April 22, 2005

Elementary Morning

Walking to school this morning, certain fourth–graders are wearing pajamas and carrying blankets and stuffed animals. It’s Pajama Day: they’ll sit in a circle on the floor, have milk and cookies, and read aloud from their favorite books.

Yesterday was Game Day. You could see kids leaving school carrying sets of Monopoly and other board games they’d brought in to share.

The day before was Movie Day. They watched THE INCREDIBLES.

Ah, the cuddliness of the contemporary elementary school! The kids sit chatting at big tables and wander among the different learning areas – “centers” – of the room. When my fourth–grader is finished with an assignment, he’s allowed to open a book for recreational reading.

In my elementary school we sat at individual desks that were bolted to the floor in six rows of six. If we laughed or talked, we risked being sent to the corner – which we didn’t mind so much, because it was a way of getting out of our seats.

But on the other hand, we didn’t have to take fourteen standardized tests in one year as my fourth–grader is doing. That’s the reason for Pajama Day and Game Day: they’re rewards, recovery strategies, for having gotten through a big week of state standardized tests in reading, writing, and math,

Fourteen is not unusual nowadays. Our school is moderately well–rated, so it doesn’t have to monitor the kids’ progress with extra tests.

Of course, with all that time spent on taking tests, preparing tests, and recovering from tests, who’s got time for lessons anymore? No wonder there’s a nationwide rebellion, which has reached the stage of teachers’ unions and local school districts suing the federal government over unreasonable, unfunded accountability requirements. (My wife, who’s an educator, testified about this recently before the Austin school board.) And there’s an increasing movement among the students themselves to boycott the tests. (It’s perfectly legal.) Our fourth–grader was quite interested to heard about this concept, but then we asked him if, as the price of missing the test, he would be willing to miss THE INCREDIBLES.

Anyway, it’s Friday and the testing is over for this week. The principal, a short, frizzy–haired woman in jeans, is speaking intently to a parent in the hallway. Signs announce the impending visit of a children’s book author. A smiling father who is also a candidate for City Council is walking around with an armful of leaflets. He’s tall and trim and neatly groomed – silver hair and a blue pinstriped oxford shirt and a campaign button – I suspect him of being a Republican, though the information is not provided. Outside, his parked minivan is covered with stickers reminding him of his own name. I’ve often seen him asking other parents for their votes, but he’s never given me his spiel. It must be the DEFEND AMERICA – DEFEAT BUSH bumper sticker that my fourth–grader wears on his backpack.

Just outside the cafeteria, there’s a small crowd around the coat racks and bins that constitute the Lost and found. Today’s the day when the school will donate all remaining items to charity, so we’re picking through the sweatshirts and sweaters and windbreakers and lunch boxes to see if anything’s ours. It usually happens at year’s end, but this year the Lost and Found is so overflowing that the administration has decided to act early.

A big sister is trying to help her little brother find his jacket among all the forgotten garments. They’re carefully going over every item. No luck. They talk about it. They try again. Then their mother, who’s a cafeteria aide, comes out to intervene:

“Your jacket’s where it always is, hanging on the hook there. What are you looking in the Lost and Found for? You’re just trying not to go to class.”

Busted! So off they go to class without another word, secretly relieved that their mother understands them.