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. Mind you, 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 kindergarten teachers are forced to teach were previously taught in higher grades – like democracy and the presidents. Pretty dry matter for five and six-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.
Recently 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?” “To make a choice.”
I love the simplicity of kindergartners.
“Jeremiah, what are the rules of the voting?” “You can only vote once.”
“Right! Yes Jessica?” “Don’t vote for one just because your friends did.” “Very good!”
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 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. Alana 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 five-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. Alana 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 Alana” I said, “is this about the president, about democracy?” Alana nodded ever so slightly in response to my question, but I detected doubt in that nod. “Right Alana? Something about the president?” I repeated.
There was a pause as every head turned to see how Alana 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 number one 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.