The boy has been back to school now for a month and a half. Since I am home right now, I have been taking advantage of the opportunity to volunteer in his classroom. This has several perks: I get to see my little guy for a few hours, a couple of days a week; I get a taste of what the girl child will need to know in order to succeed in 1st grade next year and so, have been able to modify her homeschool curriculum ever so slightly; I get to see how his days go; I get first crack at going on field trips, and lastly but certainly far from leastly, the girl child gets some experience with being in a classroom setting.
All in all it has been a pretty fun little activity, and has really made me wish that I had pursued a teaching certification when I was in college. I really enjoy being in the class with these kids. The thing is, it has also brought me face to face with some of the very real challenges in education today.
There are 22 cherubs in the boy's 1st grade class. And there is one teacher. I know that there are districts with worse ratios, but I don't live in those districts...so for now, for this post, they are not my concern. Of the 22 cherubs, there are at least 4 distinct groups: children that are not sure where they are or why they are there; children who know where they are and wish that they were anywhere else; children that are fully cooperative and fully engaged, and children that are bored to tears waiting for the other groups to catch up. And 1 teacher left to try and provide all that these diverse groups need simultaneously. Which is impossible. Which is why, I suppose, my offer to help out was jumped on like a hooker in prison. While the teacher works with the kids who are "above grade level", I can herd the stragglers back to their seats and help them understand what they are supposed to be doing. While the teacher works with the children who are struggling so, I can prevent the small geniuses from plotting the overthrow of the classroom, and instead point them in the direction of the books.
Within each of these groups, there is an amazing study in human behavior and psychology happening. Of the lost little lambs there is one who continually gets up and wanders about the room, looking blankly around continually confused as to why she is being shown back to her seat. There is another who stares in wonder at his classmates and continually asks when his mom is going to pick him up. The rest are clearly going through the motions, much as a tourist does in a foreign country, when they don't speak the language...they look for cues from their peers, and laugh and react in kind with what they see...but have no idea why they are doing it.
At the other end of the spectrum the boredom is being handled in a number of ways as well: one child just calls out the answers when his classmates are struggling to speak it. Another looks for ways to entertain himself which, being a six year old boy means making loud noises and generally being a pest...which lands him in the principal's office at least once a week. Another sits quietly and politely there, making more of the work than is really required, but hey it's better than being bored - right?
I don't really remember my first couple of years in school comprehensively enough to know whether or not this is how it always was, but I know that starting in about 3rd or 4th grade I was always in a class with children who were very "similarly skilled" with me; AKA the Gifted Class.
I realize now what a saving grace that was. There are educators and philosophies that state that classroom leveling is wrong! All wrong!! for kid's proper social development, but now, more than ever, I disagree. While the more average students might not get the push from the above average crowd, the slower group doesn't get lost in the shuffle. And those above average kids? They get better challenges and learn to think independently, rather than being forced to quell their innate curiosity and learn to shuffle along obediently with the herd. Or become regulars in the principals office.
Now, I know that parent's can have their child tested for the gifted program, starting in the 3rd grade, but I also know that this is a once a week, 2 hour respite from the doldrums for the kids that qualify. In my humble opinion, that is not enough. 2 hours out of 27 and a half hours in a school week is less than 10% of their time.
I am not sure what all of the arguments against leveling are, but I know that alot of it has to do with this "no one can lose" mentality that is so widespread when it comes to our kids. Wanting to keep everyone together and not make anyone feel "less special" seems to me to be a disservice to those kids who are MORE special - in either sense of the phrase. And it is not a realistic portrayal of what is to come in the real world. In the real world, there are rewards for achievement - not punishments. In the real world, if you get your work done quickly, you don't have to sit around and wait to do anything else until everyone else catches up. Or if you do have to wait, it is temporary, as that kind of performance will merit a promotion. Likewise, if you continually fall behind, there are consequences. If we don't clue kids in to that early, that there are rewards attached to succeeding, then what is the motivation to succeed? If we don't show those that demonstrate more limited academic prowess that there are other areas that they can excel at what are we doing to their spirit?
I am sure that there are reasons that I don't see...and I am not about to try and overthrow the district but I can say that I feel much more understanding about any "behavioral infractions" that might come home with my children. (My most eye opening moment to date was when a child had to pull one of their behavior cards for the day because they went ahead in the work and did the next set of problems in the math lesson, before the class was working on it. If I was a student today I would probably be expelled, as I finished my texbook in November...)
And the boy child? How does he fare in all this? Let's just say that I am just glad that I have the opportunity to be there and help keep the ants in his pants from getting the better of him, while he waits for the rest of the class to figure out that d-o-g spells dog.