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Kindergarten for Grownups

I had a great public school education, starting with the gifted and talented program in Louisiana, where in grades four and five I got to leave my regular classroom one day a week and go to another school for "enrichment day." (I'm convinced my regular teacher nominated me for the program to get my precocious, disruptive little self out of her classroom, but thanks anyhow!) Enrichment day was awesome: we learned the Chisanbop counting system, we competed with college engineering students in an egg drop contest, we wrote computer programs on our TRS-80 computers with their black screens and green type, we built mousetrap cars to learn about potential and kinetic energy. It was great. It was what every child should have had, every day.

I was fortunate in high school too, attending Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts, a public, legislature-funded boarding school for grades 11 and 12. We were taught by PhDs on a college schedule, and for middle-class families like mine, it was a way of affording a private-school caliber of education at a public-school price and a way of getting noticed by good colleges.

For college I went to Oberlin, a very good small liberal arts college in Ohio. Oberlin has a long history of being rigorous, progressive, and, well, funky; I fit right in. Grad school was pretty good too: I got my MFA in poetry at New School University, where I learned from great teachers like David Lehman, David Trinidad, Susan Wheeler, and Laurie Sheck, and where I discovered my hero Joe Brainard.

But for all that, I'm convinced that the best educational experience, for me, was my kindergarten. In fact, I think it was so great that this year I'm taking myself back there, symbolically anyway, to try to recreate for myself what worked so well about that model and to try a do-over on some of the basics I lost since then.

I went to kindergarten in 1976 in Grand Rapids, Michigan and was enrolled in an experimental program structured much like what I imagine Montessori to be. In any event, what it was was a big room full of different stations. There was cooking, carpentry, drawing, art, blocks, lots of things, and the key was: you could choose exactly what you wanted to do and for how long. It was all right there, and it was all my size. No two days had to be the same, and I truly believe that it's the flexibility and the humanism of this approach that has ruined me for the 9 to 5, 40-hour work model. Who could trade that big room of concrete possibility for a tiny beige cube of unrelenting hype?

So to break it down, so far we've got:

*a flexible schedule, where the learner sets the topic and the pace of instruction

*the space and tools to pursue those interests, right at hand and customized to fit the learner

What else?

There was the teacher, I think her name was Mrs. Paul. The best thing about her was that she knew how to stay out of the way, but whenever I needed help, say to hammer a very large block peg into its hole, she was right there to gently suggest that maybe the round peg wasn't meant to fit into the square hole, and to encourage me to think of an alternative approach. Oh Mrs. Paul, how I've missed you.

So to break that down we've got:

*a non-didactic, experiential instruction model

*teacher as coach, not lecturer

*a learning context where it was safe to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes

*an emphasis on application rather than memorization of facts

Who wouldn't want an education like that, and how could those same principles be applied just as well to the 40-year-old as to the 5-year-old?

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