Getting creative in kindergarten: One teacher's strategy

Students in Karen Scannell's kindergarten class at Synergy Charter Academy in South L.A., make a pizza out of playdoh and then cut out a piece
Students in Karen Scannell's kindergarten class at Synergy Charter Academy in South L.A., make a pizza out of playdoh and then cut out a piece "of" pizza as they work on learning the high-frequency word "of." They use wikki stiks to make the word.
Deepa Fernandes / KPCC

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Kindergarten is no longer the place of goopy finger painted masterpieces or puppet shows with silly songs. With higher academic expectations and less time for playful learning, kindergarten can be stressful.

“We begin academics on the first day of kindergarten,” said Cherie Wood, kindergarten teacher at Willard elementary in Pasadena. There are standards that kindergarten teachers have to help their students meet.

Yet a kindergarten teacher’s job is so much more, she said. In the first weeks of school, teachers are at the front lines, welcoming and settling in children who are new to school.

They are saddled with a group of students that have vastly different reading and writing skill levels, and also vastly different levels of basic personal care skills. Zipping up a jacket, tying endless shoe laces, and even helping some students use the bathroom are very common activities for a kindergarten teacher, all while introducing their students to the mechanics of literacy and numeracy.

The kindergarten standards are designed to keep students on track for the harder academics to come in first grade. Here’s a look at what opens the section on Common Core math standards for kindergarten:

“Students use numbers, including written numerals, to represent quantities and to solve quantitative problems, such as counting objects in a set; counting out a given number of objects; comparing sets or numerals; and modeling simple joining and separating situations with sets of objects, or eventually with equations such as 5 + 2 = 7 and 7 – 2 = 5. (Kindergarten students should see addition and subtraction equations, and student writing of equations in kindergarten is encouraged, but it is not required.)”

Given that some children will arrive in kindergarten without the ability to count or recognize numbers, the task of writing and computing equations requires a lot of work.

Hence the lack of finger-painted masterpieces once associated with kindergarten: there just isn’t time.

Yet there are kindergarten teachers who still want to keep this first formal year of school as play-based as possible. Cherie Wood uses wikki stiks and playdoh to help kids learn to make letters before she has them try with pencil and paper.

In South Los Angeles, one veteran teacher also subscribes to a more playful model of learning.

“I’m not a paper and pencil person,” said Karen Scannell, kindergarten teacher at Synergy Charter Academy. “I really believe in play in the class, but I’m realistic: I know they need to know their math facts, they need to identify letters, they need to know the sounds.”

But she tries to limit kids simply filling out worksheets, and when they do, she always adds a “fun twist.”

Her classroom is colorful and engaging. Scannell instructs students to use “marshmallow feet” when they walk from the rug to their desk, a command they enjoy and take seriously. Barely a noise is heard as they move around the classroom.

In kindergarten, pre-reading skills are taught through word recognition. Known in early literacy lingo as “high frequency words” or “sight words,” they are the basic words kids need to know to start them on the path to reading. Children may be shown the word in a book the teacher reads, it will be written on the board, and then the student will write it and practice it. Often the practice is done through worksheets or repetitively on plain lined paper.

Not in Ms. Scannell’s classroom. She constantly chants with her students that “words make pictures in your mind.”

On a recent Tuesday morning, the kindergarteners are learning the word “of.” While it is written on the board, Scannell does not focus on it. She is playing with them and teaching them to picture how the word “of” is used.

“When you picture the word 'of,' you picture taking a small amount from a larger amount,” Scannell said. A big box of blocks is by her side. She asks a student to come and take “one of the blocks.”

“Now did Alissa take the whole thing?” Scannell asked students. “Noooo,” they chorus, calling out “smaller, smaller amount.” Scannell smiles. “She took the smaller amount from the larger, right!”

Scannell is deliberately working in the math. Learning concepts like 'greater than' and 'less than' are also standard in kindergarten. It’s fairly easy for a child to recognize that one block is way less than a whole box of blocks, but what happens when the numbers are closer together, like three and five.

Scannell moves on to some role-playing in a pizza shop to increase the complexity of both the more than, less than lesson, while still working on the high-frequency word“of.” Scannell lays out some cardboard pieces of pizza and a bunch of red colored discs – pepperoni slices.

She then puts three slices of pepperoni on one slice and five on the other. Scannell tells students her pizza shop is fair and everyone gets the same amount of pepperoni. Some students instantly notice that the slices are not equal.

“No, no, no, I gave everybody the same pepperoni,” Scannell said, playing the pizza maker role. The students are quickly able to point out to her who has more and who has less.

Her creative teaching methods come from years of teaching, she said. “You take advantage of every teachable moment, and you’re constantly feeding on the prior knowledge,” she said. Seeing what works and what hasn't work over the years, Scannell said, she adjusts her lessons. She’s constantly trying new methods to help her students understand the new and difficult concepts she is introducing them to.

Scannell bases her literacy lessons on curriculum designed by Picture First Learning, a company started by two moms, educators who believed kids were not truly understanding what they were reading. Sight Words getting written onto an index card and sent home for kids to memorize, was not working, said Dawn Robinson of Picture First Learning.

“Kids recognize the words, can 'read' them on a page, but still don't really have a concept of what they mean,” Robinson said. The company's method focuses on creating pictures using the word so children can attach meaning to each word, something that gets lost in rote memorization.

Students in Scannells class will create their own visual images of words, and she reinforces it through various activities throughout the day, none of which involves simply memorizing the word.

“You do kind of go on faith,” she said, as she whipped up some cheese dip while her students were at recess for a meeting she was beginning with some other teachers who she is mentoring. “Being an experienced teacher you take a lot of everything you learned over the years and you take the tried and true that you know works.”