By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

A year of learning

On the final day last week, they had a lot of answers — and the skills to find many more.

They can count by 1s and 10s, which they demonstrated by counting the number of days they had spent in school their first year — 173. They know the months and the days of the week, and understand those names in both English and Spanish. They understand concepts such as less than, more than and equal to.

Best of all, they can read, not just simple repetitive sentences but those requiring more thought. And they can write sentences, fearlessly sounding out the words they want to use.

“Kindergarten today is harder than first grade was when I started,” said Carolyn Urnes, a kindergarten teacher at Memorial. She’s taught various elementary grades since 1987, kindergarten for the past decade or so.

As the final day began, she called her students to the front of the room for the morning message.

“Hola, Amigos. Today is Wednesday. We have had such a good year together!” teacher and kindergartners read in unison.

Urnes pointed out the star word of the day, SUMMER. Students spelled it aloudfaster than she could move her pointer from letter to letter.

It was almost like any day, even though it was the last day.

Kindergartners sat in a circle and practiced politely greeting one another. Then they shifted, quickly and quietly, into an audience formation.

Urnes opened a book to read one last story to this kindergarten class. This time, it was “My Great-Aunt Arizona,” Gloria Houston’s book based on her real aunt, a longtime teacher.

Students loved hearing Urnes read. And they enjoy reading themselves, too.

Henry Newman prefers non-fiction books, such as those about dinosaurs or space. He’s an excellent reader, said his mom, Katie Newman.

“The biggest difference I’ve seen in Henry is his love for reading,” she said. “Without me prompting, he’ll pick up a book and read it. He gets so excited.”

Grace Holland’s reading skills also have grown tremendously this year, said her grandmother, Julia Blankenship.

“She’s matured so much this year, from a toddler to a little girl,” Blankenship said. “Her writing and her art have improved. And she loves to read.”

Stacy Lennen said her daughter, Hallie Fetch, loved everything about kindergarten, but she saw Hallie make the biggest strides in reading and writing this year. “She’s forming full words now,” Lennen said.

Each Monday, kindergartners drew pictures and wrote about what they’d done over the weekend. When Hallie and other students reviewed the weekly reports with their parents at the end of the year, “the kids were shocked by how much progress they’d made,” Lennen said.

“At the beginning, it was just pictures,” she said. “By the end, it was full sentences and some even had paragraphs.”

Hearing about her students’ literacy skills and love of reading doesn’t surprise Urnes.

This year, she said, all but one of her kindergartners learned to read, a first. And their average reading level was six, a goal more typically reached in late fall of the first-grade year.

“They’re just supposed to be at Level Four now,” she said.

The levels are based on assessments of common core standards, said Kyra Donovan, director of elementary education for the school district.

Level Four readers can handle less repetitive texts, Donovan said, “so kids really have to read rather than memorizing patterns with picture clues. It’s more decoding, more sight words.”

Two years ago, Level Four was made a requirement for kindergarten. “Our kindergartners are working really hard to increase the rigor, and they’re making great strides,” Donovan said.

When Urnes moved to kindergarten, she said, administrators told teachers they needed to get kindergartners to reading Level One. “I said ‘Oh my gosh, how?” she recalled. “Now they’re at six.”

Creating successful readers in kindergarten is the result of the McMinnville School District’s focus on literacy. In every elementary school in the district, kindergartners receive an hour a day of focused reading lessons. They work in small groups with teachers, reading specialists and teaching assistants.

“Small groups, that’s huge,” Urnes said.

She and her colleagues also carefully introduce new vocabulary and reinforce it, building on what children have previously learned. And teachers from across the district meet in grade-level groups to share techniques that work.

For instance, Urnes said she learned the “strong finger” technique from Courtney Ferrua, a reading specialist at Sue Buel Elementary. She now instructs her emerging readers to place a finger under each word as they read it, building recognition.

“So they’re really focusing on the words in print,” rather than saying a word they’ve remembered or guessed, she said.

The kindergartners also have loved learning other subjects, such as science — especially going on a field trip to a nature park. Math was Norma Granados Frausto’s favorite part of kindergarten.

“I like math!” Norma said.

Urnes said she has focused on addition and subtraction more than ever this year. “And they can do it,” she said.

The old standard was teaching children to count to 30 in kindergarten, she said. Expectations went up, and now her students count to 100 — and beyond — by 1s and 10s.

She didn’t believe they’d be capable of understanding the less than/more than symbols and concepts, but they of them are, she said. They can solve simple equations with aplomb such as 4 plus 3 equals 7, although they still have a little trouble when the equation is stated in a less straight-forward manner, such as 1 plus X equals 5.

Recently, one of the students in Urnes’ afternoon class, Kenny Barrett, used his math skills to figure out the length of summer vacation — 82 days.

On the final day of kindergarten, Urnes handed out drawings of a big, friendly dog, an autograph hound. “You can collect the names of all your classmates,” she told students.

She showed them how to write their names in small letters so there would be room for all 21 students and the teacher, too. “How many do you want to sign yours?” she asked.

“Everybody!” the kids chorused.

After a flurry of autograph collecting, the students settled back down to practice “The Garden Song,” which they would sing for their parents later that morning. “Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow ... “ they sang, and they were still singing as they marched off to their final recess.

After recess, and before their parents arrived, Urnes asked kindergartners to do one final assignment: write a letter telling her what they liked best — or disliked — about kindergarten.

One or two just drew pictures. Most wrote a sentence or two.

The spelling of some words eluded them, but the sentences communicated clearly.

“I love scoo cus scoo is fun,” one girl wrote. Another wrote, “I like the munkebors.”

Henry often practices by writing notes to his little sisters, his mom said. This time, he wrote, “Dear Mrs. Urnes, I loved kindergarten because you wer my teacher. Love, Henry.”

Just before the final bell rang, Henry and his classmates lined up so Urnes could give each a hug. “This is a magic hug. It turns you into first graders,” she told them.

Racing back from hugging his kindergarten teacher for the last time, Henry jumped up and down to get his parents’ attention.

“Mom, Mom!” he cried. “I’m a first-grader now!”

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