for the Kindergarten Show
By Jane Weinkrantz
Harley Avenue Primary School in Elwood cancelled its kindergarten show. Parents
of kindergarteners received a letter from the building administrators,
explaining the decision as follows, “We are responsible for preparing children
for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best
do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem
solvers…know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all
children in mind.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that after
the story went national, reasonable people everywhere were scandalized.
A petition on change.org demanding the show’s reinstatement yielded
3,999 signatures. Another calling for the reinstatement of the show and the
firing of those who cancelled it had 56 supporters. The district remained firm
and told parents the show would not go on. “It’s public speaking. It’s
singing. It’s feeling confident about yourself. I’m sad,” one parent told
CBS. I’m sad as well. I have a debt of gratitude to my son’s first grade
show and I hope that special night is a tradition that will endure in the face
of our nation’s misplaced educational priorities.
My son was diagnosed with a developmental
disability when he was three and a half. At five, he was placed in a combined
special needs kindergarten and first grade class with other children who had
similar issues. On the first day of school, Jake was so frightened that he hid
behind my skirt as I dropped him off. He did not speak in class until December.
His teachers and therapists were some of the kindest women I have ever
encountered. The principal knew Jake and she always had a smile and a kind word
for him as well. He made tremendous progress and returned to the same class in
first grade. He was still very quiet and shy, but I could tell that he was
thriving. Jake would come home and play school with me. I would be the entire
class and he would be his amazing teacher. Jake would modify my work based on
which classmate I was and what learning challenges I faced. However, the
district did not have a comparable class for second graders, so his comfort zone
was coming to an end. In second grade, there would be either a collaborative
class or out of district placement which was generally reserved for children
with more severe learning problems.
Thus, towards the end of first grade, Jake started
pushing in to a typical class for music, art and gym. This gave him the
opportunity to experience a class with 18 students, a teacher and an aide
instead of one teacher, one speech therapist and six classmates with multiple
one-on-one paraprofessionals. Initially, the transition was a little daunting,
but he became accustomed to it. That
spring, the typical class started rehearsing for the graduation show. This was a
real challenge for Jake who was still painfully shy and found amplified music
excruciating to his ears. He and his classmates were going to be a centipede
dancing a kickline to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” He practiced,
I purchased his requisite black T-shirt, black shorts and black bowler hat,
crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.
Once backstage on the night of the show, Jake was
consumed with paralyzing fear. He was not a tantrum-y kind of child, but he
refused to go on. His classmates gathered around him and offered words of
encouragement. They told him he was their friend, that he could do it, that he
was part of the class and that they believed in him. Those little five- and
–a- half and six- year-olds did what Jake’s parents and his teachers could
not do. They convinced him to go out in front of about 100 people and dance and
kick while singing “New York, New York.”
I am not exaggerating when I say that there was not a dry eye in the
audience among those who knew Jake. Even the principal was weeping.
Was that show not worth more than anything Pearson
could ever dream of ? Was the experience of practicing as a group and then
presenting a finished performance together not something those kids would use
for the rest of their lives? Were the lessons my child learned about taking
risks and accepting the support of others not worthy of his time and attention?
Was the experience of seeing their own positive encouragement boost a
classmate’s confidence not important to his peers?
Didn’t Jake also learn that he should
support others when they feel frightened? Was the expectation that their class
would be inclusive to peers with learning differences not something vital that
their teacher had taught them?
Current education reform is making experiences like
these a thing of the past. Play,
imagination, music and art are considered frivolous indulgences that our
children can’t afford if they want to be “college and career ready.” We
are in the process of building a mensch-less
society. As far as I can tell, the reformers won’t mind raising a generation
of children who won’t care about kids who are scared or shy, who won’t know
how to work together as a group, who won’t understand empathy and compassion,
and whose teachers won’t have had the time or opportunities to engage them in
activities where this type of character building is possible. Maybe our scores
on the international PISA tests will go up or maybe they won’t. But, will our
kids be “college and career ready” when all they’ve learned is that
test-taking, competition and rigor are the only measures of them that matter?
What about decency, warmth, compassion, bravery and integrity? What about
just having some fun? Let’s face it. Sometimes, no matter how old you are, you
need to kick your legs in the air to Frank Sinatra with 17 of your closest
friends. We can’t let our kids forget that.
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