Why isn’t Kindergarten like Pre-k?

From what I’ve seen, pre-k is a success- developmentally appropriate, nurturing classrooms with lots of exploration, play, growth and joy. Why should kindergarten be any different?

When I walk into the pre-k classrooms at my school I enter a veritable learning and happiness wonderland.

Picture this: While some students count or match shapes and patterns, others build a city out of  blocks. More explore foam at a sensory table and 4 eager, smiling kids observe insects and worms at a science center. In dramatic play, a circle of friends dress up in butterfly wings and pretend to pollinate flowers, and a few more draw, write and paint to their hearts’ contents at an art table.

Later that day, they will sing, dance, listen to a story and play outside. Outside they can choose to dig in the dirt, run around, blow bubbles, slide, jump, ride tricycles, build with stones or draw with chalk.

They eagerly discuss letter sounds over lunch, and are excited to choose books or math games during the short “center time” before dismissal. Some of them have started to read picture books on their own. Whenever I visit, they teach me about plants and seasons, animals and neighborhood features. They say please and thank you and independently solve problems among friends. There is a class “comforter”who makes sure that when a student is sad, they get a hug or pat on the back. There are 2 caring adults in each class, and only 18 students so everyone gets the attention they need.

Sounds pretty idyllic right?

And they are learning so much- socially, academically and physically. Students who didn’t know the letters in their own names are now spelling and reading words. A student who couldn’t throw a ball at the beginning of the year can play baseball. One little girl who did not speak a word of English in September is completely fluent and a leader in the class. Last time I visited, she explained a bee’s life cycle to me in detail, using vocabulary like pupa, larva, hive, nectar, pollinator and drone. 

At this point in the year, the pre-k students are four or five years old. Many will still be four when they enter kindergarten in September. Some of them will not turn five until December of next school year. Which begs the question- if students are the same age or just a few months older than pre-k students, why on earth is kindergarten so different from pre-k? Is the experience of being four and a half really so different from being four?

In kindergarten, there can be 25 students and only one teacher. That is a huge jump from 18 kids and 2 adults.  In kindergarten, students are expected to sit, read, write, put pencil to paper to meet common core standards, and yet we know that many kindergarteners lack the fine motor skills to hold a pencil.  In kindergarten, outdoor play and sensory exploration become secondary to “real learning” aka academics, as does social emotional and physical development. Although in some lucky classrooms students still do get “extra” play time- is is thought of as distinct from learning rather than essential to it.  In kindergarten, kids sit through tests that they often can’t even read.Why is this transition so abrupt?  The kids are virtually the same and no person in their right mind would put a pre-k student in front of a bubble test. ( although I know it happens)

Kindergarten is still very much part of early childhood. Four and five year olds cannot learn or function without movement, sensory stimulation, singing, joy, play, choice and time outdoors. We have a structure for pre-k that has produced at least a few fabulous, developmentally appropriate classrooms.

Kindergarten needs to get on board. In fact, maybe all grade levels should be more like pre-k. Choice, play and happiness for all.

 

 

 

 

Chuck the Tests- Project Based Learning is Better

We have effective, research based models for assessing student learning that do not rely on standardized testing. So why aren’t we using them?

A friend of mine recently got hired at one of the city’s performance assessment consortium schools. What is unique about these schools is that the students only take 1 test- yes that’s right, just 1 standardized test in four years of high school. So, instead of wasting valuable time on tests and test prep, portfolios of authentic student projects are used to assess learning and determine eligibility for graduation.

Also unique about these schools- Despite a population comprised of high numbers of English language learners and low-income families, these schools have far higher graduation rates than traditional high schools and an 91% college attendance rate.

How do they do it?

Teacher autonomy and “in depth” project based learning. That’s how.

I met a teacher from Brooklyn International High School at a workshop recently and wistfully listened as she described the year long  history and ecology project about water pollution she had designed with her students.  Meanwhile, in depth, interdisciplinary projects with real life relevance are few and far between in my elementary school because testing and data take priority over everything else.

Which begs the question: why can’t we have portfolio assessed middle and elementary schools too? Why can’t elementary schools apply for the same waiver these schools receive and use performance based assessment instead of torturous tests?  Especially when excellent progressive schools like Central Park East are under threat, why not use these successful alternative high schools as a model and give all schools the opportunity to choose project based learning over testing?

We know skipping standardized tests in favor of deeper learning works with our neediest high school students. And we know testing is far more cumbersome and developmentally inappropriate for young children than it is for teens. So there is no reason not to bring this successful model down to our youngest students.

If we really want to offer parents “school choice” we need elementary, middle and high schools that go beyond data factories. Alternatives like portfolios, project based learning and performance assessment should be an option for children of all ages- not just high school students.

A Child Opts Out

Yesterday was the first day of the state ELA test. I spent the morning in Pre-k with one 3rd grader who is opting out. Because of his struggles with attention, sitting still for two hours filling in multiple choice bubbles would have been torturous for him. Even so, he was a little embarrassed at first to have to hang out with the little kids while his peers were testing.

But that soon changed.

In pre-k, much of the day is spent in centers. Children choose what to do and who to play or work with and their options are multi-sensory, open ended and creative. Because of this, our pre-k classrooms are a learning wonderland. The kids are excited about everything- reading, building, sensory explorations, art, animals, singing, exploring shapes and counting at their “numberland” math center. Not only do they have agency over what and how they learn, but also, time in every day is devoted to cultivating valuable social-emotional skills. Which makes for some happy kids. So happy and motivated that they are  veritable learning sponges- absorbing and practicing new skills at an amazing rate.

So what did this third grader choose to do in Pre-k? He helped some students build a tall tower and explained to them how to make it sturdy.  Then, he observed bee and butterfly specimens and played with bug puppets.  I listened as he played and overheard a pretty high level conversation about insect bodies and how pollination works, reminding me that young children need time to internalize new concepts through play.

When it was time to go back upstairs to third grade he left reluctantly and said, “I wish third grade was more like pre-k. ”

Me too.

This is why we should all opt out. Because he’s right. 8 year olds also need play. They also need sensory experiences.  They also need choice. They need so much more than we are giving them. All kids, not just 4 year olds, deserve to be happy, motivated and engaged in developmentally appropriate learning.

 

 

Testing Season and Why Everyone Should Opt Out

Testing season at my elementary school begins after February break and ends with the conclusion of the state math tests in mid-April. Like many schools, our students are subject to test prep “units” at this time of year that include practice tests, stamina building exercises and test taking skill “explorations.” It is the worst time of year for teachers, students and families, yet at my school, inexplicably, no one is speaking out and no one is opting out.

So to parents out there, here’s what really happens in testing season…

  1. No one teaches science or social studies for 3 months. The number of teachers who have told me ” Oh I’m only doing read alouds for science because of test prep” or “we’ll do that activity after testing” is disturbingly high. This time of year, its all about those 3 Rs. This is a reality across the board- whether schools do a test prep “unit” or do test prep all year- science and social studies always get cut. 30 years from now when we are faced with the next global warming like debate, we can thank high stakes testing for our ignorance.
  2. Reading, writing and math become exclusively pencil and paper tasks and last all day. Reading, writing and math can and should be engaging and meaningful, but in test prep season kids often don’t get to choose what they read or write about, and are fed poorly written passage after passage. Kids should be reading books! Not passages followed by short responses and multiple choice questions. Besides, what’s the point of writing if you’re not allowed to write about anything interesting? ( like STORIES! Remember when kids used to write stories?)
  3. No trips, no fun,  no emotional support. There is so much pressure on teachers to get high scores- so not only is the academic curriculum narrowed to ELA and math, but many teachers sacrifice all the things that keep kids motivated and foster social skills- like trips, games and opportunities for play. At my school we’re not allowed to go on trips with 3rd-5th graders for all of testing season. We all know that what children need to learn is uninterrupted practice with reading packets and multiple choice questions… Oh wait, is that it?
  4. Even students who have disabilities, or are English language learners have to test prep. Even if they can’t read. At all. They have to “practice”  too. I had a student cry for over 30 minutes the other day because his classroom teacher was going to make him finish his ELA packet. He is a smart and vivacious kid who is normally super excited to come to my class and always had great ideas. But he cried for the whole period. The whole period.
  5. The homework gets insane. Like packets on top of packets. Plus many schools have Saturday classes for extra test prep! Because every day and night is not enough!
  6. Everyone is grumpy.  This might not seem important, but you try teaching 30 grumpy, jittery, stressed out kids or leading a staff meeting with angry, sleep deprived teachers. Let me know how that goes.
  7. Finally, it trickles down. All this testing frenzy does absolutely trickle down to the younger grades. Especially in testing season. It is around this time of year that the administration “suggests” incorporating testing language and skills for kids as young as pre-k and we are told to plan ways for first graders to be more “test ready.”

I recently had a conversation with a parent about the impending state tests. This is a parent who has told me that she is thinking about withdrawing both her children from our school and sending them to a progressive private school because, as she put it,  “they’re bored.”

She said that she wasn’t planning on opting out her children because they hadn’t expressed any specific anxieties about taking the tests. Then she told me that they don’t like school anymore and that is why she is thinking about transferring to a private school.

Parents out there- if your child is bored at this time of year, it is because of testing. If your child is especially frustrated and emotional at this time of year, it is because of testing. If your child has suddenly stopped going on trips or learning anything in science and social studies, it is because of testing. If your child is coming home with boatloads of homework that make no sense to you, it is because of testing. If your child hates school and finds it all too hard and confusing, that’s probably in some part because of testing too. If any of this sounds all too familiar- you should OPT YOUR KID OUT.

Send a message that a narrowed, autocratic, undifferentiated, and developmentally inappropriate curriculum is not OK for any child!

There are some lucky schools out there where the administration eschews test prep and almost all the students opt out. And you know what they do at those schools?  They teach. And learn. Real stuff. Projects. Science. Social Studies. Critical thinking. Art.

All children deserve real learning. All children deserve differentiated teaching that meets their needs, not the agendas of corporate reformers. All children deserve to be engaged, respected and inspired at school.  Even during testing season. OPT OUT.

 

 

 

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Notes from the “Uncounted Underground”

“Ask a teacher how they feel — any teacher, every teacher. At first, the responses might shock or surprise you, may even sadden you, and will hopefully lead to outrage.”

This is a must read:   “Uncounted Underground of Teachers” , from Valerie Strauss at the  Washington Post. Teachers are outraged, but the vast majority are afraid to speak up.

This is why I write, and also why I write anonymously. I am afraid too. The climate in education today is not one that encourages dissent.

I know almost all of the teachers at my school share my frustration and heartbreak with each new mandate. We also share a deep love of children and profound joy in those rare moments when we ditch the script and real teaching and learning happens.

Teaching is a political act- we are shaping minds, hearts and the future. The values we communicate matter, and when we’re forced to test and punish, to follow a script, and value data and compliance above all else our work has far reaching political and social implications.

But not only are people afraid to speak up, they don’t have time or energy. Teaching is all consuming, you eat, sleep, dream your kids and their crises.  There are days when I don’t sit down once from 7 am to 6 pm. But with ESSA and a ruthless reform movement, if teachers don’t speak up soon we won’t be teachers for much longer.

 

What We Leave out: The Civil Rights Issue of Our Time

There are major issues with the way we teach African American history in NY state elementary and middle schools.

  1. We don’t really teach it.
  2. Slavery- It was and is really, really important. More than just a lamentable moment from our past, it should be central to any understanding of America past and present.
  3. The Civil rights movement- it happened! It’s still happening! But for some reason we don’t teach about it.

To start with, you cannot teach about any moment in early America without an in-depth, fair look at slavery. This country was built on slavery, from New York down to the deep south and the Caribbean. Colonialism grew up on the backs of enslaved Africans, and New York City became the powerful economic center it is because of wealth garnered from the slave trade and slave produced commodities in the south. African American history should be central to any narratives about colonialism, industrialization, westward expansion or New York’s history. While slavery is featured in the 4th and 7th grade scope and sequence for social studies, it is again just a few bullet points amidst the traditional narrative of powerful white men making decisions. ( About 8 teaching points all together out of over 200 in all of elementary school)

Lest anyone protest that slavery is too scary or horrific to really teach to 10 or 11 year olds, I will point out the the 4th and 5th grade curriculum is entirely centered on wars. Even if that were not the case, I firmly believe that to teach about any moment in American history without teaching about injustice, violence, exploitation and resistance is to promote a lie with far reaching social and political consequences. Conversely, teaching  about inequality, oppression and resistance is empowering at any age.

However, every year on Martin Luther King day, I remember that in our k-8 social studies curriculum, there is nothing- that’s right, nothing – about the civil rights movement.

Moreover, in all of the k-5 curriculum- so that is all of elementary school – these are the sole teaching points drawn from African American History after the Civil War.

  • Migration of freed slaves following the Civil War
  • Reasons African Americans moved into northern cities and The Great Migration
  • The artists, writers, and musicians associated with the Harlem Renaissance
  • NAACP (in a laundry list of non-governmental organizations in the 5th grade study of American government)

That’s it. There are dozens of teaching points about the colonial period, about the “age of exploration” (age of exploitation anyone?), about industrialization and about democracy and freedom, but of course only as they relate to the American Revolution and the founding (all white, male, mostly slave owning) fathers. There is nothing about what followed the Civil War and nothing about Civil Rights or racial identities and oppression today.

Our social studies curriculum needs whole units devoted to African American history after the civil war. Black people did not disappear with the emancipation proclamation and neither did oppression. We should be starting with reconstruction and Jim Crow, travel through the roots of civil rights  at the turn of the century, into a full exploration of the Harlem Renaissance and finally into the post-war period. Then, when we get to Martin Luther King and the full fledged civil rights movement, we should do more than a sanitized read aloud one day out of the year. (Read this)

Instead, we should do meaningful service projects in our communities. We should learn about movements toward institutional desegregation, including Brown vs. the Board of Ed and the white flight and resegregation it precipitated. We should compare leaders of the civil rights movement and their philosophies (we should be teaching kids about Malcolm X too), and learn about them in context and in depth. We should learn about women in the civil rights movement beyond Rosa Parks. We should explore the legacy of civil rights today and make sure students come away with a sense that the civil rights movement is unfinished and unceasing.  We should deliberately and explicitly foster conversations about civil rights issues of the day, making connections between past and present, not reinforce the apocryphal narratives of consensus that still dominate the way we teach history in schools. We could even make connections to current education policy, “the civil rights issue of our time” – ironically one of the phrases reformers use to push standardization, charters and punitive accountability measures which disproportionately harm black students.

I strongly believe that African American history should be central to any social studies curriculum no matter where you live, but even more so in New York where our school going population is almost 30 % black, and African American communities have played an outsized role in shaping New York City’s history and culture. Instead, tragically, we pretend that slavery didn’t matter, that our schools are not still segregated and that Civil Rights is a thing from long ago. By not teaching about Civil Rights, we confirm the insidious perception that the emancipation proclamation and the march on Washington ended racial oppression in this country. It did not.

This gaping hole in our social studies curriculum is an injustice to all of our students. There are many other projects and topics I wish we could teach more of. But this issue demands attention in a time of renewed activism and renewed racism from presidential candidates to the Supreme Court, from the criminal justice system to the federal education department. Civil rights has the potential to inspire and empower, to affirm and to provoke questions about the status quo with the end goal of fuller participation in our democracy. That should be the goal of our social studies curriculum- not transmitting a meaningless litany of facts, nor confirming dominant narratives that perpetuate ignorance and racism. No one will grow up and be convinced that black lives really matter if they never learn about black lives, no matter their race.

We need to teach African American history thoughtfully and purposefully. That’s not a token reference here and there.  African American history should not be something we engage with once a year for a day or a month. It is inextricably part of every moment of American history, and should be substantially present in our curricula all year long, from early in elementary school all the way through high school.  There should be whole units devoted to the African American experience. Just one would be a good start.

It is time to rethink social studies in this state so that it reflects the complexity of our history, the imperfections of the present, and the possibilities for our future.

“It’s like a gang” : A Teacher Speaks out on Uncommon Schools

I had this conversation with a friend who taught at an Uncommon School for a year and “graduated” from Relay.

Here’s some of what she said.

I don’t tell people I went to Relay because it’s embarrassing. It’s just brainwashing. Which is why I’m applying to real grad school next year. I can’t remember anything I learned there. 

It’s like a gang. You’re initiated in and its hard to get out. Uncommon is like a prison. The Kindergarten orientation is an indoctrination, with no warmth, it’s all mechanical. It’s like you’re breaking them, the way you’d break a horse. 

And if you’re there long enough you get rewarded for being hardcore mechanical and having little robots who speak a certain way, walk a certain way. And I hated the color system (Students get assigned a color based on their behavior each day) seeing kids crying at the end of the day because of their color. You can’t reduce a kid to a color.

I was very disturbed when I started there. I was very depressed for the year I worked there.  I always thought I could be one of these kids. So it didn’t sit well with me. 

I don’t want New York to become New Orleans. There are no public schools in New Orleans. 

 

Personalized Education is a Scam

Personalized education is code for students sitting in front of computers programmed according to their level in math, reading etc. This kind of “education” is great for tech companies, but research shows it is not so great for kids.

My experience proves the same: all my “high achieving students” spend their weekends at museums, parks and zoos, in art classes or building structures at home. All the kids that spend their time on a DS, computer or staring at the tv are the ones with delayed language development, non-existent problem solving skills and poor self control. My main goal every day is to level the playing field with lots of messy, hands on, interactive learning experiences and an emphasis on interpersonal skills.

Learning is a social process and relationships between students and teachers are the basis for all real learning.  Children learn by doing- with their bodies, their senses, their voices and with each other. This is not my opinion, it is proven by decades of research.

Computers are fine and can be a useful tool for skill building, research and  creating student materials. Pencils are also useful for learning, but no one is saying that they can fix everything missing in education.  There should be computers in classrooms, but they can never replace teachers and can never replace the social, active and sensory experiences that constitute real learning.

I’m glad I have a computer in my classroom, but if I had to choose I’d take scissors, glue, and construction paper any day.

http://dianeravitch.net/2015/12/12/leonie-haimson-did-mark-zuckerberg-make-another-mistake/

Remember Class Size?

School districts don’t want small classes because that means more teachers, more space, and of course, more money.  Funding in public schools in in short supply these days between sky high consultant fees, expensive test prep programs and deliberate underfunding by state officials, so class size has slipped out of the conversation.

Moreover, for  top down reformer zealots, large class sizes are a-ok because they fit right in with military style, teacher centered classrooms in which students passively recite, chant and fill out the latest quiz.

Small classes, on the other hand, allow teachers to foster independence, freedom, community, and trust- all hallmarks of progressive education. In this way, class size has the power to shape the way we teach and the culture of our classrooms.

We educators know that authentic, meaningful teaching and learning happens in small communities of learners that know each other very well, in communities in which every child can feel heard, in which students can explore and experiment, and in which children can make decisions for themselves.

I see the difference class size can make every day. Last year, the first grade  classes at my school had between 18-22 students. We had a fabulous year. We were able to get messy and do amazing things. We built towers out of recycled materials,  we mixed liquids and made slime, we created animal puppets, we planted seeds in the school garden and designed roller coaster tracks for marbles.

This year, I am teaching many of the same students and I want everything we do to be as fun, hands-on and child friendly. The thing is, this year, the second grade classes all have between 27 and 30 students.  The difference is palpable. What felt calm now feels chaotic, and what felt manageable now feels utterly exhausting. Just getting through a greeting or transition takes an extraordinary amount of strategic management.

And the kids are suffering. Students who made tremendous progress last year are now falling behind, because in a class of 30, teachers don’t get to work with every student daily, or even weekly. Similarly, students with learning disabilities who were able to shine and fully participate last year are now struggling because there are so many more distractions around them. Because of these larger classes, many teachers  are trying autocratic management strategies like class dojo or forgoing hands on activities. I also know that some teachers are reluctant to go on trips because their classes are so big.

What’s more, 30 students puts quite a bit of pressure on space and materials.  30 little bodies doing hands-on exploration or experiments is very different than 20. For 30 kids to be able to all work together and do meaningful, multi-sensory, student driven work, you need children with exceptional self control, lots of space, extra funding for materials, and lots and lots of clean up time.

With 6 and 7 year olds, exceptional self control is hard to come by. Which is why I’m coming to the conclusion that large class sizes in early childhood are simply not developmentally appropriate. It is just too much. Too much distraction, too many bodies, too many materials, too many needs, and too many voices that don’t get heard. There is a reason class sizes in private schools are almost always no more than 20.

I know I’ll make it work this year with a combination of patience, station teaching, donors choose and lots of practice, and so will the fantastic teachers I work with each day.  But in the meantime, some of these kids are missing out and no amount of fancy new curricula,  consultant visits or new mandates from on high are going to help them. What they need is teachers- empowered, creative and nurturing teachers with enough time and resources to help every child thrive.

 

 

 

 

Housing and Education Inequality- Again

Research tells us that socio-economically and racially integrated schools are better schools. But if we want truly diverse schools, we need equally diverse housing.

At my public school in a gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn we are fortunate to have a uniquely diverse student body. About 40% of our students are high or middle income and mostly white. Around 60 percent of our students come from low-income Dominican, Puerto-Rican or Mexican families. The resources of our upper middle class families gave us a music program, after school programs, art and science supplies, a school garden and unlimited free trips. Our Spanish speakers make our dual language program possible. At the same time, all of our students benefit from engagement with children and families of different means as well as cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

But every few days, I hear about another student who is leaving the neighborhood to move to the Bronx or Queens because they can’t afford to stay in the area. The students who are leaving are almost all recently immigrated, low income, native Spanish speakers. There goes our diversity and there goes their education. Going from a warm, nurturing and resource rich environment in an integrated public school in Brooklyn to a “failing” school or network charter in the Bronx does not bode well for their future. We know what schools they are headed for and we know that they are underfunded, overcrowded and either slated for shut down or newly privatized.

This is yet another reminder that the real issues in education today are poverty and inequality and that the worst facets of education reform disproportionately affect low income students of color. Nothing will get better for these children unless we address housing inequality and give ALL schools the resources they need to cultivate successful, critical, happy and healthy students. Every neighborhood needs affordable housing and every public school with a segregated, low-income population should be getting triple the funding of schools in high income neighborhoods.

I’m going to miss my students who abruptly left after years in our community. I’m worried about them and hope they land somewhere with teachers who can see how wonderful they are and the potential they have. I hope they get to do more with their days than ELA and Math. I hope they are not made to feel like failures. They are not failures and neither are their teachers- the only failure is a system that punishes the poor for being poor and recklessly allows corporate power into children’s lives.

New York already has one of the most segregated and unequal school systems in the country. If we don’t tackle housing soon, it will only get worse.