Whiting: These days, kindergarten isn’t what you think it is

Miss Werner scans her new kindergarten class, draws a circle on a whiteboard and teaches a lesson so cool I share it with friends and family.

Yes, I am a kindergartner for a day. And while I graduated kindergarten many years ago, thank you very much, it’s never too late for a refresher course. Plus, kindergarten is nothing like it was when I was a lad. And it’s not just because I covet the awesome Batman and Spider-Man shoes my classmates wear.

Snack time? Yes, that still exists. Nap time? Not a chance.

It’s Friday, the fourth day of school at Marian Bergeson Elementary in Laguna Niguel, and already we’re tackling the hard stuff – like drawing circles.

But it’s not just about circles.

As Miss Werner instructs, circles are the gateway to the alphabet. That includes c, g, o, q.

Miss Werner, who asks students to address her that way, shares there’s a special secret to drawing circles. And with the help of my classmates, I soon discover another secret.


In many ways, Tracy Werner is typical of the 20,000 educators in our county, which takes in 27 districts and some 600 schools.

First and foremost, she is a teacher, dedicated to helping children prepare for successful lives. But, like many of her colleagues, she also is an actor, a drill sergeant, a nurturer.

The UC Santa Barbara graduate reads books aloud with the enthusiasm of a Sesame Street character. She cares for the children with the passion of a parent. She keeps order in a large class – hers has 29 students. And she understands each child is different and that some are, well, very different.

On this day, one student with special needs requires an aide. Forget about paying attention; another youngster struggles mightily simply sitting in an assigned spot.

“Following directions is the hardest part of kindergarten,” Werner confesses after a series of minor disruptions that sees a boy wiggling his fingers in front of another boy’s face, untying and losing a shoe, and – while the rest of the class sits and listens – standing up and jiggling.

Understanding that each child is different and has different goals is embraced in more dramatic ways. With the backing of the Capistrano Unified School District, Marian Bergeson, like some other schools, goes so far as to offer Mandarin immersion starting in kindergarten.

I visit a fourth-grade class where half the instruction – math, science, history – is taught in Chinese. I was born and partly raised in Hong Kong, and hearing the students converse in Mandarin is exhilarating. A Latino boy raises his hand and asks a question in perfect Mandarin. A blond girl asks for clarification; her command of the tonal language is excellent.

I learned basic Cantonese on the streets of Hong Kong; I took Mandarin classes and flopped. I babble about how cool immersion is to Principal Greg Hauser, who beams.


To create an hour of special instruction for things like math and reading with smaller classes at the beginning and end of the day, kindergarten is divided into “early birds” and “late owls.” I am a late owl.

When I was 5, we didn’t do much with numbers, we learned the alphabet and we napped – in theory. But napping never worked for rambunctious kids like me, and most schools ditched it long ago. Reading waited until first grade, and we certainly couldn’t learn a foreign language.

Miss Werner sits at the front of the class while we sit on the floor. She asks what we want to learn. Rune Spraker, a budding surfer and easily the tallest kid, hopes to learn what he calls the alphabet song. Zoey Braun says, “To learn to count to 100.”

Aubrey Layton wants to learn to write. One boy exclaims, “I want to learn about dinosaur bones!”

Yes, there are no limits in life when you’re in kindergarten. And the teacher honors that, promising to tackle each subject – including dinosaurs.

But enough of the hard work. It’s snack time, and that means we transition from indoors to outdoors.

If you’re a parent, you know how tough transitions can be. I sometimes struggled with transitions when my twins were young. But after 28 years teaching, Miss Werner is an expert in directing children – lots of children.

She guides by suggestion, question, coaxing and, when necessary, clear, concise orders.

Some rules, like potty break times, are meant to be bent. Others, like raising your hand before talking, are meant to be learned.

The student with ants in his pants blurts out he wants a drink of water. It’s a teachable moment, and Miss Werner reminds the students to raise their hands. But with math still ahead and time ticking, she explains they should raise their hands only if it’s really important.

A half-dozen hands shoot up. The first boy announces with gravitas, “I went to an Angels game.”

While Miss Werner smiles patiently, those of us on the floor nod. That is important. Still, it’s not as important as what Ryland Vavere solemnly shares: “It’s my birthday.”

The teacher is perplexed. She tracks birthdays, but the school year is young. She checks her computer. Ryland’s right.

Math can wait. My classmates can barely contain themselves. There is no occasion more significant than a birthday.

Ryland opens the birthday drawer, peers in and picks out a gold crown. We sing a round of “Happy Birthday.” Several kids throw in “cha cha chas.” Ryland announces he’s going to Chuck E. Cheese’s for a pizza dinner. We agree this has turned out to be a very big day.

But it’s about to get even bigger.


To draw a circle, Miss Werner tells us to start at the top and go counterclockwise. But she doesn’t say counterclockwise because the world has turned more than once since my days in elementary school. Most kids wouldn’t understand that word. It’s also a safe bet in our digital world that many have never seen a clock’s hands move.

Miss Werner draws imaginary circles in the air. We follow, arms raised, hands sweeping in big circles.

We move to tables with elf-size chairs for the real work. My knees knock the table’s underside, but I persevere and select a thick pencil to execute what I hope will be a perfect circle.

It’s wiggly and oblong.

Sofia Cortes sits next to me. Her circles are clean, round. I ask for advice. Shy with the supersized kindergartener, she holds up a single crayon. It’s an instrument I’ve not touched in a very long time.

Starting at the top like Miss Werner advised, my crayon creates a near-perfect circle. I share it with Sofia. “Nice.”

Psst: Pencil lead slides; crayons stick a bit and offer more control.

Miss Werner walks around the table, offering tips and compliments. She shares with Sofia that five years ago she taught Sofia’s big brother. Sofia grins.

While I don’t write this column in crayon, I do think of the teacher, her students and what I learned. Miss Werner taught me to draw circles.

The kindergartners taught me there is much going on while drawing seemingly empty circles – things like discovery.

Contact the writer: dwhiting@ocregister.com

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