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Keeping Busy in Kindergarten

Despite recent curriculum changes, kindergarten remains unique as an introduction to school. Spending a full day with a kindergarten class when I was not feeling my best gave me new respect for those who teach the littlest ones. Included: A description of activities in a full-day kindergarten class.

I'm gaining a new respect for how teachers are able to be "on" all the time, even when they feel off.

This month, I subbed for a full-day kindergarten teacher, in a different elementary school from my first two substitute assignments. Perhaps it was the prospect of facing so many very little people, whose most recent personal milestone was toilet training, or the scratchy throat and the raggedness from an oncoming cold, but I arrived at school feeling a bit edgy, knowing there would be no hiding behind a computer terminal with a cup of tea today.

Education World In The Classroom

Education World news editor Ellen R. Delisio is spending one day a month as a substitute teacher in one of the Middletown (Connecticut) Public Schools' elementary or middle schools. She is learning and writing about the daily challenges substitute -- and permanent -- teachers face.

The secretary in the office greeted me warmly, and told me there had been a change in assignment. I was still going to kindergarten, but to another teacher's class. Originally, I was assigned to cover for a teacher attending a conference, but the conference was cancelled, so I was moved to another room.

After I filled out the paperwork, one of the first things the secretary told me was that one girl in the class was a diabetic and a boy had a peanut allergy. This news does not particularly rattle me; my nephew is a diabetic, and I have some knowledge of what that entails. The secretary explained to me that the teacher had the lunch and snack procedures for each of those two children outlined, and the girl with diabetes went to the nurse to have her blood tested and insulin administered.

The secretary walked me to the room. The kindergarten classroom was spacious, with tables spread out in the center of the room, a desk that looked like it didn't get much use, plenty of shelves and closets, play areas, a sink, and a bathroom. The dcor was in transition from Thanksgiving to winter holidays.

After some hunting around, I find the sub packet, which included a set of standard substitute plans, some handwritten notes, a book, and some sticky notes. After a quick read, I got the sinking feeling that the assignments were not going to get me through the day, although the teacher had mentioned I could read to them any time. Still, I did not have years (or even weeks) of teaching experience to fall back on. I noticed with disappointment that "nap time" was not listed anywhere, since I was certain someone in the room (probably me) would need a snooze.

I soon learned that in kindergarten, routine reigns. Students were quick to call out, "We don't do it that way!" if I deviated from classroom procedure.

I also noted that the children did not eat lunch until 12:50 p.m., and even though they had a snack at 10:45, one o'clock seemed like a long stretch from the start of school at 9:10 for 5-year-olds. I remember when I was their age how ready I was to get home, have a snack, and watch cartoons after a half-day of school. It will be interesting to see how they hold up.

At least, as a co-worker said, the chances of me significantly derailing their educations in one day was pretty slim. After all, she commented, "It's not like they're taking the SAT's tomorrow."


I headed for the gym just down the hall at the designated time to meet the class, but few students were waiting. An aide explained to me that the buses were delayed, possibly because of bad weather. Since snow was predicted but did not fall, except for some flurries, that was a little hard to understand.

As I stood in the gym, a boy tugged on my arm and told me someone hit him with a folder. The boy who hit him appeared and explained that the other boy had wronged him before. While I'm working on a response, the aide told the boy who wielded the folder that one thing has nothing to do with the other, and don't hit the other boy again.

I returned to the room and continued to try to absorb the procedures for all the lessons and activities.

While I am perusing instructions, the children walked in, ushered down the hall by the duty aide from the gym. The class could be a poster for Diversity R Us: there are white, black, Indian, Hispanic, and Asian-American children, all mixing with little concern about their classmates' appearances.

The children took down their chairs and retrieved items from cubbies. Some opened books, while others started to draw. Others were filled with questions and already restless. I realized I probably was the first substitute teacher they have encountered in their short academic careers, and many approached me right away to share information and ask questions. Monty, a precocious, dark-haired little boy, started the day by tugging on my arm and pretty much continued until dismissal -- he informed me when he was done with an assignment, asked what should he do next, asked to play, and needed help buttoning his pants.

I felt a little like a 5-foot-3-inch-tall Gulliver in the land of Lilliput.


I had trouble locating items like the board for the lunch count; after I did, the children put clothespins on the pictures of their lunch choices (milk, hot lunch, alternate) and then I counted them and recorded them along with the attendance.

I soon learned that in kindergarten, routine reigns. Students were quick to call out, "We don't do it that way!" if I deviated from classroom procedure. I also realized that no matter how many times I said I needed help from one person and please raise your hand, and I would call on someone, I would get at least 15 responses.

I started to slide into the morning routine, which included assigning students to count the number of boys and girls in the class and the total number of students -remembering to alternate calling on boys and girls for the tasks. We recited the date, the days of the week, counted the number of days of school so far, and recorded the weather, punctuated by the occasional "We don't do it that way" when I slipped up.

I felt a little like a 5-foot-3-inch-tall Gulliver in the land of Lilliput.

In keeping with the lesson plans, I assigned them to write the date in their journals, draw a picture, and write a sentence about the picture, which is done amid chatter.

I was struck by the wide range of abilities in the class, and wondered how the teacher managed with everyone. Several of the 20 children could read, while others were not quite there yet.


Two youngsters, Barry and Nathan, clearly were daily trouble. They already had an edge to them, a knack for agitation, and a tendency to tune out adults. One girl told me helpfully, "Barry is always bad."

Students were scheduled to go to the computer lab in groups of five over a 90-minute period, but the mother who volunteered in the computer room arrived to say she had a sick child at home and probably could not do it.

The kindergarten teacher I was supposed to be comes in to see how I am holding up, and I put in a request for more assignments, if she has any. She also suggested assigning work in math journals, and pointed out ways some assignments could be expanded.

So math journals are next, which involved drawing a picture of one animal that begins with the letter F. They brainstormed some suggestions, from foxes to fleas. (I later read they were supposed to do this in small groups.)

At some point, an aide comes in to tell me that the computer session definitely is cancelled. "Bad news for you," she noted.

More worksheets come from the other kindergarten class. Barry became enough of an agitator that I moved him to a seat by himself. Nathan took his place later in the day. At one point, Carla, a chatterer, got to sit by herself as well.

I dragged assignments out until snack time, at 10:45, which involved everyone washing their hands and getting snack cups. I distributed milk and two Oreo cookies (one with white cream, one with red) to everyone except Wendy, the diabetic child, who has her own juice and snack. Charles, who is allergic to peanuts, also brings his snack. In my haste to get the milk poured, I knocked the juice out of the refrigerator, spilling a sticky puddle on the floor.

Monty tugged on my sleeve to tell me he did not want Oreos for a snack and said there were more snacks in the cabinet. Wary of unleashing a snack revolt, I give him his Oreos.


After snack I read Goldilocks and the Three Bears, which the children have heard before. Thank goodness for books; the kids practically stop in their tracks for a story. Once they get planted on the rug, although there is some poking and fussing and complaints of not being able to see, they are absorbed by the story, and they enjoyed finishing the sentences they recognized.

Their teacher left an assignment to color, and then cut out and paste panels from the story in chronological order on a strip of paper, an assignment the other kindergarten teacher assured me should take a while.

I'm beginning to realize how much I take for granted during an office workday. It seemed like every time I turned my back and thought of searching through my purse for a cough drop, I heard a tin of crayons hit the floor.

For those who quickly and correctly sequenced Goldilocks, I passed out a worksheet on the word my, which involved identifying the word from a list of words, circling it, and writing it three times. After that, in what seemed like the endless stretch of time before lunch, I allowed them to select books and take turns reading to a partner and play.

Wendy is called to the nurse's office to have her lunch and blood levels checked, and Charles, the boy with the peanut allergy, selected two classmates to join him at the peanut-free table in the cafeteria. Their lunches also were inspected.


As the time for lunch closed in, at the last minute, after surveying the amount of glue on small fingers, I had the children wash their hands before lunch, which I am told they never do. The hand-washing line is supposed to feed into the lunch line by the door, but again, I reminded myself that nothing at this age is automatic.

Barry continued to worry me not just because of his tendency to distract others, but willful disobedience. Belatedly, I read the instructions for the classroom management system. Each child had a set of cards in holders on the wall. If they kept a green card, they got a sticker. A yellow card was a warning with consequences, and orange the most severe. I turned Barry's card to yellow, and later caught him turning it back to green when he thought I wasn't looking. Another time, he pointed scissors at a group of children, which I confiscated.

After escorting the class to the cafeteria, I am free for almost an hour. In the teacher's lounge, the other kindergarten teacher said if she had known the parent volunteer could not take the computer class, one of her parent volunteers could have filled in. She offered to help me find enough work to make sure the afternoon is filled up.

She found me after her lunch in the classroom writing up some notes, and I mentioned I planned to read another story in the afternoon. She suggested asking the class to draw a picture and write a sentence about the story, and I thanked her.


The class arrived back from lunch chilly and winded, from play and the cold. After shepherding them onto the rug, I launched into the story (which had no text) and was the opposite of Goldilocks. The book was about a wayward bear who entered a family's home and wreaked havoc on porridge, chairs, and beds, before being caught sleeping in a bed. Several children caught the connection to Goldilocks and the Three Bears almost instantly.

Niles, a bright and earnest boy, came to me with a strange look on is face and said that Monty kept saying he wanted to marry him and he didn't like it.

After the story, I sent them off to draw, and then finish any other seatwork.

Those who completed the seatwork are allowed free time once they cleaned up, and I was impressed by the children's willingness to return to their seatwork when I noticed they had begun playing without picking up or finishing some assignments.

When I announced that it was time to pack up, I'm informed it can't be, because I did not say five more minutes. I relented, since most of them are too young to tell time, and after two or three minutes, they started packing up.

Niles, a bright and earnest boy, came to me with a strange look on is face and said that Monty kept saying he wanted to marry him and he didn't like it.

Is there a good answer for this?

For a few seconds, I hesitated, searching for some timely, sensitive, response that would not scar or offend anyone. I had a brief vision of whatever I said sparking protests from across the political spectrum. I settled on telling Monty that Niles didn't like it when he said that, so could he please stop?

Time for one more story, which held their attention despite the late hour. I am getting better in engaging the children as I read, asking them questions about the story and illustrations. "What's that on his head?" "Who is buying the shoes?"

I have a brief moment of panic when Wendy arrived back from the nurse in tears after having her blood sugar checked, and said she wanted her mommy. I asked if she didn't feel well or needed some juice and she shook her head. (The secretary in the office later told me that Wendy sometimes has "off" moments, unrelated to her diabetes.)

The children reminded me that I needed to distribute sticker charts, since those who behaved well received stickers. I didn't show too much discretion, and everyone got stickers except Nathan and Barry.

Dismissal remains my biggest challenge; either I leave too little time and it is frantic, or too much and there is potential for mayhem.

With some spilling and dropping, folders finally got loaded into cubbies and jackets and backpacks got retrieved from lockers. Several older children came into the class to wait for buses, and surprisingly, they were quick to tell the younger ones to stay in their lines. Soon the final bus was called.

In the office, the principal and secretary congratulated me on making it through my first day of kindergarten. I left with new admiration for little people and their teachers, and hope to be back in kindergarten on a day when I feel more "on."