By Allison Slater Tate
Like most parents I know, I care deeply about my children's educations. Where we live, the house we own, and our family budget and schedule all, to some extent, revolve around making sure that we are doing the best we can for our children and their futures.
On the whole, my children are having good experiences at their schools, thanks to teachers and administrators who truly go above and beyond despite the current climate in education. But there are several elements about their school days that I would change, or at least tweak, in a heartbeat if I could. Because while we all try to leave no child behind, I would also like to make sure we don't leave their childhoods behind in the process.
1. Recess for all, every day, for at least 30 minutes.
In a six-hour school day, my children in fifth and second grades receive very little recess (think 15 minutes), and they get more than other schools in our state. Because of Florida state mandates and preparation for standardized testing, school administrators have found it difficult to fit in "extras" like recess or library time for elementary school students. These same children have, on average, around 20 minutes to eat lunch (in a subdued, orderly fashion). If we don't have time in a day to let our children play on the playground or kick a ball on the field together at school, something is very, very broken.
The thing is, there are no playgrounds in middle school. These children only have until they are 10 years old to scamper up domes and swing toward the sky and run around in the sand and make up games to play with their classmates. Every child should have time for recess. Recess is an important part of their educations -- not a break from them.
2. Minimal standardized testing without the high stakes atmosphere.
Standardized testing varies widely across the nation, but where I live in Florida, it is pervasive. My children spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for and completing standardized tests. And the stakes can be high: In third grade, students failing the tests are required to repeat the grade, and, more importantly, they are well aware of that fact. Third graders thus have notorious amounts of stress and anxiety about the exams, which eventually also qualify them for (or keep them out of) advanced math tracks -- or can lead to mandatory remedial classes that take the place of electives in middle and high school.
There is no question that some standardized testing is absolutely necessary to help hold our schools and the teachers accountable for their progress, and to assess what our children are mastering. However, it should not lead to third graders suffering nightmares and basing their self-worth on the tests. I'm not against testing; I am against testing that is not smart, efficient, streamlined, and clearly presented to our children as what it is and should be: just one tool of, I hope, many used to evaluate their teachers and their schools.
Children are not standardized, nor do they learn in a standardized fashion. If anyone is failing in the current scenario, it is the adults. We adults need to get our acts together, test the students as minimally as possible, and give them the majority of their school days for actual instruction, creative time with their teachers and peers, and, yes, recess.
3. Less homework.
My children and I take school seriously. I consider school to be their jobs, and while they are there, I expect them to pay full attention and give their teachers as much focus as possible. But when the school bell rings, I believe that the rest of their days should be free for other pursuits -- playing outside, participating in extracurricular activities that enrich them in ways the school system no longer can, reading, decompressing, and spending time with their families. I find it hard to make my children settle down even more to complete homework after all those hours at school sitting still. I resent that the few hours of their waking days that they spend with me have to be about completing worksheets or spelling homework.
Homework, if assigned at all, should be meaningful and as concise as possible, meant only to briefly review and reinforce. Especially in this day and age, when Common Core standards encourage teaching students concepts in ways that do not feel intuitive to a child of the '70s and '80s like me, the teaching needs to be done in class. Nights without homework are nights that my children and I can spend enjoying each other more and "managing" each other less, and that is critically important to my children's development, too.
4. More arts.
As a mother to children who love math, science, and Minecraft, I appreciate the recent emphasis on STEM subjects. But while I understand that STEM subjects help run our modern, tech-filled lives, it is the arts that make those lives more enjoyable to live. I wish my children had more time in their days to spend learning about art, dance, and music. I wish their writing instruction could be more about creative writing and taking chances and finding their voices, and less about learning how to write a persuasive essay in a set structure for standardized testing purposes. I worry that my children will be well prepared to pass exams and less prepared to write the stories of human beings, that poetry will have no place in their lives, that the arts will be a luxury for the few who can afford it. There is artistry in Minecraft, and there is beauty in technology -- but music, art, and dance make us human, and I think they might be more essential to the coming generations simply because their lives will be so full of technology and screens.
5. More joy -- for students and their teachers.
I adored the recent viral video of the Texas high school teacher dancing with students from his school to Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson's awesome "Uptown Funk." Not only do I love any man who will dance like that, but I also loved that the students were experiencing something so fun and full of joy with a faculty member. Schools are full of children -- they should be full of joy. Teaching should be as fun as it is stressful. But with all the contributing factors in education now, I don't believe that is true anymore. I want my children to come home full of stories about their days, telling me more about the facts they learned about beluga whales or the stories they are reading in class than about how they had to miss recess because they just didn't have time, or how they spent their mornings taking yet another standardized test.
We each only get one life, and the majority of children still spend most of their childhood in schools. Let's make it the best use of their precious hours, days, and years that we can. If our kids don't learn to love learning and find school to be fun when they are little, how can we expect them to get through the sometimes murky waters of middle and high school years? By all means, school is for learning. But childhood is for wonder, for laughter, and for joy. School should be a part of that, not an exception.