Early Childhood Education Insanity (my rant)

two multicolored slinky toys

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Our first grandchild arrived in August, and as many grandparents come to understand, things have changed since we raised our own children. Babies don’t sleep with crib bumpers, or on their tummies. Children don’t wear winter coats in car seats. I most definitely have zero applicable knowledge when it comes to infants. Times have changed, research has changed, thinking has changed.

My wheelhouse, though, is education. I wonder – often as it turns out – if my own thinking as a teacher is outdated. I was reminded of this when a colleague shared the school district’s current Early Childhood (PreK) progress report with me – which was over 10 pages long. These 3- and 4-year-olds have been “in school” barely 5 weeks and already their teachers are tasked with assessing their progress.

Progress in what, exactly? When one is 3- or 4-years old, shouldn’t the ultimate goal be to learn to love learning? To get along with others and take turns? Socialize?  A 10-page checklist of skills – by category – seems ridiculous for a little one who has only been on this planet for less than 5 trips around the sun.

It did make me curious: what exactly is being asked of young children, so I did some browsing through Boston Public School’s Early Childhood page. Check out the “robust questions” intended to spark conversation with 3- or 4-year olds in Centers found in the vocabulary section of this document,  “What is the inspiration for your work?” “What is your plan for structure?”

Looking at the assessments recommended for this age group, there are a number of screening and assessment tools recommended and required.  Some would be useful as a child’s language development progresses; one that seems “optional” but noted in use in some school PreK programs is Fountas & Pinnell benchmark testing. That’s right, some schools endeavor to find a 3-year-olds “independent” reading level. No, they are not kidding. Shouldn’t we be reading to children this young and not expecting them to read to us?

Here’s my question as a new grandparent and a retired educator:

When do young children get to just be young children?

Is there such a driving need to prove children are “learning” at such young ages that reasonable expectations, developmental appropriateness and an emphasis on developing social skills and love of learning been replaced by assessment, evaluation, and checklists?

My hope is that the pendulum swings back to more child-friendly early childhood education before my granddaughter reaches school-age.


It’s the vocabulary, stupid

Well, not just the vocabulary, but for my urban kids, that surely is a major factor.  This week, our writing focus – visualizing a text – was driven by a poem written by Carmen Lagos Signes:

Pumpkins in the cornfields,

Gold among the brown,

Leaves of rust and scarlet,

Trembling slowly down;

Birds that travel southward,

Lovely time to play;

Nothing is as pleasant

As an Autumn Day!

Such a seemingly bucolic text loaded with typical fall scenery. So what vocabulary did my third graders find to be a challenge? Scarlet, rust (multiple meanings get them every single time!), pleasant, Autumn and…. cornfield.  Without explicit instruction – defining, finding synonyms, antonyms, using the words in sentences – visualizing this text would have turned into a meaningless regurgitation of the author’s words.

A simple text, one with which my students would have some familiarity and experience, and the task of writing what the mind saw during the reading, so impacted by challenging vocabulary, challenging especially for second language learners. I am humbled.

The Power of our Words

Each year I’ve required students to write at least weekly about something they have been reading.  At first the students’ letters go something like this:

Dear Mrs. Bisson,

I read Arthur’s Teacher Trouble. It was really funny.

Your friend,

No matter how pushed I am for time I generally manage to write back and so our written conversations sometimes morph into writings that are less about reading and more about what is going on in a student’s life.  However, as the school year progresses, I do get the students to write a bit more insightfully — or at least to offer some support to their reading opinions.  When the changeover happens, it is a proud moment for me: my students are arriving as readers and writers.

Last week one of my students wrote an outstanding critique of a book she had been reading and she wrote reasons for the character’s behavioral changes throughout the book. In my reply, I happened to mention how proud I was of the student’s response — and wrote those exact words to her. It was purely serendipitous that I expressed this idea; the student is quite bright and surely must have heard accolades previously.

The student’s reply to me today points to the power of our words — the student circled the words “I am so proud of your thinking” and then highlighted those words with exclamation marks. In her reply, my student revealed that no one had ever told her this before.  She revealed that the words made her feel good about herself.

I have no way of knowing how this tiny moment in my student’s academic life may influence her, but I am hopeful that she will continue to build her self esteem and positive learning attitude well beyond the 180 days she spends with me in our classroom community.

Once again, I am struck by how powerful and influential a teacher’s words can be on students.  This time the comments were by chance; in the future I hope to make such powerful words  more intentional.

Keeping Your Eyes Peeled

Have you ever stopped to consider how many idiomatic expressions are used in conversation throughout a day?

While waiting for one of my walkers to be picked up, I instructed the poor soul to “keep your eyes peeled” for a brother — her pick up person.  The confused and horrified expression on her face immediately told me I had ventured in to idiom land — a land strewn with language landmines for my second language learners — and also for some native speakers.  After I explained to her that keeping your eyes peeled was akin to watching for someone or something, her deep relief was hard to miss.  I think she was fearful her whacky third grade teacher might actually have some extreme measures in mind for children who were late being picked up!

Alas, my fondness for idiomatic expressions has also been problematic for my spouse, who I can attest is not a second language learner unless you factor in translating Amy-speak as a second language.  One of my family’s favorite idioms is that someone is “burning hard coal”.  I can only guess how this expression came into my family dialogue — even people from my generation didn’t burn coal to keep warm!  Did you guess that it means that someone is steaming mad?

One can hardly imagine the confusion caused by literal translation of some of my family’s gems, gems that seem to find their way into my daily dialogue. “Shoulder to the grindstone”, “in deep poop” (does shallow poop make a difference?), and a sentimental favorite courtesy of my Dad – “drier than a popcorn fart”.  Just typing that one “cracks me up”.