What Did You Learn In School Today?

Three kindergarten teachers collaborate on an interdisciplinary unit. They confront the challenges of limited time, demanding state standards, misbehaving students, ethnic stereotypes, overloaded parents, and sheer exhaustion.

Three kindergarten teachers begin planning an interdisciplinary unit.

Susan felt completely exasperated as the last bell rang. It was only mid-way through October, yet Susan was already in a rut. Once again, her student Matthew had no idea how he was supposed to get home, and Susan had spent the last 20 minutes making phone calls, trying to track down a ride for Matthew from one of his relatives. After leaving messages for Matthew’s mother and grandmother, Susan told Miss Jayne, the secretary, that she would be leaving Matthew in the office until his ride arrived. Susan had no time to cool down before her team meeting with James and Kim.

The three teachers were gathering to plan their social studies unit for November. In just three days, they would need to turn in their 6-week plans to the principal. Major topics, of course, would be Native Americans and the first Thanksgiving. As usual, the trio would plan activities that could be incorporated into language arts and math classes.

Lesson plan book

On her way to the meeting, Susan opened a folder labeled “November Activities,” which had been left behind by the previous teacher. As a second-year teacher, Susan had found these monthly “activity” folders a real time-saver when planning lessons. She knew she should be developing her own materials, but she just did not know where to begin. Last year the administration told all the teachers that lessons that did not address state standards should be saved until all grade-level requirements had been covered. To help teachers develop new curriculum, the county paid a computer-savvy instructor from the high school to demonstrate several of the online databases of lesson plans. After the training session, Susan surfed some of the web sites, but she did not see many lessons directly matching standards.

One of the lesson plan sites Susan used

As James and Kim arrived, James asked her, “Do you have a copy of the State Standards of Learning? I forgot to bring mine, and we need a list of the concepts we’ll need to cover.”

“Not on me,” said Susan. “I can grab those and the district’s list of student outcomes. We’ll need to cite those too. But since we don’t have much time this afternoon, let’s start with Native Americans.”

James’ plan book

The three brainstormed ideas regarding local indigenous culture. In just 20 minutes, they had a variety of ideas that included patterning activities, arts and crafts, music, cooking, and a field trip to the local museum.

“This is a great start,” said Susan. “I wish we could work longer, but I have a dentist appointment. How about if I sketch out a 6-week plan this evening and try to match it to the state standards. I can make copies in the morning, and we can meet tomorrow afternoon to see if there are any changes we want to make.”

“I’ll go to the library and check out some books and pictures,” said Kim. “That way we can get to know the content.”

“Great,” replied James. “I’ll start making arrangements for a field trip to the museum. Also, I’ll try to get a hold of the district-wide prop box. You can look through it tomorrow, Kim. There are all kinds of things—candle molds, wooden dishes, tools—that you might want to use in role-plays to help the students understand how people lived long ago.”

Just as the three teachers were leaving, Matthew’s mother barged into the classroom, asking why her son was in the office rather than on his way to his babysitter’s house. Susan explained that Matthew had no idea what he was supposed to do at the end of the day. She almost added that she assumed Matthew was going to be picked up late as usual. Gathering her papers, Susan said, “I’m on my way upstairs. Let’s stop by the office and talk to Matthew. He’s probably just confused.” Susan turned to her teammates, rolled her eyes, and suggested they meet at the same time the next day to continue planning.

When Susan and Matthew’s mother reached the office, they found him playing with some toy cars near the front door.

“Matthew,” said his mother, “You know Grandma’s working late tonight at the store, and I am too. Where’s the note I gave you this morning?”

“Note?” said Matthew. He stared out of the window and added, “Look at that cool bike. I want one of those.”

Matthew’s mother grabbed his arm and commanded that he answer her question. As Matthew stood rubbing his arm, she opened his backpack and pulled out the note. Thrusting it toward Susan, she yelled, “It was here all the time. All you had to do was look for it, and you would have known what Matthew was supposed to do!”

Standing in the office, Susan was sure Ms. Kane, the school’s principal, could hear the commotion. She was surprised and disappointed that Ms. Kane did not come to her assistance before Matthew and his mother stormed out of the office toward their dilapidated car.

Susan reflects on the school day.

As Susan drove to the dentist’s office, she thought about the incident with Matthew’s mother. She was seething! Matthew’s mother was one of ten parents who had not yet come in for a parent conference. A school calendar, which listed such important events as parent-conference night, had been mailed to every student’s home the first week of September. Why was it that the parents she really needed to see were the ones who seldom attended these events? Susan did not take the situation personally, as her teammates had similar issues with Matthew’s mother. She was disappointed, however, because parent-conference night was a chance to share the child’s scores on the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS), show parents examples of the student’s work, and discuss any concerns.

See sample students’ scores below:

Susan had 22 students, 10 of whom were on free or reduced-priced lunch, and at least 7 of whom, like Matthew, were from single-parent homes. None of Susan’s students were categorized for special services, but 3 (Nikaya, Dustin, and Lorenzo) had participated in the school system’s early intervention program for four-year-olds. Their parents were among those who had not yet met with Susan.

Matthew was new to the school system, so Susan knew little about his prior experiences. She recalled vividly, however, his behavior when he and his mother visited during the open house the week before school began. Matthew had charged through the classroom touching anything and everything in sight. Susan watched as Matthew emptied a puzzle on the table, picked up a couple of pieces, tossed them on top of the others, and then moved on to the math blocks. When she looked again, Susan saw Matthew reaching into the gerbil cage. She quickly moved toward him saying, “I see you’ve met our class pets.”

Matthew quickly withdrew his hand and shouted to his mother, “Come look!” Before his mother could get there, Matthew grabbed his little brother, wrestled him to the floor, and then headed for one of the other classrooms.

At the end of the open house, Susan and her teammates compared notes on the children they had met. Not surprisingly, everyone remembered Matthew and wondered in which classroom he would be placed. Susan sighed as she recalled that she had volunteered to work with Matthew. He was not what Susan thought of as a “bad” student; he just seemed unable to attend to anything for more than 15 seconds.

Susan works with the Standards of Learning and meets with her teammates to delegate responsibilities.

See a rough draft of activities and SOLs below:

Susan could see that covering all of the standards would be a challenge for her team. She worked diligently to include as many of the standards as she could into the upcoming unit and visited a web site to find ways to assess students at the six levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Checking for understanding at the knowledge and comprehension levels was a snap; it was the upper levels of the taxonomy that always seemed problematic. After typing the first nine activities and their accompanying objectives, she climbed into bed.

The following afternoon Susan, Kim, and James met briefly to refine their list of activities. Susan agreed to continue working on the list while her teammates gathered materials and investigated community resources. Before the group dispersed, Susan showed Kim and James a flyer she found at the downtown library announcing an Indian powwow to be held in a nearby community the second weekend in November. She asked if anyone might be interested in going with her, but Kim and James both had prior commitments. Susan decided she would try to borrow the school’s camcorder to take with her to the powwow. Maybe the footage would come in handy during her unit.

The site Susan used to complete her means of assessment

James showed the group the draft of a letter to parents. Not unlike Kim and Susan, he was concerned by the lack of parental involvement in their program. He explained that the letter would inform parents of the kinds of things their children were doing in school and encourage parental participation in the unit. Kim and Susan were all for the idea.

See letter to parents below:

Susan begins the unit on Native Americans.

Native American woman

Native American man

The three kindergarten teachers began their unit on Native Americans right after Halloween. Susan gathered her students in a circle on the rug and introduced the unit late one Monday afternoon by reading a Disney version of Pocahontas. She then showed the students pictures illustrating ways many Indians live today.

Just as students were getting restless, Matthew shouted out that he had something to share. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out two rubber toy Indians.

Lucas immediately grabbed one of the Indians and shouted, “You want to fight?”

Before she could stop them, Lucas and Matthew staged a mock fight, much to the amusement of the class. Striding quickly to the two boys, Susan spoke quietly but firmly, asking them to hand her the toys. She then reminded Matthew of the rule about no toys at school.

Matthew began to cry, saying, “Those are my Indians! My Indians!” When Susan tried to talk to him, Matthew laid down on the floor, covered his ears, and screamed, “I hate you! I hate you! Get away from me!”

With that, Matthew gave a sharp kick to a nearby chair, stood up, and bolted. He slammed into another child, Molly, knocking her books and crayons onto the floor. Before he could wreak further havoc, Susan made a quick decision to restrain him until he calmed down.

Matthew was finally subdued, and poor Molly regained her composure and her school supplies with the help of some friends. Susan was rattled. The rest of the class looked a little dazed and eager for direction. Taking a deep breath, Susan moved them quickly to the Indian art activity she had intended for later in the week. This seemed to calm everyone.

Later in the day, reflecting on the incident, she was disheartened. She was hesitant to call Matthew’s mother. In the past when she’d threatened to do so, Matthew had cried big tears, saying, “If you call my mom, she’ll whip my bottom.” Obviously, Susan didn’t want that, but she wasn’t completely sure that she believed Matthew.

Susan pulled out her journal and examined the anecdotal records she had been keeping. Matthew’s behavior was escalating. She added these notes for today:

8:30 – Crying loudly (Lost spoon he had brought to school for the “s” bag.)
10:30 – Math. Messed up children’s pattern-block designs two times. Slapped Tim; said Tim was talking about his mother. Sent to rest on the rug; cried loudly.
11:30 – Recess. Angry; hadn’t been picked for Simon Says.
12:00 – Trouble in hall; couldn’t keep hands to self.
1:30 – Sequencing activity. Refused to finish cutting and pasting activity after messing up one of his pictures. Defiant—tipped back in chair, twice falling on the floor.
2:15 – Playfighting with toys (rubber Indians); cried and became aggressive when taken away.

Susan had serious concerns about Matthew. She reread her journal notes from last week hoping to gain some perspective.

See excerpt from Susan’s reflective teaching journal below:

Susan put her journal away and started to prepare materials for the next day. Still, she could not stop thinking about Matthew and wondering what she might do differently.

Excerpts from the school’s Student Handbook

The Principal visits Susan’s classroom.

For the next few days, Susan’s classroom was bustling with activity. Children worked in small groups to decorate a large sheet for a teepee Susan erected in the housekeeping center. Students were enthusiastic about all of the activities, but they especially enjoyed music. Susan taught them several Indian songs, and they learned the words quickly. They accompanied their new songs with a variety of rhythm instruments.

During one math activity, students worked in small groups to make necklaces. They dyed rigatoni noodles and demonstrated their patterning skills when stringing the noodles on yarn. Although Matthew and a few of the other students had difficulty following a simple AB pattern, most were quite successful.

See the lesson plan below:

As one group of students was completing its necklaces, Susan’s principal walked through, as she often did, and sat down at their table. After watching the children work for a few minutes, Ms. Kane asked the students what they were learning in school.

Nikaya said, “Indians.”

Smiling, Ms. Kane said, “And what can you tell me about Indians?”

“They kill people!” said Morgan.

“No, they don’t,” said Linda.

“They do so!” said Morgan. “I seen it on TV. They shoot arrows at cowboys.”

Lucas chimed in, “They live in a different kind of town where there are tents or something.”

Susan, standing nearby, was mortified by what she heard students saying. Surely they were just being silly. Or were they?

Susan talked with Ms. Kane at the end of the school day to see what she thought about students’ comments that morning.

Susan considered Ms. Kane’s comments carefully. The conversation between her students and the principal was troublesome, and she did not know what to think. Susan and her teammates always worked hard to engage students in learning. The objectives for their lessons integrated the state standards for different subject areas. Wasn’t that enough?

Susan talks with a Native American and a parent.


That weekend Susan went to the Second Annual Indian Powwow not knowing what to expect. She checked with an official at the gate to see if there were any restrictions on videotaping and learned she could film any of the dancers performing in the center ring. If she videotaped anyone outside the ring, she had to ask his or her permission.

She was immediately struck by the “circus” atmosphere around her. Booths on the periphery boasted such items as “buffalo stew,” “buffalo burgers,” and “authentic” Indian crafts. A huge crowd of people was gathered around the center ring, watching a dance competition. As she looked around the group, Susan noticed a man in full dance regalia off to the side of the crowd. She approached him shyly and asked if she might videotape him. Just as he agreed, a little boy, swinging his arms in time to the music, came running to the man. As Susan trained her camera on the two of them, the man showed the little boy how to move to the beat of the drums.


When the music stopped, Susan introduced herself and said she had come to the powwow to learn more about Native Americans. The man, a Cherokee Indian named John Standingdeer, smiled ruefully. He said that he thought the powwow was probably reinforcing stereotypes; for example, he expressed concern that none of the spectators had any sense of the meaning of dance for Native Americans. He said that dances were of course sometimes done for fun, but more often there was an important meaning behind different dances. As they continued talking, Susan began to think more critically about her teaching. Were her students, like these spectators, possibly developing a superficial view of Native Americans from the lessons she had been teaching?

When Susan returned to school on Monday, she hoped to talk with her teammates about her concerns, but there was no time to do so after school. Parents and children would be arriving for “Parent Night” in just a few hours, and the kindergarten teachers were busy making sure that everything was in order. The program was to open in the auditorium, with the kindergarten students on stage in their paper vests and headbands, singing two songs and then reciting a poem. After their performance, kindergartners and other students would take their parents to their classrooms to see some of their projects.

By the time Susan got her students on stage that evening, she was frazzled. Lucas and Matthew had collided with one another in their rush for the same chair. Caught in the fray, Patrice had ripped her vest and was sobbing uncontrollably. Despite the rocky beginning, the kindergarten students’ performance was a hit.

Student drawing

Back in her classroom, Susan enjoyed watching her students show their parents around the room. She was particularly pleased to see Matthew’s mother, as well as some of the other parents who had not yet been in for conferences. Greeting each of them warmly, she encouraged them to sign up for a day and time they might be able to meet with her. She was both relieved and nervous to see that Matthew’s mother had signed up for a slot. Susan knew she had enough documentation to discuss Matthew’s inappropriate behavior in the classroom, but she wondered how she would present this, and what his mother’s reaction would be.

As parents and children began to leave, Susan noticed Graham Owen’s father, a history professor, looking at a poem on the wall. “I’m just curious,” he said, “Have you read the National Standards for History?”

Susan shook her head.

“You know, other countries have standards,” he continued, “but in the United States these types of national benchmarks have been the focus of heated debate.”

Susan tried not to gulp when she responded, “I really don’t know much about them. We have been so intent on following state standards that I haven’t had much of a chance to think about national standards. To be honest, I don’t even know if our school or district has a copy of them.”

“You could Google them,” said Mr. Owen. “I think they’d be very helpful to you. There are examples of student achievement grades K-4 and the focus is on helping students to become critical thinkers.” Susan thanked Mr. Owen for sharing the information with her and breathed a sigh of relief as he left.

The National Standards for History

When she finally unlocked her front door and sank into a chair in her living room, it was nearly 10 p.m. As she thought about the evening, she had mixed feelings. She was pleased that so many parents had come to school, but she was also troubled. She wondered if other teachers wrestled with the curriculum as much as she did. She also wondered if reading the national standards would help clarify her thinking or just confuse her more. She made a note to see her teammates first thing the next morning. Maybe they would have some answers.