Thursday, August 17, 2017

An Injury Pushed Off Into The Future

People think I'm joking when I say this to kids, but I'm not, and the kids know I'm not:

"If you have no bloody owies or just one, then you are being too careful. If you have four or more bloody owies then you're not being careful enough. The right number of bloody owies is two or three."

At least once a week I find myself in a group of kids comparing bloody owies. Sometimes we count bruises, but there's a general consensus that they don't count nearly as much as scabs.

Charlotte was a kid who robustly disagreed with my bloody owie-to-carefulness ratios. She claims to always have more than four bloody owies and felt that my standards are too low. She once complained, "It's impossible to not have at least four bloody owies. I have four just on this arm!" She once insisted that "eleven" is actually the right number of bloody owies.

Because of all this, I'm often very aware of the status of the scabs, cuts, and other assorted abrasions that have mangled the flesh of my charges (most of which, incidentally, don't occur on my watch). And what impresses me the most is how quickly they vanish. I mean, I might go two or three weeks showing off the same damn bloody owies on my own skin, while kids like Charlotte, it seems, can show me a fresh one every day without actually increasing the total number of bloody owies on her body. It's almost as if young children are designed for bloody owies.

And indeed they are. Otherwise healthy children heal remarkably fast. They have no knee caps so falling on them is rarely worse than a flesh wound. Their bones are flexible and everything about them is low to the ground. Their teeth grow back. Their skulls aren't even fully fused, for crying out loud, which means they have a greatly reduced risk of concussions. In other words, young children are designed to fall down, hard, and often.

And likewise they are designed to learn from falling down. 

This is why I'm so despondent about the changes the recently took place at my local playground. Up until then, two of the main features of the place were four large rocks that kids used as "stepping" stones, that would more properly be called "leaping" stones, and a large, slippery steel dome that really could only be ascended by taking a pell mell running start, then hoping you could stop yourself right at the top or else it was down the other side with you, often on the seat of your pants. The city is replacing it all with yet another boring climber under which they've installed a good three feet of wood chips. At least they kept the zip line.

How do you learn about bloody owies from that? Nope, all those injuries, all that learning, will have to wait until they're older, out in the world with knee caps to break, greater heights from which to fall, brittler bones, and fully formed skulls so that their jostled brains have no space in which to swell. 

No one wants children to get hurt, but at the same time every injury you prevent in childhood is just an injury pushed off into the future because as we say at Woodland Park, the only way to learn about asphalt is to fall on it.

You might think I'm joking about this, but I'm not.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

An Accident Of Random Gurgling?

When our daughter was born, I wanted her to call me "Papa," so I said it to her a lot, mostly as part of a joke-y competition I had with my wife to be the first parent she named. I won the race when she was three months old: she said, "Papa," as I was changing her diaper. Initially, I figured it was just an accident of random gurgling because even as a first time parent I expected the first word milestone was still months away. I stepped out of the room, then returned. She said, "Papa." I did it again and again and each time she said it, smiling at me. At five months, she added "Mama" to her vocabulary and by the time she was eight months she was speaking in full sentences.

It felt like a miracle, but even if it came ahead of schedule, it's actually something every normally developing baby does. Humans are born with the ability to use language. It is part of what renowned linguist Noam Chomsky calls "the human biological endowment." Indeed, according to Chomsky, humans are not just born with the ability to imitate and use vocalizations to communicate, but also with an innate sense of grammatical rules. From the latest edition of New Philosopher (online version not yet available):

. . . (E)very language has something noun-like, something verb-like. There is always a way to make something negative, a way to ask a question, and to indicate the difference between one and more than one . . . According to Chomsky, those "fixed invariant principles" suggest that there is something innate about certain grammatical rules . . . In other words, there is a universal grammar.

In elementary school, we spent a lot of time diagraming sentences, breaking them down into all their various parts, naming them, then putting them back together. To this day, my formal knowledge of the rules of grammar are quite weak in that I never really did learn to label all the parts or to memorize the rules governing them. I found the classroom drills tedious at best, but I was nevertheless capable of pulling down good grades, largely because while I might not have been able to define grammar, I knew it when I heard it. It was something I entered the classroom "knowing," even if I'd never been taught.

The Greek philosopher Plato believed that all learning was "but recollection," that humans are born possessing knowledge and that we then come to remember it as we live our lives. Subsequent philosophers, however, have come to view the newborn as more of a blank slate upon which their environment does it's work. The longer I work with young children, however, the more I come around to seeing the truth in Plato's point of view. Almost every day, there is a moment in which a child does or expresses something that strikes me as evidence of a deeper wisdom, a profundity that simply could not have come from her environment. I share some of those moments here, but more often than not I, shake my head with a chuckle, and dismiss it as an accident of random gurgling. But is it?

It appears that Plato was at least right about grammar, that it is something we, at least in part, recollect rather than learn. I expect there is much more of this kind of remembering than we imagine.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

This Is Not A Problem With People Or Math

Surveys of American students find that the majority of us feel relatively good about ourselves and mathematics through elementary school, an opinion that takes a sharp nose-dive starting in about middle school and continues in a downward trend through high school. This pretty much tracks with my own experience. I was usually pretty good at figuring it out and aside from a couple clinkers, I tended to bring home A's and B's. I even managed a surprisingly high score on my college entrance SAT test, an achievement I ascribe to my strategic ability at test taking more than any mathematical aptitude, which encouraged me to continue pursuing mathematics coursework through my first couple years at university even though I had no future plans that seemed to call for those higher-level math skills.

But even as I was capable of playing the math "learning" game, I didn't like it. I found it tedious and pointless. When I expressed this opinion around adults I was mostly told, in so many words, that I was wrong. When I shared it with my peers, they mostly agreed it was boring, with the exception of the occasional friend who, was, if not joyful, at least able to take a puzzle-worker's pleasure in ciphering. Those were the friends I chose as homework partners, especially if they were pretty girls, which may at least in part explain why I could keep my grades up while despising the work.

Today, as a preschool teacher, I don't attempt to "teach" math, yet all day long I see children engaged happily in both solitary and collaborative mathematical pursuits through their play. It's quite clear to me that humans, young ones at least, take great pleasure in the organizing, sorting, and patterning that lies at the heart of what we call mathematics. They take great joy in counting, in comparing, and in those eureka moments that come with mathematical discovery. It flows through them as naturally as, say, art. 

So what happens? Is our national "hatred" of math a problem with humans or a problem with how we try to teach it?

What if we taught art the way we teach math? We start by showing students all the colors, not to play with, but to memorize. Then, after a few years of that, we give them two or three colors and permit them to only paint straight lines over and over until they've mastered them. Then we work on arcs and then other curved lines for a few years. Finally, after many years of this sort of drilling, we move on to shapes where we drill some more. Then comes more repetitive drilling on colors, color mixing, composition, until finally, after many tedious years, the art student, now at a university, is finally permitted to actually create something of his own. Oh, and never, ever take a peek at someone else's paper. It's a ridiculous, backwards idea, but in a very real sense, this is exactly how we attempt to teach math.

I have a good friend who holds degrees in both physics and math. He once told me in frustration, "The problem with math in high school is that they think it's about numbers and memorizing and right answers. There are no right answers in math! It's messy!" You see, for him, math is a blank canvas upon which he can explore, guided by his questions and creativity. This is how I see math being explored by the children in our preschool classroom.

I'm a product of the sort of math education one finds in our schools today: one of rote learning, where you don't get to ask your own questions or express your own creativity. I'm sharply aware of how ignorant I am, but I do know what math is not: it is not algorithms and ciphering, even as that forms the basis of what we call "math education." I do know that math learning can and should be a joyful, fully human experience, one, like art, that is not discrete from the rest of the world, but woven through everything we do, yet we are producing generation after generation of young adults who "hate" math. 

This is not a problem with people or math, it is clearly a problem with how we expect children to learn it.

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Good People, What Are We Waiting On?

This is what I've been reflecting upon over these past 24 hours. They're all short, they're all important. I hope you'll really listen. Good people, what are we waiting on?

"Race hatred cannot stop us
This one thing we know
Your poll tax and Jim Crow
And greed has got to go
You're bound to lose
You fascists bound to lose."

"You ain't no iron, you ain't no solid rock
You ain't no iron, you ain't no solid rock
But we American people say, "Mr. Hitler you is got to stop!"

"Good people, what are we waiting on?"

And the song that is my national anthem:

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

You Can't Hang A Label On That

We call what we do at the Woodland Park Cooperative School a "play-based curriculum." We also call it "progressive," "emergent," "child-directed," "project-based," "crunchy granola," and just about anything else that sounds descriptive in the moment. We often compare what we do to Reggio Emilia or Montessori or Waldorf or RIE or democratic free schools, although we're not purists about any of it. Luckily we don't struggle with enrollment, because if we did I'm afraid we'd have to become more precise in our description for marketing purposes. I imagine it might be frustrating for people who are shopping around for preschools to not be able to put us in a box for comparison purposes, but if we did that, if we could be labeled or standardized or plotted on a grid, then we simply would cease to be the Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool.

People often say they want their school to be more like ours or that they're starting a new school and they want to base it on what we do. They ask for advice, but I don't think I'm much help because to me the most important, foundational principle of our school is that we are a cooperative, owned and operated, equally, by the families who chose to enroll their children. And being a cooperative doesn't dictate any particular curriculum: it's an organizing principle that could just as easily be home to a hardcore academic program as it is our play-based one, depending largely on what sort of teacher the parents choose to hire. In other words, our curriculum starts with the community of families who have, for the past 16 years, chosen to re-hire me. I am a guy who only knows one way to do preschool and that's to make it possible for kids to freely play with the other people they find when they walk through our gates.

I suppose, at bottom, what we're really all about is playing with one another, day after day, month after month. Friends are found and friends are lost. We play in large groups and we play alone. Our feelings and bodies get hurt, then we heal. We find that some people can do, or know, interesting, exciting things, and also that we do too. We discover that we don't like some of the other people, but that we absolutely love others, and whatever the case we have to figure out a way to live with all of them, and in that process we often learn that we don't really dislike or love them as much as we originally thought. We are learning to live together: what we're doing is building community.

And that's why you can't hang a label on us: it's our community and no one else's is like it. We're not the only school with a play-based curriculum, but we are the only community like ours, inside and out, top to bottom, a truth that reaches into every facet of what we adults do as well. We have bylaws and policies, of course, but not a year goes by that we don't change them, often significantly. Just as the children do as they play, we bicker and laugh, make mistakes and enjoy great successes. We strive for equity and fairness, while knowing the goal is never for everyone to be the same -- indeed, as cliched as it is, it's our differences that make us strong. This is how vital communities are built, everywhere, all the time.

The skills, habits, and knowledge required to be an engaged member of a community are precisely the skills required for citizenship in a democracy, and acquiring those traits of self-governance is, after all, the real purpose of education in our society. That these are also the skills, habits, and knowledge required to thrive in the workplace or at church or in the theater or on a sports team or anywhere one finds other people, is not an accident: it's life itself.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my role in this ever-evolving community in which I spend so much of my time. I know the children and their parents do too. We think about the things we like and the things we'd like to change and we know that whatever the case, it's up to us.

No two play-based schools are the same: each one is a community of its own creation. You can't hang a label on that. Play together, day after day, month after month, and you'll create something that has never before been seen on this earth -- something to call ours.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2017

What Is She Learning?

I was recently asked how I go about explaining to skeptical parents what their child is learning as she plays. It's a common enough question, one I don't need to address very often in my day-to-day life as a teacher, largely because the Woodland Park Cooperative School's reputation as a play-based school precedes it, mostly only attracting families who are seeking what we have to offer -- the opportunity for their children to play with other kids in a safe enough, loving, interesting environment, -- so I don't often have to deal with skeptics. The families of the children I teach tend to view play as a pure good, like love, one that needs no other supporting evidence.

When I see children on the floor, say, building with blocks, I know they are learning, because that's what play is: it's children setting about asking and answering their own questions. Can I stack this block atop that one? Can I make it even higher? Add a roof? Create a room? A zoo? Can I persuade this other person to join me in my vision? Can I join them in theirs? They aren't saying these things aloud or even in their heads, but it's quite clear that when humans play, when we freely choose an activity, that is what we are doing, testing the world, performing experiments, seeking answers to questions we ourselves pose. Play is how our instinct to become educated manifests itself, a concept that is supported by more than a century of research and observation performed by the brightest names in education, from Dewey and Piaget to Montessori and Vygotsky.

But as to the question of "what" children are learning at any given moment, the only one who knows that is person who is playing, and the moment we interrupt them to ask, the moment we test them, we forever change it. It's version of what in physics is called the "observer effect." As humans play, they are unconsciously asking and answering questions as they emerge, pursuing trains of thought, playing with variables, theorizing, making connections between one thing and another. The moment another person steps in with his own questions, that pursuit stops, and when the questioner is in a position of authority, like a teacher or parent, those questions become an imperative. The child must end their learning to explain it, to prove it, to translate it, and to invariably narrow it down to a sentence or two that can only, at best, provide a glimpse of a glimpse of what is actually being learned.

Experienced play-based teachers know this, of course. We tend rather to stand back and instead of testing the children we attempt to closely observe, then make educated guesses about what we imagine that child is learning. When they attempt to stack one block atop another, for instance, we might guess they are learning about balance. When the building falls we might surmise they are learning about gravity. When they invite another child to play with them, we say they are learning important social or emotional skills. But at bottom, it's all just guesswork and imagination, and even if we are correct at one level, we are invariably wrong about much of it, both specifically and through omission.

The great truth is that no one can ever know what another person is learning unless they directly tell us of their own accord: "Guess what I learned? . . ." And this is especially true of young children who likely don't even have the vocabulary or experience to put their insights into words capable of communicating the depth and texture of their moments of Eureka!

I rarely attempt to answer the question of what a child is learning at any given moment, even as I spend much of my day wondering about it. I can say, when asked, "I see her building with blocks," "I see her attempting to balance one atop another," "I see her building falling down," those are the things I know to be true; observable facts. But to suggest that I can know with any precision what she is learning is to ask me to read another person's mind. There is no test capable of answering that and our guesses are simply that, guesses, and they can only get at a very narrow sliver of truth.

But I do know my fellow humans are learning when they play and that has to be enough.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2017

One Foot Forever In Each Place

For the past month or so, I've not slept more than two nights in the same place as I've travelled around the great nation of Australia while speaking with teachers and parents at my stops along the way. I've had some memorable adventures, seen some sights, gotten lost a few times, and had the opportunity to play with some cool people. I've been to five of the six states and one of the two mainland territories, traveled thousands of miles by plane, train, and automobile, been frozen by the cold and made sweaty by the heat. No two days have been alike, with no regular schedule to guide me, and few touchstones of normalcy. There have been moments of great stress, of great joy, of deep connection, and of oppressive loneliness, sometimes all in a single day.

I'm exhausted right now, sitting on yet another hotel room bed writing this morning's blog post as I've done for the past few weeks. I'm looking forward to sleeping in my own bed again, to reuniting with my wife, and to returning to the routines of home and school, but there's a part of me that's sad to see it come to an end. There's something to be said for living out of a backpack, not really knowing what each day will bring. It's been a chance to learn new things about myself, things that would have remained unlearned were I to have just continued along my beloved and familiar track. Likewise, I've also learned new things about the world and the people I've found out here beyond my little bubble back home.

This is why we travel, of course: it's broadening. I write here often about the things I would change about our educational system were I in charge, but if I were given the power over just one thing, it would be to require all of us to travel, not just for a week or two, but extensively, exhaustively, to spend a month or months or even a year or years living abroad. As a child our family spent four years in Athens, Greece and as an adult I lived a similar number of years with my wife in northern Germany. I've spent months here in Australia and have had the opportunity to travel through much of Europe as well as Morocco, China, Canada, Mexico, and New Zealand. Nothing changes a person like travel. Nothing causes your old prejudices to fall away like spending time among people who speak, eat, pray, and generally just live in ways unlike those to which we are accustomed.

Each time I travel, I learn. Each time I travel I see my own life more clearly. Each time I travel I return simultaneously dissatisfied and grateful for the life I live back home. In the past couple years I've waved goodbye to Woodland Park families who have flown off for new lives in Germany, Italy, Japan, and other places around the globe. Those children and their families will never be the same. They are now citizens of both America and the world. When they return they will see their home as both better than they remembered and worse by comparison. It's in the nature of travel to leave the traveler standing forever astride the globe with a foot still planted in the lands she's left behind.

When I finally board the plane that will take me back home, I will, as always, feel a pull in two directions which is the blessing and curse of travel. But I can say that I've confirmed once more that my life in Seattle is the best life for me, although I can now also see that maybe some of my old routines, habits and attitudes, things to which I've clung, are in fact holding me back.

I am not necessarily a happy traveler, but as always, I'm happy I have traveled. And as delighted as I am to be soon winging my way home, I'm delighted to know that I will return again in a year's time, one foot forever in each place.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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