Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Favorite Day Of The Week

One of the greatest things about being a child’s teacher for three straight years is that I know exactly what they are going to need to learn in order to thrive the following year.

I know, for instance, that if a 2-year-old hasn’t gotten over his penchant for knocking over the block towers of others, it’s going to be a rocky road in the 3-5’s class where those older classmates won’t be willing to quietly suffer such an indignity.

I know, for instance, that if a 3-year-old isn’t solid on such concepts as one-to-one correspondence and following instructions that involve at least 3 steps, she’s going to struggle in our Pre-K class.

What I don’t always know with as much precision is what they’ll need to know to succeed in kindergarten since they’ll all be going on to different schools, with different teachers, who have different pedagogical approaches. But given that most of our students will go on to public schools I have a pretty good idea of some of the basics. Most will find themselves in a class of 20 or so kids, a teacher and an assistant. I don’t need to observe one of these classes in order to know that the children who flourish will be the ones who have figured out how to learn in a more structured classroom setting.

Our preschool curriculum tends to be about offering children the opportunity to make choices from among up to a dozen different activities. Most would agree that this is developmentally appropriate for preschoolers. I would argue that this style of child-directed learning remains developmentally appropriate well into elementary school, but it’s really not physically possible with our current model of high student to teacher ratios. It’s therefore important that if the Woodland Park kids are going to be ready for kindergarten, they’re going to have to learn a certain set of classroom skills that don’t naturally emerge from our usual curriculum.

That’s one of the biggest reasons for our Tuesday afternoon Pre-K class, with its emphasis on doing things as a group according to a schedule full of activities that sound a lot like the activities they’ll engage in next year.

Yesterday was our inaugural Pre-K class of the 2009-2010 school year.

The first thing the children noticed was that the school doors were locked when they arrived – this is unheard of on a normal day. If I arrange the curtains just right and adjust one of our classroom doors, I’m able to observe our playground through a one-way mirror without being seen by the children. I watched as they one-by-one mounted the steps and tried the door, some of them more than once.

I need the “hard start” to the Pre-K class for several reasons, the most important being that we start our day by eating lunch together. I’ve learned the hard way that if I let the kids trickle in, some of the kids will be done eating before most of their friends arrive, which defeats the whole idea of eating together. I like our lunch conversation to ramble and lurch as organically as possible, so it tends to be a raucous affair with little emphasis being put on “cleaning your plate.” It didn’t surprise me, however, when first Finn, then Ella, without any adult prompting, attempted to add order to the disordered conclave by introducing hand raising to the lunch table. Rock on!

Lunch is followed by Science, which in Pre-K includes the social sciences like economics, politics and social studies. Yesterday, we started with the classic preschool exercise of “sink or float,” in which the children predict which items will sink in water and which will float. By now they’re all familiar with this experiment, so we added the twist of using two other liquids – vegetable oil and molasses – as well. We found that molasses sinks in water and that the oil floats. We then learned that some objects sink in water, but float on molasses; some sink in oil, but float on water; some float on oil; and others sink all the way to the bottom of the molasses.

After Science we moved onto the gym for PE, where we played “What Time Is It Mr. Fox?” then back to the classroom for “show and tell.”

This is followed by our seminal exercise in “fairness.” I describe our Art and Math “stations” to the kids, then explain that there is only room for 6 children per station. Since we have 11 kids, this will mean that not everyone will get to start where they want. “Everyone will get to do everything,” I say, but not everyone will get to start where they want. On this, our first day, there was a lot of shouting out, “I want to be at Art!” and “I want to do Math!”

I asked them for their ideas about how we would decided who got to do what, but they all tended to boil down to: I get first choice and everyone else can go after me.

That’s when I introduced the name cards. Each child’s name is on a card and one-by-one they’re randomly drawn. As they see their names they come forward and place their name next to the activity at which they wish to start, until one of the stations are “closed.” This type of process, of course, is a common classroom activity, especially in kindergarten, but most of our kids have never experienced it. In the past, it’s resulted in tears, but yesterday went off without much drama. This isn’t to say we won’t have tears next week.

I read Rotten Island to the children, who picked it by a democratic show of hands over the Kevin Henkes classic Chrysanthemum.

We then went through our fairness exercise again to choose who started at the Puzzle station and who started at Journals.

Our day wound up by reading journal entries to the group, then introducing our class mascot “Love Cat.” Love Cat is a stuffed animal who lives in a suitcase with a pair of bowls, a toy mouse, and a toy ball. Each week, one of the children get to take the suitcase home. Luna’s card was selected this week. When we convene next Tuesday, she’ll have written a story about her week with Love Cat and added one new item for the suitcase. This time several kids cried or moped. The day ended with children leaving the school, while parents worked to explain that they would some day get their turn with Love Cat.

Considering that most of the kids have very little experience with the kind of structure, the day went fairly smoothly. Of course, it helps that I had 3 parents in the room with me all day, assisting in herding the cats.

This morning I awoke to find this email from parent Megan:

Just wanted to pass on what Annabelle said today after class, "I wish I could have two lives like a Phoenix so I could go to Pre-K twice!"

In spite of the tears, in spite of all that time sitting on our blue rug facing forward, in spite of all the structure and the limited “resources,” I’ve heard Annabelle’s sentiment expressed before. If they haven’t said it already, it won’t be long before every one of them has declared Pre-K Day to be their favorite day of the week.

Pre-K is hard work, but the children are learning what is perhaps the most important lesson they can learn from school: hard work, surrounded by friends, is fun!

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Floor Pie said...

I wish we'd had something like this at my son's co-op last year! Do you know if any of the other NSCC co-ops have pre-K classes like Woodland Park's?

I have to say, though, after watching the new kindergarteners at my son's school for the past two weeks, "kindergarten readiness" now seems like a relative term at best. They all seem happy to be there, but they're all so shell-shocked, too. It's a huge adjustment, no matter what kind of preschool background they're coming from.

I think the important thing for us preschool parents to remember is: "Kindergarten Readiness" doesn't mean "Kindergarten-Proof"! Prepped or not, they're going to have their daily struggles and frustrations, and it's going to be okay! That's what kindergarten is for. The teachers and aides have been incredibly patient and kind. And it's been amazing watching these kids gain more confidence and capabilities each day.

Great post, Tom! I'm looking forward to participating in the pre-K class with my little girl!

Jason, as himself said...

You take pre-K to a whole new level that I haven't seen before. It sounds like you're the best out there.

Unknown said...

I am so thankful to have met you.

I am so thankful that you are such a wonderful part of these children's first experience with formal education.

I know you are making a big difference in the world.

You are refreshing : )