Re-Thinking the Entire Curriculum
If it ain't workin', then fix it
If you believe the news about education (you probably shouldn't) America is failing in almost every category when it comes to comparing our students to their contemporaries around the world. We're behind in reading and math, and not just reading, but skills associated with reading like comprehension and recall.
There are a number of factors that affect this, such as the fact that Mississippi is included in our national stats (sorry, Deep South, but we don't educate our kids very well, but we're also pretty poor...) and the fact that our education system, having been meddled with by politicians and morons, is in a helluva state.
We need to fix it. Our curriculum, as it stands, is not designed for the success of students. It's designed for their failure. We're pushing more and harder content to lower and lower grades. I would not be surprised to see a push to get pre-K reading before they even get into Kindergarten.
There are a huge number of problems with this, not the least of which is that these students aren't ready for the content. I'll admit that I'm not a child psychologist, nor do I have a degree in developmental or educational psychology, but I can tell you from my on-the-ground experience with kids that the pace we are setting for school, and what we're expecting from our students is unrealistic.
In Kindergarten, kids are expected to be able to write a short paragraph when it comes down to it. Students are expected to tell, write, or draw a series of loosely connected events and the reaction to that event. That's going to take a few sentences. Many students come to Kindergarten having had no background with text at all, either from parents who are too busy or uninterested in helping with literacy for their student, or, because unavailability of print in the home.
In a single year we're expecting some kids to go from completely illiterate to being able to tell a short story. This is a lot of work for students to engage in, especially for something that does not come naturally.
Writing and reading are unnatural. Though many of us love to do both, there are hundreds of thousands of years where humanity got along without reading or writing. Certainly it's useful for all the things that we know they are useful for: recording information, history, sending messages, etc....But reading and writing are a skill that have to be taught, and they're not easy, particularly in English which is a bastardized language to begin with, with inconsistent rules and a plethora of figurative language that can be very difficult to unravel.
And we expect a 5 year old to do this?
HERE is a link to the Japanese national curriculum for Kindergarten level students circa 2011. There is great focus on students learning about language, about how to be in touch with one's feelings and how to express oneself. There is emphasis on self-fulfillment, empathy, and satisfaction with life. How to be self-sufficient and happy. How to contribute to the environment of the classroom.
These are things that are developmentally appropriate for children. While the Japanese curriculum mentions language and writing, it emphasizes the relationship of the students to the written word, in finding enjoyment in the written word and expression, in the satisfaction of being able to express oneself and listen to others.
The curriculum used emphasizes a love of language and having a satisfying relationship with it. We need that. Our children need it. So many of my students come to me hating writing and reading, and I believe that it's because they're hitting the books at 5 years old and grilled over the events and characters, and the main idea. These are standards for tiny adults, not for children.
The curriculum, as taught in America, needs a change. We lament the fact that everyone is for themselves and not happy with their lives. Relationships are falling apart, and our kids are glued to phones. They have no love of the written word. (I do have students that are readers, but they're the exception.)
ALL RIGHT, MR. HEWITT. THE CURRICULUM IS WRONG. HOW WOULD YOU FIX IT?
I'm glad you asked.
At the K and Pre-K age, we need to focus on teaching students on how to get along with one another. I love the Japanese emphasis on listening and citizenship, on learning to love stories and language, on being active and happy. To seek fulfillment. Our students, it seems to me, don't know how to be kids anymore. They don't know how to get along with each other nicely and they don't know how to compromise or work out problems.
Demographics play a huge role in this, but so does curriculum. We've eliminated recess and free time, destroyed physical activity and the pursuits of other, fulfilling goals outside of sports. Many schools lack art and music education. What could possibly be more human than music and art? Beautiful things created from the aether by the human mind as an expression of the human experience are amazing and incredibly fulfilling.
We need to tear down the current thinking about reading and writing.
Pre-K, K, and 1st grade should be dedicated to mind-body awareness, the feelings of self and others, working together, listening and engaging one's curiosity, managing relationships, citizenship, self-discipline. Teach students how to be human, encourage their inventiveness with open ended toys in the classroom and encourage their curiosity and desire to learn about the world around them by taking them outside and letting them ask questions about what they see, hear, and feel. We need to expose children to the world and its contents, and to the wonders of language. Our children should listen to good music and hear good stories. They should be encourage to explore and build relationships to text, music, and other artifacts of culture.
By the end of 1st grade, I think that most students would have a self-starting desire to learn about the written word. Most children have this if you start reading to them early. They want to learn to do it for themselves. This should be encouraged! However, we shouldn't try to force a relationship to the written word. I think it would blossom naturally from a text and language-rich world for them to explore.
Shoot for complete literacy by the end of third grade, and encourage reading for pleasure! Students in the primary grades need social skills, the other stuff will come later when they're fulfilled in that sphere. Basic arithmetic and so on should be taught starting around 2nd grade.
We wonder why citizens in the US feel so detached from their government, and it's because we teach them about it instead of having them participate. Instead, students and faculty should be out and in the community, helping to clean and learn about the way government works. Have them visit city hall and talk to the mayor. Have them visit the people who run the community and see what it takes. Encourage children to be involved in the lives around them in their community! As students get older, more able to understand the size and scope of the government in its role, then we can start teaching it to them.
Did you know that in third grade social studies the types of columns in ancient Greece are a standard? Why is that a standard for 3rd graders?
I'm all over the place here, so let me try to put it more efficiently:
Pre-K to 1st grade - Self-awareness, listening and speaking skills, working together, self-discipline, develop a relationship and love of language, encouraging a strong relationship with nature and inquisitive minds.
2nd-5th grade - LOCAL civics, basic arithmetic, literacy, "backyard" science. Encourage exploration of the written word and the world around them. Trying out career type classes (just the very basics!)
6th to 8th - Now we can start looking at career and life readiness. Start seeing where children have interests and aptitudes, and start funneling them that way. Students need to be exposed to everything! So let's do that! Have the kids fit pipes, weld, woodwork, mill, metal work, all that good stuff. But also, let's start encouraging writing, singing, painting, and other cultural pursuits. Let the kids who will make great plumbers and electricians start now to see what they think.
High School - Practical education, more advanced stuff. I think now students are old enough to have the foundation for understanding history. The history of the US and our cultural traditions can now be understood by more advanced students and thus the education is more meaningful to them. Certainly these concepts should be introduced earlier in the students' careers so they have passing name familiarity, but then, at this level, let's get them on the more advanced stuff and by God let's make it interesting. Tell the STORIES of the Native Americans, tell the stories of the pioneers and the Founding Fathers. There's so much richness to history it's terrible that we gloss it over as boring.
Another aspect of high school would be college and career readiness. Put the kid who likes to program with a kid who likes to build things and have them learn CAD together and design something. They'll both benefit greatly. Get the kids on college track ready for college, not only in content, but also in life skills.
The fact of the matter is, right now, we're teaching students a curriculum that is stifling their creative natures, stifling their love of learning and curiosity. We're teaching to tests that don't mean anything to anyone other than Pearson and ETS, who make the money off the sweat and tears of our kids.
Let's eliminate state testing, and restructure the curriculum from top to bottom to teach kids how to be people, how to appreciate and interact with beautiful art and language, how to be empathetic and involved, and, yes, academic skills. But not too quickly.
They need time to be kids first.