What matters? / by Christina Rosalie

The day of Halloween was warm and clear. Sun filtered through the classroom window at an angle, falling in big rectangles of brightness across the carpet and children’s heads as they read. Later, they used orange and black construction paper to make decorations for the classroom, and exchanged small handmade gifts; like Valentines on Halloween. It was one of the few days since September, where I stopped pushing academics and just let the kids be kids. It felt good to watch them cut and paste paper bats and ghosts, to hear their childish voices rising up with laughter, and to settle down in the reading corner with a picture book while most kids were working, to read with a few kids who are usually acting out. It’s hard to do this in the classroom today, with the No Child Left Behind standards based national “accountability” push.

Earlier and earlier kids are being pushed towards the brittle analytical material that numerals and letters make, and away from the things that matter to small children—imaginative play, paint, singing, learning to be kind to one another. I hate having to make this choice each day—between what I know will nurture their souls, and what I must teach so that they can get by with facility in the world of test scores and top-down administrations.

I often ponder the purpose of public education (as a standards based approach to learning whatever is deemed necessary to learn.) Sometimes it feels so much like a very intentional training program to prepare children to become good followers as adults; to think inside the box, to play fair and square and wait their turn, to not shine any brighter than the next kid over.

Sometimes the push to teach six year olds to type, to write whole pages, to read chapter books seems foolhardy. It can be done of course. But why? Is there any research that shows concrete evidence that early mastery of these basic skills is any type of indicator for later success? I don’t know of any, and my own experience speaks to the contrary. I went to a school (Waldorf) where kindergarten and first graders were given space and time to play, to imagine, to paint big pictures, and to wonder. Where fairy tales, and treehouse building went hand in hand with learning the alphabet and how to count. I didn’t learn to read solidly until third grade. Did that stop me? Did it somehow limit my potential? I think not.

Today, after two nights with only 5 hours of sleep (Bean is either going through a bout of separation anxiety or teething—or both, but he’s been inconsolable often throughout the past two nights), I felt my patience wearing thin. I was trying to teach consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel patterns to a group of kids, while somehow, expecting the rest of the kids to be self directed—and they were not (could not be). So when I felt my patience slipping I decided to take them outside instead of getting angry (it was not their fault, they were trying, the stuff is hard to grasp.)

They burst out the door with sheer abandon. And then I watched them revert from being anxious students to care free children.

They built sand box houses for their stuffed animals; they pretended to be driving a space ship; they pumped high on the swings and squealed with pure joy. They were kids. And so often I forget how little they really are—I forget that they imagine their stuffed kittens to be real; or that a tree can become a space ship—and instead I focus on the fact that they need constant remindings to be sitting still at meetings, to be listening, to be writing neatly, to be following directions.

I want to know tonight—what was your first grade experience like? What did you learn? How do you think it affected who you are today? And how (if you elementary school age kids) is your child’s first grade experience different than yours was?