Penelope H. Bevan
Sunday, June 3, 2007
I was watching one of my second-grade girls try unsuccessfully to tie her shoes the other day, and I thought, “This is a person who is supposed to be learning plural possessives?” I think not.
We’ve just finished test time again in the schools of California. The mad frenzy of testing infects everyone from second grade through high school. Because of the rigors and threats of No Child Left Behind, schools are desperate to increase their scores. As the requirements become more stringent, we have completely lost sight of the children taking these tests.
For 30 years as a teacher of primary kids, I have operated on the Any Fool Can See principle. And any fool can see that the spread between what is developmentally appropriate for 7- and 8-year-old children and what is demanded of them on these tests is widening. A lot of what used to be in the first-grade curriculum is now taught in kindergarten. Is your 5-year-old stressed out? Perhaps this is why.
Primary-grade children have only the most tenuous grasp on how the world works. Having been alive only seven or eight years, they have not figured out that in California there is a definite wet and dry season. They live in high expectation that it will snow in the Bay Area in the winter. They reasonably conclude, based on their limited experience with words, that a thesaurus must be a dinosaur. When asked to name some of the planets after he heard the word Earth, one of my boys confidently replied, “Mars, Saturn, Mercury, Jupiter and Canada!” to which a girl replied, “No, no, no, you gotta go way far outer than that.”
Research has shown that it takes approximately 24 repetitions of a new concept to imprint on a young brain. The aforementioned plural possessives come up twice in the curriculum, yet they are supposed to know it when they see it. This is folly.
Currently, 2 1/2 uninterrupted hours are supposed to be devoted to language arts and reading every morning. I ask you, what adult could sustain an interest in one subject for that long? Yet the two reading series adopted by the state for elementary education require that much time be devoted to reading in the expectation that the scores will shoot up eventually. Show me a 7-year-old who has that kind of concentration. Show me a 64-year-old teacher who has it. Not I.
The result of this has been a decline in math scores at our school, because the emphasis is on getting them to read and there isn’t enough time to fit in a proper curriculum. Early math education should rely heavily on messing about with concrete materials of measurements, mass, volume and length, and discovering basic principles through play.
There is no time for this. The teaching of art is all but a subversive activity. Teachers whisper, “I taught art today!” as if they would be reported to the Reading Police for stealing time from the reading curriculum, which is what they did.
It is also First Communion time in second grade. Yes, I teach in a public school, but First Communion happens in second grade, and it is a big deal, the subject of much discussion in the classroom. The children are excited.
A few months back one of my girls exclaimed, “Jeez, I have a lot to do after school today, Teacher. I gotta do my homework, go to baseball practice and get baptized.” I laughed to myself at the priorities of this little to-do list, so symbolic of the life of one second-grader. But there was a much larger issue here. What is happening to their souls? You may ask, what business it is of the schools what is happening to the souls of these little children?
I will tell you. Any fool can see that those setting the standards for testing of primary-grade children haven’t been around any actual children in a long time. The difference between what one can reasonably expect an 8-year-old to know and what is merely a party trick grows exponentially on these state tests.
Meanwhile, children who know they are bright and can read well are proved wrong time and again because of the structure of these tests. Teachers spend inordinate amounts of time trying to teach the children to be careful of the quirky tricks of the tests when they should be simply teaching how to get on in the world.
Twenty years ago, I had a conference with a parent, a Sikh, whose child was brilliant. I was prepared to show him all her academic work, but he brushed it aside and said, “Yes, yes, I know she is quite smart, but I want to know how her soul is developing.”
The present emphasis on testing and test scores is sucking the soul out of the primary school experience for both teachers and children. So much time is spent on testing and measuring reading speed that the children are losing the joy that comes but once in their lifetime, the happy messiness of paint, clay, Tinkertoys and jumping rope, the quiet discovery of a shiny new book of interest to them, the wonders of a magnifying glass. The teachers around them, under constant pressure to raise those test scores, radiate urgency and pressure. Their smiles are grim. They are not enjoying their jobs.
Our children need parents and teachers who, like Hamlet, know a hawk from a hand saw, who know foolishness when they see it and are strong enough to defend these small souls from the onslaught of escalating developmentally inappropriate claptrap. The great unspoken secret of primary school is that a lot of what is going on is arrant nonsense, and it’s getting worse. Any fool can see.
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This article appeared on page E – 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle