What Do I Expect from Elementary School? Not this.

When I put my children on the bus in the morning, the wish I call out to them after kissing their heads, is, “Have a good day!” Pure and simple.

Now, I know that not every day can be a birthday party, and not all things in life should be made into a fun activity. My wish is not overly naïve or idealistic, it is simply that they enjoy their day at school.  It is my hope that even if there are moments of the day when things don’t go well, or times when they are frustrated, or they find something to be particularly challenging, the overall feeling when they return home is not negative.

I want them to have had enough positive experiences, enough moments of engagement, enough creativity and fun built into their day that “good” is the predominant mood descriptor.

That is not currently the case.

The children that I get off of the bus are exhausted. They are frustrated. They are over worked. They are burned out. I feel as if I should make them a weak whiskey on the rocks, hand them their pipe and slippers, and leave them alone for an hour to decompress.

It takes them a bit of time before they can think of something positive to tell me, and usually it ends up being something that happened during recess or lunch. I would blame the teachers for this bleak attitude, but I was one, and I know that the teachers are just as tired, frustrated and overworked. Their teachers are trying to inject as much fun into the day as possible, but are obligated to keep up with deadlines, adhere to the curriculum, and meet the standards. No, this pressure is coming from high above. And it is squishing my children with its weight.

For my elementary school aged children, I care more about whether or not they love going to school than I do about their academic progress. I am clever enough to know that if they are enjoying themselves at school, they will learn. Academics follow naturally if the proper environment for learning is there.

From a parental perspective, a good learning environment is one with positive energy. The teachers want to be there, and the children want to be there. No one is counting the minutes to the end of the day before it has even started.

From an educator’s perspective, an environment that is engaging, hands-on, with opportunities for meaningful learning, practice, discussions, and creativity, makes kids happy. When kids are happy, they learn more, and without having to resort to bribery. It’s not rocket science.

When the learning environment becomes very serious, and relies heavily on assessment and grades, learning targets and goals, it is not as enjoyable. It is “work”, and children don’t enjoy work. It’s not in their nature to enjoy work; children are created to learn through play.

You will have as much success asking a tiger not to have stripes as you will asking children not to play. I was watching two children at the post office the other day waiting to get passports, and they had been there for quite a long time. They developed a game using one of their jackets, and entertained themselves nicely with it. It is as natural as breathing for children to play. What defines “play”? Any activity that engages the imagination and creativity, two skills that lead to innovation and problem solving when practiced often enough.

We can’t expect them to do work in the same way that an adult does work. We are not the same. They don’t have to pay a mortgage and I get to stay up as late as I want to. One is not better or worse than the other; they are different.

Just because students may have to sit in an office for 8 hours a day when they are adults, doesn’t mean that they should have to start practicing it now as children. It is like saying to a ten year old, “One day you’re going to pay taxes, so I’m going to keep 50% of your birthday money from Grandma because I want you to get used to it.”

There’s a proper time for everything.

Why has elementary school become the time for instructional and assessment methods that are more appropriate for high school and college students?

We aren’t expecting 8 and 9 year olds to vote in the next election, or pay their own car insurance, or stay out late with a boy that we hate, so why are we expecting them to sit for 6-7 hours a day and do paperwork? Why are we expecting them to be able to concentrate for hours at a time to take multiple choice tests?  It’s not the right time for that. They aren’t ready, and they shouldn’t have to be ready.

School systems can’t say they are raising the standards, then force elementary school students to perform like high school students in their work. The amount of testing and assessment in elementary school is at a level that is not appropriate until students are more mature.

There are gigantic gaps in elementary education when the emphasis on academics is pushed down to the lower grades. Young children need time to develop skills that are a crucial part of the foundation of a solid education, and that time has been taken away. You’re educating children to know the life cycle of a plant in the 1st grade, when they haven’t learned how to tie their shoes or button their own pants after using the restroom. Maybe the focus should be on teaching them how to learn, instead of on what to learn.

You want to know what’s wrong with your kindergartener who can’t sit still?

Probably nothing.

He’s in kindergarten and he’s not supposed to sit still for 6 hours a day. It would be weird if he did.

You want to know what’s wrong with your 3rd grader who can’t focus on her work?

Probably nothing.

She’s bored and under stimulated because instead of learning through play and exploration, she’s reading non-fiction passages without pictures and writing convincing five paragraph essays about them.

It’s backwards logic that is being hailed as the solution to low test scores. Forcing more and more curricula at students at a younger age and a faster pace doesn’t make them better students. It doesn’t teach them skills. It gives them a shallow pool of non-relevant information that they may not remember past the test and don’t know how to apply in real life.

It does do one thing well; it weeds out the “academically successful” students from the “non-academically successful” students really quickly. Is that the goal?

Standards based learning and “rigorous” testing are not going to be successful in elementary school, unless your goal is to get children to hate education at a very early age.

Elementary school should be about exploration, and exposure to vast amounts of very well-written books. Writing should be an opportunity to capture observations and imagination in a tangible form. Elementary education should include learning about history through storytelling, art, and music. It should be about dancing, and singing, and playing while developing social skills, communication skills, and interpersonal awareness. Elementary school science should be about questions and wonders, experiments and all things messy. Math should be taught as part of nature and daily life, and if it were introduced that way, children would not be afraid of it when the numbers show up. There should be no limit to the topics that can be explored in elementary school. It should be about how to become a learner…not about curriculum, and definitely not about testing.

We should be setting children up for academic success when they are of the age to truly achieve it, instead of expecting them to accomplish it when they are entirely too young and then being shocked and outraged when they fail.

I want a school where both of my children, two vastly different learners with different strengths, want to go to learn. I want a school where creativity is cherished, and there is ample time for thinking, connecting, discussing, and enjoying what they’ve learned. I want a school where the question isn’t “What did you get on the test?”, but “What did you do with what you learned?”

Above all, when I see their sweet little faces get off of the bus, and I ask them how their day was, I want to hear, “My day was great!”