February 2, 2014

My Truth About Kindergarten

A friend shared a blog post on facebook yesterday from a blog called Truth About Education, and I'm pretty sure she shared because she found it compelling and agreeable.  I clicked on it because it's about education and I have my own hearty dose of disagreement with the way mainstream education is handled.  Right?  So a post entitled, "the Disturbing Transformation of Kindergarten" sounded right up my alley.

But I was almost instantly just shaking my head.  To say that I was horrified at the ideas set forth in the piece would be no understatement.  I'll hold back a little and try to focus on one single point of frustration that centers on literacy.

The blogger wrote:
"A new University of Virginia study found that kindergarten changed in disturbing ways from 1999-2006. There was a marked decline in exposure to social studies, science, music, art and physical education and an increased emphasis on reading instruction. Teachers reported spending as much time on reading as all other subjects combined."

Explain to me why it is disturbing that schools are emphasizing the only skill that will allow students to follow their own interest and be more engaged in their own education?  Non-readers learn only what they are spoon fed.  Readers can follow their curiosity in all of those areas that the author of the post suggests schools are neglecting.  I would argue that if you can read, you can teach yourself anything.  It's like the whole give a man a fish or teach a man to fish proverb.  Let's teach these kids to fish!

She goes on to write:
"Two major studies confirmed the value of play vs. teaching reading skills to young children. Both compared children who learned to read at 5 with those who learned at 7 and spent their early years in play-based activities. Those who read at 5 had no advantage. Those who learned to read later had better comprehension by age 11, because their early play experiences improved their language development."

I wholeheartedly agree that play is absolutely critical for kindergartners.  But Kindergarten is half a day!  That half of the day that isn't spent in school?  That's the play part.  What would be the point of kindergarten if it were just more of what you're doing when you're home?  

First this post complains that kids aren't being taught a wide enough range of courses in kindergarten, and then it seems to complain that kids are getting too much instruction.  Does the author want kindergarten teachers to let the kids play or cover science, social studies and art?  I'm kind of confused about the aim of this post, other than the authors position that somehow focusing on literacy skills in Kindergarten is disturbing.  The idea of not teaching it disturbs me, but you've probably already figured out where I stand on this one.

It goes on to gripe about Common Core and No Child Left Behind, and there's plenty to gripe about there.  So much to gripe about, in fact, that I can't even decide where to begin.  So I won't.  Instead, I'll just speak my truth about Kindergarten:

The absolute most important step toward becoming a self- led learner is to become a reader.  Readers can learn every other subject on their own as long as someone provides them with books.  It's kind of like magic.  I mean, what's more magical than being able to go after any knowledge you want without having to wait around for an adult to give it to you?  It's the ultimate freedom!  

If it were up to me, kids of kindergarten age might spend their instructional hours exclusively on learning to read until it's mastered.  And not with stupid, boring, completely unimportant snippets of text, but with fun text, and with text that actually covers all of those subjects that the author of this post feels are being neglected.  That would still leave half a day for play.  

I didn't spend time trying to track down the studies that she claims found that early readers have a harder time in school because they didn't play enough.  Those are the only ones for which she didn't even mention what institution s conducted them.  But I'm not overly concerned about them, really, because you don't have to choose between play and reading.  If that really is the premise of the two studies she mentions, they are junk studies because they are based on a false assumption that playing and reading are mutually exclusive.  Half a day exploring the world through reading, half a day playing.  Win, win!

I'm not claiming to have it all figured out, but I feel like we did get one thing right.  We raised readers.  With a lot of attention to phonics, our kids could read early and as a result, they teach me all kinds of random junk that I would never have learned on my own.  Why?  Well, because I'm a boring grown up now and I don't spend a lot of time reading about reptilian diets (but Hunter, age 7, does), civil rights leaders and athletes (that's Haven's big thing at age 6), or Greek gods (Hannah Jane's area of expertise at age 10).  I bring home the books and they tell me what's in them.  They know things few teachers would ever have taught them simply because they are readers.

And they teach each other what they learn because they are so enthusiastic about their books that they can't contain themselves.  They have to share.  I doubt they'd be as excited about factoids that were spoon fed to them by an authority figure.  And if they got their facts along side all of their peers, who would there be to tell?  It's the independent findings that they feel passionately about and that only happens because they can read and enjoy it because it's easy.  It's only easy because we emphasized it early on.

Okay, that was a little ranty.  But reading is the gateway skill and it horrifies me to think of mothers reading that post and thinking, Maybe she has a point!  They should be playing more at school!  or Science is as important as reading!  Why isn't it getting more time?  Everything worth learning about, requires reading.  I know that not everyone learns to read with the same ease or at the same age, but that doesn't mean that reluctant readers have to have a miserable time in school and be turned off to education.  There are gentle ways to guide slow readers to higher levels of fluency.  If it's the late readers we're worried about, let's not suggest that we should just have all kids do nothing but play so that late readers don't feel pressure.  Let's patiently offer them the skills in a variety of ways until we find one that speaks to their individual brains.  

Here's to the magic and importance of reading!  May it never be under cut!

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