When did you learn to tell time? Or the order of the months in the year? How about your own birthday? Was it before the 6th grade?
I thought so.
Each year, I teach our new 6th grade students to use a computerized reading program called Accelerated Reader. This program requires the kids to log into an account after reading a book in order to take a short comprehension quiz. To log in, they need to know how to write their birthdays numerically. 6 numbers. 2 for the month, 2 for the day, 2 for the year. No slashes, no dashes.
This ends up being REALLY hard for about half of the 6th graders each and every year. One big issue is that they don't all know how to assign a number to the months. In this case, I'll say something like, "Let's start counting then, January being #1. So, what comes after January?" Often the kid will catch on right away, but now and again I will get a blank stare. There I am, holding up two fingers, my lips poised in an almost-F, front teeth sticking out on top of my lower lip, ffff-ing a little to help them along. But the blank stare continues until I hear a meak, nearly whispered, "March?" or "April?"
No. It's February, kids. February comes next.
Another obstacle is this:
I ask, "So, what's your birthday?"
They say, "1998."
"Well, ok, that's the year, but what about the month and the day?"
Sometimes, I do not kid, they do not know. Other times they know the month and day, but not the year. This I can sort of understand. The former sort of implies they may never have celebrated a birthday, which is really too bad.
In any classroom, there is always (ALWAYS!) material that slips through the cracks for one reason or another. A fire drill, state testing, prolonged illness, unexpected anything. Yet some things are repeated, year after year, especially in elementary school, so that the students are given every opportunity to figure them out. Nevertheless, each year there are plenty of 6th graders who do not seem to be able to:
- tell time
- capitalize the beginning of a sentence, or a proper noun
- use end punctuation
- name the months of the year
- spell the word library (libery is not a fruit!)
- spell their last names (yikes!)
- tell me their birthdays
- tell me their phone numbers (safety be damned)
In order to understand this, I took a look at the content standards for elementary school. These are the guidelines the state sets for what each grade level should be learning. I have to say, I think these standards are much more accelerated than when I was a pup.
Kindergarten students are expected to locate the title, table of contents, name of author, and name of illustrator. Huh. I wonder why? But, ok.
Oh, yes. Here it is. Kindergarten students will "Name the days of the week." and "Identify the time (to the nearest hour) of everyday events (e.g., lunch time is 12 o’clock; bedtime is 8 o’clock at night)." Hallelujah!
In 1st grade, we strike gold again, for they must: "Use a period, exclamation point, or question mark at the end of sentences; Use knowledge of the basic rules of punctuation and capitalization when writing; Capitalize the first word of a sentence, names of people, and the pronoun I". Ha! So they learn these things in KINDERGARTEN and the FIRST grade. Five- six years of practice seems like a lot, but perhaps the rocket science of proper nouns and periods takes longer to brew in the average child brain?
In second grade, things get really serious. Maybe there's just no time to reinforce the basics anymore, because it's on to the kind of academic rigor that will prepare them for whatever lies ahead. These little 7-year old darlings should "use knowledge of the author’s purpose(s) to comprehend informational text", "Determine the purpose or purposes of listening (e.g., to obtain information, to solve problems, for enjoyment)", and.....ok, enough.
But wait, a 2nd grade student should also:
- "Explain how the United States and other countries make laws, carry out laws, determine whether laws have been violated, and punish wrongdoers";
- "Describe the ways in which groups and nations interact with one another to try to resolve problems in such areas as trade, cultural contacts, treaties, diplomacy, and military force";
- "understand basic economic concepts and their individual roles in the economy and demonstrate basic economic reasoning skills";
- "Describe food production and consumption long ago and today, including the roles of farmers, processors, distributors, weather, and land and water resources"
....no really. ENOUGH! I CAN"T TAKE IT ANYMORE!
Why are we doing this to our little sweeties? And WHY are we doing this to ourselves?
Does a 7-year old child need to know the ways groups and nations interact with one another to try to resolve problems MORE than s/he needs to know that May comes before October? I think the LA Times has missed its mark with all of these articles about how much we teachers suck. And these parents who feel their children need to wait until age 6 for kindergarten, well No Wonder! This stuff is brutal.
My schooling went like this:
In Mrs. Bean's class I made a drawing of an ear of corn using the letter 'C' as the kernels in order to learn to write my letters. (I also made artwork using Q-tips dipped in bleach, but no teacher is perfect.)
In first grade I learned to write my letters, ate my first pomegranate, played with snake skins, and got my first F.
In second grade I made a gen-u-wine Indian village out of clay, listened to Mrs. Williams read Charlotte's Web and Where the Red Fern Grows out loud after lunch, and wrote a story called "Bats, Bats, Spooky Bats".
In third grade I was in charge of passing out milk tickets before lunch.
In fourth grade I read Judy Blume's Are You There God It's Me Margaret? four times.
In fifth grade I made the aforementioned model of Nicaragua.
In sixth grade, months and time-telling would have been a laughable problem should any of my classmates have admitted ignorance on these subjects. Probably I learned those things in 1st or 2nd grade, like the California kids now are supposed to do. When I think about my niece (who is four), I am convinced that she could learn anything thrown at her. The real question is, what would I LIKE her to learn in the next few years? To tell time, certainly. The months of the year, absolutely. As for the rest? I think I'd go for things like: working in groups, planning ahead, using a library, staying organized, asking clarifying questions, etiquette, loving to read, creative writing, and other strategy and process-based things, rather than content that will inevitably be repeated at every level throughout her education. Of course, processes cannot be taught in a vacuum; some content must be added in order to make it work. ARG! This is HARD!
In the end, I have no idea why these kids can't tell time or name the months of the year. Or why they haven't yet mastered concepts that were first introduced to them in kindergarten. Or why they've had five teachers since then who have either tried and failed or not tried at all to teach them these things. I also have no idea why the state of California thinks it's a super great idea to pack all this crazy content into the 2nd and 3rd grades. Somehow, these things seem to be at odds, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how to make sense of it. Where is the problem? What is the solution? I just don't think anyone knows, nor do I think anyone has ever known. Maybe that's why education is such a tricky business. And maybe it's also why I love it.