What Tutoring Kindergarteners Has Taught Me About Public Schooling

If kindergarten marks an entrance into traditional education, what would the start of a radical one look like?

I’ve often heard it said–both inside and outside of education circles–that all the things we need to know, all the guidelines we ought to live our lives by, were learned in kindergarten. This is usually referring to ideas like, ‘share what you have,’ or ‘treat others with respect,’ ideas which I do think are powerful and that we should all be engaged around. However, in helping out in a kindergarten classroom over the past semester, I have found that these are not, in fact, the primary goals of kindergarten at all, nor are they what the majority of time in class is spent on.

Working as a bilingual tutor, supporting a group of four young girls as they begin their transition into public school lives, I have found that kindergarten is more than anything about induction. It is about learning the alphabet, how to count and to start spelling small words, for sure, but its also about learning to walk in a line, when you may speak and when you are expected to be silent. It is about how to follow directions in an appropriate manner, how to be still when it is required of you, and how to recognize adult authority. Whether you are from an immigrant background, or poor, or wealthy, or a native English speaker, or a girl, these are the primary lessons which all students are expected to graduate kindergarten with a mastery of. The pedagogical justification is that all students ought to be held to the same standards to promote equity, but the result is often universal expectations which favor certain kinds of students and force others to jump in line with them, without recognizing the cultural, economic and social factors which make their inculcation far more complicated than those of their peers.

As a tutor and young educator, navigating my roles and responsibilities in this space has been difficult, and I’ve gotten myself into trouble multiple times. When I am reprimanded by my superiors, it is rarely because I have mistaught a lesson or undermined the learning of an academic skill. Usually, it is because I let a student ask me a question who is supposed to be going to wash their hands, or because a student is speaking to me about a conflict when they are expected to be standing quietly in line. More than sharing and holding hands, more than the alphabet and word fluency, kindergarten, I have found, is about preparing students for the remainder of their journey through a system defined through hierarchy, governed by compliance, and regulated with a strict adherence to the will of the authorized. This is the case, even at the school at which I am proudly employed.

If kindergarten is the induction into a traditional form of education–one which simplifies and makes invisible oppressed histories, runs on a system of compliance and reward, and which treats its students as equivalent cogs, even as it generates a world rent with inequity–what does the beginning of journey toward radical learning look like? If kindergarten prepares students to successfully navigate an oppressive form of learning, what would an education look like which drew on young people’s creativity and inherent knowledge, and which worked to continue the learning which is already in process in children’s own minds, families and communities? Claire Potter begins to address this very subject in a recent post about creativity and public learning, in which she cites the ideas of therapist D.W. Winnicott, imagining creative learning as a process which rejects a teacher-to-student-to-economic-outcome model, and instead posits teachers and students as equal agents in a process of which they determine the outcome together, based on what needs, ideas and desires they each bring to the table:

…This may…be the best ethical basis for the political and social rehabilitation of liberal arts curricula that are being diminished and eliminated under neoliberalism. Putting student creativity at the center of our pedagogy also reveals the intellectual barrenness of current education policies, in many elite private institutions as well as in public institutions, which are thinly disguised strategies for training competent and docile workers at all levels of the economy, rather than cultivating citizen/laborers who are critically in touch with their own humanness.

One day in the class in which I tutor, the schedule was switched up due to some assembly or outside event, and we abruptly found ourselves with an entirely open half-hour block. On a whim, the classroom teacher decided that the kids could make bookmarks as gifts to give their sixth grade reading partners, who visit the class once a week to read books with them. Everyone was given a white strip of paper and allowed to decorate it with whatever implements they wanted, and with whatever designs they thought their partners would like. All the kids got to drawing quickly and earnestly, and as I looked around the room I was genuinely shocked by how skilled and stunning many of their own inner visions were. It occurred to me suddenly that I had rarely seen any of the them use a marker unless they were coloring in a new shape, use a crayon unless they were filling in the proper number of squares, use pencils unless they were practicing their handwriting. I felt ashamed that I had been working as a tutor for weeks, a part of the classroom for almost three months, and had no idea how talented the members of my community were, how clear and inspired their visions of beauty. This, I realized, is what I want to spend all of my time with students doing–being taught by their passions, incredible insights and powerful ideas, engaging with them in a process of unearthing the wisdom and creative force which we each already possess, and doing so with the goal of our collective liberation from a silencing, stratifying and dull system of economic preparation and authoritative compliance.

2 responses to “What Tutoring Kindergarteners Has Taught Me About Public Schooling

  1. Have you heard of the Danish Forest Schools? (http://earlyyears.blog.co.uk/2009/01/18/denmark-s-pre-school-back-to-nature-5400208/) I think they have one right idea. Playing in the muck together seems like a good start to a wholesomely radical education. Watcha think?

    My son’s kindergarten year (and the next 2) was at a freeschool. He got to spend his days on bikes and scooters, or digging or playing with water, or just running around. (The school had its problems, and is defunct now.)

    I’d love to see your analysis of a Waldorf or Montessori kindergarten. Or a Reggio Emilia kindergarten. (Have you heard of them?)

    • Hmmm, I haven’t heard of most of these, so I will definitely need to check them out and give them some more thought. Thank you for sharing them.

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