Wednesday, August 08, 2012

And so it begins...

This is not the classroom, but it looked a bit like this

Today we met a very important person for the first time. In order to complete her screening for kindergarten, Melinda and I took our 5-year-old Clare to the school where she will begin school in about four weeks. In the process, of course, we got to introduce Clare to the woman who will be her kindergarten teacher. This will be the person who turns Clare on (or off, or to lukewarm) to learning in the school environment, the person who will shape her day and mold her thinking over the next nine months almost more than we, her parents will. She will teach her how to read and show her how to use technology (there are four new iPads in the classroom). Like I said, important person.

Needless to say, it is easy to make too big a deal about these kinds of things, and there are plenty of blogs out there written by what I would consider to be anxious, over-protective parents who obsess over the tiniest detail of their child’s education. While I don’t think I’d put myself in that category, I must be honest and say that ever since I read this article two years ago I’ve been especially curious and apprehensive about what my daughters’ kindergarten environments might be like. We’ve heard great things about this school and the teachers from just about everyone. When we walked into the building for the first time today, it felt smaller and more intimate than what I remember about the three bland-looking elementary schools I attended. We learned that Clare will be in a “pod” (that was new to me) with three other kindergarten classes, but there will be only one teacher in her class. We saw the playground (which seemed a little small, in my opinion) and walked past the media center (or was it the library? Back in my day of cassette-tape read-along books, those were one-and-the-same). All in all, it seems like a great place, but I knew that the relationship between Clare and her teacher would be the key component. Clare is not the most outgoing kid, but she can open up around adults if they are patient and calm. All the whiz-bang technology in the world and the fanciest, most intellect-stimulating wall decorations will not make up for a lack of communication and trust between Clare and her teacher. Put 40 iPads in that room and it won’t mean a thing if the teacher doesn’t stop to listen to Clare and give her time to think.

And, I am thankful to say that part seemed to go well. As I had predicted, Clare opened up very slowly and acted a bit overwhelmed. The teacher, however, was patient and composed. She tried very carefully—and finally succeeded—in making a connection with Clare. I tried to be as silent as I could through the whole visit (which is hard for me) so that Clare and her teacher could get as comfortable as they could in an hour without my becoming a crutch for either of them.  Meanwhile, I observed the room. Colors everywhere. It looked like everything had a label. It has probably been about, oh, 32 years since I was last in a kindergarten class, but have they walls always been this busy? I noticed that there will be nineteen students in Clare’s class. Six of their names start with “C.” Overall, thirteen of the students are girls. There were a few pictures of presidents on the wall. Number tables. Numbers over the letters over the whiteboard. Boxes and bins for all kinds of assignments. Most of the books on the bookshelf were of the Dr. Seuss variety. It was an assault on the senses, as Melinda said. The teacher is young—about my age, maybe a little younger—but she seems to have clear opinions of what works and doesn’t work in the elementary school environment. I guess an informed, headstrong kindergarten teacher is a good thing. She must have mentioned the word “literacy” about a dozen times. There will also be something called a Promethian Board in Clare’s room, whatever that is.

Am I still nervous and apprehensive? I don’t think so, but it does make me reflect a little more on the decisions Melinda and I have made about our daughters’ education. Neither of us has taken an overly-active role in teaching her reading or writing before this point. I have no way of knowing how we compare to other parents in this regard. I am not an educator or pedagogue, and the reason why I have taken very few steps to teach our girls formal lessons is because I kind of think I’ll screw it up. They also haven’t seemed ready to latch on to that stuff. But when I watched Clare complete her screening “test,” I naturally wondered if the teacher thought she was “advanced” or “average.” She did just fine, but naturally there were some small questions she missed. Why haven’t we taught her our home phone number yet? I didn’t realize they would ask that! When we started talking about the assessments for giftedness that would come in the future, I pondered where Clare would fall on those scales and—more importantly—how I might react to the results. As a student, I was far too caught up in various labels and intellectual categories. Had I left those prejudices behind? Had we done enough in this first five-and-a-half years to get her ahead of the curve? Will this public school environment stunt her true abilities? We have friends who home-school their kids. Was their frustration with/disdain for/mistrust of the school system something we should be considering ourselves? What about parochial school, where classes would be smaller and some type of religious component might be included? Private school? Maybe there she'd get P.E. more than once a week. Don't they realize she might be the next Misty May-Treanor? There are so many decisions, so many influences. It’s easy to see why many parents start to obsess about all those little details.

Before the meeting even began, we were sitting out in the foyer area waiting for her teacher to finish an earlier meeting. Right as we made ourselves comfortable in the chairs, Clare pulled a random book off of a bookshelf there and asked Melinda to read it to her. It was an illustrated book that told that old fable about the poor farmer and his daughter who take their little donkey to town to sell some things in the market. You know how the story goes. They begin walking alongside the donkey together, happily. Before too long, they happen upon a person who is perplexed as to why the young girl would be walking rather than riding the donkey. So the father puts her on the donkey, and they continue on their way. The next person they see is aghast that the young, able girl is riding the beast of burden while the older, tired father is walking. They switch places. By the time they get to the market, they’ve switched places and tried so many kinds of combinations with that poor donkey that all three of them are exhausted. They also ended up the same way they started.

I guess I’ll view Clare’s chance book selection as prophetic in this instance. That is, Melinda and I have decided that this kindergarten and this teacher and this public school system are going to be just fine for us. This is the combination that seems to work for now, and I can’t imagine that would change. I’m sure from time to time I’ll allow myself to be persuaded by those who might question us—directly and indirectly—about the choices we’ll make for their futures. More likely, Melinda and I will begin to doubt ourselves and wonder if we’re reading things the right way or challenging them enough at home or stepping in to intervene when we really should just sit in the corner and play with the iPads some more. To a degree, all of this—like so much of life—is out of our hands, anyway, and we’ll just need to learn to be happy with the donkey we’ve ended up with (and by that I don’t mean the teacher, but the system) and ride it the way it feels best for us. We'll get to town just fine...even if we have to stop occasionally to read the busy bulletin boards.

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