Today, Children, We’re Not Going To Do A Show

April 28th, 2014 § 1 comment

Of course, on the face of it, it’s simply the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard.

In a letter to the parents of kindergarten students at Harley Avenue Primary School in Elwood, N.Y., the principal and kindergarten teachers wrote:

“The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers.”

The Washington Post seemed to be first on the case, with a story titled, “Kindergarten show canceled so kids can keep studying to become ‘college and career ready.’ Really.” That pretty much set the tone and I jumped into the fray, sharing it online with introductory words including “dumb” and “shame.” I happened to be e-mailing with a producer at CBS News on a personal topic and passed the article along to her, and I tweeted it in the direction of a reporter at The New York Post, knowing how they like to take umbrage at things. I wanted people to see how ridiculous this was, and is.

Kindergarten-1Most people leaped right on the bandwagon with similar sentiments, and my Facebook post of the article was shared more than 70 times. This morning, Google News shows me that the story has been picked up by outlets like Gawker and the Post, and I saw a quick report on it on CBS This Morning. Even London’s Daily Mail got in on the act, so we look dopey overseas, too. I don’t flatter myself that I had any role in spreading this story very specifically; I cite the examples just to show that it’s getting around.

But I was caught up short when a high school classmate effectively took me to task on Facebook for not considering what the letter might actually mean. Greg, who teaches high school in New Hampshire, who had a long career as a professional dancer, and who I haven’t laid eyes on in about 30 years, said he saw the letter as an effort by the principal and teachers who signed it to highlight the strictures of common core efforts and a push to teach to tests, a cry for reconsideration of increasingly constrained teaching opportunities. “Is it possible,” he wrote, “That these folks are saying, tongue firmly in cheek, ‘Our hands are tied! The onerous burden of government regulation leaves us no choice!’”

The situation seems so preposterous, the farce that it tries to explain away is so extreme, that Greg’s assertion that it was activism is worth considering. Could this be the most creative indictment of arts cuts and standardized teaching that’s ever come to light, couched in a letter of apology?

In my haste towards sarcasm, I failed to take into account the hundreds of thousands of dedicated teachers who have to grapple with ever-evolving teacher requirements, shrinking funding and so many other indignities of our modern education system. My mom was an elementary school teacher who left the profession because of the stress of functioning within a system under siege, and this was back in the 1980s. In the kind of knee-jerk reaction that the Internet makes so easy, I may not have shown respect to a field I admire so much, all because of a few paragraphs in a letter that found its way to the media. I regret if anything I posted suggested otherwise.

That said, I doubt Greg’s suggestion (echoed by others in entirely separate posts) that the letter was an act of political theatre. Would a principal and teachers have conspired to write such a letter and leak it to the press, putting their jobs at risk? If so, why did it turn up in Washington DC instead of in New York (the school is on Long Island)? Why were the signatories all refusing any comment to the press? While the letter may have been suffused with frustration, I doubt it was a political act, and if it was, it was a failed one, because instead of drawing light to important issues, it has drawn only scorn to the school.

Now if in fact sentiment about preparing kindergartners for college pervades every aspect of education in Elwood, that may not be the fault of the teachers or even the principal. As my schoolmate Greg points out, the ultimate responsibility here lies with the school board, which is really dictating the district’s agenda. By the time it trickles down to the elementary school and its staff, it’s required, not optional. Someone needs to start questioning that school board at their very next meeting as to whether this is what they truly believe.

But whether the letter is botched activism or simply the most extravagantly preposterous outcome of arts cuts, No Child Left Behind and Common Core, let’s turn it into an activism moment.

Right now, the media is primed to cover the story because of its wryly comic value. We may well see it discussed tonight on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Letterman, Fallon and the like. I suspect it will be of equal appeal to Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity, for entirely opposite reasons. It could take on a life of its own. It will be more ridicule, most likely, not constructive conversation. But can we turn it to the benefit of the arts?

If you’re part of an educational institution that values the arts, or an arts institution, can you use this letter as the pretext to get on local radio, local TV, on editorial pages, on blogs, to express what so many did on Facebook yesterday? The very values that the letter implies are more important than any play are exactly those that participating in a show – even at such an early age – ­can build. This is one of those moments when the arts have the spotlight unexpectedly and arts groups and arts educators should seize that spotlight for the benefits we believe in and the values we know to be true, instead of seeing one school chastised and ridiculed.

This isn’t about a single group of kindergartners, but about our core values for all students – that the arts are not disposable, that they are not frivolous, and that they can in fact prepare students for life. It may seem an exaggeration of the scenario in question, but just as the story will be used to extrapolate theories about the pros and cons of how children are being taught, let’s use it as a microcosm of what its happening at every level of the education system, a bellwether, a call to arms that’s impossible to ignore. If this doesn’t make arts cuts comprehensible to absolutely everyone, what will?

And for goodness sakes, isn’t kindergarten mostly about introducing children to the idea of school, to socializing them with children who don’t live on their street or aren’t relatives or friends of the family? You know what’s a great socializer? Working together, perhaps singing together. We call that, in the biz, a show.


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