place. It was hard.

In saying kindergarten is too easy the study focuses on the academic tasks the children are learning, but not the social, emotional development or the learning to learn behaviors that we need for children to have to be successful in school. Now that I have my own daughter I watch with amazement as she soaks up information that I think of as a kindergarten skill. She's learning at an incredible rate (which I also assume is completely normal, just incredible to me, her mother). So I can see how parents begin to worry that their child will be bored if they come into kindergarten already reading.

I can see that we are capable of cramming our kindergarten day with reading, writing and math and having very academically capable kids come out on the other side. But we also have to remember that these children are five and six. While I believe they are perfectly capable of learning the information (and should be exposed to the information) I don't think this should be a prescription for drill-and-kill activities or to pack the day with academics leaving no time for play.

Play and learning can be embedded together in a way that gives more meaning to the learning while engaging the children where they are. And in my personal experience, what children learn through play seems to stick in their memory a lot longer than what they learned through straight lessons.

As a first grade teacher I'd watch the children come in from different kindergarten teachers. One teacher in particular was always a teacher I enjoyed getting children from. Her students came in with a love of books. They knew how to sit on the carpet and shared with each other without my intervention. They loved school and came in ready to learn every day. The teacher was known as being a a more play-based classroom and the children didn't always end kindergarten with the best test scores. But she'd given them a huge base for first grade and they typically soared to the top of the class once I had them. Because I didn't have to spend time reminding them how to sit on the carpet, how to work independently or how to share the crayons they were ready for all the academic requirements of first grade.

I suppose my thoughts on the study can be wrapped up in the simple phrase of "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater".  Yes, we can increase our instruction and expectations in kindergarten- but let's not do it at the harm of the children.

How can we teach smarter? How can we put creativity and play into academic concepts? How can we take a good book and connect all of our standards (and beyond) to it in order to engage the children? How can we use good classroom structure to differentiate for our students?

It's easy to read the article and decide that kindergarten is too easy and should look more rote- children in desks- more teacher directed lessons- but I caution us from taking that angle. What can we do to increase our academic expectations while keeping true the fact that we are teaching five and six year olds?

My other thoughts on the article are:
1) I've worked in 3 schools and none of them have simple taught numbers and letters. All of them presented kindergartens with high academic expectations. I realize I work in a very good school district, but I am saddened to think of kindergartens out there that wouldn't teach reading.

2) What about the children who do not come in with those skills? There are two different types of children who come in lacking basic kindergarten skills. One is a set of students whose families read to them, played with them, had resources (even though very limited) to expose them to different opportunities. Families who talked to them but never thought to teach their children their letters and numbers. The other type of student is from a family in significant poverty who struggles to survive. The families share apartments with other families, the children rarely go outside their apartment because of safety concerns. The families may work multiple jobs, children may only eat once a day, and they don't have resources to expose their children to much outside their homes.
In my current school I see a lot of the children in the first category. The children are picking up skills fast even though they came in with little. In my former school I saw children in the second category. They were from families who were from such significant poverty that school was often the first time they had seen their name in print. Their parents were illiterate and their homes (that I was often in for home visits) had almost no print other than what was on food wrappers. Those children require a lot more intervention and intense differentiated instruction to make up for lost time than the ones who simply hadn't been told the names of the letters.
Of course these children benefit from high expectations and being exposed to the higher academics all kindergartners should be exposed to. But we can't just teach and hope they will catch up. They may need intense intervention, lessons re-taught, and a chance to get a firm foundation so that they have something to build the rest of their academic career on.

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