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School in MN has officially been in session for 9 days.  That’s approximately 57 hours, or 3,419 minutes spent in instruction/play/lunch/bathroom breaks/PE, etc.  I’ve witnessed the kindergarten criers – those 5 year olds away from mom or dad for the first time in a highly structured environment where they aren’t the only special little darling in the room; the first graders – who love when you remind them that kindergarten was soooo last year and that they’re not the low men on the totem pole anymore; the “runners” – who take any opportunity to freak out and go running away from the teacher, (identifiable by shouts in the hallway of, “Jack, stop!  Do not run away from me.  Somebody stop him!  Jack!!!), in which case almost everyone who is able will come out of the classroom to chase down the errant, usually 1st grade, kid and bring them back.

I’ve also witnessed the emotional breakdown of a 2nd grader who thought someone had thrown out his lunch by accident and a 1st grader who thought she lost her jacket and kept repeating that her dad was going to “be so mad at me”.  The list of near-catastrophes at the elementary level goes on and on.

In witnessing this strange dance of loss and recovery, I started to understand what school teaches first and foremost – how to become a responsible person.  In elementary school, you begin to really develop your identity and the teacher’s goal is to help with the fundamentals and encourage independence, self-reliance, honesty, integrity and ownership.  Teachers spend the first few school years trying to get kids to function independently and to develop a defined skill set which initially requires teaching them how to walk in a straight line with “0” voices and keep their hands to themselves, and evolves to being able to focus on a single task like reading a book for increasing intervals of time.  Some kids take to this instruction better than others.  And those are the kids that go on to exhibit self-discipline and control, which generally corresponds with academic excellence.

Turns out the ABCs and 1, 2, 3s aren’t the most basic building blocks of learning after all.