Susan DuFresne Takes a Look at Her Lego Collection

Legos have been beloved staples of early childhood for decades. The corporation that makes them recently closed a search for a professor of play at Cambridge, a position covered by a $5 million endowment to the university. Also included in the gift is a research center dedicated to this primary engine of human development.

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Susan DuFresne is a kindergarten teacher in Washington State, where a former Microsoft executive is director of the Department of Early Learning. She has given a new face to early childhood activism, raising her impassioned voice for social justice and educational equity and against the corporatization of education.

 

By Susan DuFresne

I admit it. I was enticed by the title: “Children Should Learn Mainly through Play Until Age 8, Says Lego.”  The article, which has garnered 230,000 “likes” since it was published in March of 2016, at The Guardian, was written by Lucy Ward, the newspaper’s former social affairs correspondent.

I tweeted it out, not thinking about the photograph. The words, supporting play, were so powerful. The image depicts three children: a blonde, blue-eyed girl in an Indian headdress, a blond, brown-eyed boy in a Viking hat, and a boy of color in a cowboy hat. While I work every day to be culturally “awake,” this image filtered through years of media to my own childhood.

Cultural appropriation is contingent upon complicity and institutionalized oppression. I grew up in the ‘60s in North Dakota, where it was commonplace to join in a game of “Cowboys and Indians.” John Wayne, The Lone Ranger, and Wagon Train created a market for toys that served to normalize genocide.  As a child, I had never stopped once to empathize with any of my Native-American peers.  How might they feel about playing Cowboys and Indians? The demand for the toys, sadly, remains today. From plastic cowboys and Indians to army men  to violent video games, the market continually profits from permanent war, colonization, and cultural appropriation.

As a kindergarten teacher, I value play. Thinking of my classroom and its contents, I am grateful that my district and my state sanction and promote play in kindergarten. I provide an hour daily of “choice time”—an opportunity for free, unstructured play.

I make sure to provide all the stuff of open-ended, creative, imaginative play—art materials, Legos, wooden blocks, cars, models for children to create their own maps, a wide variety of uniforms for dramatic play, and puppet theaters.  Children love to take on adult roles, trying them on for size. A good number of them already have an idea of what they want to be when they grow up. Children learn so many skills necessary to becoming happy, successful, accomplished and self-actualized adults through play.

But I need to think more critically about Lego. This mega-corporation has been a darling of early childhood experts, providing much to cherish. They have most of this right, but they clearly have some issues  to address.

So do I.  My public elementary school and my own home were built on stolen land. Needless to say, culturally responsive pedagogy—as we call it in the field—was unheard of during my early years of education.  I have three large tubs of the company’s creations in my classroom.  What’s in my Lego collection? Should I be throwing some of it out? How about other items in my dramatic play collection?

Think of culturally relevant pedagogy as the antidote to cultural appropriation. Gloria Ladson-Billings, who holds a chair in urban education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, coined the term in her 1994 book, The Dreamkeepers, defining it as “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.”  Many of us—including those  who grew up in the homelands of indigenous peoples—know little about Native-Americans.  We’re desperately playing catch-up.

Ladson-Billings’ framework offers us a blueprint—especially urgent with the onslaught of corporate reformers. They have a different plan for our children—and it’s not developmentally or culturally appropriate.  They would have a future of children using Oculus Rift headsets, tablets, and artificial intelligence chat-bots, replacing human classroom teachers, removing any play that does not involve technology. Huge profits and data mining motivate them. They are already laying siege to culturally relevant pedagogy, according to Camika Royal and Simone Gibson, professors at Morgan State University:

Though it is a professional gamble, it is possible to be a culturally relevant educator within the hyper-standardized, hyper-accountable, neoliberal school environment. Such educators must be highly skilled masters of their craft, strategic, and subversive, adhering to all tenets of CRP and mandated curricula.

This is truly the new wave of colonization.

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A Kindergartner Reserves a Space for #OptOut2020

Welcome to the season of testing, our vernal blood sport. Uploading the schedule took forever. It must have been the server of the New York State Education Department, sclerotic as the bureaucracy itself. But there it was, a memo signed by Deputy Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green. An exam for every public school student on the “education” spectrum—if one could dignify it as such—from third through eighth grade.

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Action has intensified in recent weeks.  New York State Allies for Public Education, which has long guided parents in the process of refusal, expressed outrage at a toolkit sent to schools by Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.  It was misleading, the group argued, and omitted important facts. Two weeks before the first exam, Elia talked with the editorial board of the Albany Times Union. “The temperature is basically calming,” she told them, predicting a decline in the opt-out rates.

We’ve come a long way since 2012, when former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan took “white suburban moms” to task for rebelling against the Common Core standards for math and language arts instruction.  “All of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were,” he said, his syntax oddly mangled. The parents were angry.

New York led the nation in test refusal in 2015, the year that Elia was hired as the new education commissioner by the state’s Board of Regents: more than 20 percent of eligible students opted out. Superintendent of schools in Florida’s Hillsborough County for a decade, she had just been fired, dismissed without cause, two and a half years left on her contract.  The constituents of her district—awarded $100 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a teacher evaluation system—had complained about the proliferation of high-stakes testing and the scarcity of services for students with special needs.

Despite Elia’s efforts to stymie the boycott, the number of refusals in New York exceeded 230,000 in 2016, an increase over the previous year. Opposition has been especially fierce in the suburbs of Long Island, the epicenter of the state’s opt-out movement.

But the face of the movement is changing. Duncan’s white soccer moms  have been joined by a more diverse community of parents and educators.  They’ve  surfaced issues for which the tests have become metaphor: social justice, educational equity, racial inequality, and culturally responsive classrooms.

On March 23, Maribel Padin, of Valley Stream, New York, posted a Spanish-language video with English subtitles to her Facebook page, voices overlapping in condemnation of the Common Core tests.  As one parent put it, “They don’t have that love they had in kindergarten when they would jump up and want to run to school.”

Karen Sprowal was moved to action after her young Black son, Matthew, a kindergartner at the time, was deemed disruptive and encouraged to leave Harlem Success Academy 3, part of a controversial network of charter schools in New York City run by Eva Moskowitz.  Fearing he would be “fired,” the five-year-old was throwing up most mornings.

This week, Sprowal posted to Facebook a video made in 2012, featuring Matthew, now a poised, articulate student at P.S 75, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and the only third grader to refuse the tests. She serves as narrator, giving a nod to fellow protesting parents and teachers in Westchester and on Long Island, and detailing the effects of the Common Core testing regime on children:

It literally has changed the culture of the school. Children were peeing in the bed, children were having crying spells, anxiety, teachers were always stressed, walking on pins and needles. It seemed to be all about the tests… These tests are attached to teacher evaluation, a school’s progress report, whether the school is deemed a failing school, and closed.

New York City has been an outlier in the movement, its test refusal rates at a meager 2.5 percent last year.  The climate has been chilly for dissent.  Bill de Blasio swept into office vowing to fight inequality, launching a universal preschool initiative that became a model for the nation.  But the mayor has stumbled in the labyrinthine politics of the city and state.  His education policies have been out of synch with his early progressive vision, veering close to those of his billionaire predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

Carmen Fariña, chancellor of the nation’s largest school system, has served as executor. Until recently, when she softened her opposition to test refusal, amid talk of retirement, Fariña had been a staunch opponent of opting out, silencing critique  of the city’s policies.  Educators and administrators have been cowed, discouraged from speaking out about what many have come to regard as malpractice.

One elementary school teacher remained undaunted, defying the ban on discourse.  Under the name Ms. Rumphius—the eponymous, idealistic heroine of Barbara Cooney’s beloved children’s book—she took to venting at her blog, pedagogyofthereformed,  on a number of vexing topics, among them teacher evaluation based on high-stakes assessment, untimed testing, and other “stupid educational trends” that have sacrificed children’s well-being and love of learning on the altar of accountability.

Under the circumstances, communicating with parents has been difficult.  In 2015, the New York City Council passed a bipartisan resolution in support of informing families about the right to have their children boycott the tests.  Yet the department of education has not cooperated, continuing to thwart the democratic process.

On March 28, after the first day of the English Language Arts exam, Newsday, Long Island’s major media outlet, now owned by the founder of Cablevision, reported the results of its survey of 92 school districts. Nearly 68,000 students—50.7 percent of eligible students—in Nassau and Suffolk counties had opted out. State education officials, the article noted, declined to comment on the number of test refusals, which were in keeping with those of last year.

Elia’s prediction hangs in the air.  The data collection and crunching in the weeks to come will provide validation or expose her wishful thinking.

But the next generation of parents and educators has been emboldened by this exercise in democracy. In Greenlawn, New York, as Newsday’s John Hildebrand reported, Jessica Perry, a former elementary school teacher, was inspired to advocate on behalf of her son, Brayden.  Deeply disturbed by the defects of the testing regime, she wrote to her local school administrators to tell them that her son will never take the exams.  She had received a note from his school informing her that he needed to spend more time practicing how to fill in bubbles.

A five-year-old kindergartner, Brayden has three years to go before his first round of high-stakes tests.

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Nanny Nanny Boo Boo on the Playground in the Age of Trump

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In this time of acute polarization, the adults hog most of the attention, filling the communal spaces with their discourse, much of it uncivil. Emotions are high. What happens when this filters down to our youngest students? Since the election of Donald Trump, Michelle Gunderson, carefully attuned to the shifting moods of her first graders, has been recording her observations. This essay originally appeared at Living in Dialogue.

A veteran teacher and a doctoral student at Loyola University in Curriculum and Instruction, Gunderson is Vice President for Elementary Schools at the Chicago Teachers Union.

. . . Read full article →

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Denisha Jones on Early Childhood’s Lesson for School Choice

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With Betsy DeVos at the helm of the U.S. Department of Education, choice has ascended to the top of the policy agenda. Charter schools, vouchers, and other nonpublic options are proliferating—the grandchildren of free-market economist Milton Friedman, who viewed the elementary and secondary system as a monopoly in dire need of competition.

Staunch proponents of choice view it as a solution for the nation’s persistent opportunity gaps. Denisha Jones, a national advisor to Defending the Early Years, where this post originally appeared, highlights the inequities of America’s market-based early childhood system as a cautionary tale.

Jones is . . . Read full article →

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