Children Have to Grow Up Too Fast

Something is lost when little red wagons and mud pies make way for worksheets and tests.

Something is lost when little red wagons and mud pies make way for worksheets and tests.
Dispatches: Childhood
Credit: Indigo Flores

She waltzes into my room on winged feet -- all 3 feet and a bit of her, with a pixie cut and huge brown eyes. She is Katy (not her real name), and she is in the first grade. As everyone else settles down, Katy twirls in a dizzying display of excess energy. She is wearing her favorite outfit -- a rainbow poncho and a tiara with pink feathers. The rest of the class sits on the rug, crisscross applesauce. They stare up at me expectantly. Katy is trying to lie across my lap and peer up into my face. She slithers down, bounces up again, and moves to her desk to see what treasures might be in her backpack. Her bottom has never touched her chair. I invite her back to the group and sit her right next to me -- her favorite place in the room.

A little young, I tell myself on the first day. Not ready for first grade and the rigors of state standards. I'm new to the school so I do not know her history. Perhaps she's just young for her age. I can't help thinking someone dropped the ball here. She's a kindergartner dressed in first-grade clothing.

When I check her file in the office, I am dumbfounded by an inch-thick IEP folder. This is not good news. An Individualized Education Program usually signals some serious area of concern. The plan spells out goals for the student and how the teacher will monitor and assess the accomplishment of those goals. Benchmarks are set. Meetings are held. I've never had a first grader with an IEP. Most students come equipped with a slim folder holding their vaccination records and birth certificate. What could possibly be wrong with this girl that warrants this level of scrutiny?

The answer: nothing. She has an older brother with a learning disability and anxious parents who want to make sure Katy doesn't "fall through the cracks." I keep reading, looking for a diagnosis, some indication that there is something wrong with this sprite. But the only thing I see is that she "doesn't know her entire alphabet." She can't write all her numbers to thirty. She's "inattentive" during instruction.

There is nothing wrong with Katy except that she is a kindergartner deprived of kindergarten. Ten years ago she would have been in the dress-up corner in front of the mirror, draping feather boas across her thin shoulders. But on this particular day, she's a first grader with an IEP and goals that are unattainable for someone at her stage of development. She will go to special classes three times a week to make up for her "deficits." She will continue to smile boldly, but soon she will start to wonder what is wrong with her. She will leave our classroom three times a week and trudge, not dance, down to room 15. She will start to feel the weight of those goals. The benchmarks will pinch just a bit.

Katy is not my first kindergartner. In the past five years, as expectations have continued to expand at each grade level, teachers have scrambled to help students feel successful. A good proportion of my class is not at grade level. They are taking multiple-choice tests and filling in bubbles with the anxiety of their older siblings. We throw around terms like "algebra" and "response to literature" to six-year-olds who are barely decoding words. We push and cajole and yes, sometimes secretly curse the child with her head in the clouds. We are accountable. We are observed. Our jobs may depend on the ability of our students to understand the subtle distinction between strategies like "predict" and "infer."

There is no kindergarten. It has gone the way of the little red wagon and mud pies. The time when children learned how to go to school, how to use a tricycle, or wait their turn on the swing is gone. These were important skills -- vital to success in the grades to come. We do not have time to teach them now. We have worksheets that need completing. We have take-home books to copy and homework packets to staple. We have accountability.

I look down at Katy while she copies the words from the whiteboard. Every now and then, she holds up her paper for me to see, and smiles. I love how the light dances off the rhinestones on her tiara. And I wonder how long it will be before someone tells her that she can't wear hats in class and she can't dance in the hallways. I will miss the pink feathers and rainbow poncho. But while she is mine, I will dance around the rules just a little and find places for her to stand, not sit. I will teach her what I can to the best of my ability. I will hold off, as long as I can, the weight of the file that dogs her footsteps. And I'll look for a rainbow poncho of my own to remind me that the Katys of this world just might be on the brink of extinction.

Dispatches: Childhood
Credit: Indigo Flores
M. Jones is a pseudonym for an elementary school teacher in northern California.

This article originally published on 3/18/2008

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Jeffrey Slattery (not verified)

Wrecking childhood

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I have to agree with the fact there is a destruction of childrood with intent but it is not conspiracy just ignorance of developmental theory, selfishness, apathy and a lack of accountability. We as teachers must put our jobs and beliefs on the line and stand up to the system, force change, hold people accountable and be our kid's advocates.

Jeffrey Slattery (not verified)

Childhood lost

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I too am a middle school teacher and my kids have been passed on. They act like little kids because they do not get to be kids on the streets of Baltimore or growing up. I have been teaching for three years in the city and I feel my kids do not get a chance to be that and many of my boys are on IEP's and do not need them. After years of developmentally inappropriate education and demands and additional environmental issues also take that childhood from them. The schools are contributing to this destruction as is the media and pop culture elements. It is a shame and saddens me.

Amy Adams (not verified)

Ending too soon!!

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My school has just changed over from 3/4 day Kindergarten to Full day Kindergarten. I am absolutely loving the extra time at the end of the day. My students are finally “allowed” to play. For 1 hour I lay out materials, games, activities, paint, and let them “go at it”!!! They have come up with the most creative activities and many of my brainstorming ideas come from my students at that time. It gives me a chance to see who my students are and listen to them without the feeling of being RUSHED through the academic part of the morning.
If I spent that hour for what the district wants me to do, I would be progress monitoring for the DIBLES tests and making sure they are “ready for 1st grade”. I have to slow down and remember that I am only 6 weeks into my school year with these kids. And that is just what they are… KIDS.
Is there anything that we can do? Write our politicians? Make this a public issue? Discuss our frustrations at a state level!?!? I want to know what I can do to make a change and a difference for our students! I agree with some of the other bloggers that Mom’s and Dad’s used to spend time with their children teaching them their letters, numbers, shapes, colors, and the correct ways to play. I have found from my experience lately that parents are spending LESS time with their children. My parents at my school are too busy working three jobs to keep food on the tables or uneducated on how to raise their children. I would love to see our country take three steps back and start educating the parents on how to educate and nurture our students.

Hilda (not verified)

kinder blues

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Dear Melissa,I was reading your post and couldn't agree more. Our kids are not allowed to be kids. I used to teach Kindergarten a couple of years ago and finally one day I just could not cram another boring, repetitive, phonic skill down their throat. Our district had adopted a new reading curriculum, not in the best interest of 5 year olds but in the interest of test scores. I could not teach a program that I did not believe in. At the time my daughter was three and I thought I do not want my daughter to have to go to school and be taught this way. What happened to getting children interested in reading by reading rich literature to them? Suddenly I could not read stories that my kids had loved before, now it was all about this new curriculum. I left teaching because my kinder kids suddenly all hated reading. It broke my heart to hear them say this over and over. "Not reading againg, its boring, I hate reading " etc... How are we going to have children who are life-long learners if we push so hard that they don't want to do learn because they love to learn(or are intereted) but because we make they have too. I think adults forget sometimes how they feel when they have to do something that they do not want to do. I think parents would be wise to hold off one more year in sending their five year old to a Kindergarten class. Have your child be a child one more year. What a great gift.

Nia (not verified)

Competitive Culture

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"Parents have absorbed the competitive culture of the U.S. economy and we pressure our kids to compete, we over schedule them."

I agree with you. I have seen several parents frustrated and yelling at their first graders for not understanding how to read. As educators, we stress the importance of "the test" and the parents really feel the pressure.

Nia (not verified)

First Grade Teacher

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I agree with you. I am a first grade teacher but taught kindergarten for a year. It was because of my experience in first grade that I knew what my kindergarten students needed to know in order to be prepared for first grade. I felt that if I didn't teach them to read, write sentences and solve basic math problems they would fall behind in first grade. As a first grade teacher, I see the difference between the students who played in kindergarten and those who learned to read, write, and solve math problems. As first grade teachers, we get frustrated with the fact that children in kindergarten play because the pressure is on us to see to it that they pass the standardized tests. It's unfortunate that these expectations are placed on such young children.

Melissa (not verified)

Childhood's End

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We all seem to agree that we are stealing the childhood away from our children. Why do we continue to do it? We do it because the people who develop state standards and researched based curriculums have never been in the classroom with 4-6 year olds or have been out of the classroom for so long that they are clueless. I teach a full day kindergarten. At least that's what it's called because I feel as if I am teaching 1st and 2nd grade to my 5 year olds. They have to be reading, writing, and doing simple math problem solving by the end of the year. Every year something new is pushed into kindergarten. Last year it was a spelling program, including tests, for the last third of the school year. I can only imagine what they will tell us to do this year. To make things worse - our district just started a full day 3 & 4 year old program. I don't understand why 3 year olds have to be in school all day five days a week.

Martha (not verified)

I challenge your notion that

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I challenge your notion that the people in charge are not fundamentally interested in our children. While I could write a book delving into the numerous levels of government and administrative employees that play a role in determining what the "standard" is that is on these standardized tests, I'm going to stick to the school level.

There are definitely teachers in my school whose content knowledge, motivation and intentions I question. However, fundamentally, every single person I have interacted with - teacher, administrator, city district official, secretary, and so on - are committed to our students' achievement and success. It is often said at my school that "all parents want what is best for their child." I, then, say that all educators want what is best for their students. The saying goes on, "We may not agree on what is 'best' or what the appropriate next step is, but the end goal is the same." So, I say the same. The path toward the end goal of both protecting and promoting our students in the public educational system may be disputable, but I wholeheartedly believe that educators fundamentally DO want what is in the best interest of their students.

Martha (not verified)

Allow me to push back here;

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Allow me to push back here; however, why can't you teach all of these essential skills WITH your curriculum, and not IN ADDITION TO what you already must do? I, too, a high school teacher (11th and 12th grades) have been able to develop ways to weave essential life skills into the quilt of my classroom environment. Hold students accountable - even teach them what "accountable" means! If an assignment is due and a student turns it in late, issue a consequence. If a student does something favorable, offer due praise!

Admittedly, it took me some time to figure out exactly how I was going to make it happen with an administration breathing down my neck to stick to the curriculum and constant reminders to push my students forward with rigorous content and pacing. But, when I found my stride and developed systems that worked for me, I've been very successful.

"No, a three sentence response is not a paragraph."
"No, I will not accept work that is half done - try that in your real-world job."
"Yes, you have been working above the bar that was set and a reward is in order."
"Yes, when I say you will receive a zero, you will, in fact, receive a zero."

Bring the real world context into the classroom and start remediating the basic life skills that your high school students MUST have in order to have any hope of independence, success and survival in the "real world". I don't know anyone who has taught an explicit lesson consequences, time management, self-responsibility, as you mentioned. Rather, I know outstanding teachers who have remained true to their content, accountable to their administration and curriculums, and still successfully woven the indirect instruction about "all things required of us in our adult lives" into their classrooms without so much as skipping a beat.

Martha (not verified)

I have to admit that I

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I have to admit that I laughed when I read that your daughter's data concluded that she was "consistently inconsistent". As a teacher of 17 and 18 year olds, you had better believe that regarding some matters in my classroom I am consistently inconsistent!! Isn't that what makes us human?

From the perspective of an educator, one thing that truly aggravates me is are the IEPs that explicitly outline every last detail that is wrong with a student's development. Then, the student is tagged - labeled with a number and acronym, ED, 09, 14, OHI, and so on. Working in a school environment with some teachers who have become jaded by their decades spent in a broken system, I see teachers say, "Oh, Deonte is ED." as if those two letters explain how he is going to behave, achieve and not understand the information presented to him day in and day out. I think that all IEPs should come with a clause stating "consistently inconsistent". In Deonte's case, he is one of the most alive students I have. Always eager to come to class and quite genuinely happy with his life, he has worked his way into my heart. And what about his label on the IEP that supposedly defines and explains his "daily" behaviors? It needs a clause; an asterisk saying, "Don't be thrown off if Deonte is not consistent with his behavioral pattern outlined in his IEP. He's only human. You have good and bad days, too."

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