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Perspective

The Heartbreaking Point

My family's struggle to resist the winds of educational change.

(Illustration by John Jay Cabuay)
By Laurie Swope
August 28, 2011

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After his first day of kindergarten in Marblehead, my 5-year-old son was bubbling over with excitement about his assigned seat. It was at a table with four other kids, Griffen said. His name was written on it, he said. It was his very own seat, he said. But by the end of the second day of kindergarten, he had figured out just how much he was going to be sitting there.

When I picked Griffen up after school, he gave me a stiff hug and whispered “Let’s go” with alarming desperation. On the drive home, he began to cry, then sob, then scream. He wouldn’t speak all afternoon, but that evening he startled me with his clarity.

“It’s all listening. There’s no playing,” he said, his still-wet cheeks reflecting the lamplight.

Just three months earlier, Griffen had been a joyful preschooler pretending to be a seed growing into a tree. Now instead of sand tables and circle time, he got work sheets and instructional time. Instead of play, he got pressure.

“I think that’s what school is for. It’s for sitting and learning,” another mother told me with a confident nod, the powerful lobby of common sense on her side. But the “tyranny of common sense,” as education reformer Ken Robinson once called it, has a short memory. As little as 15 years ago, most kindergarten classrooms were play-based. Many educators and researchers still believe that is how young children learn best.

Finland delays formal reading instruction until children reach age 7, but the country consistently comes out at the top of international assessments. Japan’s infamously rigorous schools remain play-based until about second grade. Recently, China has made sweeping reforms to break away from rote learning.

But American politicians, who seem to think that assessment of progress is the same as progress, insist on linking federal funding to standardized tests. President Obama’s inflated promises of education reform have effervesced into even more bubbles to fill in on standardized tests, while Race to the Top pushes for teachers to be evaluated by their students’ scores. It looks as if test prep hysteria will consume our classrooms for years to come.

Two years ago, the Maryland-based Alliance for Childhood published its much lauded report “Crisis in the Kindergarten.” Researchers for the nonprofit found that children in all-day kindergartens spend four to six times as much time studying reading and math as in free play. As a result, the Alliance argued, academic pressures were instilling in children a sense of failure, a long-term aversion to school, and contributing to a rise in aggression and other behavioral problems. In the first semester, one of Griffen’s classmates was punched by fellow students 14 times, seven times in the head, according to the student’s mother.

Griffen’s anxiety increased in the days that followed. He cried in the car every day after school. After two weeks of confident drop-offs, he began to cling to my legs. After a summer of claiming he wanted to go to school forever, he said he never wanted to go again.

We spoke to Griffen’s teacher, who told us to increase him to a full day so he could reap the rewards of the 45-minute playtime after lunch (kids will be kids, but only from 1:15 to 2 p.m.). As drop-offs became increasingly difficult, his guidance counselor offered us sticker charts. That made me wonder: When I managed to stifle my instincts, stuff my sobbing son’s feet into sneakers, drag him to the car, and peel him off me at school – all to endure what many researchers consider age-inappropriate instruction – would I get a sticker, too?

We declined the offers of both extended day and the sticker charts and instead listened to our son. We knew he needed more time to be a kid. So we removed him from kindergarten and decided to spend the next few years home-schooling him.

In late September, after one of Griffen’s last days at school, we drove to a park and stepped out onto the grass. His tears dried up. We ran to one of our favorite wooded spots.

“Let’s pretend that we are seeds growing into trees,” he said, stretching his arms up to the sky.

“And then it is windy and they bend.”

We began to sway.

“Now let’s pretend that a hurricane comes and the trees break,” he said as he fell to the ground.

Laurie Swope is a freelance photographer based in Marblehead. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

  • August 28, 2011 cover
  • August 28, 2011 cover
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