Kindergarten these days is REALLY different from the one I attended in 1985. The most obvious difference is the full day. Does half-day kindergarten even exist in any school district anymore? With the push for early childhood education, more and more children are starting their formal education even earlier, at the age of three or four. So full-day kindergarten just seems like a given.
But it doesn’t stop there. My kindergartener and I recently finished reading Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary. Remember reading that as a kid in the ‘80s? Oh, did you read it even earlier than that? You might have, if you’re a bit older than me – that book was published in 1968. But even as a kid in the late ‘80s, nothing about Ramona’s kindergarten class seemed odd to me in the same way it does now. Half-day, yes; only mothers were involved in any activity related to school, yes; naptime during kindergarten – even though it’s ONLY a half day, what?! – yes!
What is really striking about Ramona’s kindergarten, however, is the academic component, or perhaps the lack thereof, compared to the more rigorous literacy-focused curriculum my kid is getting in her magnet school program. And while her particular magnet school happens to be focused on early literacy, I do believe that any kindergarten class today has got to be more serious about academics than mine was, let alone Ramona’s. Why do I know this? Because Ramona was learning the alphabet in her kindergarten class. In my daughter’s class, they are starting to write full sentences and are pretty much expecting to be decoding, in addition to having a large number of sight words (started in preschool) already down pat.
Seriously, at that point in the book, my kid looked up at me as was like, really? Ramona is only now learning what the letters even are, and she’s five?? Yep. The expectations were much lower back then. And three and four-year-olds were typically not in school at all, so you couldn’t look to the preschool programs to ensure that children that age were mastering their letters before moving on to start putting them into words and sentences.
So I should be amazed and happy at the quality of my kids’ education thus far, right? I am, but there’s one thing that sticks in my craw a bit. Clearly the standards have been raised, resulting in grade and age-level expectations being pushed even earlier. And even so, I know my kindergartener is doing really, really well. She gets pulled out of class for something called WIN block, which apparently stands for “What I Need.” For some kids, “What I Need” is extra help in areas they are struggling with. My kid gets WIN block time to work on areas where her teachers think she can be pushed even farther. And I am relieved and happy that she’s doing better than grade level expectations, believe me.
But then her teacher told me this at the last parent-teacher conference:
“She was tested for eligibility for gifted and talented services. She missed the cut-off by just one point!” [excited happy face!]
She must have believed I would share her excitement. I guess she didn’t anticipate that things would go the other way. I was identified and placed in the G&T program as a kindergartener. I don’t remember much about it, just that we used computers (a big deal in 1985!) and did a lot of creative projects. And maybe I took it for granted back then, but at least I knew I was doing something right, at least in some areas. The math struggles would come later for me, but I knew I was a champ at reading, writing and all things language arts based (and later, social science based).
My first reflection on my daughter not quite making it into the gifted program was that it was my fault. I didn’t do enough to foster her academic growth, I relied on her early budding reading skills and trusted that her talents would just shine naturally. I recounted time wasted watching My Little Pony. But then I remembered Ramona and the lowered expectations for the kindergarteners of the past — no, the raised expectations of kids her age today. If it’s harder for the cream to rise to the top today, it just means my kids will need to work that much harder to get there. Or maybe instead, they’ll learn to forge their own paths to excellence, the kind that isn’t measured by grade point averages or DRA scores.
For a so-called “gifted” kid, I ran into a lot of problems in other areas, as well as academically, in my upper elementary years and beyond. Counting change didn’t make sense immediately. I didn’t get to take higher-level algebra classes in middle/high school. Chemistry? There’s a reason I went to law school instead of med school. And of course, now we know that there is such a phenomenon as “twice-exceptional” or 2E students: children who are identified as gifted in one or more areas, and also have a learning disability that impacts them, sometimes severely, in others. Not to mention that brilliant and highly accomplished students can face challenges from disabling conditions like ADHD, emotional disabilities, or an Autism Spectrum Disorder. I myself was not diagnosed with ADHD, depression and anxiety until my mid-30s, despite looking back and realizing how badly these conditions plagued me and went unidentified in my adolescent years. So I have a lot to be thankful for if my child is meeting grade level expectations, or even exceeding them in some areas, while also flourishing in those other domains in which she must function at school and out in the wider world.
I have my fair share of failures in life – and I know my children will inevitably experience their own. While I’d like to push them toward excellence in an effort to protect them from my missteps, I get the feeling that pushing too hard will make them stumble instead of moving them forward. We’ll see what Ramona does as we continue through the series, and instead of comparing this time, I’ll see what questions my daughter has for me about the world back then and her dreams for the future.