I read a lot of professional books and I don’t post about all of them. But every once in a while, one comes along that demands a mention. “Let’s Find Out: Building Content Knowledge with Young Children” by Susan Kempton is one such book. And if you are a kindergarten or first grade teacher looking for a summer reading professional book, look no further.
The number one fact that drew me to this book was that Kempton moved to a school with a very diverse population (with students from low socio-economic families who faced multiple literacy issues), after having taught years in schools with many average to above-average readers. I knew I could trust her ideas and practices to work in the classrooms where I often find myself.
Kempton uses children’s natural curiosity about animals to build concepts and vocabulary on a variety of topics. Together they look at pictures, pose questions, infer, observe, research some more, and build vocabulary from polar bears and snakes to life cycles and dying. Her kinder class is filled with animals that offer many opportunities for the children to learn in an inquiry-based environment. I loved her stories about the bunny that was a comfort for the children to hold as well as the ones about the snake who devoured his lunch right before their eyes and later molted and left them his skin.
Her tools are many. She uses books, magazines, artifacts, movement, songs, dramatization, repetition, visual aids, the internet, and drawing. The children read and write daily and have many opportunities to talk. They ask questions, negotiate meaning together, and then draw, write, and share what they are learning about. Many teachers may say, “Well, I do all that too.” But the extent to which Kempton expands her students’ vocabulary is amazing to watch. At the end of each chapter she lists the concepts and language covered. I love the way she doesn’t “dummy down” the language. In one unit alone, her kinders become familiar with: tortoise, growth rings, hexagon, dome-shape, desert, hibernate, burrow, soil, reptiles, scales, hooves, rosettes, drag, prey, species, and so on. They even know how to tell the difference between a leopard, cheetah, and jaguar.
The two chapters I found especially inspiring were the one on the class’s Martin Luther King study and the one titled “What is Math?” She broadens the MLK study to include citizenship and civil rights in a way that kinders can understand and apply to their own lives. I admired the way she used the book Dear Willie Rudd which many may think is too hard for primary students. She continually asked the students “Who is Willie Rudd?” through multiple readings and discussions. But when she got no answer, she didn’t just tell them. She trusted the children as thinkers. She believed that with repeated readings and with time and opportunity for plenty of talk with partners and as a whole group, the children would get there on their own.
In Chapter 10, she shares how reading and writing have a root word that indicates their meaning. Math, on the other hand, doesn’t have an “identifiable act to bring it to life.” Throughout the chapter she supports the children as they discover what math is. “It is about shapes, graphing, patterning, sorting, adding, subtracting, comparing value, estimating, place value, surveys, symmetry, money, measuring, weighing, telling time, and more.”
I hope some of you will take the time to read this very worthwhile text that comes with several free videos that you can access on-line.