Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Need for Early Childhood Education

One of the first things I read this morning stirred up my passion for early childhood education.  In an article titled, Our Children, Our City: In Indiana, we fail our children in thinking early learning is optional, not essential, Scott Ellison and Robert King once again highlight the need for our state to get on board with funding Pre-K programs. 

With Indiana's K-3 Reading Initiative to have all 3rd grade students pass a state reading assessment that will determine their readiness to move on to grade 4, you would think that there would be more urgency to help our students come to elementary school better prepared. Have we become so focused on college and career readiness that we are failing to recognize one of the most important times in our students' lives--what happens between birth and age 5?

If you step into any kindergarten classroom, you will quickly recognize that there is a vast range of abilities and school readiness among students. Some will know their alphabet, be able to count, have had experiences with books, and will be able to write their name. Others will not be able to recognize a single letter of the alphabet, have had little to no experiences with books, and may have never picked up a pencil or crayon.

This is my thirteenth year in education, and I can honestly tell you that school-readiness is one of the single-most important factors in determining a child's early and continued success in school.  Yet in Indiana children aren't even required by law to attend school until they are age 7, nor are they required to attend kindergarten.  These state statutes continue to blow my mind.  In the article, Ellis and King contrast the extreme gap in beliefs between an optional early childhood education in Indiana and South Korea's mandate that children begin preschool at age 3.  Why does Indiana continue to believe that early learning experiences--including kindergarten-- are optional? 

Most legislators will tell you that the answer is simple:  money.  This may be true, but it is hard to believe that there isn't something more that could be done.  After all, the state cut education funding by $300 million dollars a couple of years ago, causing many teachers to lose their jobs and quality educational programs to be cut.  Recently,  the government announced that they found out that this money was really there--it was an accounting error.  (Insert your own comment here.)  With that said, other states have been creative and have earmarked funding sources such as their state lottery revenue to help with educational needs--something that Indiana touted when first bringing the state lottery to Hoosiers in 1988.  Amazingly, 2012 was the first year that Indiana was able to up the ante on full day kindergarten funding--a one year grant that assisted school corporations enough to be able to offer full day kindergarten free of charge for our patrons--still not fully funding it as touted in the media.  In the past, we have charged parents tuition to have their child in a full day program to help offset the funding deficit.  Even with the funding increase, we still had to advertise the free full day kindergarten as optional.  Fortunately, all of my kindergarten students are full day this year--  something that has been a long time coming!  I am looking forward to seeing the payoff for them as they progress through elementary school.

Funding Pre-K will not alleviate all of the gaps in readiness and achievement, but it sure would be a great place to start.  If we could get all students at age 3 or 4 into a structured educational environment that allowed them to play, explore, learn, and have rich experiences with literacy and numeracy, I believe we would see an increase in not only the test scores our students are measured with, but in the output of educationally well-rounded and successful "college and career ready" citizens.  Shouldn't that be our goal?

Let's continue funding for full day kindergarten, require students to start school by age 5,  and find a way to make Pre-K happen, Indiana! Our children are our most valuable resources, and our future depends on it!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Sense of Belonging

Building a strong sense of community in the classroom is extremely important.  This year, as the staff begins making improvements in the area of writer's workshop, we are also emphasizing the importance of building a sense of belonging for our students.  If we want our students to feel comfortable speaking and writing about personal experiences, they need a safe and accepting environment in which to do so.  One way we are promoting community-building in our classrooms is through "morning meeting" or "community circle." 

Fortunately, we have a resident expert in this practice.  Our 4/5 High Ability teacher worked with the instructional coach to videotape her morning meeting and gave a highly informational presentation to the staff on what a morning meeting in her classroom consists of.  More importantly, she outlined all of the benefits of the morning meeting.  The most beneficial element, in my opinion, is the sense of belonging that students get from this daily interaction with their peers.  They learn that they are part of a classroom "family" and that they take care of each other, have fun together, and learn together. 

Teachers have a lot on their plates right now and may not  feel that they have time in their daily schedules to devote to a 15- 20 minute meeting with their class.  However, if they take just 15-20 minutes of their day to focus on creating a positive learning community within their classrooms, they may spend less time dealing with behavior issues and may see an increase teamwork, effort, pride, and perseverance. 

As I walked through the building last week and witnessed several classrooms having their meetings, it was clear that many of the teachers are seeing the benefits of this daily ritual.  I am anxious to see the positive impact on not only their classroom community but on the culture of the entire school.  We must continue to create the time to build a positive learning community and help all of our students feel a sense of belonging.  It is up to us to help our students find their voice, their role, and their significance in their school community.  It is time very well spent!