Incidental Learning

(cross posted on

I shared a lesson in Kindergarten on Sept. 17th which happened to be the 17th day of school for us. As I was walking down to the class, I realized that and that I taught Kindergarten for 17 years before moving on to other grade levels. Who cares about those 17s?

Well, I do, because looking for patterns and relationships between and among events and what I already know is part of who I am–I do that all the time. Now those three facts don’t really mean anything– it’s simply an interesting coincidence. But it started me reflecting a bit…

My K lesson is actually one in a series of lessons on “graphs” as math stories. I teach the little ones how to read graphs as a story picture–I show them graphs and ask what story this tells us. I use books and comparisons of stories in them to help kids understand they can tell stories in school and understand them to deep levels. This week we were actually making a line graph–one I found on a New Zealand website several yeas ago.

17 years in K builds a lot of expertise. I watched–and worked with– these kids who have been in school for 17 days and was sort of monitoring my own behavior as I was doing it, thinking about what the classroom teacher was seeing. I was actually remembering my days in K and feeling quite nostalgic–that’s my favorite grade to teach and I have always said I want to go back in the classroom before I retire. So I was really being metacognitive about my behaviors and seeing if I really enjoyed it as much as I remember I did.

One of the things I love about Kindergarten is building a sense of community and watching the kids be kind to one another.  It is absolutely so cool to be amazed at how they treat each other–kids alway astound me by the depth of their caring and empathy when set up to show and share that safely. Another thing I loved is how quickly you can teach something–almost like osmosis–because the kids watch everything that goes on–they are very aware of how adults interact with other kids.

As I was watching these kids, I realized that 17 days means these kids have already been in school for over ONE HUNDRED hours…  and I was wondering what they are learning and what incidental lessons I was going to teach them.

I hate that schools (as we know them, and as most of us experienced them) assume incompetence. Teachers supposedly assume students need to have their heads opened and the information poured in. Kids are taught that the teachers (adults) know it all and will share that knowledge with them as they deem fit. What a sick system.

I’m hoping these K kids aren’t being indoctrinated into those beliefs.  I’m hoping I can help them see their brilliance and learn to follow their passions.  I’m hoping they can see clearly that I honor their competence and what they bring to the group.

So I go into this K class and am going to read a book–or two–in readiness for the math lesson.  I start the book, not having everyone’s attention–but I don’t sweat that–I know I’ll have it in a couple of seconds, because I know how to get kids’ attention.  Sure enough, my changing voice, my silly questions, my  goofing off all draw the kids in and by the second page I have them in the palm of my hand.

Are they talking to each other some?  Yep. Are they laughing and giggling together?  Yep.  Are they calling out as I ask my questions?  Yep.  And that’s all okay with me, because it shows they are engaged.

When I ask a question I want to discuss, do I single out a response?  Yep–and the class quiets and listens because kids come to school wanting to learn–I’ve found that Kindergarten kids (heck most kids) want to hear what I am talking to one child about because they don’t want to miss anything!

Okay, now you’re probably saying, “She can’t get every kid to come to every story–or every whole group lesson–that easily.”  And you’re right, I miss pulling in some kids sometimes. Like yesterday, when two kids kept talking as I began the intro to the second book by looking at the front and back of the book with the class. I initially ignored them, hoping they’d join in–but what they were doing was more engaging to them than what I was doing with the rest of the class. So I asked the class to help me with their names, then called on them and said, “Hey, you two–if you don’t want to hear the story, that’s okay with me–you can go to another part of the room and continue playing together quietly.” The whole class is watching now–waiting to see what this visiting teacher is going to do to the two kids who were misbehaving. Those two are silent- looking at me, now, with solemn faces and great wide eyes, waiting for me to fuss at them. I deliberately smile and say, “You won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t want to hear me read this book.  You can just go somewhere else and continue your conversation. I don’t mind. But you can’t stay on the rug and keep talking and giggling about something else, because there are people behind you who DO want to hear-and you’re bothering them. So you can go to your seats and keep talking if you want, or stay–you decide.” I then return to the book and keep going.  They stay and begin to contribute to the group experience.

So what did they learn?

I hope they got a clear message it’s NOT okay to disturb other people who are trying to learn.

I hope they got a clear message that I understand not everybody is interested in the same things at the same time–and that’s okay.

I hope they heard that I was NOT angry or punitive and they had choices to make about their own learning.

And, I hope ALL the kids learned those three things about me by seeing how I dealt with the two who were not paying attention.

2 thoughts on “Incidental Learning

  1. I am 25 years old and currently enrolled at the University of South Alabama under the instruction of Dr. Strange in his EDM310 class. I have always said that it takes a special person to understand and teach a Kindergarten Class. Just by reading this post I know you are that type of person. Giving five and six year olds the decision to listen to you read the book or go and talk by themselves is something I think most teachers don’t think of. Letting them choose to be a part of a class discussion or not, and having them choose to be in the class discussion is amazing. Teaching them they have a choice and you listen and respect to that choice is something very important for their egos. I have a 3 year old and she is a sponge. I also nanny a little girl who is in first grade now. I was with her when she started Kindergarten and even after a few weeks I saw a huge difference. She was reading and writing and this was all in the first semester. Again, I feel you have that special touch in giving Kindergarteners the ability to share, discuss and have an imagination which is most important. Thank you for the post.

  2. Paula,
    I really enjoyed your post once again.My name is Catina and I am a student at the University of South Alabama.I take Dr.Strange EDM310 media class.I like the approach that you take with the little ones .The graphs are great ideas of new learning.They can take lessons from the hands on discussion.Its is very good the way that you got the children attention during story time. I will keep that in mind as a future educator.I would have to believe that the children did learn a lesson by being set apart for misbehaving.Students have to know they come to learn and have respect for other. I look forward to more of your post. I have a class blog and it is come visit sometime.

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