A Pre-K Manifesto

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The other day I stumbled upon a washington post article, titled “A Really Scary Headline About Kindergarteners” ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/02/06/a-really-scary-headline-about-kindergarteners/ ). I encourage everyone to check it out for themselves. It shines a spotlight on the trickle-down effect standardized testing is having on early childhood education. I frankly found it to be pretty heartbreaking. As I read, I thought to a recent information night that I hosted for the preschool program where I teach. We are lucky to be located on a 68 acre park and farm, which pairs nicely with my personal philosophy of “real” education- facilitating an experience based, play based program focused on exploration, creativity, and going OUTSIDE!!!!

I irritated a prospective parent at our preschool open house when I couldn’t guarantee her child would be writing and reading at the end of pre-K. I told her: “my goal is that your child will know the way the stream changes throughout the s…easons- after a heavy rain, in a drought, when the salmon run. She will feel confident and strong when she hikes through the woods and know the names of the trees and birds and plants. She will have access to countless amazing books and know the meaning of words like author, illustrator, fiction, and non fiction, and the joy of reading and writing and telling stories . She will have access to free art and glue and scissors and glitter every day. She will learn that when she talks, teachers will listen, because she is important. She will learn to be a responsible friend with the words to resolve peer conflicts and ask for help. She will feel empowered as a steward of our earth and the people and animals who live here. She will never get in trouble for making messes and she will learn to clean them up herself. She will explore and create and find joy and be loved every time she comes here.” She said “if my child can’t read by the time kindergarten starts it will be a disaster she will never academically recover from.” (Apparently this was my responsibility to fully undertake- not hers). Anyhow, she didn’t enroll. I feel heart pain for the pressure her four year old faces next year. I hope she finds this article. This lines up with my feelings, my apprehension about the direction public education is heading and Richard Louvs points in Last Child in the Woods.

Most of my pre-k class can recognize, write, and read the letters. Some can read books. They all WANT to- not because it is required be a test or a school, but because they are excited to learn and see the power and beauty and adventure of literacy. I believe in setting up an environment full of rich experiences and opportunities for creativity and discovery, and giving support or encouragement when it’s needed and requested. The kids can do the rest. I think most teachers get into education because they love children and learning, and most burn out early because of paperwork an politics and standards and tests, and not being allowed and supported to do what they can and want to do. The memories I retain from elementary school and high school, te ones that will be with me for life, are not of teachers standing at whiteboards or of textbooks. They are memories of experiences – learning to make artificial flavors in chemistry class, going on field trips to the beach for biology, writing stories, creating art, playing games in class, singing.

I also know that I speak from a place of privilege, where most of my students have highly supportive families who provide time at home full of enrichment and books, and we live in an area where it is generally very safe to go outside. If Maslow’s basic hierarchy of needs- food safety security, etc, are not met then kids can’t really learn. That is another broad and multifaceted social issue.

I try to reassure parents that the social behaviors are the biggest gift to the kinder teachers- I think K teachers have the hardest job in public school because they have a bunch of wild cards as far as student background, previous experiences with school, parent involvement, etc and it’s often their job to talk with parents about challenges for the first time.

It’s so hard for the K teachers and for the kids because this is not a one size fits all type of world, and not every teacher or style of learning is going to work for every student. Learning flexibility and how to do things you don’t feel like doing, yes there is value in that. But teachers have the flexibility to create or extend projects more often and meet and celebrate the children where they already are, so that they can grow with confidence, we need that more than we need rigorous testing in the early grades. Yes, some evaluation so that teachers know where students are and admin can see where teachers might need to improve, but it should be a side note not the focus. Some children are not developmentally ready to hold a pencil or read until they are six or seven. It’s a shame our system makes them feel like failures. I will say that of our fifty kids this year- some of them never choose to play blocks, some of them never choose to do the organized project, some of them never choose to dance- but every single one of them enjoys outside time and never ever complains, no matter what the weather is. I know many adults who won’t go out in the rain or the cold or the snow or the heat. When does this change? I hope, for these kids, it never does.

UPDATE:

I have a very open dialogue with the families in my program, and a few of them passed my thoughts on to a local magazine, called Parent Map www.parentmap.com. Well, they re-printed my quotation, and so far (in less than 24 hours) it has been liked by 500 people. It has been re-shared 140 times, and gained 65 comments. Originally I actually thought twice about sharing my feelings about this topic, and now I am so glad I did. And so glad that I live in a community where these values resonate. I have been keeping this blog close to my chest until I had the time to really “launch” it and write regualarly, but after many e-mails and words of encouragement from parents of small children I have decided I should delay it no longer. Thanks Parent Map and everyone who helped spread the word. Here is a link to their facebook post, where they shared my quote:

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