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A Commencement Message for Incoming Kindergarten Parents: Advocate

Published in ChicagoNow, May 20, 2015

Recently, I gave a talk to a group of parents whose children are going to kindergarten this fall. The parents were amazingly caring people who want their children to be happy and to thrive as they begin their formal education. I’ve been giving these talks for 25 years, but in recent years they have felt different. I fear I am increasing the anxiety of parents who are already worried. But I also fear today’s kindergarten has lost its way.

Helping parents learn to advocate is the only way I can see to get back on the right path. The more parents know about current educational practices and expectations and what is developmentally appropriate best practice, the more likely they will be able to effect change for their children as well as all children.

This change will not come from the top down. At every level of government and at the upper rungs of our school systems, there is a profound misunderstanding of the “how” in teaching young children. Even if we all agree that the “what” is appropriate, that children need to learn the Common Core standards, those of us who actually teach or do homework with young children understand far more about how young children think and learn than most business leaders or members of Congress. And it is our responsibility as parents, teachers, and community members to advocate for educational practices that are in line with how children learn best.

Four of my grandchildren have entered public school, with a fifth slated to start this fall. Sadly, they are going to school during the era of accountability, narrowed curriculum due to the emphasis on math and reading above all else, and teaching to that all-important high stakes test. Their schools, and especially their teachers, have been under enormous pressure since politicians and businessmen have become educational experts in determining policy. It pains me as a lifelong educator and as their grandmother to watch the excessive testing and developmentally inappropriate practices that have been imposed on young children. I cannot tolerate seeing the rights of children with special needs or exceptional abilities or different learning styles fall prey to financial constraints and the inability to differentiate instruction.

So here I am, closing in on 70 and still advocating. There is a lot of work to be done, but I have to believe it is the collective power of the everyday folks who make change happen. In Illinois, part of the opposition to the PARCC standardized test included the lack of policy giving parents the right to opt their children out of taking this test and giving children not taking this exam a place to learn rather than forcing them to “sit and stare.” The work of parents, students, teachers, community members and advocacy groups did get an opt-out bill through the Illinois House of Representatives. Bravo to the Raise Your Hand Coalition and More Than a Score for getting this far. They have a tough battle ahead. The bill has to get through the Illinois Senate and somehow Governor Rauner has to be persuaded not to veto it as promised.

If this is a cause that speaks to you, join with others to advocate. If you think special education needs an overhaul, join with others to advocate. If you believe the school calendar takes too many days off, depriving your child of time to learn and you of time to work, join with others to advocate. If you want your child’s school to handle discipline or bullying differently, join with others to advocate.

You get the point. Be respectful. Be polite. Be a good listener. But when you see an injustice done to children, remember it is your responsibility to speak up in whatever way works best for you. Through grass roots efforts, I truly believe people representing every form of diversity (political, economic, racial, cultural) can come together to set our schools on a better path.

So, parents of incoming kindergarteners, this is a reverse commencement speech. You are at the beginning of a journey, and my message is to teach yourselves about developmentally appropriate educational practice. Just do a simple Internet search and check out a few reputable sources. Know what constitutes best practice and what is inappropriate. If you see something, say something (nicely but say it). Advocate for a better educational experience, not just for your child but for other people’s children as well.


by Laurie Levy
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