Is It OUR Fault?

The other day, I heard something that truly upset me. It seems that some pre-k teachers in my district are teaching sight words. Not because they're in our standards - they aren't. Not because their students are advanced and need a challenge (and let me make it plain, memorizing sight words should NOT be considered a way to challenge bright students). No, they're teaching sight words because, since switching to full-day pre-k, they want to make it clear that they're not "just babysitting". So their answer was to add sight words to their curriculum. A curriculum that only includes 20 minutes for free play. Yes, 4 year olds in my district are only getting 20 minutes of play time in a 6+ hour day. But boy, they've got time for sight word instruction! It absolutely appalls me. And I seethed over it.

But I did nothing.

Recently I've been wondering how things have gotten so out of control. Just 6 short years ago I was on my district's Kindergarten Committee which met several times over the summer to iron out a pacing calendar and make decisions regarding curriculum. I remember that we had a long, passionate discussion about sight words and we finally decided 20 sight words would be the goal - including words like mom and dad and love. We pushed to keep play time and snack time and nap time and do what was developmentally appropriate. And it worked. We left with a Kindergarten Pacing Calendar that was realistic and attainable and still allowed time for students to be what they are - 5 year old children.
Then came Common Core and once that left (yay Oklahoma!) somehow things were different. My district (and many others in the state) seems to have lost sight of what learning looks like in pre-k and kindergarten. Maybe its the influx of teachers who haven't taken the Early Childhood classwork (alternative certifications, testing into ECE with an Elementary Ed. degree etc.) As teachers struggle with managing behavior in larger and larger classes due to the teacher shortage, In any case, more seatwork became the norm because its easier to manage a class when they're sitting down than have eyes on everyone when they're in all different corners of the room. It's easier to pass out a packet of worksheets than manage center time. And in light of new teacher evaluations, it's easier to collect data and prove you're teaching with worksheets and tests and lists of 100 Sight Words.

The other day a friend told me, "A few years ago, a teacher switched from Kindergarten to 4th grade and told me she was glad because there wasn't enough "progress" shown in kindergarten.". We both laughed because at this point in the year, we can see progress DAILY. At the beginning of the school year many couldn't hold a pencil or write a letter, they couldn't count to 5 let alone 20, they couldn't express their thoughts in a complete sentence. And now, they surprise us daily with conversations that reveal a depth of knowledge or character that we didn't know they had. They create amazing symmetrical buildings in our Block Centers, paint their friends' names at the Art Center and make complex patterns with manipulatives at Math Center. And they do it joyfully, because they're playing. One sweetie wrote the whole alphabet (upper and lower case!) in order on a dry erase board in Writing Center, simply because she was "playing school".
But, all of that cannot be caught up on a spreadsheet. That kind of progress cannot be measured and quantified. A teacher cannot be rated "Highly Effective" based on the kind of structures her students build at Block Center. A teacher gets no credit for conversations among students, even if they're using math terms like "same amount", "less than" and "I just need 2 more to get to 10!" during a game at Math Center. If they can't click the right answer with a clunky mouse that is likely 2 times too big for their hands or they can't determine that "fox" has 4 letter sounds even though we teach that "x" says "ks" then forget it, it won't count on any of our evaluations.

And for some reason, that evaluation has become more important than the welfare of the children in our care. Oh, I get it. I have 5 kids of my own and a military husband - my paycheck is important to our family. But I consider teaching to be a calling. And part of that calling should be, just like a medical professional, to above all "do no harm". Can we honestly say as teachers that we "do no harm" to our students when we cut out play time or recess because we have to fit in more test-prep? Can we say that we are doing no harm as we push more and more down our students throats even knowing they're not ready, because we have to get a good evaluation? Does impressing our administration matter so much that we can implement strategies and curriculum that we KNOW are not developmentally appropriate without even a twinge of guilt?

It reminds me of a quote by Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." If you look at education today, the focus on data and testing and the push for our youngest students to have to learn even more, it's obvious what happens when teachers don't speak up. When we go along with things because we want to keep our jobs.
I've been guilty of this as well - oh not in my own class. In my class we dance and play and sing all day. Half the time the children think we're "playing games" during Math time. I break out the finger puppets and felt pieces during reading so even when we're sequencing events in a story, it seems to them like we're playing. We have an hour of free choice centers daily - and during that hour my assistant and I are sitting in teeny chairs or crawling on the floor "playing" with our students. We have an hour for recess daily too! And during that time I'm writing letters in the mud with my kids, counting pecans, admiring sticks shaped like letters (we found an "F" stick the other day!!) and sometimes even racing them (I always lose because I don't have cool, light-up shoes like theirs!) I hold hands, give hugs, wipe faces and fingers sticky with spaghetti sauce and I love my students.

But I do nothing for the others. The ones who might have been mine...but for the fact they live on the other side of town. I thank God daily for my own principal who knows that my kiddos need to move and dance and make noise, but I do nothing for those children who don't have teachers and principals fighting to give them what they need. I look at my own district, and although I'm incredibly thankful to have a job and I think my district is doing amazing things - I don't speak up when we aren't. I share tons of articles about the benefits of play and recess on my blog and my Facebook website, but am I just preaching to the choir?

So today, I'm doing something different. Today is a "day of service" not a "day off". And my service today is an email to my district superintendent and assistant superintendent. They are both great people who believe in providing quality education to the students of our district. I know that the push for more academics in pre-k is not coming from them. It's something teachers are doing on their own. Like the Kindergarten teachers I know who started giving weekly spelling tests, not because anyone told them they had to, but because it would give them "good data" to show the administration how much they were doing. How much of what is happening in Early Childhood Education today is the result of teachers trying to "show" that they are good teachers? How much is because other teachers didn't speak up when they had a chance?

So today I'm speaking up on behalf of all of the children in the district, not just my own students. I'm going to start making my voice heard - at the district level, but also at the state level by contacting my state representatives. A politician once said that teachers are the least likely to vote, which is why their opinions aren't listened to. Well, this teacher votes, and she's going to start making sure her voice is heard too. Will you stand up with me and have your voice heard too? Will you write a letter to your newspaper, your governor, your superintendent?

We have the chance to make a difference, will you join me?

6 Rustle Up A Response!:

Brenda Kim said... Reply to comment

Excellent, and true from start to beginning. I too allow play and have learned to call it by many other names to appease those at the top.

Janet Stith said... Reply to comment

Such an inspiring post. This is a nice break from the bloggers selling there stuff. I also wonder where our early childhood advocates have gone. We are the ones that need to take a stand for what we know is best for our young learners! Thank you for the reminders.

Elaine Gold said... Reply to comment

Being a teacher, I love looking through blogs. I wanted to share a new children's book I read to my class. It's called "Cooking With Mr. C." by John Contratti. It's a sweet story with a beautiful message. I'm telling all my teacher friends about it. I got it through Mascot Books and my friends ordered it through Amazon. (She does everything through Amazon.) :) Elaine

Melissa said... Reply to comment

Hello Jennifer! We call play "purposeful play" and we have "rest time" in which some children nap every day while others are ready to sprint to storytime. This is my third year in Kindergarten after 13 years in first grade and really I feel like I'm in first grade. My parents watch my Kindergarten niece after school and my dad asked me, "Do you teach reading to your students?" Oh, yes and so, so, so much more! Thank you for advocating for your students and the students in your district!

Melissa said... Reply to comment

Hello Jennifer! We call play "purposeful play" and we have "rest time" in which some children nap every day while others are ready to sprint to storytime. This is my third year in Kindergarten after 13 years in first grade and really I feel like I'm in first grade. My parents watch my Kindergarten niece after school and my dad asked me, "Do you teach reading to your students?" Oh, yes and so, so, so much more! Thank you for advocating for your students and the students in your district!

Tamara said... Reply to comment

I am not a teacher by degree, but I am a momma who homeschools for this very reason. I grew up in Europe and remember the local European children being encouraged to play at school! There was no bookwork until grade school...and these children turned out to be intelligent, productive professionals without the pressure of leaning to read in Kinder. Your article stirred something in me today. I wish I could do something, but I don't know what.

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