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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
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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

Kristen McGLynn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too, am a middle school Language Arts teacher seeing many of the same things that you mentioned. Sometimes I am amazed by my students abilities to pass a multiple choice test, and inversely, their inability to answer open-ended questions. At some point the scaffolding into higher level thinking has not happened. When I ask my students to form an opinion on a topic, they look at my like I'm speaking Greek. However, if I ask them to make a "prediction" about something, several hands shoot up. This is one of the many "trigger" skills that I've found my students have been tested on heavily in the past on standardized assessments. I often wonder how deep my students deficits run because of the lack of healthy play, and sometimes I believe I'm scared to truly find out.

Kristen McGlynn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I wonder what would happen if they made an IEP for every student? I hear what you are saying so clearly: aren't we all a little special in some ways? Ideally if you could teach an individual lesson to fit every students disposition on every given day we could truly achieve the classroom environment that we'd like to see. However, given that every student is different, and that we have specific criterian to meet, we must "differentiate" and hope for the best. In a perfect world, those differentiated lessons would occur all the time and meet every students goals. However, given that most of the time they don't, we label the students who don't "fit in" to the mold of each lesson with acronyms and numbers. Perhaps this contributes to the fact that our very human students with IEP's tend to be "consistantly inconsistant."

Kristen McGlynn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It often seems like we are fighting a battle between what is best for a student socially vs. what is best for a student academically. Certainly it seems that it might be beneficial to students to get a head start on reading, writing, and mathematics. However, don't we sacrifice what's best for the students socially in the process? Learning through play is a vital skill for young children. They learn how to communicate with one another, govern themselves, form opinions about rights and wrongs, and ultimately learn what it means to be a good friend. Friendship is one of those precious pleasures in life that can bring true happiness to a persons life, and isn't what this country is all, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

erik's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I appreciate the comments made by previous posters about the connection between lost childhood and added pressure from state assessments. The environment in which I teach seems to have particular pressure because of the school districts continual low performance. The students I now teach (10th grade) have faced pressure from middle school assessments, and in many cases elementary. Having faced this pressure for so many years of their school career, the students have come to expect this kind of education. This has to my detriment affected the kind of teacher I have to be. Ideally, teachers will lead profound discussions in class with full participation. Now we are faced with students who only want worksheets and review questions with simple answers. Provoking discussion is painstaking. I can recall several particular students of mine who, when absent, would return asking for "packets" of make-up work, rather than attending coach class to receive the education they would have, and deserve to have gotten. They don't have the desire to learn, just to get passing grades. State standards and assessments has robbed children of their natural inquiry and replaced it with demands for standardized performance.

Mary Gardner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I taught Kindergarten last year. I work in East Baltimore and as teachers we are told from the first day that our students are already at a disadvantage in terms of vocabulary, exposure to books and print and in the ways they communicate. I remember the sense of urgency that I used to feel. I often felt as if there was no time for them to play. As the year went on, I realized how important play time was. I realized how much more I could actually get out of them if I gave them time to be themselves, run, play and relax. I also loved to see them play. They were so happy on the playground. I saw how much they cared about each other. It is sad that we have gotten to the point where children are no longer encouraged to be children in the fullest sense. Having said that, I also realize how much further behind my kindergarteners were than their more affluent counterparts. I wouldn't exactly argue that I'd rather they play than be taught to read. Now that I teach third grade, I have to remind myself even more that these are kids. I take them to the playground once a week. I'm always looking for more ways to let them be nine year olds and meet the goals set out for me by my school.

Denny Wilkerson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your kids only go to the playground once a WEEK?! If my schools are like that, I hope I have the opportunity to homeschool when I have kids so I can take them to the playground/park/zoo/museum/lake/river/etc daily when possible. How often do they take gym class? I hope that that is more often! Good luck with your kids - I hope you're able to find indoor time that can be play time for them.

I teach 2s, and we are on the playground pretty much all the time - I often think we don't have enough time playing with the inside toys. But there's only so much time in the day - and kids need time to be kids and play and have fun.

Denny Wilkerson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Melissa -

I think having a full day 3s and 4s program is a good idea. From my understanding, these programs are available for parents that choose to use them, but they are not required like school for older children. Many parents need full day care, and having it provided by the public schools helps to insure that it's affordable and that kids are doing activities that prepare them for elementary school. I don't know how the teachers in the 3s and 4s classes teach and therefore cannot say that they are wonderful or awful teachers, but it is good that the children have the opportunity to be in a classroom. They don't have to be in school 5 days a week, but it certainly makes it easier for parents, who presumably work full time. I teach two-year-olds at a full day private preschool, and some of the kids come 2 or 3 days a week, but the rest come 5 days a week. The kids who come part-time often don't know the schedule or don't know other important things, like their friends' names. I hope that the 3s and 4s teachers at your school focus on a lot of play and that those children are enjoying their first school experience.


Denny's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that Summerhill is a great example of how education should be - children spending a lot of time playing, learning what they want when they want, and being involved in a society. I hope more schools like Summerhill are opening all the time.

Charles's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I remember when I was in elementary school in the 1940s. It was a no pressure atmosphere where I was able to grow up feeling the love of my family and a sense of community. But today I look at my grandchildren and I see that they are being deprived of a childhood by unfair pressure their schools- and parents- put on them. I was able to do fine in High School and college despite not having a super- pressure Elementary school experience. America is really stabbing itself in the back- starting to pressure kids at such a young age takes away from the love of America kids who have a good public school experience have.

Bob's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Throw creativity out the window- we need conformity and standardized benchmarks. Why teach creativity or conceptual understanding when you can have teachers "teach" memorization to optimize standardized test scores. All in all we're just another brick in the wall.

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