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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 26, 2001

Cable documents life in a kindergarten

By Mark Kennedy
Associated Press

NEW YORK — On HBO, Carrie is worried about being engaged. Miranda is battling body-image depression. And Samantha has lust in her heart for a $4,000 Hermes handbag.

A kindergarten class at a "typical" public school in Nyack, N.Y., is the subject of an in-depth documentary being broadcast on the HBO Family channel.

Associated Press

Over on the HBO Family channel, Julian is nervous about how to read long words. Tyeese refuses to talk. And Anna is suspicious about where exactly the tooth fairy gets the money.

At first glance, the gals on "Sex and the City" don't seem to have a lot in common with a new documentary series that follows 23 pint-sized kiddies through their first year of formal schooling.

But that fades as "Kindergarten" gets rolling.

Over 13 half-hour episodes, viewers get to watch the 5-year-olds interact, solve crises and wrestle with the outside world — much like their fictional counterparts on an adult comedy — at Upper Nyack Elementary School in Nyack, N.Y.

It's a reminder that kindergarten was where we first learned to socialize, to get along, to develop personalities — and where getting the red crayon was a big deal.

"It's kind of eavesdropping on the kindergarten experience that you never get to do with your own kids," says Karen Goodman, who put the series together with husband, Kirk Simon. They have a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old, who's just about to enter kindergarten.

The episodes range from "Doin' the Right Thing" about getting in trouble to "Open Wide" about losing teeth.

The filmmakers visited up to 90 schools before selecting one a half-hour from New York City.

"We wanted a school that would be both a model and the typical public school," says Simon.

Over 55 days of filming with three cameras — plus 25 days interviewing the kids at home — the filmmakers captured the wide-eyed enthusiasm of life at age 5.

"We did not try to make a Pollyanna view of kindergarten. We're not saying all of kindergarten is wonderful and we did not edit out all the fights, or the pushes or the shoves," Simon says.

Intended to be watched by both parents and children, the series is a primer for kids about to enter kindergarten and the parents who will watch them go.

There are scenes in which gleeful little hands try to pet the class' new guinea pig — and a sober moment in which the kids hold a funeral for a dead butterfly.

One person, though, almost steals the show: Jennifer Johnson, the teacher of this little troupe. She is, at turns, a ringleader, disciplinarian, confidante and surrogate parent.

"In the end, that classroom is really about Jennifer," says Goodman. "It's really about her relationship with those children and her ability to have them relate to each other."

Johnson confesses she initially balked at the idea of opening her classroom to the added distraction of cameras. She relented after realizing her lessons could teach more than 23 kids.

"I think a lot of times people have this kind of inaccurate perception of kindergarten as this big baby-sitting session," she says. "Teaching is such an important job, and I think schools don't get enough credit as it is."

The series comes at a time when the issue of childhood education is as culturally charged as ever, with debates raging over how language and math should best be taught and how children really learn.

The filmmakers say they tried to avoid entering the fray. If there's any political motive in the project, they say, it's in raising awareness about this crucial time in development — and the critical role parents play.

"If someone looks at this and says, 'My school doesn't measure up to this school' — which is just a normal, typical elementary school in Nyack — that's where a parent can step in and say, 'We should make improvements,' " says Simon. "Schools do listen to parents."

And children listen to parents, as the series illustrates. Though the appearances of adults other than Johnson are rare, they are an enormous off-screen presence.

At kindergarten snack time — which Goodman calls "essentially kid cocktail parties" — the 5-year-olds are as apt to spark a discussion of God as they are to gossip about how awful it is that mom smokes in the house.

"You learn that when you talk to children, they're listening to you and they will very easily mimic you," says Simon. "You should be aware that perhaps the kids' ears are tape recorders."

Johnson knows that all too well.

"A lot of times I would overhear little conversations and I would go, 'Oh, that's priceless. I can't believe they just said that! Wait until their mom hears that!' "

In this show, they can.