Over the course of four half-days, the kindergarten teachers at Hamilton Elementary School are learning more about their new students than they normally learn in the first month.
The school is offering a new orientation program for kindergartners, in which they spend four half-days at the school the week before school starts.
Only about half the kindergartners have attended, but the school staffed all its support staff, including reading specialists.
They are usually spread throughout the school, trying to assess hundreds of children. But this week, they can just focus on the newest students. By today, every child will be evaluated.
“Kindergarten is so hard because we don’t know anything about them when they come. They’re like blank slates,” said teacher Alissa Graham. “Now we know half our students.”
She’s doing informal assessments, handing them Legos while asking them to identify the colors. At other stations around the room, she got a quick idea of which numbers and letters they knew.
And by today, the official assessments will be done as well, said teacher Ashleigh Caster.
“We’re getting more information these first few days; it would take us a month to get it. We wouldn’t have this until the end of September,” she said. “It’s because we’re getting the support” staff.
She will use the information to group students, a process that usually takes the first two weeks of the year, she said.
The students come with a wide range of knowledge.
Some children confidently grabbed letters and matched them up in a puzzle game that linked uppercase and lowercase letters. But others stared at the collection of letters in confusion.
Many never attended preschool, Graham said. That meant this week was their first taste of following class rules.
“Routines are our main focus,” Graham said. “Simple things: transitioning from the table to the rug, walking in a line, a straight line.”
She’s hoping the orientation will help them adjust more quickly once school starts. It wasn’t easy for some students — one boy refused to sit down at the table when his group moved there. He wanted to keep playing with the blocks.
The teachers quickly conferred. Caster tried to firmly move him to the table, saying, “You’re not doing blocks. It’s not a choice.”
But he refused to move, so she shrugged.
“Fine. You can stand right there, then,” she said, and went back to the table. He stood stubbornly for several minutes, but finally joined the group.
Other children were learning, slowly, how to interact.
Caster patiently guided one child through asking a “friend” to share. All the children are called friends — but after just a few hours of kindergarten, some of them were still strangers to each other.
The boy didn’t want to talk to his supposed friend, but repeatedly came back to Castor, asking her for help.
She tried to talk him through it — “She’s not using it. Ask if you can borrow it.” — but he couldn’t bring himself to speak to her.
Finally, Caster asked the girl for him, and then said to him, “I’ve asked her and she’s OK with sharing. Now go ask her.”
Only then did the reluctant boy drag himself to his “friend’s” chair and whisper his request for a letter block.
Learning social skills is a big part of kindergarten, Graham said. She’s hoping orientation will help with that, too.
“I’m seeing wonderful play,” she said.
Hopefully, she added, it will help build a community more quickly — letting them get down to the hard work of learning.