“May”-be Elementary Schools Need More Excitement and Less Homework and Fences

It has taken until May for my kids’ school to, finally, provide the care-free elementary school experience I remember having.

Between the recent 50’s themed dress-up day, the let-up of the previously endless worksheets coming home and the flyers publicizing future class parties, I am finally feeling like my kids are delighted to go to school.

Viviana, age 6, dressed up in '50's attire (May, 2016)

Viviana, age 6, dressed up in ’50’s attire (May, 2016)

My Good-Bad Dad reaction to seeing my kids’ new-found exuberance is somewhere in the middle of wanting to join my kids in skipping into the classroom and wanting to stop the car drop-off line in protest.

Part of me wants to scream, “YES!  They love school again.”

Another part of me wants to yell in the direction of the Administration Office, “WHAT TOOK SO LONG!”

My kids don’t loathe school but they haven’t absolutely loved it either.  The combination of  focus on standardized testing, the lack of fostered creativity in the classroom and the absence of unstructured “kid” time are just not as enjoyable as my experience in grade school was.

If you drop a child off at school, the all-work, no-fun culture is evident.

The school day begins by parents and kids being locked out of the premises until a first bell rings.  Before the first bell tolls, the school grounds seem like a vacant fortress.

As I wait for the various gates to be unlocked, I think about my Cleveland Elementary days nostalgically.  I would get to the wide-open campus early to play pick-up basketball with my buddies.

There was no supervision and no institutional rules.  The games were informal and fun but competitive.  They required a self-governing quality that held us accountable for keeping the peace without a teacher ensuring that we did so.

Those days are gone.

Once the fortress is opened and the kids have filed in, their day is scheduled meticulously from beginning to end.  The school’s aim seems more focused on preparing classes to take assessment tests and fulfilling the requirements of the assigned curriculum than about safe-guarding a kid’s initial love for learning.  Maintaining an “A” rating trumps establishing a baseline of excitement around school for youngsters.

Thankfully, along came the month of  May and everything has changed in my household.

The pressure valve has been released.  My kids are suddenly bursting out the door to head to their school with their energy level spiked – not zapped.

Schools should learn from this.

Keeping the learning energy high could involve the following ways to think about helping kids love to learn:

  1.  Put an end to homework.  Before I get the “Worst Parent” award, hear me out.  I find the worksheets sent home with my kids to be little more than a test of whether or not they are breathing during today’s lesson.  If the school can accept the fact that all kids are over-burdened and over-managed, why can we not loosen the reins on structured homework?  Instead, assigning enrichment activities (volunteering, picking up neighborhood trash, mandating outdoor play, finding unique leaves or critters in the yard, taking a creature walk, etc.) might be a more curiosity-spawning alternative.  Young learners pounding out worksheets feels like a brain-dead exercise of extending today’s math lesson to me.
  1. We should re-examine the trade-off of security and open access to facilities.  I call for a school to become more like a community center and less like a medieval fortress.   I see nothing wrong with opening up the playgrounds, turning on the lights to the grass-covered ball field, and putting nets on the basketball hoops.  Welcome current, former and future students onto campus to see their tax dollars at work – and, conversely, to see where more communal support is needed.  Show everyone what they are contributing to when my son asks them to buy a magazine subscription or an over-priced roll of Christmas wrapping paper.
  1. Classes should be allowed to celebrate and take breaks at a teacher’s discretion.  A teacher should never have a quota of classroom parties.  There should be nothing wrong with taking a 15-minute break or a quick stroll outside to break up a mundane Tuesday afternoon.  Re-introduce hugs and high-fives for a job well done – allowing a teacher to convey to their students that they have a personal interest in their success.  Empower teachers to own their classroom.

Whether you disagree with my solutions above – they are conceptually similar.  If elementary school is a drag to a 7 year-old, middle school will be a nuisance and high school will be agonizing.

I want to see my kids as excited to go to class in October as they are right now in May.  They should come home and talk over each other when I ask, “What new things did you learn?”

Learning is more than taking tests.

Maintaining order is more than students standing on painted lines.

Success is more than getting a good grade.

“May” the school-fun persist – for the good of my kids.

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One Comment

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