Tag Archives: kindergarten

Why learning to read is not like training for a 5K

I’m not training for a 5k. But I have done, once, and my husband has trained for more marathons than you can shake a stick at, so I feel confident enough to say this. When you train for a race, you start out small. You run a short distance. The next day, you run a bit further. You build up your stamina, you strengthen your muscles and you enlarge your lung capacity by adding a little more every time until – hey presto! – with determination and persistence and hard work, you can run as far as you want to. Hooray!

Learning to read doesn’t work that way.

My daughter started kindergarten this year knowing the letters and most of the sounds they stood for. She could sound out simple words. But she couldn’t read yet. Somewhere along the way, and with help from a great teacher, things clicked. Now she looks at words on a page and knows what they are, without having to think about letters and sounds and how they all fit together.

There was a point for her when that leap from decoding to knowing just happened. It’s the leap that didn’t happen for her brother, the third-grader, the one with dyslexia. He still has to decode every word. That’s what takes so long.

So my kindergartener is testing above grade level for reading. Like, way above. “But,” her teacher said to me, “I’m worried about her fluency. It’s not there. Is she reading for 20 minutes a night?”

“No,” I said. “I read to her for at least 20 minutes a night.” She reads a few lines, or a few minutes, or whatever she feels like. She’s reading all the time – I see her eyes lighting on words she knows as I read a book that’s way above her own level. I see her reading signs and lists and packages and posters. She’s reading.

“Well,” said her teacher, who is a great teacher, who knows exactly how to get the kids reading, “she needs to start reading by herself for longer. Start her at five minutes and move up to ten and then fifteen. When she’s in third grade she’ll be taking the PARCC tests, you know. They have to read for 90 minutes at a time.”

This is where the running comes in. That’s how you train for a 5K, but it’s not how a child learns to read. That’s like saying that your three year old needs to attend an academic preschool where he sits at a desk and learns his numbers and letters for a good portion of the day, because he’ll need to do that when he’s five. So he’s got to start practicing now.

No, he doesn’t. Your three year old needs to be running and jumping and feeling different textures and finding out what fits together and what goes inside what and looking and listening and smelling and tasting. He does all that to prepare his body and to connect the dots in his brain so that WHEN he’s five – or six or seven – he’ll be able to sit still for a while and learn in a classroom setting, given a sympathetic teacher and material that interests him.

My six and a half year old may be able to read and understand a lot of words, but that doesn’t mean I can hand her my seven volumes of Harry Potter (UK edition) and expect her to immerse herself for the afternoon. She loves Harry Potter, but she’s not ready to read it yet. And I’m unwilling to sit her down with a book and a timer and make her read a little longer every day, because that’s not how it works.

Some day when I’m not watching, she’ll pick up a book and get comfy and find that an hour later she hasn’t moved because she’s been reeled into another world, where James flies a giant peach or Hermione saves a hippogryff or Anne accidentally dyes her hair green. It will happen with a leap, the way your toddler went from having ten words to fifty in a week, or the way one day your preschooler could whistle (and didn’t stop demonstrating for a month). It will happen when you’re not paying attention.

Absent dyslexia, it will happen.

Transatlantic Subtleties: Valentines for beginners

It’s that time of year again. The time when the worth of your parenting is measured in how long you are willing to spend coaxing your preschooler, or kindergartener, or however-many-classes-they-hope-to-keep-up-this-charade-for-er into coloring, cutting, sticking, folding, or just writing their name over and over. Not to mention how much time and/or effort you’ve put into it yourself, because if you’re no good at crafting your child is going to be branded forever as a bad person: a non-Valentine-giver.

I don’t think this happens in Ireland. It certainly didn’t when I was small. Valentines were for teenagers with crushes, parents boringly sending each other the required tokens of affection, couples holding hands in restaurants, people who get engaged without recourse to imagination. Valentine’s Day was mostly for hunkering down and hoping your Dad didn’t send you one because he felts sorry for you when you didn’t have a boyfriend.

In America, Valentines are not for lovers. Not under the age of 10, at any rate. (And I hope not for several years after that; but I’m not clear on whether there’s actually a sweet spot when the average American tween can blissfully ignore the whole Hallmark production of Feb 14th.) In America, Valentines are things your small child brings to school and hands out to everyone in the class, whether they like it or not, whether they like them or not. Valentines are mandatory signs of friendship, and therefore utterly worthless except for, as I have mentioned, allowing all the other parents, and the teachers, to judge your parenting/crafting/shopping skills and find them sadly lacking.

If you don’t want to spend the weeks after Christmas knee-deep in Pinterest ideas and up to your armpits in craft supplies, you can buy Valentines in handy packs of 25 at Target, or the supermarket. They just take a bit of folding and maybe a sticker and it’s all done. If you take that option you can choose to feel like a cop-out parent, or you can slap yourself on the back for a tedious job well done with minimal effort, it’s totally up to you. You can even choose to ignore the whole thing, but on your own head be it. And then your child will quite possibly come home from school with a bag full of candy, because the other name for this holiday is Pink Halloween. (Sometimes they give/get pencils, or erasers, but it’s never called Pink School Supplies Day.)

So in this house this year, the kindergartener is expected to show up on Thursday with 25 Valentines signed with her name but not personally designated per classmate, because then it takes too long to hand them out individually. Not for the first time, I have made use of Secret Agent Josephine’s lovely printables, and since we don’t have a colour printer she had the extra fun of getting to colour them in herself as well as cutting them out and writing her name on the back, which basically makes me crafting mother of the decade around here.

The third grader so far has not mentioned any requirement for Valentines. I hope he doesn’t discover one on Thursday night, because he doesn’t enjoy colouring as much as his sister does.

(I may have written pretty much this exact same post in past years. I haven’t gone back to check. You don’t need to either.)

Coloured-in cut-out printed Valentines

Mabel’s Valentines




Driving to the zoo last Sunday afternoon, we all had a great and informative conversation. It went something like this…

Mabel: In my class when we do something good, we get a Teddygram.

Me, envisaging a little message from teacher on a teddy-shaped piece of paper, saying “Good job” or “Super star” or something: Oh, that’s nice. Do you know why it’s called a Teddygram?

Dash: Because it’s like a telegram!

Me: And what’s a telegram?

Dash: A thing they used to use to send messages?

Me, B, Dash, Mabel: [Discussion ranging over how telegrams were sent, morse code, post offices, cable ships (I had no idea), underwater phone lines etc.]

Mabel: And the great thing about Teddygrams is that they taste yummy.


Mabel: Because they’re cookies!

Me: OH. It’s not a TeddyGRAM, it’s a Teddy GRAHAM. A Graham cracker in the shape of a teddy.

So that’s what happens when your child speaks American and you don’t.

Dash and Mabel on an eagle statue

American children, sitting on a giant eagle (symbolic, eh?) at the zoo.


I have other tales to tell, of more mittens and mystery rashes and allergic reactions and homeschooling on sick days and learning to swallow pills and husbands who are fecking off to regions far north to run marathons and a very exciting upcoming Trip For Me Without Children; but they’ll keep.

Have a happy weekend. The Blog Awards take place on Saturday night and I am DEADLY ENVIOUS of all the Irish Parenting Bloggers who will be there in their fancy frocks and their high heels and getting to wear eyeshadow, no doubt, and I will be there in spirit but sadly not in actuality. Best of luck to everyone in the running for a prize, and to anyone who’s not, you were clearly robbed. Mwah!


Jazz hands

It’s 12 noon. This is about the time when, last year and the year before, and three days a week the year before that, I would regretfully set the timer for 20 minutes so that I didn’t get lost in whatever I was doing and forget to go and pick Mabel up from school. (Because you know how it is, you finally get down to business and get absorbed in a task just when it’s time to leave.)

This year, at 12 noon, I usually do a little shimmy in the front room, with jazz hands*, and sing, in a vibrant if somewhat off-key contralto, a little melody with the lyrics “Three more hours!”

Which is to say, I’m quite enjoying this.

I said as much to my optician yesterday as she determined that the only thing in the way of my vision is all these scratches on my glasses, when she asked how the transition was going for me now that my baby is off to big school. She – recently married; no kids yet – probably thinks I’ve a heart of stone, but hey. As long as my kids are happy at school (and Mabel’s fine, she really is), I’m very happy to send them there. I’ve done my time with small children at home, and the truth is, I’m not really very good at it. That is, I can do it, but a lot of other things fall by the wayside.

(Right now, cleaning the house is still falling by the wayside, but shut up, I’m sure I’ll get to it in due course. I’ve been busy shimmying and jazz-hands-ing and contralting.)

I’m really bad at self-care, for instance, when I have small children in the house. There were about three years there when I barely managed to put on moisturizer before bed; you can imagine how often I went to the dentist. I can’t even make a phone call without my kids deciding now is the time to need mommy, so it was hard to schedule things, never mind actually leave the house without a constantly nursing baby.

I have nothing but admiration for those women who get things done and also have babies. I am not one of those women, but we all have our strengths. Soon I will do Very Useful Things with all these hours I have (when they stop inexplicably melting away as they seem to have done so many days of the past three weeks), but for now I’m indulging my introvert side and spending some quality time with myself. I deserve it.


*(I really want to put that animated gif in here, or this one, but I can’t figure out how and they’re probably copyrighted anyway, so please do just click over and enjoy for a second.)

Kindergarten report: Fun is relative

Two weeks in and I think I can give kindergarten a tentative thumbs up. I don’t think Mabel would give it such a wholeheartedly positive mark, but, as I have said to anyone who asks me how it’s going, I leave her in the classroom every morning and I don’t have to go back and get her until the allotted time, so I’m calling that a win. I haven’t been called in early to remove her, and though some partings have been a little more sorrow and a little less sweet, on the whole starting big school has been much easier than it was with her brother.

(Please, Fate, do not clobber me tomorrow, or next week, or next month, for this complacency. I know she can make my life hell whenever she chooses.)

Every morning until today, she has said “I’m not going to school”, but I’ve just pushed some breakfast into her mouth and put some clothes on her body and by the time it was time to get into the car she would be more used to the idea. Every night she’s said “I’m not going to school tomorrow,” and some nights, when she’s extra tired, have been more pathetic than others, but I have not yet broken down and said “Okay, okay, I’ll homeschool you,” so I count that as a personal victory.

The sad truth is that we all (all the parents, I mean) spent all summer selling kindergarten for all we were worth, with all the “It’s going to be great” and “School is such fun” and “You get to do all sorts of wonderful things” but in reality it’s just a whole new ballgame and fun is a relative term. I mean, PE might be fun compared to math, and art is definitely fun compared to spelling (don’t worry, kindergarteners don’t do spelling) and music is probably more fun than learning new classroom rules, and you have to get used to finding the fun parts to look forward to. I know Mabel’s not the only five-year-old who’s feeling a little betrayed this week, and I do feel bad about that. (Not bad enough to homeschool, no.)

Of course, Mabel says none of it is fun and she doesn’t like art and she hates music and recess is stupid and PE is boring and if I didn’t know better I might think she was just a big ol’ black hole of negativity; but ten minutes later she’ll volunteer the fact that the music teacher has a funny voice he puts on to make them laugh or that they made shapes with gumdrops and then they got to eat them, and I’m pretty sure it’s not as bad as she’d like to make out.

Mabel eating an apple

Stay green, Ponygirl


Dear Kindergarten teacher

Dear Kindergarten teacher,

I know you look at the room and you see chaos. You see children who look practically too small for school, who have no idea what to do or where to go or where to put their things or how to address you. Children who are doing the wrong thing and don’t even know it; unreliable narrators who will say anything.

I’m coming from the other side, from the side of a parent who was in the nursery school classroom until a few months ago. I see a room full of big kids, kids trying their hardest to be big. Kids barely holding it together, holding back tears and trembling lips. Kids worried about doing the wrong thing, about getting into trouble, about knowing where things are and where things go, about remembering rules. Kids who know it’s time to learn to read and write and do math, but who want to paint and imagine and run and play and laugh too.

Many of these children have been to school before, but it was a school with more playtime, probably. Where sitting down and writing or drawing was something they could choose to do, but didn’t often have to. And even that was a whole summer ago, and a summer is a long, long time when you’re five. They’ve been playing all summer and now they’re sitting here looking at the toys around the room, wondering when they get to play with them.

I see my daughter, with all her amazing gifts and abilities and craziness and wisdom and energy and knowledge and quirks. I see her, nervous and defiant and unsure and a tiny bit excited in spite of herself. I see her hoping it will be good, but afraid it will be bad. Wanting to be good but afraid she will be bad. Wishing for a friend but not ready to make the first move. Needing a teacher who sees her as a whole person, not an impediment to order.

Dear teacher, please see the children, not the chaos.

Mabel in classroom

I know you saw this photo yesterday. But it’s the only one I have.

Sundry updates

It’s one of those times when real life whizzes by faster than blog time, and I end up having to give you a list just to get things you need to know* out of the way.

*Need to know for full and complete appreciation of the blog, I mean.

So, without further ado, and in roughly chronological order, these things have happened:

– Mabel started school. So did Dash, of course, but this year Mabel’s the one with the big changes. I wrote a little bit about it here. She started last week, but after the long weekend of Labour Day, going back this morning was the roughest one yet. How long do I have to keep buying her bribes for? Until middle school, just?

Mabel in classroom

– The PTA book sale was a great success, in spite of a massive thunderstorm that rolled in on Sunday evening, shutting us down early and making some of our stock unusable. We had tarps to cover the tables, and put as many boxes as we could up there, but any boxes still under the tables that were in direct contact with the ground ended up sopping wet.

book sale under tents

– I may or may not have been a bookseller in a former life. But I should probably be one at some point in this one. I loved it. I loved the tetris-like challenge of “reshelving”, I loved remembering where I’d seen something that would go with this one, I loved seeing the droves of people buying so many books that they’d never find anywhere else, and by the third day I was talking to the books. Maybe that’s not a good thing, but they seemed to like it.

kids on ride at funfair

– I have Lyme disease, did I mention that? At least, I don’t actually have any symptoms, but I’m on antibiotics to make it go away. I had an odd fever with a stiff neck while we were in Italy and it was only when we got home that I decided, paranoidly, that maybe I had Lyme. I got checked rather than leave it to be a Thing I Obsess About In Bed At Night, and hey presto, I do. I never noticed the tick bite and have no visible rash. But we do live in a very high-Lyme area. My only lesson for you on that is: don’t be too paranoid, but do be just paranoid enough.

– We’re getting Dash tested for I don’t know what, a Learning Disability or something maybe, because vision therapy was great but it wasn’t the Ultimate Answer to his reading difficulties. The doctor I spoke to was trying to steer me in the direction of ADHD, but I honestly don’t think that’s it. I think he’s got some form of dyslexia. Or Overachieving Parent, it could be that. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, Third Grade seems Very Serious. Homework starts this week; I’ll see better how he’s keeping up when we get that.

Loft bed with desk underneath

– Or maybe I won’t, since he got a new bed and he’s going to do his homework in his bedroom now. Maybe I’ll just have to deal with Mabel’s homework. I’m really hoping that K homework is all drawing and stuff she likes to do.

All caught up now? Good.

(I’m making the photos big. If this has a terrible effect on your download times, tell me.)

Entirely predictable existential crisis

My baby is going to kindergarten. I’ve been totally fine with that all the way to here. Not for me sentimental sniffling on turning in her registration. No tears at preschool graduation. We were all ready to move on. The world keeps on turning, you know, and you’ve got to keep up.

Yesterday we trundled up to the school for her intake test, or whatever it is they’re calling the tiny proto-entrance-exam thing they do now, where they see if they know their colours and their shapes and where they are on the learning-to-read continuum, ostensibly so that they can ensure an even spread of abilities across the four kindergarten classes.

The nice teacher began by asking Mabel how her summer had been, and Mabel replied with a slightly aggressive meow-growl. Which might not have been exactly what they’re looking for on the polite chatty scale, but she does tend to resort to animal impersonations when feeling shy. However, she went on to name all the things she was asked to name, to know all the sounds of the letters but not how to read the actual words, and to acquit us well by saying that her favourite book is a chapter book with an impressively long title.

But as we left I have to admit I felt a niggle. Just a tiny niggle of “Oh I hope she’ll be okay” and “They’d better see how amazing she is” and then that little wail of “What will I DOOOOO?” that I’ve been avoiding this whole time. I’m not planning on rushing out and getting a job with a commute and a dress code and all that jazz, but I really do need a plan for not just being a lady who lunches all day while my kids are at school. I have to bring in a few bob, like, for the sake of self respect and college funds and having something to live on in our old age and so on.

My plan, as it stands, is a vague one involving exercise (running or yoga or something), writing, and editing; the editing would earn a crust, the writing might if I could figure out some way to get paid for it. The exercise would stop me bursting out of my jeans and make up for all the muffins I’ll inevitably bake to go with all the cups of tea I’ll inevitably drink.

It’ll be a new era. I don’t think I want to think about it too much just yet.

Mabel standing in a window

Ready to leap


Information overload

There was a tour of the elementary school for parents of prospective new students. Even though I also have an current student at the school, I went on it. Partly because I could, partly because I thought I might learn something new (I did), and mostly, I think, because once I have a little knowledge of a subject, any extra information has somewhere to stick and I assimilate it better. I have somewhere to hang it. You need somewhere to hang your knowledge, which is why learning things when you’re a child and have no experience is in many ways such a terrible idea. I mean, once you’ve travelled a bit, it’s much more interesting to learn more about geography and history, for example.

But I digress.

I went on the tour so that, with my existing knowledge of how things were, I could glean a better understanding. But in so doing I did feel a little guilty about my son’s experience at the same juncture. If they’d been giving the tour three years ago I would have done it, of course, but they didn’t start to offer it till last year. But I went to very little effort to find out the things they were telling us through any other means either. I just accepted that he was going to the school and filled in the forms and dragged him along for the first two weeks until he finally conceded that it wasn’t so bad and very soon thereafter began to love it. But I didn’t really know anything about how long recess was and how often he’d have PE and whether the whole school had lunch at the same time or not, and it didn’t occur to me to find out. We found out as we went along.

I think part of it was the overwhelming nature of becoming part of the American public school system when we had never really planned to do that. It was such a new thing for us not just as parents but as participants, that we had to close our eyes and just jump, really. A trust exercise, if you will. We knew the school was fine (not great, but fine, with an involved PTA), we knew enough sensible, good, educated neighbourhood people who sent their kids there to believe this was not going to be a decision that Ruined His Life, and I spent a lot of time that year saying, “It’s just elementary school,” and nodding vigorously as my friends said the same thing back to me.

But I am concerned that it might look like I put more thought into decisions when I make them for my daughter than when I make them for my son. I think it’s a preservation instinct, actually, that makes me shut down in the face of information overload and purposely make a swift decision based on a few key factors. I don’t want to know everything because I can’t process everything. Later on, when we’ve been softened a bit by exposure and more knowledge of the situation, the environment, the way things work, I can take in more information and make the decision anew, or differently, for the second child.

Does that make any sense to anyone? Do you do this too?

Dash at school

2011: First day of K

Life: Like a box of chocolates

And then there was an earthquake, of all things.

Here I sat, rabbitting on about school and tears and expectations and feelings and yada yada blah and suddenly I thought “That’s funny.” It was as if someone heavy with a long stride was walking along the upstairs hallway, making the floorboards vibrate. Then there was more and I thought “Hmm. Is she awake?” Was Mabel jumping on her bed instead of napping? I headed upstairs to find out.

As I entered her room and saw her lying still asleep, my brain caught up with the facts and I realised it was probably an earthquake. An earthquake on this side of the US is about as likely as one in Ireland, but I’ve been in an earthquake before (a 4.2 while staying in a house on top of the Hayward Fault on, like, our second night in San Francisco in 1994; probably the same day we watched the live TV news showing an actor I’d never heard of called OJ Simpson being chased down the highway by a lot of police cars) – so I’m a pro, you know. I ran back downstairs with my dozy baby in my arms, frantically wondering what I was meant to do. Hide under the stairs, right? No, in a doorway. No, wait… oh, it’s over.

So that was that. I pretty much regretted waking her up because it hampered my Facebooking for the next half hour, when the Internet was buzzing with people all telling each other the same thing.

It’s not really that it puts things in perspective, because nothing terrible happened. It’s just that you really do never know what’s going to happen next. An unexpected day off school is just what Monkey needed to get him recovered from the stresses of the last two and to set him up well for the next two.  But an earthquake day just when I wanted it (they’re off today while the county inspects the school to make sure it won’t fall on their heads) was pretty much the last thing anyone could have predicted.

 I like it.