Is it bad that as I attended a training meeting for an online preschool, I was:
1) reading Free to Learn by Peter Gray, and,
2) internally rolling my eyes while the trainer extolled promises of kindergarten readiness and motivation tips for consistent use from our 4 year-olds?
I probably didn’t earn any gold stars at any rate.
But I’m not in it for performance anyway. I’m in it because my son has started to exhibit interest in letters, and I wanted to see whether this program might further his interest. It is not to replace or even complete with our story time, library trips, or casual chats related to literacy.
If he’s not motivated, it’s not because I need to do more to motivate him — it’s because he’s not developmentally ready for it.
If he’s not “performing” on later tests, it’s not because I didn’t do enough to drill ABC’s with him in PreK — it’s because standardized tests are an inherently poor measure of authentic learning.
These are truths whether we face, as Kristine Mraz put it so eloquently, lowercase “s” struggles (ordinary variation of learning pace) or uppercase “S” STRUGGLES (systemic barriers that disproportionately impact families and students of color).
However, when we look again at this program with the lens of STRUGGLE, it becomes clearer why we might hope it will aid in closing socioeconomic achievement gaps. After all, it’s free, home-based, and equipped with personal consultants for each family to support their children.
But even so, I would caution all users against being overly dazzled by promises of future academic performance. I would probably be more enthusiastic if the introductory folder (full of opt-in sheets for motivational texts and tips for establishing user routines) also included information on the local library and tips for establishing meaningful literary routines. (I’d like to be clear, I am grateful for the resource to be able to help my son investigate his growing curiosity about letters in a new way; I just don’t attach the same weight to it all that the program seems to expect).
No matter our background, and no matter our kids’ ages, books > programs. Connecting with a good book is much more likely to produce readers than drilling skills.
For other parents worried about kindergarten readiness, here are some other posts you might enjoy based on our experiences with my now 3rd grader:
But as another typical day progressed with my 3 small students, I kept thinking of Edna’s post. I realized I could definitely benefit from inventorying my culture of agency at home, not least because of how I’ve learned that more agency leads to less classroom management — and we could really use less “classroom management” in our home right now!
The questions in bold below are her overarching questions, to which she also attached sub-questions for more in-depth reflection (be sure to check out her post to read those)!
“What sort of language will you use?”
Overall, we have good metacognitive dialogue happening, including naming learning skills (“Wow, you are making an interesting connection right there!”) and referring to my students as authors, scientists, etc.
Two questions that stood out to me most as opportunities for growth were, “Do you talk about learning, rather than tasks and work” and “Do you ask the learners’ opinions and really listen to what they say?”
It’s so easy to get swept away by all the tasks that must be accomplished each day, and it becomes a temptation for me to focus on the work, as well as to multi-task everything. But I have noticed that when I do make time for undivided attention, it goes a long way in the culture of agency at home.
“How is the environment organised to foster agency?”
This one is always a work in progress, but overall, I feel like we’re moving in the right direction for agency.
As I reflect on opportunities for my two- & four-year olds, my thoughts turn to games, blocks, Lego’s, play dough, and other creative experiences we could engage in together with more regularity. I think that especially as my daughter starts school again, I could renew the self-selected magnet schedule below for my 4 year-old to consider the possibilities for his time.
“How is time managed?
Self management of time has often been encouraged, and our approach is constantly shifting (especially to make sure my kids aren’t wasting their time “waiting for the teacher”). In addition to the magnet schedule above, we have tried…
…the week wheel:
…general week/month planning:
…planning hours to scale (½ inch = 1 hour)
…digitally shared to-do lists:
“What dispositions do you model?”
All three sub-questions Edna asks here regarding openness and vulnerability fluctuate with my emotional state. I notice that when I’m feeling stressed and behind-schedule, I am less likely to discuss my process with my kids.
However, my kids are merciful; when I share how I’m feeling, they tend to be patient. All the same, I would like to do more to explain my strategies for getting back on track so they better comprehend self-regulation.
“What routines are in place to encourage agency?”
I actually just recently added a visual prompt for our morning and bedtime routines. Secured to the bathroom mirror with packaging tape, these little pictures help my kids get on with their daily routines independently.
“What kind of expectations are clearly set?”
We’re always having conversations about the importance of intrinsic motivation. But there’s definitely still a major learning curve for initiative over compliance. Part of this may be that initiative still looks pretty destructive for my 2- and 4 year old boys. But I am working to adjust my expectations and our environment to meet their needs.
Here’s a recent example: from time to time, we check out what’s called a “Discovery Kit” at the library, a themed box including new toys, books, puzzles, etc. We love playing with them, but it’s difficult for me to keep track of everything, and the fines for missing pieces/late dues add up fast.
One day I was telling my 4 year-old that I didn’t know if we could get another discovery kit because he had misplaced one of the pieces. Later, I expressed my concerns to my husband, and he thoughtfully said, “Well, he is 4. Maybe it’s just that the discovery kits require us to supervise them.”
Another option would be to stop borrowing the kits for now, but I see now that I would want to make sure my 4 year-old knew that it wouldn’t be his fault.
We have high expectations for responsibility, but developmental readiness must factor into those expectations.
“How do interactions foster agency?
I really like the question, “Can they tell that you trust them to learn?” It’s clear through his expression that even my 2 year-old can tell a lot about what I’m feeling about him and his choices. When I work to reassure him, especially when he’s trying new things, he grows in his confidence to act independently.
“What small action will you take to shift the culture in your class?”
Processing my thoughts through this inventory has been a great step for me today. As parents and teachers, we need to be honest but kind with ourselves in this process. Working with kids is messy, but as we work toward a stronger culture of agency, they will astonish us with what they are capable of!
Sure, they may be building independence, problem-solving, time-management, confidence, physical health, risk-taking, and more. But the neighbors don’t see any of that. What they see & think is, “Where’s the mom?”
Never mind that when we were kids, such unsupervised play with a pack of neighbor kids was the norm.
Never mind that outdoor play actually addresses dramatically more threatening issues our kids face today, such as anxiety and diabetes.
When a someone recently told me that “Where’s the mom?” is the question asked when they see my kids play, it led me to revisit the way unstructured, unsupervised play has declined since when we were kids (sidebar: what about “Where’s the dad?” If we’re going to be judged, at least let it be equal opportunity judgement!). I have started to wonder whether this is less about protecting kids and more about protecting ourselves from judgement (offline & online) from other adults.
Ultimately, we need to find the courage to set aside those fears and focus on kids’ needs. We have been told, “You can’t be too careful when it comes to kids’ safety.” But the truth is that “an obsession with safety carries its own risks,” not least of which include a child’s diminished sense of autonomy. (see “Child Safety Up, Child Anxiety Up. Hmmm.“).
As a teacher, this seems to have direct parallels in the classroom as well. Both teachers and parents are pressured to make all the decisions in the name of safety or future success. Both are put under such an intense microscope, challenging the status quo is risky business. Both face an ever-present risk of severe judgement.
As a result, child autonomy is suffering, but we have the power to change that. We can:
Let them walk/bike to school (join LetGrow if you’re interested in finding other families near you to walk/bike with).
Actively discuss with kids the nature of autonomy and how we can work toward that goal.
And of course, it always helps when we find our tribe! There are many Facebook groups (one example here) and Twitter hashtags (#StudentAgency & #studentchoice) where you can find supportive teachers and parents who are similarly working toward childhood independence.
When I write about how my daughter is succeeding as a reader even though (or because?) I did not force sight word flashcards or memorizing the alphabet on her as a preschooler, my thinking inevitably returns to readers we would term “at-risk” because of their sorely limited book access.
I wonder if my talk of autonomy and following the child’s lead and student choice & voice are another facet of our privilege, overlooking the needs of kids that need to “catch up” with their peers? Is my priority to cultivate the reader over the reading level potentially damaging for these children?
But this question, and all initiatives out there that insist every child must read by a certain level by age fill-in-the-blank (usually implemented in areas with higher number of at-risk kids), leads to a rather slippery slope with regards to development & choice. We must be wary of practices that suggest that honoring developmental readiness is only reserved for children of a certain class.
This wariness should become sharper when we are faced with programs that overshadow books themselves. When programs > books, we run into equity issues every time because only the kids that quickly finish up their program assignment get time to simply read books of their choosing (Matthew Effect, anyone?)
So, how do we…
…work to eliminate the reading ability gap our low-income students face while still honoring developmental readiness and choice?
…seek out accountability that all students are receiving high quality reading instruction while also avoiding silver bullet programs that promise guarantees?
…ensure that in our zeal to help them find words, we do not allow our anxious agendas to swallow up their voices & choices?
Even as we work to identify diverse literary needs and developmental readiness, we can find a more joyful, inviting reading community for all as we focus more on nurturing readers & cultures than on pushing reading levels.
“For too long we have focused on the development of reading for skills, not for the love of reading. Yet, we need both types of experiences in order to fully develop as readers.” ~Pernille Ripp
(so many practical ideas from Pernille on establishing that culture in her post).
For our early readers, we seem to have been especially caught up in the skills side of reading. We need to stop packing in skills so tightly that they crowd out reading itself.
As Donalyn Miller recently summed up,
“We need an intervention on interventions! The best intervention is a good book a child can and wants to read.” @Stephharvey49#readingsummit
Each and every one of our early readers deserve librarians just as much as they deserve high-quality reading specialists. They deserve books in their hands just as much as they deserve guided reading groups. And they deserve teachers who share their authentic love of reading just as much as they deserve teachers who effectively build decoding skills.
It’s understandable to feel overwhelmed by fear of kids falling behind. But when we start from a place of love of the reading instead of fear, we ultimately lay a literary foundation that is much more lasting and meaningful for all our readers.
Variety is key, and it’s not always super pretty. It’s all about access. Which means it should be ever-evolving, based on our observations of our kids’ shifting needs. And access wins over pretty every time.
This might look like…
…pulling out books from our tightly-packed shelf onto the display area with the library books to remind our kids of gems they’ve forgotten.
…giving them their own shelf to organize favorite books (and to keep them safe from book-shredding little brothers for now).
…letting them go to town arranging their own personal “library.”
What are ways you help encourage book access with your kids at home? How does that shift over time?
A few days ago, I overheard my 8 year-old adding her day plans to our shared daily to-do list (more on that here). Using the speech-to-text feature, amid other typical tasks, I suddenly heard her say, “Read all the books on the bottom shelf.”
Teacher mom that I am, of course I was delighted.
But then I turned to reflect once more on our journey of her literacy:
The constant tension I felt between whether I should let her choose her own books or drill her on-level basal reader or sight-word flashcards to push her to the next reading level.
The nagging worry that I was denying her opportunities by turning down programs with the label, “proven to be successful in improving the reading skills of every student who participates.”
The way I wondered if I was wrong to yield to her book-making efforts over any worksheets that came home.
Yet amid all the angst, here we are to nearly the start of 3rd grade, and not only is she a fantastic reader and writer, but she’s adding items to her to-do list like “read all the books on the bottom shelf.”
It makes me wonder. Had I pushed all those academics and level advancement on her from my place of stress and worry, would she be making such choices for her summer? My suspicion is that had I pushed my agenda on my strong-willed child, she would want little to do with books today–especially on her “time off.”
It seems that those of us raising kids today are given every reason to believe that to trust our kids’ autonomy over their learning is tantamount to negligence. We are constantly bombarded with ads that offer promises of confidence in our children’s future success. We are so stressed by questions on whether we’re doing enough for our kids, that there is little room left for noticing the learning that quietly and naturally unfolds each day.
There is an abundance of learning and growing happening within our kids each day. Recognizing, embracing, and celebrating that from a place of love will always outperform operating from a place of not-enough stress and fear. Not because it will guarantee some future Harvard acceptance or a job on Wall Street, but because it will cultivate a lifetime of joyful learning.
One of the most powerful moments of the film “Most Likely To Succeed” (shared with me by my friend Abe Moore) was when a group of students, when faced with the question of whether they’d like to learn to apply to their lives or learn to ace the tests, they all choose acing tests.
Why? Because this was me in high school, too. I did not have patience for the teachers that tried to push their mumbo-jumbo philosophy of life on us, because we all knew that ultimately, it was only the tests that mattered anyway.
The tests. The gateways to colleges and careers. And if you hadn’t already started cramming for them, you were doomed, right?
So moving was that moment — especially paired with a parent explaining to the progressive teacher that she just “didn’t want any doors closed” to her child, it was almost enough to throw out the whole premise of the documentary, which is that we must change the way school works in order for kids to succeed in this ever-changing world.
Almost enough. But not quite. Because as I continued to watch, I became curious. If these kids aren’t taking the traditional courses and writing the traditional essays and memorizing for the traditional tests, are they getting into college? And if so, are they succeeding there?
It would seem they are. In my curiosity, I came across these High Tech High alumni stories, and I was impressed to hear the kinds of resilience and self-awareness these kids have clearly cultivated and are applying to their higher education journeys.
But even they conceded that in college, they still must face pressure and cramming and testing — but they reassure younger students that they will be ok and that it’s hard for everyone. Meanwhile, as the end of the movie points out, these students are still scoring well on the state standardized tests and getting into college, even without all the emphasis on test prep.
All this leads me to conclude that cramming doesn’t deserve the emphasis we’ve been giving it all these years. Wouldn’t it be better to first cultivate curiosity, determination, resilience, and sense of self, and then trust that our kids will be able to face the obstacles that arise?
I’ll close with one of the final remarks from a teacher in the documentary:
“There is a chance that they will come outwithout all of the extremelytangibleskills and content that they would getat a normal high school…but if we’re goingto believe that the content knowledgewe’re trying to impart on themin a traditional school is not being retained,then I would argue, what is it againthat they’re missing?…Here, they’re gonna leave with an extremedepth of some content and a whole bunch of other soft skills, they’re gonna havegrit, they’re gonna be able to persevere through difficulty, they’re good atcommunicating with adults and their peers,they’re collaborative, they have empathy,all these things that are not things that disappear your junior year of high school.And so, when parents ask that,and they do ask that all the time,it’s really kind of a what do you wantout of your student, who do you want them to be?”