Saturday, April 2, 2011

Ready, Freddy?!

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So, in another twitter-related adventure, I stumbled across a website yesterday that talked about "Kindergarten Readiness." This has been one of my pet catch-phrases since grad school, so I dove right it. The list of teacher expectations was very thorough, and also, to me, without knowing a lot about the setting and environment in which the author worked, very high.  It did, however, make me think that it was high time for me to blog about this pet topic of mine: Kindergarten Readiness, And What It Means To Me. Dive on in, folks, the water's fine.

Let's just start with the fact that I think the whole concept of children needing to be "ready" for kindergarten is absurd. To say that a child is or is not ready for the first year of school suggests that it is somehow that child's responsibility to prepare for school. And the concept of "preparing for school" seems to lead, all too quickly, to things like worksheets for 3-year olds, and homework for 4-year olds, and expensive "kindergarten prep" courses, and all kinds of other silliness. To me, "ready for school" means, and should ONLY mean that the child in question is: well-fed, well-rested, adequately dressed. Any 5 year old (or, in the case of my province and our March 1st cutoff date, any 4.5 year old) for whom those things are true is Ready for School. If those things are NOT true, well, I think and hope we are all clear that it does not represent any failing on the part of the child.

All of that being said, last year, at my school, we identified a need to establish some kind of screening process for kindergarten students who are new to us. To be clear, we do not, and will not, screen children for spots in our preschool (3 year olds) or Junior Kindergarten (4 year olds)  because... well... THEY ARE 3 AND 4 YEAR OLDS, THANK YOU VERY MUCH. However, we do want to ensure that when enrolling children "from the outside" (as in, who did not attend our junior-K program; not as in: OUTSIDERS! BEWARE!), those children are at a comparable level of development to the children who did attend JK with us. (To be even clearer: our preschool and JK are developmentally appropriate, play- and choice-based programs, where the priorities are social skill development and language immersion.) And I already hate how all this sounds because GACK! Screening for kindergarten!  Comparing 4 year olds' social skills! And I feel like I am suggesting that children who did NOT attend our JK are somehow deficient or of lesser quality, and that is so not the case, and oh God this is terrible and uncomfortable for all of us, isn't it? So let's just move along: for a number of good reasons, we needed a screener to assess incoming K students. And while I am not 100% comfortable with that, we are a private school and there were reasons, and we do not have unlimited resources to support really high-needs kids, and if we were a public school this would be unconscionable, and please don't hate on me, I KNOW. I KNOW.

(*Collective deep breath*) Okay. So. After many long discussions and sleepless nights, Camryn (my boss) and I came up with the following:

In the context of a meet and greet with the parents, Camryn gives the child a piece of paper and a big box of crayons, and casually asks the munchkin to draw a picture of her/himself while Mom and/or Dad chat with Camryn. When kiddo reports that the picture is done, Camryn asks him/her to talk about their picture, and asks if they can write their name on it, ALL VERY CASUALLY AND CONVERSATIONALLY SO NO ONE FEELS STRESSED. After that, parents go on a school tour with our Director of Admissions, and Camryn brings the munchkin down to my classroom to hang out with other children for a half-hour or so, and do whatever we are doing. AND THAT IS ALL. Basically, if kiddo can make deliberate marks with a crayon, respond appropriately to questions about the drawing, and interact with my class without smacking anyone, they are in. (Assuming that parents are also reasonable, pleasant, and on board with our school's mission, values, and philosophy.)

Now, I realise that describing my school's screening procedures is not the same as sharing my own "expectations" for students who arrive at my classroom door on the first day of school, but there is definitely a link between the two. Ideally, a child who is "ready" for my classroom:

  • feels excited about starting school, 
  • identifies his or her own name
  • uses writing utensils and scissors purposefully
  • takes turns in a game with other children
  • counts to 10 
  • will sit and listen to a story

That's it. That's all. Those are the only things I am willing to commit to in writing, and I am even hesitant to do that, because I have had children who can't do those things at the beginning of the year, and still manage kindergarten beautifully. So I also have to say, even with this short list in place:

  • If a child is scared about kindergarten, I will hold his hand until he feels safe.
  • If her own name is a string of hieroglyphics, I will point out the letter(s) that make it unique.
  • If scissors are new and unfamiliar, I will hold the paper while he makes his first cuts.
  • If taking turns stretches her self-control to the limit, I will play, too, and model how it works.
  • If counting stalls at 7, we will play counting games every day until 8, 9, 10, are familiar friends.
  • If sitting still is too hard, I will provide her a wiggle cushion, a fidget toy, a special spot, and I will read my very best stories, in my very best voices, until a story is a better treat than a treat.
  • And I WILL NOT grumble or complain that a child who struggles with ANY (or all) of these things "wasn't ready" for kindergarten.
Because, at the end of the day, doing all those things adds up to Doing My Job. Children can't walk in a straight line? My job to make up a game to help them. Can't get ready for recess on a snowy day in less than 20 minutes? My job to write a poem/chant/cheer to help everyone remember that mittens go last. Can't tell B from P? My job. Doesn't know what comes after 8? My job. Can't produce a rhyme for cat; the sound for G, a word that starts with M? My job, my job, my job. Yes, many children can do all of these things when they start kindergarten, but many can't. The ones who can't, learn from those who can. The ones who can, may not be able to weather minor disappointments without tears, or cope with being last in a line. It is also My Job to help THOSE children master THOSE skills.

It is my job to be ready, on the first day of school, to reach and teach, the children who walk in my door. And THAT, to me, is what Kindergarten Readiness means. 

It means that THE KINDERGARTEN, (and the teachers who teach there), are ready.