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.”
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.
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.