BERKSHIRE – The kindergarten classroom can be a surprise every day, Berkshire Elementary School (BES) teacher Jessica Litchfield told the Messenger earlier this week, between what those kids, many of them experiencing school for the first time, surprisingly know and don’t.
“There’s things that surprise me every day,” Litchfield said. “I’m honestly surprised by... what students don’t know, things that are challenging for them, but I’m also surprised by the things kids would come up with and their understandings of things that I would never expect a five- or six-year-old to understand.”
When the Messenger visited BES this week, students were in the middle of what appeared to be a largely self-guided math practice period. They scuffled between tabletops with counting games and worksheets for setting shapes together to create an image.
Many of those questions were prompted by a story question, reflecting a trend that, according to Litchfield, builds on the increasingly emphasized language underscoring mathematics.
Select groups of students met directly with Litchfield, who challenged students to figure out different ways they could add numbers together to get to an eight or fill out a numerical pattern on a set of laminated cards.
“It’s very hands on and self-guided,” she said afterward. “They’re definitely doing their own learning.”
Litchfield, a ten-year veteran of BES’s kindergarten classroom, was recently recognized for her work in the classroom, having received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching citing curricula work she’d done for the wider school district on early mathematics education.
A lot of that work looked toward bridging some of those gaps between what students may or may not know, especially for students who may be disadvantaged without having the prior experience of preschool to create a foundation the kindergarten classroom can build off.
For decades now, literature has shown preschool can better prepare students for kindergarten education, with a recent Washington, D.C., survey of preschool education studies summarizing, “according to numerous studies, children attending publicly-funded pre-kindergarten programs are better prepared for kindergarten than similar children who have not attended pre-k.”
But even as Vermont law now mandates that public schools offer prekindergarten education, students aren’t legally obligated to participate, meaning for a student’s first day of kindergarten to be their first day of school completely.
What that means, according to Litchfield, is that students might be entering kindergarten without some of the background expected for incoming students, including the socialization that typically comes with preschool or an introduction to letters and numbers.
“We would expect them to have exposure to writing their name, exposure to some letters and numbers and counting,” Litchfield said. “That said, a lot of those kids don’t come in with those experiences. Maybe they didn’t go to preschool and maybe they don’t do those things at home.
“Honestly, teaching kindergarten, you expect the unexpected. They come in running the gamut of experiences, never having seen things like this and then being far above grade level.”
In Vermont’s smaller towns, some of those divides could possibly be more pronounced, Litchfield said, with the state’s more rural nature resulting in transportation barriers in accessing early education and in a possible isolation that keeps children without daycare or prekindergarten from interacting with others.
In order to address the differing levels of understanding that can follow those challenges, Litchfield said she meets with students directly to assess where they are and, when it comes to teaching, she groups students together based on understanding.
While some teaching still comes at the front of the class, that individual and group work was where a lot of the education happens, according to Litchfield, where students can take some ownership of their education while Litchfield can address their needs more directly in personal setting.
Ideally, Litchfield said kindergartners take things over on their own in those groups and even help teach some of those concepts with their partners.
“One of the benefits of meeting with a group is that they can converse with each other and it’s not just me talking at them,” Litchfield said. “That’s one of the big things that I’ve been working on in my classroom is getting them to converse with each other and really teach each other.
“It really helps them solidify their understanding. If they’re willing to discuss it and teach others about it, that’s really the highest level of mastery of a concept.”
Which students participating in each group could change with every concept, Litchfield said, and when certain students appear to understand a concept better than others, she’ll move those students to the next step on a set progression.
For Litchfield, this especially plays out in mathematics, a specialty of the veteran kindergarten teacher.
Litchfield’s helped design an early numeracy progression – a sort of step-by-step progression for early mathematics – that was exported to the rest of the district, with Litchfield playing an advisory role in helping teachers interpret that progression.
According to Litchfield, that clear progression between concepts helps with “really taking kids where they are... and progressing from there.”
Litchfield has spent all ten of her years as a teacher in a Berkshire kindergarten classroom.
Even before taking on Berkshire’s kindergarten class, she had always expected to be teaching an elementary classroom, though Litchfield admitted she did not necessarily imagine that classroom to be the first-time students of a kindergarten class.
Ten years later, though, Litchfield, a Waitsfield, Vt., native, said she loved where she was and what she was doing.
“I just do what I do because I love it and the difference it can make for kids,” Litchfield said.