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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.

Comments (99)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

June Arney's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was so encouraged that you have been able to find solutions on how to attain the curriculum goal while still making it fun and letting children be children. I know there have to be ways to do that, but right now as a new teacher, it still seems challenging to me. I have one second grader, who is so talented in language arts with wonderful ideas to share during discussions. But because of the life he lives, he doesn't have a real chance to enjoy his childhood. I think that is one of the reasons that he comes into the classroom and still very much needs to play. I'm looking for ideas and how to keep it all fun and lively. Some days go better than others. I guess it will always be that way.

June Arney's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you. And the thing that bothers me the most is that it doesn't seem like America is showing great results from all the high-pressure, test-centered education. Our math and science scores are behind those of many countries and the ability to read and write appears to be declining. So what do we have to show for ourselves? The values that you and I enjoyed as children and the love of family and sense of community are lost for the most part. I would love to see us return to a more traditional era, with less stressful lives. Pushing children to achieve in the way we are doing it, does not seem to be working. I know we have to set high standards, but let's make sure we have goals worth reaching and let them stretch their imaginations. Let's not force them into reaching arbitrary goals. We need to make sure the achievement means something once they reach it. They need that inspiration to reach for the stars.

Marlene A's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can remember my days of elementary school as it were yesterday. I remember being in GT programs that were FUN, ACADEMICALLY CHALLENGING, and ENGAGING. Now, as a second grade teacher, I pride myself on providing those same type of experiences for all of my students! However, the pressure of meeting administrative demands hinders me doing that. I long for the days when I can give my students free-time to play, have-fun, and enjoy being children, without worrying about deadlines, data, and assessments!

This article hit home when it mentioned the "first grader with an IEP". It's a sad reality for most of the children attending my school. All I can do is shake my head...

Margaret, I would suggest that you have a conversation with your child's teacher concerning your expectations. In addition, you may need to talk to the PTO and school administration team addressing your concerns. Parents play a major role in making sure that their child is given a quality education that meets his/her unique needs. So, speak up and let your voice be heard!

Shawna B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I don't think it is a teacher's job to protect the childhood of the student, it is the job of the parent. While we may be placing a tremendous amount of responsibility on our students, as a parent and a teacher, I feel that when my 4 year old is in pre-k all day it is my daughter's job to sit quietly and listen to her teacher, and when I get her home she can dance and sing and jump as much as she would like. I see so many students who were never taught to sit quietly, or raise their hand quietly when they would like to speak in the classroom, making things extremely difficult for the second and third grade teachers. Of course there must be a balance; however, I feel very strongly that certain things are the responsibility of the teacher, while others are the responsibility of the parent.

Shawna B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Can't observation show us our students needs and weaknesses? And shouldn't differentiated instruction allow us to plan for the weaknesses and strengths of all students?

Shawna B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also agree with the article, but as a teacher who is constantly being pressured about date, and test scores, it is extremely difficult to find a balance. I know I would love to do more fun, hands-on activities with my students, or allow them more time for free play, but all I hear about is the importance of standardized test scores. Coupled with a curriculum that provides very little room for deviation, this is very difficult to do!

Laura C's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article made me think of the way we teach writing in school. I remember being in school and having so much time to just write stories I created. Sometimes my stories followed a plot line, sometimes they didn't, but the important thing was that they were my ideas and I was allowed to express them any way I wanted. I teach middle school, and my students have trouble thinking of writing as anything more than a series of responses to literature in the form of BCRs and ECRs. I hope that as I grow into a better teacher, I can find ways to inspire my students to write creatively, because I think that is an important part of not only becoming a good writer, but also enjoying your childhood.

Karen F's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Reading this article made me think back to my own elementary school experience, which was filled with all kinds of creative activities which encouraged the imagination and stressed critical thinking. My first grade room was filled with centers for things like playing dress up or growing flowers, not with diffentiated worksheests. We were encouraged to write and illustrate stories-even in middle school. Writer's Workshop came to class every week and taught brainstorming strategies and creative writing. When I think of the 8th grade classroom I now teach in, I wonder where all of these things went. All the graphic organizers and sentence starters in the world can't help a child who's imagination has been marginalized since they first began school. After all, high stakes tests do not assess creativity, and so it is pushed aside. Perhaps this results in higer scores, but at what expense? I look at the faces of my 8th graders and wonder: how would their lives be different if they had been allowed to play, to dream, and to imagine--not only in their homes but in their schools as well?

linda barkenbush's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You make an excellent point Shawna. Balance is something that is often overlooked, in the classroom and at home. Yes, it is important for children to have fun, explore, and be creative. However, it is also important for them to know that there is a time and place for their actions. When dress-up time is over, its time to clean up, come to the carpet, and listen to the teacher. School teaches them not only to read and write, but how to treat others and be responsible for their actions. Hopefully, this continues at home. I agree that parents need to take responsibility and reinforce appropriate behavior at school and home. All three groups need to be ACCOUNTABLE in order for a child to succeed. Teachers and parents should use their discretion and good sense to determine a child's needs.

linda barkenbush's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You make and excellent point Shawna. Balance is often missing in the classroom as well as the home. Yes, it is important for children to have fun explore, and be creative. However, they also need to know that there is a time and place for everything. When dress-up time is over, it's time to clean up, sit on the carpet, and listen to the teacher. School not only teaches kids reading, math, and whatever else is on the Stanford 10. It teaches them how to work with others and be responsible for their actions. Ideally, they are also being taught this at home. I strongly agree that parents need to teach and model appropriate behavior in school and at home. Also, teachers & parents should communicate in some fashion to keep the expectations consistent. All three groups(students, parents, teachers) need to show accountability for the child to succeed.

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