The Education of Zachary and the Soulful Struggle for “The Infinite Potential of All Children”

Zachary’s 5th grade graduation, with Kelly, Jackson, Zachary, Joshua Bock (left to right).

During the last days of the school year I wrote an essay for my website, I Am An, about my kindergarten son opting out of the MAP test. I received an overwhelming number of positive responses to that piece, but none more powerful than from a mother from Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Kelly Pylkas-Bock expressed her appreciation for the story of my son opting out, and sent me a truly moving description of her son–and why he cannot be reduced to a score–that she intends to deliver to his councilor when he starts middle school next year. I asked if I could publish her letter to the councilor and she replied,

Thank you for your encouraging response, Jesse. I have already shared my letter with [my son] Zachary because, as early as kindergarten standardized tests impacted his school experience. Zachary, Joshua (his dad), and I have had many honest conversations about how he has gifts that could never be measured by a test. When I told him the story about your son and about your request to re-post my letter, I was excited. I was also very cautious because I wanted to give him the option to protect his tender, 11-year-old identity. I should not have been surprised when he stated, emphatically, that he wanted his name included in the re-post. He was proud, as am I, to be included in your opt-out movement. We would proudly support the re-posting of Zachary’s important letter to his future middle school counselor and hope it might empower parents and students to be as brave as Zachary has been.

In appreciation and humility,

Kelly and Zachary

I hope the letter below will inspire other parents to reflect on what makes their own children more than a score–and to write that description down to share with your school and with this website. Here then is Kelly’s correspondence with me, followed by most wonderful description of her son Zachary.

Dear Jesse,

Your post resonated with me in many ways. The opt out movement has always been personal to me as a teacher of young children, but in 2010 when my oldest son, Zachary, became a first grader,  I, like you, was faced with this decision.   As a Humanist, I believe in the infinite potential of all children.   This  became (and will continue to be) a spiritual matter. Standardized testing contradicted my beliefs in many ways.   I have been opting Zachary out of all standardized testing since 2009, including the MAP test.  It is a decision that my husband and I have to wrestle with each year as Zachary gets older.  We know the time may come when Zachary wants or needs to take a standardized test.  He has always been included in the decision-making process.  My profession as a second  grade public school teacher places me in a contradictory position three times each year when I am mandated to proctor the MAP test for my young students.  I see the destructive nature of standardized tests such as the MAP test.  In my experience the MAP  promotes a skewed and inflated view of development for parents and children.  As you know, Jesse, it is difficult to be a teacher with the current educational atmosphere of standardization but, as you also know,  it has been especially challenging to be a parent.  I believed that  instructional methods pursued by school districts as a result of standardized tests like the MAP could be harmful to Zachary.  I, like you, could not let Zachary be a participant in the process.

I soulfully know this struggle.

I want to share a letter I wrote to Zachary’s future middle school counselor in hope that it might provide other parents with the words or ideas to continue this fight for their children.

Dear Middle School Counselor,

Zachary at the plate!

I am writing about Zachary, an incoming 6th grader. He has many talents that are not traditionally honored in school. Up to this point we have worked hard to be partners to his teachers.  Zachary has had many outstanding teachers who worked hard to make his daily classroom experience  match his gifts.  Along with his teachers, we have tried to provide a supportive classroom environment where he has some opportunities to shine at school. This has helped maintain his emotional and intellectual investment throughout elementary school.

Zachary is a fantastic performer. He loves to be viewed as knowledgeable and capable. He has had these opportunities in elementary school during physical education, the school play and anytime he is asked to present information he is interested in. He feels great about himself and his learning when he is able to have these types of experiences.

Zachary at 6 years old

Zachary is a fantastic language learner. When Zachary was in third grade my husband, Joshua and I (both elementary teachers), took teaching positions at an American School in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Zachary attended this school for nine months while we were teaching. He very quickly learned Portuguese through interactions with children. He has not had much opportunity to practice. I believe, with an excellent Spanish teacher, he will see his ability to learn languages as a gift he possesses. He also enjoys children who have experienced other cultures or who speak other languages. He would like to return to Brazil some day.

Zachary is highly motivated to learn about social justice issues that are occurring currently or have occurred in history. He loves learning about the Civil Rights Movement but also enjoys discussing current events. He is quick to recognize social injustices that can occur in school and makes attempts (sometimes misguided but always pure of heart) to correct them. When he is misguided, he is generally principled and takes responsibility for fixing his mistake. He really wants to understand the social issues going on around him.

Zachary is a hard worker. He will work hard to learn what is required of him. He will work the hardest in math, but he will need support. He does not have a positive self-image of himself as a mathematical thinker. Joshua and I are working on praising the effort he puts into learning. He regularly asked his 5th grade teacher to stay after school for help. In our family we teach that education is a human right, and if you don’t understand something, you have a right to attain that knowledge. However, it can only be yours if you seek it out. A teacher who doesn’t know that you are confused cannot help you. Zachary will not ask for help from an intimidating teacher.

Zachary is a deep processor. He needs time to think about things and his understanding of new concepts tends to develop over time. He needs many repetitions of new concepts before he can apply them independently. This is especially common in math. A common experience we have had with teachers who do not understand Zachary is that he will bring homework home from school that he does not understand because the concept was newly taught during class. This causes him a great deal of frustration and stress. In elementary school he has been very sensitive to how quickly other children understand a concept while he is still processing. We try to stress the importance and value of the hard work he puts into understanding things and not the speed. Our fear in sharing this is that it will be misunderstood as a deficit or delay in Zachary’s development. This is not the case. Zachary is well within the normal limits of child development. He always has been.

Zachary is the victim of an over-standardized and over-academicized curriculum that has pressured him to achieve academic concepts that are not appropriate using methods that are not often suitable for his learning style.  Zachary had the misfortune of beginning his school career as the national and state educational agendas held a standardized approach to assessment in high-esteem, often relegating Zachary to tracking, or grouping, techniques that would easily deflate his developing self-image and motivation. For this reason, we have opted Zachary out of all standardized testing because we believe Zachary’s potential is limitless and cannot be condensed to a math and reading score. Any learning environment that stresses speed or quantity over quality will be a negative experience for Zachary.

ZachFishingZachary lives a full life. He is busy after school with sports, friends and playing outside. Homework can be extremely stressful or overwhelming to him. I fear this could become a reason for Zachary to dis-invest in school. He does not view homework as contributing towards his learning. We, as his parents, agree that homework has not helped Zachary to learn responsibility or study habits. It has caused significant tension in our family. Zachary needs teachers who understand that children his age need balance between home and school.

Zachary is extremely imaginative and, consequently, a fantastic writer. He is a contextual learner, so writing provides him with a rich opportunity to understand a topic and analyze it from whole to part. Since first grade he has become an expert in many topics because he wrote about them. Zachary loves to write and read comics.  Freedom to choose topics is motivating for him. The same is true for any reading he is asked to do. A teacher who is overly fixated on handwriting, spelling ability or punctuation will not help him grow as a writer or a reader. A teacher with a broad definition of reading and writing who provides meaningful choices will positively impact his growth as a reader and a writer.

Kelly, Porter, Jackson, Joshua Bock, and Zachary.

Zachary deserves time to learn and mature at the pace his mind and body determine. Despite the impatient efforts of some adults to speed Zachary’s development, he has always learned at his own pace. He will be 12 in January. He will take time to mature and develop cognitively, but he always does. He can learn and there is nothing that impedes his learning except for his self-belief and his perceptions of the beliefs of those around him. He needs teachers who understand the development of children his age and have realistic expectations of them. He will get there in his own time. He just needs adults who convey their belief in him on a regular basis and especially when he is struggling to understand new concepts.

Thank you for taking the time to read about Zachary. We realize that educators are human beings and that there is no such thing as a perfect educational experience. We also know that Zachary, like all children, will struggle some, but hopefully, with our support, will also find reasons to shine at school.

Kelly is a mother to Zachary (11), Jackson (9) and Porter (1). She is married to Joshua Bock, a fellow second grade teacher. Kelly has been teaching elementary school since 1998.  She has authored one book, Reading Superheroes, and just finished her doctorate in education this spring.

Her websites are:

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