I prefer working with smaller children. The challenges of working with students who sometimes cry, have bathroom accidents and need a lot of individual attention are outweighed by the benefits working with children who are generally happy to see me every day and haven’t learned to dislike school or one another. I know that I would have zero tolerance for the sassy mean-girl stuff seen in upper grades. The budding (sometimes inappropriate) sexuality of the tweens and the young teens would not be comfortable for me either, despite the interesting curricular possibilities with older students that appeal to me in theory. Although I enjoy the younger kids, I also see a huge range of skills among the incoming students. While some demonstrate a certain level of background knowledge and readiness for the school setting, many more of them don’t. I have seen children who, oddly, demonstrate no sense of curiosity, who appear to have had little or no experience with parents who read to them, or even converse with them. It’s an alarming reality of my job.
So, what’s the appropriate response in working with such students? Should we design our practice from a purely skills-based perspective? Should we remedy the gaps in early at-home language and literacy experience with an immediate dose of phonics and letter recognition/sight word tasks? I refuse to do so, but plenty of teachers will do just that. They do it because they are told that they will be evaluated on how well their students do in post-testing. They do it because they are afraid their jobs will be on the line. And, they do it because they don’t know any better. Children, from all walks of life, learn best while engaged in play or in pursuits that they find meaningful.
This recent Chicago Tribune story is worth a look but its title, “Kindergarten: It’s the new first grade” is somewhat inaccurate. In fact, the trend toward pushing first grade curriculum with kindergartners in US schools is not new. Experts in the early education field have been questioning its merits for a number of years. Dr. Edward Zigler (of Headstart fame), for example, has written articles and spoken publicly regarding the dubious merits of “pushing down” curriculum of upper grades into increasingly younger classes. Of course we want students who are literate but we also want them to be well-rounded citizens with social and academic problem-solving skills. More than forty years after the HighScope Perry Preschool Longevity study was launched we can still see statistically significant differences in the levels of life-success among those individuals who were selected for inclusion in the HighScope program and their peers who weren’t.
Our primary concern with our smallest charges should be in developing students who love to learn, students who can be self-directed and socially successful. We already know that many students don’t get the important “lap time” at home, that crucial learning time spent with a caring adult who reads to and engages with the small child. We need to find a way to make up for that lost time but it isn’t through treating children as passive receptacles for abstract bits of information. It is our moral obligation to provide child-responsive learning environments in which we can assist children in becoming students who embrace learning, love reading and who can express themselves effectively.