Shifting Gears

Former fifth-grade teacher Chelsea has high expectations for her new full-day kindergarten class. She soon realizes that, due to scheduling conflicts and mixed achievement levels, her idealistic lesson plans may need a little more improvisation than she had initially anticipated. She contacts a more experienced teacher for advice as she tries to make the most of reading time and learn more about her students' needs - and how to meet them.

Chelsea’s transition to teaching kindergarten becomes much more challenging when the principal issues a new schedule that makes it impossible for her to follow her carefully scripted daily plan.

Chelsea’s transition from fifth grade to kindergarten presents her with some new challenges.

Chelsea Wilkinson gazed dumbly at the notice in her hand – how could one little sheet of paper send all of her carefully laid plans into such a spin? – and slowly sank onto one of the chairs surrounding her classroom library table. The trouble with kindergarten chairs, she thought vaguely, is that they really weren’t designed for the adult bottom. As the hard plastic edge cut across the back of her thighs, Chelsea studied the newly revised school calendar as it cut its way across her carefully planned class reading, vocabulary development, and phonics time. What was her principal, Dr. Darrow, thinking?

In the distance she could hear the click-click-click of lead teacher Doris Milburn’s heels retreating down the hall. Perhaps full-scale retreat wasn’t such a bad idea, Chelsea thought bleakly.

She’d spent most of the summer preparing to teach kindergarten – a real change of pace from fifth grade, which she’d taught the previous five years. Of course she knew that things would be different in kindergarten; determined to be ready, she’d begun working in June, diligently printing out lesson plans, activities, and book lists for each month. She’d also developed an itinerary for each lesson of each day of the week – not exactly rigid, she’d told herself defensively, but she’d learned early on in fifth grade that a timetable was an invaluable tool for a teacher. No minute left unplanned, no lulls in the action which could lead to students getting restless…well, that was the way she liked it, it’s how she got things accomplished. And it had worked quite well in fifth grade.

She recalled for a moment last week’s conversation with Doris, and the skeptical look the older teacher had given her when Chelsea had shown her that itinerary. (Doris was a master at the art of the single raised eyebrow. Chelsea hoped that by the time she’d been teaching as long as Doris had, she’d be able to do it as well.)

“I’m impressed,” Doris had said. “Wow – you’ve really done your homework!”

“Thanks,” Chelsea replied, feeling rather pleased with herself. After all, it had been a lot of work, and it was nice to get some recognition for that. “I’m looking forward to the new year. I think it’s going to be a nice change from fifth grade.”

“Yes,” Doris said, slowly, “in some ways, I’m sure it will.” She’d taken a couple of more minutes to study the daily plan, a slight frown settling on her face. “You know, things don’t always go exactly as scheduled in kindergarten. Remember, for some of the children this is their first time in school. They tend to be on sensory overload at first, and that’s a challenge. There will be days that you won’t get everything on this list done.”

“Oh, I’m sure that might happen a few times,” said Chelsea breezily, “but we’ll just make it up in the following lesson.”

“That might be harder than you think,” said Doris gently. “Students this young are a little harder to keep on schedule…”

Doris had meant well, and Chelsea had listened attentively, although at the back of her mind she couldn’t help but think that probably Doris just wasn’t very organized.

That had been less than a week ago. Now here she was, gripping her lesson book as if it were a lifeline that would save her from this unexpected situation. This certainly wasn’t the fifth grade; it was beginning to look more like summer camp! The calendar was filled with assemblies, play practice, school trips, and special events – here it was, just two days before school started, and it looked as if she’d need to rework her entire plan! She felt the pulse pounding in her neck as she began to panic. Taking several deep breaths, Chelsea wondered if there was a five-minute miracle yoga exercise for kindergarten teachers.

It was hard enough shifting gears by starting a new and very different grade level – anyone would be nervous about that. But now she felt completely unprepared to boot. Chelsea had a momentary vision of the first day of school – crayons littering the floor, crumbs coating the tables, crumpled papers wedged under each tiny overturned chair, and herself lying prone on the floor, twenty-eight sets of little shoe prints forming a track across the back of her blouse.

Pull yourself togethershe told herself sternly, unconsciously mimicking her high school soccer coach. Time to get back to work.

Determined to get this done with, Chelsea opened her lesson book. As she reworked her schedule, Chelsea told herself that no matter how much maneuvering she had to do she would preserve the class book’s central role in her lessons. Her fifth graders had loved read aloud time, and she was sure her kindergarteners would too. She had chosen books corresponding to each letter of the alphabet, hoping assignments and games would be born spontaneously from the children’s questions and comments. No matter what extracurricular things happened to intrude on their schedule, Chelsea vowed right then to defend their reading time from every opponent.

Truly inspired by her mentor, Chelsea adopts his methods in a whole class read-aloud.

During the third week of school Chelsea chose Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse to read to the children during their unit on the letter P. Chelsea loved this book, not just because Kevin Henkes had such a funny way with words (she loved his dialog!) but also because this was a story that any girl who’d ever had a purple plastic purse could relate to (Chelsea’s had actually been pink). And if you substituted the words “red rubber rat,” probably most of the boys would relate, too.

As she shared the story of Lily’s trouble with her teacher, Mr. Slinger, Chelsea recalled a Mr. Slinger of her own – except in her case she had not been a student, but a student teacher at the time. Just like Mr. Slinger, Bill had been one seriously cool teacher, the kind that inspired cooperation and enthusiasm in his students – and a love for the profession in Chelsea.

One of the keys to Bill’s success had to have been his unbounded energy. He was the kind of guy who never put a bite of food into his mouth unless it had serious nutritional value; Chelsea suspected that he blended himself an organic banana, wheat germ, and vitamin cocktail each morning for breakfast (he’d worked in Northern California for a while, and they were into that stuff there.) But whatever made Bill what he was, he was great.

Chelsea remembered one time when Bill was reading the class a story. Suddenly he’d stopped in mid-sentence, jumped up and started pounding his chest.

“Look! Look at me, everyone! I’m being furious right now!” he’d cried, snarling for extra effect. The children had loved his antics, giggling in their circle. In the next instant he’d assumed a different position, arms folded, brow furrowed, mouth curled. “I am also furiousnow,” he said, in the clench-jawed manner of Professor Snape; an even more enthusiastic chorus of giggles greeted him. A second later he’d popped back down to sit, normal as ever, cross-legged in the circle. “What does furious mean?”

“Maaaaad!” the class had chimed together.

It had worked like a charm then, and Chelsea didn’t see why it wouldn’t work for her now. Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse was peppered with challenging words and word plays which would do nicely for material. The next day, she introduced some of these words.

“The author described Lily’s teacher as ’sharp as a tack’,” said Chelsea to her class. “Do you think that means that if you touched him he’d stick you like a thumbtack would?” Chelsea faked a poke to her thumb, quickly sticking it in her mouth. Chuckles erupted around the circle.

“Nooooo,” said the class in unison.

“Well, what does it mean?” she prompted.

“Smart?” volunteered one student.

“Lily’s teacher is smart,” Chelsea reinforced. “That makes sense, doesn’t it?” She noted the nodding heads and continued. “Oh, here’s a fun word. Jaunty.” She turned her head to the side, giving a perky smile. “’It played a jaunty tune when it was opened.’ What does thatmean?”

A smile grew across Chelsea’s face as her students warmed to the lesson. She figured that a good way to prompt the students’ understanding was to form the same underlying question in different ways, and so she picked a few more unusual words from the text: considerate, amused, lurched, demonstrate, and the ever-popular furious. It’s just like playing charades at home, Chelsea thought. Who’d have thought I’d end up teaching them for a living?

Later, she thought back on the reading lesson, and considered her choices.

Overall, she thought it had gone well, but Chiyo’s question about the meaning of “march” nagged at her brain. She didn’t know what to make of it, so, for the moment, she pushed it aside.

Chelsea moves on to sight words and prepares for ‘Parents’ Night.’

Chelsea hopes to find creative ways to use her pocket chart with students.

It was almost October, and since even kindergarteners weren’t exempt from mid-term practice tests Chelsea decided it was time to dive right into sight words. Over the summer, she had created dozens of words for her pocket chart, a tool fellow teachers had sworn by for teaching beginning readers. The large, movable word cards in their clear plastic pockets enabled Chelsea to transcribe sections of the text as they worked on them, creating a larger version of the book for the class to read aloud together.

Click here to see an example of Chelsea’s sight words.

One of the great things about pocket charts was that they were helpful not only for vocabulary and introduction to grammar, but also for color identification and counting. She could, say, ask her class to count the number of times they saw a certain word or to point to the green letters.

Unfortunately, it seemed that the depths of the pocket charts were doomed to remain unplumbed because of their busy class schedule. Last week, two local college students showed up at the door to lead the students in a movement class – another weekly program the administration had failed to tell her about. Chelsea was sure that Dr. Darrow meant well – maybe she even thought that Chelsea would appreciate the break – but actually it was driving her crazy. What she really wanted was some uninterrupted time to finish her lessons! She’d gone to the principal about it, but had gotten nowhere.

See Chelsea’s schedule below:

“Sure, a movement class is great,” said Chelsea during the lunch break, talking to Doris in the staff room. “Heck, I’d love to take a movement class, myself. But it really cuts into our reading time.”

“I know,” sighed Doris. “Believe me, I understand.”

“I am just beyond frustrated,” continued Chelsea, viciously attacking her roll. “Why don’t they ever check with the teachers before scheduling these things? Or better yet, why don’t they actually ask us if we even want to participate?”

“It’s enrichment,” said Doris, skewering a crouton. “With all of the budget cuts, they’re looking for ways to put things back into the curriculum. And when the kids from the college volunteer to help out, well, I guess the administration just thinks that’s too good to pass up.”

“Fine,” said Chelsea, “then why couldn’t they send me a couple of reading tutors instead? Hey, what was the name of that woman – you know, the miracle worker? Annie Sullivan? Do you think that she’s doing any volunteer work these days?”

As Doris chuckled, Chelsea pushed away from the table, feeling more dissatisfied than ever. She didn’t need a crystal ball to foresee her future for the next couple of days…sitting down yet again with her lesson book, trying to think up some miraculous way to fit it all in.

When the children were gone for the day, Chelsea opened her planning book. She really didn’t want to mess with her math time; it was too hard to make it up later. Gee, with the amount of times that she’d been erasing things, this book was becoming almost illegible. She flipped to today’s date, and her jaw dropped. Impossible!

OH. MY. GOD. Chelsea’s jaw dropped. IM. POSSIBLE.

Across the bottom of the page, plain as day and in pen, she had scrawled “Parents’ Night.” And that would be…tonight. Chelsea groaned, burying her face in her hands as despair momentarily washed through her. How could she have forgotten this important event? Quickly she began to review the district’s kindergarten requirements and decided to focus on the pocket chart presentation she would share. How great it would have been if the parents could have seen their children interacting with text the way she had that morning. If only she’d videotaped it! Simply describing it wouldn’t be nearly as compelling, but it would have to do.

Click here to see the kindergarten requirements.

Chelsea seeks help from her former mentor.

Well, Parents’ Night had worked out after all, but it had been a struggle to pull it off. Chelsea couldn’t help thinking Bill would have done better – Bill, with his slightly shaggy but never ruffled demeanor, looking as if he pulled his successes right out of a hat. Well, she may have thought so once, but Chelsea knew better now. Kindergarten was no magic trick, it was a lot of work. Why hadn’t she been in contact with Bill lately, she wondered. He’d been so enthusiastic about mentoring her in the past. Surely he’d have something useful to tell her. She had a momentary qualm about intruding on his time, but then decided that there was something in the way that teachers were hard-wired that was almost a compulsion to teach everybody, not just youngsters. He’d probably appreciate the compliment! So she sent him an email, and was happy when his reply landed in her inbox.

See an email exchange between Chelsea and Bill below:

Shift gears, huh? Something about that phrase struck a chord. Thanks, Bill, Chelsea thought with a smile. I knew you’d come through.

In her mind she returned to the soccer field, where she’d spent a good portion of her school years well into college. In soccer there was a basic but very cool move called the “magic turn” whereby the player stopped the ball with one foot and hopped over with the other, quickly and efficiently changing the direction of play. Forward to reverse in two seconds – now that was definitely shifting gears.

What Chelsea needed to do was figure out her own “magic turn” for teaching – to stop thinking like a fifth grade teacher and start thinking like a kindergarten teacher.

Lifting her arms over her head for a big stretch, Chelsea realized that she felt better already. Not only did Bill’s words have their usual calming effect, but now she had a direction to work toward. She remembered the kinds of things that Bill had done to get his class excited. He always drew his lessons together, finding interdisciplinary themes in every activity they did – sort of like sneaking vitamins into Frosted Flakes or teaching a child to add by playing dominoes. The opportunities were everywhere, even at lunch and recess.

“Look, everyone! Mark brought a pear for lunch!” she announced the next day as the class lined up to go out. “What color is this pear?”

Hands shot up like firecrackers, each child eager to answer the question.

”And what letter does the word p-p-pear start with?”

Twenty-eight little hands, freshly washed for lunch, wriggled to be called on.

“P!” blurted Tommy, a tall boy in the back of the line. Not to be outdone, a few other students also yelled, “P!”

“We don’t yell out an answer, we wait for our name to be called,” said Chelsea, gently but firmly. “Aisha, you’ve been waiting quietly. What does ‘pear’ start with?”

“P,” said Aisha shyly, proudly looking at her classmates for approval. Her grin lingered in Chelsea’s mind even after the students had all left for lunch.

Perhaps she couldn’t change gears in two seconds – maybe it would take two months, or three or four – but she was determined to do it. She began with the classroom environment, labeling everything in sight – from the tables to the math manipulatives to the art supplies – to immerse her students in vocabulary. She even designed a word wall like the one she’d found online.

Click here to view an interactive word wall.

She came up with some fun classroom management techniques to use as a means of reviewing vocabulary. If she wanted to split the class up into partners, she gave half the students cards with sight words and the other half received cards with pictorial representations. She then asked the class to find their buddies by matching up the picture with the right word.

She wished that she could think of other creative ways to sneak sight word practice into all the “in-between time” throughout the day, like bathroom breaks (she never thought she’d be developing curriculum for bathroom breaks, for Pete’s sake) but it was hard to come up with quick activities for these odd times. Was there a book somewhere out there called Thirty-Second Lesson Planning for Dummies? If not, maybe she’d be able to write one during her time off next summer!

Another lesson she’d learned from Bill was how to calm the class down if they got a little too worked up. Did she really say if? Chelsea almost laughed out loud. She’d meant when they got a little too worked up. While the other kindergarten classes at their old school had been regular zoos at certain times of the day, Bill would strum his guitar quietly to settle students for naps or calm them after recess with simple yoga stretches (there were those California habits again). Every year he was known for leading the most mature, well-rounded, and advanced class into first grade, and Chelsea vowed to use these practices with her class as well.

Chelsea takes a closer look at individual student’s needs.

It was December and the break was approaching. As stories of holiday miracles filled the airwaves, Chelsea felt like she was witnessing a miracle in her own classroom. Her students’ reading was definitely progressing, their vocabularies really expanding. They were able to identify more words and sound out longer ones. She was hoping to let them work more independently as the year wore on and their behavior and social skills improved. (Bill’s yoga really was helping in that department. If only she could learn to play the guitar over the summer, too!) It was time to let her little emerging readers Buddy Read in pairs for fifteen minutes in the morning.

She’d had another discussion with her principal about how difficult it was to have too much of her reading time cut into. Dr. Darrow had suggested doing an observation, which made Chelsea a little nervous. She wondered if the principal would think that Buddy Reading was a good use of instructional time.

Now that the basics were well-established and the class was getting up to speed, Chelsea began to pay closer attention to individual student’s needs. Of course, twenty-eight students equaled twenty-eight of those – but there did seem to be a few general sub-groups that most of the students could be fit into.

Madeline shushes one of her classmates during Buddy Reading.

For example, the same five to seven students always raised their hands during lessons, always knew the answers, and were clearly more advanced than the rest of the class. The student who stood out the most (a bit like a sore thumb, Chelsea thought) was Madeline Hutchinson. Blonde, bossy, tallest in the class – she was clearly the Queen Bee of kindergarten and Chelsea noticed that she wasn’t the only one who thought so. Many of the other children seemed to bow before her majesty – whether it was her reading buddy, cowed by the fact that Madeline read ahead and turned the pages as soon as she was ready or the injured silence that followed when Madeline “shushed” and corrected nearby students, always with a smug smile, doing whatever it took to ensure that the limelight remained focused on her. Class morale clearly plummeted at times like this – times which unfortunately were becoming more and more frequent.

Chelsea recalled her most recent phone conversation with Madeline’s mother, which had not yielded an improvement in behavior any more than any of the previous conversations had.

“Mrs. Hutchinson, I really think that we need to work with Madeline on being more empathetic to the feelings of the other students in class,” she’d said, with what she hoping was enough urgency that she wouldn’t be ignored this time.

“Oh, I’m sure that Madeline is empathetic, Ms. Wilkinson, she’s such a sweet girl,” replied her mother. “It’s just that she’s so, you know, so much smarter than everyone else in the class. She can’t help it if she always knows the right answer – you can’t expect her to play dumb just because the rest of the class isn’t up to her standard.”

Chelsea took a deep breath, counting to five before she responded.

“It may well be that she’s more academically advanced than most of the children in the class,” Chelsea said, “but you know, kindergarten is about more than just academic preparation. The children are also learning to share, to work together…”

But she’d known as she hung up that her words had failed to make a convert of Mrs. Hutchinson. She glanced over to where Madeline sat now with her reading buddy, just in time to see her grabbing the book out of the smaller girl’s hand.

“Madeline! Give that back to Hannah. She’s still reading.” Chelsea rushed over to where the two girls were scuffling over a copy of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.

“But she’s going so sloooowwww,” complained Madeline, wrinkling her nose distastefully. I wonder where she learned that, Chelsea thought.

Taking a slow breath, Chelsea pushed her personal irritation aside. What this girl needed – as well as the others like her who’d come to kindergarten with significant preschool experience – was more of a challenge. She would work on some supplemental activities over the holiday break, she promised herself, but until then she decided to try incorporating some management ideas she had used in fifth grade. She would assign roles to the students when they split into groups: leader, writer, speaker, and artist. Obviously Madeline would want to be the leader – but she would take her turn in the other roles, too, just as all the students would.

See a sample of Madeline’s writing below:

Chiyo presents some instructional challenges for Chelsea.

Another student that Chelsea made a point of closely observing was Chiyo Kim, a soft-spoken English-as-a-second-language student. Although he needed a little extra help on pronunciation, Chiyo seemed to follow along during reading activities, and he did well during independent reading time as well. Often Chelsea partnered with him during Buddy Reading, to help him with his pronunciation.

One thing she had noticed was his sporadic confusion about certain words, especially when he came across a familiar word presented in a new way. Chelsea remembered this happening for the first time early in the school year when she’d read Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse to the class. Chiyo had asked about the word “march.” At that time the class had just taken part in the school wide fall parade, which they had discussed excitedly for days, so she knew that Chiyo could define “march.” It was when he heard the word in a different context that he had trouble. She was puzzled by some of the inconsistencies she found with Chiyo, and struggled to find the right way to help him understand.

See a sample of Chiyo’s writing below:

At Doris’ suggestion (whose input Chelsea was valuing more and more as the year progressed), Chelsea started creating letter and word sorts at varying levels of difficulty to help support vocabulary and writing, to reinforce the concept of groups and categories, and to provide sight word practice. She planned to use these sorts during reading time to get more concrete measures of each child’s understanding, both visual and conceptual.

See Chelsea’s letter sort below:

See one of Chelsea’s word sorts below:

As the year approached its halfway mark, Chelsea reflected on the changes she’d made to her teaching style. When she taught fifth grade, each child came into class with a folder full of detailed information about his or her personal and academic needs, information she had used to tailor instruction immediately. But her kindergarten students were at the beginning stage of creating their folders, and it was up to her to help them. She was finally learning how.

She’d shifted gears, all right – her kindergarteners weren’t the only ones learning something new. But the pieces of the kindergarten puzzle were coming together for her, just as they were starting to form for her students.