Thursday, May 5, 2011

May 5, 2011 ~ Day 147
Mommy Super Spy

In honor of Mother's Day this coming weekend, my younger son's school hosted a special "Mother's Day" celebration where each child invited his or her mother to come into the classroom for an hour to help him or her with "work" activities and then watch the live performance of several songs.

I felt particularly excited about this opportunity, not merely because I got to spend a little quality time with my boy by himself - which almost never happens for the "middle child" of three...

...but also because as previously noted in this blog I have been unhappy with the quality of the learning my son seems to be getting at this preschool and I wanted the chance to see his teachers in action first hand.

For a short time then, I donned my secret identity: Mommy Super Spy.

When my son and I arrived at his classroom we were warmly greeted and led to a table with a placard with his name on it, where they had put out an activity for him. I would imagine they selected activities for each of the children that seemed most relevant to their particular talents, because the work the teachers had chosen for my son consisted of counting beads and working on his numbers 1-9.

Have I mentioned that he has brought home sheet with the numbers 1 - 9 (traced) almost every day for two months? In the whole time he has attended this school, my impression has been that he works primarily on tracing these numbers, painting and playing outside.

Today's lesson, then, only confirmed my impression.

Not that I'm knocking the numbers 1-9... far from it. Those are nine really essential numbers and I'm thrilled that someday he will be able to read bank statements and tally up his checkbook.

My main problem with this intense focus on the numbers 1-9 is merely this: My son knew those numbers before entering preschool nearly a year ago. He had learned how to write them by October of last year. For him, this is REVIEW REVIEW REVIEW. Every single day, review.

After he'd shown off the numbers 1-9 for me, for which I was appropriately thrilled and appreciative of his effort and hard work, we moved on to the art table. He joyfully put together a sunflower with construction paper and glue. It was a lovely sunflower, and I thanked him profusely.

At this point in the morning, my boy appeared a bit stymied. Apparently normally at this time, after working on his numbers and doing art, he was accustomed to going outside to play. "What should we do now?" he asked me.

"Why don't we check out some of those other activities on the rug?"
I asked.

"I'm not allowed to do those. The other boys do those ones,"
he replied.

"Well, today is a special day," I reminded him. "Perhaps today your teachers will let you do those activities too."

He unrolled a work mat on the rug and began to look around. One of his teachers came by.

"What would you like to work on?" she asked.

"Sounds," he mumbled.


"Sound box."

She was still having trouble understanding him as he whispered, so I reiterated - "He says he wants to work on his sounds."

The teacher gave him a funny look, as though to say, "You aren't ready for the sound boxes." However with me there she smiled broadly and told him, "Today is a different kind of day and you can pick any activity you'd like - so the sound boxes are over there." She gestured to the bookcase ahead.

My son scampered over to get the sound box.

"Mommy, what sounds do these ones make?"
he asked.

He'd pulled out a box with the letters C-A-T and many appropriate objects to be grouped with each sound. For example, the small objects matching "C" were a small toy cat, a crayon, a candle, etc.

In less than a minute, he'd grouped all of his sounds correctly. "That was fun!" he laughed. "What should we do now?"

"Anything you'd like, buddy,"
I answered.

"I really like THAT ONE,"
he pointed to a large wooden board with 10 tubs of small number tiles, "But I never get to play with it. The other boys always play with it."

"Well today's your lucky day,"
I smiled. He pulled out the heavy board and showed me that came with a "map" (a diagram showing how the numbers 1 - 100 should be laid out on the bigger board). The object of the activity was for the child to organize his numbers from 1 to 100 using the tiles on the larger board, in the same sequence that they could be found on the map.

"Where are one and two?"
he asked me. We pulled out the box marked 1-10 but unfortunately, we discovered right away that all of the numbers were terribly jumbled. Together we began to sort numbers into their groups of ten and he was able to place about 1 - 21 on the board by himself before our time for doing activities together was up.

"I LOVE this work!" he beamed. "I LOVE big numbers!"

When my son's head teacher rang a little bell, the children jumped up and began to chant a little rhyme about cleaning up their work.

They then sat in a circle and prepared to sing to the mothers.

Don't get me wrong here... it was adorable to watch my little guy sing songs and wave his hands around. My heart just about burst with love.

That said, it soon became obvious that while his teachers had taught my son four or five songs in Spanish, he had NO idea what he was singing about. Many of the children in his class - plus all three of his teachers - are all Latino/a - so the little ones who understood the Spanish songs were laughing, making appropriate movements, really putting character and personality into their songs.

My son made gestures and laughed every time he sang in English, but as soon as they switched into Spanish he got a very perplexed look on his face (sort of a frown with creased eyebrows) and was always listening to the kids around him and copying what they'd said during the Spanish parts.

The parent in me said, "Awww how cute, they've trained him to sing in Spanish."

The teacher in me said, "This is just like teaching him how to trace letters of the alphabet without telling him what they are or what sound they make. They're teaching my kid how to parrot back Spanish but he clearly has NO idea what he is singing."

Later, when singing "It's a small world," the teachers handed each child a handmade flag from a different country. "What are these?" one little boy asked.

"I know we didn't practice with these," the teacher said, "But let's use them today with your mommies here."

Once again, confirming my impression. It's all window dressing.

Now I'm no expert in preschool education or the Montessori method; but I *do* know based on the three years our kids were enrolled in a different Montessori school that there are different ways of implementing Montessori teaching. My elder son spent a full year working on his sounds and three letter words, but every day when I asked him what sound he had been working on, he could tell me. "We did "sssssssssssssssss" today," he would announce proudly, or "Today I worked on "lllllllllllllllllllllll".

In retrospect, I understand better now just what a great education my sons were getting at that preschool. The older one also learned his countries, a ton of geometry and higher math skills, and got a fantastic science education revolving around the solar system, dinosaurs and plant germination.

I think it is a heinous waste of time to teach kids the surface of something while ignoring its substance. This is exactly why I had seventh grade students who could not decode new words. They'd learned to recognize certain familiar shapes to basic words like "the", "and", "of", etc. but if you presented them with something different they would freeze up and stumble badly. They had no phonetic toolbox with which to figure out new words in context.

So call me the mommy party pooper but I didn't think much of my little boy singing a song to me in Spanish that he couldn't understand at all. Later when I took him home from school I complimented his great singing and then asked him if he knew what those songs were about. "I don't know," he said. "What do they mean, mommy?" My point exactly.

If this were another kid, I might assume that his teachers *had* taught the meaning of the words and he just hadn't picked up on it. However, this boy is sharp as a tack and soaks up knowledge like a sponge. There is something strange going on for him at his new school - things were different before we moved here in February. He was getting so much out of his old school. Since coming here he seems to have stalled out.

From what I saw today during my hour as a super sleuth, this new school is everything I had suspected. Bright and airy, big focus on art, lots of playtime, loving and gentle teachers, and an emphasis on Spanish. This is not a bad thing - in fact, it may be many people's idea of a dream preschool.

$800 a month for half days is a lot of money for our family though, and this is NOT our dream for him.

That is why, last week, we visited a different preschool and put down a deposit for him to attend summer school there starting in June. It will be a much farther commute but on the way to my husband's office... and if he loves the summer school, he will continue on in the Fall. The school is about $200 a month cheaper, so for less money than we are spending right now he will get five FULL days of education instead of five half-days. My husband and I are really optimistic.

I'm grateful that I have both the professional training and time (at least for now) to stay aware of what is happening in my children's classrooms ~ to get a clear understanding of what they are gaining from their environment and what they are NOT. Being the Mommy Super Sleuth has its clear benefits, and I am fortunate in that I am professionally qualified to substitute teach in all of their schools up to the 8th grade... so I'll always have that edge until they hit high school.

Our elder son who had thrived in preschool, then floundered in his first kindergarten, is now blooming like crazy in his new classroom. He is reading EVERYTHING: books, magazine covers, billboards, directions, advertisements, store names - absolutely elated to have access now to an adult world around him which previously taunted him with its mysterious letters and sounds.

He is now also routinely earning 7 out of 7 on every math quiz and tells me that the math work is "too easy" for him and he wants to be a math genius. (My response? "Do everything your teacher asks of you anyway, even if you are bored. That is the only way you will ever be given really advanced, interesting math work in class.")

He has also made a number of friends and smiles at me nearly every day when we come to pick him up. Nearly every single day when I have asked him, "How was your day?" he has answered, "It was really good." This from the boy who used to scowl and cry every day after school, the same boy that used to insist that he was "Not smart."

From "I'm not smart!" to "I want to be a math genius!" in the course of two months? VICTORY!!!

If there is a definite meaning to today's post, it would be that it is so important for parents to stay connected to what is actually happening with their children in school... at least to get a sense of what they *aren't* getting. It would be so easy to assume that all teachers are hard-working and all schools are doing their job, but in truth, I still believe that the buck stops with us as parents to make sure that our kids don't fall through the cracks.

I'm grateful that I have this chance to make sure my kids are given the opportunities they deserve to succeed and grow. (Every child deserves those opportunities! Every child in the world!)

In closing, I realize full-well how blessed and privileged we are... to have been able to pick up and go, change communities, put down new roots, find the 'perfect' elementary school, pay for private preschools, etc. I celebrate those blessings and opportunities. We will not squander them, but rather celebrate in the many doorways that open up to children with a good education.

I'm so glad my little guy will have a chance to start fresh in a new learning environment in just one month. My fingers are crossed for a smooth and successful transition.

For now, that is all.

Happy Mother's Day, and Sayonara until the Mommy Super Spy strikes again!

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