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The Big Picture for Little People

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You just don't see the big picture, Nancy,'' said my exasperated principal. She was absolutely right, of course. I'm a pre-kindergarten teacher in the public schools, an early-childhood professional who inhabits a tiny piece of the "Education World.'' My frame is young children in a large elementary school (approximately 1,500 students), in a very large school system.

This really BIG picture is full of problems I know but can't fix and vocabulary I understand but can't use: competency-based curriculum, authentic assessment, CORE, Total Quality Management, whole language, and a lot of other words. My work begins the process of schooling. A teacher for 25 years, I've seen the vocabulary change, the classes get larger, the programs come and go, and more children fail. Meanwhile, "at risk'' children have entered our vocabulary, along with "dysfunctional families.'' The BIG picture is full of schedules, time constraints, pull-out programs, team meetings, computer-assisted grades, and paperwork. It's the modern elementary school at work.

My little world, on the other hand, is 4-year-olds learning to control themselves, trying to get along with each other, expressing themselves in many ways, and gathering information about the world. It's pretty simple: no workbooks, just learning through doing, developing skills, and, with any luck, having fun doing it. It's a world of blocks, crayons, books, paint, dolls, and small cars. It involves people, art supplies, and basic equipment. My conversation with my principal, in fact, involved a playground, a place where active, big-muscle-oriented 4-year-olds could practice climbing, sliding, hanging, balancing, and moving. That's a major part of any day for young children.

My class loves coming to school. Parents tell me the children miss it on weekends. They come in smiling, greet their friends, make plans, and start playing at a chosen center of activity. They're learning to share (cooperative learning?), mastering small-muscle skills by cutting with scissors, building with blocks, sticking counting pegs in boards (competency-based curriculum?), proudly showing me their pictures and art projects (authentic assessment?), singing "Mother Goose'' rhymes (CORE?) while they move their fingers across the page (whole language?). This doesn't need fancy rhetoric, lots of meetings and paperwork; only trained people who care, who can observe and clarify, who can be a positive role model, who possess lots of patience, a sense of humor, and an energy level Batman would envy.

My class is enthusiastic, honest, and open, and the children are delightful! I'd do anything for them. That's why I mentioned the playground again, eight months after the hurricane. My principal is correct--I don't see the BIG picture. Our school wasn't badly damaged by Hurricane Andrew, but all the playgrounds were declared "unsafe'' until inspected. Such a small thing, but it means so much day to day--to the children, at least.

I need support for my little picture, the one that grows larger as children's abilities and skills increase. To me, the BIG picture is off-putting; it's full of rhetoric, like, why things can't be done. The BIG picture reinforces my notion that direction--its spirit--is in simplicity. The "can do,'' "will do'' spirit is mired in the bureaucracy that gives excuses instead of getting the job done. It's loaded with paper (lists, memos, bulletins, copies, faxes); it generates reports (to committees, to offices, to administrators, to the school board); it's filled with meetings and committees (for parents, staff members, groups), and lots of verbiage.

If all this sounds like BIG business--it is. Schools with over a thousand elementary students are big business. Thus, the emphasis on T.Q.M., a system big business uses to manage and build "quality.''

It's too bad, really, because schooling is essentially about teaching, learning, and young people. It's small ... simple ... and focused, when done well.

Did my little playground problem matter in the BIG picture? I'm happy to report that the playground was ready to use again--one year later. This year's class is delighted.

Nancy Webster is a pre-kindergarten teacher in Miami.

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