GRAVES: Superintendent Seuss: Only in kindergartenWhen Daily Republic reporter Ross Dolan told me last spring that the next Progress edition for the paper would be on kindergarten, I wanted to ask him just how they thought they could possibly find enough to write on about one grade level in school. Having seen the finished product come out over four days last week, however, I have to admit that, indeed, their coverage was both interesting and comprehensive.
By: Joe Graves, Superintendent of Mitchell Public Schools
When Daily Republic reporter Ross Dolan told me last spring that the next Progress edition for the paper would be on kindergarten, I wanted to ask him just how they thought they could possibly find enough to write on about one grade level in school. Having seen the finished product come out over four days last week, however, I have to admit that, indeed, their coverage was both interesting and comprehensive.
Well, mostly comprehensive, but they may have missed just a couple of items.
Of any educational level in America, it is kindergarten that has seen the most change in modern times. German immigrants are generally credited with bringing the idea of kindergarten to the United States, the whole idea of it generally credited to Friedrich Froebel in Germany in the mid-19th century. The very name means “children’s garden” and the idea was to have a very relaxed, discovery-based learning environment for young children.
But, in truth, kindergarten is still a relatively new addition to American schools. My grandparents, several of them German, probably had never heard of kindergarten when they had young children and neither of my parents attended one. They simply began school in the first grade. Kindergarten came to the Midwest, in other words, pretty slowly. I did attend kindergarten, though only a half-day one. The first graduating class at MHS to have attended all-day kindergarten in our school district has not even seen their commencement yet, as Mitchell did not shift to all-day in all classrooms until 2002.
But merely the existence of a grade level before first grade does not exhaust Froebel’s kindergarten reform. That educational theorist also felt strongly that the kindergarten year should be what we now call a “social kindergarten,” meaning that the day was typified not by academic work but by play. This was, in fact, how kindergarten was done when my classmates and I gathered in a circle around the saintly Mrs. Tenneboe. We sang songs, took naps, played with clay, and went out for morning recess. The ultimate academic challenge was our teacher’s hope that we would be able to print our first name by year’s end. (It was then that I realized the advantage of “Joe” rather than “Joseph.”) Over the last 40 years, social kindergartens have all but disappeared and their days are filled with reading, math and the panoply of elementary subjects.
Thus, in the course of 80 years, kindergartens have gone from being non-existent to half-day social experiences and finally to full-day, academic programs. Times have changed.
But not entirely. From the start of my career in education to now, it still remains true that the most interesting, and certainly the most memorable, experiences happen largely at kindergarten. Most of my best memories come from kindergarten students and their teachers over the years. These are catalogued in my brain under such titles as “the playground merry-go-round,” “the sick cat,” etc. The most recent came from a kindergarten classroom just two years ago. The teacher had asked if I would come in to read to the students. I agreed, of course, and after checking for food allergies, also brought a snack for the kids to enjoy while I read “Horton Hears a Who!” The students were so enthralled (possibly with the snack rather than the reading, but why quibble), they begged me to return and read to them again. Who can say no to that? This started a sequence of events in which I read to that particular class six or seven times that year, always from Dr. Seuss, because he is the master. All good things must come to an end, though, and eventually that year ended and my reading to them with it.
The next fall, I was entering the stadium for a football game when one of that class’ students (now a first-grader) recognized me (teacher and administrators exist outside the school! Who knew?). She flung out her arms to stop the progress of her mother and another woman walking behind her and said, “Mom, it’s, it’s Dr. … Seuss!” Apparently, this misconception was shared by any number of her peers, becoming sufficiently widespread that I finally had to meet with one first-grade classroom last year and reveal my true identity. The disappointment was palpable.
And if you don’t believe this story, I’d like to introduce you to a member of this year’s kindergarten class who asked me if I was the president. When I explained that I wasn’t, that I was the superintendent, someone who worked with the teachers and their principal, he responded, “Well, you look just like him.”
Only in kindergarten.