How We’re Killing Our Kids.

I’m sitting at my kitchen table listening to Miles Davis and eating Cheerios from a box like a child. Some of the Cheerios miss my mouth as I’m shoveling them in since I’m busy devouring articles about education and teaching. Between my munches, my eyes stick to the screen and I feel for my cup of tea nearby so I can wash down the “wholesome goodness” I’ve just consumed.

I stumbled upon this article, in which a woman from Maryland PREACHES the truth about teaching in today’s society. All of a sudden (or maybe not so suddenly), we have become obsessed with data points and graphs and making education more like a business, cranking out products of “well-performing” students and throwing the duds to the curb.

Since when is this education? Since when is discarding a struggling student acceptable? Since when is teaching to the test something so highly regarded?

I don’t know about you, but I’m in the business of teaching, and I mean really teaching. At my school, I teach reading in English; I also teach people skills, kindness, empathy, passion, excitement, writing, NFL Panthers football, how to use an iPad, videography, saying thank you, how to be a die-hard UNC fan in any and every circumstance, and being responsible for your actions, just to name a few.

Despite this, I can only give students a grade in reading, and whether or not they are reading at a certain level by a certain period of time.

This is not education. This is a disservice.

When we teach to tests, we are slowly killing our kids, the future leaders of our nation and the world. We essentially end up teaching them to be unoriginal, even when we tell them to “think outside the box” (why is there even a box? Just stop and think!). When we begin to drill rote memorization into the minds of our children at age eight, what can we expect from them by the time they graduate high school?

One of my favorite things about teaching third graders is that, for the most part, they still have their creativity (and they still like to give their teacher hugs). Their minds haven’t been clouded with eraser dust from correcting misaligned bubble sheets, and their eyes still light up when you read a book to them. Third graders, in my experience of one and a half years in two districts, are fairly eager to please, and if you do it right, you can get them excited about almost anything. This, for me, is where magic can happen.

If you can catch kids in this state of interest and intrigue before they’re jaded by incessant amounts of testing and sitting silently at a desk in a row for hours on end, then real teaching and learning is possible.

Why are we afraid of this blissful state of education? It’s like if we can’t quantify it or put it in a graph to compare data, then it isn’t useful. How does that benefit anybody?

Here’s what I envision happening: if every teacher in the country taught to the test, drilled students with practice tests and made sure that bubbles were filled in perfectly and answer sheets were pristine, then what? We would have thousands of test-taking robots instead of human beings. Then, society would fail because no one would learn important things like how to talk accountably with others or how to work through disagreements in an appropriate manner.

School is more than just standards. It’s more than just learning to read or making a connection between fractions and division. School is supposed to prepare students for life and the future, but how could we as teachers possibly be doing that when we’re under so much pressure and scrutiny from administrators and higher ups everywhere? There are so many moments I wish I could just shut my door and live in my own little Room 40 world, but those above me always ask about things that I see as unimportant. People rarely ask about how well students are working in groups or how innovative a child’s way to solve a problem is; it’s always about whether they’re reading at level or if their answer is correct.

It’s been years since arts programs and extracurriculars have started getting cut from schools across the nation, and I find that so unfortunate. I read an article a while back called “Is Music the Key to Success?” in which the author points out how various successful people have once studied music in-depth, and continues to justify the importance of music (and the arts in general) through numerous examples.

We’ve been cutting arts programs because they’re fluffy; because they aren’t science or math or reading.

Or are they?

There is most certainly a science to music — if my guitar strings didn’t vibrate, how would I hear what I’m playing? I have to keep time in a rhythm when I play music, which is heavily mathematical. Reading music is like reading a language of its own — half notes, whole notes, quarter notes, rests, codas dotting the staves of sheet music are a foreign language to many.

Policy makers and legislators don’t see the benefits to something like arts education because they aren’t IN education. Even if you were in education 20 years ago, can you imagine how different children are today than in the ’90s? I was in third grade in 1998, and I can say with confidence that I am teaching VERY differently than my third grade teacher did. Students are changing as the times change and as technology advances, and I can list a slew of students I have or had last year who I know would benefit from some kind of arts education or after school program.

It breaks my heart to know that we’re killing our kids and their ingenuity, their independence. We’re also killing teachers in these same ways, too.

How can you expect me to be creative with my lessons when you’re requiring me to teach certain things a certain way? Where is the independence in my lesson planning and my PLC time when you’re monopolizing it for “district-mandated trainings” that really aren’t always the most helpful to me and my practice? I understand that there are times when these things can mean well, but why can’t we just cool it? When I took this job at my current school, I found out that there would be plenty of planning time during my days, and even some extended planning time once a month. I was really excited about this, because in my mind it meant that I wouldn’t have to spend so much time planning at home and on the weekends. Some weeks my planning time is better used than others, but many of the days for planning are consumed with meetings, and our monthly extended curriculum planning time got difficult when I became the lonely reading teacher with no integrated units to work from like my peers.

It’s kind of hard to be an independent, creative teacher when I’m spending time out of the classroom, doing icebreakers like lining up in birthday order without talking (I’m sorry, I’m an adult — if you want to train me or present something to me, please do it in a way suitable for professional adults). It’s also hard when another large portion of my time is spent testing. When is the teaching supposed to happen!? What am I even really getting paid to do?

This, my friends, is why I’m in the business of real teaching. Nothing makes me happier than to see my kids get excited about learning, and trust me, I plan on cultivating that until they leave me in June. I will jump up and down, read in accents, and talk about things my kids are interested in because that’s how you teach; that’s how they learn. If I wasn’t excited about teaching them things, how can I really expect them to be excited to learn? As an adult, learning happens because you’re curious about something, am I right? I find myself constantly Googling things or driving to the library to check out books so that I can learn something. If this is how we learn as adults, why shouldn’t this be an approach to teaching children (even if you’re standards-driven, this approach can be taken, so there are no excuses)?

I could honestly care less if my kids really know the difference between a myth and a fairytale by the end of third grade — honestly, what benefit is that to them? I care more about how my kids work collaboratively and how they treat each other, because that’s more of a life skill than filling out a Venn diagram (does anyone even use these in the real world? Serious question). I will not regret spending the first ten minutes of each of my classes doing our compliment circle, in which each child has the opportunity to give or receive a compliment. It is because of this activity that I have kids speaking in complete sentences, making eye contact while talking, and being kind to one another. Yeah, I know that isn’t on the End of Grade test, but those skills are embedded in them for life, which, I’d say is pretty important.

I hate knowing that when I return to school on Monday, the countdown to testing begins. I’m fortunate enough to have a principal who doesn’t believe in the “drill and kill” method of test preparation, but the air will loom heavily with whispers of data and Read to Achieve and mCLASS and all things test-related.

Even so, there are so many things I love about going back to school after Christmas to start a new year with my class. The kids are more mature (for the most part — there are always lapses, but hey, they’re kids and it happens to all of us, even when we’re 24), they start to become more independent, and they really start taking ownership of their learning. It’s amazing how much a child can grow in just four short months, and I’m so blessed to get to watch them grow day by day in my classroom, not just as learners and students but as young people who are forming opinions and sharing their ideas with the world.

I’m in the business of real teaching — care to join me in the quest for educational creativity and saving our kids from becoming bubble-coloring machines?

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