Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Who's With Me?

My last three posts have circled around the idea of what it would mean to not just reform, but totally transform education in America (here, here, and here). 

The corporate education "reformers," lead by dilettantes such as Bill Gates have taken an ideologically driven approach, imposing a faith-based regime of standardized curricula and high stakes standardized testing, magnifying the worst of the past, while ignoring the voices of education professionals, parents, and students. They have manufactured their own "research," based not on how humans best learn, building on the work of education giants such as Piagett, Vygotsky, and Montessori, but rather focusing narrowly on how children function in schools. It's like claiming to understand tigers by studying them in a zoo. And from this, they've fashioned a Dickensian set of devices that have been working their way downward over this past decade from high school toward our youngest children.

Up here in the Pacific Northwest, we've apparently been spared the brunt of it until recently, but now it's here and it's getting ugly. Up until 2012, one hundred percent of my former students surveyed told me, without question, that kindergarten "is better than preschool." For the past two years, their responses have been much less enthusiastic, even from the ones who have thrived, while a small, but significant percentage have been reduced to tears and the kind of self-doubt that, according to their parents, leads them to question their ability to learn.

We have not changed what we do at Woodland Park. We proudly offer a progressive, play-based curriculum, based upon the best science about how children learn. We send enthusiastic, motivated, curious, self-directed learners out in to the world. Kindergarten has changed, with a heightened emphasis on developmentally inappropriate "academics," and it is not sitting well with children who expect, as they properly should, to be in charge of their own learning.

Yesterday, a former parent posted this on Facebook (edited to protect privacy):

Not happy about kindergarten, for many reasons. One of which is that his teacher won't allow them to make paper airplanes at school. So we made them at home. And he can fold one all by himself now. What his teacher doesn't understand yet is that paper airplanes are a study of science for this kid-engineer. With a discussion of symmetry, creasing, and types of triangles, (he) practiced unaided until he got it. We tested grandma and grandpa's design versus mommy's design and discussed the attributes of each. Yesterday, we studied painting in grandma's house for about 10 minutes, making astute observations of the feeling and mood portrayed, characters and setting. Discussing Impressionism. Before bed we observed a diagram of the moon rotating and revolving around the Earth as the Earth rotated and revolved around the sun, refreshing our vocabulary for these processes. All of this . . . He led. I hope his total anger toward kindergarten fizzles soon.

People often ask those of us who teach in play-based preschools, "But how to they adapt to traditional school?" Up until recently, the answer has been, "Just fine." But this is no longer even traditional school: from where I sit, kindergarten is rapidly turning into a test score coal mine employing child labor to earn profits for corporations like Microsoft and Pearson Education. I'd say that "total anger" is an appropriate response.

I will not drill-and-kill preschoolers, I will not pre-grind their noses, I will not turn my back on the science of education in order to somehow "prepare" them for this. Indeed, developmentally appropriate play-based education is the only preparation there is. In the words of Sydney Guerwitz Clemons, "We don't starve to prepare for a famine. We fatten them up to the best of our ability and hope they survive."

It's not our job to get children ready for kindergarten. We are sending them enthusiastic, motivated, curious, self-directed learners. It's kindergarten's responsibility to get ready for them as they are doing in Ontario, Canada where play-based kindergartners are at the lead in transforming elementary schools.

I've come to the conclusion that if we are going to transform education, it is going to have to come from the "bottom" up. What we are doing in our play-based preschools follows the science of how children learn and places democracy at its center. As I suggested yesterday, the process that lead to New Zealand's beloved Te Whāriki early childhood curriculum framework could be an appropriate model for us. 

In President Obama's most recent State of the Union address he announced that his administration was coming after us next:

"And as Congress decides what it's going to do, I'm going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need."

Please note that he makes no mention of including professional educators or parents in this process. He's turning to the same cast of "jobs of tomorrow" dilettantes who brought us the anti-democratic fiasco of Common Core, across the board standardization, job and college prep for kindergarteners, and high stakes standardized testing. I don't claim to know how to do this, but we must begin our own process: a democratic one that honors the voices of government and business, yes, but that leans primarily upon the science of how children best learn, the experience of professional educators, the love of parents, and the promise of democracy.

Preschool teachers can lead this and increasingly it's looking like we must lead this. A revolution is coming. Who's with me?

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JMH said...

I have, once, broken one of my kids in for school. I tried to be as gentle as I could, but I still did it, and it was a quiet hell for both of us. I didn't know what else to do. He'd had such a hard life already, and he needed to be ready so school wouldn't be harder than it had to be, to add to it.
I don't know if I regret that. I still think it was the best of bad choices. But I want a better option than that.

Lauren said...

Do you know of any play based or less "drill" style kindergarten programs in the Seattle area?

Twin mom said...

This is exactly why I am not at the rigid LAUSD school and chose a PROJECT-BASED CHARTER SCHOOL. They spend more time gardening, mindfulness and actually getting kids to build things, play games to learn math, using movement to explore literacy and yes build tons of paper airplanes. It was a simple choice. Have my child learn by playing or go to the local school where the District has devised the best curriculum that must work for all kids. Teachers are are given only a few minutes a day to deviate from this highly structured curriculum.

Anonymous said...

As an educator (and a parent), I know that though it seems as if we are spitting into the wind, in terms of making progress against the factory model of education, that simply isn't true. There are many educators including education professors that train teachers that support curriculum that engages children actively, is meaningful to children, and is flexible to meet the needs of particular children or class groups. The problem as you have stated is that students, educators, and families are not making the decisions about what happens in classrooms and schools. And it's time for us as the most important stakeholders in education to gather together and create the necessary transformation. Perhaps that means attending every school board meeting and voicing your opinion. Perhaps that means peacefully picketing your local school. Perhaps that means peacefully picketing your state capitol and department of education. If you live close to Washington D.C. perhaps you can organize or participate in a call for action at the Whitehouse, the Department of Education, or your congressman's office. And if you are a teacher....do what you believe in everyday in your classroom!

I am currently reading The Lively Kindergarten (2001, NAEYC) by Jones, Evans, and Rencken. Here are a couple of great quotes:

"Learning cannot be standardized. It happens in nonlinear paths, diverging in unexpected ways as new connections are made."

When learners generate curriculum, their participation and engagement are ensured. When children take the lead in developing what is worth knowing, they want to come to school because school makes sense."

jen said...

So what exactly does your ideal kindergarten/elementary program look like? Going of the mom's Facebook post, it possibly sounds like you would be a supporter of "unschooling?"

Teacher Tom said...

@Jen, I don't exactly know. Unschooling might be right for a few people, but it's not going to work for most. Here is my post for what I suggest should happen next. http://teachertomsblog.blogspot.com/2014/09/one-more-chair.html

Sorry, blogger doesn't allow links in the comments.

Unknown said...

This is a very interesting post. I do not have children but I have been teaching the preschoolers of my community for three years now. Movement/play is indescribably important for all ages but especially for children. It makes learning so much more interesting for them. Learning without involving the whole body is like watching a black and white 2D movie. Sure, it can be pretty good occasionally but with access to vibrant colors, surround sound and 3D figures, learning in 2D is foolish. One might even say it is cruel and unusual. I love this post and I will be an elementary teacher soon charging my way in and forcing the fun back into learning but for now I will enjoy my time with my preschoolers. Keep PreK 3D!

check out my blog for EDM310 at Courtney's Class Blog

Robin Frisella said...

Thank you, thank you for this. I'm sharing on my facebook page, and on my own little blog, where I just this week posted about proctoring a five-day standardized test in a KINDERGARTEN class. As long as you keep doing what you're doing, there's hope!