Equity & Diversity Opinion

Ron Fink: Breaking the Rules to Let Kids Play

By Anthony Cody & Ron Fink — April 26, 2011 6 min read
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Today I am sharing a guest post from a reader -- I will let him tell the tale:

I compose musical plays that are used in regular classrooms, grades K-9, all over the country. My writing partner and I build the plays around mandated curriculum, but we add stories, catchy tunes, clever lyrics, and lots of really dumb jokes.

Over the last 16 years teachers have produced about 115,000 performances of our 50+ shows. (We sell the scripts, the musical CDs and instructions on how any teacher, no matter how musically timid, can do a fun musical in their classroom. And of course, the show will match their official standards.)

So that’s great, right? Teachers like what we do, and we’re able to get fun, participatory material that stimulates independent thinking into our schools. The problem is that more and more teachers are being forced to cut anything interesting so they have more time to teach to the tests.

I recently received a Facebook post from a teacher, describing how, unlike in earlier years, she was allowed to teach nothing but math and reading. Her school was trying hard to raise their test scores, and had pretty much eliminated social studies, science, the arts, health, etc.

When I shared the note with our many teacher-customers, I received over a hundred responses. These are some of them:

At my school, my former principal would not let ANYTHING that was not related to testing happen until the middle of May, when testing was over. It was hard to get a play or a field trip or a special art project done until mid-May, and then there is not a lot of time left in the school year.

The best teachers know that it’s the interesting, different stuff that makes learning great. Unfortunately, not all administrators share that vision.

We can’t even display the kids’ artwork on the bulletin boards anymore- it has to be data from the testing! Like kids want to stand around and discuss data.

What about highlighting the emails that said the opposite!? What about commending the teachers who are busting their butts to make sure it ALL happens: teaching the core curriculum, teaching test-taking strategies, AND integrating hands-on learning ie. musicals!? It IS doable and I am proof of it! Working in a low-income high-ELL neighborhood with apathetic students and ZERO parental support, I AM DOING IT ALL!

I haven’t done any play in the past 3 years. It has been “discouraged”, to put it nicely.

If you are a Program Improvement School, you’re only allowed to teach math and language arts. 30 minutes a day is allowed for social studies, science, P.E., and art - all of these subjects combined 30 minutes a day! Our future is in the hands of people who will know how to bubble in the answer “C”

I have found over the years, the best way of ensuring student success, especially on standardized tests, is to keep them engaged in the learning process. Boredom is just a symptom of weak teaching, and like in any profession, you have people who love what they do and people who don’t. I don’t necessarily see anything systemically wrong, just a lack of enthusiasm.

I am one of the rule breakers. The teachers at my new school hate me and give me crap all the time about doing “extra stuff.”

I am extremely blessed to be teaching at a public school where the arts are valued as an integral and necessary ingredient to a child’s education.

We now have to give “benchmark” tests three times a year in addition to the standardized tests. This takes up approximately 3-4 weeks of instructional time when all is said and done. If not for all this testing, I would probably actually be able to allow my students to read real literature books and fill in fewer worksheets that are designed to prepare them for test success.

The stress of bucking the trend is tremendous but I do it anyway. I refuse to spend all year teaching children how to take state tests. I was hired to teach children to love learning, reading, writing, mathematics, science, social studies, and the arts.

I included your plays in my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades in Irvine Unified School District for about 14 years. I chose the plays that most closely matched the curriculum to avoid controversy. Some years, I did as many as three plays. The kids loved them! Parents raved. Last June I retired. 2009-2010 was the first year that I was not able to include a play mainly because of reluctant teammates and the RTI schedule for reading and math. It left little time for anything. I guess I just got tired that final year. No support whatsoever.

I find that the plays make a huge difference in student achievement. I assign my lowest students the biggest parts. By the time we are done they have a huge memory bank of sight words that leads to increases in comprehension and fluency. My English Language Learners gain confidence in not only reading but in writing and speaking as well...I have been lucky to have the support of my principals.

I know that in several school systems teachers are now required to assess their students by a program and it has to be done on a palm computer. It takes about 5-7 days to complete and we have to fit it in. I can tell you most days during the testing window that’s all I get done and my students are left to do handouts since the assessments are one on one and timed so I can’t be interrupted.

I’m lucky that my principals have always let me do what’s best for my students, but that’s not the norm in many schools.

Here in my little California town we are expected to assess, assess, assess. We give our elementary students three district assessments, some with 5+ pieces that must be administered one-on-one to first graders. The data must be “bubbled” for each individual answer, for each individual student, then scanned on a specific scanner and the district receives the results. Then the teachers are contractually bound to meet to discuss, compare and explain the results to one another and administrators.

Fortunately my test scores are among the highest in the district, and our school consistently has made AYP (Acceptable Yearly Progress) since this nonsense began. Therefore I have freedom to put on plays, go on nature walks, create literature groups, build pet rock houses with Legos, set up simulations, etc. However, even teachers at our school, including me, have seriously and sadly cut back teaching time of things not tested like social studies, art, health, etc.

I am a 4th grade teacher in Napa. We rarely, if ever, get to teach creatively. Our school is all about test scores, and they are always the main topic of conversation in any staff/district meeting. If you do not get your kids to perform on these tests there are consequences, they are subtle in that you get labeled a poor teacher, parents don’t want their kid in your class, and you are scolded and criticized. As a matter of fact, last year my knees were literally shaking when I passed out the test.

I get fed up sometimes and teach what I am not suppose to....for example
we are reading Holes by Louis Sachar. The kids CLAP when we get out the book because they LOVE it.

I teach in a small rural school in Arizona. We are still allowed to teach multiple strategies for our students. I am teaching math right now so I am struggling with how to incorporate plays, but I will do it. Glad our district is not just “teaching to the test.”

What do you think? Are your students able to play once in a while?

images by Ron Fink, used by permission,

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.