In a few weeks I’m going to give my students a standardized test that includes a section of timed, random alphabet recognition. It is very, very important that you notice the word timed. The goal of the test is for the student to recognize as many letters as possible in one minute. The letters are arranged in a random pattern that looks like this:
L B A D R Q S
O C L X T V E
J A K M Q R T
I know you understand the term random, but I want you to understand the concept of rows, because rows are very confusing to kindergartners. In fact, unless I point to the first row, most of them will start on the bottom row, which is closest to their eyes.
Shortly after school starts I begin testing my students for basic skills and knowledge so I will know how to plan my lessons. This includes testing their knowledge of the alphabet. Then I will begin using a series of forms that builds up their recognition skills. The first form looks something like this:
A B C A B A C A B
C A B A C A A B C
Then the next one adds the D and E, and so on until the last form has the whole alphabet in random order. This is the one I use for initial testing just to see what my children know.
Okay, now that you have this background knowledge, let me tell you what happened this week when I tested!
First, I have the three or four students with the “dripping syrup Southern accent syndrome”. This happens every year and I’m prepared for it. When I test this child, his or her responses sound like this:
Aaaaaaaaaaaay, Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, Ceeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, Deeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
A child with a dripping syrup accent can extend the value of any letter and add at least two extra syllables to any given word. LOL It takes weeks to build up any speed with these children and a timed test will NEVER represent their true knowledge and skills level. I just rely on my own understanding of their culture.
Then I had a couple of children who were determined to convince me that the alphabet has only one order and I definitely wasn’t following it! After any A they fell into the “ABC” pattern, no matter what the next letter was, and I had to get them back on track. Keep in mind that I can’t do that on our official testing and they will most likely fail this first test.
I have one “uh” child. Her responses were: B uh F uh A uh C uh… you get the picture. Getting her to drop that “uh” and get to the next letter will take some training!
I have two or three who simply stop dead in their tracks at the first letter they don’t recognize. I have to get them to skip that one and go on to the next, which is totally beyond their comprehension level at this point in their learning. I can just hear their little minds, “What do you mean skip it? How can I skip it when I don’t know it and you’re asking me what it is, and I’m trying to think of it?” Unfortunately I know from giving the test for the last eight years, that the first letter of the test will be what stops most of these children. One of the “quirks” of the test is that it is printed in Times Roman which has this “g”. That is not the “g” students are used to seeing in D’Nealian handwriting. Even though it is the same “g” used in our phonics program and printed on their papers, most students remember and associate the letter they write.
I have a couple of children who cannot recognize more than a few letters out of the context of their natural order. They can spot A, O, X, L, Z, T, and the letters of their name. Although their parents believe they “know the alphabet” because they can sing that cute song, and even point to and say the letters in order, they do not truly recognize individual letters. It’s like learning a song in a foreign language. Our minds and voices can mimic the sounds and sequence without actually understanding the words.
Last, but not least, I tested a child who had a story for each letter of the alphabet. I kid you not; this is the way our test time went:
V- I don’t know that letter. We didn’t learn it in prek.
C- There’s one of those in my brother’s name.
“Do you know what it is?”
X- Hey, that’s in my name! That’s x.
Q- Oh, that’s a hard one. I don’t think I know that one.
T- Yeah, that’s t like turtle.
Y-(pauses and looks up at our alphabet board and starts whispering, a,b,c,…)
No, we don’t have time to do that. Do you know the letter?
No, it’s one of those hard ones too.
I let her go on for about ten letters just to hear the stories! I hope that by spring testing we have made much better progress.
I have also noticed that I have more children this year than ever before who say “lmnop” and have no concept that those are individual letters. Sometimes I truly hate that alphabet song!!
So now you have an inkling of some of the challenges of “testing” kindergartners. It certainly isn’t an exact science, and frankly I think it is a waste of time until spring. But there are four levels of administration above me who say otherwise, so I’ll be testing along with everyone else.
I made a couple of small changes on my “helper chart” this year that have led to less teaching, more learning, and better class participation during circle. Last year we had these helpers:
Line Leader, Caboose, Calendar Helper, Art Helper, Math Helper, Reading Helper, Weather Watcher, Counter
The first three are pretty obvious. My “caboose” also served as the door holder. The art, math, and reading helpers worked during those times to pass out papers or other materials. The weather watcher dressed our weather bear each morning, and changed its clothes if it started raining. The “counter” counted the number of children we took to and from lunch and recess to make sure we were all present.
I had used that helper chart for three years and it worked fine, but over the summer I got a couple of new ideas. Here are the changes I made this year:
Line Leader, Door Holder, Caboose, Weather Watcher, Paper Helper, Calendar Helper, Letter Helper, Math Helper
The line leader and caboose are still the same, although our caboose now does our head count for us. The door holder only has that job, because I realized that with the three doors we have to go through each day, he or she is too busy to also be caboose. The weather watcher still does the same job. The paper helper passes out any papers I choose. I try to make sure I use them at least three times during the day. The calendar helper finds the current date (written on the board), points to it on the calendar (with my “magic wand”) and then reads “today is….” to the class.
The biggest change is “letter helper”. Last year I took our letter and picture pieces out of our alphabet pocket chart and asked the children to identify each one. Then we made the ASL letter sign and said the sound. Now the helper takes out the letter and pictures and names each one for me. The he or she turns to the class and has the class name each one. Then we do the letter and sign. Much better participation!
Math helper writes our number of the week on the board in a box I have drawn. Then he/she takes a magnet circle or circles to make a set that matches the number, and then I write the number word. In a few weeks the children will be able to write the number word also, using our chart. Right now that is a little difficult for most of them. The math helper shows the class the number using fingers, then we all close our fists and count to ten with the helper as the leader.
These may seem like trivial changes, but I’ve found over the years that the less I “teach”- meaning stand up and talk- and the more the children “participate”, the better our results. I’ve made some other changes in our day and I’ll share those with you later!
School starts in a couple of weeks and I’ll be in my classroom very soon. I’ll arrange the furniture, prepare activities for the first few days, and copy paperwork for my parents. I thought it might be useful for new teachers out there if I shared a few of my ideas and checklists with you.
I always strive to improve the arrangement of my classroom furniture so there is a good flow of traffic from one area to the next. I want my room to be functional and organized. I try to avoid clutter as much as possible- even though I teach kindergarten, and even though I always have about five more students than I would like to have. I’ll move a few pieces of furniture from time to time, but I only do a major overhaul at the beginning of the year and at winter break- if we need it. I use photographs to record centers and desk groupings so that I can duplicate arrangements I like. You’d be surprised how much you forget once the custodians pull everything out of the room to wax the floors in the summer! By referring to photos from last year, I save myself a lot of time and headaches!
Centers can be particularly tricky to arrange. I try to keep quiet and noisy centers balanced throughout the room. I try to keep certain ones near my desk for close observation. I make sure I don’t create corners or blind spots where children can hide even temporarily. I gauge the dimensions carefully so that overcrowding doesn’t create behavior problems.
Notes to Myself
I write down anything and everything I need to remember. I keep a clipboard on my desk; I keep sticky notes in my pocket. By the second month of school my students are so used to my “notes” that they will literally say, “Write it down Mrs. Maurer” if they want me to buy something or remember something. I start out the year with a list of things I need to remember until routine takes over again. I usually refer to the list each day for the first week:
Introduce each student.
Explain morning routine.
Take lunch count and turn it in.
Complete transportation form.
Explain breakfast and lunch procedures to students.
Explain bathroom procedures to students.
Explain classroom rules.
Explain discipline procedures and reward system.
Introduce and explain centers.
By the third day I review by asking the students to explain the bathroom procedures or tell me the five class rules, etc.
To My Parents
We use a daily communication folder that contains paper, and a zippered pencil bag. Parents can write notes to me, or vice-versa, and we can send money, photos, etc. in the bag. I also include, in a plastic sleeve, my homework policy and some basic classroom information. These are the things parents most often want to know:
Discipline and reward system
Basic information about the teacher.
First Week Activities
I have four goals for the first week of school:
Help my students get acquainted with each other. We will play some games and sing songs that encourage children to talk to each other and to me. This gives me a quick assessment tool for determining who likes to talk and who doesn’t. I make notes about particularly shy students or students who are “less than cooperative”. I also get a glimpse of good and bad pairings- once in a while I find that I have to change the seating arrangement the very first day!
Establish routines that will help us function as a group, and help students feel secure and confident. I like routines. I like organization. I like having procedures for classroom activities so that we don’t waste time and effort on details. Students like it too! They feel powerful when they know how to do things without consulting me. I know I’m doing my job well when my students start telling each other our classroom rules and procedures.
Create an atmosphere that promotes good behavior and independent work. I’ve already mentioned that over-crowding creates behavior problems. So does a lack of supplies. I have written before about the power of abundance. I don’t want my students to be wasteful, but I do want them to know that we have more paint and more crayons and more paper. They don’t have to squabble over supplies. I also want them to know that I’m watching them, and monitoring their progress. I want them to strive to work harder and better each day.
Plan activities that will give me useful data about student strengths and weaknesses. During the first week we will write our names, the alphabet, numbers 0-5, and four words- yes, no, Mom, Dad. We will draw an animal, a house, a car, and a tree. We will count with blocks and color with our crayons. We will sing about the color red, the days of the week, and the rules of the classroom. We will look at shapes and talk about our favorite foods. We will recite our birthdays and see who the tallest and shortest students are. We will read at least three books each day and discuss what we have read. We will look at our mouths in little mirrors while we make funny sounds. We will go through the routines of the day. As we do all of these I will make copies and notes and observations about each student. I will start determining their individual needs and planning for the first month. I never copy my lesson plans from the previous year because the needs of each class are unique.
So… that’s how I get ready for a new class. I also have to prepare name tags, cubby labels, desk tags, book markers, etc. Lots of writing! Lots of fun!