Child development and why it matters

So much to think about these past two weeks… I’m having trouble reining myself in.

I spent this weekend in Philadelphia, where public schools barely opened this fall due to lack of funding, where hundreds of teachers have been fired and a slew of charters open up each year, some good and many mediocre. I think I annoyed my friends because all I could talk about was the school system, and consequently scrutinized every school building I passed for signs of decay.  I kept wistfully thinking about upcoming elections, the idea of ousting Governor Corbett, the engineer of Philly’s crisis, and wondering what De Blasio might do in office in NY. Earlier this week, I heard rumors of Bloomberg’s attempted sale of several branch libraries to real estate developers. I thought of all of my students who don’t have books at home because their parents can’t afford to buy them, and who dutifully go to the library after school and are so excited to tell me about what they found. I was reminded how many preconditions need to be in place for children to be successful in school, and how many of the few societal structures intended to mitigate the effects of poverty on child development, like libraries  and affordable housing, are being scrapped in favor of cash and in this case, luxury condos.

At school, we had yet another meeting about the new teacher evaluation system. I saw the looks on teachers’ faces, dedicated teachers who work 12 hours a day and weekends, whose students and parents love and respect them, and who in their own words are completely “demoralized.” I realized that the teachers union is driven by older teachers who are either close to retirement or retired and have completely different interests than teachers entering the field today. For newer teachers, the evaluation system is making us rethink whether we even want to teach in public schools, whether we can put aside our knowledge of what children need and teach to the test to save our jobs. My friend rightly pointed out that part of the problem is that young teachers don’t get involved in the union. So, I am now resolved to attend union meetings and am on the prowl for radical sub-groups. (NY-CORE here I come!)

Meanwhile, I was pulled for a last minute teacher’s college professional development session, where I was told the right way to teach reading, ( down to what words to say in each lesson) and the wrong way. TC has great curriculum and is a wonderful resource for teachers. But if I don’t organize my library the way they suggest because I think something else would work for my class,  I don’t think my students will end up in prison or working at McDonalds. In fact, if I think about where my students actually are developmentally, what they actually need, and not what a scripted curriculum tells me they need, I think they might be more engaged and more successful in the long run, perhaps even less likely to end up in prison. And yet the staff developer leading the session almost had a panic attack when I told her that my students were not able to read quietly and independently for 30 minutes yet and that we planned on structuring our guided reading groups slightly differently than Teachers’ College intended. ( Keep in mind, some of my students can’t read at all, and many of them are still 6. Think of any six year old you’ve ever met- how long are they able to sit still for?) When kids are not ready, they’re not ready, and when you force them into something they can’t do, they end up frustrated and alienated, convinced they’re not smart enough for school and that there is no point in trying, even in only first or second grade. I’ve seen it. ( And no, I am not saying we shouldn’t challenge students, but there is a difference between a challenge and an inappropriate expectation.) The reason she panicked was not because typically developing six year old children should be able to read for 30 minutes straight or because our approach to guided reading was so radical. Rather it was because less than two years from now, these kids will have to sit for 70 minute ELA tests, child development be damned.  If someone up there in the stratosphere of the politics of standardization had trusted a teacher or parent or child and thought to ask,”Where are 8 year old children developmentally?” I guarantee that the tests would be half as long, and twice as useful.

The latest thing in teaching is scripted curriculum, even though everyone knows that good teachers know their kids and adapt what they teach to what they need and what excites them, and that a poor teacher is not made better by following a script.  Some of these curricula are  good, some are terrible and only serve to alienate students and teachers. All teachers know the experience of scrutinizing a teachers guide and thinking, this just doesn’t make sense. Is this really a thirty minute mini-lesson for first graders? This language is way too abstract for my kids. This assignment is visually confusing etc. ( I’m talking to you Go-Math)  We need the freedom to make that call and not teach what doesn’t make sense to us and for our students, or in some cases with these brand new untested curricula, what doesn’t make sense for anyone. When teachers are forced to cling to their clipboards and read their scripts, they lose not only a sense of agency and investment, but the ability to think on their feet and respond to student needs and interests. Teachers need to deeply understand and know what they’re teaching, and when teachers have a hand in forming curricula they are able to be flexible and respond to student needs, to be reflective and critical, to draw on their strengths and prior experiences,  to dig deeper and facilitate truly groundbreaking learning experiences.

My co-teacher and I planned an interdisciplinary science and social studies project by thinking about what six and seven year olds from Brooklyn can get behind, what they already know and care about, about the neighborhoods they live in and real life problems in NYC as a way to drive our study of NYC geography, geology and culture, while creating ample opportunities for student choice and collaboration. We get positively giddy talking about the trips we’ll go on, the maps we’ll make, the experts we’ll interview and the  research we’ll do. I am so fortunate to work with a co-teacher and be at a school that values this kind of learning is possible. Even so, there remains an all too pervasive mentality that assumes we need to “cover” all the social studies teaching points- because if we miss one bullet point on the social studies scope and sequence chaos might ensue. Scripted curricula, standards and bullet points galore can be useful as resources, but when forced on schools they communicates a lack of trust in teachers, as well as a shortsighted view of education. When teachers “cover material” it never sticks with kids beyond the unit test. The teaching and learning that engenders a thoughtful, compassionate and innovative citizenry derives from meaningful and purposeful experiences, from collaboration and problem solving, not from teachers crossing off bullet points, making spreadsheets or reading from scripts. The reason we have a catastrophic high school drop-out rate is not because there is anything fundamentally wrong with the kids who drop out, it is because from the beginning, school was not designed to meet their needs and keep them engaged- because it doesn’t feel  meaningful or relevant to the real life problems they face each day.

Which brings me to my last thought for the day. Education reform and the fight against it is not just a philosophical debate. When it comes down to it, for me, Its not about philosophy, or about politics. This is about children and what helps them learn, what keeps them interested and hooks them on questioning and critical thinking. I am a progressive teacher because I think it works, because I believe that trusting and empowering teachers and students is a prerequisite for the kind of learning that sticks with kids into adulthood, because hands-on, student driven projects, collaborative problem solving and joyful and supportive classroom environments not only keep children engaged, but help them acquire skills that they can actually use in the real world- whether those skills are cognitive or social-emotional. It is really about child and human development, how we grow and how we learn. Child development is a course in any graduate education program. And then we become teachers and we’re compelled to forget what we learned, and push academics younger and younger, to teach content that has no connection to children’s lives, to  expect all kids to master the same skills at the same time, even though any teacher or parents know that all children are different and what one child can do at 6, another can’t do until 8.

In that vein, here is my free and easy way to improve education in New York, as promised in my last post. Change the cut-off date for entering school. Please. Change the freaking cutoff date. Don’t let any four year olds into Kindergarten. ( Universal Pre-K would be a nice way to soften the blow for low-income parents who can’t afford childcare) Make sure all kids are five when they start kindergarten, and I guarantee performance will peak, teachers will breathe a sigh of relief, and down the line, there may even be, you better believe it, a jump in test scores.

There is a reason we traditionally begin teaching reading when children turn six. There is something magical that happens in children’s cognitive development at around age six.  Six is when children  begin to comprehend and synthesize abstract concepts and symbols, like, lets say, letters, punctuation, numbers, addition and subtraction signs.  And yet, not only are we now expecting children to read  in kindergarten, but more important, many children are five when they enter first grade. Last year when I taught first grade in a title one charter school, 11 of my 25 students were still five when school started. 5 of my students had late December birthdays. Of those 11 students, 10 remained below grade level the entire year although they all jumped several reading levels. Of the 5 students with December birthdays, we suggested that three of them repeat first grade, and all five of them finished the year behind in math and reading. Not to mention that many of these kids were contending with countless other obstacles to their success in school- instability and stress at home, absent parents, health problems, recent immigration, language barriers and more.  A few months makes a big difference at this age, and when you start off behind it can mean years of low-achievement and frustration for children who blame themselves for what they are taught to perceive as failures.

And then there is this year.  About ten of my second graders were still six  on day one. Half my class is reading below grade level. 2 of my lowest students, my non-readers, were still six entering the grade. There are other factors, of course- learning disabilities, language barriers etc. But I feel confident that if all my students were seven in September when the year began, my reading intervention schedule would not be nearly as urgent nor as daunting.  In private schools, all students are five when they start kindergarten. Some of them are even six because their parents hold them back so they can be at the top of their class. In upper-middle class neighborhoods, there are similarly fewer young children in the public schools ( at least the ones I’ve worked in) because savvy parents keep their kids in posh nursery schools for an extra year and still finagle them into their zoned schools. And yet, we’re comparing all these children and holding them accountable for the same achievements, children who not only face radically different opportunities and challenges, but children who aren’t even the same age.

So De Blasio, Obama, here is my plea. Talk to someone who has actually worked with a child, someone who knows child development and knows how children learn. Scrap the testing companies and the top down standardized business model of teaching and learning, and instead train and empower dedicated teachers and administrators to build communities and change lives, cut class sizes, keep libraries open, fund the arts, social workers and community organizers,  service learning and field studies, implement universal pre-k, all because that’s what works, and if you can’t wrap your heads around all that, at the very least, change the goddamn cutoff date.

Next up: Math and what a wonderful world it could be…

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2 comments on “Child development and why it matters

  1. Dana Robbins says:

    You are so right! I shudder to think of scripted teachers, how horrible, and kids should definitely not begin Kindergaarten until they are 5. I am glad that the system has someone like you to fight for sanity amidst all the testing psychobabble.

  2. Steve says:

    Enjoyed this post a lot. Glad to see that your school does some things right – especially pairing you with another like minded soul. Also find your specific Rx’s going forward to be user friendly, easily comprehended. To your age point, Finland begins kindegarten at 6 and 1st grade at 7.

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