In the Blink of an Eye

I remember the moment when I first looked into the eyes of of my first baby. His eyes black as night peered at me from under the blanket draped over us, Barely wiped down from the messy miracle of birth, he was placed against my bare chest. We could have been anywhere at all. In a cab. In a meadow. On the moon. Those eyes were all that I saw, the only things in the world, besides his soft heartbeat against my chest.

It’s easy to forget the wonder of that moment in the rush of everyday life. The lunchboxes to pack. The homework to complete. The papers to sign and return. The toys on the floor. The dishes in the sink. The laundry, the laundry, the laundry. But yet it is a wonder that we adults should never take for granted.

When I was pregnant with my first baby, the first ultrasound was incredible. I had never seen anything like it. The grossness of a transvaginal ultrasound (sorry fellas but reading those words is much easier than going through one) suddenly didn’t matter when the little flicker of the heartbeat came into focus on the screen. That was my baby growing inside of me.

By the third ultrasound, I was obsessed with them. I carried the pictures with me everywhere and stared at them in awe. Ultrasounds were the coolest things in the world. I remarked once to the technician, at the 6 month ultrasound for my second baby, that she must have one of the best jobs in the world. To which she replied, “Yes, when the baby is healthy.” I felt my heart drop into the pit of my stomach.

My first pregnancy and delivery had gone without a hitch. I had no reason to think about complications. I was so lucky, and I never even thought twice about it. Of course the technician’s job wasn’t all declaring with glee, “It’s a boy”, or “It’s a girl.” Sometimes there was no heartbeat. No heartbeat. I couldn’t imagine, but in that moment of awkward silence I was forced to.

I had no way of knowing that that baby inside me that day would be born prematurely. I had no idea that I would be rushed for an emergency C-section and that I wouldn’t hear him cry when he was born, because he had trouble breathing and was rushed from the room. I had no idea that I wouldn’t hold him for over 24 hours after birth, or that I would learn to nurse him with an IV sticking out of his scalp.

Thankfully, he was okay after a few days in the NICU and was able to come home with us from the hospital. Though, I met many parents that were not so fortunate.

Now my first baby is 7 years old and my second is 5. I don’t know where the time goes, but I know it goes quickly. Just talk to any parent of a child about to graduate high school, and they will tell you that it feels like just yesterday that they were putting their child on the bus to kindergarten.

Testing starts on Monday in our town and across much of New Jersey. And I think what bothers me the most is the precious time that is being wasted. Ask parents what they want for their children more than anything in the world and few will reply high test scores, but many will say that they want their children to be happy.

Why make school feel like work?

Children are in school a fleeting 13 years (not counting college, if they attend). The current life expectancy in the U.S. is 79 years old. They will spend the vast majority of their lives working. Of course we all hope our children love their occupations, but the reality is that many adults do not.

Why not invest the time, energy, and money wasted on testing our children to death and spend it on making the 13 years of school more inspiring, engaging, and full of learning driven by discovery and doing instead of receiving? The test makers claim that their tests make education more rigorous and prepare children for college and careers. Well, I think rigor comes from teaching, thinking,and applying knowledge to actual tasks and projects not from tests.

Children best prepared for the world spend time in it from a young age. You want to prepare children for college and careers, improve the foreign language programs in America that are grossly lacking compared to other countries. Take the children on more trips to see their town, state, country, and world. Sure, have the children analyze text, but then instead of answering questions on the computer, ask them to take what they learned and DO something with that knowledge.

They could write and deliver a persuasive speech. Participate in a debate. Create an advertisement. Draw a comic strip. Design a lesson about what they read and teach it to the class. Write and illustrate a children’s book about it. Research other points of view and compare and contrast them. Start a service learning project to make real progress towards solving a problem they read about.

Those activities require higher order thinking skills and demonstrate rigor much more than a test with multiple choice, short answers or even a complex essay. Yet those activities are being cut from teacher lesson plans in favor of more and more worksheets to “get through” the demands of the Common Core and more and more test prep to prepare for tests that are tied to teachers’ livelihood.

On Monday, the test will begin and the clock will keep ticking. Ticking off the minutes they have to complete each section. Ticking off minutes for short breaks. Ticking off the minutes until school is over and they can finally run free. Ticking off minutes of their childhood that they will not get back, even if the PARCC test is thrown out in a year or two.

In the blink of an eye, a piece of their precious childhood will be wasted.

And all of us are to blame.

My parents and I with my second son in the NICU.

My parents and I with my second son in the NICU.

A Response to Rob Furman: Elementary Education Reform is Big Business

Access to universal preschool sounds like such a lofty idea.

What better way to level the playing field than making sure that our youngest learners get an equal opportunity to have a good head start in life? Who could deny that some children in America are experiencing preschools that are nurturing environments of play-based learning, while others are getting nothing but shoddy day care centers or babysitters with TV remotes in hand? Anyone who wants to deny children quality preschool must be out of touch with reality, right?

Wrong.

Yes, children come to kindergarten with vastly different abilities and habits as elementary principal Rob Furman suggests in his article, “4 Surprising Reasons Why Preschool and Kindergarten Must Change” published by Huffington Post. ” As an elementary principal I have seen the difficulty kindergarten students have starting school when they have had no Pre K experience. Most students are soaring academically, while others (those without Pre K experience) are trying to learn how to hang up their coat or to sit and raise their hand if they need the teacher’s attention.” 

But the reason that some kids come to school unprepared has more to do with the experiences they are receiving at home, not at preschool. Some children are read to every night before bed, are taken to Mommy and Me music classes like Music Together or Gymboree, are fed healthy food regularly, are able to safely play outside in their backyards or at nearby playgrounds, are spoken to with kindness and encouraged to ask questions, and are raised in peaceful supportive home environments. Those kids excel. They would excel academically and behaviorally regardless of preschool, because they feel safe, loved, and are free to explore.

Other children are not so lucky. Without paid maternity leave in America, many moms and dads who want to stay home with their young children are not able to afford it in today’s economy. Therefore, more and more children are placed in day care centers from an early age than ever before. Many American children of all financial situations live in homes where stress levels are high. Parent expectations are high from choosing the safest car seat to looming college tuition.

High stress careers, financial woes, marital problems, health problems, depression,drug abuse, an endless pursuit of perfection and so many other issues drive many parents into survival mode. Families aren’t eating dinner together anymore and children aren’t playing kickball in the streets like I did as a child. Older siblings are inundated with extracurricular activities and sports that demand more and more of our children’s time at younger and younger ages. The younger children in families are raised on fast food in car seats, watching DVD’s as they are shuffled from practice to practice and activity to activity. Television and other electronic devices have become a savior to busy parents. They keep the kids busy, so they can check Facebook or watch whatever is on the DVR to decompress from their own stress.

And what about our nation’s poorest families? Child hunger and homelessness are rarely spoken about unless it is the holidays, yet for too many children it is a daily struggle. Gang and drug violence plague poor neighborhoods where the media rarely reports on the harsh reality of youth growing up there. I know because I have taught in an elementary school where kids had to leave out of the back door because there was a shooting out front and a teacher and a principal were assaulted inside during school hours.

Universal preschool would help those kids yes, but what would help more would be real progress in the war on drugs and real solutions to ending gun violence. It would help if their parents were educated and read to them or just spoke to them with  patience and kindness. It would help if they had safe places to play without fear of abuse, abduction, or violence. It would help if they had books in their homes and in their hands. It would help if they were sung to or hugged and told that they are special.

Furman’s article speaks volumes about how misguided even some elementary school principals are about how children learn best.

“Given the new expectations for our kindergarten students, Pre K programs must develop the pre-learning experiences necessary for reading and math readiness. I often hear our parents saying, ‘What has happened to play time in kindergarten?’ Well, sadly playtime in kindergarten is gone. But playtime is perfect for our Pre K programs ( Fact Check) Pre K should now accommodate all those very important social skills so necessary for student success in later years. That is not to say that our children will not have fun in kindergarten. We always want to be mindful of developmentally appropriate learning experiences for our children. Pre K experiences will be more focused on imaginative play, appropriate social skills and academic readiness.”

You cannot say “Well, sadly playtime in kindergarten is gone,” and, “We always want to be mindful of developmentally appropriate learning experiences for our children,” in the same breath and not be a hypocrite.

The fact is that universal preschool and compulsory “advanced” 1st grade kindergarten are not going to do anything to advance the academic potential of ANY child. Not if the curriculum is based on reading and math readiness that comes in the form of worksheets, computer programs and testing and at the expense of recess.

Kids learn math, reading, and social skills by having a safe and nurturing environment to play. All these new mandates and reforms has brought is exactly the opposite.

Florida parents are fighting to keep recess in their elementary schools because the districts are claiming that with the new rigorous Common Core standards that there is no time to play.

 http://insider.foxnews.com/2015/01/14/florida-elementary-schools-cut-out-recess-blame-common-core

(But really, I think this is Jeb Bush posturing for a presidential run and coming out against the Common Core. Once again, our children have become a political springboard.)

Education reform is full of rhetoric right now,so parents need to be more informed and vigilant than ever. If you are not sure if this is true, just take a moment to read what an executive at Pearson (the company that makes and reaps huge profits from the PARCC assessment and many other high stakes assessments) has to say about why it is worth it for our nation to have spent $1.7 billion on testing in 2012. With the new obsession with expanding and redesigning high stakes tests, that number will only grow.

http://researchnetwork.pearson.com/educator-effectiveness/is-1-7-billion-a-lot-or-a-little-to-spend-on-testing

Remember in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz what happened when Dorothy finally saw who was behind the curtain. It was not at all what she expected.

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”
― L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Pay attention to the motivation behind these education reforms. Make them take off their masks. They don’t care about our children.

P.S. Rob Furman makes a lot of money off of education reform too. http://www.furmanr.com

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