Posted: May 02, 2014 11:00 AM
When the Harley Avenue Primary School in Elwood, New York, cancelled their annual end of kindergarten performance to focus on preparing the children for "college and career" readiness instead, parents were outraged. Is education reform depriving our children of the arts? Is it possible to strike a balance?
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The great thing about kindergarten is that it provides students with a fun and engaging transition to elementary school. It's the perfect mix of beginning reading skills, fun math (such as counting windows), art projects and performances. Yes, kindergarten often entails at least one super-cute performance during the year, and both the kids and the parents look forward to it. Kindergarten gives children the self-confidence they need to learn and grow as they progress through school. For many children, it is that very first piece of the foundation that will lead to a lifetime of learning. And it's also a ton of fun. That is the hope of many parents in this country, anyway.

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, an annual end-of-the-year kindergarten show was cancelled at a school in Elwood, New York, in an effort to keep kids working so that they will be "college and career" ready. The letter, signed by Ellen Best-Laimit, interim principal of Harley Avenue Primary School (along with four kindergarten teachers), states, "The reason for eliminating the kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers." It should come as no surprise that parents are outraged.

Although there is no direct reference to the much-debated Common Core Standards, the language used in the letter alludes to the more rigorous learning standards contained within the Common Core. While this particular school made a decision they believed to be in the "best interest" of the children, it should be noted that nowhere in the Common Core Standards does it say that all fun and engaging musical productions should be cancelled in favor of more studying. The kindergarten teachers and interim principal at Harley Avenue Primary School made that decision on their own.

Don't colleges look for well-rounded students with more to offer than high test scores and perfect grades?

As a mother of two young children, this story breaks my heart. I've seen the excitement in my daughter's eyes as she prepares for such a show. I've sat back in wonder, amazed that she has the capacity to memorize 40 minutes' worth of songs (and dance moves to go with them) and that she's not afraid to stand in front of a packed room to perform them. Make no mistake, music and art are valuable components of education. Perhaps I'm biased (I am married to a musician, after all), but music is much more than notes and sounds. Art isn't simply paintbrush strokes on a page. To deprive our youngest children of these valuable experiences so that they can work on skills that will make them "college and career" ready is devastating. Incidentally, don't colleges look for well-rounded students with more to offer than high test scores and perfect grades?

Sondra Abrams, a mother of three and kindergarten teacher in Manhattan Beach, California, agrees. "Yes, Common Core is here and we need to teach children in a different way," said Abrams, "But, as educators, we have to teach the whole child. That means the class plays, music performances and art are more important than ever."

Finding balance

As is the case with many politically fueled issues in this country, the "either-or" responses to the implementation of the Common Core Standards aren't actually helping anyone. And this time it's our children who are caught in the crossfire. While parents protest and school districts scramble to find a way to make the Common Core Standards work, our children continue to attend school each day with the hope of learning while having a little fun. If we remove all of the fun, we will see a spike in stress and/or anxiety among very young children.

According to Abrams, it is possible to balance music and the arts with the new rigorous learning standards. "We just had our Spring Sing at my school," said Abrams, "We spent a month preparing for the show, but we didn't sacrifice any academics in the process."

But if we want kids to truly learn, to process and internalize the information, we have to let them play.

Play is essential

We can force kids to memorize facts. We can drill reading skills into them beginning in preschool. We can even teach them money management skills in kindergarten. But if we want kids to truly learn, to process and internalize the information, we have to let them play. Through play-based learning and creativity, young children learn things like problem solving skills, symbolic representation, higher-level thinking, how to work with others, language development skills and responsibility (to name a few). Sound familiar? That's because many of the skills young children develop through play and creativity are the very skills that the Harley Avenue Primary School team stated would make kids "college and career" ready.

Making memories

Kindergarten is a year of enormous growth for young learners, but that growth is not restricted to traditional learning. First friendships are established. Social interaction and assertiveness skills are developed. Young children learn to separate from their parents and find their way in the classroom. They become more independent and responsible. But, most importantly, memories are made.

My daughter will never forget the projects she created, the times she sang her heart out or the kindness of a teacher who hugged her every single day. For that, I am truly grateful. Abrams agrees. "I guarantee that when my students get older what they will remember is not the time they spent on Common Core Standards, but the performances in front of a packed room of tearful parents."

It's time to put kids first. It's time to stop arguing and focus on preserving childhood instead. It's time to bring the fun back to the classroom.

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