Requiem for the Kindergarten Show

By Jane Weinkrantz

5/19/2014

 

Recently, the 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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