"Every time I get a new package of test booklets, I feel like burning them up," says Amy Gutowski, a third-grade teacher in Milwaukee.
Her students take a weeklong state exam in November, as well as four quarterly assessment tests. The testing itself doesn't bother Gutowski, who says, "Testing is fine, if it's done well." Instead, it's the way that it forces her to run her classroom that drives her crazy. Take this recent example: Gutowski's class was deep into Charlotte's Web, but they had to cut the lesson short. "The kids were dying to know what was going to happen, but we had to start prepping for an assessment and memorize lists of vocabulary words, such as 'crop rotation,' just because they were on the test," says Gutowski. "When we were reading Charlotte, their heads were in the book, they were talking about their feelings and the words they love. It was electric. As soon as we pulled out the test workbook, they shut down. The way we have to teach is anti-kid, anti-learning and just plain boring."
As every parent knows, when kids are having fun, information sticks. Yet fun is precisely what's missing from many of today's classrooms. "Kids spend much less time learning through play and exploration, and a lot more time sitting still, listening to teachers lecture or being tested. It's ineffective," says Ed Miller, cofounder of the Alliance for Childhood, in College Park, MD. In fact, on a typical day, many kindergartners spend four to six times as long being instructed and tested in literacy and math than they do in free play or choice time—and some have no free play at all, according to surveys of 254 kindergarten classes done by the alliance. And that's a problem. A big one. Teachers and education experts nationwide helped us get a better handle on what else is sucking the joy out of school for our kids, and, more importantly, to learn what can be done to bring it back.
Today's kids are taught to read, write and do math at an earlier age than ever before. That may seem like a good thing—but developmentally inappropriate teaching techniques can destroy a child's self-worth right along with his love of learning, says Susan Newman, an educational therapist in Evanston, IL. "I work with one boy who was forced to write in kindergarten despite his academic immaturity and poor fine motor skills," she says. "He developed extreme writing anxiety, which has continued. Now he is a bright child in fourth grade, but he still hates to write, he gets depressed about his school performance, and he's on medication."
It's stories like these that make you wonder if the people who set educational policy have ever even stepped inside a classroom, says Kelly Gallagher, a veteran reading teacher and author of Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It. "For the state to insist that a five-year-old should be able to read a certain number of words is ridiculous," says Gallagher. "Some kids can, and a lot of kids can't. Learning to read doesn't happen in artificial steps. For most kids, the light comes on all at once, but only when they're ready. In the meantime, the kids who can't do it on schedule can feel like failures." It would be one thing if experts could say, Well, the kids might struggle for a little bit and sure, they might be a little bored, but they still come out ahead in the end. The thing is, they don't. Studies show that by fourth grade, the children who were rushed into reading and other academics are no further ahead than those who were allowed to play and ease into those skills. By high school, kids who learn to read this way have often abandoned books entirely, says Gallagher. "In chasing test scores, we are literally killing kids' love of reading."
Refusing to give in
Fortunately, even in schools where scores are king, there are compassionate teachers who close the classroom door and sneak in some excitement. Christopher Smith, a kindergarten teacher in Corte Madera, CA, doesn't force his students to form letters with pencils if they're not there yet—he encourages them to use play dough instead. "They learn the letters and feel good about themselves," he says. And to counteract dull test-prep vocabulary, Gutowski started what she calls a "Wow Word Wall," where the kids write fun words they've found so the class can learn them together.
At the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, a K-12 magnet program in Tennessee, teachers plan carefully to avoid worksheets and lectures. In fact, they make sure that 80 percent of all learning is active learning, which means that kids are moving around, exploring and interacting with one another. " We don't force-feed information. Instead, we ask questions and have them make their own connections between their world and what they are learning," explains elementary school teacher Marilyn Griffith. "I'll ask: 'What are some cool facts about a ladybug or the difference between the inner and outer planets in the solar system?' The students do research, hands-on projects, and then teach each other. These are exactly the kinds of skills they'll need later in life."
Getting boys engaged
When you think of class clowns or troublemakers, who springs to mind? Boys, we bet. They can't sit still. They goof off. They can't (or choose not to) stay on task. But none of this is necessarily entirely their fault, says Peg Tyre, a mother of two sons and the author of The Trouble With Boys. "Boys aren't really allowed to be boys in the classroom," she says. "Schools have pathologized their natural interests and so discourage them from writing about 'violent' topics such as superheroes. They're told to replace that sword with a wand. This sends the message that their true selves aren't acceptable at school." No wonder they start to think of school as girly and disengage.
A few years ago, when Douglass Elementary in Boulder, CO, discovered that their girls were consistently outperforming their boys, teachers decided to take a closer look at their teaching methods. "Passive learning with a ton of worksheets just wasn't doing it," says Linda Taht, a fourth-grade teacher for the past 14 years. "Boys perform better when we use active strategies in the classroom. Yes, they 've got to learn their multiplication facts, but it goes much more quickly when we ditch the flash cards and teach a rap song about them instead." Taht also allows boys lots of leeway to be who they are. "I encourage them to write about whatever interests them," she says. "They're guaranteed to write more that way." If she has any concerns, she speaks to the child's parents before limiting him. The results of such strategies are impressive: After just one year, the school closed the achievement gap between boys and girl and everyone is performing better.
Another guaranteed way to get kids excited about learning: "Bring technology into the classroom," says David Markus, editorial director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation and a member of Parenting's Mom Congress advisory board. Parents and teachers often see technology as a distraction and a threat to learning, he says, but it's time to embrace it. "It's something kids already love, so you've got instant engagement and research shows that technology is highly effective in helping children retain information. Plus, using technology to do research and present ideas is a skill they're definitely going to need to be competitive in the workplace."
Markus isn't just talking about playing math games on the computer. Using technology as an educational tool can go—and has gone—way beyond that. In Miriam Longobardi's first-grade class at Roaring Brook School in Chappaqua, NY, students can hardly wait for their turn at an amazing piece of teaching technology called the SMART Board. An interactive four by three-foot computer screen activated by touch, the SMART Board is like a blackboard on steroids and Longobardi finds it useful in teaching almost everything. "It combines traditional methods with elements of fun and play," she explains. "I'll put up letters on the board and the kids can use their fingers to drag them together and make a word. And when learning to count, they can 'clone' a penny as many times as they want to reach a certain total." What's great is that SMART Boards reach kids who need to be physical, kids who are visual learners, and even those who are auditory learners because it responds when they get the right answer, Longobardi says. "And kids just think it's cool so they pay more attention."
Across the country at Central Elementary in Escondido, CA, fourth-grade teacher Heather Peterson is part of iRead, a pilot program that uses the iPod Touch to improve reading skills. Students record themselves reading and then listen to their voices; the practice helps fluency, the ability to read sentences quickly while understanding the underlying meaning. And data shows it's working: These students gain three to six times the normal amount of fluency in just six weeks. Within six months, kids gain more than two years of growth in reading comprehension. "Deep learning occurs when there is the ability for the learner to reflect and receive immediate feedback," says Peterson. Her bottom line: "Not only have I seen an immense improvement in skills, but I also have way fewer behavioral problems. The kids want to be here, and they are excited to learn. In the end, that's what really counts."