It may be the middle of summer vacation, but my thoughts are already turning toward the new school year, especially with my younger child heading to Kindergarten.
This was originally posted on my OpenSalon blog:
Kindergarten is the New First Grade, the headlines announce.
The unreported sidebar is that Parents are the New Teachers.
Not home schooling parents, who intentionally choose to undertake their childrens’ education. I’m talking about parents like myself, who grunt through the nap wars of the toddler years and the “No!” and “Why?” phases of the preschool years. We chant a mantra under our breaths, “They’ll be in kindergarten soon… they’ll be in kindergarten soon…” and we slog through those early years by keeping focused on the first day of school at the end of the tunnel.
Everything I needed to shatter that illusion was learned in my first son’s kindergarten year. Today’s kindergarten is nothing like my own experience. In the 1970s, I walked alone down what seemed like a mile-long street in a Chicago suburb to wait at the bus stop with other kids, who would later make slanty eyes and ching-chong sounds at me as I looked for a seat. In the winter, the sidewalks were covered with snow. After school, I’d walk through the empty lots of our subdivision to the babysitter’s house, where I’d watch Tom and Jerry until my mother returned home from her job downtown. Despite the harsh beginnings and ends of my school days, I cherished the actual class time, with its clay art projects and the aide who pulled the top students out of our class to practice reading in a separate room.
On my son’s first day of kindergarten, the parents were required to attend with the children. There, it was announced that children need to be picked up at the classroom door, and that if we didn’t show up within ten minutes, our kids would be escorted down to the Principal’s office. Volunteers were also needed each day, as well as for monthly art and science lessons, and the occasional holiday parties and field trip.
Like a good mother, I signed up. I found myself in the classroom on a regular basis. Not making copies or handing out cookies, but running a station. Sometimes it was letter tracing, other times scissor skills. In this particular school, the kindergarteners either come in well-prepared for the increasingly rigorous state standards or completely unprepared, maybe not even knowing the alphabet. My job was to watch over the groups who came to my table for twenty minute rotations, checking their pencil work and helping correct their misformed letters or encouraging them to add to their scribble-scrabbled drawings. In other words, I was supposed to teach them.
I’d come home from the morning in class more exhausted than my son, who now had homework to do. Every Monday, our five year-old brought home a manila folder. Inside were four or five worksheets (tracing letters, counting objects, dot-to-dots, etc), sometimes an art project or other “suggested activities”. Taped on the outside was a pink sheet of paper with lines for the parent to sign each Friday, vouching that their child completed the enclosed assignments.
I’m not really a fan of the highly academic, test score oriented method of education. But having been raised by Taiwanese immigrants who come from a Confucian tradition where education is revered above almost everything, and studying is the closest we came to competitive sports, it’s hard to escape the attention to education that has been ingrained in me since my own kindergarten days.
So every Monday afternoon, as my little boy ate his lunch, I took out the manila folder, feeling its heft and weight in hopes of an easy week. The first day, I let him choose his poison. He usually goes for the Letter of the Week book. That week’s letter was Q, with Quentin Quail. His task is to come up with five things that begin with their Alpha Pal, draw pictures of them and write the words. I suggested that he begin by making a rubbing of a quarter. Quite excited, he dumps out my wallet looking for coins. But the rubbings don’t come out as planned. They are smeared, and he gets frustrated and leaves in search of some couch cushions to jump on.
Soon it’s Thursday. Four o’clock in the afternoon, to be exact. There are four and four-fifths pages of homework left to do. I remind my son that he gets to play Webkins after doing a homework sheet, a little extra if he does two. But he is unmoved. By 5:30, I am too busy making dinner to be the Homework Motivator, and when my husband calls home to say he’ll be a little late, I can’t take it anymore.
“Exactly how late?” I ask, with gritted teeth.
“Just an hour. Do you have somewhere to go tonight?”
“No. But the boy hasn’t done any homework. And you know it’s impossible for me to sit down and focus on getting him to do homework with a toddler bouncing around demanding my attention.”
“Forget the homework,” my husband says. Why not just shoo the kids out into the corner while I drink rum and coke and read the National Enquirer?
“But he hasn’t done it for two days! And it’s piling up!”
“He has plenty of years of homework ahead of him. Don’t worry about it.”
My husband likes to remind me that during the parent orientation on the first day of school, the teacher emphasized that we should teach our kids that the parents are not in kindergarten, they are, and that it is their job to do their homework, bring their show-and-tell, turn in their reading packets. But I can’t let it go. I feel like it is my homework. And since my child is only five years old and barely understands the concept of responsibility, consequences or the value of education — it sort of is my job to see that he does it.
I was reminded of this every time I volunteered in the classroom. As the year progressed, the students who don’t have parental support fall further and further behind the ones who do. One particular boy comes to mind. I didn’t see his parents at Back to School Night — or morning drop off. He’s picked up after school by an older woman who yells for him from her car, while her pit bull puppy yaps from the passenger window. I know from stuffing homework folders that That Boy no longer has a folder. It hadn’t been turned in since early fall, and his weekly assignments are sent home in a Ziploc bag. That Boy was regularly sent to another classroom — that of a Hispanic male teacher — when all other disciplinary measures had been exhausted.
Yet one day, instead of assigning me to a station, the teacher hands me a packet of basic readers. Attached to it was a list of names, including That Boy. “Could you pull these kids aside and have them practice reading aloud? They’re not getting the help they need at home.”
I took a deep breath and called him over. Opening the book — one my own child read the second month of school — I ask him to point to the words and read them aloud.
“I dunno,” he responds over and over, as I prod him to sound out the words. After half an hour, we manage to stutter through the thin booklet. I am relieved, and I assume he is too.
“Well, you’re free to go join your class at circle time!” I announce, perhaps a little too cheerfully.
“Aww, can’t we do this some more?” he asks. I could not refuse.
Two years have passed since that kindergarten class. All the kids moved on to first grade, except That Boy, who repeated kindergarten in the Hispanic male teacher’s class. By the time he reached first grade, he was enrolled in the after school day care and I heard through other parents that he was doing much better in class.
My son, now approaching third grade, is learning to take ownership of his homework. And I am learning not to take so much responsibility, to stop looking over his shoulder, and to let him do his homework in whatever manner he sees fit. Sometimes the papers are returned with markings like “OK” or corrections on poorly formed letters, and I feel like I have been given a failing grade as a parent. Okay, not a failing grade. Those are probably reserved for the parents whose kids don’t turn in their folders at all, and bring their papers home in a school-issued Ziploc bag. So it’s more like a C+, a passable job. Maybe it’s a bit narcissistic of me, but I think it’s that little bit of nudging, bribing, and looking over the shoulder that separates the filled — albeit imperfect folders — from the ones that don’t get returned at all.
My younger son will start kindergarten this fall, in a very different environment from that of two years ago. California budget cuts have eliminated teacher’s aides, and all classrooms in our school district — even kindergarten — are swelling with thirty students. Meanwhile, the instructional time has been increased to a full day in an attempt to keep up with the ever increasing standards. Even the dedicated, award-winning teachers, like the one who taught my older son’s class look a little tired and weary as they walk around campus. I’ve already told the kindergarten teacher I’ll be back.
By the way, I received a letter from the school yesterday, informing us that my younger son has indeed been assigned to the same Kindergarten Teacher.
For more information about the current state of education, you might also be interested in:
President Obama’s Race to the Top campaign