Why Parents Need a New Kind of Kindergarten Tea

I have given many talks to parents of children about to enter kindergarten, but the one I am giving on Wednesday, April 22 at 7:30 p.m. at Creative Coworking, 922 Davis in Evanston will definitely be different. I have promised to talk about Everything You Wanted to Know About Kindergarten (but were afraid to ask). Part of me is afraid to tell parents how I fear kindergarten has lost its way.kindergarten_jpegIn all of the 25+ years I have talked about going to kindergarten, I have tried to straddle a fine line. I want parents to go into formal schooling with their eyes wide open. They need to be knowledgeable about current practices and expectations for their young children. They should be informed advocates for their children and for good educational practice. And yet, I don’t want them to panic about having their children enter a “school system.”  It is a delicate balancing act.

Cartoon by Marcia Liss

Cartoon by Marcia Liss

I know it seems contradictory to tell parents to “watch out” and “relax” at the same time. Over all of the years I have given these talks, the things to be wary of in public education varied from year to year. But I felt comfortable telling parents that, while not every year would be stellar, overall their children would be fine. Yes, some teachers were just adequate, but most children could learn from such a teacher (even if it was how to deal with disappointing teachers).

In these past talks, I used to draw from my own experiences as a part time working mom of three kids in the 1980’s. If school did not challenge my children, or teach them how to write a proper five-paragraph essay, or explain math well enough to complete the homework assignment, this was not a huge worry. I helped with reading and writing, leaving the math to my husband. After all, parents are their children’s first and best teachers.

Since I was usually addressing middle-class families with two parents in the home, families who could afford to have one parent working part-time or staying home with children, I guess my perspective made some sense back then.  With 20/20 hindsight, I now realize I was addressing a small slice of the social and economic pie and the recipe is definitely different for everyone these days.

My grandchildren entered public school during the era of accountability, narrowed curriculum due the emphasis on math and reading above all else, and teaching to that all-important high stakes test. Schools have been under enormous pressure since politicians and businessmen have become educational experts in determining policy. Education is now standards-driven rather than developmentally appropriate, and the rights of children with special needs or exceptional abilities or different learning styles often fall prey to financial constraints and inability to differentiate instruction. My grandchildren’s schooling reflects the lack of time for play, projects, social studies, or even science. And then there is the homework, which starts in kindergarten in one state and first grade in another.

At the same time, society has changed, the economy has deteriorated, and the model of parents who are available to help children with homework they can’t do by themselves has become a challenge for middle-income families as well as those living in or near poverty. These days, the parents (usually mothers) who were available to be their children’s “first and best teachers” now work full time because they have careers they love, because their families need their income, and/or because they are the sole wage earners.

For these reasons, I now feel compelled to yell, “watch out” more loudly than before.

  • Watch out if your child is shy or anxious.  She may not perform well on standardized tests and that will impact what educators think she can/should learn, beginning in kindergarten.
  • Watch out if your child has special needs.  You will be stepping into a minefield and have to become a strong advocate for your child’s right to be included and educated to reach his potential.
  • Watch out if you can’t really help your child with homework due to the demands of your life situation or work schedule.  Much of the homework does not reinforce concepts learned at school.  It often introduces new concepts and usually takes far longer to complete than necessary.
  • Watch out if you have a very active child.  Most of school consists of sitting with limited recess and exercise.
  • Watch out if you have a very creative child.  It is often more important to complete the work like everyone else than to devote too much time to drawing illustrations or imaginative writing.

Check out some of my grandson’s kindergarten homework:

Write the sight word :"are" 10 times in your neatest handwriting.

Write the word “are” 10 times in your neatest handwriting. Painful for a young 5-year-old.

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Reading comprehension? Homework notebook? His prediction: the book was about a train. It was.

Kindergarten has come a long way from 1988 when Robert Fulghum published All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. A good part of his advice is no longer found in today’s kindergarten:

Live a balanced life (that would include knowing more than math and reading)

Learn some and think some (not too much time to think these days)

And draw and paint and sing and dance (not much of this either)

And play and work everyday some (lots of work but not much play)

Take a nap every afternoon (no time for kindergarten naps anymore)

…Be aware of wonder (not part of the curriculum and not on the test)

So I am a bit worried about the 2015 edition of my going to kindergarten talk. This will definitely be a different kind of kindergarten tea. But I am also hopeful that change will come from the grass roots. Parents need to know what is happening, why it is not developmentally appropriate, how to advocate for their children, and how to work respectfully for change. So please join me for a cup of tea and let’s talk.

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