Thursday, October 14, 2010

In which I Lose My Mind Over Kindergarten

I'm not one of those parents who had her child on a waiting list for the best preschools in our neighborhood since he was a fetus. I'm not one of the parents who attended 15 preschool open houses and then sat at home whipping out spread sheets of pros & cons of each school (I was, however, the friend of a parent who did that & I totally sponged off of her research when starting to look for a preschool for Ethan in Los Angeles. Awesome). I'm not a parent whose, up to this point, put a super huge ton of thought into the "public" versus "private" debate about school. But now? I am kicking all that casual "whatever; it will all work out fiiiiiiine" attitude to the curb and fretting about kindergarten until it has me rocking back and forth in the corner, chewing on my own shoulder.

As a product of private schools and a teacher in both the public and private systems, I have often found myself sharing my perspective with other parents. My perspective as someone who's not really been there yet as a parent, but as a teacher. Countless times I have said, "really, your child will get out of a public education what he/she puts into it and in the long run, so long as you're involved and enthusiastic about your child's education, chances are, public or private? It's going to be fine." And as a teacher, I have always believed that. I taught in exclusive snooty private schools as well as public schools fraught with all kinds of budgetary issues and at-risk kids.

Of course there was a shinier polish on the private school--new building, new computers, etc. But the kids still seemed to fail or succeed based on the involvement and support of their parents. Of course, "succeed" was sort of a relative term, given that *some* parent involvement involved bullying either myself or the dean of students to change a grade to demonstrate a greater level of success than had been actually achieved, so you know, sometimes parental involvement isn't such a super thing. Like the time the dean of students told me I had to "adjust" a student's grade up from a zero after he simply printed out a page from, advertisements, banners and all, and handed it in as his assignment, because I hadn't explicitly stated in my written instructions of the home work assignment that the work handed in had to be original student work. Those students whose parents weren't barging into offices and demanding A's for their kids had other issues; I had students with such anxiety problems due to the rigor of the curriculum that they had ulcers, missed school, were hospitalized. I had students stressing out that we were required to grade their work so unforgivingly that they were working harder than kids at other schools, but getting lower grades for it, thereby seeing their lower achieving counterparts in other schools getting acceptance letters from the Ivy Leagues when they weren't. I always seriously questioned whether I wanted to put my child in a learning environment like that, regardless of the prestige or the relative *quality* of the education.


I may or may not make friends with saying this, but the standardized testing that goes on in public schools now? Is bullshit. Not only does it speak to only one method of student assessment, it is the least authentic form of assessment available to educators and turns our students into robotic memorizers, not critical or creative thinkers. When I started teaching, I used rubrics, portfolios, project-based assessments that allowed each student to tap into their own strengths to demonstrate the knowledge they'd gleaned from a certain unit of study. By the time I left teaching, 11 years later, several years into NCLB, I was slapping last year's state assessment test up on an overhead projector and going over which answer was correct for each question. Because that's what I was told to do; that's what education in the school I taught for had become, district-wide, in one of the largest, most affluent districts in the country. There's not enough money in the state's education budget to compel me to go back to teaching kids to take a test. Watching them squirm uncomfortably in their seats, eye-lids drooping as they try to pick the right multiple choice letter to correspond with the question lit up on the overhead projector in front of the class, where once the room was full of kids working in groups, making posters, planning presentations, searching the room for examples of various literary devices, acting out Shakespeare? It's depressing beyond words. I no longer know if I believe my own shpiel about it all being good as long as you're an active and supportive parent.

I realize that my experiences as a teacher in the secondary level isn't really all that helpful when making decisions about where to send my child to kindergarten.

But as Ethan chugs along in his last year of preschool, Husband and I are beginning to discuss and consider our options. And by "discuss and consider" I mean Husband is listening patiently and nodding as his slightly insane wife rants and raves about how the street we live on is not in the same district with every other street in a 10 block radius and that means Ethan doesn't get to go to the super awesome elementary school, but the one that's considered somewhat less awesome by California standards (which I say because California is NOT exactly a shining star in terms of the national average) and that from what I've seen on their school web-page, our kid is going to kindergarten so he can copy over vocabulary words and bring worksheets home for homework and zOMG, is there going to be ANY art, music, physical education, recess?!!! Obviously I have to make a time to go in to the neighborhood public school and observe the sense of community and the academic style of some of the kindergarten teacher before I solidify an impression of the place, but the idea of my kid being turned into Rote-y McRote Memorizestein makes me want to immediately order a shit ton of homeschooling supplies and go live on a farm somewhere. Which? I know works beautifully for some people, and I admire them for it tremendously, and it might seem natural because I'm a teacher by profession.

But. For me?

Just no. For a bajillion reasons.

But what to do? Not only have I spent years p'shawing the idea of private education for my child, but we live in an area where a private school is going to run you about the same as a year of college. So it's kind of like sending your kid to college (albeit not an Ivy league) for 12 years BEFORE college. And while it may be do-able, if we never get new cars, or go on a vacation for the next 12 years or stop eating any and all organic, grass-fed, free-range foods and subsist entirely on canned tuna and ramen, it's just not something we really truly want for our family at that kind of expense. Half the joy of childhood is the experience that comes from travel and experiences outside of school, and most of the education our child will get about his own well-being and a healthy lifestyle will come from seeing how we eat, what we eat, our participation in shopping at local farmer's markets or CSAs. Giving all of that up to pay for private education just really isn't a viable option as far as I'm concerned. (plus, mama needs new shoes).

But how to keep Ethan from ending up in a desk, in a row, a work sheet in front of his face and his love of learning floating up and away into the ether, never to be seen again after preschool?

If you have any thoughts on the subject, or any advice for how you've manage to keep your child's love of learning alive in an educational environment that seems determined to grind it into the ground, I'd love to hear it. I'll be over in the corner, chewing on my shoulder.

*I really want to clarify that I KNOW there are a ton of teachers out there in the public system who are heroes striving to provide an education that encourages a child love of learning; there are teachers out there busting their asses every day to make sure their students pass those inane tests while at the same time ensuring that they are always inquisitive, always curious and critical thinkers and not just #2 pencil-little-oval-filling API scores. And I KNOW there are teachers in college prep private schools who concern themselves with the well-being of the whole child, not just the grades and fierce competition; there are teachers who risk their jobs to give kids a bit of a break when they see that they are being held to unrealistic standards and see that one more 10 page paper is going to push that sophomore over the edge. My intention in this post isn't to disparage the profession of teaching at ALL (it is, after all, my former profession and one that I--at least for the most part--adored--I know there are amazing heroes out there who give of themselves without the expectation of thanks and who love the children that come through their rooms each year). My complaint isn't with teachers, but with the systems. My intention in this post is just to express my own frustration at being on the other side of this equation for the first time--losing that sense of control over who is caring for & teaching my child, and how, and wondering how big of a role I can play in this process is a making me a bit twitchy. A bit.


Laura Lohr | My Beautiful Life said...

I totally understand where you are coming from, because we just did this. On top of all of this, we had to decide to wait one more year to put our daughter into Kinder or send her at 4, 5 in November.

I did a lot of research of private schools. We took tours of various schools, including Montessori. I researched public schools, with the TEST SCORES, student achievement, % of non-English learners, socio-economics, etc.
Finally, we settled on "school choice" and selected the best school in our district. Fortunately, we do have school choice and had that luxury.

I still worry about how our daughter is going to be educated, however, for now, she is doing just fine. I am happy with her teacher and her school. I had to decide to set my worries aside until I wasn't happy with the school/teacher. I am thinking that will happen right about middle school. Then, I will begin my research again.

No advice really, just my own experiences. I stressed out about the decision to place my daughter where I did for the first six weeks of school. I am finally content with it.

Oh, and with 26 students in the Kindergarten class, my involvement has been crucial to her success. I am room mom, so I get to see first hand what goes on in the classroom and we do homework together each night.

I think there is some value in learning how to be a cog in the wheel, also. For now, it works.

Bethany said...

Teachers aren't allowed to be teachers, anymore. They're babysitters to try and make sure kids are pushed through the system, dumbed down, and become perfect little automatons after graduation. It's depressing, and I don't know who we need to beat with a baseball bat to make some sort of change in the world.

I'm terrified for my 15 month old. I have made it quite clear that if we run into any ounce of creativity- and learning-quashing bullshit, I will be pulling him out and homeschooling him.

Sarah said...

Sarah, I am so not one to talk because I freaked the feck out about preschool like 3 years in a row.

I love reggio and am worried that any school that's NOT reggio is going to suck.

BUT, I think Ethan is going to be wonderful, smart, curious Ethan forever no matter where he goes to school because you are his mother, and you work so hard to engage him and teach him and nurture his creative nature. He already knows that learning is fun because you have made that his reality (and you will continue to do that for the rest of his life not matter how many tests he takes).

Ginger said...

I think one of the worst things we're doing to students in this country is "teaching to the test". We're removing the ability to think critically, reason, and figure stuff out from a generation of kids. It's so depressing (I have a few years before the Kindergarten issue raises its head, and I'm firmly ignoring it until then).

My dad is currently in a program to become a teacher with the Aspire program--which I believe is a public charter school, and they have schools in the Bay Area & LA right now. He said that while their goal is college prep, they take a multi-faceted approach to learning, not just teaching to the test. I don't really know much else about it (other than Oprah featured it recently), but maybe worth looking into?

Mama Bub said...

I so, so get this. I went to great public schools. I was a public school teacher. My husband is a public school teacher. There are GREAT public school teachers, and schools, and administrators.


There are so many factors working against the public schools, including the ridiculous push for standardized testing results.

Our elementary school is a great school, but is going to full day kinder next year. I don't have a problem with this, except for the fact that there will be 30 students in the classroom. Technically, with half day, the ratio is 30:1, but there are only 30 students there for an hour and a half. During the academic time, the ratio is 15:1. So now, me, the ultimate public school advocate is starting to look at private schools with smaller class sizes. I have a hard time believing that my five year old boy could thrive in a classroom with 29 other students.

Sigh. It's two years away, but it's heavy on my mind.

Corinne said...

I think you hit the nail on the head with every single concern. All of the teaching for the test, the cut backs, it's taking the joy out of learning, and that's horrible.
So finding a place that nurtures our children's education instead of making it seem almost like a burden, is key. And I wish it were easier...
Good luck!

lonek8 said...

I completely agree with your assessment, and I have no answers! have you seen the documentary "Waiting for Superman" yet? It is all about this issue - I am dying to see it even though I know it will make me angry. My most pressing concern about the schools where we are is that everyone seems to think they are so great, but when you compare across the country NE schools are very low. This is an area where people live their whole lives in the same town - there doesn't seem to be any drive to go Ivy League or even leave Omaha, so I worry that school standards will just not be up to my expectations for my children. And unfortunately private isn't a financial option right now. it is so frustrating wanting to make the best possible choice for your children and not even knowing what that is.

Anonymous said...

Sarah, I too am a teacher "on leave". My oldest son starts kindergarten next year as well. We are currently selling our home in the bay area looking to buy in another district with better class size reduction. What is happening in California and across the nation is not what's best for kids. Sometimes I wish I wasn't a teacher because sometimes not knowing what really is happening is better!!

All I can say is that you know your son and wherever you end up you will be his advocate. You also have the knowledge and experience to advocate for all the students in his class. You know that test scores aren't everything. Finding the teacher who gets to know Ethan and helps him find his way is the most important thing you can do.

Amy said...

We are so so so so SO lucky to have our neighborhood school -- free and Montessori through third grade, then IB for 6-8 grade. And for Jack, this has been the best possible scenario because there is no way he could sit at a desk all day.

But recently the playground discussion has turned to the dreaded third-grade ISATs, and how will our little hands-on learners translate that knowledge to a test with little ovals? There is much angst because if they don't test well, it screws everything up.

I say do what you are comfortable with, but I was JUST saying this morning to another mom that education is what you put into it. If you don't like how things are at your local school, get involved, get other parents involved and make some changes. It's not easy, and you might not see results right away, but it's important.

And are kindergartners are really sitting at desks????

Anonymous said...

I don't know what the right thing to do is, but it seems like if you are a teacher by trade, you might be one of the few homeschoolers actually qualified to homeschool, at least for a few years until you can save enough for whatever school you want. Just kind of thinking out loud, but figured I would throw it out there...