Cultivating Learners

My oldest started kindergarten two weeks ago. It has been a whirlwind of excitement, sadness, hope, and despair. His school seems to have a great new principal, and Keith and I both like his teacher. My overall feeling can be described as realistically optimistic. 

We decided to send him to public school for many reasons, the top of our list being diversity. We want him to be in new situations with new people to learn how to navigate being himself in a world where everyone is beautifully different. I volunteered in the school’s cafeteria last Friday, and amid the laughter and chaos, my mind kept drifting to flowers. 

You cant force a flower to bloom. You can pry the petals open, but all that really does is damage the flower. Flowers need water, sunlight, and the appropriate environment in order to thrive. Some flowers can bloom despite our best efforts to sabotage them, and other flowers simply can’t bloom unless the conditions are just right. We understand this about flowers. We don’t judge flowers. We ask ourselves questions like, Is the soil to acidic? Too alkaline? Am I watering it too much? Not enough? Do I need to trim the trees around the plant to decrease the amount of afternoon shade it receives? Is this flower just not suited to this part of my yard? Should I replant in a sunnier spot?

We don’t walk into our gardens and tell our flowers to try harder. We don’t show flowers their growth data from last year and expect them to all bloom on schedule based on growth projections. Sure, we can collect data on our flowers to notice patterns and chart growth. We don’t usually collect data on flowers for the sake of collecting data, though. We grow flowers because they clean our air and beautify our world. 

We don’t reward or punish flowers. If a flower grows particularly tall and strong one year, we don’t present it with extra water or sunlight. Flowers grow tall and strong because that’s what they’re designed to do under the right conditions. Similarly, if a flower shrivels up and turns brown, we don’t withhold sunlight or water to teach it a lesson. That idea is preposterous and absurd; we know that we need to give that struggling flower extra love and attention if we want it to flourish. 

Some of our kids are the most resilient of weeds and some of our kids are the finickiest of rare orchids. I believe most kids fall somewhere in the middle. We need to ask ourselves what we need to change to create the right conditions for our kids to thrive. 

Parents and teachers are the ones who steward the blooming process. We know these little humans in front of us, and we know what they need and how much the need and why they need it. Faster is not better. Measuring does not encourage growth. Punishments and rewards don’t motivate. Just like flowers, kids are designed to thrive under the right conditions, on their own unique timetables. 

The reality is that there are kindergartners (not mine) who are already reading. There are kids who already know all the sound/symbol relationships. There are kids who have physical disabilities. There are kids who have yet-to-be diagnosed learning disabilities. There are kids whose basic needs not being met to the point that they’re ready to learn letters yet. 

Reading requires a complex set of cognitive skills. It’s developmentally NORMAL for kids to learn to read some time between the ages of 5 and 7. We have known this for a long time, yet the people who make the decisions seem to think that rigor and higher expectations mean that kids should be learning more faster and that teachers should be ensuring that kids can read by the end of kindergarten.

That’s not a reasonable goal. We have to meet our kids where they are on the convoluted, windy, long, path to becoming readers. Everyone will get there in time, and teachers and parents should have the right to give kids the grace and space to bloom in their own time, when they are ready. 

What can we do to facilitate the process? How can we provide water and sunlight?

 Let’s talk to our kids and discuss what words mean and point out words while we’re at home and in the car. 

Let’s cuddle up with our kids and share good, quality literature. 

Let’s tell stories about where we come from and about things that we’ve experienced in our lives. 

Let’s look for signs of readiness and then help kids break the code of reading by teaching phonics and sound/symbol associations. 

Let's tell nursery rhymes and make up silly songs and dance.

Let’s help our kids when they ask for it. Let’s make sure they aren’t hungry or tired or that there isn’t something upsetting going on for them at home or at school.  

Let’s show everyone involved (including ourselves) a lot of grace. We are all just figuring it out as we go, even the so-called experts. 

Mostly, let’s check ourselves to make sure that our goals for our kids are what we truly want for our next generation of humans. Let’s don’t do the things that aren’t right for the little people in front of us. Harder, faster, sooner DON’T EQUAL BETTER. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, let's, "adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience."