by Araceli Esparza
photography by Scott Harvey
Kindergarten is now more than learning the ABCs, coloring within the lines and taking naps throughout the day. Testing standards for the state of California’s educational system have changed that, and with the transition, Bonita Unified School District teachers like Monica Serna are encouraged to challenge their students’ abilities.
Serna has been teaching the afternoon kindergarten students at Roynon Elementary School for two-and-a-half years. Teaching was not her original career goal. “I didn’t always know I wanted to be a teacher,” she admits. “I always used to think, ‘Oh, teachers. What a noble thing to do.’
“I don’t know what clicked. It’s like I decided, then I just went for it, and here I am,” says the La Verne native. “It chose me,” says Serna. “They called me up and said, ‘We have this long-term position with kindergarten if you’re willing to take it.'”
The opportunity to return to the classroom as instructor came April 1997 when Serna was hired by BUSD to replace the afternoon teacher.
Now the everyday office of this 27-year-old consists of desks and chairs half the size of her petite self. But kindergarten and the Bonita district seem to be her calling.
“I was worried that I wouldn’t fill up the time, that I wouldn’t have enough things to do,” she says of her first year. “There’s so much that they need to learn, and they do learn a lot in kindergarten.”
“That’s when they learn their letters, their numbers. They’re learning how to write even now. They learn how to spell their color words … even physical education,” she stresses. “They learn how to catch a ball, how to jump rope, how to hop. They learn so many skills, even how to hold a pencil. It can be so basic.”
Serna says kindergarten is one of the most crucial stages in a child’s development. With a changing society, these 4-5 year old children must also concentrate on their social skills.
The children learn to work with others and to share. Life’s common courtesies of patience and manners are emphasized both in and out of Serna’s K-West classroom.
But Serna admits it is often difficult to work with so many children at once. This year, her classroom is pretty evenly divided: 18 boys, 14 girls. While the state has limited Roynon’s first through third grades to 20 students per classroom, kindergarten has not yet been funded to reduce its class numbers.
Therefore, through the planning of fellow kindergarten teachers Heidi Butkus, Sherry Kinne and Karen Huigens, Serna has created an agenda to help organize the operation and activity of each class session. She is primarily responsible for teaching the afternoon session from 11:35 a.m. to 2:55 p.m., but also assists the morning class.
With the consistent help of parent volunteers, Serna and other kindergarten instructors teach students productively and effectively. During one part of the class session, all 32 students are divided into four separate color groups — blue, red, green and yellow — and rotate stations every 15 minutes. Group stations include math, reading, art and activities tables, which are set up in different areas of the classroom.
About twice a month, the kindergartners create art projects for the classroom or prepare ingredients for simple cooking projects. Favorites include classroom-made pancakes and doughnuts.
Each project ties in with the lesson plan. Special field trips are also arranged as part of their lesson. For example, a visit to the dentist helps students learn about proper hygiene and about polishing their smiles. Kindergartners are able to develop individually yet collectively as a classroom.
“We want them to have a positive outlook on school and their education,” says Serna. “[If] they’re not going to like kindergarten, then they’re not going to be excited for the first grade. We don’t want to start them off on the wrong foot.”
Serna understands that kindergarten is the stage in which children are susceptible to being labeled and possibly traumatized for the remainder of their lives. Therefore, she has established the universal K-West classroom motto, “Try Your Best!” to encourage the children to work to the best of their ability.
“I let them know that I’m never going to be mad at them if they can’t do something … like writing their letters,” says Serna. “Instead, I ask them, ‘Was that your best? Did you try your best?’
“You even hear them [saying], ‘Try your best! Try your best!'”
Among the most vital team-building exercises Serna implements in her session are class meetings. Usually once a week, students circle around the center of the classroom to discuss class issues.
Serna and her students begin these meetings with compliments to one another, then proceed to review the issues at-hand. They may discuss anything from classroom rules to conflicts between students or individual tensions. As a class, students suggest and comment on a resolution to the matter, and after an agreement for a solution has been reached, the classroom takes a vote based on these suggestions.
She says the meetings always conclude with a calmer and more peaceful aura. She is appreciative of her students’ efforts to work together and of the memories each student has brought.
“Every day, I get so excited with something that they do, and there is always something little that’s memorable,” she comments. “You see kids growing so much. Last week, they couldn’t write their name at all, and then all of a sudden, they’re so proud because they can write their name.”
With humor, Serna recounts two of her greatest memories this fall. During a coloring project, one of the children approached Serna with a problem.
“She came up to me and said that there were no more crayons for her to use, so I gave her a set of smaller-sized crayons,” remembers Serna. “Later, the same little girl gave me back the crayons and said she likes the ‘lowercase’ crayons more than the crayons everyone else was using,” she smiles.
In another instance, Serna had assigned some homework to the students to be turned in by week’s end. “One of the little boys came up to me and said, ‘Well, teacher, teacher. My dog ate my homework.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, he’s already learning these little phrases.’ So I told him, ‘Could you please try to turn something in so that I know that you did your homework?'” Friday of that week arrived, and Serna says the student gave her a worksheet that was carefully taped together. The Scotch tape was not enough to conceal the wrinkles, paw prints and holes the worksheet had endured from the student’s dog. Serna laughs at the memory, saying she could not help but realize that the cliché excuse is, in fact, very much possible.
“These kids really put a smile on my face … when you like the children, it makes teaching more fun,” she adds. “These are like my children for nine months. I love to watch them grow, and that is rewarding. Every day is different; you never know what can happen. You’re always learning.”
Tips From a Rookie
1. Always try your best.
2. Be flexible and put a smile on your face.
3. Have fun, and the children will have fun learning. Learning should be exciting and fun!
4. Be prepared, and always have a Plan B, and in the back of your head have a Plan C.
5. Treat your students with respect.
6. Treat your students as if they were what they ought to be, and you will help them to become what they are capable of being.
7. Work hard and play hard.
8. Keep parents informed and included in their child’s learning.
9. Class meetings, where the children are given an arena to problem solve, are essential for a class that works together as a team.
10. Have a life (outside of school)!
— Monica Serna