The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How hard is it to keep kindergartners focused on a class lesson? This hard.

Kindergarten student Javier Velsaco Lemus (center), sings in music class at Guilford Elementary school in Loudoun County, Virginia, on February 6, 2015.  (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Phyllis Doerr, a kindergarten teacher in New Jersey, wrote a piece last year that painted a picture of what young kids face in the high-stakes testing era. It said in part:

So this is kindergarten.
We force children to take tests that their brains cannot grasp.
We ignore research that proves that children who are ages 5 and 6 learn best experientially.
We rob them of precious free play that teaches them how to be good citizens, good friends and good thinkers.
We waste precious teaching and learning time that could be spent experientially learning the foundations of math, reading and writing, as well as valuable lessons in social studies, science and health.

Here is a new piece by Doerr that reveals a different side of kindergarten: how kids get engaged in learning — and how quickly it is for them to get distracted.

This is more than a charming look inside how things do — and don’t — get done in a kindergarten class, but a message to officials who dictate policy without understanding how young children actually think and behave. It is in tune with the message in this new post by early childhood development expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige about the growing “play” gap between students from poor and better-off families.

Test prep for 5-year-olds is a real thing. Here’s what it looks like.

By Phyllis Doerr

When I see my student glazing over as I teach, when heads start to bob and then drop and eyes close, I can be pretty sure that I have lost them.  I teach kindergarten, so I must be very careful to keep my students engaged by making the teaching and learning exciting, active, creative and dramatic.

These days, some of the topics that kindergarten teachers are forced to teach were previously taught in higher grades – such as democracy and the presidents. Pretty dry matter for 5- and 6-year-olds whose preference would be to do anything but sit still. Anything. So the first challenge is to get them to sit still for 10 minutes or more. And the second challenge is to teach them this dry stuff.

One of the best ways to keep the learning fun in kindergarten is by using music and movement, which we use to teach any and every concept – numbers, counting by fives and tens, letters and sounds, parts of a plant. Try as I may, though, creating music and movement around the first three presidents of the United States is all but impossible. Try singing “George Washington John Adams Thomas Jefferson ” to the tune of Hokey Pokey. See? Not easy.

One day this past spring in my classroom, as my students sat “crisscross applesauce” on the carpet, I was quite pleased as I described democracy and the job of the president — and all my students seemed to be paying attention. I moved very quickly as I know I must with my audience, but I also expertly wove in “checks for understanding.”

“Tiarra, what does it mean to vote?” I asked her.

“To make a choice,” she responded.”

I love the simplicity of kindergartners.

“Jeremiah, what are the rules of the voting?”

“You can only vote once,” he said.

“Right!” I said. “Yes, Jessica?”

“Don’t vote for one just because your friends did,” she said.

“Very good!” I responded.

Now I was excited. My students were with me. They were getting it! Only a few more minutes of this and I would reward their focus with our Greg and Steve CD so they could do the freeze dance. I read a little more from my “Teachers Guide,” moving into some information about the job of the U.S. president. I glanced up after every two or three lines to make sure no one was dozing. Nope. Eyes were still on me.

This was nothing short of a miracle.

If you know kindergartners, you know that a thread on the carpet can become one of the most fascinating objects on the face of the earth. The child will pick it up and run her fingers the length of it, scrutinizing every centimeter of that thread. She might hold it up in the sunlight to get a better look and then lay it on her lap to continue the intense observation of the thread.  Those who are sitting close to the thread scientist may notice this intriguing object and want in. So they’ll lean in closer and watch intently as their friend becomes overtaken by the thread as if on the verge of discovering a new cure the common cold. Before you know it five, maybe six, students have joined in the investigation of the thread. Now it’s a team of scientists for whom the thread is much more engaging than what is being taught.

While this kind of distraction can and does disrupt the class,  it is actually a beautiful thing. Kindergartners experience wonder about things that adults find utterly unimpressive.

As I explained to the class that in a democracy, the people make decisions, I noticed one student who was especially attentive. Brianna sat up a little bit straighter then the rest and was leaning in — listening with her whole body. She was really engaged! Perhaps a bit more mature, this idea of self-government must’ve stirred something within her. As if she could not wait another minute, her hand shot up. But I was on a roll. I seemed to have every 5-year-old mind captivated by the concept of democracy and I didn’t want to break the spell.

So I glanced at her and kept going. Brianna did not relent. I kept on explaining and reading but that hand stayed straight up in the air. She looked eager, almost desperate. She really wanted to share. I knew that I had better check to make sure she was going to stay on topic. In kindergarten, it is the norm for students to share completely random concepts during any given lesson. The teacher could be talking about or reading a book about the seasons and a child might raise their hand and say “Mrs. Doerr, I like your hair.” Or, “My father caught a giant lobster.”

“OK, Brianna,” I said, “is this about the president, about democracy?” Brianna nodded ever so slightly in response to my question,  but I detected doubt in that nod. “Right Brianna? Something about the president?” I repeated.

There was a pause as every head turned to see how Brianna would respond. With a big happy smile she blurted out: “My baby sister said her first word yesterday! She said Dada!”

That was all it took. Like a long line of dominoes, the kids went down one by one. “My baby said my name!” cried Davon. “My little brother fell asleep hugging me!” another yelled.

All formality gone, our  No. 1 rule — “We raise our hand to talk” — went right out the window. It was a runaway train. And it veered off in all directions.

Jenna said, “My dad calls me princess!”

And Annie: “My mom calls me Cinderella because I dance a lot!”

Yvette piped in, “For my cousin’s birthday we were dancing and we were all dancing really funny!”

And then this one, right out of left field “I was sleepwalking and I walked right into the closet!”

The free-for-all continued and I didn’t even try to stop it.  The president and democracy would have to wait.

Now it was time for me to tune in to them and listen to some very excited children tell me stories about the most important moments in their lives. Their faces beamed as they excitedly shared their shining moments. And there was not a thread to be seen.