When I was in third grade, I was dwelling on the outskirts of what might be deemed “painfully shy.” I lived in fear of being called to the Principal’s office. This was ridiculous, because I never stepped out of line at that point of my life.
As children prepare for the ordeal that is state testing, I considered that little girl, who she was, and how she would have handled this level of demand at the age of eight or nine. I realized that a large chunk of my self-esteem was built upon the fact that I was successful academically. In short, I was a good reader, writer, and student in general. As a smart, shy kid, I also experienced some painful times at the hands of the pack. In many ways, I was fragile. How many of us are solid at the age of eight?
I am not sure that the little girl that I was at eight would have handled the “higher” standards and the curriculum that teachers must slam young learners with today. The one area where I had succeeded would have been threatened. Would I have risen to the occasion, embracing the challenges of abstract, dense, no break for play, programming that is today cloaked by words like “best practice” and “data driven instruction?” In high school, perhaps. In elementary school, I fear that it would have broken me. And I was a “smart kid.” I later proved to be a sort of natural test-taker, a fact that I consider pure luck of the draw in brain wiring. Had I taken these lengthy, impossibly rigorous tests when I was so young, would I have followed that trajectory, or would I have experienced failure after failure until I was turned off from learning altogether?
It is said that children are resilient, and in many ways this is true. That principle is being tested (no pun intended) as never before. As we continue to hold our most at-risk populations to the same measure of success as those who enjoy far greater privilege, we claim to be creating a system where graduation rates will increase. I am not so sure. I have watched fifth graders who went all year without passing a unit test in math or reading. These students made growth, became better readers, learned mathematical concepts they had not before. But it wasn’t enough for them to feel any measure of success. The gap we claim to wish to close has been made intentionally wider. As a teacher, I have feared for my career and felt frustration with the students when they could not somehow write something that, up until last year, was included in the curriculum for two or three grades later.
I have students who have lived their lives in refugee camps, and students who live in dangerous conditions with parents who have their own negative history in education. Our school is in a neighborhood where bad headlines are made regularly, where it isn’t safe to walk at night. We need to examine what we are creating for these huge numbers of at-risk kids. Do we want them to feel like they belong out there, or in here? Or worse, nowhere?
I didn’t grow up with money, but my parents were educated, and I was safe. Even children of relatively stable situations are feeling levels of stress that we have no business inflicting on our younger citizens. My hat is off to the parents who have chosen to act on their convictions that something needs to change. I encourage any adult to reflect and recall the experience of being a child in school–and then imagine adding in this factor that colors every day of instruction. A useful exercise, if nothing else.