by Deborah Steele Hazen
With local students starting the 2013-14 school year in less than a week, I felt compelled to share some thoughts about the start of school.
However, after many years of writing such columns, I don’t have anything new to say. So, I decided to ask a few of the people whose lives are most impacted.
I interviewed five local students, ranging in grade levels – kindergarten, third grade, fifth grade, sixth grade and eighth grade – asking them about their thoughts on the start of the new school year, what they were looking forward to, and if there was anything about which they had concerns, worries or anxieties. Since the issue of bullying/intimidation/harassment have been much in the news lately, I asked them to comment on that.
There was one theme that everyone of them expressed strongly and at the very beginning of their comments.They are glad to be going to school, or back to school, and they are excited about opportunities to learn.
I think that’s pretty great.
“With just a little over a week to go until the start of school,” I began my questioning of the kindergartener. She interjected: “Nine more days! And tomorrow it will be 10 more days.”
“No, tomorrow it will be eight more days,” I gently corrected her.
Regardless of the exact count, she is excited about going to school, “doing my ABCs, learning to read, learning new things” – hopefully one of them is a better grasp of numbers – “and playing outside.” By that last, I think she means recess.
“Are you excited about meeting new kids?” I asked her.
“I’m excited about meeting new friends!” She corrected me.
She expressed that she has been looking forward to starting kindergarten for a long time.
In regard to concerns, she hesitatingly admitted to a little bit of anxiety about meeting her teacher and about the possibility of the bigger kids playing too rough on the plaground.
She is determined to be both a good student and a good friend.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to be sent to the principal’s office.”
The Third Grader
The third grader is also enthused about going back to school “because I get to learn brand new things! I get to do my favorite subject – math.” He stops for a moment, then adds, “and science – my two favorites! I get to go across the street every day and see everything that’s happening.”
He hopes there is more science in his curriculum this year.
He is looking forward to seeing his classmates, but “there are some bullies.” He has been the target of mean teasing and threats from other kids. He doesn’t want revenge, he just wants it to stop. “I wish for them not to be bullies.”
The Fifth Grader
The fifth grade girl whom I interviewed had lots to say about her past school experiences and her hopes for the future. I was frankly astonished at the depth of her insight into school and education-related topics – including some specific staff issues, which we won’t discuss here.
She is interested to learn how things will be with the change in the principal’s office
She is happy that the library has been refurbished and reopened, after a broken pipe last January caused its closure for much of the last school year. She likes going to the library during recess, because she doesn’t consider herself an athlete, and she sees the outdoor recess activities pretty much limited to either basketball or four-square – neither of which she enjoys.
She is a serious student and she doesn’t like it when other kids are “goofing off.” She believes that some parents (not hers) are too casual about their children’s lack of academic achievement.
She has not felt bullied, but she knows it does occur. However, she hopes the staff will not “go over the top on the bullying issue.” She wants to focus on academics. “I think we need more science and history.”
While she does not blame her teacher last year at all, she believes there is too much “focus on the tests… Writing, math and reading – that’s all we did.”
She, and other students, she says, feel “kind of scared” by the emphasis on the tests because they get the feeling that even at the fourth grade level, “people are going to be focusing on your every test.”
She’s a bit defiant about that. “I did well and I don’t care what the government thinks.”
She also thinks the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (OAKS) grading system – which apparently differs from subject to subject – is confusing. It caused the serious students, such as herself, some trepidation when they heard that their writing scores were in the high 30s, rather than in the high 100s, as they had been in reading and math. She believes some more explanation to the students regarding the scoring of the writing test would be helpful and reassuring.
Writing is one of her favorite subjects and an area she would like to emphasize. She was pleased that her teacher gave her writing assignments that allowed for some creativity – “so she could get an idea of what we actually can do.”
Her teacher’s writing assignments compared very favorably to the writing options on the OAKS writing test, which had “lousy subjects to write on,” not inspirational at all. The best OAKS option, she says, was “if you were going to have a pet in your classroom, what would it be and why?” She rolls her eyes in disgust. Clearly, she was capable of and believes she would have done much better work on a more challenging topic.
When students, such as herself, have already met or exceeded the state standards, “I get so bored” going over the same material. She would like to have options of other things to study when she has successfully passed the state tests.
The Sixth Grader
Our sixth grader, a boy who is serious about both academics and athletics, is looking forward to what he believes will be an expanded curriculum that will include learning about other cultures in social studies and more science. “I heard from my older sister that it was really good.”
He is also looking forward to his other classes. “Once I click into math, hopefully I will do well.”
He is also looking forward to seeing his friends every day, athletics, PE and exercise at recess, but he is disappointed about the rules that were implemented that don’t allow “dodge ball” in PE classes.
He also is unhappy about some of the recess rules. “You can’t play tag any more because people accidentally push other people… Some of the rules are good, but some of them go too far.”
In regard to the bullying issue, “I’m not concerned for myself, but some people may have a hard time.”
He does not approve of bullying – was called names when he was younger – but has since gotten better at handling that, However, he is is concerned with “the discipline that other kids may be facing” if they are “framed” by other kids – something that he has also experienced – or if his friends let themselves get drawn into participating in bullying.
“I handle those issues by not playing with him (the bully) at all, so I don’t get in trouble. But I’ve seen other kids get in trouble just by being with him.”
He has also witnessed kids being picked on – primarily name calling. He has noticed that if he is nearby, the harassing behavior often diminishes. “I’m going to try to witness more, be more aware, so I can help other people.”
The Eighth Grader
The eighth grade girl we interviewed is excited for the new school year to start because “I’ve always liked learning things. During the summer, I have too much time on my hands. During the school year I’m busy with athletics as well as academics.”
She is looking forward to math class – perhaps her favorite subject – although she likes learning new things in all her classes. “I just enjoy learning.”
A self-described perfectionist, she acknowledges “stressing” over special projects – assignments that are in addition to the normal homework – especially if she has more than one special project due the same week. “Everything has to be perfect (about her work) or else I’m stressing… If it’s not perfect when I have to turn it in, I turn it in anyway, but I still may be a bit stressed about it.”
One of the ways she deals with that stress of falling short of her own perfectionism is to start work on another subject or project, talk to her friends and parents about it.
The idea of several major projects facing a student at one time, prompted me to ask whether she thought the middle school teachers communicated with each other about their assignment loads.She didn’t know.
“They may just be challenging us,” she surmised, “and sometimes it’s good to be challenged, but it would also be nice if they split it up.”
Our eighth grader enjoys her classmates and she has not felt intimidated or harassed by other kids, although she has witnessed kids not being nice to each other, in a gossipy sort of way. She tries to remove herself from those kinds of situations, and in at least one instance, she and a friend regularly ate lunch with a girl who was being ostracized by other classmates.
Ready, Willing, Eager to Learn
So there you have it – five kids ranging in age from five to 13 who are ready, willing and eager to learn, who want to be good students, who want to have positive relationships with their teachers, administrators and fellow students, who are willing to help make the school environment better.
After interviewing them, I am very proud. I once thought that attempts to get “student input” on various education-related issues was not very valuable. I have completely changed my mind on that point.
If I were a teacher in the Clatskanie schools, I’d be pumped about having kids like these in my classes.