Now that he's 3 1/2 and solidly school aged, by Kenyan standards, we have enrolled him in a Kenyan pre-school. And cue the undoing of the Montessori-like bilingual fresh air dream....
The Kenyan school system is the result of a British colonial legacy and high stakes testing environment. The rule of the day is call and response learning and the more time in school the better. Kids really do enter "school" at the ripe age of 3, go for long days and even attend class on Saturday. The government recently outlawed the endemic practice of students attending even more classes during their holiday break both because the extra costs gave an unfair advantage to wealthier families and because of the argument that the children need some time to "rest their brains."
But Caleb is only 3, so he's immune to a lot of this. He attends, a level called "Baby Class," which he stubbornly insists on calling "Big Boy Class." There are toys in his room. And nap time. There's a lot of singing and playing outside. His teacher welcomes him each day by swooping him up in her arms and giving him a hearty maternal embrace.
And yet... There are uniforms and homework. There is a teacher at the front of the class teaching things. We were told there was no corporal punishment, but I saw a kiboko (switch) situated in the corner of one of the classrooms.
|Montessori!?!? Too good to be true. And isn't. Any school that wants a bit of Italian flair and has a paint brush can adopt this name.|
|Favorite part of the morning. Circle time and singing. Despite their expressions in this photo, the kids LOVE it.|
I really didn't know how to feel about all of this.
I wanted to understand so I asked if I could observe for a morning.
Here's the thing: I'm not an early childhood education specialist. I'm just a nervous mom, which might give me an advantage (I care a lot so I look more critically) or a disadvantage (I care a lot so I look hyper-critically) depending on how you want to see it.
When we were researching day cares in the US I had the same feeling. I armed myself with the "10 questions you should ask your day care provider" and they all had acceptable answers. Again, I'm not a child development expert. I'm a mom, which means I simply had sex and procreated. When I was studying public policy, these people were studying infants and toddlers. So, who am I to assess the developmental worth of "circle time"?
But, being that I'm in a new country and really had no idea what was happening at school, I felt it more necessary to at least know what his day looked like. So, I plunked myself in the corner of the room and observed. (The kids bored of the novelty of having a visitor quickly.)
And after a day there, I still don't quite know what to feel about it. There are a lot of plusses. They teach phonics. The homework is tailored to each kid's level, and they work, Waldorf-like, incorporating science, language and math around a different theme each week. It's a small school and the teachers seem to know almost all of the students.
And yet, there was still some:
Teacher (pointing at a picture): "These are the members of the family. The what?"
Kids in unison: "The family!"
Teacher: "The what?"
Kids: "The family!"
Teacher: "The what?"
Kids: "The family!"
And so on.
English, the instructional language, is a second language for most of the kids, so the lessons include sometimes basic noun identification.
And then there was this: When one of the kids refused to listen to the teacher, she asked the other kids sing arousing little ditty I'll call "the shame song." It goes like this: "Shame, shame, shame on you. May all the monkeys nus (indecipherable) on you. A big big shame on you. Behave yourself!" The child subsequently fell in line.
I still don't know how to evaluate any of this. I've been reading a lot of the new research on what skills are truly important to inculcate - what skills they need for success in school, and most importantly, in life. And it's not what you'd expect. It's things like the ability to wait, to control yourself, to follow instructions, to get along with peers, to persevere in the face of obstacles. It's not the cognitive stuff Western parents are often so obsessed with.
And I think his school environment promotes these skills. He has to share. He has to wait. He has to put on his uniform each morning. He has to (even if to avoid the shame song) follow instructions. He's learning how to learn and learning how to get along.
I may not be an expert in child development, but I am an expert in my child. I know he's exceedingly social and thrives around other kids. He's told me in no uncertain terms that home is "boring." For Caleb, pre-school makes sense. And, maybe at this tender age, I should just stop over-thinking it and judge the school day from the enormous smile it puts on his face.