Bringing Bébé to the Classroom
By Anne Sesnak
Anne Sesnak is a Kindergarten teacher in Seattle. She has been a teacher leader as a demonstration teacher, a year-long literacy PD leader, and has served on the Teaching Advisory Council, an partnership of Seattle Public Schools and Seattle Education Association with the Center for Teaching Quality.
This summer I was all set to enjoy a European vacation with my husband and two-year-old daughter. I was looking forward to stepping away from my classroom, putting my teacher hat away, and getting some personal reading time that I struggle to get in during the school year. I had a great selection of books all packed, and I was absolutely not bringing any professional reading. Little did I know that a book on French parents would influence how I teach.
After my husband was done working in Munich, we were heading to Paris and three weeks of traveling around France. Admittedly I was a little worried about taking a two year old to Paris. I had heard the horror stories of families being asked to leave restaurants because of the behavior of children and about whistle blowing matrons who are quick to reprimand any child not following the rules at the park. Already in Munich my daughter had managed to spill an entire glass of juice while eating out, soaking my pants, and when we were playing at a park, she had taken her clothes off to play in a water feature that was not intended for bathing.
I was curious about the ways of French childrearing in light of these harsh forewarnings, so I thought I could get a head start on preparing my daughter and me by reading Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé, which has recently gotten a lot of press. In her book, Druckerman explores how French parenting differs from American parenting, but as I began reading, my inner teacher kept creeping in and asking what implications this book might have for me in my classroom.
What Druckerman claims to have found in France is a focus on awakening and discovering within a framework that provides limits and freedom within those limits. This framework, called cadre, comes out of the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who influenced Maria Montessori and John Dewey) and Françoise Dolto (the French Dr. Spock).
The purpose of the cadre is not to limit the child or keep the child from experiencing failure or pain but to provide a world in which the child can safely discover, experience, and learn knowing that limits are there. Because firm limits are set, children are free to explore, and adults trust them to make good decisions. Isn’t this what I want for my students?
There is also an effort to respect and understand children’s motives while explaining the world to them. French parents don’t tell their children to “be good;” they remind them to be “sage” (sah-je), which means wise and calm. They believe that because of the framework children will develop “self-assurance and tolerance of difference.” Surely these are qualities we hope to instill in our students.
In the States we tend to push our children through different stages of development. We consistently seek out ways to stimulate, expose, and educate so our children can be ahead and advanced. I have felt this pressure with my students and their families, even in kindergarten. Druckerman writes that in France students are not explicitly taught to read until first grade. During these early years, development of “social skills, how to organize their thoughts, and how to speak well” takes precedent both at home and in school. It often feels in the States that we are pushing our students ahead without this crucial social-emotional foundation.
It seems that the authors of the Common Core State Standards are recognizing that pushing for the sake of pushing is not benefiting our students. As my district is implementing the CCSS, my colleagues and I have noticed that mastery of skills has been delayed to later grades while manipulating, exploring, and understanding is the focus of earlier grades. Mastering the standard algorithm for adding and subtracting multiple digit numbers isn’t a standard until 4th grade (4.NBT.4), but the standards at each grade level support the student on their journey of understanding how and why that algorithm works. I plan to use the CCSS to guide my conversations with families to help them understand why I’m not pushing their kindergartner to be reading two grade levels ahead or perform three-digit multiplication.
Now after having read Bringing Up Bébé, I will keep the ideas of discovery and awakening in mind. I want to help my students build “a structured inner life able to support autonomy and further growth.” I want to better to understand their motives and put my trust in them. Social skills are always important in kindergarten, and now I want to make even more space for that important social-emotional development before I send them off for the rest of their academic career.
Already I’ve been looking for ways to emphasize my kinder-students’ “independence and accountability.” I have been conveying to my students the expectations in my classroom more explicitly and trusting that they will rise to it. I’ve also included in my notes home to families what age appropriate responsibilities they can expect their kindergartner to take on. Surprisingly I’ve found myself saying “yes” more because I know the framework is there to guide us and there is freedom inside the cadre.
Bringing Up Bébé helped me teach my daughter to successfully sit through a three course meal and say “Merci! Au Revoir.” And now, with the school year underway, I am excited to see all the ways this new philosophy will help me in the classroom.
I guess I never really leave home without my teacher hat.