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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Children Have to Grow Up Too Fast

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

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

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