F.Y.I. All scenes are authentic, described to preserve anonymity.
"I want to cut myself” murmurs a 5 year old Kindergartner. Startled, I ask him “Why?” “Because I am always in trouble, I am always being bad, and everyone in this school hates me. They all say “Are you being good today?” when they see me. Be good, be good, be good, it’s all I hear."
Reminding myself that this boy is five, I ask him “How do you think cutting yourself will help?” “It won’t,” he says. “I just want to.” “Can you think of anything you could do to change the situation?” He looks at me piercingly. “I could stop myself and be good.” “Sure, that would be great, but I think it would be quite hard to suddenly do that. Where would you begin?” “I could listen.” “You mean, when the teacher is giving the lesson?” “Maybe.” “Well, I think that is a great place to start!” Described the conversation to his teacher, who wrote it down to discuss with the family and the guidance dept. It goes along with the boy last year who told me he wanted to kill himself. Similar reason – “I don’t think I can stand this any more, I’m always in trouble and I can’t do anything right.” Both these boys are bright as buttons, restless and curious. That doesn't seem to be what’s called for in today’s environments. Compliance is key.
Mandatory reading: Peg Tyre's "The trouble with Boys"
A child is struggling to put his phonics homework into his backpack. He is muttering. I hold the sides of the bag as clouds of cigarette fumes rise up, and he shoves in the papers. “I want my Daddy to help me when I get home!” he finally says. “That’s great!”, I say, “I’m glad he’s going to help you.” “But he won’t. I ask him and he say no. He say he play a video game with me later, but he don’t.” “Is it hard to do your homework?” I say. “Yes, mumble mumble . . . “ (unintelligible). I watch him as he stumbles towards the door to meet whatever parent or after-school program is picking him up.
As she lays out colored counting mats on tables, one per child, a teacher asks wistfully “Do they have things like block areas and Legos and dress-up in any other Kindergartens?” “Well,” I answer, “there still are some, not that many, and sometimes they have them but the kids can’t use them, except as a reward, on Fridays. Water tables, and play-do, and painting are mostly in Pre-K these days. But there are still schools where the K. morning meeting includes a greeting song, sharing of news, and sometimes a music selection where the kids can dance and move about after they have sat still for circle time, and before the schedule, calendar, and number of days in school.” “Whenever you look at websites or read children’s books about Kindergarten, they show all these fun educational things, and children learn social skills, how to be part of a community, and develop their language and vocabulary through natural conversations. But in the real world, none of that is really there.” “Yes, dear teacher, you are right, and if you try to do some of that, you will be rated ineffective at your next observation and lose your job. Welcome to the real world.” Not that I can tell her that, she will start to cry. She’s already hanging by a thread. As another K teacher seethes, piling up assessments to be entered into the data base when the children go home (on pain of getting written up) “They are setting our babies up to fail! Everything they are demanding will make it even more likely our children will drop out of school because they hate it so!”
A teacher is using a short statement about the recent Holiday celebrating Dr Martin Luther King Jr. as a discussion-starter. One second grader stands up and approaches the whiteboard. She points to the words “Civil Rights March” and asks “What are Civil Rights?” She is a literate 7 year-old in a well-regarded inner city school, she is African American, she has lived through several MLK Jr. Holidays, and she really wants an answer. Her classmates wait expectantly. But this is Lang. Arts, not social studies (that's once a week only.) She gives it her best shot in 4 brief sentences, while trying not to scream.
In another MLK Jr. related class, the teacher asks her Kindergartners “What do you think Dr King would be saying to us today?” Hands go up – “He’d be saying “No guns!” Lots of agreement. “They was shooting around my house last night and I couldn't sleep.” “My Mom‘s boyfriend got shot and he don’t live with us no more, he in the hospital.” “They was running down the street by me and shooting, we ran away from them.” “Well, if you hear shooting, you all just lay on the floor, don’t you be looking out the window to see what’s up, you hear?” Barely a child in that room hadn't heard gunfire or known someone that was shot. (And probably the shooters too).
So hide “Miss Bindergarten gets ready for Kindergarten!” and put away the enchanting poems for shared reading and memorizing. Forget the research-based wisdom that children learn through play. (Goodbye, Vivian Gussin Paley and her iconic "White Teacher") Take out the assessment portfolios and the referral sheets, as half your class of semi-toddlers fails to sit appropriately for the required direct instruction and maybe takes to crawling under desks and throwing trays of crayons across the room. Uh oh – referral time! Let it be said that most children do accommodate the expectations, and do participate, bringing their energy and imagination to the table. They want to please, be polite, try to make sense of it all, trust us, in the hope that eventually they will see the reasons behind it. The loss is all ours, in denying their uniqueness, their voice, their creative potential, in limiting it to the tiny, illicit corners of a boot camp austerity. We plead - if you have money to spend, spend it on more qualified adults in the room, more pencils and crayons, and books for the classroom library – not on more management consultants and scripted curricula and online assessment tools! For all that data downtown, the only thing that really matters is that the teacher knows who needs what and has the time, support and resources to provide it. If that is playing in sand to develop the strength to hold the pencil for writing – so be it! If that means acting as a family in dramatic play and working out recent dramas, all the better! Believe it or not, kids can do both. And they desperately need a safe, supportive yet challenging place where they can feel successful and accepted. Without that, the most rigorous program in the world, which is right now getting an experimental test run on low income inner city kids – will be useless, because the tension surrounding their lives needs a more multi-level, compassionate approach. "Unsmiling faces" by Leslie Koplow ought to be required reading before curriculum designers are let loose on the lives of children. http://www.amazon.com/Unsmiling-Faces-Lesley-Koplow/dp/080774803X
More sketches from the frontlines to come!