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Classroom Mechanics Mon Dec 13 2010
This story was written by Yana Kunichoff.
Lara Lindh (not her real name) an early childhood education teacher at a public school on the Northwest side of Chicago in her early 30s, speaks slowly and deliberately. Her enunciation is effortlessly precise, as are her hand movements and color coordination. Her white blouse is covered with tiny bouquets of flowers that match the greenish-blue of her eyes and the mustard yellow of her upswept hair. She holds her left hand around her iced tea for the duration of our interview while gesturing, and punctuating, with her right. "Play is the work of children," she says.
Lindh is from Cincinnati and has been teaching for four years. Prior to getting her degree in early childhood education, she was a bartender and a political activist when she realized she wanted to go into a "caring profession." She says she considered becoming a pediatric nurse but went instead into teaching young children -- not entirely surprising for a woman who had a collection of over 6,000 children's storybooks before she even became a teacher. She was trained at Columbia College, one of the few schools in the country which teaches the Reggio Emilia approach, which seeks to build up the values of respect, responsibility and community through exploration and discovery, and Lindh swears by it.
She consistently refers to the students she teaches as "little personalities" or "little people," and on any one day Lindh says she will find herself in a room with up to 20 small personalities who may speak any mixtures of English, Spanish, Arabic or Polish. This explains why one of the books she brings with her to our meeting is The Black Book of Colors, a children's book entirely in black with no words but raised representations of sensations, such as feathers, meant to be experienced not through language but with the touch.
I'm lucky to teach in one of the few public schools in Chicago that is also embarking on an exploration of the Reggio approach in their early childhood classrooms but you know we're very limited by a few things that are happening in education. The way early childhood programs in Illinois are funded is through state funding, it's called Preschool for All. Five years ago there was a huge expansion of pre-school because the state was flush with cash, but today since the state budget crisis that's different. Year to year you just don't know if you're going to have a job, if your program is going to be open the next year. So that's how we are funded. We are part of the Chicago public schools so you know our buildings and all of that are supplied through mainstream funding.
In addition in Chicago some pre-school programs are funded through a federal program called Headstart, so funding is a constant issue for any public school teacher. I think its just really important that we begin to cut through -- and this is from Obama, this is from the right wing, Bush said this -- every politician when they begin to discuss education and pledge their support for education says its not just about money. Well that's very funny because you spent huge amounts of money on your own educations and your children's education. You know Obama sends his children to Sidwell Friends, 40,000 dollars a year plus education, which affords them tiny classes, wonderful materials, computer labs, science labs, teachers come and teach dance, you know, drama and all that kind of stuff.
Come on, don't tell me it's not about money. Let's get real. It's about money, and every teacher faces the same thing -- frustration around that in public education. We are demanded to do these amazing things, be these supermen, with no material supports.
There's another issue in early childhood education today that I think is also something that other teachers are facing, and its sort of newer for us but it's starting to reach into our realm and that is this testing craze, the accountability, right. They want teachers to be accountable for everything. Whether your children succeed and become doctors or whether they end up in the state penitentiary, that's up to you as a teacher -- you have the future of all these children in the palm of your hand. It's ludicrous. But anyway, it's all about you, and we need a way to measure you and hold you accountable and they're doing that through standardized testing, and they're pushing it to lower and lower grades, and so you have very high stakes testing for 8-year-olds.
In the Chicago public school system we now have even testing in pre-k. We have all kinds of screeners and assessments that we use, you'd be amazed at the schedule, basically every couple of month there's some new screen or assessment. So we do screeners when they first come in, you know, children need to be referred for special services. Frankly no test can tell you, that's all based on teacher observation, and teacher experience really makes a huge difference when is it something the child is going to grow out of in time, or is it a real learning difficulty. So it is different kinds of assessors that we use.
We have been using an assessor for anybody that says their home language isn't English to find out if they are gonna need services. So you spend a lot of time doing that assessment for all those kids, except there are no certified lingual services for pre-k, it's a voluntary program, so it's a wasted assessment and they're actually getting rid of it cause it wasn't age appropriate, the specific test they were using. So, you know, every time you do an assessment you're talking about major amounts of time being devoted in the classroom. But its not just time taken out of a teacher and a student's day, but they have to pilot these programs, they pay big money to figure it out. They then have to align all of the tests with the curriculum and other assessors, so this is huge business, and they pay somebody to print these things, and to produce these things.
This is big business in this country. This is where they're starting to assess us as teachers: there's something called the kindergarten readiness test for all of our children who are turning five and will be going into kindergarten. We have to give them a standardized test to see letter-sound awareness, there's mathematics and literacy as the two main areas. When I was in student teaching they were doing two different assessments in pre-k then, they were doing this Language Case 1 for ESL and bilingual students, and they were doing this other early tester to try and catch kids at risk. At that point we were using the assessor to try and get kids into the program -- the worse you did on the test, the higher up on the waiting list you moved. They don't do that anymore. So it used to be, I think, used for a good reason, to get kids at risk into school, into a program.
Again, the standardized testing cannot be separated from the drive to hold teachers accountable. And the problem is that we know every serious study shows us that what standardized test scores measure most in terms of children, what they tell us most about a child, is about what their parents income level is. They tell us a little bit about their struggles with reading and all the rest of it, but really what it's telling us is about their parents income. If you lay a map of the ISAT scores -- which is the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, it's given when children are 8 years old, it's the high stakes test, it can close a school down if these scores go up or down -- you lay a map of the city of Chicago, its neighborhoods down, and you lay the ISAT scores on top of that, where the scores are low and where they're high perfectly correlates to where the wealthier people in the city live. That's where the high scores are. Out where the poor kids live, the scores are lower. OK, so as a teacher, should I be held accountable, meaning should my pay be tied to that? Should my school go into some kind of probationary period where I can be fired with no warning? Should I somehow be punished for choosing to teach in a neighborhood where the kids have more learning challenges?
And being poor is a learning challenge. It means there's not going to be people around you who got access to higher education, there's not going to be as many books in your home, there is going to be struggles with finding good daycare and all those things that go into making a child ready to come to school and read. Good food, you know, happy home environment. Libraries, museums. The kids who have access to that show up at school ready to learn and the kids who don't, don't, and so teachers are dealing with a lot of other things.
The economic crisis has a huge impact on what's happening to the families. My school is in the northwest side of Chicago, it's a completely working-class community, and you know gangs are an issue and all that crime, all those things that go along with lower-income Chicago communities are represented in this neighborhood. In addition to that it's all immigrants neighborhoods, so people are dealing with immigration status issues, and feeling a lot of pressure and marginalization and fear related to the anti-immigrant politics going on today. There's a lot of food insecurity -- kids talk about being hungry, kids talk not eating, kids talk about "Daddy didn't get mommy any money this week," "We don't have any food at home," "My house is really cold," "The basement flooded and my bed got wet." Oh do you sleep on the floor? "Yeah, I sleep on the floor." You know, that's all the time.
I feel very grateful to be where I am now and at least there's some modicum of stability, I had a much harder time, I was working last year with a group of children two years ago who were impacted by HIV and AIDS, and basically most of those children were from the west and south side of Chicago and children of drug-addicted people and that was much worse. I mean, I am in a more stable neighborhood, most of my families do work, they have jobs, they're the working poor. You know, you can have two full-time workers in this economy and really struggle at the end of the month to meet bills, and we just had a lot of people laid off, and you have long-term unemployment issues, and it's a struggle in this economy. I think it's a struggle for immigrants and the working poor in any economy, and now they're really getting kicked. We have a very high foreclosure rate, a lot of kids moving a lot, sleeping in a living room between their parents, a lot of that kind of stuff going on right now too, which is stressful for anybody but for little people really stressful too.
What's your response when a four-year-old tells you he's hungry?
We have snacks that I keep in my locker if a child is genuinely hungry. If there are bigger food insecurity issues I can provide the scant knowledge that I have, but basically what I'm providing them is phone numbers for resources that are offered but already overtaxed. I can tell them where to get on SNAP and get food stamps but they're going to have to go down there and fight that bureaucracy and do that kind of stuff on their own. I can tell them which churches in the neighborhood give out food once a week but they're going to have to go wait in line and fight for that.
And it's humiliating, I think for a lot of families that's a humiliating thing, that a teacher of your child would be saying hey, you know, if you need help with food... I mean you feel really it's like being told you are not taking care of your kid and so that's a delicate issue for a teacher to talk to a parent about. It's not a pleasant thing to do that and so I only do that when I'm really worried about the child and his health. It's both great and really hard (to have more contact with the parents.) I think of, and all early childhood teachers really think of themselves, as working with families not just teaching a student. They come with their families. And you know I have a lot of families in my classroom who I have come into their classroom every day to sign their children in and I have always an activity at the beginning of the day that I ask the families to stay and help their child with and then I always encourage parents to stay as much as possible.
One because I can't do everything I want to do if I don't have their help [laughs], but it's also really difficult and I think in this political climate what's happening politically in terms of the crisis in education has been so successfully framed by our politicians as "teachers are to blame for it," right. It's a problem with teaching, it's not a crisis in education, it's not that our schools aren't funded properly, it's not that our curriculums need to be revamped, it's really about these lazy, incompetent teachers who only got the job to have summers off, right, that's who the problem is, and so I think that has impacted our families and teaching is one of these jobs where you know -- I have my boss, I have my head teacher, I actually have a lot of bosses, I have a head teacher who I actually have great respect for but she's my boss, and I have a principal, and I have the office of early childhood education which is its own entity inside cps, that has a lot of control on what we do day-to-day, but then I've also got families. And I'm telling you, they've seen Waiting for Superman, CPS bussed them out to see it, you know, you really begin to feel sometimes like everybody's your boss and if anybody went to school they think they could do it, especially the early childhood stuff they, think they could walk in and teach -- oh, I could teach a child to read, oh I could teach, you know, yeah, well it's a mistaken notion, I probably had similar fantasies before I actually began studying child development and actually had to walk in and teach and realize wow, this is something you really have to learn how to do, study deeply, and it's not an easy thing to do.
My approach to early childhood education is that it should be less didactic, less teaching distinct chunks of information and much more integrated and holistic. And really what I'm interested in doing is developing in young children a sense of themselves, a self-confidence to be the sorts of explorers and scientists and theoreticians and intellectuals that young children just are by nature.
That is part of our human nature, we come into the world wanting to know, observe and testing our environment all around us continually, that's how we learn language, by doing and touching and interacting and using it, it's how we learn everything we learn.
And I'm really interested in creating learning environment that help to deepen that confidence of children that they can interact with their environment in a way where they're going to get supported, and that their theories matter, that they matter, that their ideas about the world matter. They'll probably learn some letters and shapes and colors and numbers and all that, and how to use scissors, along the way, those are all nice little things to know, skills that are important to have, but the one thing I want them to come out with is, "I like school, I like me, I'm valued here, I can say what I think about the world and I can find out more about it here, it's safe for me to ask questions here."
Ms. Lindh requested anonymity on the grounds that she could face retribution, in particular for her criticisms of testing.
Yana Kunichoff is a fellow at Truthout.org.
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.
Classroom Mechanics is an oral history project aimed at giving voice to teachers around Chicago. For more information, see this post.