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Keeping the Joy of Learning Alive – for children and for teachers

The conference In Defense of Childhood: Keeping the Joy of Learning Alive did not disappoint. It was energizing and inspiring to meet so many other early childhood educators who are working hard to stay true to what is best for children in this age of high-pressure, scripted curricula and high-stakes testing. What I love best about this conference is that is purely about best practices and advocating for children. For me, it runs in sharp contrast to bigger/glitzier conferences such as the NAEYC Annual Conference, where child-centered, developmentally appropriate practice can often be lost in the haze of commercialism and marketing. As Beverly Falk reminded us in her opening remarks in the Shepard’s Great Hall at City College of New York, the United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. Also, 1 in 4 children in the United States are living in poverty. These are sobering statistics which help illustrate the issues before us. Something needs to get fixed – and current policies are not in the best interest of healthy, happy, inspiring childhoods which can lead to fulfilling, satisfying and happy lives.

At In Defense of Childhood, where the focus of this year’s conference was Keeping the Joy of Learning Alive, one of the things that struck me was that it was clear that the presenters – be they teachers, directors or college professors – had been able to keep the joy of learning alive for themselves as well as for children. It is hard to do, for sure, but throughout the day we heard from folks who are fighting the good fight and finding ways to hold on to what is possible. Nancy Carlsson-Paige showed us examples of scripted early childhood curricula which are in stark contrast to what we know about how young children learn (constructing knowledge in the context of meaningful experiences). She showed a slide of a kindergarten classroom’s data wall – which publicly showed the ranking of each child’s reading level as well as how high each child could count. To protect each child’s identity, the data wall used a code of symbols rather than names.  However, the message was pretty clear: some kids get it and some kids don’t and the Race to the Top starts with our youngest.  And a race – by definition – has winners and losers. Tired of harmful mandates that don’t make sense, many teachers are leaving the field or retiring early – though there is a growing group of teachers who are finding their voice to speak up and become agents of change. Nancy told us about the Save Our Schools movement – which is gaining momentum since the rally and conference in Washington, DC last summer (see related post). Save Our Schools is planning more actions throughout the spring, summer and beyond.

For early childhood educators, a new project is underway called Defending the Early Years (DEY) with a mission to help educators speak out about policies. Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane Levin are senior advisers, and the director is Ed Miller (of  The Alliance for Childhood.) Miller was at the In Defense of Childhood conference and presented “Defending the Early Years: How to Advocate for Play in the Era of Standards and Accountability”. He shared research about the impact of the Common Core Standards on preschool programs. He explained to us about the work of Peter Gray, who has written about the recent decline of free play in the United States and other developed countries, and how over the same period of time the rates of childhood and adolescent depression, anxiety, narcissism and suicide have sharply increased. For more about that, see Gray’s article The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents in the American Journal of Play, volume 3, number 4. published in 2011 by The Strong.

Yes, the problem before us often seems too daunting. But just imagine if every teacher, parent and citizen who sees the issues did one thing to change the status quo. Imagine the possibilities. Defending the Early Years is a great place to start. Check out their new project (from their website):

“Defending the Early Years is conducting a national survey of early childhood professionals–teachers, child care workers, program and school directors, etc.–on the ways their work is currently affected by federal, state, and local policies, such as standards for learning and mandated tests. Responses are anonymous. The data are being collected and tabulated by an independent opinion research firm. The results of this research will be used to inform our efforts to advocate for more child-centered, humane, and effective policies in the education and care of young children.”

I urge you to check out Defending the Early Years, and if you are an early childhood professional, take a few minutes to fill out the survey – then urge your colleagues to do the same. Looking to do more? Check out the Save Our Schools movement and consider joining the upcoming Occupy the DOE rally on March 30th. Imagine the possibilities.


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