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NCLB Outrages

Handcuff Me, Too!

Comments from Annie: A magnificent essay that is helpful for anyone who forgets or ignores the reality of NCLB’s influence on the lives of our students and their teachers.

Don’t forget to expand this concept to the students and teachers facing grades 1-12 this fall. This particular disease does not have a preference for 5 year olds; it has devastated the school-day lives of teachers and students at every age and grade.

Handcuff Me, Too!

Ms. Chenfeld puts herself in the shoes of an eager, curious, hopeful kindergartner and finds that it's a sadly scary place to be.

By Mimi Brodsky Chenfeld

IN OUR STEADY diet of shocking daily news stories, one item I saw recently was particularly shocking. A 5-year-old kindergarten child just "lost it" in her classroom, went a little berserk, threw violent fits, and had to be restrained with handcuffs. Such an incident seems to beg for analysis, and countless columnists offered their insights and explanations for an event so rare and so frightening.

I would like to add my thoughts on this situation. I don't know the child, her name, or anything about her life. I don't know the school, the girl's teacher, or her family relationships. I am creating a plausible scenario to contribute to our understanding.

* * *
Five years old, full of life and fun; loves to play, loves stories, dress-up, making things out of clay, painting pictures, building with blocks, and playing house; loves climbing and digging in sand and water, adores dolls and stuffed animals, sings a lot, bounces and dances to all kinds of music and rhythms, is fascinated by butterflies, caterpillars, clouds, flowers, stones, trees; watches squirrels jump from limb to limb, feeds birds in the winter, notices shadows on sunny days and prints on snowy streets, plays forever with empty boxes and wrappings from gifts, can't wait to go to kindergarten . . .

For weeks before kindergarten, she can hardly sleep. Kindergarten will be so exciting! Not a baby anymore, she'll learn how to read - she already knows most of her letters and lots of words.

She'll learn more about counting. She already counts to 100! She hopes kindergarten will have big easels for big pictures, all the colors for painting and coloring, the clay that bakes the shapes you make, time for dress-up and make-believe and pretend. She's counting the days till kindergarten.

Finally, K-Day arrives! Face shining, heart pounding, she joins the other children. They are greeted by a colorful welcome poster on the door with everyone's name in bright colors. She finds her name and bounces into the room, sitting at a table with her name tag displayed. A cheery bulletin board boasts images and words. She especially likes the picture of a clown. (After she went to the circus, she borrowed a bunch of cool books about clowns from the library.) Now she relaxes, waiting for the class to begin.

Looking around the room, she notices shelves tightly packed with books and workbooks, packaged games, and cut-out shapes. "Where are the fun centers?" she wonders, almost whispering out loud. Now her teacher is explaining how the day will go. Just before lunch, they will have a 20-minute outside recess - if they finish their work. Although she still can't tell time perfectly, she knows that lunch is a long time away.

Every day she and her classmates spend a lot of time sitting at tables doing worksheets. Circle this, put a line under that, color in something else. Every night she takes home her homework. Sometimes her mom helps her circle the right dots. She loves to listen to stories, but sometimes her teacher has no time to read stories to the kids. They have to finish their lessons on letters and sounds, double letters, and rhyming words. Then they have to do their worksheets.

Sometimes she wishes there were some stuffed animals and dolls to hold while the teacher is telling them what to do. She would love to bring her best cuddly bear to school, but the teacher said that at the end of the school year all the children will have a day to bring in their special animals.

Sometimes she whispers to her tablemate that they can play together at recess, but her teacher reminds her that there is no talking while they are having a lesson. Soon they will be having tests, the teacher reminds them, so they will want to do their very best work.
When she forgets what the teacher is telling her to do on her worksheet, she starts drawing a bird's nest.

She loves bird's nests and has been practicing circles, circles, circles, with scratchy lines so she can draw really good nests. If her kindergarten had a clay table, she would make a bird's nest, round like a circle, and maybe she would even make a tree with branches to hold nests. Once she asked her teacher to read the class a book she found about birds and nests.

Her teacher smiled at her but explained, "We're on such a tight schedule, dear. I would love to read this wonderful book to the class, but we just might not have time with all our other work that we must get done."

Her teacher stops and reminds her that she is not paying attention. Now is not the time for scribbling. But she's not scribbling. She's trying to draw a really terrific nest. Right outside the window of the classroom there's a nest on a low branch. She can see it from her seat and can't stop looking at it. What if baby birds hatched from their eggs in that very nest? Her teacher keeps telling her to pay attention. The kids are learning consonants.

The principal comes in just to see if everyone is on schedule.

Today, she is very excited. The teacher said that if they finished all their work, they would have time for "free play"! Maybe the blocks and dolls, easels and clay, dress-up clothes and make-believe kitchen, puppets and stuffed animals are waiting in a special place for "free play." Maybe they're all in the closet that's always locked. Maybe it's a closet filled with surprises!

Hurrying through her workbooks and worksheets, she pays extra attention. The teacher looks at her watch and tells the kids they can have 20 whole minutes of free play instead of outside recess. Then the teacher takes down the board games and puts them on the tables. Board games! She wanted to play dress-up or house or zoo or forest. She didn't want to play board games that told them to follow directions and recognize letters.

When she says she doesn't want to play, her teacher seems disappointed. The little girl suddenly feels caged. She tries to tell the teacher that she can't sit down anymore. And she hates the worksheets. She wants to tell her how she needs to move! To talk and sing and play with her friends as they make up stories and act out characters.

But the kids and the teacher look at her with strange expressions, like she is a bad girl. But she can't help it. She starts throwing the board games and worksheets about. She pushes over the tables. She kicks the chairs and cries. And she cries when the handcuffs are clicked on her wrists. Cries like a trapped animal.

It is so hard to say how she feels. She is crying so hard, she has no words. Only sounds. No words for the disappointment and frustration she feels now that she is a big kindergarten girl of 5 years old.
* * *

If we interview the teacher, we will learn that, like her colleagues across the country, she is under great pressure to prepare kindergartners for tests, for benchmarks, for academic goals, for assessments. She admits that the curriculum she is now teaching is really the first-grade curriculum, pushed down to kindergarten.

She believes these changes are developmentally inappropriate. She knows from her experience and her training that young children learn best through play, through hands-on and active direct experiences, through movement and music, and through relevant activities that are joyful, language-rich, and creative.

Given what is expected of her and the children by local, state, and federal legislation and regulations, as well as by family pressures, the teacher feels she has few choices. Even though she has devoted her life to teaching kindergarten and, until these last increasingly pressured years, has been passionate in her dedication, she is considering early retirement.

Almost every day she has to repress tears, to try not to weep for the children and their lost opportunities for meaningful, delightful learning times; for her classroom now empty of blocks, clay, sand, play. She feels helpless in this all-pervasive movement focused on testing children and not honoring the many valid ways they learn and grow (in their own unique ways at their own pace). She feels handcuffed. She feels trapped.

And so do I, writing this piece from the point of view of children and teachers caught in an education system gone berserk. I think I understand why this small child made headlines: she lacked the words to express the disappointment and frustration she felt now that she was a big kindergarten girl of 5 years old.

MIMI BRODSKY CHENFELD is a teacher, author, and national consultant who lives in Columbus, Ohio. Among her books are Teaching in the Key of Life (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1993), Teaching by Heart (Redleaf Press, 2001), and Creative Experiences for Young Children (Heinemann, 2002). She began teaching in 1956 and will stay in education till she gets it right.

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Last modified June 15, 2006

— Mimi Brodsky Chenfeld
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