Monday, December 31, 2007

My New Year's Resolution, Part 1

A Good-Enough Life

I’ll bet I’m not alone in wishing I was a little richer and a little more famous than I find myself right now. (A few pounds lighter, too!) I try to catch these wishes just as they arise in my mind and return to the moment I’m in.

I've learned this in kindergarten, and I've learned it on mediation retreats. But in between, I lose it.

Intellectually I know that being rich and famous is, for many, a hell-realm. Emotionally, I’m not there yet. I’m working at it. Teaching kindergarten helps.

The curse of riches and fame

I am certain that you’ve heard of the richest and most famous person I know. He sends me a Christmas card each year.

I don’t know him that well. He would not pick me out of the crowd in a restaurant, but I would recognize him. I would walk over and tell him my name. He would instantly know who I am. He’d be cordial and welcome me to his table.

Years ago, he was an ordinary person like me. He came to my house spent the night here with me and my wife. We talked a lot. We fed him, gave him a place to sleep on the floor, and the next morning made him some coffee and took him out to breakfast. He was just starting out. He had burning ambition, business acumen, confidence, drive, faith, and talent. He soon found fame and fortune in a field where most would be delighted to scratch out a meager living. The synergy of celebrity and wealth took over and he became the Barry Bonds of his field. If I told you what he does, you’d instantly know who he is. But this isn’t a quiz or a contest. I don’t want you to guess.

Have you gone nuts?

The reason I’m saying all this is to remind myself not to aspire to wealth and fame. Or ask my kids to. Yo, Ted, Elizabeth! Hello! I really mean this!

“What?” you might ask. "Have you gone nuts? You don't want your kids to grow up rich and famous?"

That's right. I simply want them to be happy. I wish instead, that they (and I) simply aspire to the happiness of being “good enough.”

Being rich and famous won’t bring me closer to happiness. My famous friend is also among the most unhappy people I know. (I must admit here that I am not absolutely certain he’s as miserable and lonely as I imagine him to be—I don’t know him that well—but the opprobrium he’s earned would make it difficult to come to any other conclusion. And I'm not saying he'd be happier if he were poor and obscure. Simply that wealth and fame are not happiness indexes.)

It can be a matter of life and death

I just read an article on this subject in January/February 2008 issue of UTNE magazine called “Have an Average Day.” It presents research done by Lyndon Duke who did a linguistic analysis of suicide notes looking for clues that might help people predict and prevent teen suicides. Duke concluded that what drives people to despair is “the curse of exceptionality.” Most of us aren’t exceptional. We’re regular. But if we try to be exceptional, we will begin to feel like failures.

There's an article on loving your fat self, too! Yeah!

To quote the Utne article,

“When everyone is trying to be exceptional, nearly everyone fails ... and those few who do succeed feel isolated and estranged from their peers. We’re left with a world in which a few people feel envied, misunderstood, and alone, while thousands of others feel like failures for not being good, special, rich, or happy enough.”

So, how can I find happiness? Through accepting myself and taking small steps to help those at hand.

Let's look in the wisdom taught to preschoolers: Acceptance.

"I like you just the way you are."

Mr. Rogers—remember him?— was such a treasure (a hero to me, but an ordinary man to himself). One of his main messages was “I like you just the way you are.” He expressed approval for people just as they are, not for what they might accomplish later. It was a message he got from his maternal grandfather, Grandfather McFeeley. (How sad that so many children would hear this message only on television! How much better from a living, breathing, human being, the way it did for Fred Rogers when he was a little boy.)

Or review what I've learned on adult retreats: help those around you.

Zen Master Suzuki Roshi asked his students “To shine one corner of the world—just one corner. If you shine one corner, then the people around you will feel better. You will always feel as if you were carrying an umbrella to protect people from heat or rain.”

So in 2008, I hope I can shine a little self acceptance my way. I would like to remember I'm good enough. A good enough parent. A good enough spouse. A good enough neighbor.

To be good enough to be good enough.

So I’m gonna go out there, and have an average day—what the heck?—an average year.

That's my New Year's resolution, Part 1.

Tomorrow, Part 2.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Human Buyings

Sunday Soapbox

I’ve never understood the concept of “retail therapy.” When I look up at shoppers’ faces, especially in corporate big box stores, I see grimaces—desperate, harried, and sometimes even morose. Very few shoppers, clerks, shelf stockers, or managers radiate relaxation or happiness.

It feels good when you stop.

If shopping has any therapeutic value it must be like medieval monks' self mortification: it feels good when you stop.

Your kindergartner may have come under the spell of those who want to sell stuff. Caught consumerism from the corporations.

But you’ve got more magic than any TV program. You’re alive.

Spend time with your child and pay attention. It’s all you really need to make your child happy. No store sells your time and attention. Truth is, stores steal it.

So. Let’s stop shopping so much. Instead, make a cup of tea, find a curb or a rock in the sun, and sit down there, outdoors, with your kid. Breathe. Smile. Put your arm around your kid. Ask some questions. Listen. Ask some more questions. Sing. Point out something alive there with you. A bug. A bird. A weed. A tree. There is real magic in everything alive.

You’re not a human BUYing: you’re a human BEing.

When you’ve got 21 minutes to look at an online video check this out:

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Soundabet Beginnings, Part 2 of 3

Last Saturday I told about the confusion I felt in 1967 when I first attempted to teach reading as a high school volunteer. I learned that being able to read is not the same as knowing how to teach reading.

Fast forward nine years to 1976. I was reading Dr. Seuss’s Hop On Pop to a three-and-half year-old boy named Eric.

“Let me do it!” Eric told me.

“Do what?”

“Read Hop on Pop. I know it.”

“Really? OK, here.” I handed him the book. “You read it to me.”

And he did. Fluently. Page after page.

I was impressed because learning to read had not come easily to me. I could not read as skillfully as Eric until far into second grade. “Perhaps,” I thought, “he isn’t actually reading. Perhaps he simply memorized the book.” I pointed to a word on the page and asked him to tell me what it was.

“Town.” he told me, correctly.

“Wow. That’s right. It is town. How do you know that, Eric?”

“I just know it,” he told me.

Was Eric born literate? I wondered. Of course not. Someone must have taught him. His dad was an English instructor at a nearby junior college. Probably his dad taught him to read. I wished I knew.

I found myself pulling books off the education shelf at the public library. I studied Jeanne Chall, Rudolf Flesch, Romalda Bishop Spalding. I immediately saw that there was disagreement between the “look say” and the phonics camps. How to teach reading was controversial!

Like many other educators, I saw value on both sides. Eric seemed to read whole words. But when he came to a word he didn’t know, he sounded it out. He could sound out nonsense words.

It seemed to me then—as it does now—that the key to reading is sounding out words, as the phonics camp insisted. How did Eric learn the sounds?

I was pretty sure that Eric had not been through a formal phonics curriculum. He had not done worksheets. He could not recite any phonics rules. He simply seemed to know the sounds letters might (and might not) make.

Though I had no reason to teach reading, I wanted to know more. I thought that someday I might like to try to teach it. Of all the books I read, Romalda Bishop Spalding’s book, The Writing Road to Reading, seemed particularly helpful. Studying it, I became vividly aware that the English language has far more sounds than letters. English had sounds I didn't even know it had!

For example, I didn't know that the /th/ sound in "with" is not the same sound as the /th/ sound in "the" because the first sound is unvoiced and the second is voiced. They are related to each other in exactly the same way that the sounds /f/ and /v/ are related, as minimal pairs. Because the two /th/ pairs looked the same, I thought they were the same. But they aren't. Spaulding advocated a method of teaching reading by emphasizing sounds—by writing them—using their various spellings. It's a good approach, and if you click on her name, above, you can visit a website about her approach.

Fast forward another five years. I was in charge of my first kindergarten class at Dunham School. Kindergarten was different then. I was not expected to teach students to read, but simply introduce them letters and numbers. There was no pressure to do much else.

In early February, on the 100th day of school in my first year of teaching, we were popping 100 kernels of popcorn in oil in a pan, the old-fashioned way, before microwave ovens. I felt immense pride when one of the most advanced readers in kindergarten that year, David, looked at the words on the cellophane bag. His eyes widened and he sounded out his first word. “P-O-P-C-OR-N popcorn.” I felt immense pride and success as a teacher. David's performance in February would not put anyone at the head of any contemporary kindergarten class.

By 1996 pressure began to build on kindergarten teachers to cover pre-reading skills called phonemic awareness. I went to a workshop that gave me a tool to measure phonemic awareness skills called Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy, or DIBELS for short.

It was using DIBELS assessments that led directly to the invention of Soundabet.

For that part of the story, tune in next Saturday.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Important Book: Mrs. Frech

Here's Mrs. Frech's page in the Important Book. Click on it to get a closer view.

Visit here next Friday for Aden's page.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


This Christmas I unwrapped a thoughtful gift from my wife's sister and her husband (Thanks, Lynne and Bill!) that may remind people of the hard work kindergarten teachers and their students do: recognize text and decode it.

The gift, a deck of 48 knowledge cards from Pomegranate Press, reminds me of the challenges faced by a five year-old in kindergarten these days. Learning to read is actually much much harder than the puzzles in this deck.

The cards look like this.

I made up my own cryptogram of a saying that has helped me through difficult classroom moments. It's one of my favorite sayings. I hope you'll try.

The first person to e-mail me the correct answer to this will get a free copy of my Deeply Beautiful CD to keep or give away.*** E-mail your answer to and include a mailing address so I can send you your prize.

***Winners have already been contacted and will receive their prizes in the mail. Still, I hope you'll have fun with working the puzzle. E-mail your answer for the fun of it as of Saturday forward. Thanks.

To help you solve the puzzle, I provide you with the decoded attribution.

I'll post the answer January 3.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Dollar a Book

I'm finally beginning to understand that happiness is not achieved by acquiring things, but by doing without them. My understanding of this is incomplete.

A little more than a year ago my wife and I had a yard sale to rid ourselves of a whole lot of the stuff we had accumulated in our child-rearing years. It felt good to empty the house.

"You really selling these for a dollar each?"

We sold hundreds of books, priced simply: $1.00 for hardbacks; 50 cents for paperbacks. Among the books we sold were some first edition copies of several books in the Harry Potter Series signed by J.K. Rowling on her tour through California.

I can remember the guy who bought them. He bought them all and he was quivering. "You really selling these for a dollar each? They're signed."

"Yup," I said, "A dollar a book."

"O.K. I'll take them all. Here you go." He thrust $5.00 in my hand and bustled away.

Today my son, Ted, and I walked into town to use his Christmas gift certificate at the used bookstore, Copperfield's. As we paid for our books, we noticed one of our signed Harry Potter books on prominent display above the sales counter. (Or one exactly like ours. I didn't ask the clerk to take it down off its shelf to inspect it closely for the same reason I usually accept Novocaine when the dentist suggests it: numbness has its place.)

Its price tag? $1,000.00

My inner teenage critic attacked.


Ted, no longer a teenager, was much milder in his response. "Boy, I'll bet you wished you didn't sell our copies."

A second time, I suppressed an impulse to ask the salesman to bring the book down from its display so that I could inspect it. How would that help? If it was the book J.K. Rowling signed and personalized to my daughter, I'd feel like I had to buy it back, and how stupid would that be? As things stood, it was bad enough.

Ted and I walked home. It's about a half mile. My inner teenager was ripping me apart the whole way home. My conversation with Ted would momentarily snap me out of my self-accusations.

We passed an art store, closed for the holiday.

Ted: "I'll bet Uncle Jim would shop here if he lived in Sebastopol."
Me. "Yep. I'm glad they're closed,though. Everyone should have time off at the holidays."

We went by Copperfield's store for new books.

Ted: "I like used bookstores better than new bookstores."
Me: "I really like the earth not having to come up with a new book each time someone wants to read one." I remembered what Jim Wilson said about how at one time, when each book came as the result of a monk's hand copying, books were among the most treasured of all human creations.

Ted: "Do you really want to learn the zither, like you said yesterday?"
Me: "No, I've got enough musical instruments."

We crossed the street and stopped at the bank's ATM to get a little pocket money.

[No photo here. Do people who take pictures of banks get arrested these days?]

And by another bookstore, this one a favorite of mine, Many Rivers Books and Tea, selling tools for spiritual practice.

Ted: "Look. Kwan Yin. Like the oolong tea I got you for Christmas."
Me: "Yes, the Chinese goddess of compassion."

At the handmade lamp store:
Ted: "Look at that lamp. It's a sunrise or sunset, depending on how you look at it."
Me: "I like the North African motif."

A few step further took us past a deli that started out life a gas station.

Ted: "I keep expecting that deli to sell candy bars, like the gas station did. You know, they might actually have good food there."

I realized I was hungry. We were almost home. I knew that I needed to shut my inner teenager up. I remembered Pete Glade's advice: "Eat good food, get good exercise, get good sleep, and think good thoughts." I warmed up a bowl of leftover minestrone soup, bid Ted adieu, hopped on my fixed gear Bianchi, and rode onto the Santa Rosa plain under a brilliant sky swept by a cold north wind.

My legs churned. My inner teenager's voice faded as the wind whispered in my ears as I rolled through the oak woodlands. Legs. Lungs. Heart.

My Inner Archy (he's four) became audible. He asked me if money is really so important. "The important things aren't things," I could hear him say. "What if you did have the extra money? Is there anything you really need? Isn't your real problem that you have too much stuff? How does money help with that?"

And then, the most important thing to ask: "What are you grateful for?"

And then, I began to think of some of the many blessings in my life. Home. Health. Family. Good food. Music made at home. Time to enjoy some exercise outdoors.

Gratitude is a good antidote to your inner teeager.

And a family home for the holidays.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Mr. Kindergarten is going on vacation till we get back in school in January.

Till then, have a wonderful holiday.

I'll be thinking of you. And I'll keep posting, but no promises about how often.

Best regards,

Dan Gurney

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sunday Soapbox: Pete Glade

Pete and Marilynn dancing in our kitchen, Christmas Day, 1994

I thought I’d begin my Sunday Soapbox series with this tribute to my father-in-law, Pete Glade. If he were with us today, Pete would be celebrating his 90th birthday. I miss him.

I learned a lot from Pete. Here I want to share two values he taught through his example: tolerance and neighborliness.

When I met him in 1970, Pete was an active, enthusisastic Reagan Republican. Reagan was governor of California then. Me? My hair was long; my beard was scraggly; my shoes were scuffed veterans of many an anti-war march.

One thing I learned from Pete is tolerance for opposing viewpoints.

Pete used to say that every business ought to have a Democrat and a Republican at the top. I think he believed Democrats should talk to Republicans because his dad was a Democrat, a very active one, too — the former Mayor of Salt Lake City.

Pete welcomed me into his family even though I was a ragged and bedraggled version of me.

I had to learn tolerance for opposing views from my wife’s family. My family preferred the company of fellow travelers on the left wing. We all packed into the yellow Travelall and drove to be-ins and protests. My family found it difficult to navigate discussions with Republicans.

Another thing I learned from Pete was neighborliness.

You don’t have to be smart, a good conversationalist, good looking, athletic, rich, famous, or anything else, to be a lovable and worthy human being. You just have to be a good neighbor.

Although Pete had a very distinguished career in the law (he was educated at Harvard and Stanford) he was the most down-to-earth person I ever met. When a stroke took his speech and along with it his livelihood, he somehow managed to learn to smile, wave, and say, “Hi, How are you?” so he could greet everyone he encountered. That was about as far as his conversation could go, but everyone loved Pete.

He smiled, he cared, and without words he let you know his heart was full of love.

I hope that Pete’s spirit of tolerance and neighborliness prevails here as I explore off-topic territory in the weeks ahead.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Earliest Beginnings

Soundabet first began more than 40 years ago when, in high school I served as a volunteer teacher in East Palo Alto's Saturday School. Gertrude Wilks started the school to help primary students who were falling behind in reading and math.

I did not know how to teach reading.

I remember two things quite clearly. First I remember the opening assemblies that kicked off the day. They felt almost like a church service: a sermon and some singing. Everyone gathered to hear a pep talk delivered by Ms. Wilks expressing her faith in the power of education followed by a rousing sing-a-long featuring "We Shall Overcome" "Down by the Riverside" and other anthems of the Civil Rights era.

The second thing I remember is the confusion I felt as I tried to help my third grade boy.

Saturday School didn't train us to teach reading. It was assumed, reasonably enough, that if we could read, then we could teach reading.

The confusion on his face ... was painful to see.

First-hand experience, however, taught me this: Knowing how to read and knowing how to teach reading are two entirely different things.

I knew I could read. I knew I did not know how to teach reading. I remember trying to explain to my poor student that the letter "o" made the short u sound and the letter "f" made the v sound in the word, "of." The confusion on his face as I tried to explain this to him was painful for me to see.

At that point, I thought that it was simply a matter of me learning the skills of teaching reading. In 1967 I would not have guessed that there was a good deal of disagreement about how people learn to read. I could not have known then that over the course of my lifetime much would be discovered about what's going on in brains as they learn to read.

Back then I didn't worry too much about any of this. Back then I had no idea I'd spend a good part of my life working on this problem.

Next Saturday I'll talk about the earliest days of my teaching career.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Winter Solstice: Guide to Mr. Kindergarten

In just a few hours the sun will begin its trek to the north. I like to use this occasion to reflect on New Years resolutions and think about what I intend for the months ahead.

In regard to this newsletter, I'm planning to shape it by giving it themes for each day of the week. That way my various audiences can skip over posts that aren't of interest to them. Here's the plan — subject to alterations — as best I can see it now:

Sunday Soapbox
Sundays I will give myself permission to go a little off-topic (kindergarten) to (usually) talk about society at large as it may affect my students when they come of age. If you find off topic discussions irritating, skip Mr. Kindergarten on Sundays.

Monday's Miscellaneous Musings
A catch-all day. Or a day off.

Tuesday's Tips for Teachers
We're all teachers, really, so this may be of interest for everyone. But I'll address my comments and observations to fellow teachers of young children on Tuesdays.

Wednesday's Web of Wisdom
I often run across website or quotations that I think are of particular value. This is the day I'll share them.

Thursday's Room 2 Review
This is the day I'll post news from the classroom. This day will be of particular interest to parents in this year's class.

Friday's Facebook
Fridays I'll share pages from our Important Book. Together with Thursday's post, this will approximate the paper edition of the "Kindergarten News" that used to come home in the Friday folders.

Saturday's Soundabet Salon
Here I'll discuss the Soundabet. I'll talk about its development and especially share ideas about how I use it to help teach reading.

So that's the plan. I will abandon it whenever I feel there is good reason to do so.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Oh Happy Day!

Some days connect one happy moment to the next, and the next, and the next. It's not too often that happy moments line up, one after another, all day long. But when it happens, boy, it's nice.

Today, the last school day of 2007, turned out to be one of those days.

When I woke up I didn't think it would be such a nice day. In fact, I think I mentioned something to Mrs. Frech that it might be about the opposite. I told her that I might muddle through this day. I knew that I'd be sleep deprived.

Late last night I drove to the San Jose airport to pick up my daughter, Elizabeth. She's home for the holidays. By the time we got to bed it was past 1:00. (For you faithful blog readers this is why I did not post yesterday: I was driving down Interstate 580 at night in the rain.)

This morning I awoke groggy and grumpy after 4 hours of sleep. But the morning immediately brightened.

Yesterday's stormy weather had cleared out overnight and the day dawned bright, crisp, and clear. The drive to school was — oh! — so lovely.

I drive by this pasture on my way to school each morning.

Fred showed up unexpectedly to sing harmony for our holiday songs. (This being the last day of kindergarten before the holiday, I forgot that today was Thursday; I was happily surprised when Fred came through the door with his guitar case in hand.)

Another happy surprise: Isabella returned to visit us for a day. How we have missed Isabella since her family moved out of state because of her dad's immanent wartime deployment overseas. It was nice to see Isabella again. I always feel a loss when a member of our class moves away.

After table time, we went next door to visit Santa Claus. He came to us to ask what one thing each child wants most for Christmas.

Santa visited our school. If I remember correctly, Will is asking for a ukulele.

After our visit with Santa, we went back to the kindergarten room to write about our visit with him.

The students did all the work of sounding these words out so I could write them down.

We ran a lap, had recess, washed hands, sang our thanks, and enjoyed a wonderful snack that Will brought us. Look at Daven's plate of goldfish crackers.

A happy face for a happy day.

I unwrapped many thoughtful gifts and heard and read many heartwarming messages. Expressions of gratitude mean more to teachers than you may know. I've got a fat binder of them, and when difficult days come, as they sometimes do, that book is a godsend.

We went out on bikes to pick up litter on the school yard, our daily pleasure, as the room moms readied our classroom party. It featured a craft and a snack. The craft was cunningly simple and sparkling and beautiful:

Kiyana's ornament

We glued glitter on pine cones.

It was even fun to clean up afterwards. Nice conversations.

Walking to the car, I chatted with Alison Blom, a kindergartner from yesteryear, now a high school junior, about her future, still fuzzy college plans. It's somehow very special to so clearly remember someone as they were as five year olds and yet be talking, eleven years later, to them as sixteen year old teenagers. (And to all you kindergarten parents out there: take heart, teenager years can be wonderful. Really.) I told Alison to dream big. One benefit from being a teacher for a long time in the same school you get to know your students over a long time.

I'm aglow with the holiday spirit.

As we finished dinner tonight and began to tuck in an ample dessert of homemade Christmas cookies, gifts brought home today, my son, Ted, said, "Now this is good benefit of having a kindergarten teacher for a dad!"

I'll be posting to this blog over the holidays. Keep checking it. And don't be shy about commenting. I like to hear from you.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Hombre de la Nieve, 2

The sombreros look better on real kindergartners, don't they?

To all the parents who came to see us sing the Spanish song, thank you for coming.

Because of a mix-up about the starting time, many parents from other grades arrived before 10:00 and so we, the kindergarten class, were asked to serve as the opening act.

We sang a few unrehearsed holiday songs before the show began: "Jingle Bells," "Must Be Santa," and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Five year olds pull off this sort of thing with aplomb. I don't think many of them even know what "unrehearsed" means.

Now. If only I had my video camera with me, we could have posted a little video. Stay tuned. I'll try to get that level of sophistication soon.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Hombre de la Nieve

Your child will wear mittens and sombreros like those you see in the picture above.

Tuesday morning at 10:30 your children will perform "Hombre de la Nieve," a Spanish language version of Frosty the Snowman in the Community Room. It will be our part of the winter holiday performance. Each grade will take the stage as a part of the program.

Our segment of the program, sung in Spanish, lasts maybe two minutes and leads off the program. Don't be late!

If you can't make it, watch this online newsletter for a report tomorrow.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


Last Wednesday was Hawaii Day at our school.

He nodded in reply, still sobbing.

I'm not sure why the student council chose a mid-December day for this event. Even California can get chilly this close to winter solstice. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt on a frosty morning just ain't natural. Had I not checked this newsletter before leaving for school, I would have shown up the long-sleeved shirt that I had instinctively put on.

As we sang our opening songs, I saw that less than half the kindergartners had dressed for the occasion. One boy arrived late. He found his place on the mat and joined us in song. Within a minute, however, he was sobbing disconsolately.

I had a hunch about what caused of his distress: he probably was distraught at having forgotten about Hawaii day. I can't stand seeing kids cry.

As quickly as I could, released the class to the care of Mrs. Frech and the parent volunteers. I took him aside, and asked him, "Are you sad because you're not dressed for Hawaii day?" He nodded in reply, still sobbing.

Man, how could I fix this? I suppressed a futile wish that I had stopped off at a five and dime to buy a dozen fake leis for just this eventuality. What could I do now?

I fished a piece of paper out of the recycling bin, grabbed a marker, scissors, and some tape. Less than a minute later I stuck my creation on his chest. The boy's sobbing subsided some, and he gave me a quizzical look.

I looked him in the eyes, found my deepest, most authoritative voice and declared, "Here. This is a Hawaiian sailboat. Now you're dressed for Hawaii Day." I tried to sound much more sure of this remedy than I actually felt.

He wiped away his tears, smiled, and joined the class.

Spreading Sweetness

Yesterday we took time out from instructional centers to decorate "gingerbread" houses made by covering empty milk cartons with graham crackers.

For a few moments, all 26 scholars were thoroughly absorbed in the task of smearing glue (actually thick white frosting) over the roofs and walls of their houses.

Once the walls were sticky enough, the students applied frosted flakes, cocoa puffs, and small rectangles of Hershey's chocolate to complete their masterpieces.

They'll come home Monday.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


One of the boys in my class has a big sister in third grade. Third grade has a much loved classroom pet, a guinea pig named Marshmallow. This family of four, sister, brother, mom, and dad took care of Marshmallow over the summer vacation.

Marshmallow is ailing. This family took Marshmallow to a veterinarian who said that the necessary surgery would be expensive, more than it would cost to replace the guinea pig.

The family was prepared to pay, after all, they informed the veterinarian, "Marshmallow is a classroom pet."

With that, the vet said, "I don't charge for classroom pets. The surgery will be free."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Important Book

Soon I’ll begin sending home a briefcase with our first kindergarten “homework.”

The briefcase holds three things: a blue puppy named Traveling Todd,

Margaret Wise Brown’s The Important Book,

and a blank book for you to write about your child.

Please follow the format of the Important Book to describe the important things about your child. If you wish, add a photograph to illustrate the facing page. Return it all to school as quickly as possible.

Click on the picture to read The Important Thing About Mr. Gurney.

As soon as you return it to school, I’ll read the page about your child to our class and send the whole kit and kaboodle along to the next student. If you’ve given permission to include your child’s name and photo on the online newsletter then you’ll see your child there, too, for convenient sharing with far-flung relatives and friends via the world wide web.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

True Grip

By example, Madeline teaches lessons in courage and determination every day. She keeps up with her classmates even though she was born without regular fingers on her left hand.

She joins in fingerplays. She takes piano lessons after school. She passes out snack. She shoots baskets and rides bikes and scooters. Madeline does lots of two-handed tasks with the five strong fingers she has on her right hand.

She even does some very difficult tasks, tasks that are hard even for ten-fingered kindergartners.

Swinging across the rings on the east play structure is one of the hardest things for a kindergartner to do outside. Designed for children 6 to 9 years olds, the rings are far enough off the ground to seem risky to a five year old. The smooth metal rings can be slippery and hard to grip. They hang too far apart for outstretched kindergarten arms to reach except by vigorously swinging the legs. To dismount successfully, a student must take a short, well-timed leap to reach landing platform. At the beginning of the kindergarten year, crossing the rings is out of reach. By the end of kindergarten, a few have mastered it.

A little while ago, Madeline decided she would try to cross the rings. I did not imagine that it would be possible for her to do this. I would not have suggested that she even try. How could she do a very difficult two-handed task with only five working fingers?

Her idea was to use the crook of her left elbow and get across that way.

With grit and gumption, she tackled her self-assigned task. She fell some. Practice rubbed the skin on the inside of her elbow until it was red. But the determination in her eyes was enough to make me believe that she would achieve her goal.

A short time later, Madeline proudly announced that she could cross the rings. Here, look:

You don't need 10 fingers to have a good grip on life.

Psst: Remember that tomorrow is Dress for Hawaii Day. Send your child to school in a Hawaiian shirt, a shell necklace, a straw hat, whatever!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Mr. Gurney's Kindergarten -- Ha!

It's easy to call it "Mr. Gurney's Kindergarten," but I do not see the classroom as mine. It is really a treasure we all share and make happen together.

Friday a key helper — my instructional assistant, Mrs. Frech — was ill. The school could not find a substitute for her.

Mrs. Bates, Madison and Bud's grandma, filled in for Mrs. Frech till mid morning. Other parents stepped in, too. Everything went smoothly enough. We got the day done. Thank goodness for parent volunteers. Still, I missed the countless ways Mrs. Frech subtly intervenes to keep students safe, happy, and kind to each other. When she's not working with students, Mrs. Frech makes sure that all the materials we need for an activity or lesson are close at hand and ready to go. She's so good, she makes it look easy, but it's anything but easy.

(As a side note, my wife came by the school Friday to drop off my camera. Several of the students were surprised to meet her. They thought that Mrs. Frech is my wife! Don't believe everything you hear about kindergarten from your kids.)

Today I had to take an emergency phone call. Mrs. Frech found a copy of Harold and the Purple Crayon and read it to the class. Masterfully. A minute later I came back and found the class listening with rapt attention. I got my camera out and snapped this picture.

Thank you, Mrs. Frech!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Question for the Next Generation

Among the first things we want to find out about someone is what kind of work they do. As soon as we feel we have permission, we'll ask,

"So, what kind of work do you do?"

Back in college, a similar curiosity prompted the familiar getting-to-know-you question:

"So, what's your major?"

When adults ask youth the question, it takes on a future tilt:

"So, what do you want to be when you grow up?"

Questions like these appear in our minds fully formed and ready to go. They roll off our tongues without reflection, largely because they're not OUR question. It's the same question, word for word, that the previous generation asked of us, and so on for I don't know how long.

We want the answer; we don't think about the question.

Here, since, presumably, we're teachers or parents, I want to suggest an alternative to the latter question, the one we ask youth.

Instead of asking, "What do you want to be?" ask,

"Whom do you wish to serve?"

For when all is said and done, if you ask that question, you might just nudge a youth into choosing a life well lived.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Balancing the Equation

My brother, Jim, honored me today with a post on his blog. Please stop reading Mr. Kindergarten now and jump over to Jim's blog before you finish this post.

Go here: Gurney Journey

We fill with gratitude when we think of teachers who have been especially important to us.

I sincerely hope that everyone reading this post can think of at least one superlative teacher, a teacher, mentor, or coach who really matters to you, who helped you on your path.

Perhaps you can remember a teacher who wrapped you in warm acceptance and approval, or one who was able to dispel a seemingly impenetrable confusion, or one who gave you the courage to dream seemingly impossible dreams for yourself, or one who demanded that you work hard enough to uncover the excellence hidden inside you that only that teacher knew was there.

If you think about teaching from a student's point of view, you can see only half the picture. To balance the equation, please consider the student's contribution. A teacher cannot teach without the presence of a student. Students play a vital role that in the lives of teachers.

And that's what I want to talk about today because, as I said at the top, my brother, Jim, honored me today.

I must say, I feel grateful to Jim. For Jim was really my first student, and a really good one, at that.

I am seven years older than Jim, and by the time he was in second grade anyone could see his drawings were almost as good as mine. I gave him the few drawing tips I knew, and, well, he ran with them. Very soon his drawings were much better than mine.

I suppose I could have felt embarrassed to have a brother so much younger than me do better drawings. One of his early a drawings, a sailboat, as I recall, was published in the "Young Artist's Corner" in the San Francisco Chronicle. He won, I think, $5.00 — enough to buy that catamaran pictured here. I never felt embarrassed that Jim could draw so much more skillfully than I; I felt proud of him.

And I got something very valuable from our little drawing lessons in our shared bedroom in Los Altos. I learned that I could teach.

We shared more than drawing. Jim seemed to like whatever I liked, bikes, sailboats, whatever. He was an ideal kid brother. Here's a picture of two of the sailboats we took to the Palo Alto Harbor duck pond. That's Jim there. The catamaran was faster than the 12 meter, by the way.

Being Jim's big brother in many ways conditioned me to become an educator, a life's work for which I feel boundless gratitude.

So, thank you, Jim.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Thursdays with Fred

When people share a song, they connect. I'm not sure exactly how or why, but I can feel everyone get closer, more in sync. I sang an Irish birthday song for my sister's 50th birthday party. Months later, she wrote to tell me that the memory still brings tears to her eyes.

In kindergarten we must connect with each child's heart and bring at least a ray of happiness.

So we greet each day with a song.

Thursday mornings, Fred brings his guitar and joins in. Making homemade music is important to Fred. He's good at it, and over the years I've known him, he's gotten better, more confident. So have I. Fred sings harmony. I sing the melody, with the kids. We sound good singing all together. I sing better when Fred's with us. The class sings better, too. We draw a little crowd of parents as they drop off their kids in the morning. I joke with Fred about putting an open guitar case in front of us and throwing a few dollars in, just to see what happens.

Fred started volunteering when his oldest daughter, Loren, now in fifth grade, was in kindergarten. Two years later, when his second daughter, Robin, started kindergarten, Fred began to bring his guitar to school so he could sing with me in the front of the room.

He likes singing with us so much that he asked if he could come back to kindergarten even though his own kids have grown up and out of kindergarten. "Sure," I said, "I'd love it. Come as often as you like."

He comes Thursday mornings. I look forward to Thursday mornings. So does Fred.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


Tuggle is a simple game described in my brother Jim's book, Journey to Chandara.

Not much equipment is needed: a rope and low platforms for two players to stand on.

We played Tuggle this morning in kindergarten. For platforms, I grabbed a couple of cardboard blocks from the shelves in the kindergarten reading area. The rope was a jump rope left on the playground and that I picked up on our way in from running the lap.

I picked a couple of volunteers. They took their places on the blocks. The classroom carpet was deemed "hot lava." I handed each volunteer an end of the rope and explained that object of the game: to pull on the rope and in such a way as to cause the other person to step into the hot lava.

As Jim says in his book, size and strength isn't the main thing.

In Tuggle, as in life, knowing when to let go is the key the winning.

Henry bested me, Mrs. Frech, Sergio, Clayton, Daven, Kiyana, everyone. He got all of us the same way: he let go just as we tried to pull him off his perch. We fell off backwards. Perhaps Belle could have gotten him.

This photo shows Henry and Hailey going at it the moment before Hailey was to step back into the hot lava.

Afterwards we drew a picture and wrote about it. Here's Daven's picture. Daven, as you can see, has learned to draw hearts. Hearts show up in his work a lot lately. Here, he put one in the middle of the first letter of his name. And he thought the game should be called Tuggly. Coining words, be they "Soundabet" or "Dinotopia" can be a contagious condition. Apparently I've infected Daven.

If you'd like to meet my brother Jim, the famous artist, and author and illustrator of the Dinotopia series of books, he will be at Copperfield's Books on Friday to sign his new book, Journey to Chandara.

He'll be at the Petaluma Copperfield's on Kentucky Street at 1:00, and in Sebastopol at 4:00. I'll be there, too, because I love my brother.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Philosophers and mystics agree on the importance of living in the present moment.

Be Here Now. I try, but it's definitely a practice for me. I'm an adult.

My kindergarten friends don't have to work at being in the moment like I do. Well, maybe at this time of year, with Christmas coming, they have trouble, too.

But for most of the year, this is what a calendar looks like inside a kindergarten brain:

Many four and five year-old children have fuzzy ideas about time apart from the present.

Sometimes they say "yesterday" when they mean "tomorrow." And vice versa.

Of course, as a kindergarten teacher I am expected to change that.

I am supposed to get students to think about, understand, and demonstrate that they know all about minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and even years. Knowing what philosophers say, I wish I could leave the calendar for maƱana.

When I do teach about time, I'm usually singing a calendar song, accompanying myself on guitar. My students sing along.

If I lecture on these topics, the students listen politely, patiently, but without vital interest, except in December, of course.

Here is an adult brain's calendar, as a kindergartner would imagine it:

A shout out to Bev Bos, who first showed me these calendars. If you follow this link, you can see her online store. She's got some good books and merchandise for play-based preschools.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Names on the Board

If kindergarten were as it ought to be, students' most urgently felt needs would be met. Students — and their teachers — would want to come to school every day.

It would be exaggerating to say that every student in my kindergarten likes school that much. Some do, though. As for me, I wake up happy on school days.

Parents sometimes tell me that when their child gets sick, he or she will resist staying home. Students want to come to kindergarten.

We put absentees names on the board. They're not in trouble; we just miss them. The photo shows the names of Friday's absentees.

Putting absentee names on the board serves 5 purposes.

1. It helps us wish wellness to the absent children.

2. It gives us the opportunity to write — and discuss the spelling oddities — of students' names.

3. It helps me keep track of how many students I've got that day.

4. It gives me a tangible card to hand to students when they return to class; and,

5. It gives us occasion to express our happiness at their return.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


One of the great privileges of spending a career among kindergartners is that they haven't been walking around on earth long enough to go numb to the miracles that surround all of us every moment.

How do bees make honey and wax out of nectar? How can a brain as small as a bee's figure out how to fly, where to fly to, and how to get back? Well, it's a miracle.

Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, "The invariable mark of wisdom is seeing the miraculous in the common."

Well, if that's true, I'm being taught by 26 masters of wisdom each day I go to "work."