Thursday, September 13, 2012

Test Prep, Play, and an EduMom's Angst

I am afraid.  I am afraid of the day that my children bring home a worksheet with the words "Test Prep" on it.  I am afraid that my dual roles as parent and educator will battle, and I will end up making the wrong decision.  I am afraid that any decision I make in that instance will be wrong.

Today my friends, who live in another town, tackled their first kindergarten homework.  The homework focused on a Common Core Standard related to counting and numbers.  Atop the page were the words "Test Prep."  The kindergartners received this worksheet for homework on their 6th day of school.

I won't even go into the fact that a host of adults (me included) could not decipher the instructions for this worksheet. The fact that kindergartners who have not even experienced a week of school are subjected to test prep scares me.  This is the result of policies that have been supported by individuals who do not understand teaching and learning.  It is the result of educators being disrespected, silenced by those who think they know better.

My former student is a teaching in Chicago.  He, along with 90% of his colleagues, authorized a strike that has sent ripples throughout the education community and waves in the political media.  The district leaders cry that the teachers are hurting the students over issues of pay and benefits.  However, most teachers in the strike believe the fight is deeper than what they take home.  In the words of my former student, and now my colleague, "We are fighting for the ability to help your kids explore the world rather than bubble it in."   Chicago teachers are standing against excessive testing, incomplete evaluation systems, and an environment where the art of teaching, which includes attention to the individual difference of children, is not valued.

Last night on the train I listened to a podcast by Back Story called School Days: A History of Public Education. The American History Guys chronicled the origins of America's free and public education; they traced its development; and, perhaps most interestingly, they provided evidence that teachers (and schools) have served as scapegoats on more than one occasion throughout our past.  (For example, when Russia beat the US into space, schools became the primary target - we weren't preparing scientists and engineers who could compete globally.)

The podcast guys mentioned statistics about the low standing of US students on comparative international exams.  What they didn't say - and what few people explain - is that when variables related to poverty are controlled, the US scores at the top of the pack.  We actually know how to teach - and we have a lot of wonderful teachers who care about students.  Testing won't make kids smarter; over-testing will only serve to reduce teaching and learning to the test itself.  In some cases, it encourages cheating and lying, and these are certainly not values that we want our education system to promote.

I spend much of my professional time arguing that "teaching to the test" is not what teaching and learning is about.  I wrote an article called "Fear of Failure" because I understand that it is this fear that drives administrators and teachers to focus on the test.  After today, I realize that it is this fear that has increased my angst about being a parent of school aged children.  I know in my heart that a worksheet for "test prep" will not truly help my kids learn.  But I also understand why teachers are sending these kinds of tasks home for homework.

For the last week I have been encouraging my twins, who are in the same kindergarten class, to make new friends.  I ask each day who they play with.  Every day my son says, "We don't have time to play."  Each morning he has cried, "I don't want to go to school.  I can't do anything I want to do."  I have been listening, growing increasingly worried about his immediate dislike for school.  I was hoping to get to adolescence before the cries to stay home began.  I also was skeptical about his claim that they didn't have time to play during the 6 hours they spend in school.  However, last night one of my students, a kindergarten teacher, shared his reason for entering a doctoral program.  He wants to study "play" in kindergarten.  Many theories of learning support that play, especially in young children, is important in development - academic, social, and emotional.  His experience as a kindergarten teacher has led him to believe that the culture of high stakes testing has pushed more and more "academic" work into kindergarten, leaving less and less time for creative play.  As my student explained his research goals, I thought of my son's morning moan - that he didn't have time to do anything that he wanted to do.  Perhaps he is right.  And that scares me too.

When she saw my Twitter post about my friends' kindergartners and their test prep homework, my colleague, who fights the battle between educator and mom every day, asked me, "So are you attaching a 'dear teacher' letter in response?"  I  do not know what choice I will make when my children bring home a worksheet for "test prep."  I do not know what the right choice would be.  I do know that my profession matters and that the teachers in Chicago are leading a good fight - one that is standing up against a culture of high stakes testing, which, ultimately, has little to do with teaching and learning.  I can only hope that as time goes on, my kids find more time to play.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

32 Starts, and none like this

Each year my colleague announces that it is his 35th, 36th, 37th... opening of school.  He remembers back to his elementary days and recalls the excitement he felt each and every year since.  Like him, I also love going back to school.  The anticipation of the new year bubbles up inside me.

I love back to school shopping. I love the promise of new teachers and new students.  I love the challenge - and the potential - of a clean slate.  I love the possibility of greatness that each first day brings.

It is my 32nd "first day of school," but this one is special.

Tomorrow's the day.  Life will change.  Again.  For the last two years my husband and I have been developing a rhythm, a juggling act of preschool drop off and babysitter coverage.  Tomorrow the rhythm changes.

My kiddos are headed to kindergarten.  I am neither anxious nor excited.  I know the kids will love school.  I know they will be exhausted after 6.5 hours of intense social and academic time away from home.  I know they are a little nervous about what this new place, this new life, will mean for them.   I know that there will be good and bad, and  I am just waiting to catch the new rhythm.

As I do every year, I eagerly anticipated class assignments - this time, however, it was from the other side of the desk.  I quietly stalked the mailbox the day after the town sent the letters.  I quickly tore into them.  I immediately texted my friends to find out what they knew about the teacher.  I entered parent-land, and I learned quickly that class assignments mean a great deal to parents.  The local facebook discussion board lit up with comments like, "Suzi got Smith."  "Did anyone else get Allen?" "Johnny got Williams and Bethany got Jacobs."  

I was struck by the verb the parents used.  Their children "got" something - like a present, perhaps, or perhaps like a virus.  Conversations with friends behind the scenes confirmed what I probably always knew and never really considered while I was teaching high school.  Families hope for certain teachers.  Parents have perceptions of classrooms or of personalities or of standards - or of some thing that will make or break their children's year.    Teachers matter and parents care.  I see that from both sides of the desk now.

My balancing act will shift tomorrow as my children enter a public school classroom.  I have had 28 starts associated with public schools (the other 4 were college starts), but this is my first as a parent.  I wonder what the new rhythm will be.