In September 2006 I visited three different kindergarten classrooms in Greeley to see what the literacy block was like. My visitations were not welcomed by the District Six administration and I was barred from subsequent visits by then assistant superintendent Jeff Miller.
What I witnessed truly shocked me! Although some group work is done at tables, most of the children's time is now spent on the floor in front of the teacher where a carpet square is placed for each. Not only do the classrooms lack "distractions" like plants and classroom pets like fish and hamsters, but toys as well. There's not even a wealth of various printed materials which reading experts all agree entice children to become readers.
Reading is now the main focus under the strict rules of the Reading First literacy program. Each day, every day for 90 minutes young children have to sit through direct instruction lessons without breaks for self initiated play.
- A 5 year-old boy at Christa McAuliffe elementary school told me they only get recess once a week, on Mondays, and suddenly realizing it was Monday he cheered "Yeah, we get recess!" In his classroom there still was a corner with some toys and puzzles. When I asked him if they ever got to play with those he said "no" and added "We only get to do crafts". I found it disheartening, but not surprising that by that he meant the simple cut, paste and color worksheets that Houghton Mifflin provides with its series. How different this is from quality kindergartens which boost creative thinking through plenty of free play indoors and out and with enticing craft projects!
How is it possible that anyone who values children would condone these changes? How can anyone believe that this is ethical, especially since legally not all kindergartens have to follow this old-fashioned method without room for variation? Only schools that qualify for and receive federal Title I money have to abide by the Reading First Requirements which are part of the No Child Left Behind Act.
It's not the publisher of the reading curriculum that prohibits "interruptions for play or recess" during literacy. A Houghton Mifflin representative I spoke with was actually surprised to hear that kids in Greeley schools are subjected to 90 minutes straight, especially in kindergarten! She could see how this could negatively affect a young child's interest in reading!
I learned from her that training for teachers on how to use the materials was included with the purchase agreement, but that District Six administrators wanted more of the so-called "walk-throughs" by literacy coaches to make sure teachers implement the lessons correctly. Additional training, to the tune of almost one million dollars, was provided by Jennifer Ashlock, a consultant who trains teachers to follow Reading First rules. Ashlock also designed templates (purchased for an additional fee) to help teachers to stay on track.
Parents whose children do not attend a Title I school should contact their school’s parent group so they can (collectively) ask for more flexibility during the literacy block. This is especially important in kindergarten where children are introduced to reading. Teachers worry, and many parents have already seen it in their own children, that this curriculum robs kids of the desire to read. In The Power of Reading - Insights from the Research, author Stephen Krashen argues that only through lots of exposure to various reading materials readers themselves choose and enjoy will they become better at it. Yet, kids in Greeley public schools may not even choose their own books!
In 1983, the U.S. Commission on Reading after studying 10.000 research reports, concluded that "The single most important activity for building knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children". This "..allows beginning readers to enjoy "stories in a risk-free environment where it is impossible to fail or to appear incompetent".
Unforgivably, many children in Greeley-Evans kindergarten will soon be made to feel like they fail. This already begins on the first day of kindergarten when they are tested on their knowledge of the alphabet. The stress of not knowing, of disappointing their teacher and parents, without the opportunity to relieve it through free time and play, will most certainly result in kids starting to hate school at an early age! Some already do. Who can and should be held accountable for that? Apparently no one since not even current school board members are willing to take action to stop this abuse and neglect of vulnerable 5-year-olds!
The chronic stress of dreading school is bad for the brain. Not only does it reduce a child’s capacity to learn, it can also lead to depression, a debilitating and dangerous illness if not treated. Play is essential for a child to mature emotionally, to develop healthy attitudes for functioning in society (most murderers were deprived of play!) and for learning. Research supports it! Play indoors and out grows new brain cells and increases the child's capacity for learning. In a German study children who enjoyed a play oriented kindergarten compared with children who received a focus on academics, outperformed these kids on every measure by fourth grade. Recently an American Head start study found the exact same outcome!
So why do our school board members deny five year olds time for creative play while in kindergarten? Is it the concern passed down to them by CASB, their Colorado Association of School Boards, that America will be "Left Behind" in the global economy?
BOE member Mrs. Kautz is worried that China and India are producing more engineers than the United States. This is her excuse for eliminating morning recess, believing that surely recess is not an issue in China, inferring that China is making its school kids work hard as well.
Ironically though, while the U.S. is teaching students in an increasingly passive manner, China is steering away from that. Chinese teachers found that students had become so used to sitting quietly in the classroom that it was hard to engage them and show initiative. Said Fu Jun, executive dean of the School of Government at Peking University ("China's College Revolution", The Wilson Quarterly Autumn 2006), " We aren't doing as well as the system in the U.S. in terms of making contributions to knowledge. Unless we learn how to teach students how to think critically." Could that be why children still get to play in Chinese kindergartens?
[Watch what Professor Yong Zhao has to say on the subject, four years after I wrote the entry above]
Children at play in a Chinese kindergarten.