Black History Month; The Shortest Month of the Year

At this point in the year, teachers are deep into their curriculum and inevitably far behind.  There are 7-9 units of study in our reading, math and writing curricula, and pages of teaching points in the NY scope and sequence for social studies and it is nearly impossible to get to it all.

In the midst of this constant battle for our time and attention, comes black history month. In addition to our regular curriculum, we also have to try to do justice to centuries of history in one short month.  This does not lead to meaningful learning about what should be an interdisciplinary and crucial topic. This is tokenism via curriculum. And a false token at that. Each year, we bring out Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks read alouds, and take 45 minutes or so to celebrate Dr. King. But that is the most we do because we’re constantly racing to teach the parts of the curriculum that we “have to cover” by the end of the year.

I love reading about Ruby Bridges, Parks and Dr. King. But that is not enough. We should be devoting whole units of study to the history of African peoples in America, to slavery, to emancipation and the Civil Rights movement. Every month should be black history month. African American history deserves more than a few read alouds. In the scope and sequence for NY state elementary school students, there are many units that focus on colonial America and the Revolutionary war, many units about communities around the world and at home, but nothing that focuses on the African American experience over time, slavery or the Civil Rights movement. Kids should be learning about this. It is important, it’s part of our heritage, and it particularly resonates with upper elementary school students’ innate interest in fairness and equality.  We need to teach history in a way that fairly represents our nations past and also consistently incorporates the perspectives and experiences of minorities and historically oppressed peoples, no matter the month.

As someone who works with mostly students of color, this feels even more urgent. Likewise, in a city with one of the most diverse student populations in the world, we should all feel uncomfortable with token read alouds in lieu of meaningful curriculum about a major component of  American history. Whether it means we need to loosely interpret the scope and sequence or change it all together, we should be immersing ourselves in African American history throughout the year, not just in February. It should be part of our curriculum, so that we teach and learn about it  in a meaningful way that empowers our students and fosters both critical thinking and empathy in our classrooms. And it should be coupled with investigations of many cultures and traditions.

Needless to say I feel the same way about women’s history month. After all, half of our students will be women one day.  They should be learning about their historical counterparts all throughout the year, not just in March.

It’s Inequality Stupid

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Yet another reason why tests are stacked against low-income kids. Test prep courses and tutors are all the rage among upper middle class families eager to get their kids into a good middle school. Guess what happens when low-income kids, already facing innumerable other challenges, can’t afford this extra prep? Well, they probably spend their days at school entirely on test prep, being alienated from learning and deprived of fun and meaning and/ or perform poorly on tests. Then their teachers are put on probation and their schools  lose funding. Meanwhile test and policy makers can justify how developmentally inappropriate the tests are because higher income kids get tutors and score well . ( 4rth grade reading passages on the 3rd grade test anyone?) Sounds fair right?

How is a system that is inherently unequal supposed to “close the achievement gap”? Even without tutoring, test scores correlate to income level, which makes high stakes testing inherently discriminatory. Maybe if low income schools could spend more time and money on providing a rich and relevant curriculum, community building and outreach, support and resources for teachers, and meaningful learning experiences for their students we could actually do something to mitigate the increasing segregation and inequality in our schools.  Not to mention that what all kids should be doing on Saturdays is playing and getting outside, not filling in multiple choice questions.

Promotion in Doubt

We sent home progress reports a few weeks ago. We send home five a year. What made this cycle different, is that on these we notified some of our parents of their child’s promotion in doubt status. This week, we will send home official DOE letters to these parents, informing them that we may recommend that their child repeat second grade. Doing this so early in the year both serves as a heads up for parents and as a “you better get your act together and start reading with your kid,” warning.

In the early years, repeating a grade can be a real gift to a child. Children develop at different paces, and many children enter kindergarten and first grade too young due to late cut-off dates. Repeating kindergarten or first grade can give children time to mature and catch up to their peers. Everyone could use more kindergarten.

As children get older,  repeating a grade can become more damaging psychologically and socially, because older kids are much more self aware than 5 and 6 year olds. Paradoxically, in early childhood, schools can recommend that children be retained but it is ultimately up to the parents. Whereas, in the third grade, children may be required to repeat a grade if they score a 1 on either the math or ELA state test. Imagine a student who doesn’t eat breakfast, is feeling sick, is a poor test taker, lacks the stamina to sit and focus for 70 minutes,( most children) whose native language is not English, and for one or all of those reasons, gets a 1 on either test. That student then must attend summer school and at its close retake the test and pass in order to continue on to fourth grade. In other words, not only are the tests developmentally inappropriate in innumerable ways, but a single testing experience can determine whether or not students are promoted or held back.

As a second grade teacher working with a low income population, this means that when I create my promotion in doubt list, I’m not only thinking about what will help my students learn. I’m also thinking about whether they can pass the test in third grade and survive the associated stress and trauma. Because, if they can’t, its better to hold them back now than next year.

Last year, the ICT class in second grade recommended that 17 students be held back because they were far below grade level. Only 2 were held back, presumably because it looks bad to hold over so many students. This year the third grade teachers predict that up to 25 students ( that’s almost 1/3 of the whole grade) might have to repeat the grade. And this time it’ll be mandatory.

This year, in my ICT class, we are recommending that 9 students repeat second grade. While that is in some ways a reflection on the students, it is mostly a reflection on the nature of third grade these days. We’re on the fence about three of those kids, but we know there is very little chance that they could pass the tests next year because they struggle with testing and language processing. We also don’t feel that they are ready for the stress and pace of a third grade classroom.

At my school the second and third grade share a floor and the difference between the two sets of classrooms is palpable. You can feel the tension oozing out of the third grade rooms and into the halls, from the strained voices of teachers, to the anger and anxiety you see on the faces of the students. Instead of engaging in meaningful interdisciplinary projects, this time of year is dominated by daily test prep, which only serves to frustrate and alienate students who are already struggling. Teachers are unable to differentiate, because they are racing through the curriculum so that they can “cover” everything before the test. The third grade teachers know that most of their students can’t keep up, but because of the tests, they can’t slow down to actually meet their students needs or engage their interests. If I could, I would hold even more of my students back to protect them from a traumatic year in which they’re taught to tie their self worth to a test score.

In order to make retention do what it is supposed to do, help children, we need to first, change the cutoff date so that all kindergarteners are 5 in September of their first year at school. Second, schools should be encouraged to hold kids back in early childhood when it actually works, as opposed to when children are in 3rd or 4th grade. In every grade,  decisions about who should be promoted or held back should be made by teachers and parents. One test score should not be enough to send a kid to summer school or hold them back. Schools and school boards should consider the whole child when deciding whether to send home those promotion in doubt letters. This could mean looking at a portfolio of student work, meeting with parents, observing the student in class and considering the student’s personality, home life and social life.

Finally, to state the obvious, the easiest way to alleviate this situation is to make the tests better and take the pressure off. Let’s try 45 developmentally appropriate minutes of diagnostic testing, not used to hold kids back or rate teachers, but rather to actually inform teaching and learning for the following year. Then, you won’t have second grade teachers wishing they could keep their kids in second grade forever if only to protect them from what lies ahead.