By Mary Summerbell
The two Beloit International Film Festival movies that had the most poignant impact on me this year are both about our most precious resource – children. As environmental issues are more and more of immediate and paramount importance for this world, I propose that the educational environment we provide for our children to grow up in is as important as any other environmental issue. If you think about it, education is an ecological issue. I believe that the global community’s parallel top priorities need to be environmentalism and education – most especially, early childhood education.
No Small Matter is a thorough and thoughtful exploration of early childhood development and education. By combining results of recent brain activity studies on babies with data from long-term studies of early childhood care environments, it presents scientific evidence of both the known damage of childhood trauma and neglect, and the positive, reinforcing effects of loving learning interactions. It cites amazing facts and statistics as well as practical, research-based solutions to the challenges of changing the ingrained inequities of American society. Filmed in the United States, it gives information, insights and hope for universal application of proven teaching methods.
Love Them First is the story of a worst-case-scenario school turned example-to-follow through the leadership of one strong woman with a vision. It highlights the magnetic personality and personal determination of principal Mauri Friestleben “as she sets out to undo history” in a Minnesota school that, for two decades, has been, in her words, “the lowest of the lowest of the lowest” on the state’s list of underperforming schools, ranking in the bottom 5%. This look into Lucy Lane Grade School vividly shows the “soul-crushing day-to day” efforts and the hard-earned positive effects of educators working in the deepest shadows of inequity in our current education system. In the midst of the biggest white/black test score differences in the nation, with a student population that is 90% black and 90% poor, facing a deeply ingrained culture of failure, crime and violence, these teachers are steadily climbing the Grand Canyon of achievement gaps.
But even as disadvantages and setbacks seem insurmountable, teachers and kids and families rally together to love and support each other, to change, and save, their own lives. The shared struggles and the shining smiles we see on the kids’ faces are irresistibly heart-opening. This movie is a real, true tear-jerker. Sad tears and happy. At my viewing, the volunteer introducing the movie warned the audience that “This is a four-Kleenex, or two-hanky, movie.” And it is. It is also among the most hopeful and inspiring movies I’ve ever seen. And believe me, I’ve seen a lot. It stirs the spirit and lifts the soul, to see the joyful resilience of the people in this film – kids and grown-ups alike. The ultimate message of this movie is that all children belong to all of us and we have a responsibility, as a society, to provide all of them with what they need to live positive, productive lives.
While both films show clear examples of the ever-rippling effects of children’s needs not met, and caring efforts to off-set those often-crippling consequences, No Small Matter goes beyond the root causes of early childhood deprivation to the very seeds of developmental inequities, and then deftly delves into systemic ways to efficiently and effectively correct them.
For the first time in history technology now allows us to look inside babies brains in non-invasive ways, measuring brain activity during interactions. We are unlocking the secrets of the human brain. What we’ve learned is beyond amazing. Babies are born learning – especially from other people. Children learn sooner and learn more than we ever imagined. A baby 42 seconds old can replicate the gesture of an adult touching their own nose. From birth to age five is a crucial developmental time – the first three years most vital of all, with a once-in-a-lifetime explosion of neuron development in the brain. After that, the older we get, the harder it is to re-route brain pathways.
We know now that our experience literally shapes our brains, by reinforcing or deleting neuron connections in response to stimulation – or lack of it. Babies’ early experiences create the foundation for all that follows in their lives. A weakened foundation early in life is something we have to deal with the rest of our lives. Obviously, this is extremely important. The cost to society of chances lost is immeasurable.
We know what kids need to thrive. But it’s getting harder and harder to give it to them. They need a safe, healthy environment with lots of social interaction – is the daily brain food that fuels brain connections and relationships with people – especially loving, supportive adults. Babies and children need lots of play, and freedom to explore, with an adult “scaffolding” them, encouraging them to discover and understand, to learn from whatever it is they are doing.
Contrast that ideal with the current reality of most families. The majority of single and partnered parents are working full time, often multiple jobs, especially with minimum wages, to provide basic needs. In times past, in village-based societies, kids grew up with rich, extended families, with parents working at or close to home, with work and family overlapping. But life has shifted fast. In the 1950’s, in the United States, only 12% of mothers worked outside the home. In 2017 it was 62%. Parents are raising kids on their own now, without family networks or “village” support. Increasing complexities of life mean that society has diminished capacity to support parents who are doing what society needs them to do – work and raise families.
Parents are a child’s first and best teachers. And yet 11 million children in the United States spend more than half their time with people other than their parents. Daycare in America is beyond a crisis. It’s a nightmare. Available professional daycare is limited and expensive, and often of questionable quality. Parents tap into savings or retirement funds to pay for daycare, which can cost more than having a kid in college, more than a house payment or rent. Still, some parents wonder if they are placing their child at risk, leaving a baby who cannot speak with a caretaker they hardly see.
And, lower income families are the most disadvantaged. With less brain-building interaction than kids of high-income families, children of poor parents get farther and farther behind in their development. By age three they have heard 30 million fewer words spoken to them. By age five the high-end kids have spent 1300 more hours at libraries, museums and other educational activities. By the first day of kindergarten they can be two years ahead in language development.
Why are good daycare providers so hard to find? Basically because it doesn’t pay well. Early childhood teachers make around $30,000 a year. Most work a second job to cover basic expenses. They’ve been in the bottom 3-5% of the wage scale for the last 25 years. Prison guards make more money than teachers. In the movie one prison official spoke from a just-built prison costing $400 million dollars, housing 3,500 inmates, 40% of them not graduating high school. One statement in the movie, that I completely and deeply agree with, is that true criminal justice reform is in investing in early childhood education.
The most shocking thing I learned is that the United States military is getting involved in early childhood education. In the movie, as retired of the armed forces spoke of their roles in this collaboration, I’m sitting there asking myself – “And why would the U.S. military be interested in early childhood education?” Then came the answer – the fact that 71% of 17-24 year-olds in the United States are unqualified for military service – lacking the basic educational and/or social skills to be accepted into basic training. Lack of proper education has become a national security issue for the United States of America. Oh, my.
After the film, the spokeswoman for the movie, said that this is more than a movie. Groups working together, are hoping to start a national movement, with this film as the starting point, to reshape early childhood education in America. After it runs the film festival circuit it might come back through local libraries, churches and social service organizations, or Wednesday night B.I.F.F. No Small Matter. If you’re interested in seeing Love Them First, the filmmakers said that it will be available on YouTube by October.
I encourage you to see both films if you can. Together, they might change the way you think of children and education, and actually, eventually, change our whole education system for the better.