Saturday, February 22, 2014

Waldorf First-Grade Readiness

Even if your child doesn't attend a Waldorf school, knowing some of the physical, emotional, and social markers the school looks for to determine first-grade readiness may be helpful. 

We recently attended a talk at Violet's school about first-grade readiness and were not only impressed with the teacher giving the talk (who was very professional, articulate, and accomplished) but also with the content. The school believes that looking for signals of readiness is important to setting the child up for success from the very beginning of his or her education. 

Many believe that academic early-childhood education emerged out of a countrywide fear of falling behind, but early-childhood experts say that an academic environment during early childhood can result in negative outcomes. 

David Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University and author of Reinventing Childhood and The Hurried Child, says, 

The deployment of unsupported, potentially harmful pedagogies (academic kindergartens) is particularly pernicious at the early-childhood level. It is during the early years, ages four to seven, when children's basic attitudes toward learning and school are established. Children who come through this period feeling good about themselves, who enjoy learning and who like school, will have a lasting appetite for the acquisition of skills and knowledge. Children whose academic self-esteem is all but destroyed during these formative years, who develop an antipathy for learning and a dislike of school, will never fully realize their latent abilities and talent.

Waldorf recommends that a child begin first grade no earlier than six years, three months of age. This is, for the most part, on par with a traditional school. In fact, many children in a mainstream school are six and a half (because of their birthday) before they start first grade. What's different in a Waldorf school is that a child may be held back if he or she is not ready. In a traditional school, being held back would be seen as an academic failure, but in a Waldorf school, it wouldn't. Instead, a child would be held back simply because he or she is not demonstrating enough of the indicators of readiness (children do not need to demonstrate all), and it would be seen as a decision that is best for the child, to ensure that he or she experiences success in all facets of a first-grade environment (including holding a pencil, focusing for longer periods of time, listening actively, and other practical tasks).

Here are some of the indicators the school looks for:

Physical Development
  • Can touch top of ear by reaching over top of head with opposite arm
  • Arch of foot becomes more developed
  • Body becomes lean
  • Facial features transform from baby features
  • Can throw and catch a large ball
  • Is able to walk forward on balance beam
  • Can jump rope
  • Can hop on one foot
  • Is able to tie shoes, deal with buttons/zippers
  • Uses fingers dexterously
  • Is able to free-draw pictures that display symmetry
  • Shares food/toys/attention without prompting
  • Waits his or her turn
Intellectual Readiness
  • Shows increased memory, such as recalling a story told by someone else a day or two ago
  • Displays evidence of thinking and planning
  • Does not depend on props/toys as much for play
  • Displays fewer outbursts of upset
  • Sits still without constant reminders
  • Is willing to try again if first attempts haven't been sufficient
  • Engages peers through imagination
  • Holds onto hurt more/uses language to express someone has "hurt my feelings"

Again, I know a Waldorf school is not for everyone and that most people prefer academic kindergartens and preschools, but this is just my preference, and learning about how first-grade readiness was determined at a Waldorf school was very eye-opening. It also reassured me, because of my preferences and because the school takes the whole child into consideration, that we made the best decision for our family. So I'm finally starting to ease into it more, and some of my earlier concerns are relaxing.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Private Education

     Mrs. Volkov doesn’t even bother to look at me. Instead, my principal presses the sharp end of a pen cap into her desk calendar and examines the tooth marks it leaves. "Well, I'm sure she'll turn up." 

     "Yeah, she probably just got bored." My conversation with Dana isn’t worth mentioning, as far as I’m concerned. Saying too much to Volkov is never a good thing. I have a general distrust of her—we all do—the way she careens down the hallway, shaking hands like a politician, repeating the same thing to each one of us as we dutifully man our classroom doors between periods. So different than the woman in her office, by turns dismissive and suspicious. If a parent ever comes in to complain, her son with an F on his report card, Volkov takes the parent’s side without fail, an accusation of the teacher unsaid, but permanently knit into the crease that forms between her thick eyebrows. Never mind that the boy’s been skipping class, or worse, showing up high as a kite.

     "I'll let you know if I hear anything," Volkov says, shifting in her seat, her eyes focusing on the hallway behind me so she can see who’s walking past her office. 

     Dana had needed guidance. I first spoke to her when I found her crying in the hall by her locker last year. She eventually confessed that her mom was moving back to Tennessee, without her. What kind of a mother? I hugged her then, told her things would be all right. When she turned up in my class the following year, she seemed glad to see me. And I was glad, too. She had promise, and we developed a genuine relationship. Dana would stop into my room to talk during lunch, and she became the student I trusted to retrieve an overhead projector from the library or to fetch books from another classroom. A responsible girl. I wasn't going to let her slip through the cracks. 

     Yesterday I pulled her out into the hallway, alone, while the rest of the students wrote in their journals. "I know," I said. 

     "Know what?"

     "I know that you took money from my purse." I figured it out when she asked to go to the restroom the day before and came back with a bag of chips and a candy bar bought from a teacher running a side business pushing junk food in the name of fundraising—a new habit of hers that I’d been meaning to talk to her about anyway, but had put off until I realized that it only started after the money went missing.

     "No, I didn’t." Her hair looked unwashed and there was a slight purpling beneath her eyes, like overripe fruit. But she did. My purse had been stashed under my desk, and after I closed the door when the bell rang, I circulated up and down the rows, nudging the kids toward pocketing their phones and starting their daily journal entry so I could take attendance. Dana was the only one who would help herself to my seat behind my desk. I didn’t mind. I wasn't using it, and she'd go to her own seat easily enough, after the journaling was over. But that day she’d returned from the restroom with snacks.

     "That's bullshit, and you know it." I was intentionally harsh. Without a mother at home, she needed an adult in her life to set some boundaries. 

     She stepped back. "OK," she said. "OK." Her eyes filled and her nose reddened. This was what I'd wanted. My own mother had been tough with me, and it had kept me from being irresponsible. It would do her good, and it served her right. 

     "Get back inside and get to work." I opened the door for her. 

     The rest of my day carries on with a maddening familiarity: Tom and Gary with their heads on their desks, pretending to be asleep. Carrie texting in her lap, glancing up at me as she awaits the reply. Briana, pretending to follow along, but forgetting to turn the page. As I read to class after class, I find myself brushing my book’s back pages with the pad of my thumb, a deck of cards falling into place, time closing in on itself.

     On my drive home, gray clouds rolling through the sky like smoke, I think about Dana’s hesitation before she trudged back into my class. I want to say to myself, "This too shall pass," but it’s not right. So instead I say,  "I'm sure it's nothing."

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Waldorf Three-Week Update

First, just a little bit about why I chose Waldorf.

The background

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was looking for something different. I really wanted to get away from the programs that focused on accelerated academic instruction. I am concerned that this early pressure and these early gains that children experience come at a price.

As educational psychologist Jane Healy explains in her book Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think, "Before brain regions are myelinated [and nerves have the outer coating needed to transmit impulses], they do not operate efficiently. For this reason, trying to make children master academic skills for which they do not have the requisite maturation may result in mixed-up patterns of learning. I would contend that much of today's academic failure results from academic expectations for which students' brains were not prepared--but which were bulldozed into them anyway."

Not mention, I've read a number of articles (which, like this post) disparage academic preschools and warn that early gains do not result in any advantage later on--that, in fact, early gains can result in burn-out and even learning disabilities. 

By doing away with the typical academic program you'd see in a VPK or kindergarten today (at least where I'm from), Waldorf has left room for play, work (there are chores like making soup and baking bread each day that the students are asked to participate in), and storytelling.

For those reasons, the Waldorf program holds a lot of appeal. However, I acknowledge that children and parents can have a negative Waldorf experience as much as they can have a negative academic preschool experience. And the same goes with positive experiences. (And maybe it's just a school-by-school basis.) I think one of the challenges as a parent is determining which avenue holds the greatest risk and which holds the greatest reward. 

The update

We started out just doing half days for the first couple of weeks, to help ease the transition. We sent her full time this week. After school, whether its been a full day or a half day, she's been extremely tired. She says she had fun, but she never wants to tell me any details! Day after day, she tells me she can't remember any of the kids' names, and I when I ask what she did all day, she either says she can't remember or she just played outside. Sigh. One day, though, when I came to pick her up, she actually cried. She didn't want to come home with me. This was validating. 

One of the things I wrote down in this somewhat extensive (and a little invasive) survey the school gave me before Violet was enrolled was that I wanted her to become more self-reliant. Violet has wanted to be babied by me--a lot--since Harper was born, and for the most part, I've done it. That's not to say there weren't clear boundaries with her, just that if she wanted to be held, I held her. If she didn't want to get dressed by herself, I dressed her rather than insist that she do it. I can't be sure I've been doing the right thing, but in my mind, I thought if that's what she needs from me right now, then I should give it, freely. I told myself the rest would come.

Since she's been in school, though, she's been working on buttoning her shirts, and she's been cleaning herself on her own when she uses the bathroom, both things that she wasn't willing to do at home before. I'm really happy about this, because I believe that kids gain a lot of confidence when they are able to be more independent.

We also attended a Waldorf birthday party today, with puppet show and tea service (with gluten-free and organic cookies). From what I understand, the puppet show is a typical part of a Waldorf birthday celebration. Before the show began, the teacher lit a candle and sang a song. The puppet show was about a little girl who wanders into the woods to chase after fairies. She runs into some helpful gnomes, and eventually, she meets Mother Earth, who welcomes her with a big hug. Then she wakes up. It was sweet, but also a little weird. The teacher blew on a handheld recorder or penny whistle to get the kids' attention, and she passed out leaves to each of the children after the play was over. I didn't get a chance to talk to the parents of the other kids as much as I'd hoped I would, but some  who introduced themselves had a soft, sing-song voice (as do the teachers). I think it's great for the kids and for my four-year-old daughter, but for me, it was a little off-putting.

All in all, though, I think it's going well. Violet is happy. As time goes on, I hope to learn more about her teacher and about what they are learning (doing) in class.