A Brief History of Kindergarten (at Trinity School and Beyond)

When I was five (the year President Kennedy was shot) there was no public kindergarten in the Knoxville schools.  I learned how to wait my turn and play well in the sandbox under the benevolent guidance of Mrs. Paige at the Second Presbyterian Kindergarten.  Today, it would be hard to find a public or independent school that did not offer kindergarten.  In this way, kindergarten has surely become the new “first” grade.  Trinity began in 1995 with a kindergarten, but serious space limitations at our rented location forced us to choose to promote our fourth graders to fifth and drop the kindergarten in our second year.  And it took a bit of blood, sweat, and tears at the board before, a few years later, we reinstated it.  Let’s just say that it wasn’t a given in the beginning that kindergarten was necessary.  A lot has changed in twenty-one years.  Now that grade is etched into the mission of the school: Transitional kindergarten through grade 12.  TK and K are the most popular entry points into the Trinity community.

The other national kindergarten change that we have witnessed over the last twenty years is the increased emphasis on academic skills (narrowly defined) and the diminution of play, conversation, and exploration.  A recent study by three scholars at the University of Virginia (“Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?”) compares kindergartens from 1998 through 2010.  They document more emphasis on advanced literacy and math content, more teacher-directed instruction and assessment, and significantly less time spent on art, music, science, and child-selected activities.  

Trinity has embraced the idea of kindergarten (even of a transitional kindergarten for our younger fives) as a critical part of our mission.  But we have always lived in tension with the trend which the UVA study documents.  Where the national trajectory has been toward acceleration of narrow academic skills, we have always favored a richly textured atmosphere where young boys and girls interact with ideas and work on mastering habits that will serve them well for years to come.  The gold standard for kindergarten is not learning to read, but learning to listen and speak, to ask and answer questions, to play with ideas, and to establish habits of mind and heart that are what Charlotte Mason called “the rails” of learning for the rest of one’s life.  

A recent article in The Atlantic by Erika Christakis, “The New Preschool Is Crushing Kids,” is a sane evaluation of this national trend, which now is extending downward into pre-school.  Christakis, a preschool teacher herself, cites an important study by three scholars at Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Institute showing that immediate gains in school readiness through these kinds of amped-up preschool programs do not yield lasting results.  In fact, the data show that students who go through these kinds of programs are more likely to lose ground by second grade and lose their enthusiasm for school.  An accessible summary of this study was published in the November issue of New York magazine.  

The driving motive for putting preschools on steroids is understandable: the notorious achievement gap in American education.  That gap, which correlates strongly with lower socioeconomic status makes early intervention a national imperative.  The now famous study of Hart and Risely in 2003 estimated that three-year olds from high income families have heard 30 million more words than their peers from families living below the poverty line.  

The problem is that what these lower SES children need is just what every child needs: a rich language experience, a teacher who is equipped and motivated to lead her to explore the complexity of the world, and lots of time to learn through play and what Hart and Risley call “language dancing.”  This kind of preschool experience is expensive and hard to scale quickly to reach tens of thousands of at-risk kids in every state across the nation.

There are no easy answers, but we will have to answer for a generation of young Americans whose innate curiosity and intellectual capacities have been desiccated by insipid drills and scripted lessons about “key concepts” in the curriculum.  I suggest that there are three ways that Trinity School can help answer this challenge.

First, and most importantly, we can try to get this as right as we can, by creating rich learning experiences for our youngest students.  This is the kind of education that Charlotte Mason was touting a century ago.  Our long fascination with Mason is to be explained by her axiomatic claim, forged out of her Christian faith, that the child “is a person with all the possibility and powers included in personality.”  To such persons, ideas are food for the mind, and the teacher’s axiom is “What a child learns matters less than how he learns it.”  If you visit a Trinity transitional kindergarten or kindergarten class, you will find teachers interacting with students, asking open questions, helping them think out loud, guiding them into new learning experiences with books and things, and carrying on real conversations with these five-year old persons.  In her Atlantic piece, Christakis tells the story of a group of five year olds debating whether snakes have bones.  This kind of real intellectual activity is the stuff of a great kindergarten, and I am deeply grateful that Trinity teachers bring their best game to school every day.

Secondly, we should be training a generation of students who know and understand this national challenge and who are prepared to tackle it with all the God-given resources they can muster.  This includes the ability to analyze a social problem with clarity and objectivity (the fruit of a good classical education), the tenacity and courage to tackle intractable problems with creative solutions (the fruit of entrepreneurial training), and the commitment to work for the common good (the fruit of our Christian, Non Nobis, culture).  Imagine with me that a Trinity student--or better, a group of Trinity students--devised an innovative and effective plan for creating rich learning atmospheres for students across the state of North Carolina.  Could the next Teach for America come from the inspired mind of a Trinity graduate?

Finally, we should be open to God’s leading for Trinity as an institution.  What is our larger mission in the Durham community, where these challenges reside close to home?  How can the good that is Trinity be a good for all children in Durham?  Many Trinity alumni parents will be retiring in the next decade, with time and talent and ambition to work for the greater good--what good could we do together?  How might the need of an educationally impoverished generation of children be connected to the resources of an army of educated boomers with time on their hands and money in their 401Ks?  And what about teacher residency programs, like the Memphis Teacher Residency (MTR), where Trinity alum Philip James is teaching?  After MTR Director David Montague spoke at Trinity last year, several Trinity teachers came up to me and said, so to speak, “I want me some of that.”  So do I.  There is something deep in our hearts that yearns to do justice, and we know that our educational system is unjust for so many.  If there were a way for Trinity to rectify that wrong in some significant way, no matter how small, we would all break out in song, like the Psalmist, who finds the justice of God a reason to throw a party:

Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy;
let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.
Psalm 98:8,9

It’s a blessing to be in kindergarten at Trinity School.  Like Abraham,  we are blessed to be a blessing to others.  Non Nobis.


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