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One short month ago, millions of 5-year-olds began their academic journeys in those unique and beloved classrooms not identified by ordinal numbers attached to the word “grade.”
Should their grandparents ask them what they did at school today, however, they’re likely to cause some head-scratching with their answers.
Adults of a certain age – even those years away from becoming grandparents – spent only the morning or the afternoon in their kindergarten classrooms. They learned to tie their shoes. They counted to 10. They recited their ABCs. They memorized their street addresses and phone numbers. They napped on mats or even large bath towels.
Those times are gone.
Kindergarten students now spend their days – full days, that is – working on math and language arts while they stretch their imaginations and explore nature.
Children are expected to develop phonemic awareness, correctly identify and pronounce “sight words” within seconds, write in their journals, perform simple addition and subtraction and investigate concepts of geometry.
“You won’t see sleeping,” says Anne Gregory, chair of NIU’s Department of Literacy and Elementary Education.
“What’s happening in kindergarten is a ramification of No Child Left Behind and the increased literacy and numeracy demands on students,” Gregory adds. “Assessment begins in third-grade, and what teachers were finding was that, by third-grade, students didn’t have the literacy and numeracy skills that were being assessed.”
“It was in Seattle. It was amazing, with plenty of space and time for children’s play,” says Jung, who is from South Korea. “Those classrooms have gradually disappeared. There is a more traditional arrangement of tables. There is no, or less, playtime. There is more time spent on academics.”
He agrees with Gregory on what’s pushing the change and adds the Common Core Learning Standards to the conversation.
According to the Common Core website, “today’s students are preparing to enter a world in which colleges and businesses are demanding more than ever before. To ensure all students are ready for success after high school, the Common Core State Standards establish clear, consistent guidelines for what every student should know and be able to do in math and English language arts from kindergarten through 12th-grade.”
Forty-two states and the District of Columbia have adopted Common Core, which focuses on developing “critical-thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills.”
Unfortunately, Jung says, Common Core arrived without enough time for professionals in education to thoroughly examine and discuss the initiative or to prepare pre-service teachers for its mandates.
“Certainly the children are capable of doing these things,” says Jung, who teaches methods courses in early childhood math and sciences. “But for some children with different experiences, or different knowledge, we have to consider different ways to teach that content to those kids. And the question is: ‘Are all the teachers ready to teach that content appropriately?’ ”
But, for now, teachers must do what they can.
“A kindergarten teacher showed her kindergartners a triangle-shaped tower made of disposable plastic cups and had them build theirs during their free time,” Jung says.
“After about two weeks, she asked the kindergartners to think about how many cups they would need to build the tower with a specified levels, like a seven-story tower,” he adds. “The challenging part was that they had to do it without cups. They came up with different answers but were excited about sharing their reasoning.”
The blocks also facilitate other numeracy concepts, Gregory says, when children are asked to count and sort them.
“It’s one thing to know the number 3, but it’s another thing to know that it represents three of something. This way, children are certain to make the connection between abstract and practical,” she says. “They’re even learning addition; if you have three ladybugs and three butterflies, you can count them all together or add and subtract.”
Meanwhile, she says, the language arts curriculum is far beyond storytime.
“Most children coming out of kindergarten are reading,” Gregory says. “They have an expectation of at least 25 words, and for some, it’s more like 100 words.”
Rather than looking at the images in a picture book, she says, they might tell their teachers what they see in the photos. Rather than merely listening to stories read aloud, they might spin – or even perform – their own versions. Rather than just drawing pictures, they might need to offer their theories of the messages being conveyed by the drawings made by their classmates.
“Today’s kindergarten is much more purposeful. There’s not a lot of randomness,” she says. “We can see if children are experiencing difficulty, and if we identify that early, we can help them regain their trajectory. Early intervention works. We can meet them where they are and help them grow.”
Are 5-year-olds ready for the new kindergarten?
“On the whole, yes,” Gregory says. “Others, no, but we see that even at the college level. Some teachers do it better than others. Some parents do it better than others.”
Nonetheless, the professors believe the new way of conducting business is the right way.
The earlier academic push in math and literacy will boost children down the road, Jung says, and lift the global competiveness of the United States.
“I’m not a fan of making things easier, or having a lack of rigor. We often say ‘developmentally appropriate practices,’ but it never means teaching children easy content all the time,” Jung says. “Kindergarten should be something challenging enough to promote their development and learning.”
“There’s no disappointment in that,” he says. “The children are all excited about their learning.”
Jung does worry, however, that teachers might feel pressure to cover every standard and present more one-way teaching and teacher-led instruction.
“Researchers and teacher-educators need to discuss not just whether it’s really appropriate but how we teach it appropriately. I’m not sure we have had enough research conducted,” he says. “I’m not shedding my belief on standards. Having high expectations for children is really important, but many things should be taken into consideration at the same time, such as individual differences and connection to children’s interests.”
Gregory is confident that students who are preparing to teach kindergarten will make that happen.
Pre-service teachers of traditional college age remember have been “part of the evolution” and are not surprised by the world they’re walking into, she says.
“We’re producing amazing, amazing kindergarten teachers who provide learning opportunities and experiences in multifaceted ways,” she says. “When those are done well, kids enjoy learning – and that excitement continues and continues.”