Why I went back to Kindergarten
November 1, 2011
Posted in Education
My wife and I are volunteering in a program called ABQ Reads which takes us into a local elementary school to help kindergarteners work on their reading skills. It is based on reading recovery programs developed elsewhere. Albuquerque schools face an enormous challenge in that by third grade only about 60% of students are reading at grade level and none of them meet No Child Left Behind standards. Rather than addressing this problem the politicians are squabbling about “social promotion” in which kids are passed on to the next grade for social development reasons rather than because they have achieved grade levels in reading and writing. Giving a student more of what is not working anyway (by holding them back) doesn’t seem to me to solve the problem. The ABQ Reads program is based on the idea that by working on the lack of reading preparation at the beginning more students will be at grade level after the first year and will continue on later. Although I don’t buy that they will continue on without further assistance I recognize that the problem is so great we have to start somewhere to work on it.
Why am I who has spent thirty years teaching 18-22 year-olds devoting some time to teaching 5 year-olds? Well to start with the kids are cute and it is quite refreshing to teach students who are so thirsty for knowledge, attention or simply someone to listen to them and to do it on a one-to-one basis. They are not representatives or symbols of anything, they’re just kids. It is more than that however. Starting at the beginning rather than the end (the college level) seems to me a good way to try to make the dream of public education a reality. John Dewey and his bunch always thought that public education should be the mechanism to reduce social inequality although today it is only occasionally fulfilling that function. That social inequality starts for a child long before they enter school and certainly continues in their lives outside school while they progress through the grade levels. Kindergarten is that first point where public educational institutions start to intervene in the social process of inequality. Why not make that intervention one the kids enjoy so much they want to continue?
We are just beginning our service but what have I noticed so far? Well a lot of “experts” have obviously given a lot of thought to the best way to teach reading to five year-olds. They have studied child development in physical, intellectual and social skills quite extensively in coming up with the best ways to teach the most children. I must defer to them and follow their curriculum as much as possible. The curriculum seems to me to be overly regimented and does not allow for much “wiggle room” for individualizing for particular students nor in allowing for the great creativity of children at this age. Far be it for me to throw a monkey wrench into what they are doing (don’t laugh) but perhaps even in the half hour a week I spend with each of two students I can add a little bit to what they are teaching. The school system also seems limited in its ambition perhaps because of all the problems they are facing shrinking resources, and increased scrutiny, interference and criticism from outsiders. Their biggest concern is getting the greatest number of kids up to grade level reading. They seem only secondarily concerned with creating curious people, lifelong learners, good citizens or what educational concerns they should have for the 21st century, if they are concerned about these things at all. Part of this is of course the tunnel vision one must develop in an ongoing battle to have any success. To have to rely on volunteers to achieve even these limited goals is our country’s shame but it also means there is nothing to spare for these other things. It will take years for these other things to trickle down to public school teachers. Maybe they won’t at all. In the meantime if they just need volunteer bodies I’m willing to go out to the front lines. It may be like trying to douse a forest fire with a glass of water but I feel good doing it.