Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Curriculum in a Kindergarten Classroom

I like to think of my daughter's public school classroom as fairly laid back, as far as public school goes. I know the classrooms can range district to district, school to school or even teacher to teacher, but we got lucky.

We landed a teacher (I will call her Ms. K) with an amazing mix of heart, humor and skills for teaching 27 little ones every day. I have said this a bunch of times, I know, but I will probably keep saying it until the day Eloise graduates from first grade (yup, we get Ms. K for two years!).

So on curriculum night last week many of us parents squeezed our giant bottoms on little kid chairs and listened intently to Ms. K talk about her approach to teaching kindergarten. I felt like everything she said, and it isn't just lip service with her, was absolutely spot on to what I feel should be the focus of the classroom. Here are some highlights:

Classroom Dynamic

Ms. K works from day one to help the children develop a sense of ownership in the classroom. The students all help develop the rules of the classroom as well as a system to how things work so that they have pride in how things work. The rules are practiced together and children are encouraged to work things out between themselves when they can, with some guidance from "the wheel of choice" when needed (the wheel of choice is a guide to solutions). Meetings and talking circles provide education and reflection on what is going on in the classroom. Stuffed animals help demonstrate situations and give the kids another way of exploring behavior. Shy snail and impulsive puppy were a couple of stars from the story telling animals.

Support in the School and at Home

The children have connections with not only many other adults in the school, but other children, as well. There are kids in the school up to 14 years old and sometimes the Kindergarten kids get help from "big buddies", which so far Eloise absolutely loves. There are teachers who work with the kids on the arts, in the library, in the gym, and members of the staff in the front office and in the counselor's office interact with the kids on a regular basis. Ms. K is huge on parental support in the classroom. She shares a huge amount of information a regular basis on what is going on in the class and welcomes parent volunteers in to the class every day.

Math Curriculum

Math on the level of 5/6 year olds is generally more about understanding concepts than it is about memorizing numbers and drills on worksheets. They have begun to work with patterns and math games to gain a general sense of how numbers work. When I have been volunteering I get to watch Ms. K starts out a math portion of the day with a brain dance. She guides the kids through a seemingly random set of motions connected to a story ("let's pretend we are newborn fish hatching from our eggs! Let's wiggle out of the egg, now let's stretch our fins!") but she deliberately goes through a series of moves that activate the brain by moving the body up and down, crossing arms and legs over your mid-line, things like that. After the brain dance kids get to break up in to small groups and play math games such as uno or dice games or pattern blocks.

Reading and Writing Curriculum

I absolutely loved that the focus right now is learning to tell a story and not on being able to even write words yet, let alone spell things correctly. The kids are given a choice of different kinds of paper to use during their writing time-- everything from a paper with an empty space to draw in with no lines for writing on to a page that is half lines for writing and half space for drawing. The kids are learning three sections of a story, "First, then, finally". So they compose a story such as "first I put on my shoes, then I walked my dog, finally we made it to the playground" all in picture. As they become more interested in the words they often start by writing initials of the people in their stories and then move on to writing their names. This builds in to writing the text of the story, though the focus is still on the story and not on the words. Children will often start out reading things that they have written themselves, which I found fascinating. Ms. K pointed out that a kid who reads at four and a kid who reads at seven pretty much totally even out their skill level by the time they hit third grade, so focusing on words and letters isn't at the heart of their reading and writing curriculum. It's on understanding how to tell stories.

What Else is Going On?

The kids in this Kindergarten class are on the move. Besides an afternoon session of Ms. K reading to the kids while they hang out on their carpet squares and listen/draw, I never see them stuck on their bottoms for long and I am sure it helps that there are three recesses a day. The whole notion of public school kids being stuck behind a desk does not hold true around there at all. By next week the kids will have already gone on two field trips, as well.

Do I wish there was more art? Sure I do, but they also get music, PE, library time and a foreign language. And Ms. K does art in the class, as well, sometimes sneakily wrapped up with a math lesson or expounding on an adventure learning about a certain animal. I deeply miss the amazing art studio of Eloise's previous school, but they weren't getting some of this other stuff, so I think it balances out.

I loved how intentional Ms. K also is about so many things in her classroom. Like for example, she has two different number lines up in her room, one that runs from left to right and one from top to bottom, so kids can begin to see the relation between the numbers is the same even when they arranged a little different. It was fascinating to hear her explain how all sorts of concepts can be taught in subtle ways. She even rolled her eyes a bit as she explained how she slips in some WASL info in to the day (ie teaching the definition of perimeter out on the playground by asking kids to "run the perimeter" of the playground" because she knows it's on the test). She knows the kids have to take the WASL, so she is required on some level to teach to it, but she is creative about it and I really appreciate that about her. She will take attendance with colored cubes that fit together, re-arranging them so the kids can see the total number is the same even when the pattern of colors change.

In my opinion, however, Ms. K goes the furthest on having a huge heart and a passion for teaching these kids. You can tell she just really adores them and does everything she can to help nurture their spirit, and not their ability to take a test.

I look forward to stealing a few teaching pointers from her to incorporate in to homeschooling, as well!

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