“Playing School” Turned Christmas Into a Nightmare

Over the holidays, my wife and I traveled to see her family in Dallas where we enjoyed warm weather and lots of fun outdoor activities.  As much as I was able to relax and step back from school for a bit, it was Christmas morning when my mind was sent racing. Our nieces have been hoping for American Girl Dolls for quite some time now, so when they opened them on Christmas you can be sure that they were playing with them immediately!  After the excitement of gift opening faded and all the wrapping paper was cleaned up, I had the chance to sit back and watch as the girls began to play school with their new dolls.

Our nieces are nine and seven and attend a school that is rather similar to ours here at KTEC, a close-knit, community charter school with a STEM focus.  I had been talking to them earlier in the week about their teachers and their favorite parts of school (recess always ranks number one!) and they shared that they loved their teachers and really enjoyed reading and science, so I was a little surprised when, after a while, they started playing Math Class with the dolls. 

You may know that my wife is a high school math teacher and I was always passionate about math growing up as well, so while I was surprised it was a pleasant surprise to see them playing Math Class.  It started out as many math classes do, with the turning-in of homework. Then, “the teacher” started quizzing “the class” on math facts. They started out easy enough and “the teacher” was awarding extra recess to everyone who got them right, what a deal?!  However, things took a turn for the worse when the questions got tougher. As soon as “the class” started getting questions wrong recess was taken away and everyone had to do more worksheets…yikes!! Talk about being surprised, this beautiful morning had just turned into a nightmare for Uncle Bret!! 

I immediately went and found my sister-in-law and grilled her about this school, I mean what was going on around there?!?!  She assured me this was nowhere near the reality at their school, one they’ve been attending since kindergarten. She did, however, shed some light on the situation.  Our nieces, who are typically good students who work hard at school, absolutely loathe math. They feel constantly under attack by math homework, multiplication tables, and memorizing math facts.  It is a battle at home and anxiety mounts every time tests come around. My sister-in-law, who is also a teacher, expressed her concerns that math was going to be the thing that made her daughters start dreading going to school.

So, as I said, my mind started racing!  It started with, what can we do to help more students like math (in particular girls)? I then got to the point of, what are we doing to ensure that all of our students are having a positive experience in school, no matter their strengths or weaknesses?  School isn’t always going to be easy for everyone and I don’t think it should be, there is an appropriate level of challenge that all students should face. However, when I think about a class of 20-25 students, I wonder how many kids are being appropriately challenged all day long.  Are there students who are struggling to the point of anxiety all day or even part of the day? What about the other side, do we have students who aren’t challenged enough and thus bored throughout the day?  Like I said, my mind was racing!

As we return and continue planning for second semester, I’d like to ask you to work with your teams to think further about appropriate challenge and what we’re doing to ensure that all of our students are being met at their optimal level.  We talk often about those students who need extra support to meet expectations but what about those other kids, the ones who regularly meet or exceed expectations? How can they be appropriately challenged?

I know it is never easy when there are so many different kids at so many different levels, especially when we tend to get so focused on meeting expectations and standardized testing.  If you’d like to continue this conversation in person, I’d love to hear people’s thoughts and suggestions!!