Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Rule That Stands Above The Golden One

They tell me that the Golden Rule is the only one we need, that every major religion has some version of it embedded in its theology, and it's a good one, the most familiar iteration being, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." But it's not the highest rule. In my book, that honor goes to a rule that the kids agreed to among themselves a few years back: "Don't do anything to anybody unless you ask them first."

The Golden Rule doesn't ask for consent, it just asks each individual to look inward and assume that others feel as we do, while the kids' rule caused us to turn our attentions outward and to consider that others might feel differently than we do. We lived with this agreement for the better part of the school year and it was enlightening when considered in view of the recent spat of celebrities and politicians being outed as habitual sexual harassers and worse. These are men, and it's mostly men, who may well have been adhering to the Golden Rule as they saw it, only doing to others what they themselves would want done to them. What's missing from their actions is consent and that's what makes it a crime.

The children's consent rule wasn't easy to enforce. Young children are forever bumping, tickling, hugging, pushing, and otherwise "doing" things to one another just in the natural flow of things. As the adult responsible for helping the children keep their agreements, I didn't feel it was my place to micro-manage these sorts of day-to-day interactions even if they did technically violate the rule of law. To do so would have meant repeatedly interrupting the children's play to remind them of their agreement to the point that there wouldn't have been much time left for the actual playing. Instead, I decided to let the kids self-manage the rule, only getting involved when a child invoked the rule of her own accord.

And they did, "Hey, you didn't ask me before you pushed me!"

"You didn't ask me if you could touch me!"

"You didn't ask me if you could sit beside me!"

"You didn't ask me if you could look at me!"

That's right, we did sometimes head down that road. Most of the time the kids invoked their rule appropriately, but we also sometimes took it too far. As the adult, it was easy to know what to do when it came to pushing. I was less confident about the unwanted touching. I had mixed feelings about children using the rule to control where people sat. And dictating where others cast their gaze was a bridge too far.

Needless to say, our consent rule created a gray area, and the only way to deal with it was through talking, sometimes lots of it, sometimes emotional. So that's what we did.

Lately, some of the older kids have been using the large dog crate on our playground as a kind of prison into which they put one another. They are playing "pets." Those put into the crate are animals that must be confined for their own "safety." The game involves lots of grabbing and wrestling as the pets are usually reluctant to be put in their cage. Watching this game as an adult is difficult. Children are "forcing" one another into a small, dark space, then barring the door with an old safety gate, holding it firmly in place while the children inside pretend to object, ultimately escaping before being chased down and returned to their prison. The game evokes so many nasty things for me, especially when it's boys forcing girls. It's a consensual game, yet the core of the game is pretending they don't consent. Particularly upsetting for me is that the captor will often say, "I have to put you in your cage to keep you safe," while shoving another child into the hole.

As they play, I've been staying nearby, waiting for that moment when I'm certain they will go too far, when someone will get frightened, when it will become too real and they want to withdraw their consent. We don't have the consent rule on the books this year, but we have agreed that if someone says "Stop!" you have to stop, which is a similar things. A couple times I've reminded kids, "Remember, if you don't like what's happening you can say Stop!" but so far they've just ignored me and continued about their game.

The truth is that none of them have asked for my help, either directly or indirectly. They are playing their unsavory-looking game quite happily, managing to keep it going for long stretches despite its intensity and potential for conflict, injury, and hurt feelings. In part, they are doing it by talking and listening, the pet owners continually informing their pets about what is coming next: "I'm going to grab you and put you back in your cage," "If you get away, I'm going to catch you and bring you back," "I can't let you get out, it's not safe." The pets in this game, as is true in real life, can't talk back, so their owners are forever peering into their faces, studying their expressions, looking, I think, for consent. They are forever holding onto their pets, studying their body language, feeling, I think, for consent. At least that's what it looks like they are doing as they play.

Over the course of the week, I gradually became more comfortable with the kids' game. Even as I continue to be bothered by the optics, I now see that it is, at its core, a game about consent, about children continually checking in with one another, not with the formality of asking permission, but by "reading" one another, continually, everyone turned outward, following a rule that stands above the golden one.

And while you're here at the bottom of this post, maybe you can think of someone who would like a copy of my new book for the holidays!

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

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Monday, November 20, 2017

All Wise People Change Their Minds

"Discovering truth will make me free." ~Mister Rogers

One of my mother's favorite sayings is "All wise people change their minds." One of my father's is "I thought I was wrong once, but I was mistaken."

I'd like to think of myself as a wise man, one who stands willing, should that be where the evidence leads me, to change my mind. Indeed, that is the kind of world I'd choose to live in, where people of goodwill come together in the spirit of democracy, respectfully laying out their arguments in the hues of logos, pathos, and ethos, then going home persuaded or not. Sadly, that's not how it works for me most of the time. More often than not I find myself clinging to my position until the bitter end, more interested in the moment with winning than discovering truth. If I'm going to change my mind, it's typically only later, often days or weeks later, after much hashing and re-hashing of things that I'm able to set my ego aside and accept the new truth.

To be honest, I've become pretty good at letting go when it comes to day-to-day things. I feel like I'm forever admitting my errors around the school because I deploy at least one, if not both, of my parents' proverbs daily. In fact, I tend to make something of a show of it, saying things like, "I was sure wrong about that!" or "You were right, I was wrong" or "You taught me something today!" I want the children to see me being the wise person, deferring to truth, even when it means admitting I was wrong, or perhaps especially when it means that.

The ability to allow oneself to be persuaded isn't one we talk about a lot, but if our grand experiment in self-government is going to work, it's a skill we must develop, even if it's a lot easier said than done. We've not evolved to be easily persuaded, even the youngest child, typically relying heavily upon emotional arguments, digs in her heels when confronted with inconvenient truths. Even the oldest pensioner resists truth that challenges what he already knows. We go through life knowing what we know, seeking out information that supports what we already know, and ignoring evidence to the contrary. It's called "confirmation bias." If democracy is going to work, however, we must learn to allow ourselves to be persuaded, and that involves taking the stance of a scientist: proving our theories about life, about what we "know," by trying to prove ourselves wrong, rather than right.

And when it comes to living in a democratic society, the way we do that is to listen to others, not listening to respond, but listening to understand. It's hard for people like me because I'm so conditioned to the need to "win" that I often can only listen in hindsight, days or weeks later, after much hashing and rehashing. But when I do finally come around, it's my responsibility to say so, to celebrate even, because, after all, all wise people change their minds.

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Friday, November 17, 2017

"It's Safe"

When I first saw the boy sitting on a plastic truck at the top of the concrete slope, I felt the urge to put a stop to it. My knee-jerk risk assessment went something like this:
  1. Plastic trucks not designed to be sat upon, especially by these large 5-year-old bodies
  2. Concrete slope
  3. Short runway with a raised planting bed made of wood at the bottom
  4. Even if these competent kids could manage it, their success might lure less competent friends to try it
  5. Tender flesh and precious heads

I made it to the scene before anyone had put themselves at the mercy of gravity, "That doesn't look safe to me."

He looked from me to the slope. "It's safe."

"There's hard concrete and hard wood and a steep slope."

He gave the scene another once-over, then spoke from the perspective of a five-year-old boy sitting on a plastic digger at the top of a concrete slope, thinking about his own life and limb, "I won't get hurt." 

This is a boy who tends to look before he leaps, usually not the first in line for a risky venture, but rather more typically third or fourth, peering around those in front of him to observe what's going on, learning from their mistakes. In that moment, I tried to imagine what he saw, returning me briefly to my days as a boy who had made similar risk assessments. In the backs of both of our minds, I think, was the much longer, steeper concrete slope in our outdoor classroom, the one we both felt would be too big a risk. Daredevils might try it, but not us.

"Okay, I'll be here to pick you up if you fall."

With that he let himself go down the short ride, stopping so abruptly against the planting bed that the rear wheels were lifted of the ground. There was triumph behind his smile.

When he started dragging his truck back up the slope, I stopped worrying about him, turning my attention to the safety of the planting bed and the second boy who, having witnessed the success, was now steering a truck of his own into place.

I said, "Hang on! I don't want you guys to wreck the garden." The boys waited one behind the other as I dropped a car tire on the ground. "You can run into this."

As the boys took turns in this game of speed, slope, and impact, I began to worry again as other kids stopped by to check things out. I wondered if this was the time for physically less capable children to want their turns, emboldened beyond their reason by the success of these first two. But one after another they watched, then moved on to other things, the monkey-see-monkey-do chain reaction I'd feared not in evidence.

I could have let my fears over-ride the superior risk assessment capabilities of the boys. Instead, I offered my counsel, then trusted their judgement, while being near to pick them up if they fell.

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Where They Are The Experts

Last week I wrote a piece about what is popularly referred to as "loose parts," or what I prefer to call "junk and debris." One reader referring to a body of research that consistently finds that children engaged in loose parts play use more math language and more elaborate vocabulary than children playing with traditional toys or during structured play and wondered why that would be.

I don't know for sure, of course, but I expect that it has to do with the fact that open-ended, unscripted playthings cause children to engage in more cooperative play, which requires communication, not with adults, but with other kids who are likewise learning math and vocabulary. Whereas "toys" and adult-lead activities tend to be more predictable, with many of their answers built into them, children interacting with loose parts are more likely to run across new concepts and unexpected challenges, situations that require children to stretch themselves in order to communicate with one another.

For instance, children building with familiar unit blocks, with their regular sizes and flat edges are playing in a more predictable environment, one that is less likely to present new concepts or unexpected challenges. Children building with a collection of pinecones, sticks, rocks and leaves, on the other hand, are playing with far less standardized building materials, ones that take children to places where they must find new language to communicate about things like relative density, shape, size, fragility, texture, and other aspects of their materials. The answers are not built into these materials.

Whenever children play together without the interference of adults, they are creating their own world, not just through their physical project, but also through the words and concept they discover and communicate about together. Often the words they use are imprecise at first, leading to disagreements and confusion. Often they misinterpret concepts, leading to faulty theories. As they continue to play, however, as they learn more about the world they are creating, their language tends to become more precise and their theories more refined. I enjoy few things more than when children begin using terminology of their own devising, their own short-cut jargon, to describe phenomena they have discovered together.

This is why giving children the chance to engage in unstructured play with junk and debris is so powerful, it removes most of the "scripts" that are baked into regular toys and structured play, freeing children to create a world of their own, a place where they are the experts.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

When Democracy Suffers

I'm weary of hearing about "STEM," the popular acronym for "science, technology, engineering, and math." I'd be shocked if anyone reading here isn't aware of it being tossed around. Indeed, many of us have picked it up and held it high, declaring that play-based education is the perfect preparation for a career in STEM. Some of us have gotten clever and begun talking about STEAM education, tossing in "art" by way of expanding the notion, but it's a poor fit because "art" is not a career path the way the others are.

We're right, of course. When children play, they are scientists: exploring, discovering, hypothesizing, experimenting, concluding. When children play they are using the technology at hand, solving engineering problems, and engaging in the sorting, organizing, and categorizing that forms the foundations of mathematics. All of that is true.

My objection is that all this talk about STEM is just the latest way to keep our schools focused exclusively on vocational training, to prepare our children for those mythological "jobs of tomorrow," jobs that may exist today, but are unlikely to exist two decades from now when our preschoolers are seeking to enter the job market. It's a scam as old as public education, an idea that emerged from the Industrial Revolution because back then the "jobs of tomorrow" were stations along an assembly-line, where rote and repetition were king, so we made schools to prepare the next generation for that grim life. Today, those "jobs of tomorrow" are in cubicles, pushing buttons on computers, vocations that are equally prone to rote and repetition and equally likely to not exist in the future.

Most of the jobs my daughter will be applying for in the coming years didn't exist when she was in preschool. If I'd pursued the careers my guidance counselors recommended in high school, I'd be unemployed today. Anyone who claims to know the specific skills required for the jobs of tomorrow is just blowing smoke. They are wrong and they have always been wrong. Those jobs of tomorrow, as is true in every generation, will instead be largely invented by the generation that fills them.

I did not enter the teaching game to prepare young children for their role in the economy and if vocational training is the primary function of schools, then I'd say we ought to just shut them all down and let the corporations train their own damn workers. No, the purpose of education in a democracy ought to be to prepare children for their role as citizens and that means that they learn to think for themselves, that they ask a lot of questions, that they question authority, that they stand up for what they believe in, and that they understand that their contribution to the world cannot be measured in money. The project of self-governance requires educated citizens, people who are self-motivated, who are sociable, and who work well with others. That is why I teach.

I'm married to the CEO of a technology company. She didn't study STEM in school. In fact, she admits to having steered clear of those classes, opting instead for a broad liberal arts education, one in which she pursued her passion for learning languages. Today, people invite her, as a one of those rare unicorns, "a woman in STEM," to speak with young people about her career. She is rarely invited back because she doesn't tell the kids what their teachers want them to hear. Instead, she tells them the truth, which is that her success is based on being self-motivated, being sociable, and working well with others.

Being able to earn a living is important and none of this is to say that children ought not pursue their STEM interests whether they lead to a career or not. But these things cannot stand at the center of education and when they do, democracy suffers.

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

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A Reaction In My Soul

I'm familiar with the best known pedagogical approaches out there, not expert, but at least reasonably well-read. I take from them what I think I can make work within our little cooperative preschool and while I don't exactly disregard the rest, because I do keep a lot of things in the storeroom of my mind just in case, I don't feel compelled to implement anyone else's approach lock, stock and barrel.

That's probably why I have such a strong visceral reaction to the so-called corporate education reformers, with their high-stakes standardized test, standardized curricula, standardized teacher training, and their expectations of standardized results. Yes, I've come to hate that they seek to profit-ize schools, turning children into a kind of labor force in their economic enterprise, that they want it's focus to be exclusively vocational, and that they desire to narrow what our schools do down to little more than math and literacy factories. But, I've had to learn to distrust those aspects of what they're doing to public education; it's the threat of cookie-cutter sameness that causes a reaction in my soul.

One of the challenges presented by these blocks (that are really diaper
wipe boxes) is that they are so easy to build with that quite often a
single child or group of children will come to dominate all the blocks.

No, you'll rarely find me advocating for "best practices," except perhaps in the context of what I've found works best for me and the children I teach. Even within the play-based world there are sometimes attempts to standardize things, or if not that, at least reduce what we do into formulas that can be picked up by others. They are well-intended efforts, for the most part, designed to help newcomers to our world to implement a play-based program in their own school. Or, quite often, they are intended to be persuasive; an attempt to put what we do in the language of standardization so that doubters will take us seriously. A necessary evil perhaps, but one that makes me cringe.

Most play-based folks, for instance, advocate for a child-lead approach, one in which the teacher helps guide or "scaffold" or support children as they make their own freely chosen explorations or are driven by their own passions. The adults' role is typically seen as getting out of the way as much as possible and it will be through the opportunity to simply play together that children will learn what they most need to learn. And, indeed, I've found all of this to be spot-on.

I suspect that this project came about because of conflicts among peers and a desire to
 find a  solution. Playing with the parent-teacher managing the block area, these girls built
a  "warehouse" for all the blocks, organized by color. The idea, as I understood it, was that
 if someone wanted a block, they came to the warehouse to take what they needed.
 The girls then returned the blocks to their proper place when the builders were done.

The problem is that I, this individual person who is a teacher, got into this game largely because I really love to play with young children. I wouldn't last long in a rigid role of quiet observation and minimal intervention. I'm not here to care for them, although I do that. I'm not here because I think they're cute, although they are. I'm not here for any reason other than that I like to play with them. I need to be down there on my knees in the middle of the game or story or project. I have no desire to lead it, no desire to control it, no desire to make it into a "teaching moment." I just want to be there too, playing along, laughing, building towers to knock down, swirling my hands in the finger paint, squishing the play dough, talking about whatever pops into my head as a result of whatever we're doing, and listening to whatever pops into their heads. I hope it's not that I still have a lot to learn from these things (although that might be a part of it) but rather than I feel I must do these thing in order to enter into the flow: their flow. And it is, I think, when we are in flow together that the universe is ours.

And then, when I feel the flow is carrying us along, that is when I step away and go find some other kids to play with. If you don't know what I mean, it doesn't matter. You have your own reason for being a teacher, one that I'll bet you'd have a hard time describing to me.

The parent-teacher played with them, taking part in the problem-solving,
inserting vocabulary like "inventory" and "supply." The children lead 
throughout, getting into an easy flow of play that engaged them. When
Sasha, the child leading the first wave of warehouse play finally moved
on to something else, Sienna took over, creating a new warehouse, modeled
on the first but horizontal rather than vertical. As she said to me, "The
other one made kids want to knock it down. Nobody wants to knock this
one down."

Because of this, I don't believe I could teach anywhere but in a cooperative, a place in which I work every day with a team of dedicated parent-teachers, each of them with their own reason for being there. I do talk to them about the importance of getting out of the way. In fact, I used to tell them that their main job was to keep their station reasonably tidy and inviting, and to only intervene when the children needed help with their conflicts, or their struggles were overwhelming them. I now tell them that their job is to play with the children, not to take over, but to simply be one of them.

I'm sorry that I can never write posts here that provide you with "5 tips" or "10 keys," but it's not like that, not for me. Teaching cannot be standardized, cannot be reduced to a list or a program that can be taught in 6 months or 4 years or a lifetime. I can tell you what I do, what we do, and I can tell you that it changes from year to year, month to month, week to week, and day to day, because we are not standardized people, the children and parents and teacher who are this school.

If we are to ever become who we can be, we must first find a way to be who we are. And that can never be standardized.

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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Monday, November 13, 2017

Where Worksheets Are Always Optional

My heart goes out to all those preschoolers who are today and every day being compelled to do stuff, not because it's stuff they need to do, not because it's the good or right thing to do, and certainly not because it's the best thing to do, but because some day down the road, the reasoning goes, other adults are going to seek to compel them to do things they would rather not do and so we might as well get them used to it.

Frankly, I hope they never get used to it. A few years ago, one of my former students moved on to a public school kindergarten where he refused to do his worksheets. While the other kids bent over them, he goofed around. After a couple weeks the teacher, at her wit's end, sent the entire stack of worksheets home with the boy, expecting his mother to march him through them. Both parent and child refused. As I said to the mother at the time, "What are they going to do, expel him? What are they going to do, give him an F in worksheets? And even if they did, what difference will it make in his life?"

Most of the children I teach manage "just fine" (a melancholy measurement, if you ask me) when confronted by the compulsory nature of normal schools. They might not like it, but they resign their noses to the grindstone after awhile and I take pride in at least not being the one who bent them to it. And it's true that many of the kids I teach go on to thrive in public schools despite having spent the previous several years not being compelled in preparation for being compelled, which kind of puts the lie to the arguments of the "school readiness" crowd.

Our playground is built on a slope, making it inevitable that children will regularly get the idea to roll things down it. For the last couple weeks, we've been rolling tires. They wrestle them to the top of the short flight of stairs that descend from the gate, wrestle them onto the ramp they make from a plank of wood, then call out their cautions before letting them go. Other kids, seeking to keep themselves and others safe, create a wall of junk halfway down the hill near the garden, continually repairing it as the tires crash into it. Other children mill about in between, thrilling themselves by standing in the way of the tires, then leaping aside at the last second. At any given moment there will be anywhere from five to a dozen of them engaged in the game in some way, creating, experimenting, cooperating, playing. No one is telling them what to do. Instead, they are doing what they were born to do, asking and answer their own questions about their world and the people they find there.

These children are preparing themselves for life much more directly and effectively than those bent over desks filling out worksheets from which they may or may not be learning anything, but certainly not what they most need or want to learn. Instead, they spend their days practicing for the decades of compulsory schooling that lie ahead, rather than life itself, a place where worksheets are always optional.

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

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