20 September 2006

The Rare Breed

I was duly warned: kindergarten teachers are a different sort of nut to crack. This wasn't intended to mean that they were bad people, but it certainly must take a certain kind of person to take the raw materials that enter our school system and make the first experience those kiddos have be a positive one. In our district, kindergarten teachers are a dying breed. Enrollment is decreasing and as long as the state only supports a half day of instruction, we need half the number required for other primary grades. It's even a more rare attribute to find teachers willing to leave their classes after 10 days of instruction and come to professional development---but members of that group did just that for us yesterday.

We kicked off our math and science cadre. (More info here.) Kindergarten teachers from across the district turned out for some time to talk about what their little ones need to be able to do in math and science, share ideas, and generate some enthusiasm to take back and share with other teachers.

The math specialist and I took very different approaches to our sessions, both of which worked well. I started teachers thinking about thalidomide as a way to get at form and function. We then looked at a nutrition label for caramel corn (while they munched some) and pictures of molecules (fats, carbs, proteins) to talk about form and function some more...all the while leading to what kindergartners need to be able to do in science: know that things are made of smaller parts and these parts do different things. It turned out to be a nice way to have teachers think about the "end user"---how we actually use a skill in the real world and that is first developed in kindergarten. Kids need that skill...science can't be "skipped." Anyway, I was really pleased with how it got them thinking about things. They must have been happy, too: they clapped for me at the end of their session and said they wished I'd been their science teacher when they were in school.

I tried to pay attention to my body language and voice. I sat down in front of them a lot---and not behind a table, but almost amongst them. I wanted things to be more conversational. I have absolutely zero expertise where teaching kindergarten is concerned, although I hoped to be looked at as a sort of peer...not someone from The District telling them what they need to be doing. Their kids are my responsibility, too, after all.

The one major insight I had from the day was that they don't know anything (or very much) about building background knowledge for students. I asked them about the kinds of things they might be doing. I clarified that many kids might come from homes where experiences were limited. We all need "pegs to hang ideas on," so how do you help kids acquire those "pegs"? The teachers suggested a few things about reading stories to kids, but not much else. As I think about the achievement gap that we have between our kids who are on free/reduced lunch (a measure of poverty) and those who are not, we need to do something to support the acquisition of background knowledge. If this isn't starting in kindergarten, then where are we doing it? Are we not doing that at all? It's not a pretty thought, but it's something we can talk about more with the cadre. I believe it's a conversation we really have to have as a district.

I've survived another trial by fire in this district role. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this good beginning will continue through the remaining six grade level meetings. First grade teachers arrive in the morning and we'll launch into a look at Balance and Motion. I'd like so much for math and science not to be the taught by a rare breed of elementary teacher.


Christine said...

Our district has just revamped its system for evaluating teachers. One of the "new" things the way we do goal setting. The goal must be measurable and target a specific population. There's a lot of grumbling about it, but I'm loving it.

We did a pretest at the beginning of the year. There was a 20 point gap in the scores between kids on free/reduced lunch as opposed to those pay full price. The bigger focus - the gap everyone *knows* exists - the racial achievement gap? When SES is thrown in, the race gap all but disappears. African-American kids from middle or upper middle-class homes score just as well (and in quite a few cases better than) their white counterparts.

This is a long way around to my point. My goal for the year is to decrease the gap in scores between kids who live in poverty and those who don't. I'm going to be spending a lot of time finding pegs to hang ideas on.

Obviously, what I do with sixth graders will be far different than what is done with kindergarteners, but I suspect that we both need to give our kids the vocabulary needed to do well in each discipline. I'm going to focus on non-fiction writing techniques, so that all kids are writing more in class every day. They already write every day, but I've never taken the time to slow down (ack, with my pacing guide it gives me hives to think about slowing down) and teach them HOW to write.

Now...if only I can convince them that all this writing isn't just me being mean.

The Science Goddess said...

Good luck convincing them. :)

Marzano's "Building Background Knowledge" is a bit dense, but worth checking out if you haven't seen it.

Christine said...

Thanks, I'll definitely look it up. As a school district we're busy trying to implement Marzano's strategies from Classroom Instruction that Works.