stephanie jones

Give us back our kindergartens!

In creativity, families, family-school relations, gender and education, high-stakes tests, kindergarten, NCLB, politics, stephanie jones on August 15, 2008 at 12:49 am

This news story reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (with some good, and some so-so quotes from me – I hate when I get riled up and don’t say what I want!) and the comments by readers has me thinking about our little ones who are already, or almost, in school this year. I hope some of you will get in on the discussion about this article – and start your own at your schools and with your friends and family.

Kindergarten teachers in different regions of the U.S. have shook their heads, pursed their lips, cussed a little, and even shed a tear or two as they tell me stories about what they feel they have to “do” to their students. “I don’t even have time for teaching – all I do is assess, assess, assess,” one teacher told me referring mostly to the DIBELS (phonics-driven) assessment mandated in her school and used to evaluate teachers at the end of the year. Other teachers have written emails to me panicking that their principal had just taken away recess – or choice time – or crayons – or P.E. – or rest time to make room for more testing and test preparation. They wanted my help. I wrote thoughtful messages back to them, citing research about play-based approaches to learning and social, emotional, and academic needs of young children. I gave them ammunition from the “experts” in education…but politicians and publishing houses (who sell the big-money test prep and test materials) wield more power and often get their way in schools. These conversations and email correspondences have driven me mad. Some of the best teachers I’ve ever seen in action – and they’re looking to me for help and I fail them.

I’ve also been in kindergarten classrooms where teachers weren’t outwardly questioning the mandates to make sure kids were writing complete sentences with appropriate capitalization and punctuation by December of kindergarten. And I saw children falling asleep, crying, acting out, and checking out. I didn’t blame them. I was checking out too.

Some of the trickle down of test preparation into the kindergartens has prompted particularly middle-class parents (who feel they can question the “system” of schooling) to keep their kids out of kindergarten a year longer until they’re “ready” for the more rigid behavior expectations (no running! no talking!) or the higher academic expectations. I’m all for kindergarteners learning a ton in that first official year of school – but through hands-on experiences, explorations, projects, play, and movement. Not through sitting-at-the-table-with-nothing-but-a-piece-of-paper-and-pencil. And no talking!

All around the country kindergarten teachers are angry about this, parents are confused, and children are suffering. Teachers are stressed, children are stressed, and families are stressed.

When are we going to say, “Give us back our kindergartens!”

  1. The effects of wide-spread, high-stakes testing policies are being felt by nearly everyone involved in education. Parents and teachers are not always heard. Policies that aim to equalize the educational experience in the United States may be changing the way we think and the discourse in education so that it seems common to speak of children as “mature enough” rather than developing as they enter Kindergarten. What are we asking of young children? Our current quest to reform education demands that educators prepare children at an earlier age for the academic life of school. Kindergarteners are held to strict standards and are forced into being productive, so schools and teachers can be held accountable for their learning.

    Parents choose between academic and play-oriented preschools. Such decisions may have an impact, not just on what schools children can gain entrance to, but also on their future lives and capacities. This mania for children’s “readiness” for school has taken hold in the US. Some recommend that young children be drilled on flashcards on letters and words. However, some educators still advocate for a more cooperative and play-oriented curriculum in preschools. Early childhood curriculum can be viewed as more than prescribed sets of knowledge for the learner to apprehend; rather, it may mean enacting openings of the possible. Think Maxine Greene and Vivian Paley.

    In my opinion, play offers many benefits. Children’s play tells much about who they are. Trying on possibilities through fantasy play, children explore through invented roles. They learn language and the subtle nuances of how to communicate with peers. This cannot happen in classrooms where kids are forced to sit down and be quiet.

    It is a frustrating time to have a young child, and one of the many of the comments on the article by readers have me feeling just as testy as the testing machine. Why would someone say half the parents “no speaky good English.” Others readers are protesting the need to learn Spanish in pre-K. When we have fluent Spanish speakers around, why not make the best of things as they do in countries around the world and allow children pick up more than one language?
    I could go on and on as this subject hits close to home. Why aren’t there more bilingual programs?

    Bottom line, we need to demand what we want for our children. We are not underestimating our children by giving them play. In fact, some kids need coaching to get involved in interactive play. I have seen this done artfully, and I could not tell who the children with autism in the classroom were! We don’t just want to withdraw and send our kids to private schools even if we can afford it. That would be a failure to reform and play right into the hands of those making a killing on selling the tests and test prep materials.

    When are we going to provide children across the board with the high-quality preschools we parents want too?

  2. So well said Lori! Just like a passionate mother and educator. I hope you commented on the website/article posting – yes, some of the readers’ comments certainly made me squirm, while also reminding me that each person has a unique perspective on the world informed by past experiences and exposures. It actually makes me think back to a class I taught not too long ago where some students in the course may have made such disparaging and seemingly naive or ignorant comments. And by the end of the semester they began to catch themselves and one another when the language they were using was perpetuating stereotypes that hurt some people and rewarded others. “That’s so gay!” and “That’s so lame!” became phrases to be inquired, critiqued, and replaced with something that was not based in homophobia and ableism. And…the students were doing this by the end, not me;)

    Anyway, I fully agree with you that the current state of early childhood education can send flocks of families who can afford to do so off to private schools, and that this should be avoided if at all possible (some children may be suffering terribly…I won’t judge parents who make decisions about that). But as many of us as possible should demand that our public schools are “ready” for all our children, not the other way around.

    Thanks for your great insights as usual.

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