Power of K: Helping Teachers Reimagine Kindergarten
When kindergarten teacher Ada Goren first attended a Power of K professional development session, she felt a profound sense of purpose. “It was like a lifeline,” she said. “It felt like something I had to do.”
Goren had just returned to teaching after an 18-year absence and had difficulty with the regimented curriculum. She agonized as she saw students fall behind and worried that her class was not designed with the needs of kindergarteners in mind. With the majority of her students coming from free-and-reduced-lunch families, she felt her lessons were tragically adding to the list of reasons why low-income students often struggle in school. “It was the worst year of teaching in my life,” said Goren.
The next year Ada switched to a school that introduced her to the Power of K Teacher Leader Initiative, providing her with a way to address the problem. Power of K is being supported by the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust through its early childhood initiative Great Expectations, which MDC is helping to manage. It is a two-year, professional development program for kindergarten teachers in Forsyth County and provides training and support to help teachers design developmentally appropriate lessons and learning environments, and share their practices with other teachers and administrators across the district.
Shaping the classroom to help kindergarteners learn today and over time
From Goren’s perspective, preparing kindergarten students to succeed in later years begins with recognizing that they are five-years-old and they learn through play. “Kindergarteners are active learners and their brains turn off when they have to sit all day,” she said. The latest brain science backs this sentiment, showing that young children make neural connections through hands-on and child-directed activities.
For this reason, Power of K’s trainings emphasize a physical re-shaping of classrooms to put kindergarteners in a setting where they are able to learn effectively. Power of K classrooms focus on an array of activity centers—such as a block center or science center—that encourage students to articulate their own goals, carry out the work, and reflect on what they have done.
This chance for self-motivated student reflection is another goal of Power of K. When students—even as young as five—make choices about what and how they are learning, they can develop a sense of ownership and personal investment in education. “We need to teach to see themselves as learners so they continue to want to keep seeking education,” said Power of K trainer Susan Choplin.
A tool to bridge the education gap for low-income students
“There is a very different feeling when you walk into a Power of K classroom,” said Rusty Hall, principal of Old Town Elementary and Winston-Salem/Forsyth Schools Principal of the Year in 2015-16. “It is more exciting and age-appropriate.”
One hundred percent of Old Town Elementary School students participate in the free- and-reduced-lunch program and close to 95 percent are non-white, and Halls believes the Power of K approach is helping them succeed.
“Our families cannot afford pre-K programs and the first time a child is exposed to school is kindergarten,” he says. “The sooner we get the learning process started to combat the effects of poverty on brain development, the better off they are.”
Growing the movement
As a trainer for Power of K, Choplin runs a demonstration classroom at Walkertown Elementary School—and teachers and principals are flocking to observe her developmentally appropriate techniques. Over the past year, she’s received over 100 visitors.
Choplin happily digs into the details of her methods with teachers, but always shares that she doesn’t have all the answers. Her classroom is about learning in the broadest sense: students learn about their roles in their own education and teachers learn to adapt to their students’ needs. In a way, this collaborative learning environment is a lesson in cross-generation civics, giving everyone in the classroom---from age 5 to adulthood—a chance to see that interacting in a community takes personal investment, practice, and patience.
Now, Choplin says, the most common question she receives from other teachers is, “How do I get started?”