The 100th day: Learning's tipping point deep in the school year
The 100th day of school is a tipping point where accretion of grade-level knowledge begins to show; it's a benchmark in leaps of consciousness that teachers celebrate.
Rose Valley, Penn.
Most elementary schools celebrated the 100th day of school around this time of year. “Bring in 100 of something,” the teachers will say. And the day will be devoted to enumerating all manner of things: pennies, Cheerios, acorns, etc. In my former school, it was the day when Zero the Hero saved the day by restoring the specially decorated 100 cake. You can’t have 100 without Zero.Skip to next paragraph
Todd R. Nelson is head of school at The School in Rose Valley outside Philadelphia. He has been a Monitor contributor of Home Forum essays, poems, Op-Ed commentaries and feature articles since 1989. He writes a monthly column for Teachers.net. He and his wife, Lesley, have three adult children.
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The day is also a tipping point. It sneaks up on you. Suddenly, the psychic midpoint of the school year has arrived. It has been circling and watching and coming closer and closer and then … it pounces. Though it may feel like the midpoint, that doesn’t necessarily mean “half over.” Like the proverbial glass that is half full or half empty, it depends on whether you’re filling it up or pouring it out!
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At my school we’re still filling up. This apparent defiance of the laws of physics is more than a trick of the mind. Even though the second half of a school year can feel like the Westward slope on which we are hurtling toward June, time passes in unique ways for each time traveler. The external benchmarks describe one kind of time passage, and the second half of a school year is more like two thirds of the year in terms of the learning we can pour in. Better to focus on the upcoming tipping points, to use a popular phrase, which are internal, less predictable, and indicators of more profound growth. The good thing about going downhill isn’t just the speed–it’s the momentum.
Here’s a way of looking at a tipping point. A child enters, say, fifth grade long before they truly become a fifth grader. Fully inhabiting any new grade takes a while. There’s an accretion of fifth graderness required. There are new routines to master, a new teacher and classmates to know, new curriculums and traditions to practice. But those are just the quantifiable parts. A tipping point comes when we move beyond mere format to fully inhabit the new sense of ability, of accomplishment, of our individual capacities and possibilities. It’s tipping from being in fifth grade to being a fifth grader. It has been out there awaiting your arrival.
How do you know you’re at the tipping point? Ask around and answers will abound. “The most obvious way in kindergarten,” writes our teacher, Annie, “is to witness them flying into the classroom in the morning completely independently. Even when they are followed by parents posing as Sherpas, children have hung up their coats, signed in and become engaged in projects and games. They are often followed by adults with wistful expressions, hoping for an extra hug or a goodbye kiss. They might even welcome a modicum of trouble with separation. A token tear or two! A little clinginess to remind them of the good old days when they felt more needed. Parents, apparently, are tipping too! Now their full-fledged kindergarteners own the classroom, anticipate what the day has in store, and can’t wait to get on with it!” Here are the nascent seeds of executive functioning.
Another teacher, Robin, calls the middle of the preschool year “a protein-packed time indeed.” Our youngest students are making “deeper connections and fierce friendships can emerge,” she says. “Children who were playing in solitary or parallel fashion have matured enough and developed enough trust to enter into more collaborative play. The room grows a bit more boisterous, and the children begin to display a wider range of emotion than was evident in the beginning.”