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Students across Ohio are taking their OAAs today. The Ohio Achievement Assessments. You know, the ones that “matter.”

My boys are still too young for these tests but one year from now, Braedan will be subjected to a special kind of pressure and strain the likes of which he’s never experienced. Not that he will struggle on any of the tests; he is an exemplary student and should pass them all with flying colors. But it will be impossible for him to overlook the extraordinary importance placed on these few days of testing by all around him.

I’m not blaming his particular teachers nor his particular school nor even his school district. But I am blaming society at large and the current system of assigning value to entire schools and districts based on the results of a few standardized tests. How can you possibly determine the overall quality of an individual or collective educational experience using the results of three days of tests? How can you capture the creative process or the ability to discover, try, make mistakes and try again? How can you capture the grand social experiment that exists in our local public schools, comprised as they are of children from dramatically different socio-economic, cultural and racial backgrounds? How can you measure the love teachers demonstrate for their students by filling in bubbles?

I was dismayed to read this article in the New York Times on Sunday about the lack of exposure to literature in English classes. What would my middle school education have been like without acting out Helena and Hermia from A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream? Or without the intense and timeless lessons taught by To Kill A Mockingbird? What insight would we be lacking about the human experience and human suffering if we hadn’t studied Greek Mythology or read Of Mice and Men? Or even those short stories taught by Mr Hirsh in 7th grade English like The Necklace and The Lottery (that one haunts me to this day).

Or what about the simple joy of finding a place to curl up on the floor (the freedom of lying under a desk instead of sitting at one!) to get lost in a novel of your own choosing. Or listening to your 3rd grade teacher read Charlotte’s Web aloud and witnessing that stunning moment at the end when her voice chokes up.

What about building three-dimensional replicas of historical times and events? I remember doing this in 4th grade for our Native American project. And again in 6th when we studied feudalism in Europe. (I do not, by the way, remember a single one of the many worksheets I completed in school.) Don’t even get me started on science experiments and hands-on math instruction.

None of those things can be tested using multiple choice or scan-tron sheets. Enough is enough is enough. If you agree with me, sign this national resolution against high-stakes testing. And then go get lost in a great book.

 

 

Austin’s preschool teaches physics. And geology, biology and chemistry. They also teach astronomy and astrophysics. Human psychology with a special focus on group dynamics. Geometry, measurement, civil engineering, thermal dynamics and heat transfer (melting crayons in an electric skillet) art therapy, art history and just plain art.

There are lots of other things they do, like listening to books, singing songs, rhyming words, counting by fives and tens, gross and fine motor skills, and so on and so forth.

But don’t tell Austin any of this.  He thinks he’s there to play all day long.

And play he does. The focus is entirely child-centered, with the teacher’s plans taking a backseat to whatever the kids come up with. In fact, instead of handing out a weekly calendar letting us know what they’ll be doing each day, she sends out a Friday email, explaining what they did (often very different from what she may have expected them to do). They are exploring, creating and discovering. They work individually, in pairs or large groups, depending on the task. They must plan, lead and follow, confront problems and invent solutions. And there is a lot of trial and error.

In our results-oriented world, where “kindergarten is the new first grade” and everyone is worried about faster, better, higher, this school is an incredible gift to the children attending it. There are no worksheets, no direct instruction, no gentle correction of the backwards 15 a child writes on the board after counting the 14 students in the class. Our society places such pressure on parents, who in turn place such pressure on their kids, to learn more and to learn it earlier. Mozart in the womb, flashcards for babies, reading at age 4. But, in my humble opinion as both a mother and a former teacher, there is no benefit — and certainly no need — to structure the curriculum that way.

When Braedan started kindergarten, he could read just a handful of words: definitely mommy, daddy, Braedan, and Austin, and probably love, stop and grammy.  There were many kids in his class who were far ahead of that and I will admit I had a few brief twinges of worry: Is he behind … before he’s even begun? He’s now halfway through second grade and reads at an almost sixth grade level. And every bit of that he learned in school. Granted, we read a ton in our house and we constantly discuss what we read and do, all of which builds vocabulary and understanding, which in turn lays the foundation for a strong reader. But I never taught him to read. That’s what school is for, and I don’t mean preschool. Heck, I would be okay if they didn’t teach reading until first grade and let kindergarten be all play and discovery too, especially for the kids who don’t have the advantage of a high quality preschool experience. But, at least in our public schools with their intense focus on meeting state standards, the curriculum has been pushed down to the point where Braedan learned the words rhombus and trapezoid at age 5. I will never forget his kindergarten homework assignment to play “I Spy” with shapes in our kitchen and I’m saying things like, “I spy a circle” (the clock on the wall), and Braedan says, “I spy a trapezoid.” There I was scanning the room, thinking trapezoid, trapezoid, you’ve got this, Krissy and finally my eyes settled on the perfectly trapezoidal backs of our island stools. “A ha!”

He no doubt benefited from the foundation of his preschool, where he gained independence and confidence in his abilities, without ever hearing the word “phonics.”  I trust Austin is benefiting as well and I am so thankful that Mark and I chose to give him this extra year. He is learning the most important skills a five-year-old could learn. All through play.

Oh, and they do yoga too.

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