The Whole School Did What?!

Not much surprises me anymore. But today something happened that left me speechless.

On the way home from school, I asked the typical, “How was your day?” Well my oldest son, who is in 2nd grade, responded, “A little good and a little bad.” Immediately, my ears perked up and of course zeroed in on the negative. “What do you mean a little bad? What happened?”

He started to explain that when he was outside playing in the snow; he realized that he had two different gloves on. One glove was too big and kept falling off.

Sounds pretty normal, except that today it was snowing (albeit it only accumulated an inch or two) and 25 degrees out here in NJ. We are new to the school district, having just moved here 3 months ago, but I felt pretty sure that it isn’t common practice to have outdoor recess in the freezing cold and especially not in the snow!

“Wait an minute! You had outdoor recess…today?!”

My kindergartener chimed in, “No mom we played in the snow in the morning.”

Ok, then I was really confused. Both of them were outside just playing in the snow?

My oldest, “We went out right after our math minute in the morning, just for a little while to play. The whole school did, but not all at the same time.”

Just in case you missed it.

THE WHOLE SCHOOL GOT A CHANCE TO PLAY IN THE SNOW.

With all of the focus on raising the standards and increased accountability and testing, a principal, our principal,  thought it was important to make a little time for the kids to play in the snow. This in a time where recess minutes are being cut and preschool is becoming universal and “standards-based.” In a time where children from age 3 are asked to start preparing for college and careers. In a time when standardized tests are claiming over 9 hours of instructional time not counting time spent on test preparation. In a time where teachers, schools, and principals are being judged by their students’ test scores.

It took me a sad number of questions, before I even understood what my children were telling me. The idea of  principal letting kids play in the snow was so foreign to me. All of the principals that I have have ever known (at least 7) have been damage control specialists. I could hear their questions in my head.

Wouldn’t parents call to complain that it was too cold? What if a child wasn’t properly dressed in a warm coat, hat, and gloves? What if their shoes got wet and then they developed hypothermia? What if a child slipped and fell on the ice? What if the kids got too wild or threw snowballs? How much instructional time would be lost?

I had a friend and colleague who once got into trouble for taking her math students outside to draw geometric shapes on the concrete walkway. The assistant principal said it was a security threat for her to have propped the door open for the 15 minute lesson, and he also wanted to know if the chalk would wash off. (sigh)

As soon as I got home, I called my mother and my mother-in-law to tell them that the kids played in the snow at school today and both were just as shocked as I was. After I hung up the phone, tears welled in my eyes. I was so happy that my children are able to learn in a school that understands and values the wonder of childhood. But those tears were bittersweet, for I know that so many of America’s children are not so lucky.

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A Whole Lot of Time

Time is a word that resonates with teachers.

A daily schedule with specific time allocated for each subject in elementary schools, that are then signaled by jarring bells in middle and high school.

Prep periods, duties and meetings are scattered throughout the school day. Buses come and go at the same time each day.

Curriculum maps chop the standards and units into time frames.

Marking periods begin and end on specific dates, not to mention progress reports in the middle of each term and report card deadlines and distributions.

The desk calendar (I have never met a teacher without one) is crowded every month with events, faculty meetings, child study team meetings,  school functions, and field trips.

Even lessons are broken down into pieces based on time.

Education runs on the clock. A clock that doesn’t stop for bathroom breaks (as every teacher laments). And this is a good thing presumably, because the school day and school year don’t last forever.  We need to maximize efficiency and time on task.

But what effect does this constant time crunch have on learning? How many times do teachers have to cut activities, discussions, labs, and even assessments short because of time?  How many field trip opportunities are skipped? How many teachable moments lost? Experiments or other hands-on activities skipped? The answer is many.

Increased time spent on standardized assessments will chip away at that learning time even more. Despite the new PARCC assessment in NJ being heralded as more efficient because of it being completed online, it requires that the number of testing days be doubled from 4 days to 8 days (4 in March and 4 more in May).

Anyone who works in schools can tell you how testing shuts a school down. Computers now will be tied up with testing along with the teachers and administrators charged with the task of administering the test. (And they also use the week after testing for 4 days of makeup testing.) To be fair, there is definitely a time advantage to not having to distribute, collect and count test booklets and answer keys. And kids will no longer have to struggle to break the section seals with the eraser end of their pencil. However, any time gained was lost once again once the number of test days was doubled.

The NJ ASK in fourth grade  (according to the state website) was 4 mornings 60-90 minutes each day. The PARCC for 4th grade will be 4 mornings  80, 70, 75, 75 minutes each TWICE a year. Though the state has stated that the estimated actual time will be 10-20 minutes less than these times, it still remains to be seen.

Even more disturbing to me is the fact that these tests are now slated to start in kindergarten rather than in third grade. The time requirement for the youngest grades has not been released yet, but the amount of testing will drastically increase over the span of the elementary years.

The impact of this steep increase, I will tackle in another post. But the idea of time is my focus here. A whole lot of time. Our children do not have a whole lot of time to be children. Our modern world makes constant demands that they grow up faster, be exposed to more, and perform to the standards set by adults. Our children have shown the negative effects of these demands in dramatic ways like drug abuse, anxiety, depression, and violence, but also in more subtle ways. Love and excitement for learning is waning. School has become a place of work rather than a place that feels like fun despite the work that is getting done. And sadly, school has also become  place of fear with school shootings on the rise. What better way is there to keep our children safe than to show them love? Allow them to learn and develop free from unnecessary pressure to perform.

The world is changing rapidly. But our children still need their childhood. They need time to play. They need to love school. They need to engage in the kind of “work” at school that they will remember with a smile. They need teachers who have time to teach and not just collect data and train kids for tests.

There isn’t a whole lot of time before this testing machine takes over. Now is the time to push the pendulum instead of waiting for it to swing.