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.
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.
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?