Monday, April 09, 2007

Crowns and Wands in Oz

I thought I'd preface my latest blog with an image of the bright, vibrant coloring crayons that herald the first day of kindergarten with their sharp "never used" points, exotic names that can't yet be read, and that **smell.** Crayons and brand new pencils, colorful plastic handled scissors, and glue sticks (I know better than to unleash wet glue during the first week of school) all welcome schools' newest attendees each August or September. As of this April, I've opened thirteen years' worth of crayon boxes, glue stick lids, paints, clay, and silly shaped erasers and pencil sharpeners. But now, after experiencing three different interpretations of what kindergarten is and should be in Alaska, New Mexico, and Kansas, I feel the burning urge to learn how to open up something new: a huge can of "whoopass," and so my choice of images changed.
My grade level partner and I more than survived our last round of S.F.A. observations last week. Considering we teach at a "non-S.F.A." school, we have found it interesting that we've still been bound to the S.F.A. script whenever the observer has come to visit. Apparently we don't care much for bondage, and so we enjoyed turning the tables, going through the motions, putting on the show, just to see what, if anything, our observer would "catch." We purposely created exactly the same center displays, wall artwork, sentence strip vocabulary words and poems, hallway bulliten decor, and lesson plans as eachother, all following the S.F.A.'s KinderCorner assigned unit, "Buggy About Spring." Sounds like we followed the script, right? Not quite. The centers, the artwork, the sentence strip poetry and the hallway displays followed the THEME of the unit, but none of the ideas came from the actual S.F.A. "Buggy About Spring" unit handbook aside from a xeroxed bug counting "book" that the kids traced and colored at the math center before they moved on to counting bug shaped manipulatives and measuring with inchworm rulers. My colleague has shared her own monthly journal idea with me this year which all of our students have enjoyed, another non-S.F.A. gimmick, and we displayed our students' work, both academic and artistic as nice features in our classroom. As Easter was right around the corner, we even blatantly displayed paper bunny baskets, eggs, and multiple packages of egg dye and grass, none of which were included in the unit's script- a big "no no" according to other kindergarten teachers in the district. While our students loved learning about bugs and "ooohing" and "ahhhhing" and "oh-grossing" over the non-fiction selections about insects that we checked out from the library (nope, none of the books on the acceptable or recommended lists), our students enjoyed, learned, and expressed themselves in ways that the S.F.A. observer found exceptional. No black marks on our observations. Lots of praise and Atta-Girls. Yet while we might have set up what looked like the prescribed props, nothing matched. And there was no comment made about it.
This could have been for any reason: we still seemed to follow the "format" of the S.F.A. program so no harm done; perhaps the observer remembered we weren't an S.F.A. school so she wasn't going to be such a stickler this time around; maybe she felt we were going above and beyond, obviously supplementing the "already terrific" materials and lessons that S.F.A. provides with our own ladybug poems and non-fiction selections; or maybe she had no clue that our students were in fact demonstrating that they could be fully engaged, eager to share and experience, and be both guided and work independently in a classroom that has not followed an S.F.A. script throughout the year. Perhaps she was just glad to be winding down after so many observation visits. Maybe she was distracted by her own thoughts of Easter egg hunts and pink dresses. I noticed what she didn't say, what she didn't point out, what she didn't question, what she didn't ask, knowing that there are many, many teachers killing themselves in this district, bending over backward, pulling themselves inside out reading verbatim from the script and props the observer is supposed to be checking on during her visits. The truly frightening aspect of it all? Most of those teachers truly feel they are **teaching** by putting themselves on autopilot, happily putting their thoughts, inspirations and goals INSIDE the box- the S.F.A./NCLB box.

We attended our last grade level meeting at Central Office. We sat in a room with other kindergarten teachers and the directors of curriculum and instruction. We were asked what we'd noticed about teaching a full-day kindergarten program this year, and almost every comment volunteered from every table had to do with how well the students were performing on DIBELS or how the S.F.A. observer had been pleased with the progress shown in reading and writing in most, if not all of the classrooms, thanks to, you guessed it, the S.F.A. KinderCorner materials (talk about a sales pitch, eh?). When I volunteered that the students had obviously benefitted from having more time to practice their socialization skills because of the full-day schedule, my comment was politely recorded into our table's notes, but the brainstorming quickly returned to DIBELS, sounding out nonsense words, and questions about how to supplement for those "high kids" in our classrooms. Recognizing my chance to contribute to the conversation, I offered that it's really easy to find challenging-yet-not-discouraging materials for the kids at the top of what used to be the bell curve, and that collaborating with first grade teachers and librarians would make it easy to find inspiring and interesting texts for students that wouldn't be redundant when they went to the first grade. The responses? Totally **lost** looks and:
"Um, no, the district should just really buy us the first grade Reading Roots program so I can follow with the S.F.A. curriculum."
"Uh, I'm sorry, but if the other kids, the lower ones, see the higher kids with different looking books, there's going to be a problem."
The thought running through my mind at that point? "Sweethearts, there's this really cool room in each school in our district. It's a MAGIC room, with helpful little elves and magical stories, interesting facts, amazing graphics- perhaps you've heard of it. It's called a LIBRARY. It's okay to think on your own, really." Dimples dimples dimples. Smile smile smile. And my grade level partner **just KNEW** what I was thinking because of our amazing Vulcan-Mind-Meld-Bond, so she told me to START WRITING. Ah yes, Grasshopper, "think it, don't say it." So I was a good girl, and started writing. Furiously.
The meeting continued, and someone asked how students were doing on reaching their kindergarten benchmark goals as outlined by our state standards, as well as on other assessments, too ridiculous to list. Several teachers offered that they pushed, pushed, pushed students to constantly improve with lots of practice outlined in the S.F.A. manuals, yadda yadda yadda, AND THEN, the "teacher trick" of all Teacher Tricks reared its ugly head:
"Well in MY room I have an academic referral chart. All the kids' names are on the chart with the DIBELS skills and S.F.A. goals listed and whenever the kids master a skill, they get a star. If they don't master the skill and make progress, they get a minus, and those kids you know, they don't like hearing their friends say 'ooooohhhhh! You got an academic referral! Ohhhhh!' Those kids know the pressure is on!" At which point I not only THOUGHT the following, I said it: "Oh good! Five and six year olds with ulcers! Sign me up for THAT!" I then remembered the graphic above that I had come across while dressing up my MySpace page, and it seemed to **fit.**
Math skills? Science? Social Studies? Socialization? Fine and gross motor skills? How kids "feel" about school? Nooooooooooooooooooo, NOT the priority. DIBELS DIBELS DIBELS. "Hey, those kids have to be introduced to the types of assessments they face in the upper grades, might as well start them now!" Yes, another quote.
I never thought I'd be one of the "old timers" with only thirteen years of experience under my belt. One of those old-fashioned teachers who talks about "teaching the whole child." An old bitty who has favorite authors and can think up the names of books and poems for kiddie lit. on her own. Someone who actually believes in thinking OUTSIDE the box, and frankly believes that we SHOULD be able to teach our way out of a paper S.F.A. bag. A crazed eccentric who believes in shifting the paradigm, and therefore KNOWING the paradigm. The outdated model that can actually punt when necessary, and think on her own.
No, apparently here in Oz, teachers are much too worried with impressing the Wizard to be bothered with even noticing the curtain at the left-hand corner of the room. And so it's not Glinda's crown and wand I'm wanting. It's Dilbert's dog's.


  1. Oh my, oh my, what a powerful piece this is. Somehow the, in this current cycle of following scripted lessons, we've allowed the emphasis to be not just on test scores but also on publisher's materials. Beware weapons of mass instruction!

    I suspect you and your partner will continue to enrich your students' lives with literature pieces and activities that fit teachable moments and make each day a memorable one. Lucky students!

  2. Anonymous5:44 PM

    This is exactly how I feel at our school, which uses SFA. The kids in Roots hate going to reading,even the students in Kindergarten hate going to reading (we split our kids into high medium and low, for the same reason you stated above, "Students might as well get use to switching for reading, they have to do it in first grade). The observers that come in to watch our classes don't even know what they are doing, or how to teach a five year old. I do what you do, I follow the theme, but try to enrich it with materials the kids will enjoy! Keep up the excellent blog!


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