When I was in kindergarten, I absolutely loved when my teacher provided me with a clear, descriptive rubric aligned to Common Core Learning Standards with every assignment. If you think I’m joking, it’s because I am. CCLS didn’t exist when I was in Kindergarten. I remember playing with Legos, building toy railroad circuits, drawing and pretending to be Superman, and of course, crying for my mother. And I’m pretty sure my Kindergarten teacher wasn’t using a rubric to assess the rigor of my sobbing.
Recently, an article from the Atlantic has been making its rounds with educators on social media. In short, the article juxtaposes America’s strict, academic “reform” approach with Finland’s “let kids play and figure it out” approach to kindergarten. It’s an insightful case study of two well-intentioned, yet very different schools of thought in public education.
Any time a concerned American suggests we take lessons on education policy from Scandinavian countries, they’re often blitzed with negativity. “It’s a small, homogenous country.” “They’ve never had to deal with our kind of immigration.” “That’s nice, but they’re all white.” Some of these criticisms may be valid, but they’re not solutions-oriented. They’re just statements that make excuses for our own lack of excellence in schools.
Obviously, we’re not Finland. But, we can still learn and adopt some of its best practices for our own needs. Or are we just too damn proud? In this standard Finland vs. America argument on education, we tend to ignore Finland’s neighbor, Norway. Finland is nearly as populous as Norway (and nearly the same square mileage). Both countries have a comparable labor force and both countries have similar immigration levels. However, Norway tends to score closer to the U.S. on the PISA, which is significantly lower than Finland. Norway’s teachers don’t need a masters degree, and yet there’s a national teacher shortage prompting ad campaigns to attract young professionals to teaching — sound familiar? Back in the early 2000s, Norway instituted a national system of standardized testing (called the NKVS). Again, sound familiar?
I don’t know about you (yes, you), but things haven’t really changed for me: I like to play. As a child, I loved to play. If I learned from playing, then that’s just awesomesauce. As a teacher, some of my most memorable “teacher moments” occurred when I purposefully built for play in my classroom. Yet, it was significantly hard to create the conditions necessary for play teaching high school mathematics. There was a constant nag in my head reminding me my students just had to pass the New York State Algebra 1 Regents exam. Otherwise, we’d both be judged as failures.
Working in education technology today, I’m even more passionate about play in school, but that’s also because I’m further removed from the classroom and the daily struggle to balance rigor, engagement, and fun. The thing is, we have to draw a line somewhere. I can’t imagine how much more anxiety I would have if play did not exist when I was in kindergarten. I can’t imagine how much more grade-driven I would be if my teachers used CCLS-aligned rubrics while I ran around making fart sounds and holding spaceships I made from Legos. Play time at home wasn’t exactly reliable because I grew up in a broken home, so I had to make the most out of any fun I could get.
There is no evidence to support that children cannot learn from play or learn and play simultaneously. A former student of mine used to tell me about how he already knew so much about the Crusades because of Assassin’s Creed. Sure, it’s a video game, so there are inaccuracies. In the classroom, those are called “teachable moments” (take note, those of you who have never taught). These “teachable moments” are opportunities to foster authentic discussion. It’s possible to have both. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What I’m really trying to say is children need and benefit from play. We know this. If we’re going to insert literacy skills into kindergarten, it should be a data-driven decision, as in it’s backed by strong evidence. However, the data seems to support Finland’s approach. Why are we so stubborn with this? Let’s stop underestimating children. Bring back the crayons, the Lincoln Logs, and the Play-Doh please.
By: Abbas Manjee VP, Teaching and Learning @ Kiddom Former HS Math Teacher
In honor of World Teachers Day, I’m sharing a piece I wrote on Yo Mista! a few years ago about one of the most passionate and inspirational teachers I’ve ever had. I’ve made some minor edits, as I originally wrote this when I was still teaching high school. Here it is:
I recently Googled “John Strauss” and was surprised none of the search results said, “the best teacher I’ve ever had in high school.” In fact, there was barely any information or mention of the John Strauss I wanted to read about, a true rock star of a teacher and a living legend at the high school I graduated from.
Mr. Strauss was my senior year English teacher. He was not a young, highly motivated, self-proclaimed hotshot. Nor was he part of some national movement claiming its teachers were more effective than others. When I had Mr. Strauss, he was already a veteran teacher, humble and modest. He had a sense of humor and was deeply committed, but most importantly, he had passion. In fact, there’s a picture of him in my senior year high school yearbook with a caption that reads, “Mr. Strauss is a perfect example that a passion for teaching can bring enjoyment to classes.” When I read that at the tender age of eighteen, I probably didn’t understand what that statement really meant. I finally got it when I read it again at twenty-seven with a few years of teaching experience of my own. This guy was the real McCoy.
In school, I typically did not enjoy English class, nor did I enjoy reading books in general (fun fact: I do now). Yet, Mr. Strauss’s English class was something I looked forward to every single day. My first memory of Mr. Strauss is of him reenacting a scene from the Greek tragedy Hecuba. Mr. Strauss was hunched over and in despair, reciting lines from the play and channeling Hecuba’s sense of loss. I was stunned at how “into it” he was. This happened somewhere around the beginning of the school year and it completely won me over.
Strauss would go on to reenact various scenes from literature in front of the class throughout the year. He helped us all individually connect to the text. We didn’t waste time test-prepping for the AP exam in May, yet many of his students scored well year after year. We would instead spend a lot of time as a class discussing texts we were assigned to read. Even if I didn’t do the reading, I couldn’t help but learn something from the discussions he facilitated. After that, we would reflect on our readings via writing, and he would challenge us to improve our style and thought process. I remember I was trying to squeeze an essay that was six paragraphs into five and he said, “You know six paragraphs are okay, right? Stick with what feels natural.” That blew my mind. This wasn’t going to be a cookie-cutter, formulaic class. So instead I decided I should just do what the man said: actually learn to write well and coherently.
I don’t ever recall Mr. Strauss printing worksheets with Illinois state standards highlighted at the top. I never even knew what standards were covered in senior year English. I never received a document that summarized which standards I struggled with or mastered. We never took a single multiple-choice test in his class, ever. Shit, I didn’t even know what my grade was half the time.
We, the students, received our feedback from the source. Strauss often conferenced with us one-on-one during our writing assignments. We didn’t memorize dictionary definitions of new words. Instead, we developed our vocabulary through our literary discussions. It was kind of hard not to know the meaning of a new word given how much it got thrown around during discussion. If I hadn’t read the homework the night before, the classroom discussions sparked so much interest in me that I ended up finishing books well ahead of deadlines. I was usually a pretty good bullshitter during classroom discussions, but in Mr. Strauss’s class, I didn’t want to be. This, coming from the kid who went to Spark Notes for just about everything.
Like any veteran, Mr. Strauss had some classroom tricks to keep our attention during discussions. If a student had his/her hand up in the air, he would look him/her right in the eye, but call on someone else. It was confusing, but hilarious. This small, but clever trick kept us on our toes. Of course, we could’ve reacted to his surprise cold-calling the wrong way, i.e. Strauss did it to call on someone not paying attention, etc. The problem was, we were all participating and paying attention, so it wasn’t really a problem. There was nothing to do but play his game.
Someone could argue we didn’t have issues because it was an AP class, but from what I actually saw for myself, Mr. Strauss was successful and well-respected in every class he taught. He was liked by his colleagues, his students and even by students who never took his class. In fact, my younger brother never had the opportunity to take his class, but Strauss went out of his way to check up on him every so often since I had expressed concern about being so far away from him.
So with all this national spotlight on teacher evaluations and the new-education reform movement, I can’t help but worry about him and other teachers like him. I bet if this very same man walked into a new school environment today, he would not be deemed effective by his superiors, regardless of what his students thought of him. He probably wouldn’t be the model teacher organizations like Teach for America would present to first-year teachers. He might not be the teacher a charter school principal would give kudos to in a weekly e-mail. Sadly, a teacher like him is probably someone who has retired or is on the verge of retiring, pushed out by those who don’t understand, yet control the industry.
Well, I won’t forget him. And when I eventually do go back to teaching, I’m going to continue channeling as much of Mr. Strauss as I can in my classroom. It’s crucial to focus on students’ all-around development and creativity, not get stuck on national, state, or school standards (regardless of how good/bad they are). In reality, it’s all fluff in relation to how important connecting with someone (or something) can be. If you disagree, get at least a third year of teaching under your belt and then let’s talk.
“Yo Mista… why this place really called the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop? Do they really mean gay?”
I recently took two of some of my closest students out for ice cream to tell them I wasn’t coming back to teach this school year. I’ve known David and Ken for three years now. I’ve written about Ken before; I think of him as my second younger brother. These young men are slated to graduate this upcoming winter, but more importantly, I have witnessed them grow up right before my eyes. Both of them are turning 19 soon, so we’re at a weird place where we can’t figure out if I’m their teacher, an older sibling, a friend, or some kind of hybrid. These are often the best relationships I forge teaching high school because they’re built upon real connections and blurred lines. I know we’ll stay in touch long after they graduate.
I had mixed feelings as I walked out of the subway to meet them. I was really excited to see them again, but I knew telling them I wasn’t coming back would be tough. Both David and Ken have their math credits, so they wouldn’t have had me this year anyway. That’s me trying to rationalize the situation. The reality is, when you teach at-risk students and develop a mentorship, you just know you need to be around physically whether or not they’re even on your roster. David and Ken are best friends, but unfortunately, they don’t have many adults in their lives to guide them positively. These guys ask me all kinds of things via text, from questions about a job posting to fashion advice. No joke, last week Ken texted me a picture of a bearded hipster wearing flannel and an oversized knit cap asking, “Hey Mista, know where I could get one of these hats?”
I met the David and Ken at a Starbucks near a subway entranced and we proceeded to walk a few more blocks east to the ice cream shop. David looked tired and for good reason: him and his girlfriend had recently welcomed a baby boy in their lives. He looked like he hadn’t been sleeping well. Ken looked about as fidgety as ever, using every hand gesture known to man to explain how many hours he spent playing and conquering some new video game that just came out. Man, I sound old as hell saying that, don’t I? Anyway, these guys were doing well and hadn’t changed a bit, which made me very happy.
After the kids got over the shock effect of the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop’s name, we ordered our desserts and walked to a nearby park. After more small talk, I finally mustered up the courage to tell them I wasn’t coming back to teach. David seemed to take it well and asked probing questions. “So, like what will you do? How did you even find it?” He can be very practical when he’s not trying to be the class clown.
Ken, who has already gone through so much, fell silent. “I knew you wasn’t coming back. I knew it. Nobody wanna buy me stuff unless it’s doing good in school, or if it’s bad they wanna say.” Ken is not only very observant, he’s also incredibly experienced with loss. He has experienced more trauma than most people I know will ever experience in the course of their lives. He turned to David, “I told you it was going to be bad. I told you!” This kid limited this own excitement for free ice cream based on prior experiences being taken out to eat. Damn.
We spent a good hour afterwards just talking and catching up. There were periods of insane, teenage laughter followed by short, awkward moments of silence. One thing was clear: no matter how many poop jokes were made, Ken’s feelings were hurt. Three years ago, Ken was a very angry young boy who couldn’t keep his trauma from seeping out of his skin during the school day. Now he was calm and somewhat himself. It made me feel so happy to see how much more resilience he’d developed in three years.
I promised David and Ken I would stay in touch and be responsive via text, Facebook messenger, or whatever else the kids end up using this year. Since meeting them weeks ago, I’ve gotten messages from them already. David asked me to help him sign up as a tasker on TaskRabbit, and Ken sent me more pictures of clothes followed up with questions on where to purchase them. “Ken, you’re going to look like one of those hipsters that try to look like they haven’t showered.”