Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How do you know if you like your kid's school?

When we lived in Busia, Caleb's education (if you want to think of it that way) consisted of running around outside with a mixed aged group of kids and very few toys.  It consisted of learning a second language and eating, by default, mainly local organic food.  By plopping ourselves in a part of the world that many Americans might fear for malaria and unclean water, we had inadvertently approximated a Park Slope hipster mom's dream.

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.


  1. Wow. That is really interesting. I know I have my personal opinions on education (even those of us "trained" as educators can have wildly different thoughts on what is most important/must have elements), but I think your son's happiness in school and how he reintegrates into your family home after school is probably what will tell you if it's the right school for him for now. And it sounds like he is loving it!

    1. Thanks Stacey. I totally agree. I'm going on my gut here and my read of his mood. He's happy to go to school and happy to come home, so something's going right!

    2. What Stacey said, Kim! I look forward to discussing this with you in person soon, if you so wish (and understand that I sure don't have all the answers, even with an education degree). But for all the pros and cons, that smile is the most important result for me.

  2. Love that smile in the last photo. It is so hard. There is a part of me that is glad we don't have access to a school because we don't have those decisions to make but the other part of me that feels my my girls would thrive with more interaction with their peers. So funny about "the what." My girls have picked that up and often talk to (teach) each other with "the what" and they haven't even been to school!

    1. So funny! I know adults how still talk that way when explaining something. It's a way to make sure the person you are talking to is still listening or paying attention. I have to say I'm inspired by all your homeschooling activities, and I'm supplementing his education that way. We did the book making activity this weekend and Caleb simply loved it. He wrote a book about a princess and a dragon and we cut out pictures from National Geographic. He was so proud to hear the story he imagined read back to him.

  3. I also have a three and a half year old son :) This is his first year in Preschool and we live in Oklahoma so, its pretty "standard" for a small US preschool environment. I was SUPER nervous for him, but he is extremely social and just loves to be around other kids. I'm also getting my associates in Child Development (Early Childhood Education) so, I was even more picky about what his daily schedule is like. The main thing I have learned through child development is that the most important thing for children at this sweet age is socialization :) I was doing fun tracing, patterns, and tracing ABC's with Ian every other night, but after digging more into my degree I decided to lay off and let my little one be creative while he has the chance.

    That's great that your son loves his school! That in itself is a great gift. I actually have been to Kenya and feel in love with the place. I have a non profit (super small) and I give shoes to kids in Kenya. www.projectviatu.com We give about 200 pairs of croc shoes a year. After I'm finished with Child Development I'll be going on to study International Development and hopefully doing work related to Kenya.

    Wishing you and your son a fun year in preschool!!


    1. Wow Allie. Sounds like a great non-profit. And your backgroundds in ECD and (upcoming) international development should lead you to an interesting career. We love it here too. And, yes! Socialization is really the most important thing at this age. I was a bit worried about that because he came to the school mid-way through the year and is the only non-Kenyan there. But kids are simply amazing. They really have looked past his "otherness" and simply play as kids now. At least that's my impression...

  4. Love that he loves it so much. He's three. His social development and love of school are probably the things you should be worried about most here and it sounds like he's got that!

  5. Happy shows. And I think that in these early years, in particular, a key piece is that your kid learn that school=interesting=fun=curiosity=other people... and etc. My kids have to wear uniforms to their Brit school & there is some public stuff that I don't approve of (who is in "top set," and etc), but mostly it's stimulating & offers room for creativity & doesn't privilege (too much) the rote over the exploratory. Be watchful, ask questions, but let the crazed Park Slope mom go back to the Slope and hire a tutor for her four year old's exam for the gifted-and-talented program. Cuz you can dress that crap in "comfort levels" and "confidence boosting" ...but it's still test prep at age four. Let Caleb be the guide here (within reason)...


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