Stressed-Out Six-Year-Olds and the Dilemma of Their Teacher

by a Disheartened First Grade Teacher

Pizza Day. Pizza Day. Pizza Day.  The words replay over and over in six-year-old Tommy’s head as he sees how long the lunch line is.  Tommy grabs his pizza and sprints to his lunch table, carrots spilling off of his tray. Glancing at the clock but unsure what the clock hands actually signify, he knows there can’t be much time left.  Trying not to talk to his peers, Tommy stuffs a large bite of gooey deliciousness into his mouth. Before he can swallow or enjoy his favorite meal, he takes another bite and a gulp of milk.

 “Time to clean up!” the lunch aide announces.  

Tommy’s classmates throw out their partially eaten lunches and line up. With his stomach still rumbling, Tommy quickly stuffs another bite into his mouth.  As I approach Tommy, I glance at the clock, knowing that in less than two minutes, one hundred hungry third graders will bombard the cafeteria for their lunch period.  I gaze back at Tommy and my subtle nod lets him know he can sneak his lunch back to class.  Sarah’s desperate eyes ask me the same question and I must tell her “no,” as her teacher for afternoon intervention services is anxiously waiting for her at the door. Sarah is already late.

Tommy carries his lunch through the hallway, hoping it won’t spill, as the next group of children rush past him to get to their brief lunch period, all feeling the pressure of academic rigor, the jam-packed schedule, and the ever-present tests.  It’s a typical lunch hour at my school.

I entered the teaching profession six years ago– energized, enthusiastic, and eager to put my passion into practice.  I currently teach in an upper-middle class town in the greater Boston area. Since graduating college, I have earned a Master’s Degree from a renowned school osad girl at deskf education.  Through my experience and studies, I have honed my core beliefs as an educator.  But, on a daily basis, I find myself internally battling with what I know is best for children and what I am mandated to do.

My intent in writing is to raise awareness of what is going on in the public school system where our students are increasingly being taught in testing environments with stakes higher than ever before, under high pressure conditions.  While the stress among schools is glaring for teachers, administrators, and even students, I have learned that the link often left in the dark is the parents.   In the past month alone, I was asked to withhold details from parents about their child’s schedule, stretch the truth about the amount of time their children have to eat lunch, encourage a child to take a test after seeing her break out in hives during the last testing session, and explain that our school culture supports play and exploration.   Don’t get me wrong–when I see my students stuffing food into their mouths, I sneak their lunch back to the classroom. Despite the Common Core aligned curriculum and many assessments that strip my students from the most valuable moments of childhood, I integrate play-based and authentic learning into the school day as much as I possibly can.

While I struggle to find the words to express my disappointment about the current state of the public education system, I find myself lying awake at night worrying about my students and pondering what the future holds for education in our country? My school culture, among many in our country, doesn’t support meeting the most basic of needs for children, due to the rigorous school day and demands, let alone supporting best practices for teaching and learning.  Let me make sure I am clear– the district I teach in is considered a “model district” in the state of Massachusetts.

While I believe in high standards for children, I do not believe that teaching my first graders 15 different types of math word problems will prepare them to contribute to society in 16 years.  While I agree with the importance of early literacy, I do not believe having my first graders undergo at least 12 assessments per year and be pulled out of class constantly for intervention and progress monitoring will prepare them for the real world. In fact, I see the youngest learners deeming themselves as failures as they are unable to meet unrealistic and developmentally inappropriate expectations aligned with the Common Core State Standards.  I see the youngest learners having their confidence crushed as they are pulled out of the classroom for intervention up to eight times a week.

The nationally normed set of Common Core State Standards were intended to promote higher order thinking skills “to prepare students to be career and college ready.”  I can speak from direct experience that, in many cases, the implementation has increased teacher talk time, increased the amount of time children need to sit passively, and have decreased opportunities for critical thinking.  I believe that providing students with genuine context to problem solve, to explore the world around them, and to think “outside of the box” will prepare them to contribute to the complex society we live in today.  I believe that fostering creativity and providing students with authentic learning experiences to foster academic and social emotional skills will prepare them for the 21st century.  The more my school increases “academic rigor,” the more doctor forms I am asked to fill out about ADHD and the more anxiety my students endure.  Each time I utilize practices that align with cognitive science for childhood development, the behavior challenges not only minimize (or disappear) but the learning outcomes increase substantially.

I find myself struggling to tailor my students’ education based on their developmental needs as the current education system pressures me to fit them into a mold. I am left no choice but to rush through lessons to ensure I am meeting all of the curriculum requirements, rather than providing the rich and authentic learning experiences that drive me as an educator and my students as learners. The core to my struggles comes from the lack of time I have to provide my students with, what research supports, is, in fact, crucial to their development, such as hands-on learning, play based opportunities, and fostering different learning styles. The many moments that I cannot integrate authentic learning and creativity because there simply isn’t time in the schedule to get off of the curriculum track, these are the moments that are most valuable in the present and future lives of these children.boy with backpack

With color-coded spreadsheets in front of me at last week’s data meeting, I listened to the team speak about my students as numbers rather than using their names. These “numbers” that I know so well, these six-year-olds who have real feelings, needs, strengths, and challenges, are being scrutinized by a red, yellow, or green data point on a graph.  I gazed through the window and watched as young children sprinted through the halls to get to their 15 minutes of recess.  As I glanced at the stress in their eyes, the stress in my colleague’s eyes, and back down at the color-coded spreadsheets, I realized we have lost control, lost power, and lost our ability to utilize our expertise and innovation. What we haven’t lost is our core understanding of what’s right for children.  Our students need passionate and skilled teachers who stay in the field. Our students need creativity and to be able to think of an original idea. Our students need to problem solve, collaborate, self-regulate, and explore the world around them. And–how could I forget–our students need to eat lunch.

Tips for parents: Questions to ask the Principal at your child’s school

  •  What is my child’s daily schedule?
  • Will my child ever miss art, gym or music to receive intervention services?
  • How long does my child have to eat lunch, not including transitions?
  • How long is recess each day?
  • Does our school provide and support play-based learning experiences and choice time?
  • How does our school culture promote creativity and hands-on learning in conjunction with the academic standards?
  • How many assessments does my child undergo a year? How do these assessments help my child’s teacher tailor his/her instruction?

 

First Grade Teacher Speaks Out Against CCSS

Today in the Albany Times Union, first grade teacher Peter Rawitsch from New York shared his powerful reflections on the negative impact of the Common Core State Standards. Rawitsch has decades of classroom experience and is a Nationally Board Certified teacher. He is an expert in the field and he knows what he is talking about! We applaud his courage and share Rawitsch’s words here, with his permission, to inspire other early educators to stand up and speak out.

 “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Depending on the day, my six and seven year old children might answer: “soccer player,” “princess,” or “veterinarian.” Sadly, most of them will have to put their dreams on hold because they’re too busy working on someone else’s dream of them becoming “college and career ready.” I think it’s a nightmare.

 Six and seven year old children are active learners. They use all of their senses to learn in a variety of ways. Each child learns at their own pace. Play is their work. Using materials they can manipulate helps them think about how things work, use their imagination, and solve problems. They construct knowledge through their experiences.

As a 1st grade teacher with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, National Board Certification in Early Childhood, and 37 years of classroom experience, I’m deeply troubled by what is being demanded of our young learners.

For the past 2½ years I have been trying to help the children in my classroom become proficient in the 1st grade Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Because the children are at different places in their development, some have been successful with the new standards, but for too many, these new expectations are inappropriate and unfair. They’re being asked to master material they simply aren’t ready to do yet.  Among the flaws of the CCSS is the assumption that all students in a given grade are capable of learning all of the same grade level standards by the end of a school year. But many of the current 1st grade standards were, just a few years ago, skills that 2nd grade students worked on.

 The Gesell Institute of Child Development has studied the cognitive development of children three to six years of age since 1925. In 2010 it reported that young children “are still reaching developmental milestones in the same timeframe,” meaning, that while the learning standards have changed, the way children learn has not.

The fact is, no experts in early childhood education worked on the development of the CCSS.  There were no early childhood educators on the Board of Regents when the CCSS were adopted in New York. The result has been, that in order to help my students meet the CCSS, I’ve had to create longer blocks of time to teach reading and writing, prepare them for similar looking answers on multiple choice math tests, and help them practice locating and bubbling in small circles on answer sheets. Students are also required to keep up with the “pacing” calendars and curricula many school districts have adopted because they are synchronized with the reading, writing, and mathematics testing that is now given throughout the school year.  This means that there is much less time for Science, Social Studies, exploration, and play.

It’s time to take action! Parents need to ask teachers about how the CCSS have impacted their child’s school day. How much more sitting are the children doing for reading and writing activities? How have additional paper and pencil tests affected when and how things are taught? Which activities and experiences that once enriched the school day and fostered a love of learning have been pushed out? Teachers need to talk about child development and appropriate academic standards at School Board and PTA meetings. Together we need to speak up and advocate for an education that celebrates and honors our young learners. Our children’s dreams matter.

Parents and Teachers say “NO!” ~ Testing Resistance Continues to Grow

Resistance to over-testing and high stakes testing continues to mount across the country. Here are some inspiring examples:

Karen Hendren and Nikki Jones are two first-grade teachers from Tulsa, Oklahoma. These brave teachers have written an open letter to parents explaining why they are refusing to administer the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test to their students. Here is an excerpt from the letter that illustrates one child’s experience:
Student 1: This is one of the sweetest students a teacher could ask for. This student is gentle, calm, and collected. This student is learning English, but does not yet have any academic English. The student sat in front of the computer screen and tried his very best.  We watched his eyes well up with tears. We watched the student nervously pull at his hair.  Eventually, the student scratched red marks down his face in distress over the test.  He is the oldest of the siblings. He can cook, clean, and take care of a baby better than some adults. The student knows all of his alphabet and the letter sounds in English now. This student loves writing books and can dance like no other. He is now comfortable enough to get up in front of the class and perform a talent or recite a poem. This student scored in the 1% range.

Read more about their story in Valerie Strauss’ recent column Your children deserve better than this, first-grade teachers tell parents and read their full letter here.

In other news, our friends at FairTest shared these recent actions:

More than a ScoreAnd there is the just released More Than a Score edited by teacher and activist Jessie Hagopian:

More Than a Score is a collection of essays, poems, speeches, and interviews—accounts of personal courage and trenchant insights—from frontline fighters who are defying the corporate education reformers, often at great personal and professional risk, and fueling a national movement to reclaim and transform public education.

Along with the voices of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and grassroots education activists, the book features renowned education researchers and advocates, including Diane Ravitch, Alfie Kohn, Wayne Au, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Karen Lewis, Carol Burris, and Mark Naison. (from the website)

DEY’s Nancy Carlsson-Paige will be joining Hagopian and some fellow contributors at the upcoming event on December 4th (see details below).

Thursday, December 4, 2014 – 7:00pm

First Parish Church at Harvard Square

1446 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA 02138

Join us for an exciting evening of discussion with . . .

Monty Neill, FairTest Executive Director
Alfie Kohn, Author/Activist
Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Early Childhood Education Expert
Barbara Madeloni, Massachusetts Teachers Association President

and editor Jesse Hagopian, a leader of the successful Seattle Teacher Test Boycott

Sponsored by Citizens for Public Schools

Nancy Carlsson-Paige receives Lifetime Achievement Award

” I have a dream. And I hope it is the American Dream that every child deserves a safe and healthy childhood. That every child deserves an equal opportunity for a great education. And I thank all of you for helping to keep this dream alive.”

-Nancy Carlsson-Paige

As we announced earlier this year, Nancy Carlsson-Paige has been honored with a lifetime achievement Bammy award from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences.   The award ceremony was this past Saturday in Washington D.C. “celebrates what is right in American Education”. We are incredibly proud of Nancy, all that she has accomplished, and the powerful words she shared in her acceptance speech. Below you will find a link to video of the awards ceremony and the transcript of the award presentation.

Bammy Awards 2013

ANNOUNCER:  . . . And with that, we’re going to close this evening’s festivities by presenting our three final Bammy awards.  Presenting our first Lifetime Achievement Award for the evening is my colleague, my good friend from the early education, and the physical education communities, and co-founder of the BAM Radio Network.  A wonderful educator – a terrific person – Rae Pica.

PICA:  I have long been a fan of this next honoree – and as someone who has been entrenched in early childhood education for more than 30 years, I am delighted at ECE is so well represented here tonight, and that this special honor is going to this person who is such a fierce defender of early childhood education.

To give you a brief overview of Nancy Carlsson-Paige’s work, I’d like to read you some titles.  Her most recent book is called Taking Back Childhood.  Her TED talk is called “When Education Goes Wrong: Taking Creativity and Play Out of Learning.”  Some of her articles include: “How education policy is harming early childhood education” ; “How corporate education reforms are harming children” ; and “Academic skills- important only if they make us more human”.

When Mitt Romney and Barack Obama were running for president, she urged them to please start over, if they wanted to get early childhood education right.

Did I mention that she’s fierce?

When it comes to fighting back against education reforms that promote standardized testing – and the fight to keep early childhood a sacred time – Nancy does not back down.

But Nancy is also a promoter of peace, at Lesley University where she taught for more than 30 years – where she taught teachers for more than 30 years.  She was the founder of the university’s Center for Peaceable Schools.  She writes and speaks widely on peace education, conflict resolution, and education policies and practices that promote social justice and children’s well-being.

Nancy is the recipient of many awards, including Peace Educator of The Year; Outstanding Educator of The Year; Family Advocate of The Year.  But she’s also famous for turning down an award, based on her principles.  I’m delighted that she chose to accept this one, and I am most honored to be the one who presents a Bammy Award for Lifetime Achievement to Nancy Carlsson-Paige.

[applause – Nancy comes to front of stage]

CARLSSON-PAIGE:  That was such a beautiful, beautiful appreciation . . . [aside] You hold it [award] for me.

[to audience]  I think I didn’t quite take in what it means to get a Lifetime Achievement Award until this moment.  Typical of me, actually.  But they gave me a minute, instead of two sentences.  And I wrote it, and timed it.  Ready?

Um – it’s – it’s a great honor.  Thank you so much, Rae, for that beautiful description.  And thank you, to the Academy of Education, Arts and Sciences, for celebrating educators – and honoring the amazing work that you all do – and all the people who work in our field do.

The good will of this nine-pound award – can I feel it? – I lift weights, but that’s heavy.  The good will of this award goes out to all teachers, especially early childhood teachers – too frequently underpaid, undervalued – but you do such important work.

Things are not that good in early childhood education right now.  Almost a quarter of our nation’s children suffer the stresses of poverty.  We’re the richest country in the world, and we have the highest child poverty rate among advanced nations.  That bears repeating.  We’re the richest nation in the world, and we have the highest child poverty rate among advanced nations.

Too few children have education at all in the early years.  And even fewer have quality education.  The standards and the testing and the accountability pressures that have been coming down and imposing on the upper grades have pushed down now to second grade, to first grade, to kindergarten, and even to pre-K.

I’m feeling so bad, because we’re talking about what’s right in education tonight and I’m – I’m not doing that, but – hey – it’s me.  We have a much more scripted curriculum in the early years. Much more teacher directed instruction. We are seeing much less active, hands-on, meaningful learning and almost no play. We are seeing a phenomenal disappearance of play in early childhood classrooms. For those of you who know education and child development you I am sure you understand that play is really the cornerstone of understanding in the early years.

My inbox has more and more messages every day from mothers, father, teachers.  Just the other day, this is what I saw…

“They’ve eliminated play and recess for first graders and kindergarteners in my child’s school. In kindergarten they are completely scheduled. They have no time to play. My 5-year-old has to eat snack while working at her desk.”

So I have a dream. And I hope it is the American Dream that every child deserves a safe and healthy childhood. That every child deserves an equal opportunity for a great education. And I thank all of you for helping to keep this dream alive. Thank you.

DEY op ed featured in Valerie Strauss’ blog today…

This morning, Valerie Strauss posted a DEY op ed on her education blog “The Answer Sheet” at The Washington Post. Our op ed, The disturbing shift underway in early childhood classrooms, takes a close look at the results of our survey of Pre-K to 3rd grade teachers. We are hoping to help spread the word about current education policies and how they are having a negative impact on young children and the teachers who work with them. Please take a few minutes to read the op ed, and then share it far and wide. Thank you!

“The data from this online survey of early childhood educators reveals that teachers of young children in general do not feel that current education policy mandates are benefiting children. Public school teachers expressed concerns in greater numbers than did private school teachers, whose programs are not dependent on federal and state funds that mandate standards, testing, and accountability.”

To read the entire op ed click here.