Where Is the Rage?

Five, overall, is a time of great happiness.
Life is “good” says the five year old.
Chip Wood, Yardsticks

Ah, but if it could be true that the school life of a five-year-old was filled with great happiness!

This week I received an email from a kindergarten teacher working in a South Bronx, New York public school. After teaching pre-kindergarten for the last few years, she was now moving up to kindergarten. At her request, we met during the summer vacation to plan out a Playground Study for the start of the school year. Not having heard from her, I emailed her to find out how the study was progressing and this is her response:

“In answer to your question: currently 22 children that are great BUT there is reading workshop, writing workshop, everyday math, social studies and science…with formative assessments, summative assessments for each subject, each unit…performance tasks, curriculum mapping, Fundations, conferring, ECLAS, and of course the COMMON CORE…. and more I’m probably forgetting. If it weren’t so exhausting I’d think it’s hilarious. The object seems to be to give us so much to do that both we and the system implode and be declared broken and the corporations march in to the “rescue”. We DO have choice time which saves the day. The children are literally in ecstasy when they get to play. I began to do the playground study but frankly Renee, right now I can’t take on one more thing. Since this is all new to me I’m learning to manage just the million things I’m supposed to do…including writing down the CC standards for each lesson each day, everyday of the week. That alone takes several hours. Fortunately my colleagues found a $25 lesson plan app that lets you just click on the CC standard!!! See? Someone else is making money off of this absurdity. On the other hand I LOVE working with this age…the children are so enthusiastic and able and easy to motivate. I just hope I don’t get “in trouble” for too much singing.”

*****

The NAEYC position statements on developmentally appropriate practices (Bredekamp, 1986; Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; NAEYC, 2009) have addressed developmentally inappropriate and problematic practices such as predominantly teacher-directed tasks, highly structured classes, large group work, paper/pencil tasks, rote learning, direct teaching of discrete skills, punishment, extrinsic rewards, and standardized assessment. These examples stand in contrast to developmentally appropriate practices, such as encouragement of active exploration, a predominance of concrete experiences, positive guidance, and interactions that promote healthy self-esteem and positive feelings toward school.
Lori A. Jackson,Observing Children’s Stress Behaviors in a Kindergarten Classroom

*****

After reading the email from the Bronx teacher, I began to think about other classrooms around the city. Last year I spent time in Bill Fulbrecht’s kindergarten class in Park Slope, an upscale Brooklyn, NY neighborhood. Bill spends an hour each day on Choice Time and he takes his children out to the schoolyard to play every day. Although he has complained to me about the time spent on completing many assessments, he still has some freedom to give children many opportunities for play and exploration during the course of the school day. But is this happening around the city? What is happening in schools where there are mainly children who are eligible for free lunch and who come from homes where families are struggling to just ‘get by’? I decided to send out a few more emails.

Some years ago I had the opportunity to work with a wonderfully dedicated and enthusiastic young first grade teacher in a school in East Flatbush Brooklyn, New York. This year he is teaching kindergarten. Like the teacher in the Bronx, he too contacted me this summer for some ideas about creating an exciting inquiry-based curriculum for his kindergarteners. His school population is mainly African-American. About ¾ of the children in the school are eligible for free lunch.

In response to my email, I received his kindergarten schedule along with some of his comments. Luckily for the children, they have a teacher who tries in every way that he can to add some joy and excitement to their day in school. However, as you can see by his schedule, this is quite a challenge!

“I must admit; as per the common core curriculum and its push for rigor, the majority of the school day is spent on academics.
This is an average day in my classroom.
8:00 to 8:20:  Morning routine. (calendar routines, morning message, poem and chants )
8:20 to 10:05:  Literacy workshop ( shared reading, read aloud, Fundations phonics, independent reading, guided reading) Students will work in their literacy stations during guided reading.
10:05 to 10:55:  Lunch
10:55 to 11:40:  Math workshop
11:45 to 12:40:  Cluster
12:45 to 1:30:  Writers workshop
1:35 to 2:23 Social studies or science
Choice time is usually squeezed into the end of the day for 20 minutes. That is my day in a nutshell.
I plan lessons that allow the student to work in groups to explore and inquire. I have noticed the importance of play especially since I moved to kindergarten.
Unfortunately, with the new expectations there is little time left in the day to allow choice time. Teachers feel the pressure to push and pressure their students to work with rigor.
Assessments
September is all about assessing our students. I assess while the students are in literacy stations and I also take students out of their cluster specials to assess. We have to do assessments in both literacy and math.
Playground
A specific 45 minutes weekly block is planned by the school for the pre-K to first grade students. Student occasionally get to play for 10 minutes during their lunch break. Unfortunately recess is over before it gets started.”

*****

There is a great deal of evidence that the road to mastery of any subject is guided by play. Learning a subject by rote can take one only so far.
Stuart Brown, M.D. with Christopher Vaughan, founder of the National Institute for Play
Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

*****

How is someone who is steeped in the theories and beliefs of good early childhood education supposed to react to the reality of contemporary kindergarten education? Many teachers who have had years of experience teaching young children, using developmentally appropriate and intellectually challenging practices are either taking an earlier-than-expected retirement or moving out of the grade.

My friend Herb Bleich came to teaching as a second career. He brought his astute intellect, his love of children, his passion for music and his joy of life to his classroom. In his Central Harlem, New York public school his kindergarten classroom was an oasis of joy. A few years ago, however, he saw clearly the handwriting on the wall and realized that the nature of his kindergarten program was going to be forced to change. Rather than do that, he decided to teach pre-kindergarten. I emailed Herb and asked if he too could share his thoughts. Here is his response:

“Despite the fact that I really loved kindergarten, I certainly felt it was a never- ending rat race to keep up with everything. One thing that stands out in my mind was the rush everyday to check homework during lunch, and supply new homework. I remember thinking that if I could go to pre-k, the pressure would be so much less, and I could keep it up forever. (It is less, but as always I seem to put pressure on myself, and lately official pressure is creeping in as well.)

In terms of your questions, I managed during my five years in kindergarten to always start the day with an hour of choice time. The other main blocks were readers’ workshop, writers’ workshop, and math. The class had limited outdoor play during the lunch period. The main assessment as I remember was E-CLAS, which I did during prep. I was under your influence during those years, and my administration left me pretty much alone.
However, my kindergarten experience ended seven years ago, and today it’s a totally different story. Choice time is gone in our K classes, the day is divided into mandated blocks as you would suspect, and yes, lots of class time is devoted to assessment (eg., frequent F & P reading levels, math and ELA unit tests).

Incidentally, about a year after I left kindergarten some sage from the District visited the school and instructed that the kindergartens’ blocks should be thrown away; time needed to be devoted to academics. (I salvaged them from the trash.)

I’ve always felt I left kindergarten just in time.”

*****

Play is far older than humans. It’s so familiar to us, so deeply ingrained in the matrix of our childhood, that we take it for granted. But consider this: ants don’t play. They don’t need to. Programmed for certain behaviors, they automatically perform them from birth. Learning through repetition, honed skills, and ingenuity isn’t required in their heritage. The more an animal needs to learn in order to survive, the more it needs to play…Play is widespread among animals because it invites problem-solving, allowing a creature to test its limits and develop strategies. In a dangerous world, where dramas change daily, survival belongs to the agile not the idle. We may think of play as optional, a casual activity. But play is fundamental to evolution. Without play, humans and many other animals would perish.

Diane Ackerman, Deep Play
*****

Where is the rage against this rigid, joyless curriculum?

15 thoughts on “Where Is the Rage?

  1. Pat Lynch

    Renee,
    For me, a rage usually has some degree of irrational thought attached. You voice deep, thoughtful concern. Your current blog does, however, point to the irrational educational stance that is being promoted in our NYC schools. Why is it that those schools with the poorest children-who possess the smallest political voices-continue to get curriculum that leads to nowhere? No play, no rich critical thought, no project-based learning, no real literacy with conversation and joy and fun (not fundations.)
    Keep up the fervent passion and I hope that those at the helm begin to acknowledge the mess they have gotten into.

    Reply
  2. eve mutchnick

    I am retiring after this year. I taught kindergarten for 25 of my 30 years with NYC dept of ed… these last 5 have been in full day pre k. I thought I was “safe” I knew all my kindergarteners benifited from an intergrated, child centered, developmentally appropriate kindergarten experience free from basal reading programs dressed up as literature , math exemplars and common core standards, and portfolios and rubrix all amassing over the past few years . Each year was different, each child was different, what we studied was different. What was the same each year was the building of a community of learners, and lovers of literature, and great stoytellers… Now my 4 year olds have to “perform” like 5 year olds. I have 5 kids who are still 3!!

    Reply
    1. Renee Post author

      Eve, this is so sad, isn’t it? Perhaps we should start some kind of advocacy group. What do you think?

      Reply
  3. Aeriale

    And this is why I teach on an island in the Arctic Ocean, Renee. Unfortunately, with each passing year, the nonsense creeps closer and closer to my classroom door. I keep it shut tightly, but I don’t know how long it will withstand the pressure. Soon, I fear, I’ll be told to comply or else be escorted to the nearest exit. I love the question you’ve posed here. I want to spend some time with it before I answer it, though. Thank you for always making me think!

    Reply
    1. Renee Post author

      Thank you, Aeriale, for teaching! I’m afraid that eventually, anyone with a true understanding of what children need and with the ‘grit’ to follow through on this understanding, will be discouraged from entering the profession.

      Reply
  4. David Greene

    What if everyone showed up and refused to continue this nonsense? What if everyone, instead, sent the research and books on why none of this type of forced NCLB-RTTT teaching works until children are cognitively ready? What if we sent, instead of assessments of kids and us, assessments about this plan as compared to Finland, which doesn’t start formal school and reading until students are 7 years old? What if we just told them to get lost?

    Reply
    1. Renee Post author

      David, I agree with your plan to revolt against this insanity (and, I might say, child abuse). The problem is that many new teachers, while they feel overwhelmed, don’t necessarily understand that this is not the way kindergarten should look. My question is, how can we educate the new teachers? How can we educate and support parents? Any suggestions?

      Reply
  5. Tomasen

    Renee,
    Thank you for writing this! I am forwarding it to every teacher I know!! I am SO there with you! Much of my experience teaching was in 3rd, 4th and 5th grade…where I had blocks, games, a dress-up trunk and a puppet theater and ALL grades LOVED to “play”. I am not sure how we have let all of the joy get sucked out of learning.
    Everyday I think about going to Italy with you all as I do believe some kind of change will happen from such a powerful group going to this all together…and I want to be on that wave of enthusiasm with you all!! The words of these teachers is so commonplace now…and again…I can only ask HOW have we let this happen as a profession.
    As always I love reading your blog!!
    Best,
    Tomasen

    Reply
  6. Renee Post author

    Thank you Tomasan. I’m so disappointed that I won’t meet you on the trip to Reggio. We MUST find a way to meet, talk, conspire…..

    Reply
  7. Amy Meltzer

    Renee – Your blog is a fantastic resource for me. I have a few questions I’m aching to ask you, but can’t figure out how to contact you. I’m an elementary educator teaching Kindergarten – committed to choice and play but also feel a lot of the time as if I’m figuring it all out on my own – despite the full support of my admin at a private school.
    1.’m looking for a (short) list of professional books to support my growth
    2. I’m interested in exploring the issue of how much you structure choice time (today the block area is open for making such and such) versus making it completely free choice. I guess what I’m wondering is how to encourage use of our choice areas to support the curriculum and inspire kids to expand creatively on what we are learning without adding a rigidity to their choice time. Any chance you can address these in a post or respond to me? Also, if you will be presenting at any conferences or workshops that are open to the public, would love to know.

    Thanks for your time and wisdom.

    Reply
  8. Lan Nguyen

    I think most of us recall childhood with much nostalgia for the playtime and being carefree – the sheer joy and innocence of being a child. The changes in the education system are suppose to better prepare our children to succeed in the world…but does it really prepare them to succeed in life as a “whole person”? It astounds me the pressure placed on children so early. I know in the NYC area that both private school and public school education can be very stressful for parents, getting your kids into the right schools. My son Maxi is lucky enough to attend wonderful PS321, where Mr. Bill Fullbrecht mentioned in the blog below was his K-teacher. But I see the school struggling to implement the required teaching changes and the effect on the community they’ve so carefully built over the years that make it such a great school.

    Reply
  9. sylvia hyland

    when my son was in kindergarten,many years ago, he ran out of the building and played on the swings. he was so bored. the teachers were terrified and searched for him.
    even at that time he needed to play.
    i find that too many teachers are like sheep and will never show rage.
    where is the fun, the joy, theb play in being a child?

    Reply
  10. Renee Post author

    Sylvia, I wonder if the blame is on the teachers or if it’s something greater than them….edicts handed down from “above” that they are being pressured into obeying?

    Reply
  11. Beth Moore

    Throw away the blocks??!! It doesn’t have to be this way. There are pockets around the city and around the country where teachers and administrators are working together to continue their own learning as educators, to make positive changes in their methodology and curriculum WITHOUT going off the deep end. I really appreciate the thoughtful tone of this post. It’s so easy to want to point the finger at someone else when we all need to be working together.

    Reply
    1. Renee Post author

      Beth,
      I so agree with you, especially about the need for us to be working together. I actually wish that NAEYC would be more active in speaking out for early childhood beyond pre-k. Teachers need this support and this advocacy.

      Reply

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