First Person

Voices: Success tips for kindergarten

The founder and a founding teacher of a new Denver charter school give parents some tips on preparing their children for kindergarten.

Does anyone sleep the night before the first day of school?  Parents, children, and teachers are all nervous and excited for the changes the next day will bring.  The first day of kindergarten is a major transition point for children and parents, marking our children’s invitation into a new school community.  Parents take pictures of their little ones all dressed up and ready for school,  carefully braiding their hair, pack backpacks full of fresh supplies, filled with excitement and some anxiety for their children.  Many of us remember our first days of school for the rest of our lives.

There is major work to be done in kindergarten. This is the foundation, and we want it to be strong.  While early years of elementary school are a time of social growth and academic exploration, they are also critical in shaping students’ later successes.  As the founder and lead teacher of Rocky Mountain Prep, we’ve been having wonderful conversations with our new scholars’ parents about how we can all support our students during this time.  We’ve condensed these into our top three “Secrets for Success.” Use this summer to prepare your student for success!

1. Don’t just tell children that they are smart.  Praise effort and process as well.  

We become what we think we are.  Children who are told just that they’re smart tend to give up on problems earlier than those who think they are hard workers, persistent, and creative.  Effort is what helps us learn new things and tackle new problems.  When your child writes her name for the first time, don’t just say, “Wow, you’re so smart!”  Tell her what she did and praise her effort:  “You tried so hard to write your name, and you did it!”

If we’re always looking to others to determine our self-worth, we never learn to really value  our own accomplishments.  Instead of saying, “I’m so proud of you,” try saying, “Wow!  You must be so proud of yourself!”   Let your child own her actions.

2.  Read, read, read! 

Books are wonderful gateways to other worlds and ideas.  But, they are not the only things people read!  Think about everything you read in one morning:  your alarm clock, the toothpaste tube, the coffee pot buttons, the microwave, the TV Guide channel, the texts on your cell phone, your email or Facebook page, maybe a magazine or a book.

Your child has been “reading” since birth– as he learns to understand the world around him, he reads your face, the layout of your home, the box of cereal he likes, the street outside.  This is the beginning of literacy: as the educator Paulo Freire wrote, we read the world first, then we learn to read the word.  Point out the things, even pictures, your child already reads at home, and then show him some of the letters that make the words: “Stop,” “Safeway,” “Dora,” “Lightning McQueen.”  In school, we build on this knowledge and help children use symbols to read.

Repetition also helps children understand the rhythm and patterns of written language.  Singing that same song over and over, or reading the same book before bed for two weeks, isn’t just what kids do to drive parents crazy.  It helps children internalize language, so eventually they can make up their own songs and read new books with confidence.  We want them to love language in all its forms: reading, writing, singing, talking, communicating.

3. Teach your child to label her emotions.  What adults see as frustration is often an inability to communicate. 

When your child is happy, excited, nervous, frustrated, or angry, point it out!  “You’re really angry right now,” might seem like an obvious thing to say, but children aren’t born knowing how to express what they feel in words.

Giving emotions a name does two things.  First, it helps the child recognize feelings and know how to deal with them.  “I am angry, I should tell my mom and calm down,” is much better than “I have no idea why my body is tensing up when I just want my brother to give me back my toys,” and then having a tantrum or hitting.

Second, it helps the adult recognize feelings and gives you an opportunity to teach your child what to do, rather than just reacting in the moment.  Saying, “You are angry, you should come tell me and then take a deep breath before we talk about it,” also gives you time to not react angrily.  It also shows your child that adults have tools we use for self-control.  It’s hard, but imagine how different the world would be if we could all explain how we’re feeling and take time to think about what to do next!

Ultimately, parents are the experts on their children.  You’ve known them the longest and have taught them so much at home.  You have a lot of information to teach your children’s school teachers about how they learn and what they love to do.  These are our secrets for success, and we’d love to hear yours to keep the conversation going.  As educators, we want to be your partners in helping your child grow academically, socially, and emotionally.  We hope these tips make the transition to kindergarten smooth for your students, and are so excited to welcome them to the world of school.

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.