Kindergarten teacher: Too many tests, ‘no time to play’

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Kindergarten teacher David Boucher wants time to play. “I would like to see more recess because studies show that more play time makes kids more attentive. It is hard for them to stay focused without play or movement. In fact, it leads to more behavior problems.”

Time to play is extremely limited in Boucher’s classroom and school. He spoke about his experience as a teacher of young children as part of our Focus on Teaching series, with specific attention to the Minneapolis Public Schools’ current instructional mandate of Focused Instruction.

A Minneapolis resident, David Boucher has a long relationship with the Minneapolis Public Schools, as a student, as a parent of one graduate and one current student, and as a kindergarten teacher at Folwell School, a K-8 Performing Arts Magnet in south Minneapolis.

Can you describe the students in your classroom to me?

I have 27 students, although this number can fluctuate because, on average, six kids transfer in or out during the school year. On average, the kindergarten classrooms at Folwell have between 26 and 28 students. Out of the 27 I have, around 50 percent of them are ELL students, and 14 percent qualify for Special Education services. My school also receives federal Title 1 funding because of its high percentage of ELL students and those who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

What is an average day like for these students?

My students have five-ten minutes of recess a day; there is no time to play. They are required to have 120 minutes of reading instruction a day, 40 minutes of writing instruction, and 90 minutes of math lessons per day. They also go to a “Specialist,” such as art, music, or media class, once a day. I then have twenty-five minutes at the end of the day to do science or social studies with my students. Because we are an arts magnet school, my students have a year-round dance class instead of gym. They have forty minutes for lunch and recess; by the time they line up, get their food, and eat, they are lucky if they get ten minutes of recess time.

How does this limited recess time affect your students?

They are jumping off the walls. I would like to see more recess because studies show that more play time makes kids more attentive. It is hard for them to stay focused without play or movement. In fact, it leads to more behavior problems. Kindergarten has become very rigorous and academic. What they are learning now is what I learned in first and second grade. On top of that, many of my kids also stay after school for an hour of additional tutoring in reading and math, through a program called ALC.

What role does Focused Instruction play in your work, and your class?

We have been using Focused Instruction for the past two years, using the same core resources we used before, such as the “Good Habits, Great Readers” literacy program, and the Investigations math curriculum. The main difference is that Focused Instruction, through its pacing schedule, lesson plans, and units of study, comes across as a very standardized curriculum, whereas before we had more of an opportunity to modify our materials and lessons. Also, the amount of testing for these children has gone up tremendously.

Can you expand on that?

There was already too much testing before Focused Instruction; now, we have even more. The district comes in three times a year to test the kids on letter names and sounds, as well as phonemic awareness. They are also tested on something called the “Language Domain,” or vocabulary and comprehension, as well as on the “Numeracy Domain,” twice a year. For both the Language and Numeracy Domain tests, the children’s scores in various categories are added up and put into a weighted formula. This is used to predict how they will score on third grade MCA reading and math tests. I also test the students three times a year using the Fountas and Pinnell reading scale, which I find the most valuable, although the district goal is for every student to be at a first grade level, or level “D”, by the end of kindergarten. I also have to do monthly probes for each student, where I must track each student according to how well they are meeting the district’s academic goals. Additionally, I give the Focused Instruction benchmarks to my students at the end of each unit. There are seven of these for math and five for social studies, but I don’t really have the time I’d like to teach social studies because of our schedule.

Unfortunately, as someone who teaches and uses the curriculum, I believe Focused Instruction is really a test prep curriculum designed to standardize the profession of teaching in order for students to do well on standardized tests. The reason for this is because those are the only tests that matter. I say this because that is the only data the state looks at. Standardized tests are only one form of assessment, but they are being used as the only measure of success for districts, schools, principals and teachers. This is detrimental for all students, not just kindergartners. I tell people standardized tests are great if we all grow up to do the same thing. Fortunately we don’t, and we all have unique talents, skills, and strengths.

What are the Focused Instruction units for kindergarten like?

They are mostly built around explicit literacy skills. For example, a unit might focus on getting kids to recognize character elements, or the role of setting, when reading. The units are not built around themes, like seasons or the weather, although I do try to bring that in through reading materials.

How do you differentiate instruction for your students?

I infuse the arts as much as possible, because we are an arts school. I use drama, music, dance and art. I also use cooperative learning as a means for my students to learn from each other. However, the district-required tests put children into three different categories: red, yellow, or green. Children in the red and yellow categories perform the lowest on these tests, and therefore I give them small group time around math or literacy skills, which ends up feeling like test prep. Children in the green category are considered proficient, or advanced. Because of this, I feel I can be a little more creative in what they do. They may spend work time making an alphabet book by cutting out pictures out of a magazine, and gluing them on to their alphabet book, or write responses to stories and other creative activities.

What would an ideal kindergarten classroom look like to you?

I would like to teach more social studies and science, because these subjects engage students. They want to know why the sun comes up, or how crayons are made. I would like more play time for these children, and more interest-based projects for them. I want them to develop a love for learning, and learn good social and emotional skills, like empathy and anger control. I want them to learn about breaking down stereotypes.

Emotional intelligence, critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity are not tested, so we don’t allot enough time for it in the day. As a parent of MPS children and a teacher in MPS this concerns me.

Is it possible to just not follow Focused Instruction?

There is pressure to teach the curriculum. We are told we have to teach it and I do.

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