The problem with schooling: We don’t value the whole child

I am sitting here at my desk in the far corner of my kindergarten room. My room is bright and inviting, full of interesting things to discover and explore.  There is a play-kitchen center where children can use their imaginations to pretend they are a short-order chef or a store-owner.  A puzzle and games center for problem-solving.  A wooden theatre for using puppetry in the telling of creative stories and singing songs.  There is a writing station, a book area, an easel and a chalkboard.  And there are lots of toys that can be used for a multitude of purposes for which the imagination holds no boundaries.

In my classroom, there are little people.  Some of these little people like to sing.  Some like to dance and jump.   They love to roll and skip and hop and run. They love to talk and share and discuss.  Every one of them will often have so many ideas bursting through their amazing minds that they will share things with me all at once- their voices creating a cacophony of overwhelming sound.  I often have to remind them that only one person can share at a time, as Mrs. Gard (in her (ahem!) seniority), has ears that can only pay heed to one single voice speaking at once.  The fact that they delight in the ‘telling’ cautions me to never discourage them.

In my classroom, we learn how to read and count.  These foundations of learning are certainly a priority.

But we also learn the following:

*how to work out problems with a friend

*how to grow a plant

*how to share our feelings

*how to be a friend

*how to co-operate

*how to participate in group activities

*how to respect individually-owned and classroom-shared property

*how to take responsibility for our belongings

*how to ask for help

* how to take care of personal needs

*how to express ideas and feelings through play, through music, through art, through dance

* how to choose materials in our day-to-day learning and then use them in a variety of ways (one of which is our recyclable bin which often has supported the building of airplanes and robots)

* how to respect another individual’s personal space

I think most would agree- these are worth-while endeavors for learning, both in the kindergarten classroom and beyond.  Yes, reading and counting (literacy proper and numeracy proper) are valued in our kindergarten classroom.  But these ideals are not everything we believe is important for learning. For in this room, we place importance and value on more than just the children’s minds: we place value on more than merely the use of anyone’s mind-my own mind included, for that matter.  In this room, we value hearts and hands and feet and whole bodies.

Our learning is not just centered within our heads.

One way we accomplish this goal is through learning using the five senses.  When we learn about apples, we don’t just count them- we pick them and touch them and smell them and taste them.  When we learn about plants, we grow them- feeling the dirt beneath our fingernails.  When we learn about pumpkins, we plunge our hands into their slimy centers to discover the seeds that lie within.  We don’t just read about them in books or count manipulatives meant to represent them.

We discover them.

And to be honest, these things are really not all there is to the learning accomplished.  For when we are learning about apples, what we are really learning to do is appreciate that food comes from somewhere- that if we don’t grow food, we will have nothing to eat.  We are learning that  fruit growers (among other farmers) are necessary to our economy.  We are learning to value and appreciate the important work they do and the products they provide.

And when we learn about plants, we are learning how to work together in community- how to share the workload so that everyone has a job.  We are learning social responsibility and citizenship and ecological awareness.  And in learning about pumpkins, we are discovering that we can take creative risks- even for the ones who have never done something like this before.  For some have not ever experienced the joy that is pumpkin-carving. The joy that is a pumpkin seed bursting on their tongues. We are learning how to share and take turns, and in so doing- learning to value and respect one another.

In kindergarten, there has always been a strong emphasis placed on the whole child.  The child’s mind, their heart and their body.  We don’t separate the mind from the body or the heart from the mind- they all work together in harmony in this milieu.  So when we are learning in kindergarten, there are always multiple, myriad lessons underway- the most important of which are not usually academic.

I fear that in following and ascribing to the school format we have inherited and adopted that is focused on standardized testing and outcomes, we are valuing only one aspect of the child: that is, their head.  What could be defined as the cerebral. And while that is important and worthy, we are doing children a disservice if we are not appreciating the various aspects that make the whole child.  Particularly for children for whom the cerebral is not their main area of strength.  Their area of gifted-ness.

I would ask you to consider the following:

“The purpose of education has been debated for centuries.  Many educators and child development experts argue that the overarching goal of education is to promote the highest possible levels of cognitive, social, emotional, physical, and ethical development for each child.  The whole-child movement is based on the proposition that education must move beyond preparing children to become “well educated” citizens who are productive participants in the economic system.  Education must also cultivate in young people spirituality, reverence for the natural environment, and a sense of social justice.  Education must inspire children’s creativity, imagination, compassion, self-knowledge, social skills, and emotional health.  In this way, the term holistic education simply means cultivating the whole person and helping individuals live more consciously within their communities and natural ecosystems”(Miller, 2005).

In this way, education that is holistic in focus and purpose has at its focus yes, the intellect, but also the emotional composition, the social relations, the physical health and ability, the artistic sense, the creative capacity, and the spiritual potential.  “It seeks to engage students in the teaching/learning process and encourages personal and collective responsibility on the part of professionals charged with student’s development.” (Kochar-Bryant, 2010)

I believe that all classrooms are at potential risk- all classrooms are at potential crisis point.  We have sadly erred from the purpose of schooling in developing the individual as a whole in all aspects of being. But since I teach in a kindergarten classroom, I will write focused on this.  Our kindergarten curriculum is special.  Our classrooms are precious places set apart for discovery. We must not allow anyone to take away from us the joy we find in learning using our whole selves.  We must preserve the right children have to a curriculum that appreciates and understands the child as a person in all the aspects of their development. And we must encourage teachers to fight for what they believe in.

In my kindergarten room, we will (as we have always done): learn to count the desks, chairs and tables in our room and arrange geometric shapes into patterns.  But we will also learn how to care about these materials- how to respectfully use them and store them away when we finish play.  We will learn ideals about how to share and cooperate while playing and discovering.  And we will learn how to care for the materials and people with whom we interact in applying math principles to everyday living always with the intent to care and invest.

And in this room, we will also (again, as we have always done), value literacy goals like speaking and listening, reading and writing.  But we will do so for a higher purpose than just a check-mark on a report card.  We will value these foundational pillars for the ways in which they help us connect to the essential others in our world, having as our focus that learning is done so as to become the incredible friend, classmate, companion and group member we were meant to be.

This is the goal.

Nel Noddings (2003) has said that many of our schools are in a crisis of caring, failing to enable students to become caring, compassionate individuals as well as failing to model for them the same.  Let us not fail them in continuing to perpetuate the agenda that their mind was only made for the purpose of being a mathematical computer spitting out data.  Or as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge.

Let us remember: the mind was made to care.

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What No Test Can See

I wasn’t prepared for it really. Wasn’t prepared at all. When the results were unveiled and the cursor moved down the Smart Board showing individual achievement results and my child’s name slowly rolled by- I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to see. Wasn’t prepared for the label, the category she was pegged in. I wasn’t prepared at all really. And as much as I dislike standardized testing on my kindergarten students- having fought to have the richness of their stories brought to bear on the results of recent moderated student writing, it really hits close to home when your own child comes up having not met grade level expectations. It brings the dislike to a whole new level.

Thinking about students and standardized testing. These two quotes from Clandinin and Connelly (2000) really put things into perspective for me tonight.  Here’s the first quote:

“We take for granted that people, at any given point in time, are in a process of personal change and that from an educational point of view, it is important to be able to narrate the person in terms of the process. Knowing some of the immediate educational history of the child- for instance, the lessons recently taught, as well as the larger narrative history of each child as that child moves from what was, to what is, to what will be in the future- is central to narrative educational thinking” (Clandinin and Connelly, 2000 p. 30).

And this one as well:

“In narrative thinking, an action is seen as a narrative sign. In our case, we intended that curricular actions be interpreted as classroom expressions of teachers’ and students’ narrative histories. For example, a child’s performance at a certain level on an achievement test is a narrative sign of something. It is necessary to give a narrative interpretation of that sign before meaning can be attached to it. Without understanding the narrative history of the child, the significance or meaning of the performance, the sign, remains unknown. Student achievement on a test does not in and of itself tell the tester or the teacher much of anything until the narrative of the student’s learning history is brought to bear on the performance” (Clandinin and Connelly, 2000 p. 30-31).

So with that in mind, here’s what people who decide those expectations don’t know about my daughter.

Her smile can light up a room.

She’s a loving friend, a loyal listener.

She loves to bake, invent, explore, create, move, dance, play and read.

She is wonderful with children.

She has an ear for music and is learning the trombone.

She loves to work with hair and can create braids that fall hopelessly apart in my hands.

She just made the volleyball team.

And what’s more: she might not have met expectations of some remote board who have determined that certain standards must be brought to bear, but I can say for fact that she liked that math class. She liked her teacher, loved her classmates, enjoyed the work and she never, ever complained.

She studied, worked hard, did her best and in the words of her teacher “did well’.  And confusingly, got great grades all year long.

And if her story were to be factored into those cold numbers that represent her on that isolated test representing one moment in time, there would be so much more to show for the amazing life that story of her’s represents.

She might not have met test expectations, but she will forever exceed those of her father and me.

We love her to the moon and back.  We always will.

And we’ll always be proud of our little girl.

Why We Care

She slouches on the vinyl chair next to mine, chewing her lip, twirling her hair. Wrinkles creasing her brow. And as she sits, I wonder.  Is she thinking of what to expect, even as she knows the reason for why we are here? Or is there more to the wonder than mere childlike speculation?

The reason for why we have left the house at such a crazy-early hour to drive for two hours was not, of course, to only sit and wait. We are here for other more pressing concerns. And yet, there is always the fear of the great unknown- especially for a child.

Not to mention of course the apprehension it brings the mother.

The doctor arrives with a bluster of energy and vigour. She immediately puts at ease what was formerly a worry. What was moments ago a source of stress, a source of concern, is now an afterthought in light of this physician’s delightful presence. She just seems to do this work so naturally- without a thought to the magic she has achieved. Weaving a tapestry of compassion through her laid-back banter, silly jokes and thoughtful concern. But then again: doesn’t care always have that gentle way of easing, of lessening the burden? And as the moments tick toward the hour we will spend in this tiny little room, I find my daughter relaxing. Find her unwinding, creased brow giving way to a smile. And all this because a doctor has chosen to spend this hour in this room with us, taking the time needed to care for the person, rather than merely just diagnosing the patient.

If a busy doctor, bound by the relentless expectations and constraints that often define this demanding profession, can make the time to show caring, compassionate concern, so might we do much of the same in the field of education.

It is not a matter of should- it is a matter of how.

How can we invest in the lives of our students in caring, compassionate ways even as the demands around us increase exponentially?

We can and we must, and one way I propose this can be done is through investing in care. That is, making it a priority to value the person that is the student- along with the tandem idea of valuing the people as a whole which comprise our classroom community. Through valuing and giving worth to the human beings that represent the education system in which they are found, we give credence to the humanity of the students. We recognize the person-hood of each boy and girl, man or woman who sit in front of us day after day. And this- all achieved by seeing though the test scores, records and data to the very real hearts and souls of the children and teenagers that we are called to teach. Taking the time to know the story of their lives instead of reducing them to a number and figure on paper. Taking the time to understand the context in which the students we learn alongside- live, work and play. For when this happens, we can fully care for our students in their learning, development and growth even while the system might appear to breath heavy down our necks. After all, if we sacrifice care on the altar of academic standards of excellence, haven’t we lost everything?

Standards mean little if the people that represent them are dehumanized.

Where We Are Headed… Thoughts on Teaching in the 21st Century

“To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” (bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, p.13)

 

I am swabbing spots all over his chest with a Polysporin-covered Q-tip. Just moments before, he had come to me complaining of itchiness. His chest- sweltered with raw, open infected sores instigated by mosquito bites. A day prior, I had sent him home. The itchiness had been getting to him by mid-afternoon, and without anything to treat the infected spots, the two of us were at an impasse. So, his mother had come to retrieve her boy and mend his angst. As they were leaving, I looked at her and said, “Send along some ointment tomorrow, and I will do this for you.” I realized that this was a minor inconvenience for a busy mother- to pick up an otherwise well-child and take him home simply to apply medication. So, I offered to do it for her, so long as I had her permission and the medicated cream.

Later that evening, the mother wrote me a short message, and in a few simple lines, she conveyed to me her appreciation for my offer to act as nurse for her son. It was apparent that this was not something she would have expected from me, his teacher.

I thought to myself, as I read her short note: “I wouldn’t do anything less than care for this boy’s needs in the ways that he requires caring for: I love this child. I am his teacher. That’s what I do.”

But I wonder: even as my heart is calling me to care for my students in the very ways I care for my own four dear ones at home, is this what I can do realistically? As more and more of my time is being eaten up by demands that are outside my control?

A day later, I sat beside a dear friend in the front seat of her SUV, and I looked her in the eye when I lamented, “Perhaps I would renew my joy in teaching if I was able to simply care for my students, and worry less about all the other junk.”

The junk. That’s what is getting to me. Which is to say, the stuff that is weighing me down.

Junk/ Stuff. The stress over meeting outcomes and curricular goals. The stress over covering the curriculum. The stress over benchmarks. Stress in keeping records, both formal and otherwise. The stress in dealing with other stressed colleagues and students. The stress in planning and readying my classroom after hours, late into the night. The stress by way of new systems of monitoring and assessment brought on by our school boards. The stress in dealing with behaviours. The stress in dealing with unknowns: unknown diagnoses, unknown future job placements, unknown situations, unknown variables. The stress in participating in meetings and in realizing deadlines and living up to expectations. The stress of being all things to all people. The stress. All combined, these stressors have the effect of making us as teachers feel smothered and disabled in doing what we really want to do: care for the little and big people who face us day in and day out inside the four walls of our schools.

Because teaching is primarily about caring for people. Or it should be.

My work feels less and less sacred all the time. More and more rote and routine. More constrictive and prescriptive. More stressful and demanding than ever before. More top-down controlled. Which is not to say that it was ever easy- it’s just getting harder.

Teaching is a challenging career- and it’s not because of the kids.

It’s challenging because of all the other stuff we teachers have to deal with. And it’s challenging because we have neither the time nor the expertise to be dealing with some of the situations we are dealing with. What we really want to do is get back to basics. Teaching for life-long learning and then cushioning all that educating inside a generous portion of simple, genuine caring. Caring deeply for our students’ minds and the learning that takes place there, even as we care for their tender, fragile hearts and souls. Where the real living takes place.

The other day, I was finishing up my lunch when a colleague offered to take my class for a few minutes so as to allow me a couple extra minutes to eat my lunch. I took him up on his suggestion. As I was going back to my own classroom, I had stopped in the office to collect my mail when I noticed a line of children waiting for the secretary to take them into the staff room and heat up their lunch. Added to this group were others: waiting to use the phone and waiting to see the principal. I could see the anxiety building on the secretary’s face. It is a busy enough job to look after the administration of the day-to-day runnings of an office and school to add to that the role of nurse, cafeteria worker and counselor. I offered to take the students and teach them how to buddy up with a Grade 6 student who knew how to operate the microwave, thus alleviating the secretary of the taxing job of heating up lunches. That I was able to take the time to do this was thanks to my dear colleague who offered to take my own students for a few precious minutes during his own prep time. So that I could then be free to help the secretary.

As I again made my way back to my own classroom, the custodian abruptly stopped me while I was walking by the downstairs girls’ washroom: “Would you look at this!” she exclaimed rather brusquely. I peered into the stall where she was positioned over the toilet. There, floating inside the bowl, was a wrapped sandwich, a granola bar and a juice box. Fully intact.

“This has been happening almost daily,” she grimaced.

“I’ll report it to the principal,” I countered. “We’ll get to the bottom if it all.”

As I again started out, this time to find the principal, I started thinking that this was a problem, with a little time, that could be nipped in the bud. Just by way of a good old-fashioned detective eye.

I started into a classroom, asking if anyone was missing a lunch. Everyone was happily eating away. But the next room I happened upon, the teacher met me at the door and immediately communicated to me that she had a hunch it might be someone in her room. A certain person who had been missing their lunch for the last couple of days.

Sure enough, it was that certain person.

And this discovery made all because I had the time to pursue a problem and find a solution for it.

Time is really of essence. But so is love. When teachers have both time and love, powerful things happen.

Students are cared for in ways that they would otherwise not be cared for.

Students learn things they would otherwise not learn.

Problems are solved which would otherwise not be solved.

Answers are found which would otherwise go unresolved.

Children are happier.

Teachers are less stressed.

It’s a win-win for everyone. An absolute no-brainer.

Unless we allow teachers to get back to the business of doing their sacred work of caring for children and students, in ways that their teacher fore-bearers did back in the day, we will be set on a collision course to derailment.

Derailment of our teachers’ sanity.

Derailment of our students’ achievement, in more ways than just standardized performance testing.

Derailment of our classrooms, which will look less and less like learning environments and more and more like sterile testing laboratories.

Derailment of our very educational system.

We are on a collision course and what is set to collide are the expectations that the Powers to Be have for our schools with the health and well being of our teachers and educators. Something’s got to give.

It always does.

And if I were to surmise what that might be, what’s going to give: from personal experience, I’d have to say it’s going to be our teachers.

Heaven help us. That’s about the only hope we have left.