One year while teaching kindergarten, I realized that all of my students had preschool, pre-kindergarten, or a Head Start experience. That is, all but one student. That one student was Kathryn. Kathryn was excited to be in kindergarten, but she lacked many of the skills necessary to be successful. As we performed beginning-of-the-year activities, Kathryn stood out. While the other children found their names on their cubbies, Kathryn needed help because she couldn't recognize her own name. As the other students joined in singing the ABC song and identified letters of the alphabet, Kathryn remained very quiet because she did not know the song or any letters of the alphabet for that matter. Over the course of that first day, I watched Kathryn's confidence fade as she realized that she could not do many of the same tasks as her peers.
That year, I realized that the achievement gap that plagues America's schools begins well before children enter kindergarten. Kathryn was almost two years behind the other students on her very first day of school. With a lot of support and intervention, Kathryn made a lot of progress that year. She met most of the benchmark levels established for kindergarten students by my school district. However, those benchmark levels were the minimum expectations. Her peers achieved well beyond those benchmark levels.
I believe that every child ought to be given a foundation for success in school, and that building that foundation begins at home. Some researchers have observed that we learn more from birth to five years old than at any other time in our lives. As the mother of two young children who achieve new milestones as often as what seems like every other day, I have to agree. We as parents, and as a society, must take advantage of that optimum time for learning.
How, exactly, can we do that as parents? There are many ways, but there are two that stand out above the rest: talk with your child, and read with your child.
Talking with your child will help to develop what researchers have recently recognized as perhaps the best predictor of early reading success in school -- a large vocabulary. The more words that your child knows, understands, and can use in conversation, the more likely he or she is to stay at or above grade level in reading; it's as simple as that. It's not just that you should have many conversations -- what's also important is that you have highly descriptive conversations about the things in your environment, so that your child can see and hear what is being described and relate those vocabulary words to their meanings.
Of course there are also many things you'll want to teach your child about that may not exist in your environment -- that's where books come in. But reading books together accomplishes much more than just introducing your child to new ideas, places, and people (whether real or imaginative); it also familiarizes your child with how books work and with patterns of written language. And perhaps even more important than that, reading together shows your child that you place a high value on books and the ability to read.
What happens in the home before a child ever gets to school can make a huge difference, but we also have responsibilities as educators and as citizens to help children build a strong foundation no matter what their family situations may be. I have high expectations for each of my students, and I teach them that they can accomplish anything with hard work and persistence. I teach these beliefs not only to my students, but to their families and to my colleagues as well.
I believe that all students can learn and achieve at high levels if given adequate time and appropriate resources and materials. Therefore, I work with my students and their families to set individualized learning, social, and personal goals. I provide multiple paths, as well as multiple opportunities, for students to meet and exceed these designated goals.
To me, equity does not mean that each student receives the same instruction and completes the same task. Rather, I believe equity in a classroom means that each child receives exactly what he or she needs to move forward. My students understand that it is my responsibility to help each of them find learning activities that are "just right." There is no greater reward for me than finding activities that are "just right" for each student and helping them to be successful.
As citizens who set the priorities of our government, we have for quite some time generally failed to recognize the benefits of early childhood education; it's time for us to invest in it now. Our economy benefits from quality early childhood programs: schools spend less money on remedial services, and students are more prepared to meet the demands of the workforce. Furthermore, students who attend these programs become citizens who earn more money, pay more taxes, and commit fewer crimes. The economic benefits of investment in early childhood programs are far-reaching, and therefore I believe that all students should have an opportunity to attend a quality early childhood program.
Research shows that many disadvantaged children lag behind their counterparts when they enter kindergarten. It also reveals the difficulty that students have catching up to their peers when they start off behind. Children who are not on grade level by the end of second grade often do not enroll in higher level high school courses. In order to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that our neediest students have an early start.
Historically, children of color and children of poverty haven't received all of the things they need to be successful. Knowing that many of them lack opportunities in the early years, we need to give them access to quality pre-K programs and full-day kindergarten classes so that they can receive the instruction they need.
I chose to be a teacher because of the "what-ifs." I wanted to make a difference in the lives of those who need it the most. And I realized from the beginning that the place I can make the biggest difference is with our youngest learners, because that's the time when we have the best chance of putting them on the path to happy, successful, productive lives. It is my hope and ambition that our nation will, someday soon, have that same realization.