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  • fedevecchi

Back to School Blues

This year I am once again falling short of my unrealistic dream of having all three kids happy about going back to school. Not that I think they will ever be as happy as I am on these occasions… but, I don’t even seem to be able to accurately predict who is going to be happy and who is not on any given year anymore.

Not to worry… they are very clear about their feelings once we get closer to crunch time. And even if they weren’t so painfully and verbally clear, it wouldn’t be a hard guess: this year, the one that morphed into a human sandbag when it was time to get out of bed on the first day (the same one that popped up at the crack of freaking dawn all summer long), who I had to coax to put on one sock… then the other… then to locate shoes… and to put them on… was, surprise surprise, NOT thrilled to start up school again. The one who, despite three outfit changes, was completely dressed and donning a back pack a full hour before the bus was even scheduled to be in our general vicinity, and was pacing back and forth trying to decide the perfect moment to exit the house, was raring to get back to a routine and to see friends.

I won’t even try to pin down the emotions of the one leaving the nest at this juncture, because she still needs to pack… nay, unpack from her summer, THEN pack for college and I am afraid that if I get too close to that emotional roller coster, I may be flattened by a runaway car (the girl goes from “Mom, can you help me with this?”…all cuddly and sweet to “I’M NOT GOING TO MISS THIS AT ALL!” …claws out and spikes up, faster than I can say… well, faster than I can even think anything.) Hey… I am on a blood thinner. I need to be mindful of the wounds I might sustain. I’ll get back to her once we get through that storm and she is happily settled in her dorm.

In the meantime, My Sun and Little Man have just started a new school year, so my focus has been on helping them (us) with their (our) new routines, while discovering the novel and exciting challenges they (we) will face this year… some of which were definitely NOT on my radar as potential challenges. (The parenthesized words indicate that I am not quite fully in denial of my mandatory participation in any drama.)

“Mamma, I am EXHAUSTED,” Little Man says after the first day of school. “We had to change classrooms SO MANY TIMES.” (The last part is stated with EACH WORD emphasized, so that the audience [me] properly understands the horror of it all.)

“Well, Sweetie, they are trying to prepare you for middle school, where you will have to change classrooms even more often.”

(Cue horrified expression… at my obvious lack of sympathy.)

“I don’t like it! I don’t want to go back. It’s EXHAUSTING.” (in case I did not hear that part the first time around).

OK… I know that Little Man is a creature of habit and that he has never been the “seamless change” poster boy, but I did go to orientation with him… and the farthest classroom he has to go to is like three doors down. Not to sound like the bitter old person who talks about having to walk 5 miles to, then from, school every day… in the snow… uphill both ways, but I had a freaking morning paper route before school every morning starting at the age of 11 (a mere 6 months away for him) and we did, in fact, live at the top of a very steep neighborhood!

Anyhow, after getting over the initial surprise at this being his main complaint (I kind of thought he would like changing classrooms, because he would get to move around and burn off some nervous energy between classes. My bad), assuring him that he will survive the changing of the rooms, and digging a little deeper, I realized that it was not really about changing classes.

He feels inadequate and is certain that he is not up to the task of being a 5th grader. He is terrified that he will fail. This saddens me to the very core. I remember being worried about a lot of things going into my last year of elementary school (which for me was 4th grade), but it was more about who would or wouldn’t be in my class and if my teacher/s would be nice or give lots of homework (yes, it was a binary choice back then).

True academic anxiety didn’t really hit me until high school, when counselors started sizing us up with those stupid career assessment tests (yes… I said, or rather typed, “stupid” because I personally know peers who were steered away from higher education, not because they wanted something different or because they excelled in other areas, but because the test had deemed them incapable of pursuing higher education. These same peers then became successful professionals with degrees, sometimes decades later… and still remember the feeling of being told that their choices were limited. So, obviously, at least in their cases, those tests, which could not possibly measure passion, or drive, or resilience… were crap). But I digress.

Anxiety levels in our kids are rising… starting at younger ages… and there are many studies out there that name academic pressure as one main cause for this trend. Not just academic pressure, in general, but academic pressure inappropriately applied to children at inappropriate ages and at inappropriate levels. The thing is, I have been reading for years now about studies concluding that young kids need more time to play in order to be better learners; that early exposure to Art and Music has major and lasting positive effects on the brain; that over-testing with standardized tests takes time away from these and other important areas of learning and adds undue stress; that tying school funding and teacher evaluations to these standardized tests pushes teachers to teach solely to the test and even, in extreme cases… to try to game the system. I see these studies cited over and over again, but have seen few changes and many times in the complete opposite direction. It is tiring.

Not that academic pressure is the only factor. Do you remember when you were younger and could act like a total goof with your friends, say stupid things, and make silly mistakes without worrying that you might be recorded by a device somewhere and “go viral”? Well, our kids won’t be able to. If I had ever expressed such a concern to my parents in the 70s or 80s, it would have rightly been cause for concern about my mental well-being. Now, we actually have to warn our kids that anything they do that could be recorded (even just by friends being silly) can become a part of their social media foot print and come back to haunt them.

Do you remember that time back in the 70s or 80s that you went back-to-school shopping and picked out that really cool bullet resistant book bag that matched your Scooby-Doo thermos? No? My Moon told me the other day that she was worried that some of her classmates were too loud during lock-down drills.

“What if they’re too loud when there’s a real shooter? It’ll attract attention and we don’t have a closet in that room!”

First… let us just take a moment to digest the fact that she said “when”.

Each of these problems fuels the rise in anxiety. Each needs to be addressed. When it comes to the academic side of our kids’ lives though, can we, perhaps, apply the information that we have gleaned from countless years of studies (if not… why even do the studies?) and back the hell off them a little with the constant testing and assessing and labeling, especially so early in their school careers? I mean… compared to the other two issues, this one seems like it should be a fairly easy fix (and PS there are more than enough of us to be able to multi-task and address the other two, as well).

Maybe we should think of the younger years of education as a time for kids to learn to love the very process of learning, and to slowly and securely build up the stamina and skills they need to prepare for higher and more complicated levels of learning later on… instead of already expecting them to know how to read before they even make their first kindergarten friend. Maybe, we can take back some of the time they spend drilling for and taking assessment tests in class… so that they can also work on social skills and then, perhaps, build up their knowledge so there is actually something to assess. Maybe, if we did all this there would not be so many kids burning out before they even get through high school. Eighteen is not even a third of the way through the average lifespan (which is also on the decline, by the way).

When you have a kid who is not what I would call a linear learner, schooling with constant assessment exams can be even more frustrating. For example, when Little Man was in the second grade it often went a little like this:

How in the hell do you know how to write the word “pterodactyl”… but the word “become” keeps throwing you off? You know “be” and you know “come”! Stick those two suckers together!!! (in my head).

Out loud: what I hope passes off as a patient sigh and, “Ok… let’s try that word again, Sweetie.” …followed by plans to hack into the standardized test system to permanently substitute the word “become” with “pterodactyl”.

How do you assess that on bubble answer sheets? Obviously the kid could spell and read things that held his interest!

Standardized tests can’t measure a child’s state of mind at the time they are testing… or how much sleep they got the night before… or how nervous they are at the moment. Standardized tests also don’t measure innovative, out of the box (or out of the bubble), thinking. Trust me, there are times when one of my kids throws an answer, thought, or idea at me that makes me furrow my brow and scratch my head. Then, after they explain, I can totally see where they are coming from and understand the reasoning that got them there. Do you know who else can assess and evaluate a student in these and pretty much any other case? A good teacher! Not only, but a good teacher (and not bubbles on a piece of paper or a screen) can also inspire kids to want to learn.

The world needs more of this kind of teacher! …and maybe I should change Little Man to Literal Man.

I am not saying that kids should never be tested in school, but with the average students of larger city schools taking around 112 mandatory standardized tests between the start of pre-K and the end of high school (about eight tests a year) [Lewis, Katherine Reynolds. “Standardized testing hits a nerve.” n.p. 8/8/2016. 8/14/19.] … and with Little Man as a third grader having taken 5 standardized tests himself in the last school he attended (not in a city)… perhaps we could scale it back a tad.

Also, as parents, we need to remind ourselves that those numbers that appear in those official looking report packets, complete with colorful bar graphs and pie charts DO NOT define who our children are. Now, this part may sound obvious, but it is human nature to want our children’s evaluations… no matter the source… to be positive.

I am as guilty as anyone of this. For example, this is our second year in our new school, having moved a little over a year ago. When Little Man came home from his first day the other day, he handed me the results of last year’s standardized test (YAY! Only ONE!). I immediately became flustered when I saw some problem areas glaring up at me in bright yellow, along with the suggestion that we prepare him over the summer so he could be successful in the next grade (the 5th grade… his current grade).

WHAT THE HELL??? WHY DID I NOT GET THIS AT THE END OF LAST YEAR? I wondered, as I clenched my teeth together and paced back and forth. IF I HAD KNOWN, I COULD HAVE…

And that’s when it hit me that I had actually been informed about his problem areas, by his TEACHER… and that we had worked on them over the summer. Nothing in this little packet was news to me. Not only, but the little packet had nothing in it about the fact that in certain settings, he had done better than in others, and that the teacher had found that his reading comprehension improved greatly when he was reading about nature and science… his passions. I filed the packet away.

The over-emphasis on testing is also warping the idea that our children form about school and why they are there. What are we asking them to learn and to earn? Should we be asking them to memorize a bunch of facts that they will then regurgitate into little bubbles on a screen or sheet in order to earn rewards (high scores in pretty colors, and ribbons)? Or… should we be asking them to learn to think and to reason for themselves even if there is no clear answer in the end; to apply the knowledge they acquire; to find solutions that might not fit into a bubble… in order to ultimately earn something more than a grade: the ability to be self-reliant, innovative critical thinkers once they are out of school?

I may never see them all happy about heading back to school, but my hope is to see each of them, with their different personalities and learning styles, gain the skills and knowledge they need to pursue the goals and passions they choose. That… and maybe the energy to change classes without falling into total EXHAUSTION.

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