Sunday, October 22, 2017

Learning To Fight Fire With Fire



I spent the better parts of the months of July and August in Australia. Last week I was in England and I'm now in Iceland at the Play Iceland International conference. In the past few years, I've traveled from Greece to New Zealand, from China to Canada's Prince Edward Island, and everywhere I've gone I've been surrounded by like-minded educators, people who not just understand the importance of childhood play, but who live it, day after day, creating the space, time, and opportunity for children to ask and answer their own questions about the world around them. We know that this is how humans have evolved to learn in the early years and beyond.

It's a joy to be with them, to confirm that the Woodland Park Cooperative School is not a lonely island in a sea of academic testing, standardization, desk-sitting, and developmentally inappropriate expectations of children. When we are together, we don't need to defend a child's right to play, to be outdoors, to direct their own learning, and to choose what they wish to learn and when and how to learn it. We discuss our problems which rarely involve the children, their behavior, their unwillingness, or their abilities, but rather the roadblocks thrown before children by the wider society that exists beyond our bubble. Whereas traditional teachers, those that have found themselves in schools based upon the model of the factory, are forever challenged by the task of somehow compelling children to learn what some panel of self-important adults has determined they ought to learn, by hook or by crook, we are challenged by the task of getting those very adults out of the children's way so the children are free to achieve their own highest potential.


Indeed, everywhere we go, no matter how many inspiring presentations we sit through, no matter how many child-centered schools we visit, we still, inevitably, find ourselves grumbling and ranting about how the world outside our bubble seems to do whatever it can to impede the children we teach, to control them, to push their little noses against the grindstone at earlier and earlier ages. We talk about preschools that are putting uniforms on two-year-olds and forcing them into queues and desks. We talk about regulators who see catastrophe in every stone or stick or uneven surface. We talk about parents who have been made to fear that their five-year-old is falling behind, a cruelty that is being purposely inflicted on families by way of paving the way for schools that are little more than test score coal mines where our children are to labor for the profit of "education" corporations. It's not an accident that the push for ever-more adult directed, top-down, data-driven education is being lead by titans of industry rather than educators; by those who see our children as a means for turning a greasy buck rather than as human beings striving to achieve their highest potential.


When we find ourselves outside our bubble, we've attempted to fight back with reason. We point to the mountain of research, going back for a century or more, that tells us that play is how the human animal has evolved to learn; the science that shows that today's children are increasingly depressed and stressed because of this vicious drive to turn them into objects to be manufactured. I've done it too, here on this blog, in my book, and from the podium, expecting that reasonable people of goodwill, if only provided with the facts, will make the right decision. But despite isolated successes here and there, the overall trend is in the direction of the coal mine.

I've come to realize that we've been doing it wrong. When it comes to influencing public policy, which is ultimately where this battle must be fought, the facts have never mattered as much as emotion, and the corporate guys, with their "Shock Doctrine" messages of failing schools and children who are falling behind, are winning because in a democracy, for better or worse, the emotional argument will almost always trump the reasonable one. And that's where I am this morning as I percolate here in my bubble in Iceland, contemplating what's next: we must find a way, together, to fight fire with fire.


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Friday, October 20, 2017

Freedom Of Thought



A person's freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.  ~John Holt

The other night I was explaining what I do to an old friend who had no idea what I do. It boggled her mind. I explained how when children play they are asking and answering their own questions about the world. She asked, almost in disbelief, "But, then what does a teacher do?"

I wanted to reply, "Get out of the way," but in the interest of not sounding flippant I instead answered, "Mostly, we just provide a relatively safe environment in which children can come together to explore their world through their play with the things and people they find there."

"How is that different than what parents do?"

"There shouldn't be a difference, really. In general, adults need to understand that when children play they are, invariably, preparing themselves for their future." I gave her a couple of examples, which she pondered until I pushed one of her buttons when I said, "For instance, almost all little girls at some time or another dress up as princesses. They are playing with the obviously important concept of feminine beauty."

"What do you mean important? Beauty isn't important!"

I pointed out that she, a retired scientific researcher, was wearing flattering clothing, a particular hairstyle, cosmetics, jewelry. "You may not agree with traditional ideas of beauty, but every woman knows that she can't avoid dealing with societal standards of feminine beauty: you might chose to accept it or reject it or redefine it, but clearly it is important in our world. Children know this even if we try to deny it."

"But shouldn't we be teaching them that it's wrong? Isn't it the teacher's job to teach them that being beautiful doesn't matter?"

"I suppose I can offer them my opinion, but if I attempt to assert that notions of feminine beauty aren't important, the kids will know I'm wrong: the evidence is all around us. It's unavoidable. Every time we turn around we see a narrow concept of feminine beauty being celebrated. It's clearly important to our society. And at least part of why all those girls need to play princess is to explore what it means from the inside so that they can make their own decisions as they get older."

She hated that answer. "But it's not important at all. Women shouldn't be judged for their beauty. We need to teach that to little girls."

"I sure hope little girls learn that, but it won't happen because I lecture them. I expect they're most likely to learn it the way you did -- by experiencing it, experimenting with it, thinking about it, then making their own decisions. If I tried to somehow ban princess play, I would have a rebellion on my hands."

"Oh, I wouldn't want you to do that. Playing princess is fun. You can't ban princess play . . . That would be like banning their freedom to think."

And that's how we left the conversation because it was a school night and time for us to go home.


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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Ways To Not Say "Good Job"



"Teacher Tom! Look!"


"Look, Teacher Tom! Look what I can do!"


"I didn't know you could flip your tummy up on the table and balance with your legs up in the air."


"Look what I figured out, Teacher Tom! I can pop the bubbles by tearing my finger through them. Watch."


"You did that. You figured out how to pop it by tearing your finger through it."


"Teacher Tom, I'm popping them by jumping!" 

"I heard it pop! And I heard it again! You're jumping high and coming down hard to make them pop."


"Did you see what I can do? I'm making shapes! Let me show you."


"You're using your finger to hold the plastic circle in place and drawing around it! It looks like you're really concentrating."

"I can do it with other shapes too."


"I have something I want to show you, Teacher Tom. When I pull out these plugs the cars don't race any more and when I plug them back in they work again."


"Hey, you broke the circuit when you unplugged it, and you closed the circuit again when you plugged them in."


"Teacher Tom, Teacher Tom, we made this house."

"Who said that?"

"We did! We're inside here."


"Now I see you. You made a house with a sheet and clothes pins. You must have worked together."

"We did."


"Look what I made."


"You cut out all those shapes with pinking shears and used a glue stick to stick it all together. That was a lot of work. It looks like the two shapes are looking in a mirror."

"A crazy mirror!"


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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Pegasus Babies; Pegasus Mommies



"It's time to go to bed now, little pegasus babies."

"Night-night mommy pegasus."

"I'm going to turn off the lights now pegasus babies."



They've been playing this game for a couple weeks now, these four-year-old girls. It's not unlike mommy-baby games children have played in the past, here at Woodland Park and indeed at every preschool everywhere. What makes this game different than the ones I've seen in the past is that instead of setting their game under the loft where we generally keep our pillows and blankets, these girls have moved their game out of the shadows and onto our checker-board rug which is typically dominated by groups of boys building castles and forts and bad guy traps. They have been carving out about half of the largest open area in the classroom for their game, sharing a space that is not normally shared.


"It's time to wake up now, pegasus babies."

"We're hungry, mommy pegasus."

"That's because it's time for your breakfast. I'll get some food for you."

As the pegasus babies wait for their mommy pegasus to return, they build their story, giving themselves pegasus baby names, discussing their relative ages, figuring out new ways to arrange their beds. When their mommy returns to feed them, they pretend to take bites, chewing, swallowing, and remarking on how good it tastes.

"Finish your food now, pegasus babies. It's time for your nap."

"Okay, mommy pegasus."

"I'm going to turn off the lights now. Sleep tight, sweeties."


Their game has attracted a few boys, two of whom want to be babies. They are shown to their beds. Two of the boys, however, are acting tough, hands on hips, saying, "These are our bad guy traps," pointing to their complicated structure. I see an implied threat and prepare myself to intervene, to protect their game, but the girls don't take it that way, diffusing the situation with diplomacy, "Oh, that's good. We don't want any bad guys around here," and "You can be the pegasus daddies." They don't want to be pegasus daddies, but they agree that they are there to protect the babies, which they do by becoming watchers of the game, saying nothing, doing nothing, just standing there in their commanding poses and stern faces.


Meanwhile the babies wake up, the babies go to sleep, the babies eat food, then the babies sleep again. The game doesn't include time for play, but then again it's all play. They are, in fact, playing with the cycles of life, around and around and around. In real life I know they aren't always so cheerful about eating and sleeping, but in this game they are all happy. In this world, there are no conflicts between mommies and their babies, nor with outside forces, there is just the cycle of mommies and babies and eating and sleeping in contentment. It's a game these girls own, right there in the middle of the room, making peace with it, making common cause with it, taking up as much space as they need, turning the lights off an on, simulating the cycle of night and day as they simulate the cycle of mommies and babies. It's all right there if you look for it, the past, present and future of every life ever lived.


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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

I Believe You




The first person that I saw post "Me too" yesterday was a close female relative. The second was also a close female relative. And then, as the day progressed, it seemed that every woman I know posted "Me too," indicating that they had been sexually assaulted or harassed. These are women from all walks of life: young and old, wealthy and poor, liberal and conservative, and of every racial, religious, and ethnic background. I believe them.

I've not been ignorant of the problem, of course, I know the statistic that nearly one in five American woman have been raped in their lifetime, and I have no doubt that when one includes harassment the numbers approach five in five. My female relatives and friends have sometimes shared their stories of harassment with me, some ridiculous enough to laugh at, many terrifying, but most conveyed with a kind of world-weary shrug, as if it was just some commonplace inconvenience around which one must navigate, like puddles on the Seattle's sidewalks in mid-winter.

This means that a lot of men have assaulted or harassed women; men I know, men I might even call friend. As a mature adult, I have had the courage and morality to stand up to men who speak of women in sexually degrading ways. I have even intervened when I could tell a woman was feeling intimidated. I doubt that I've changed anyone's minds, but at least I've temporarily shut them up or shut them down. The disheartening truth, however, is that I haven't always done so, especially as a younger man. For that I apologize to every woman I know. 

And as hard as it is to confess, I have no doubt that some of my own behavior during my days as a single man crossed the line. For that I apologize to every woman I know.

Most of the people reading this are women. Most of the people I work with on a day-to-day basis are women. I have heard your "Me too" and stand both chastened and re-committed to doing everything I can to stand with you. As a preschool teacher, I work every day to help the children understand the importance of speaking up. We practice saying, "Stop!" when others are doing things that hurt us or make us uncomfortable. We make agreements to treat one another not as we would like to be treated in the spirit of the Golden Rule, but rather how they would like to be treated, which requires really listening to them, a habit that is obviously alien to far too many men. We talk about bullying and we talk about consent.

I hope I am sending these children into the world with the tools and attitudes that will protect them from being victims or victimizers, but even if every preschool teacher consciously does what we do, we still cannot expect the children to change the world. As with anything, the world must change first and that is the responsibility of us adults.

This morning, I'm finding even more "Me too" posts on my social media feeds: it's overwhelming as was intended. I am not offering solutions this morning, and I am not expressing my anger or sadness even as I'm feeling it, but rather waiting now for women to tell me what they want me to do. I'm not writing this for thanks or praise. The goal of the "Me too" effort is to raise awareness and I am writing with that intention as well.

But mostly I'm writing to let you know that I have heard your "Me too" and I believe you.


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Monday, October 16, 2017

"Neigh! Neigh! Neigh!"



They were following one another around the playground, astride stick ponies, chanting, "Neigh! Neigh! Neigh!" Around and around they went, stopping periodically to create agreement among themselves.

"Let's pretend we're fire fighters, okay?"

"Yeah, these are fire fighter ponies."

"There's a fire right over there!"

And off they rode, "Neigh! Neigh! Neigh!"


These games that three-year-olds play are touching to me. They've played together before, of course. Some of them found one another last year, playing in pairs, side-by-side, but this is new for them, banding together in a larger group to play stories together. Most of them have older siblings, so they've seen it done, and now it's their turn to start their sentences with "Let's pretend . . ." and see where it goes.


It's touching because there's the promise of paradise in their play, a peek at a world we all know ought to exist, one in which free humans of goodwill come together in search of common ground; a world created by agreement rather than obedience or competition, the two-headed Frankenstein's monster we've built in it's stead. Some argue that this monster is likewise an aspect of human nature, but I'm not so sure. Anthropologists tell us that there is little evidence that our hunter-gatherer ancestors expected obedience or valued competition. Indeed, they tell us that these are artifices that came into being alongside the invention of agriculture as a way for some humans to "own" land and, by extension, the labor of others. For a good 90 percent of our time on the planet, we were free people of goodwill, coming together to agree rather than compel or defeat.


The girls rode their stick ponies around and around, "Neigh! Neigh! Neigh!" I was sitting on a table just watching them play their ancient game. At one point they came to surround me, their faces red with their game, their hair wild, their eyes lit from within.


"My pony is a girl pony."

"How do you know?"

"It has a girl face."

"Mine's a boy pony. Look!" She turned to show them the stick protruding from between her legs, "It has a penis."

"Mine has a penis too!"

"They all have penises."

"None of them have vulvas so they are all boy ponies."

And they all agreed before riding off to fight another fire, "Neigh! Neigh! Neigh!"


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Friday, October 13, 2017

Sacred Time




Ninety percent of our days at Woodland Park are spent in "unstructured" play, which is to say that the children are responsible for choosing what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. They make their own decisions, set their own goals, negotiate and collaborate with the other people, and learn how their own behaviors and emotions, and those of others, impact upon their results. When children are engaged in "structured" activities, adults are responsible for choosing what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. Adults make the decisions, set the goals, dictate rules and determine acceptable behaviors and even emotions.

Most schools are not like Woodland Park. Most children spend their school days engaged in structured activities, moving from this pre-determined thing to the next. I attended a "play-based kindergarten" as a boy (or what we used to just call "kindergarten"). When I hit first grade, however, the structure set in. I was good at school, even enjoying most of it, but we all lived for recess, the one time of the day where no one was telling us what to do. Indeed, we did what we could to avoid inviting adult intervention, settling our own disputes, managing our own behaviors and emotions because we all intuitively knew that once an adult was involved, our fun was at stake. The boys would organize themselves into huge kickball games, complete with negotiated rules which were self-enforced. There were adults around, in the distance, supervising, but even if one was injured, our ethic was to avoid involving them unless there was a lot of blood.

At the end of the day, we went home without homework to our lives of unstructured play. Today, that isn't the case for far too many children, who are instead shuttled off to music lessons, sports teams, and other "enrichment" programs after school and on weekends, structured activities intended to make them smarter or more well-rounded or perhaps just to occupy them while parents finish their work days. But at what cost?

According to a study conducted by psychologists at the universities of Colorado and Denver, "Structured time could slow the development of self-control":

When children spend more time in structured activities, they get worse at working toward goals, making decisions, and regulating their behavior . . . Instead, kids might learn more when they have the responsibility to decide for themselves what they're going to do with their time . . . they found that the kids who spent more time in less-structured activities had more highly-developed self-directed executive function.

Traditional schools have always been places that are largely dominated by structured activities. What has changed since I was a boy is that so many of our children spend their non-school hours bent over homework or participating in adult-directed environments, following instructions rather than thinking for themselves. Executive function, that part of our mental process that allows us to work productively toward achieving goals and manage our behaviors and emotions, is largely developed in childhood and the surest way to develop that is through practice, yet too many kids get precious little of it. If we want our children to grow into self-directed and competent adults, then we must set them free to play.

As children, we considered Saturdays and that time between the end of school and bed time as sacred, our time, resenting every imposition on it. We played in our garages and backyards, in the street and in our bedrooms, with others and alone, practicing being self-directed humans, which is ultimately every parent's goal. The only way we'll get there is to help our children take back that sacred time.


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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