A million jumbled thoughts about kindergarten

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Last night was kindergarten orientation, and I’m not ready. I’m not ready to have a big kid; I’m not ready for him to not be a baby any longer. I’ve been dreading this day for well over a year, ever since we attended last year’s orientation on the slim chance that we might send him early (but didn’t, because why rush them through their childhood if we don’t have to?). It was clear to us then that he was beginning to really thrive in his Montessori-style preschool and that he would do far better there for another year than in the outrageously disappointing public education system. But we knew even then that he’d end up in public school the following fall, because the public schools are a big part of why we moved here, and this particular public school is a part of why we chose this neighborhood. Continue reading

Because I said so, and other insufficient explanations

Jonah’s teacher called me towards the end of the school day today to talk to me about a couple of incidents. This isn’t a teacher I hear from very often, in fact she pretty much only calls if Jonah hurts someone or is hurt by someone else (both of which are rare). Last year Jonah had a wonderful teacher who sent me photos every couple of days, updated me via text if Jonah made a new friend, and stopped me to talk about how Jonah was doing almost daily at drop off. I felt 100% confident that she understood who our son was and what his unique needs were and was doing everything in her power to support him and us. This year’s teacher has many more years of experience but hasn’t made as much of an effort to get to know us, which doesn’t help when she calls about problems.

The first issue was that Jonah brought a pair of binoculars to school (his own, which I allowed) and apparently hit Jude with them at some point, so a teacher took them away. (It’s worth noting that all three of our kids dispute this story, and have told me that the binoculars weren’t at all involved in the incident – that Jonah simply pushed Jude and it seems the teacher confiscated them perhaps just because she needed a quick punishment, which I’m not OK with, but I didn’t know that during the phone call). The teacher told Jonah that he needed to talk to her about what happened in order to get the binoculars back, he refused, so they were put up high. Later he snuck them down when she wasn’t looking, and they were confiscated again. I told the teacher to feel free to keep them until he did as he was asked and had a conversation about the incident.

I like to think that I’m not the kind of parent who will make every excuse on behalf of my child so that they’re never held responsible for their poor choices. A bad decision is a bad decision and sometimes there are consequences. I didn’t think that Jonah ought to get his toy back simply because he’d managed to maintain his stubborn position until the end of the school day. I told the teacher that she had our support on that one.

The second issue though, gave me pause, and made me wonder if I’m ever going to be able to fully buy into the norms and rules of the public school system. Music class came after the binoculars incident, and at the start of class apparently there was some dispute about where a good friend would be sitting (again, Jonah’s story doesn’t match that of the teacher at all and he’s not much of a story teller). The teacher claims that a good friend of Jonah’s didn’t want to sit next to him, and Jonah was upset about it. Jonah tells me that a teacher moved the friend because they were talking, which is a very different proposition. We’re talking about four-year-olds here. At any rate, Jonah was probably stewing over the two issues and chose not to participate in music, which isn’t entirely unlike him. He never liked music last year and it often took a great deal of coercion to get him to participate. This year though, he’s been better about it, but on this particular day it made sense to me that he was upset, and he chose to sit outside of the circle and suck his thumb. His teacher was clearly bothered by this.

I spoke to Kristin about it when she got home and told her that I was struggling to figure out how to talk to Jonah about music class because I couldn’t come up with a reasonable explanation as to why he needed to participate. I mentioned this to his teacher during the call, not by way of argumentation, but because I’d hoped that she might offer some early childhood wisdom that would help me to coach him. She told me that she’d threatened to put him in the other music class with the smaller children (which she knew he wouldn’t like), and I told her that I wasn’t sure threats were the answer, and that I’d like to come up with a way to intrinsically incentivize participation. I also suggested that I might mention kindergarten norms for next year, and tell him that in kindergarten he’ll be expected to participate. She responded that it wasn’t about kindergarten; if a teacher asks you to do something you need to do it. That was where she lost me.

Sometimes Kristin has a hard time removing her teacher hat when it comes to questions of school behavior (and parenting in relation to school behavior) but this time she was 100% with me. Neither of us feel that, “you have to participate in music because you have to do whatever the teacher says,” is a reasonable explanation as to why he ought to do something, nor will it do anything positive for his feelings about school or learning or music for that matter. Had he been running around the room or getting out toys that weren’t a part of the lesson or yelling or doing almost anything else at all, we might have felt differently. But sitting quietly just outside of the circle sucking his thumb? He was wrestling with big feelings and upset from just a few minutes earlier and he was trying to cope without bothering anyone or disrupting the class; where’s the problem exactly?

And this is where my dread about enrolling our kids in school begins to seep in. I just don’t think that this is how you cultivate a love of learning and experiences and curiosity in children. I want to raise children who know how to think for themselves, and are moved by things that they’re moved by, not kids who simply know how to listen to directions and follow them regardless of how they might be feeling. Jonah likes music at home; all three of our kids ask to have music turned on during breakfast and in the car on the way to school in the morning. You develop a love of music when you enjoy music, not when you’re told, “you’ll sing because I said so.”

I’m not suggesting that they ought to let him go do something else that he’d rather be doing, but if he chooses to sit silently and wait for the lesson to end, who cares?

So tonight I’m feeling sad and kind of angry about it, and it doesn’t help that Jonah turns five in a few weeks and for some reason that makes me want to cry. I’m not ready for him to be a kindergartener (which I realize won’t happen until next fall, but still, there’s something about turning five), partly because I want him to stay little forever, but also partly because I don’t have a lot of hope for the public school experience. I want to believe in it, but I just don’t. I went through public school and turned out fine I suppose, but I also developed study habits that were entirely about my grades and had very little to do with actual learning and curiosity. Even once I was in graduate school and had the self-awareness to know that my motivations were misguided I couldn’t seem to re-program the way that I studied. I want more for our kids, I want them to learn because they love learning, to discover passions because things inspire them, and to participate because life is more interesting that way.

I’m a pleaser. I hate to disappoint others and find it gratifying to help someone when asked, but I’m also someone who has always asked, “why” and needed a logical explanation as to why something ought to be done. To me, “because I said so,” just doesn’t hold water, especially when we’re trying to teach a four-year-old about the world.

A snapshot from school

The teachers at the kids’ preschool take a lot of photos throughout the day, and they post them on Shutterfly for parents to view with a login. Last year I clicked through them periodically and asked Jonah who everyone was and what was going on in each one, but there were so many and most were unremarkable, so most of the time I didn’t even bother. This year they’ve started tagging kids in them, however, which is a lot more efficient. Yesterday I got an email that our kids had been tagged in photos, and when I clicked through I found such a wonderful image. It captured everything that I love about our school and made me so happy that we decided to keep them there this year, despite the cost.

Our preschool operates on a modified Montessori model, which we love, but what we love most is the outdoor space. The kids have tremendous freedom to explore and create and get dirty and take reasonable risks. I find the idea of forest preschools and even eccentric playgrounds like this one somewhat inspiring, and while nothing quite that edgy exists around here (to my knowledge) the freedom of the outdoor play at our preschool is largely why we chose it.

Back to the photo; I won’t share it here because it has other kids in it and I don’t have permission, so I’ll do my best to describe it. It was taken in a corner of the play yard where there’s a teepee like structure made of big tree branches, and a pile of old tires and logs sits off to the side. Jonah has his back to the camera, and taped to his back with masking tape encircling his middle is an upside-down Club crackers box. You can see that he’s talking to two boys, pointing to them and perhaps giving directions. They appear to be listening intently, and one is giving Jonah a thumbs-up sign. Both of the other boys also have masking tape wrapped around their middles with cardboard boxes attached to their backs. On the ground in the center of the three boys is a wooden plank, with one end slightly higher than the other. On the low end is a pile of what appears to be action figures of some sort. There’s no teacher in the photo, no one directing or cautioning them in any way. The teacher who shared it captioned the photo with the following:

“We are going to take turns. I am going to go first, then you are going to go, then you are going to go last, then I am going to go again, then you are going to go, and then you again, and yeah, that’s what we’ll do” -Jonah

I couldn’t stop smiling. I replied to the teacher and told her that I was dying to know what was going on, and she told me that they’d made a catapult out of the plank and a log, and were taking turns jumping on the end to launch the rescue heroes into the air. Jonah’s teacher told me later that she had to fish one out of a tree at some point. When I showed the photo to K later and mentioned the boxes taped to their backs, she said without any hesitation, “those are jet packs.” Obviously.

This is exactly the kind of raw, imaginative fun that I want them to have opportunities to engage with. There is so much about their every day that I’ll never know anything about; most of those details are lost, and by the time they come home they don’t volunteer very much when we ask what made them happy that day. It made my day to see this moment captured. It also made me sad when I started to think about Jonah starting public school next fall and all of this magic disappearing. I don’t have a solution yet, but I know that there must be a way for us to supplement what they’re doing in public school with more opportunities for creativity and risk-taking and getting out into nature, because this kind of magic can’t end in kindergarten.

Dreaming of summer and thinking about school

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I’ve been so excited about summer, which I’m sure is obvious from all of the gushing I do about being in the yard with the kids (I’m pretty sure I started writing about that in February). It got cool again after it was play-in-the-sprinkler hot for about three days in a row, and I was downright grouchy about the change in weather. I’m ready for summer clothes and cold drinks on the patio and hose water everywhere you look. And fireflies, of course. I’m dying to see if we get fireflies in our yard (we moved here in November, so we haven’t seen a summer yet).

The swing set plans and hardware have arrived, the lumber is on its way, and Papa Doc has promised to get started with the lumber prep and to let Jonah help with the building. We’re going with this model, which is going to take up a pretty large section of our backyard, but as Kristin reminded me, “that’s what the yard is for.”

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I read a piece by one of my favorite bloggers the other day on summer hacks for moms and it got me even more excited about coming up with fun things to do, both for the kids and as a family. I really want to set up a “dirt kitchen” in a back corner of the yard where there’s too much shade for any grass to grow. I’d also forgotten how much the kids love to paint outdoors with water, so I need to pick up a few paintbrushes on my next trip to the hardware store. I’ve already whipped up a batch of homemade bug spray, we have plenty of sunscreen, now we just need to figure out some sort of storage for the toys that are always strewn across the patio, but I’ll get there. It’s only May.

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The kids will end their “school year” the same day that Kristin does (by design), which is in three weeks. I am a little bit worried that I’m setting myself up for disappointment, since I don’t actually get a summer off with the kids. Kristin does, and I know that there are more relaxing ways to spend a summer, but I’m still a little bit jealous. We aren’t planning on taking any major vacations this summer because of finances, so I might plan a staycation or two, and we may take some long weekends to do things we’ve been dreaming about that are within driving distance (the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, the Dark Sky Park, and maybe Chicago by train).

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We’ve been doing a lot of bike riding as a family lately, and this is the twins’ first time doing so since the bikes were in storage all last summer, and the previous year they were too young to ride along. We were fortunate to get a hand-me-down trailer from a neighbor we didn’t even know (thanks, Facebook!) and Jonah still (barely) fits in his seat, so we’ve been able to do some longish rides, both around our neighborhood and beyond. I’ve been loving this, and most nights after the kids get home from school, if the weather is decent, I end up proposing that we go for a quick ride after dinner.

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Even though I’m pretty fixated on summer, I’ve also been thinking a lot about school lately. I may have mentioned before that we love our preschool. We considered sending Jonah to kindergarten this coming fall (he’s too young to make the cut off, but he falls into an in-between group that is allowed to apply for a waiver and attend early). The financial savings of moving him to public school would be huge, but we feel like he needs another year of preschool for a variety of reasons. He’ll be much better off in the long run. As a result, we’re facing an additional year of three-kids-in-private-preschool, which makes up an astronomical portion of our budget. When we crunched the numbers, we gave serious thought to moving them to a less expensive school. I toured a couple, Kristin visited my favorite of the two and agreed that it seemed awfully nice, but in the end we decided not to move them. Why?

Well, in large part because the kids love it, and we love it, and they’re comfortable and happy there and we moved them across the country last summer. It just didn’t seem fair to move them again, especially Jonah who will then change schools yet again the following year when he does go to Kindergarten. But it also came down to what we believe education should be. Kristin and I don’t agree on everything (I read this one evening and was practically cheering, while the teacher in Kristin just couldn’t get on board), but we do value a lot of the same fundamentals when it comes to childhood and early learning.

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The preschool that our kids attend operates in a Montessori style. There are multiple rooms that are set up to support specific types of activities, and for nearly all of the day the children are free to select rooms and activities as they please. They go outside twice a day unless the weather is foul, and they have the most incredible outdoor play space I’ve ever seen at a school of any kind. It’s the kind of school that warns parents at the start of the year that when it gets warm, they will fill up a trench with the hose and let the kids sit in the mud if they please, so don’t send your children in clothes that you care about. We also love that a large number of the teachers there have been in early childhood education, many of them at this same school, for 30 or 40 years. There’s a wisdom there that you don’t find at every preschool, and we’ve gained a lot from it.

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The school that we considered moving them to felt more like a charter school (in my limited experience, but also in Kristin’s). Spotless, well-organized classrooms assigned by age, lots of information for parents on “assessment” methods. Jonah has already said that he’s excited about Jude and Vivienne being “upstairs” with him next year (the toddlers are in the basement) and as far as we could gather from the other school, they wouldn’t have crossed paths much. We want them to have that year together. I think that it’s good for their relationship.

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Exploring with total freedom, learning through play, getting dirty, being out in nature, this is the kind of education that we believe in. Kristin made a good point that this may be the last year that we end up educating them in a way that we truly believe in, and that made me very sad, but also gave me the courage to send them back there this fall despite our financial concerns. I read an article just a day or two ago about Germany’s outdoor preschools and thought to myself, yes, that is what I want for our children, but I want a variation of it for more than just preschool.

I recently stumbled upon an Instagram feed called Wild & Free that focuses on home schooling (or maybe unschooling is more like it). While we’re not really in a position to home school, not to mention the fact that we moved here largely for the free college that’s associated with attending the public schools all the way through graduation, I sometimes dream of living in the Montana wilderness and raising and educating our kids away from everything, outdoors more than in, away from the plague of standardized testing and schools that suck all of the joy out of learning. When I see our kids stopping to follow a caterpillar on its journey, and can see Jude’s smile from behind because of his adorable cheeks, I know that it’s that kind of natural curiosity that leads to real growth.

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And the amount of passionate observation and curiosity that has come from a mother robin building a nest on the trellis outside Vivi’s window, the way we all talk about and check on those robins at least 50 times a day,  the way the kids all come running when one of us sees a hungry baby’s head pop up, and all of the things Kristin and I have looked up about robins either to tell the kids or just because we’re curious, it’s all just so authentic and wonderful.

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We didn’t move to a ranch out west and we don’t even own camping equipment, so I can’t pretend to be rejecting modern conveniences or a suburban life. When it comes to our kids and their education, however, I kind of want more, and I wonder what we can do to make up that difference when they most likely end up in public school as planned. We love our home and we don’t really want to move to the wilderness, but many things lately are conspiring to make me think outside of the box and wonder how we can merge the two worlds to bring our children more of this magic, even when they’re trapped in a classroom that may not be very magical.

Until then, there’s summer, and I’m going to squeeze in as much magic and wonder as I possibly can. I’m off to make a summer bucket list.