Nice as a Bunny, Mean as a Shark, Quiet as a Poodle

LeAnn Kelly
  • LeAnn Kelly
  • Image by Randy Hoffman

September 6, 1994—Yesterday I sat down with Elliot and a copy of Harry Goes to the Fun Zone. He as delighted. We’ve read it so many times, but he likes books that have already given him pleasure, that he understands. This time I asked if he wanted to read some of it to me. He said no, but when pressed, he agreed to try. He knew “bump” and “boo: and “eek” from the context. But he could decipher “he”, and then he gave up.

So he doesn’t know how to read yet. He starts kindergarten tomorrow, and he’s very excited about this. I’m not sure why — whether he sees it as evidence of his growing maturity or he thinks it will be fun.

It should be fun. His teacher will be LeAnn Kelley, who taught his brother Michael four years before. Since then my husband, Steve, and I have become convinced that LeAnn is one of the best teachers at the school. And Bird Rock Elementary is about as good as schools in the San Diego Unified School District get. The campus is 42 years old, but parent labor helps to supplement the district’s scant maintenance funds. Most of the kids live in southern La Jolla and the northwest fringes of Pacific Beach, though about 25 percent are bused in from Golden Hill. The commuter kids’ parents don’t come to the campus often, but the mothers and fathers of the local children have a reputation for aggressive involvement. There’s some downside to this: more politicking and competition than I suspect is found on most elementary school campuses. But the school also benefits a lot from the bountiful volunteerism and the strong sense of community it weaves.

First day of school

First day of school

Steve and I have always helped out in Michael’s classes, but this year I’ll be doing something new. I’ve talked to LeAnn about my interest in how children learn to read. By the end of the year, some in her class will decipher the printed symbols with little effort. Others will still be struggling. Can an outsider see how the processes unfold? LeAnn is skeptical, but she’s agreed to let me come in and try.

Wednesday, September 7 — I’m not the only mother in the classroom on this first day of school. Room K-2 is jammed with moms (and about ten dads), all here by invitation. LeAnn and her kindergarten-teaching colleague at Bird Rock have decided that the separation trauma can be reduced by allowing parents to stay with their youngsters this first morning.

We take seats at the little desks while the children squeeze into rows on the rug up front. Every one of them looks beloved this morning. The boys’ cowlicks have been slicked back. I see many pairs of brand-new shoes. It’s hard to pick out a little girl whose hair hasn’t been adorned with bows or glittering ribbons or dangling beads, which quiver as LeAnn explains the routine the class will follow every morning: working with the calendar, arranging the weather board. One girl stands up and stumbles toward the front. “My mommy’s gone,” she says with a sob, and gets quick reassurance that the mother has just gone off to make a phone call, in response to her beeper.

After a while, someone leads the children to watch a video in the auditorium so LeAnn will be free to talk to the parents. LeAnn is 50, a strong-looking woman with a strong, confident voice. She wears her frosted brown hair cut short and made fluffy by a permanent; her freckled face bears many laugh lines. Today she’s dressed for business, in sky-blue pants, a navy jacket, a white shirt, and a dark, masculine tie — a contrast with the long, dressy T-shirts and matching cotton pants she usually favors. But she has a somber message to deliver this morning. She tells us she’s scared to see what’s happening to children. She’s repulsed by the vulgar and sometimes violent messages on the T-shirts they wear to school. She hears the crude language from even these little ones, sees the evidence of larger societal troubles touching them.

LeAnn believes that many parents have abandoned their offspring to television, and now she makes a forceful, unequivocal plea for the people in this room to limit their children’s TV consumption. Steve and I already do this but, sneaking a glance at the pokerfaced group surrounding me, I can’t guess what anyone else here makes of LeAnn’s heartfelt tirade.

She also expresses concern about the number of children who’ve trickled in this morning: 34. That’s far more than the 25 that San Diego district trustees have set as the limit in first- and second-grade classrooms, and several parents shake their heads and make faces when this topic surfaces.

The numbers don’t upset me that much. I went to a Catholic elementary school on the northwest side of Chicago where every class contained at least 50 children. So 34 doesn’t seem so bad.

Thursday, September 8 — I spend no time in the classroom today, but when I pick up Elliot at 11:50, he prances up to me, cocky and gleeful. “You probably think that I don’t know how to read,” he declares.

I love playing straight man for him. “I know you don’t know how to read. You’re only five years old.”

“Oh yeah? Listen to this!” He’s drawn a huge sprawling apple, above three lines of preprinted text. Now he points to each word and pronounces: “Red, red, red. The apple is red. See the red apple.”

Monday, September 12 — Reading comes right after the “morning business” in Room K-2. Today the business includes not only the attendance-taking and calendar discussion but also a rousing sing-along to a number called “Copycat” that LeAnn plays on an aging record player. She’s also an accomplished pianist, so music and dance permeate this classroom the way chalk dust is ground into others. After the song, the children take their places on the rug.

“One of the things you’re going to find out about me is that I love you, and I hope I can make you love books and stories as much as I do,” LeAnn tells them. Then she directs their attention to an oversized book called Hello, Friends perched on a ledge in front of them. “Many times when you read a book that has lots of stories, you will find a page that says ‘Contents.’ ‘Contents’ — now, that’s a strange word....”

It strikes me that LeAnn talks to the children the same way she addresses adults. She’s no bossier with the young than with their parents, nor any less courteous. “After they tell us the title of the story, they tell us who wrote the story. That’s the au-thor. Not Arthur [the fictional anteater, hero in a series of books]. We’ll read Arthur stories this year. But this is the author. Can you say that?” Obedient, they chorus in response.

She starts to read. “A kitten goes creeping away from the rug. Goodbye, mother; hello, bug.”

Her voice is melodious and she uses it like an instrument, now murmuring, whispering, wonder-struck, the next moment trumpeting. Most of the children seem to be listening, though the movement of 30-plus kindergartners — even attentive ones — could make a seasickness sufferer queasy. LeAnn will joke in the coming weeks that it looks as if the carpet is electrified, there’s so much bobbing and twitching and wriggling upon it.

Monday, September 19 — I have no illusions that LeAnn’s class is typical. She’s already hinted that she’s out of synch with current educational thinking about what children should do in kindergarten.

When she first began teaching in 1967, she says kindergartners “basically played.” This didn’t interest her much, so she instead taught first and second graders. By the early 1980s, she was teaching first grade at La Jolla Elementary in a huge classroom designed for kindergartners.

Then she accepted a job as a first-grade teacher at Bird Rock, and when she saw the room assigned to her, “I choked!” she recalls. “There was no place for learning centers.” Bird Rock did have a bigger space that had been set up to accommodate a fifth-grade class, and the teacher assigned to teach it had unexpectedly quit. So LeAnn told Bird Rock’s principal that she would accept any sort of class if she could claim that room, K-2.

It looks like a storybook kindergarten setting. It’s probably 50 percent bigger than the first-grade room that LeAnn rejected, and the southern wall is mostly glass, looking out upon a covered walkway hung with flowering vines and lorded over by a huge, 40-year-old podocarpus tree. When the two big wood-framed glass doors are swung outward, breezes and bird song join the students. LeAnn moved in and began filling the tired walls with charts and pictures and notes, stuffing the shelves with books and games and puzzles. Now that she’s been in it for ten years, the room reminds me of the sewing basket of a prolific seamstress, bursting with scraps and snips of color and glittering attachments.

Her first year at Bird Rock, LeAnn was assigned to teach first-graders, again, but she says that at the last moment she was also given four kindergartners — overflow from the existing kindergarten class. “The next day I had five more. And that’s how I got introduced to kindergarten. Never had any training, which I definitely should have had,” she says. On the other hand, by 1984 the kindergarten curriculum had become almost indistinguishable from what first graders had been expected to learn when LeAnn started teaching 17 years before. “Part of the philosophy was that so many of the kids were at preschool from the time they were two or three that they had done all these developmental things already,” LeAnn explains. “And many of them were very ready and ripe for learning to read.”

LeAnn was content, but resentment simmered among some of the older kindergarten teachers, she says. Toward the end of the 1980s, U.S. educators and some parents argued that too much pressure was being placed upon the little ones, that their childhood was being stripped from them too soon. “Today the district’s trying to get all kindergarten teachers to go back to pure and simple developmental kindergarten and pull all the academics out,” LeAnn has told me dryly.

“With todays curriculum, I am not required to teach these kids to read. All I have to do is read them a story every day. Whoop-de-doo. You’re really not responsible. I can’t handle that.” She does have children in this class who need developmental work, she acknowledges. “Right now, I have kids who cannot even look at me.” That’s not because they’re bored, she says, but “because they don’t know what’s going on. They’ve never been read to. So they have no idea why the other kids are like this [staring at her]. And they’re like this.” She grabs her shoe and puts her head down to it, studying it. Just this morning, LeAnn had the class howling with laughter by parodying this activity. “I said, ‘When I go home today, my mom’s gonna say, “What did you do at school today?” And I’m gonna say, “I looked at my shoe.’ ” They were hysterical.”

At the same time, LeAnn pointed out to her charges how Spanish-speaking Claudia pays attention even though the teacher’s words sound like gibberish to her. (Some of the names of children mentioned in this story have been changed.) Claudia’s family moved from Guadalajara to La Jolla not long ago, and at the preliminary screening given to the incoming children in June, Claudia solemnly informed LeAnn in Spanish that she didn’t speak one single word of English. LeAnn reassured her this was all right; Claudia could tell her the names of the colors in Spanish, which the little girl did with confidence. “Then I flipped to yellow, and she said, ‘Jellow,’ and I went, ‘Ah-ha! So you do know a word in English,’ ” LeAnn recalls. Her eyes huge, Claudia recoiled and declared in Spanish that she knew only one. “That was it!” LeAnn roars with laughter. “Only ‘jellow.’ ”

Now that school has begun, Claudia’s eyes are glued to LeAnn, and the teacher adds, “You see, her mom’s been in here, borrowing every one of my Spanish books. And they’re reading to that girl, fast and furiously. Mom’s going to school to learn English. Education is very valuable to them.”

Besides the children who’ve never been read to and the ones with a limited grasp of English (there are seven others, besides Claudia), this class also includes at least a dozen children who’ve already attended preschool for years. “And they’re ready to take another step beyond play,” LeAnn asserts. Although none of them are reading yet, several are at the brink, “And so then I say, ‘Is it fair not to let them go on?’ ” she demands. “If I can take the time?” She says it usually comes from the time she would otherwise devote to social studies, but she feels she can weave that subject in throughout the day.

I see this happen this morning in the reading group. First LeAnn has the group sing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” then she reads them a book version of the song. In between, she bombards the class with farm-related questions: What’s the difference between a barn and a farm? What do each of the farm animals give us? This leads to a digression involving LeAnn’s low opinion of hot dogs, but the talk returns to the field. “Farmers grow crops,” LeAnn tells the children. “And crops are big, big fields where corn, tomatoes, lettuce, and other vegetables grow — everything your mom or your dad goes to the store to buy.... Raise your hand if you think being a farmer is an easy job or a hard job.” Two kids vote for easy; the rest say hard. “Yeah, it’s a really hard job,” LeAnn tells them.

Thursday, September 22 — Parent Orientation Night. People are asking different sorts of questions than they asked at the Parent Orientation Night four years ago, when our son Michael was in LeAnn’s class. At that time, the school district had just adopted a new approach to reading instruction known as the “whole-language framework.” Teachers were told to discard their well-worn reading primers in which children were introduced to a few new words at a time then led to practice those words in a series of stilted and artificial passages. The dullness of the old-style Dick-and-Jane beginning reader had grave consequences, in the judgment of the whole-language advocates. They argued that the lesson it taught was that reading is boring.

Instead, those advocates were arguing, children are more apt to respond to the power of literature and become hooked on reading if they’re given good stories to read right from the start. If they don’t know all the words at once, that’s okay. They’ll learn them eventually. In the same way, children should be urged to put their thoughts into writing at the earliest possible stage, according to the whole-language advocates, even if they haven’t a clue how to spell the words needed to express those thoughts. Correct spelling can be acquired later, but in the meantime written expression will have become second nature for the child.

Although I was brand new to the public education system four years ago, I had heard that many teachers were alarmed by this dramatic shift in thinking. There was whining about the lack of in-service training in it. But when a few parents grilled LeAnn about the new approach four years ago, her enthusiasm for it sounded genuine. “I think of whole-language as being what good parents do naturally,” she commented. That is, they read good stories to their children. They discuss all kinds of subjects with them. They immerse their youngsters in a rich linguistic sea.

This year, no one asks anything about whole language, and LeAnn’s limited comments on the topic of reading instruction strike me as guarded. “I really have high expectations for your kids, and I’m planning on teaching them to read,” she tells the group. “But I see no point in killing myself or the kids.” She mentions how the previous year she had only 27 students, and many of them were already six in September, and “Oh, my gosh, on day six I started rotation!” By “rotation” she means breaking the class down into four groups according to language skill level. These rotate through four basic activities, one of which is concentrated reading drill with LeAnn. According to the whole-language framework, she’s not supposed to do either the ability-grouping or the reading skills drill. But she doesn’t go into any of this in her orientation speech.

Instead she merely mentions that our children, as of the 14th day of school, don’t yet seem ready to be independent of her. “So I’m just taking a deep breath, and I’ll start the rotation maybe next week, maybe the week after.” The principal has decided to shift a few children from each of the two kindergarten classes into what will be a combined kindergarten and first-grade class. That leaves LeAnn with 31, but most everyone here tonight seems to feel that’s still far too many.

Wednesday, September 28 — LeAnn thinks traditional show-and-tell sessions are boring. “The only person who’s really interested is the one who’s up there. And because everyone else is bored, they’re poking. They’re restless.” So years ago, she came up with a better alternative: the Surprise Can. Now Dolores is holding one up in front of the class.

Her eyes are twinkling. One of the Bus Kids (as the Golden Hill commuters are called), Dolores is a quick, lively girl with a' head of beautiful, thick, dark hair. She speaks English fairly well, and someone at her home has helped her to devise and write three clues about the object she’s chosen to conceal within the can.

“Is black and plastic,” she offers the first.

“Is it a crayon?” someone asks. “Is it a plastic bag?” queries another.

Dolores says no to both, then gives the second clue. “I can put things in it.” She rocks ever so slightly as she stands, smiling.

“Is it a jar?” one boy asks.

“Is it an apple?”

“Bernard, what are the first two clues?” LeAnn interrupts, then answers her own question. “It’s black and plastic, and you can put things in it. Can it be an apple?” she glowers. “You really have to think about it!”

“I take it everywhere,” Dolores gives the last clue, alerting Katie to the answer: a purse. Now Katie gets to take the can home and try to stump the kids the next day.

After the morning business, LeAnn reminds the group that they were talking about “action words” the day before. They review a few more, then she reads a simple, poetic book full of wiggling tadpoles and parading geese and other moving animals. Again I’m struck by how much supplementary information LeAnn manages to interject. She explains the meaning of the Caldecott Medal symbol on the book’s cover. And the proper pronunciation of the wh in the word “whirligig.” And how the artist used colored tissue paper and paste to create the glowing illustrations.

Friday, October 7 — Halloween trappings have begun to appear. A friendly spider occupies a big yarn web. A cardboard skeleton dangles next to the whiteboard. A ghost trembles in the doorway.

The children have now been rotating for nine days, and when LeAnn taps on the tone bells that she uses to signal the first of the four short rotation periods, most of the kids move as if they know what they’re doing. One bunch settles upon a rug at the back of the room, where LeAnn’s teaching assistant will work with them. Others go to their desks and hunch over worksheets that today (like most days) require coloring and cutting and pasting. A third group fans out to dabble in the remnant of old-fashioned kindergarten in K-2, known as “activities.” In this segment, the children can work on simple crafts that LeAnn has set up for them or play at the computer or build with wooden blocks or assemble puzzles. Many other choices confront them, though LeAnn booms out, “People at activities! What’s important? Can you talk loudly?”

“Noooooo,” the soft note rises.

“Can you talk softly? Yeah, that’s okay,” the teacher answers her own question.

Two or three youngsters are absent today, a fact that appears to have the biggest impact on Group K, whose members now take a seat up front, on the rug at LeAnn’s feet. There are only four of them, all boys. Two come from non-English-speaking homes (one Spanish and one French). I know a third, Mark, because Elliot went to nursery school with him. Few children are sweeter, sunnier, more affectionate, more tranquil than Mark, though a correlate of this temperament (in him at least) is a dreamy absent-mindedness that at times is astonishing. The fourth little boy in the group is a quiet, courteous towhead known as B.J.

First LeAnn asks them to think of words that start with the S sound, then she rolls out a big chart bearing an assortment of capital and small letters. The chart has grown creamy yellow with age, and the edges are feathering; LeAnn has saved it from some distant year when meticulous attention to the building blocks of the written language was part of the curriculum. “Luis, show me all the Ss on this page. Every S you can find.”

Tiny Luis, an elf with huge brown eyes and cup-handle ears, gets them all except for one, and the other children do the teacher’s bidding with relative ease for a spell. Then the group seems to hit some invisible mental thicket. When LeAnn points to the capital M and asks Luis what it is, he freezes, dumbstruck, though he had just pointed it out for Her not five minutes before. He also acts as if the capital S has suddenly been bewitched into its Sanskrit or Cyrillic incarnations. He even falters with the O.

LeAnn writes capital and small Ms, Os, and Ss on a card for Luis, advising him to practice them at home. Then she asks Mark to show her all the Ss. As if entranced, he rises and walks forward until he’s just inches away from the chart and his teacher’s face. “Tricky, tricky, tricky,” he declares, solemn as a judge.

When LeAnn finally dismisses Group K, and Group E is straggling up to her, she mentions to me a comment she heard from one of the first-grade teachers the day before. “She said that people just don’t realize how painful this process is at times.”

Group E consists primarily of the Spanish-language children, though today it also includes two Anglo boys. LeAnn is armed with cardboard pictures of various objects, along with Spanish-speaking skills that she acquired in high school and college but which haven’t grown better over the years. For the most part, she sticks with English. “What is this?” she asks, holding up a representation of an igloo. “We talked about this yesterday, remember? It’s a house made of ice. Can this be a house in San Diego?” No one remembers the word — no surprise, though it’s interesting to see some of the other holes in their knowledge. Dolores and Maria don’t appear to recognize the picture of a wagon or know its name in either language. Everyone, even Claudia, knows “cat.” But the goat stumps them all.

As LeAnn continues drilling, I can see some of the children lose focus and disconnect from the proceedings. Juan has angled away from the group and wears a vacant expression on his face. Hector, a roly-poly lad with hair so thick and dark it makes his head look like an industrial cleaning tool, looks asleep behind his dark, veiled gaze. “Put your eyes over here!” LeAnn commands him at one point. “No puede aprender nada if....” Here she mimics staring dumbly all around her. And he’s not recalcitrant. A little later, when she asks him, in English, to point to all the triangles on a chart, he springs up to do it. “Good boy!” LeAnn cheers, then reaches out and pats his plump neck.

Elliot’s in the next group, along with six other children. They’ve already zipped through most of the letter-recognition drills and demonstrated that they know what sounds most of the letters make. So today LeAnn has them working with a more complex set of charts containing rows of pictures. At the head of each row there’s a word that corresponds to one of the pictures — but since no one can read yet, the children don’t know which one it goes with. “So there’s two, two, two things you’re looking for,” the teacher stresses. “First, which letter in this first word [it happens to be “soap”] is going to be your clue letter?”

“The S, ” one girl answers.

“That’s right. Then the second thing you have to do is listen to Mrs. Kelley’s sentence and ask yourself which one of these pictures [a bar of soap, a towel, and the number six] makes sense in it. Here it is: When you take a bath, you need to use....” Several of the children call out the right answer, and LeAnn exclaims with pleasure, then prods them further. “Why couldn’t it have been the six? Because it doesn’t make sense! A towel makes sense, but how did you know it wasn’t that?”

“Because ‘towel’ doesn’t start with an S,” the little voices chime.

“Look at how large this group is and how well they can pay attention and how small some of the other groups are, and I never have their attention,” LeAnn says to me later.

Thursday, October 13— Some 22 parents of the K-2 kids have volunteered to work in the classroom, enough so that each one of our turns comes only every three weeks. This is my first day in the trenches. The job consists of supervising the rotating groups of kids on the rug at the back of the room. Today, they have workbooks in which they’re supposed to draw a house for an animal, a house for a person, and something starting with the letter H.

Elliot goes about this very quickly, drawing a detailed squirrel hole, then a carelessly scribbled tent, and some hay. When Jeremy, sitting next to him, draws a bush as a house for a homeless person, it makes me think that Jeremy must come from a home with high social sensitivities. But later, two other children do the same thing, a clue that LeAnn has planted this seed.

Some children draw strange and complicated images. French-speaking Bernard, who seems lost in daydreams during most of LeAnn’s reading drills, creates a rendering of the TGV (or so he tells me it is) that includes something representing the braking system. (I take it that the high-speed French train is Bernard’s idea of one possible house for a human.) He gets stumped by the task of drawing an object starting with an H, so I suggest a hook or hay. He draws a scarecrow stuffed with hay, positioned next to a hook. This still doesn’t satisfy him, so he concocts some pulling mechanism between the two.

For the human’s house, Ben draws a rectangle with eight tiny rectangles arrayed within it — a tent with the sleeping bags set up inside, he explains. For the H picture, he produces a black square, then tells me it represents a stack of hats with an awning over them to keep the sun off. “Or else they’d be too hot to put on your head.”

The most pitiable child, I think, is pudgy Hector, who seems almost wordless. For the animal drawing, he violates LeAnn’s instructions and copies one of the pictures preprinted above the blank space. Before I can catch him, he also turns the page and scribbles incomprehensible copies of the pictures on the next two pages, using only his yellow crayon.

He’s so eager to please, he seems frantic. He doesn’t seem to think at all, but just t6 act. In groups, he has his hand up before any question is posed. But he doesn’t often get the answers right.

Wednesday, October 26 — LeAnn is beginning to sneak in the idea of middle and ending consonants. She’s been teaching the children the spellings of the color words, and today she points out that two of them begin with the letters BL, but that only “black” ends with a K sound. She also introduces “purple” by saying, “See, there’s no K at the end, the way there is in ‘pink,’ and also ‘purple’ has two Ps.”

Purple, purple, purple.

Some grapes are purple.

See these purple grapes.

“Notice that it says some grapes are purple,” she continues. “Are all grapes purple? No, some are red and some are green. Can I say, ‘Some grapes is purple’? Does that sound right to your ears? No. It has to be ‘are.’ ”

The whole class, led by LeAnn, reads a simple book, A Ghost Story, together, then she shows them how to draw a series of pictures related to it. “This time, instead of Eric Carle being the illustrator, who’s the illustrator of the story?”

“We are!” the little girls and boys cheer.

“You better make sure that you’ve done all the Halloween activities, because they’ll only be up for four more days,” she advises as the group disperses for the morning’s rotation. “And don’t forget to make a guess about how many candy corns are in the jar. That’s called an ‘estimate’! ”

The composition of the groups seems to change a lot, something in which LeAnn takes pride. “I have a thing about that,” she has told me. “I don’t think kids should be stuck forever in a group.... Sometimes all of a sudden things will click, and someone will start picking up stuff really, really fast. So I have them visit [the next highest] group but also stay in their regular one. And if they can keep up with [the faster] group, then I let them go. It works the same way if someone starts dragging.”

The first group — the slowest English-speaking one — has thus grown to include eight members, and the identity of the letters of the alphabet continue to skitter around in their minds like beads of mercury, sometimes firm and graspable, at other moments melting into shapeless blobs. This morning Mark seems to know the letters P and T, but he calls the N a Q. The difference between N and M baffles him.

“Find the M up there,” LeAnn instructs him, then adds a clue. “It has two points and one nose.” But Mark stalls, scanning the charts like a radiologist searching for cancer.

It’s a bad day for N. Bernard also can’t seem to recognize it, even though LeAnn reminds him, “It’s in your name: Bernnnnnnard. Did you practice those letters last night?”

“No.”

“I thought so.”

The Spanish-speaking kids have been taking little vocabulary-building excursions — to the nurse’s office to talk of cots and scales and thermometers; to the playground to learn its incantations: slides, swings, jungle gym. This day, once again, the Spanish-speaking kids look like they’re having the most fun. Under her direction, they’re playing “I Spy,” and quiet, shy Juan announces, “I spy something blue.” Dolores jumps up and stalks the room, sharp-eyed as a hunter. When LeAnn tells Hector to think of something red, he can’t put the thought into words.

“Say, ‘I see something red,’ Hector.”

“Red,” he grunts. At this, Claudia springs up and LeAnn mutters under her breath, “She’s a pistol, that one.”

When Elliot’s group takes its place on the rug, LeAnn cries out in mock astonishment, “Oh, my gosh, this is that group! Ooohhh, this is the day! This is the day! Today we get our first story!” Of course, she’s been reading them stories for six weeks now, but by this she means they’re about to begin reading actual words formed into real sentences in the oversized volume that she’s set up against the whiteboard. Like all the other contraband reading materials she uses, it’s aging. The first page doesn’t make much sense to me — some pictures of turtles and three words “Go, go, I.”

“Look at the dot,” LeAnn directs. “This dot is called a period. It is exactly like a stop sign. When Mom and Dad are in the car, they have to stop at stop signs, or they might run into something. The comma here [she gestures] says, ‘Pause for just a second and keep going.’ If this comma weren’t here, I’d read, ‘Gogo.’ So we’re like a driver when we’re reading. We have to know the signs so that we know what to do.” She demonstrates reading the “Go, go, I,” then they recite the words together. Head down close to them, eyes huge, LeAnn sings, “Hey, you’re read-ing. So when someone comes up to you and says, ‘Can you read?’ you can say — ” buffing her nails on her shirt — “Yes!”

Sunday, October 30 — She’s right, sort of. Today I dragged out Snail Saves the Day and found that Elliot can figure out all the words like “he,” “it,” “can,” and “the.” It’s not automatic. He’s working, pronouncing the initial letter and coupling it with whatever other sounds he might know. He also glances at the pictures to draw clues from them. More complicated letter combinations — like “throws” — make him stumble. But the simple words sound almost fluent.

What he’s learning has gripped him on some profound level that we glimpse every now and then. The other day, when we drove to Julian to pick apples, I asked him, “If c-a-t spells cat, what does h-a-t spell?” He knew, of course, as he knew “fat” and “bat” and “mat” and all the other related words I could think of. He badgered me to do more and more.

Tuesday, November 1 — Almost all the Halloween decorations have vanished, and construction-paper pilgrims have appeared on the corkboard next to the calendar. Evidence of yesterday’s holiday still can be detected on the children’s faces, however. “I look in these eyeballs, and they’re sleepy eyeballs,” LeAnn mutters. “Can’t figure out why.”

Tuesday, November 15 — Now that Group L has begun reading sentences, LeAnn has also introduced them to the question mark. Whatever she said must have made a deep impression, for the children make a studied effort to communicate it, raising their voices just in the nick of time, a millisecond after they launch into the final word in the sentence. It makes them sound even more angelic and guileless.

Some of them lift more than their voices. Will’s eyebrows, his shoulders, his sturdy chest also rise, as if to better launch the vocal ascent.

Friday, November 18 — The notion of final consonants must be simmering somewhere in Elliot’s brain. This morning at breakfast, out of the blue, he remarked that the word “syrup” would sound like “sirrah” without the final P.

His group finally got their first individual readers yesterday— a large-format paperback called Bears. This morning LeAnn warned them that they won’t read from them every day. “The charts [that accompany it] are really more important than the book,” she said, then pointed to various letters on the chart page, asking the youngsters to supply words starting with each letter.

“A word is like a puzzle,” she lectured. “When you break it apart, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But when you put those sounds together, it does.” She pointed to the word “table” and said, “I know you haven’t learned this word yet. But you know what sounds the T and the B and the L make.” She then combined the three, withholding the A sound, then tossed out this sentence, “When I write out my bills, I sit at the kitchen....” Almost every hand shot up, and LeAnn added, “Does the E say anything? No. We call it ‘silent E.’ ”

Wednesday, November 30 — When I enter the classroom, LeAnn is reading Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins in honor of the Jewish holiday that began two days ago. When she finishes and the children are dispersing to their various rotations, she snags sweet, sleepy Kirk and asks him, “What’s your mantra today?”

“Mantra?”

“ ‘I’m gonna work faster. I’m gonna work faster. Faster, faster, faster.’ That’s your mantra.”

He gives a faint smile and shuffles off to join his reading group, which has acquired a new student, a nymph named Elissa. Group K has been struggling so much with the alphabet that I’m startled to see that LeAnn has introduced them to the exercise in which they guess which picture matches a word by looking at its first letter and listening to her clue sentence. “Remember,” LeAnn enjoins them. “Put the key sound in your mouth. That’s the J. Now listen: I came to school this morning in a....” Two of the children call out “jeep,” the correct answer. “Why wasn’t it ‘van’?” LeAnn demands.

“Because it doesn’t start with a J,” the group answers.

“And ‘jack-in-the-box’ doesn’t make sense, right?”

After a few minutes of this, they switch back to the letter-recognition drills, where Elissa fails to identify G, D, or Z. LeAnn writes them up for her to take home and practice. She asks Mark if he’s been working on his practice cards. To his protracted silence, she murmurs, “Well, I guess I know what that means.”

“I know Z,” Mark pipes up.

“Well, guess what? You’ve got to know more than Z.”

“You gotta know all the letters,” Mark agrees, sagely.

“Right.”

At times this endless slog through the swampy alphabet is so tedious, so bemired, that it’s a wonder to me that the children don’t revolt. But LeAnn, unflagging in her energies, cajoles them through the daily quicksand.

Thursday, January 5 — Every year it is common for kindergarten teachers to return from the Christmas break to find that their charges seem much more mature and settled, as if a couple of months of development had unfolded over the short vacation. LeAnn tells me that she’s almost always experienced this. But not this year. This group of children hasn’t been one of the better-behaved, and she sees in them too little awareness that their actions have consequences. “There’s not much sense of responsibility,” she has told me. They also seem immature, and the break hasn’t remedied that.

Group K seems to be back in its old rut. LeAnn tries to explain how the D sound is produced — not deep back in the throat, but farther forward in the mouth. She looks at Bernard and announces, “You’re not even here! Hello! Can you tell me where the D sound comes from?” The boy, who has huge eyes and a sensitive face, looks puzzled for a long moment, then ventures, “From the ABC song?”

She keeps a straight face at this. Later, however, when she asks Kirk to give her a word that starts with H, and he answers, “Helicopter. I love helicopters,” she laughs for joy at the fervent and unexpected admission. “I love it when they do stuff like that.”

Her good humor evaporates when she mentions to me that the class will be acquiring yet another student, bringing the total to 33. “It’s just too many kids! I’m getting really frustrated.” The new child, moreover, is from Sweden and speaks no English. He’s also almost seven, making him the oldest child in the class by far. Yet LeAnn has been advised by the boy’s father that Bjorn gets very involved in what he’s doing, so she will have to order him to go to the bathroom. She, in turn, pointed out that the bathrooms are at the back of the classroom, and the children are all accustomed to getting up and going without asking.

“He said that wouldn’t be sufficient,” LeAnn recounts now. So she countered, “Well, are you saying I should remind him to go?”

“No. He will say no. You will have to order him,” the father insisted.

Wednesday, January 11 — In a class full of blond children, Bjorn stands out as the blondest. He wears a pair of beige corduroy overalls and a long-sleeved turtleneck that I can tell didn’t come from Mervyn’s or Target or Sears. His mother, dressed in slacks and a houndstooth jacket, squats next to him on the rug as the class goes through its morning drill.

Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day

For the last week and a half, LeAnn has bombarded the children with stories relating to bears. This week alone they’ve listened to no fewer than four different versions of the Goldilocks tale, and now they vote for James Marshall’s rendition with its bratty Goldilocks and comic illustrations. Hearing it for the second time doesn’t diminish the children’s volleys of giggles. (Bjorn sits with his back turned, talking quietly with his mother.)

Wednesday, January 25 — Bjorn’s mother has been succeeded in the classroom by his father, a worried-looking man well into middle age. He’s come every day, hovering near the boy for the full four hours, often chatting with him in a low voice. Now the children are writing winter-related words and drawing a picture of some wintry object. From across the room, I can hear Bjorn’s father saying, “Crazy snowman!” and beaming at his son’s creation.

“Good job!” LeAnn finally announces to the group. “Tomorrow we’ll add spring and summer. You know the seasons go in an order. They have a sequence, just like our stories.”

“Just like the days of the week,” pipes up Katie.

“Yes!” LeAnn agrees. “There’s an order to things in our world. And that makes us feel good.”

As this morning’s rotation begins, Bjorn’s father tags along with his son, who’s in Group E, together with the Spanish speakers. When they move on to their next activity, LeAnn tells me in a low, irritated voice, “I’ve never seen a kid who knows how to manipulate like he does. He’s in total control. Never seen anything like it.” More than just the Swedish colloquies are contributing to the noise level today. But it’s hard to tell what is. Several times, teaching Group L, LeAnn wheels around, leans forward, squints, and frowns. But she can’t quite identify any one culprit.

Part of the problem may be that the children up in front with her have so much to think about these days. LeAnn has introduced the idea of consonant combinations such as FR and MP, and she’s throwing other quirks of the English language at them. “I’m gonna tell you a secret,” she announces, leaning forward and talking in a low, conspiratorial voice. “Remember how I told you that the Y says ‘ya.’ Well, it does when it’s at the beginning of a word. But when it’s at the end of a word, it usually says ‘ee.’ ”

The final group, Group D, gets more of the same, with LeAnn making broad fun of the L in “walk.” It’s absurd for an L to be there, she leads them to understand, but “you have to put that word in your brain and say, ‘W-A-L-K.’ ” Her tone is brisk, pragmatic. “It’s just one of those things you have to memorize.”

She urges Laura to try to read the new words for the day, and the little girl deciphers “help.” But she chokes up at “you,” and for an instant, I can’t imagine why. Then it dawns on me. She’s seeing the O that I long ago learned to ignore — another of the hundreds of details to be stashed in memory.

Tuesday, February 14 — This is not only Valentine’s Day, with a party scheduled for later this morning, but also the 100th day of school, and LeAnn has asked each child to bring 100 objects in a container, along with three clues to the contents’ identity. It’s a variation on the Surprise Can, only everyone gets a turn.

The assignment yields some charming surprises. Claudia, now speaking hundreds of words of English, stumps the group with 100 pieces of Kleenex. Creamy blond Christie, dressed like a bonbon in pink-and-white frills, has 100 chocolate kisses. Beans, pennies, Gummi Bears, stamps — 100 of these and more makes the morning business session fly by.

I notice Laura, who looks as if she’ll be a sensual beauty in ten years, lean over and kiss the neck of Elliot, sitting next to her. He doesn’t react in the slightest, and she takes this in stride.

With 100 days behind them, the children are well past the halfway mark of the year.

Thursday, February 16 — They are making progress. Group K, the slowest English speakers, are now working with the charts, reading sentences made of simple words and rebuses (picture substitutes for words as yet unlearned). “I will go to a swing,” Martin reads, slow but steady. “I will not go to a teeter-totter,” says Jorge.

They still halt, confounded, at times, for long, agonizing spells that vault me back 30 years in time to classroom doldrums so lifeless I had repressed them from memory. But apart from those pitfalls, this puzzling-out of question marks and “Jill”s and “Bill”s and other words is more interesting, livelier, than the letter-recognition drills.

The Spanish-speaking kids have moved into that sere, barren territory. When LeAnn asks Hector to point out all the Ms on the chart, I brace myself for more mind-lock. But he does it, and LeAnn says, “Good job, Hector!” She’s right in his face, beaming sincerity at him. “I am so proud of you.”

When quiet Juan correctly identifies all the Ss on the page, several of the children break into applause. It’s less for Juan’s achievement than an expression of the rush they feel at getting through the letter page.

Friday, March 10 — LeAnn is back, after nearly a two-week absence for jury duty. She seems to have enjoyed it and tells me how she helped lead her group to convict an obvious punk accused of robbery.

But she’s returned to find the class’s behavior greatly deteriorated. “Danielle [her aide] was almost ready to quit. Apparently they were banging on the piano keys at one point. Stuff they never usually do. Boy, I’m really coming down hard on them!”

This is a big day for Elliot. The day before, LeAnn read the class an abridged version of Quick as a Cricket, a book that my family has read and loved for years. Noticing the omissions in the abridgment, Elliot wanted to bring in our book and read the full version to his classmates. Up in front of them now, he seems as much at ease and confident and happy as I’ve ever seen him. But the kids are such a receptive audience. They ooh and coo at “nice as a bunny.” They gasp and exclaim at “mean as a shark.” They giggle and wrinkle their noses at “quiet as a poodle.” At the conclusion, LeAnn reviews the new pages with them, pausing at the display of wild chimps. “Take a look at yourselves,” she says. “That’s the way you’ve been acting.” They laugh. Laura has had her hand up for at least a full minute, her face shining as if she had just the perfect note to add to the discussion. When LeAnn finally calls on her, however, she launches into a long, detailed account of what happened during a recent visit to Chuck E. Cheese. The story has nothing to do with what the group was just talking about.

I cringe every time one of the children makes an off-the-wall remark like this, though it happens fairly often. Somehow by adulthood we learn that it’s inappropriate to make personal, detailed, and irrelevant comments in a group. I guess that lesson begins in kindergarten. (LeAnn usually acts as if she didn’t hear it.)

She no longer has to listen to the quiet chatter of Bjorn and his father. They’ve gone for good, the father having decided that Bjorn needed to “play more,” according to LeAnn, and transferred the boy to a private school. “The truth is, he just didn’t like me,” LeAnn tells me. “I didn’t let Bjorn manipulate me the way he’s used to doing with his father. One day I said to him, ‘He thinks that he’s in charge.’ And his dad said, ‘That’s right.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry. I’m the adult in this classroom.’ ”

Wednesday, March 15 — Bjorn may be gone, but K-2 has acquired yet another young blond newcomer. Andrew’s family, however, has lived in the neighborhood before; they moved out only while their house was undergoing some construction. Now LeAnn places the boy in the slowest English-language group, where the drills seem to throw him. LeAnn is reassuring him. “You just didn’t learn these skills at your other school.”

Once again, the most interesting interchanges this morning occur in Group E, among the Spanish speakers. “What makes you feel sad?” LeAnn asks them. “A dead animal,” Juan replies. “When my mommy’s not there,” offers Susanne.

“What makes you feel scared?” the teacher probes. “The sound in the night, when it was raining,” answers Claudia. (“Do you believe this girl’s English!” LeAnn exclaims to me. “It’s just phenomenal.”)

In answer to yet another question, Juan claims he sleeps in a reclining chair at night. Hector says he shares a bed with his mother and father, and Luis declares that his mother and father sleep in a lower bunk bed, while he and his baby sister take the top bunk.

Later that afternoon, when the children are gone, I return to ask LeAnn if she believes that Luis and his whole family share a bunk bed. “They live in a trailer,” she replies. She’s been out there at Christmastime, distributing food donations. “They don’t have a bedroom.” She adds that she’s seen enough of their homes not to be surprised by any of their answers; the other day several of the Bus Kids told her that they had never been to a dentist.

The air through the open classroom door smells like spring. In the tranquility of the moment, I pose another question that’s been bothering me. How can LeAnn get away with disregarding what the district says she should be teaching?

“I do do what the district says we have to do!” she exclaims. “I love the whole-language approach. The writing is fabulous. And the extension of vocabulary is phenomenal for those kids who haven’t been read to at home. I’m not opposed to it at all, mostly because that’s the way I always taught language anyway. I did this at home with Erin [her daughter].” But at the same time, LeAnn thinks the whole-language framework “can’t stand alone.” Her solution is to compress the official curriculum materials, then to supplement them with the charts and the reading primers as well as with other read-aloud books.

This is officially “unacceptable,” she acknowledges, “though it actually has to do with your principal.” In 1990, the year the reading framework was introduced, Bird Rock had a new principal, and “I was playing hide-and-seek,” LeAnn says, “not knowing how she felt.” It soon became clear the woman didn’t care what went on, as long as it caused no problems. In fact, that principal’s apathy and disengagement were so pronounced that a parent uprising eventually took shape.

A new principal took the helm in September of ’94. “She cares, I’m sure,” LeAnn declared about the new administrator. “But I don’t know how she feels. I swear, every time she comes in here, I’ve got them in groups. And I’m not supposed to have groups. I’m not supposed to have any tracking going on. In other words, Elliot should be reading with Hector. And that’s just against my personal thinking. I don’t think it’s fair for Elliot and Jeffrey to sit around and pick their noses while other kids learn the alphabet, when Elliot and Jeffrey already know it, know beginning sounds, and are ready to go. I can’t agree with that. I cannot do it. Because I feel like I’m doing my very best to fill the needs of each child, whatever they are.”

“Can you get in trouble for this?”

“Well.... You can get a bad evaluation. I’ve never had a bad evaluation.... But I’m in the wrong, as far as the district goes. So I just figure that every year I get older. They can’t reduce my pay, and they can’t fire me. I’ll be out of here someday, and then it won’t matter. The district won’t care then. And I’ll have taught my kids to read.”

Thursday, March 30 — Something amazing has transpired in Group E. Frantic, inarticulate Hector has begun speaking in sentences. Before he would say, “Mrs. Kelley — shoe,” accompanied by a grunt. “Two or three words only,” LeAnn says. “Now he can say, ‘Would you tie my shoe?’ ”

I see the evidence of this when LeAnn leads a discussion with the Spanish-language kids about bedroom furniture. “Luis, why do we put a lamp next to the bed?” she queries.

Elfin Luis ventures, “So you won’t get dark on yourself.” Asked the same question, Hector says you might need to turn on the light so you could call the police if a bad person were to come into your house. If garbled, it is a sentence, and it startles me to hear it coming from his lips. A moment later, he’s telling his peers about going to Tijuana to watch a boxing match. Even after LeAnn dismisses the group, he can’t seem to stop talking but reappears at the teacher’s side to show her the picture he drew of a ball and a soccer field.

Group L takes the floor. LeAnn has begun teaching them about vowel sounds, a dismal morass if ever there was one, yet you can’t tell that from her demeanor, still jubilant, as she is, over Hector’s breakthrough. She offers clownish hand gestures to underscore the different sounds each vowel makes. She leads the group in chanting a vowel-based cheer.

Group E is working its way through another contraband reading primer called Balloons, and as the children open their books, Hector appears once again at LeAnn’s side. “Mrs. Kelley, can I do puzzles?” He’s the incarnation of sweetness, and he’s never asked this before. All LeAnn can do is to blink and nod.

Other children interrupt with questions from time to time. LeAnn permits this, but it does puncture the concentration of the children up in front with her. Even without any direct interruptions, the noise in other parts of the room makes it hard to focus. You can hear the greasy murmur of the computer in the far distant corner. A tangle of competing voices rises from the back of the room, where children are working with one of the volunteer parents. The activities section breeds other sounds: of rollers squeaking, wooden blocks clunking, marbles careening down plastic chutes. Even the children working at their desks make occasional comments to their neighbors, and the resulting cacophony at times makes me want to shush them all out of the room.

The frequent visits here have changed my mind, made me agree that having 30-plus kindergartners in the room generates jolting currents of disarray and tension — at least with all these competing activities in progress. Now that I think of it, my Catholic grade school classmates and I spent most of our time sitting in rows, all doing the same thing under the nuns’ hawk-eyed scrutiny.

Thursday, April 27 — Easter vacation is over, and the children finally seem to have made the developmental leap that LeAnn had hoped to see over Christmas. They know the routines so well that she barely has to explain the worksheets she hands out daily. With each rotation, they move with the assurance of commuters surging through a suburban train station. There are times, when LeAnn is reading to them as a group, that they sit motionless, every eye fixed upon her face.

With the exception of the Spanish speakers, every group is reading now. Elliot and his comrades glide through the lines of text, not with the mastery of adults, but with their own smooth, childish grace. At the other extreme, Group K’s members are producing the words one at a time, like stricken fowl laying painful eggs.

Group D is somewhere in between. In their session today, the children take turns, each reading several lines from a story about a bear. At its conclusion, LeAnn asks them to go back and read it again with fluency. “Fluency,” she explains, “is like driving your car along the road, and it’s real smooth, and you just go along.” In contrast, she demonstrates reading with a choppiness that surpasses even Group K’s. “What’s the problem with reading like that?” she demands.

“It’s boring,” the children shout.

So they try again, and it’s obvious they want to be fluent; they’re straining for it. But the words still stump them at times.

During the slow spells, I can always amuse myself by observing the diversity in the children’s bodies. Kirk stands a full head taller than Luis. One little girl still has such unformed, infantile features that I can imagine laying her down and diapering her. That she will grow into a woman seems almost unthinkable.

Other children I can project forward in time. I can see Jorge, perhaps the handsomest child in the class, striding through the future, six feet tall, dark-eyed, dark-haired, irresistible. He’s already got the musculature, the classic facial bone structure; he only needs to grow. Sleepy Kirk too will break hearts. He has his parents’ lanky, lean grace and creamy coloring. I can imagine him as a crew member on some huge sailboat. Or a carpenter in a Coke commercial. Hector has a different sort of man’s body, that of a dedicated beer drinker’s. But I can only see future selves in some of the children. Karlie and Elliot, for example, only look like kindergartners to me.

Thursday, May 4 — I arrive to find the children at their desks, bent over ivory-colored construction paper. LeAnn has brought an incubator into the room and filled it with a dozen chicken eggs, and now she’s told the kids to draw a picture and write something about it. The scene is teetering on the edge of chaos; six or seven children have their hands in the air, stymied by spellings. I jump in to help answer questions and in the process see some of the tremendous variation in their achievement. Jessica, a bright, spunky child (room K-2’s only African-American), has already completed her incubator drawing and composed a lucid sentence. Juan, in contrast, has written “TH,” then crossed that out and is staring, bereft, at the otherwise blank page.

Later this morning, after LeAnn finishes with the first group, she has to call out step-by-step directions to Hector to get him to join Group E. “Just put the puzzle down on the floor. Put the pieces on top. Then come over here. Good, you can finish it later.”

Once settled in the group, his newfound zest for participating is still evident. He has his hand in the air most of the time, gasping for attention and waggling his fingers. When LeAnn asks him which pictures depict words starting with the M sound, he only gets “monkey” (and not “meat” or “mop” or “mirror”). But he is able to approach the chart and match big to small letters. “I match big M to little M,” he says. “I match big P to little P” LeAnn gives his head a firm pat, grits her teeth with exhilaration, and says, “Hector! Yes, my friend!”

Group hug, last day of school

Group hug, last day of school

Thursday, May 25 — The classroom’s crawling with insects. LeAnn has been introducing them for weeks now. Books about insects, butterflies, and moths, as well as spiders and lizards cover the big round table in the front of the room, as do plastic and wooden bugs and plastic snakes. Paper bugs that march along one wall carry representations of the numbers 1 through 15. Butterflies mark the passage of the days on the calendar.

Up in front, with the entire class before her, LeAnn spends some time drilling the children on the vowel sounds, long and short. Then she starts this day’s rotation.

“Mark, did you learn the words I sent home with you?”

“No,” he declares, placidly. “But guess what? When you were gone [to a seminar], I was really good.”

“Great. You figured out the words?”

“Yes.”

“Which word in row four here rhymes with ‘tree’?”

His eyes shift from the floor to the left and right. She urges him, “Mark, what you have to do is look at the board and read the words in your brain.” This still doesn’t work, so she asks him to read the three words “can,” “come,” and “me.” He can read them, but he still can’t say which one rhymes with “tree.” Not until LeAnn asks about each (“Does ‘come’ rhyme with ‘tree’?”) can he pick out the rhyme.

“I swear, in the last month, they have forgotten how to speak English,” she declares when the Group K children move on, as if drugged. LeAnn finds more to cheer her among the Spanish speakers. She has introduced them to the charts in which they have to figure out the meaning of a written word from its beginning consonant and a clue concocted by LeAnn corresponding to one of the three pictures next to the word. She’s been dreading this, but the children do quite well. They shake their heads, make faces, slap their thighs to express their disdain for some of the sillier combinations, “I wanted to ride my bike yesterday, but my toothbrush was flat.” Their Spanish accents almost indiscernible, they hoot, “That doesn’t make sense!”

“Well, hey!” LeAnn says to me at the end of their session, “I don’t keep their attention for long, but they’re getting it. They’ve come a long way. I really thought they would not get this.”

In Elliot’s group, the children are reading dialogue like:

John: My surprise will be fun. It would be more fun with you.

Gramps: I would like to be with you, John. But I have some more work to do. Go with your mother and have fun.

Thursday, June 1 — Day 168. Only 11 days left. Squirming on the rug up front is on the rise again; the ambient noise level continues to climb.

The very room appears to be disintegrating. To the surprise of many, LeAnn has decided to teach a third-grade class next year instead of kindergarten. “I just decided it was time for a change,” she explains this decision. “I think change is good.” She’s already begun dismantling K-2. For the most part, she’s doling out the books and maps and decorations to the children in the class.

It’s a horrid task, akin to moving out of the house you’ve grown up in. Still, LeAnn, dogged, shepherds her flocks through the charts and drills. Small consolations also materialize. Today, when the teacher sounds the gong for Group E to come to the front, Maria hustles up and takes her seat before anyone else. “Good girl!” LeAnn cheers. To me, she adds, “First time she’s ever come up and sat down on time. Took 168 days. But, hey.”

Wednesday, June 14 — School won’t end for two more days, but this is the last day the groups will rotate, the last time the children will receive formal reading instruction from LeAnn. Boys are wearing shorts, and several girls are decked out in sundresses. But I see almost no hair ornaments; it’s as if the moms have run out of ornamenting energy.

The classroom looks even more denuded now. The myriad charts and pictures and signs have all been stripped from the back wall, and the heaped-up cardboard boxes around LeAnn’s desk have disappeared. Shelves marked “Dr. Seuss,” “Español/Spanish,” “Matching Activities,” “Puzzles,” “Science” stand empty.

At the front of the room, LeAnn reads Arthur Goes to Summer Camp (starring the fictional anteater) to the 27 children in attendance today. She’s still energetic enough to be defining words: what “homesick” means, what a “scavenger hunt” is. Then she summons the slowest group for the last time.

Fully a third of the children here today — nine of them — now are included in it. LeAnn has continued to shift kids from group to group up to these very last days, and I can see how changes in the children prompt her constant reshufflings. Within Group K, for example, there’s a range of achievement that I couldn’t have predicted in September. Martin, for example, a native English speaker who started out with the Spanish-language kids, has matured into one of the most confident and brisk readers in the bunch. Mark, on the other hand, still spaces out more often than not, though even he is reading with a bit more confidence than he commanded two months ago.

The Spanish-speaking kids are still practicing their letters. Elliot’s group blasts through a variation on the story of the tortoise and the hare. With the final group, Group D, LeAnn hesitates for a moment.

The previous day they finished the Balloons book. Now what should they do? She decides that they might as well start the first story in a new book. It’s not a neat, tidy ending to their academic year. But, after all, kindergarten is where everything starts.

(Editor's Note: Last month, a state taskforce called for the replacement of much of the whole-language curriculum with the teaching of phonics, spelling, and other basic reading skills.)

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