Tuesday, August 18, 2009

And We Are Not Amused...

Once upon a time, children went to kindergarten to launch their academic careers. It was an opportunity to hear stories, build with blocks, paint, play with other children, dine on cookies and milk, and to have a nap. On the first day, children cried while their mothers peeked and gnawed their nails wondering how their babies would do without them.
Time passed and with it's passage, people began to re-examine kindergarten. Children were often crying on their first day, but more and more of the mothers were late to work and unable to stay and peek into the classroom. More and more children were brought in by older siblings and the increasingly ubiquitous 'child care providers'.
When I first taught kindergarten, two decades ago, kindergarten still looked and felt a lot like it did when I was a kindergarten students four decades ago. My primary job as a kindergarten teacher was to create an environment that made my students want to come to school, a safe and nurturing space to learn and grow. If I was successful, I laid a foundation for learning that would hopefully last because hopefully the safe learning space would be repeated.
But as it will do, time passed. I next taught kindergarten slightly more than one decade ago. By that point, research had established that children who did not read proficiently by age nine would probably never become proficient, and that the lack of proficiency would undermine nearly all their academic endeavors. Kindergarten was now becoming academic. While my students were still given ample time to paint and build and play and explore their world, the teacher was now trying to focus their activities on language acquisition and development.
But then a loud voice came to the Kinder Kingdom. It was the voice of No Child Left Behind. One could try to ascribe ulterior motives or perhaps assume benign reasoning of this new voice. My world view is that people genuinely want to push forward the agenda of children and education, even if we are not all in agreement to how this should be accomplished.
The voice continued to bellow, "Every child in the land must be taught in this way", and it handed forth a scripted reading program that assumed that no teacher was capable of seeing how their students learned, nor were they capable of being more than automatons repeating verbatim what a publisher had decreed. Literacy would be mastered before literature could be introduced to children. Predicting would still be considered a viable comprehension skill after a story was read four and five times. Writing could only be done in a group format that emphasized themes encountered within the program. And administrators who had limited classroom experience bowed in homage to the program, and forbade teachers to supplement or in any way alter the program despite any evidence that something else could, would, and did work. Fidelity to the program was the new battle cry.
And now, the first day of kindergarten is about to occur again. Once again, children will cry, but this time they will not be alone... their teachers too will cry. We shall cry from another year of tortuous repetition and mindless boredom. We shall cry from knowing that there are better ways to reach our students. We shall cry from our experiences of safe and nurturing learning environments. And we shall cry for our students who will never know the joy of building with blocks, listening to wonderful stories, or painting five-legged cows.