Be the Change: Use Your Voices (Inside and Outside)

Yesterday, I heard a first-grade teacher cry.  A 30-year-veteran, Patty Schultz is hanging on to play by a thread in the shadow of the Common Core Standards.  “I don’t like myself as a teacher anymore,” she said.  “My wisdom is not honored.”

Be the change - Use your voice

Schultz works at the Cutchogue East Elementary School on the North Fork of Long Island, where kindergarten classrooms are the largest in the building; at 1,000 square feet, as principal Anne Smith proudly tells me, they trump a NYC studio apartment in size.  The kids have a “backyard,” too—a broad expanse of green space, with a playground to die for, and a gazebo lovingly built by the community.  Sarah Maine, the resident science educator, takes five-year-olds to a nearby pond to observe the changes through the seasons. But the piece de resistance is a garden.  “We have to not decide what the garden will do,” Smith says.  The children need to lead the way, to plow the earth and watch it grow.

Yet even in this oasis, where the solid, wooden blocks with which generations of children have played are ubiquitous, an existential crisis is brewing.  “When I said ‘blocks,’” kindergarten teacher Mary Baldwin told me, “one of the younger teachers said ‘I thought you meant ‘learning blocks.’”  It’s come to this.  Racing to the top has put the kibosh on children’s work, restricting play to an hour a day.

Children’s voicelessness has reached the level of cliché.  But here, at Cutchogue East, students are active participants in the democratic process.  “Be the Change: Use Your Voice” a colorful sign in one of the school’s corridors urges them.  And a group of determined second graders has taken to the venerable tradition of protest by petition, requesting that the adults lower the temperature at which recess is cancelled:

Dear Board of Education:

We think you should lower the temperature to allow students to play outside at recess.  To begin with, kids need to get their energy out so they can focus and learn better.  In fact, kids need to exercise.  Recess is their only chance if they don’t have physical education.  Lastly the temperature would need to be really really cold for kids to get frostbite in the 20 minutes we have for recess.  So please lower the temperature to allow kids to play outside for recess.

Thank you,

Students at Cutchogue East

The petition emerged from the school’s adaptation of a curriculum unit about civic engagement with the no-nonsense name of “Fighting for A Cause”—an integral part of the purposeful learning community that Smith is struggling to maintain amid the radical shifts in education policy.  “When we teach kids to collaboratively talk, they do it naturally,” Smith says, after an engaging, precocious second-grader shows me the live larvae he’s been studying, and gives me a quick tutorial on how to zoom in with my iPhone to capture the image at just the right distance.

Out of the mouth of babes.

On the bus ride back home to Manhattan, I checked the news of the day, and lo and behold, I discovered an invitation to sign an open letter to Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, home of the dreaded PISA tests, declaring that the rankings were killing the joy of learning across the world.   Among the concerns is the following:

By emphasising a narrow range of measurable aspects of education, Pisa takes attention away from the less measurable or immeasurable educational objectives like physical, moral, civic and artistic development, thereby dangerously narrowing our collective imagination regarding what education is and ought to be about.

Reader, I signed it.  You can, too, right here.


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2 comments to Be the Change: Use Your Voices (Inside and Outside)

  • Linda Scheer

    Very interesting info. My youngest granddaughter is a student at this school and her older sister is a graduate of the school, now in 10th grade on the high honor role this quarter. Ann Smith is a visionary and creative administrator and, as an educator myself, I am impressed with the themes and learning activities of the district. I expect the teachers and administrators really have the creativity to continue this education while facilitating their students’ mastery of the common core standards of learning. My dream is that the schools attended by all children are as good as this one. Unfortunately, this is not the case. This school is in a relatively affluent community. Schools serving inner cities and low income populations in other areas have less resources (tax dollars per student) and often less skilled teaching staff. In my view, the common core standards have been implemented in an attempt to ensure that ALL children have the quality education that my grandchildren (and children) have been fortunate enough to have. I think this is a worthy effort. Perhaps the approach needs to change, perhaps teachers and administrators in all districts need to examine why their children are struggling to achieve the common core standards. Perhaps some teachers and administrators need to examine why they are truly resisting common educational standards. These are the minimum. Districts can enrich their program any way they choose, as Cutchogue East does. But don’t all children deserve a quality education as you so eloquently describe? As a point of information I have been an elementary teacher, an early childhood education teacher and administrator, and I continue to work in the education field as a federal program reviewer and grant reviewer for Early Head Start/Head Start programs and consulting and training for early education programs.

  • Susan Ochshorn

    Thank you for posting your comment Linda. I hope that it sparks an ongoing conversation here about how we educate ALL our children. I am passionate about serving children who are struggling, especially here in the U.S., where nearly 25 percent live in poverty. The stresses under which they live can be toxic, often compromising their ability to learn. You know this well, as you have worked in the trenches. Indeed, they should be educated as well as affluent children, and the sad fact is they are not. As you note, the communities in which they live have fewer resources, and the teachers are too often less skilled. But the ecosystem in which these children are developing is malnourished, and while gifted teachers are making a difference all over the country, they cannot fully compensate for the structural inequities that exist. Moreover, the framework in which the CSSS have been implemented–including an increasing number of high-stakes tests upon which teachers and schools are now evaluated–has demoralized educators at all points on the pre-K-12 spectrum. Their sense of efficacy and expertise has been sapped, as has children’s joy of learning. You know, as a former early childhood educator, what extraordinary things young children are capable of–it’s amazing to watch and nurture–but rigor cannot be instituted at the expense of attention to their developmental needs. The tradeoff is dangerous, exacerbated by the disappearance of play.

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