Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Building Character

Kindergarten these days is narrowly focussed on teaching early literacy and numeracy skills.

When I first student-taught kindergarten the shadow of Stanford University in the seventies, teaching early reading and math skills took the back seat to promoting social and emotional development.

Back then kindergarten was a place to introduce children to a new and larger social world of classmates and friends. The kindergarten teacher was expected to:

(1) to provide students with guidance in navigating the social world; and

(2) to offer opportunities for students to express themselves creatively through the arts.

Happiness and contentment were the norm. It was all very relaxed. In Ohlone School where I first taught, it was up to the kindergarten teachers to decide if they wanted to teach something about numbers and letters. Most didn't. No big deal.

Over the course of my career, expectations have changed. Social and emotional development have been demoted. In some schools I've been told that social and emotional development have been kicked out of the back seat and dumped onto the roadside of yesteryear.

Today's kindergartens are driven by standards, benchmarks, and assessments of academic performance. All of it delivered with a breathless "don't leave Johnny behind" urgency. What once waited until first grade is now crammed into kindergarten. And the noble purposes of kindergarten have been almost forgotten.

Do we expect students to develop social and emotional intelligence by osmosis? By watching TV?

What a mistake we have made to give social and emotional development short shrift! We train students to read and do numbers but fail to teach them how deal with their own feelings or the feelings of others. No one had time to teach them. If they act up too much, well, too often we drug them. The pharmaceutical companies are happy, I guess.

Do we really want to live in that sort of world?

Last week in the United States there were four school shootings. Last week's shooting in Illinois recalled the shooting last spring when Seung-Hui Cho student at Virginia Tech killed 32 of his classmates before taking his own life. Here's the thing: Cho could read: was an ENGLISH major, a college senior. It wasn't academic skills this guy lacked: he lacked emotional and social intelligence.

School shootings in the seventies were practically unheard of. Four decades later and we've got four in one week. It's time to question what we're doing in schools. Reading and doing numbers ain't the whole story. We need to get social and emotional intelligence nearer to the steering wheel, at least in kindergarten.


With thoughts like this in the back of my mind, it is with a real sense of purpose that I do things other than kindergarten "academics."

Today Trey, Ty, Isaac, and I finished up the school day by building with clear plastic building blocks called Crystal Climbers. We enjoyed working together, sharing the materials, helping one another find the needed color and shape for the project. We relaxed and enjoyed a few precious moments of being together, talking together, building together. We connected more than pieces of plastic. We connected our thoughts with our feelings. We connected with each other as people.



And, happily, they helped clean up when it was time to go home.


Culmom37 said...

It is such a shame that our young children are expected to learn so much at such a young age. Luckily our children have Mr. Gurney to not let them forget that there is more to learn at school than just academics.

Great job, Mr. Gurney and keep up the good work. Just look how happy and proud the three boys look in that picture.

Dan Gurney, Mr. Kindergarten said...

Thank you! And thank you for the book you brought to share yesterday. I loved it!

Lindsay said...

Your site is so refreshing...touching and very meaningful.And even though my former kindergardners are all over 18 now and in college, I'll be back for more. Thanks for a lovely island of sanity in an often insane world. It's really too bad you can't contribute to educational policy in DC.(the most insane of all places!)