I didn’t realize how much pressure Kindergarten was placing on my daughter until last night. She was sitting at the table, complaining about the stack of homework in front of her and said, “I wish I was a baby again, like S! Her life is sooo easy!!”
My heart sank when I realized that she’s starting to resent her nightly homework load. And she’s only 5 years old, barely more than a baby herself.
Things have changed dramatically in the past 30 years. When I was 5, I began my school career in Mrs. Claver’s half-day Kindergarten class. From 8:30-11:30 each morning, we colored pictures and played. Letters were introduced as people — “Mrs. A” looked like a friendly middle-aged female letter with a handbag and flowered hat. We answered the roll call with silly phrases, shouting “Michael Jackson!” or “Boy George!” to indicate that we were present, as we sat cross-legged in a circle on the rug.
The only time I recall feeling anything close to “pressure” was once near the end of the school year, when each student was “tested” on whether they could perform simple tasks like tying a shoe. I got nervous when Mrs. Claver asked me to zip up my jacket, and the zipper got stuck. I had a vague feeling that I had failed the test in some way; it was the first time I felt anxiety in school.
Fast forward 30 years, to September 2012: my daughter N started Kindergarten at the age of 4, with a full school day from 8:40am-2:40pm. During orientation, N’s teacher explained the drill: all students would be expected to read at a “D” level by the end of the school year. They would learn addition, subtraction and the foundations of math (counting by 5s and 10s to 100, for example). They would learn to re-tell stories. And once they mastered writing letters, they would write “reading responses” and draft “how-to” books. They would have special classes — on Monday, supplemental math lessons; on Tuesday, gym; Wednesday, computers; Thursday, music; and on Friday, art.
And once a day, if there was time, the kids would be allowed 15 minutes of free “choice time,” where they could select an activity and play.
And then there’s the homework.
I don’t recall ever having homework until I was in a much higher grade in school. By contrast, every night N comes home with 3 or 4 worksheets; PLUS a writing assignment (e.g., a “reading response,” three original sentences using “word wall” words, etc.); PLUS her reading homework (4 books on her reading level). AND we keep a nightly reading log of the book that we read together at bedtime.
Each afternoon when we come home from school, N gets 20-30 minutes of down time before she starts her homework. She usually works for 40-50 minutes (with minimal breaks) until close to dinner time. After dinner, it’s not long before bedtime; maybe we have time for a bath or a quick “dance party” with S.
For most of the school year, N did very well with her homework load. She developed good study habits and was able to focus most of the time. But lately, ever since the weather turned slightly warmer and the days have started getting longer, N has had a much harder time focusing. She’ll sit at the table and play with her pencils, pretending they’re on a “Sharp Team,” for long periods of time. I feel bad about stopping her; isn’t this what a 5-year-old is supposed to be doing??
Also lately, she gets very emotional and reactive to my attempts to enforce a schedule. She’s strongly resisting the pressure that’s being placed on her — which, admittedly, is more pressure on a daily basis than my silly one-off zipper test.
At our spring parent-teacher conference, Mrs. B. (N’s teacher) gave N a good review. I used the opportunity to explain to Mrs. B. that I felt N was missing out on imaginative play because of the heavy homework load. N has a terrific imagination, and she tries to do “pretend play” much more than her tight daily schedule allows. It’s my feeling that kids her age should be allowed lots of time for creative play, to develop the parts of their brains that will later be used for problem-solving and critical thinking. There’s a narrow window of time during which kids’ brains have this terrific potential, and it seems that school is stifling rather than nurturing it.
So I informed Mrs. B. that I planned to start giving N greater flexibility with her homework, and more time to play. If she was engrossed in imaginative play, and I didn’t want to interrupt her, I would place a note in N’s homework folder indicating that she didn’t complete all her assignments and that we would schedule another time to finish the work on a different day. I told her it wouldn’t be more than once a week.
Mrs. B. responded, “Okay. Let her play now, because the workload will only increase in 1st grade.”
According to news reports, my daughter’s experience is typical among NYC Kindergarteners. In a January 27th, 2013 article (“Playtime’s Over, Kindergarteners“), the New York Post writes: “Way beyond the ABCs, crayons and building blocks, the city Department of Education now wants 4- and 5-year-olds to write “informative/explanatory reports” and demonstrate “algebraic thinking.”
“This is causing a lot of anxiety,” one teacher said. “Kindergarten should be happy and playful. It should be art and dancing and singing and learning how to take turns. Instead, it’s frustrating and disheartening.”
Other reports confirm that Kindergarten is only the beginning, and that this heavy-handed educational approach will only continue as the kids get older.
Further, educational standards are getting more rigorous all the time. The New York Times recently profiled the new testing standards that are being implemented this year for 3rd through 8th graders in New York, as the city and state continue aligning their curriculum to the federal Common Core (Students Face Tougher Tests That Outpace Lesson Plans). Kids in NY are expected to get much lower scores this year because they haven’t been taught the lessons they’ll be tested on.
The Times writes: “The sink-or-swim approach is of particular concern to students (and their parents) in the fourth and seventh grades, whose scores could determine where they go to middle or high school in 2014. ‘It really makes me nervous,’ said Patrick Timoney, a seventh grader at Intermediate School 2, on Staten Island. ‘It’s a big deal and if you don’t get a good grade, it’s not the best.'”
It seems that the anxiety continues right on through the grades.
As an advocate for my daughter to get the best education possible, I (like many parents) am concerned about the atmosphere of anxiety that today’s schools seem to be creating. I’m certainly not against high standards or testing to meet those standards, but when those standards and not the love of learning become the sole focus of a student’s educational experience — then what lessons are we really teaching our kids?