Tuesday, April 26, 2011

April 26, 2011 ~ Day 138
The Preschool Dilemma

Tomorrow will be a big day.

Tomorrow, my nearly four year old son and I will tackle a question that many parents hold strong (differing) opinions about - is academic instruction in preschool actually important? And if not, when will it become important?

Pretty much every parent I know agrees that preschool is a good time for young children to branch out of the family nest and work on developing their social skills. Play based learning is a wonderful thing, especially when it manages to include art, dance and music.

Children in preschool hone important social abilities like how to take turns, how to pay attention, how to follow a teacher's directions. They learn how to share and how to negotiate power struggles over who will play with which toy first. They learn courtesy and kindness - and how not to pick their nose in public! My son's current preschool even teaches them dining etiquette with the daily use of placemats and cloth napkins.

The primary question we are grappling with is NOT whether preschool is important. We agree in our family that a preschool education is crucial, which is the main reason why we are broke all of the time. Preschool at $800/month adds up fast.

Rather, the essential question that we are trying to answer has to do with reading and mathematics. Is it important for a child to learn phonics and basic numerics in preschool? Should a child be reading by the time he or she hits kindergarten? Will being an early reader hurt or help the child later on?

My elder son attended three years of preschool. The first year was a half day program only three days per week devoted to play based learning. He loved every second. The kids played with bubbles and chalk, made castles in the sandbox, rode tricycles like crazy across the blacktop... they painted gorgeous professional looking art that I had framed and hung all over my home.

They learned how to pour a pitcher of juice or water, how to clean up after themselves, how to make homemade play dough. They climbed in and out of a large wooden fort, danced with scarves, sent postcards to themselves from the local mailbox and even road the city bus for a field trip.

He adored his first year of school. Then we moved and made the switch to a Montessori style preschool local to our then-home, which I selected very carefully after touring all of the local preschools in our community. The teacher was strict but fair, well organized and maintained a peaceful and productive classroom atmosphere. Manipulative activities were everywhere, as were live animals like tortoises and fish.

He embarked upon an outstanding program of pre-reading skills and while he never raced ahead of the curve, the kid held his own. By the time he left preschool after two years attending five days a week, he knew all of his alphabet sounds and the numbers up to 100 or more. He entered kindergarten with a solid foundation. Despite foundering a bit in the local kindergarten where he was viewed as 'satisfactory but less than memorable' by his teacher, I knew he still had that strong pre-reading ability locked within.

Sure enough as soon as we moved to our new community and he began to study with a new teacher, all of those skills learned in preschool came to the fore and within six weeks of moving here, my son began to read. His reading is a revelation for all of us - him most especially.

He is reading the world around him with gusto - every road sign, every billboard. Every movie title, every book he sees. The whole world has suddenly opened up to him and he could not be more enthusiastic about it.

It really means a lot to me to see my eldest child reading. I was a middle school Humanities teacher for five years, during which time I met too many eleven and twelve year olds that couldn't read or even decode sounds. Obviously, with this kind of handicap they couldn't begin to keep up with the actual content knowledge I was trying to share with them about the history of the Middle Ages and Renaissance or attempt to tackle a wordy middle school classic like "Romeo and Juliet".

School was torture for those kids, a constant embarrassment and humiliation. It had nothing to do with their innate intelligence. After all, I'd worked as a "Gifted and Talented" cluster teacher - many of these same kids in my classes were categorized as "GATE" and had shown great promise in mathematics.

Reading, READING was their Achilles heel. They would do anything not to have to read a passage aloud in front of their twelve year old friends, so painfully conscious of their own shortcomings.

They spoke of becoming doctors and lawyers one day, and my heart bled for them. "How will you *ever* become a doctor or a lawyer if you can't actually read the books or tests required to get that kind of an education?" I thought to myself.

This entire experience really reinforced my longstanding opinion that literacy is the key to freedom and opportunity.

If you can read a book, you have the potential to teach yourself ANYTHING. As Matt Damon's likable lead character in "Good Will Hunting" so aptly told the Ivy League grad student whose girl he'd just romanced away, "You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library."

I agree with this in principle. You don't need to have a fancy college diploma to be smart and successful - but you DO need to be able to read.

The child I'm worrying over right now is our middle son. He's wicked smart, the kind of kid that WILL get into trouble if he isn't challenged. He reminds me of a lot of boys I grew up with - smart enough to plan and enact pranks with varying degrees of criminality. Thankfully they all turned out just fine, but I'll bet their mothers were worrying their eyeballs out back in the day.

My little guy is working on honing his manipulation skills and I've noticed that since we've moved to the new community he seems less and less motivated at school. After a while I began to ask more questions about what he works on during his five mornings at school each week, and it turns out that while the school has "Montessori" in the title, he's getting a lot of playtime, art, dancing, singing and crafts.

Over the course of two months he has not learned a single new phonetic sound and he has actually lost a few of the sounds he knew before he left his old school. In all, the new school has not appeared academically enriching to me.

My husband and I approached one of his close friends (another daddy at the school with older children) to ask what his experience has been with them in terms of learning. He confirmed that there isn't a real focus placed on language, other than Spanish language, but that all of his kids knew their basic letters and numbers before entering kindergarten.

He then told us that he personally felt they had done a disservice to their eldest two children by letting them get so far ahead of their age level peers with reading and writing at a different Montessori school (his oldest daughter was reading at a sixth grade level in the first grade) because they were hopelessly bored in regular classes for the first several years of elementary school.

From his view, having reading skills that are *too good* in early childhood is more of a curse than a blessing. He and I are on opposite sides of the fence about that.

So here we sit, as parents, wondering exactly WHAT we're paying $800 a month for -- is it playtime in a large grassy yard? If so, we could give that to our son here at home for free. Is it interaction with other children? Surely we could find a play group that would cost less. Is it for exposure to art and music? I could buy a lot of museum memberships and concert tickets - or even give him private music lessons - for far less than the cost of his current preschool.

What, then, should preschool be about? Does it matter whether he learns the basics of phonics, reading and writing?

Does the learning of those basic skills matter ENOUGH that we should send him to a school far from our home? Where I might not be able to get to him in the event of an emergency?

What role should preschool play in the life of a child, especially in the life of this particular child?

Tomorrow morning he and I will drive twenty minutes south to view a Montessori school well known to our family. It is run by the same leaders who ran his original school, the one with the amazing reading program. I already know that their academic program is much stronger than what he is currently getting. I just don't know if that means anything in the long run.

We've told our son that in the end, the choice will be his. There are positives and negatives to both schools, involving cost differential, traffic and commute time, gasoline prices, academic potential and organizational leadership. Either way, sacrifice will be involved.

In the end, I want my son to be the deciding factor about which kind of sacrifices he personally wants to make... long freeway drive twice a day, vs. potentially not learning how to read until Kindergarten - when he is already feeling so desperate to catch up to his big brother.

We'll be there for him along the way, to try to smooth out the bumps in whichever road he chooses. I'll do what I can to help with his reading skills, but frankly, I don't know much about the teaching of reading and I didn't have much success with helping those students of mine who couldn't read by the seventh grade. I may not, in this instance, be my son's saving grace.

This is a tough nut to crack because there are no clear answers. We're definitely open to all thoughts and advice about our preschool dilemma... but we need to make the decision very quickly. Snapping up a place in one of these schools is like applying to college - if you don't move fast, another qualified applicant will jump right over you and fill your space.

My fingers are crossed for an illuminating experience tomorrow - one way or another!

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