In 1492…

by EmmaEarnst
October 25th, 2013

Last week, hundreds of thousands of elementary school children across America celebrated Columbus Day (a federal holiday since 1937) by learning about the courageous but flawed man. National holidays offer unique opportunities to build excitement about historical figures and events. But in elementary school, is teaching a unit about Columbus ideally done around Columbus Day?

In teaching Columbus, content and timing are key. The content piece is personal for me. Like most other students of my time, I was taught the famous couplet (In 1492/Columbus sailed the ocean blue) and the over-the-top story of his initial voyage, but little about Columbus ever fascinated me as a child, or stuck with me to my adult years. Eventually, majoring in history and then working for a history organization, I learned more about his life—one marked by great triumph, but also by callousness and incompetence. The Columbus I knew as a child was (and sometimes still is) treated as a hero—the singular individual whose hard work happenstance-d him into greatness. But the real story is far more nuanced than simply a mistaken discovery propelling Columbus to eternal fame, and for that reason it’s far more interesting as well. That more truthful story is the one that kindergarten teachers using Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) will tell their students this spring.

Why not in the fall, right around Columbus Day? Because interesting, nuanced stories require background knowledge. Before children can comprehend Columbus, they need to know more about the indigenous population of the Americas, the political atmosphere of Columbus’ voyage, the farming that Native Americans practiced, and the plants they and Europeans grew. Therefore, before CKLA’s domain on Columbus, there are domains on Plants, Farms, Native Americans, and Kings and Queens.

This may seem like a lot of information for kindergarteners, so please bear this in mind: All of this learning is done through the use of teacher read-alouds in the Listening & Learning strand. Teachers sit down with their students for roughly twenty minutes and read to them—using engaging discussion questions and images throughout. Students listen to and discuss the stories, gradually building their content knowledge and vocabulary. By the time the class gets to Columbus in the second half of the year (roughly speaking, this would happen in February or March of a 9-month school calendar year), students have built substantial knowledge of plants, farms, kings and queens, and Native Americans, and are better prepared to understand Columbus.

Consider the Columbus and the Pilgrims domain. Over the course of six lessons, kindergarteners will hear about the European desire for spices that sent Columbus (among many others) in search of a faster route to Asia. Columbus appears in the second lesson, when he presses King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to fund his voyage. In 1492, he lands in the Caribbean, mistaking it for the Indies. Though other explorers soon recognize he encountered an entirely new continent, he returns to govern Hispaniola:

His [Columbus’s] greediness and the greediness of his sailors had changed things on the island. The men who had sailed with Columbus on his second voyage also treated the natives badly and were just as greedy for treasure.

Once more, Columbus and his crew took advantage of the natives. They were forced to work for no pay, carving mines into the high mountainsides. “There is gold in those mountains,” Columbus and his men told one another, “and we did not sail all this way to leave it there.” But they did not find as much gold as they had expected.

His mistreatment of natives, inability to find gold, and keeping what gold he found for himself, rather than giving it to the king and queen, eventually landed him in prison. He was released but ended his life in ruin financially, politically, and in reputation. The section on Columbus in kindergarten CKLA concludes:

Today, Americans remember Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas back in 1492. This day is called Columbus Day. Later, you will learn about a group of people called the Vikings who came to North America even before Christopher Columbus did. Historians from many countries have researched and retold the story of Christopher Columbus many times over. It means different things to different people, but one thing we know for sure is that Columbus’s mistake changed the world.

Contrary to the overblown story of Columbus I and many others heard as kindergarteners, those in the CKLA program discover him as the man he was—brave but brutal, courageous and imperfect—and are better equipped to discuss his legacy adeptly in the future.

Envelope Culture

by Robert Pondiscio
November 28th, 2008

In Vietnam, parents who want teachers to pay more attention to their children pay extra money to kindergarten teachers monthly.  And when parents don’t abide by the unwritten rules of this “envelope culture,” kids can suffer.

“Hoang Thi Yen in district 8, HCM City, said she has to give VND200,000 [about 12 U.S. dollars] a month to both of her daughter’s two teachers for a ‘present’” VietNamNet reports.  “Yen said that all the parents she knows also give extra money to teachers. Yen is afraid that the teachers will not take care of her child if she doesn’t do this.”

Another parent reports that when she picks up her daughter from school and is not given a warm welcome, she understands that it’s time to give an envelope to the teachers. “Teachers change their attitude towards me and my child if I’m slow in giving money.”  Two months ago, says this parent, she was having difficulty persuading her son to go to kindergarten. Her son said he did not want to go to class. However, after she gave envelopes to teachers, her son all of a sudden liked going to school. “The teachers’ attitudes make me feel that they just want money, while they don’t care for children,” she said.

Mommy and Me

by Robert Pondiscio
September 11th, 2008

Children who were most prepared for kindergarten in a San Francisco study tended to be older girls who attended preschool, had no special needs, and mothers who went to college, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. 

The mother’s education was the most closely aligned with a child’s readiness, trumping all other characteristics including family income, ethnicity and English language ability. The study didn’t address why these characteristics were associated with being ready for kindergarten, but only noted the connection.

Researchers who evaluated 447 of last year’s kindergartners across San Francisco schools found that while half lack at least some needed skills, 11 percent were deficient both academically and socially.  They also found that preschool experience was a common trait among kids who showed up ready to learn, the paper reports.

Delaying School is Potentially Bad for Kids

by Robert Pondiscio
July 21st, 2008

New York SunWaiting until children are 6 to enroll them in kindergarten is having a negative impact on academic achievement, and potentially the U.S. economy, according to a new Harvard study. The New York Sun makes front-page news of it:

The practice has grown substantially: In 1968, 96% of 6-year-olds were enrolled in first grade or above. In 2005, the number had fallen to 84%, according to the paper by the Harvard researchers, part of a series issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“Children across the country are entering primary school at older and older ages — and opening themselves up to a likelier possibility of dropping out with less education,” report the Sun, which also notes that public school kids are much more likely to be affected by “redshirting” than their private school peers. It also means one fewer year that the children, once they are adults in the workforce, will pay into America’s Social Security system, the authors report.