Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Job

It's been at least 20 years since I last slid down a slide. I sometimes sit in the swings at school, but if I actually swing it is only to go back and forth a couple of times before getting off. Likewise, I don't roll down grassy hills, play on merry-go-rounds, or enjoy seesaws. I did all of those things as a boy, of course, enthusiastically, and I have fond memories, but they have lost their savor in adulthood. Indeed, some of those things actually cause me pain and nausea. No, I've grown up, finally, and these are children's games.

That doesn't mean I've stopped playing, it's just that as an adult, I've learned what I need to learn from playgrounds. Last Friday, my wife and I went out dancing. I like figuring out what my body can do, what our bodies can do, especially to unfamiliar music. That's one of the ways I play as an adult. There are some video games I like; I like messing around in the kitchen; I'm a dilettante woodworker; I've even learned to enjoy travel, even if it is sometimes very hard for me. In many ways, when my life is working the way it should, it's all play: I'm doing what I want to be doing, trying things I haven't tried before, following my curiosity, meeting new people, failing, trying again, bickering, cooperating, sharing, living in the moment, and ultimately learning new things both about myself and my world.

That is the purpose of play, of course; it's our education instinct at work, but it's easy to lose track of it as an adult in our culture. We tend to see being an adult as being "responsible," which all too often means playing it safe, planning ahead, covering our bases, reducing risks, being reasonable, and avoiding, at all costs embarrassing mistakes. As a result, we learn less, becoming increasingly calcified in our habits and opinions, a vicious cycle that tends to manifest in doughy bodies, inflexible minds, and a world-weary suspicion that we've seen it all. One would think that a guy like me, someone who spends his days around children engaged in play, would be immune to it, but you would be wrong: just because the people around me are playing, it doesn't mean I am.

Just as play is the work of childhood, it is also the real work of adulthood. Our job in this life is not the thing we do to make money, it is not even the things we do for joy. Our real job, the job that we will never finish in this lifetime, is to learn a little more, to seek enlightenment, which is, I think, the adult word for education.

So while I'm not necessarily playing with the children I teach, if I'm doing it right, I am still playing: I'm in the here and now, observing, taking notes, loving, and trying to understand what I see and hear as these play experts slide down their slides and swing in their swings. Often, their moments of epiphany, and there are dozens every day on the playground if we only really pay attention, are also our moments of epiphany, one leading to the next in the open-ended nature of play. When I'm not doing that, when I'm watching the clock, when I become a mere manager of activities, I've forgotten that ongoing enlightenment is the job. But when I remember, that's when I'm an adult who plays.

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Monday, June 17, 2019

Bridging The Gap To Come

The picture at the top of this post is an end-of-year present I received from a five-year-old. She dictated this message to her mother:

Teacher Tom,

I drew you a picture. It's a dragon with a big eye and a seashell and a rainbow over her head. It's a magic dragon who thinks she can jump over a puddle without getting wet, but even if you are magic you might slip in a puddle! She's a nice dragon, not a mean one. And she doesn't have a belly button.

I love you, Teacher Tom. You are nice an you tell funny stories.

I'm always touched by the thought of a child sitting down to think of me, to create something for me. Creating art is part of what it means to be human; creating art specifically for another person is to share a part of oneself, part of your uniqueness, something that has never been shared before, nor will it be shared ever again. It is a gift of love.

Mister Rogers wrote:
There would be no art . . . if human beings had no desire to create. And if we had everything we ever needed or wanted, we would have no reason for creating anything. So, at the root of all art . . . there exists a gap -- a gap between what the world is like and what we wish and hope for it to be like. Our unique way of bridging that gap in each of our lives seems to me to be the essence of the reason for human creativity.
When this girl sat down, thinking of me, she did so with the knowledge that she might not see me again for a long time, perhaps never again. It's a concept that she perhaps isn't fully capable, at five, to comprehend, but when I think of her creating this for me, I imagine that our impending "apartness" was in some aspect there with her, something that neither of us want, even if we know that it has always been woven into the fabric of our relationship. I likewise imagine that she was thinking of the funny stories, the ones we tell together, and she wanted to leave me with one to remember her by, one embedded with an important message about paying attention, a unique way of bridging the gap to come in both our lives.

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

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Friday, June 14, 2019

That Is The Beauty Of Pain

Most babies cry within the first few minutes of their lives. It seems that at least some babies even cry while in their mother's wombs, apparently in response to unpleasant stimuli, like the mother's use of tobacco or as a response to certain sounds. Newborns cry, on average, for two hours out of every 24 and by six weeks they are crying for three hours a day.

We are born knowing that there is pain in the world and it doesn't take long for any of us to likewise discover that pain comes in many forms, both physical and emotional. We learn quite early that life can be unfair, disappointing, and frustrating. No matter how much we want to, we cannot protect our children from becoming experts on pain, nor should we even if we could. Of course we protect them, of course we do what we can to prevent unnecessary pain, but we will all, invariably, continue to learn the lessons of pain right up to the day we die.

Just as we know that a baby's cry is a form of communication, a signal to the world that something is not right, that something needs to change, we likewise know that pain is a message. In the beginning we must rely upon adults to make the changes needed, but the older we get, the more we come to rely upon our own resources to take action against our pain, although we will always need other people: there is no greater suffering than to suffer alone.

As parents of newborns, we see it as our job to mitigate their pain, to find the cause of their tears, and to then take actions to soothe them, to teach them that while there is pain there is also an end to pain. And this is, I think, the most important lesson we learn from our pain: it will end and it will require the help of others to bring it to an end. This is why babies whose cries are not answered roll over and die. This is why prisoners kept in solitary confinement descend into insanity. We don't like our pain, we do whatever we can to avoid it, but when we suffer, and we inevitably must, we have no recourse other than to reach out to our fellow humans, to connect with them, to be soothed by them, and we too, in turn, must soothe them. That is the beauty of pain: every cry is a cry in search of you.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
                                     ~John Donne

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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Already A Perfected Form

I'm currently reading Aldous Huxley's novel Island, the utopian follow-up to his dystopian masterpiece A Brave New World. Next up is Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees. I prefer traditional hardbacks, even as more and more friends have urged me to switch to reading books from a screen. I understand that e-readers are a little lighter and the books a little cheaper, but they are also another gadget that needs to be kept charged up, they break if you drop them, they're expensive to replace if you leave them on the bus, and I find reading from a screen far less pleasurable than from the pages of a well-loved book. In other words, for me at least, the latest book-reading technology, despite the hype, doesn't improve my reading experience, and in some ways makes it worse, so I stick with my hardbacks.

Our preschool uses very little screen-based technology. The adults have our phones on us should we need to look something up or take a quick picture, but we don't watch videos or play "learning games" or take tests or anything like that. In fact, our school doesn't have wi-fi or own a computer, not even for the adults to use. This doesn't mean we're Luddites. After all, we live in the land of Microsoft and Amazon, not to mention that Tableau's headquarters and one of Google's major offices are located only a few blocks from the school. A large segment of our families earn their livings from technology and many of us have been early adopters of everything from robot vacuums to battery-powered bikes (really the only way for a cycling-centric parents to haul around multiple children in hilly Seattle), things that improve our lives. 

No, we don't use screen-based technology in the classroom for the same reason I don't read digital books: we've yet to see evidence that using it will improve our educational experience. Indeed, so far it appears that there is not a single thing that children learn better through screen-based technology other than how to use screen-based technology. I try to keep up with the research and while there is no doubt that children do learn from screens, there is nothing to indicate that this type of technology offers an improvement to anyone other than the companies that profit from selling their soon-to-be outdated computers and tablets. 

And in many cases, the use of screen-based technology as an educational tool produces worse results. From a recently released international study:

The more students used technology in schools, the lower the nation ranked in educational achievement.

This isn't the first research to show that not only do these technologies not live up to the hype, they are actually doing damage. The only area in which the study found an advantage was in terms of performing research, which makes sense, and is how we tend to use it at Woodland Park.

Of course, most of the research into screen-based technology in schools has focused on such nonsensical things as test scores and the retention of trivia (a virtually useless skill in this era of smart phones). There has been precious little research performed on how these technologies impact the core of what education should be about: like the crucial citizenship skills of critical thinking, questioning authority, and standing up for oneself; or the acquisition of the traits required to be "successful," like self-motivation, working well with others, and being personable. What research that has been done has clearly shown that these skills and traits are best learned through the self-directed learning that comes from play-based environments like ours.

From where I sit, it looks like hardback books may already be a perfected form. I'll continue to consider the latest "advances," but I expect that we'll be taking old-school books along with us when we begin to colonize Mars. I feel even more strongly that play-based education is a perfected form, one that has evolved over millennia, since the dawn of life itself. Sure, there might be some technology some day that makes children better at taking tests or ciphering, and I'll continue to consider the latest information, but it's hard for me to imagine how one improves upon asking and answering ones own questions in the company of a community fellow citizens who are likewise asking and answering their own questions: learning through direct experience with the real world, negotiating, bickering and agreeing, making mistakes and finding success through perseverance.

Screen-based technology is here to stay, of course, but not, I expect, as an educational tool. It is destined, like every educational fad to, at best, play a peripheral role because the self-directed learning of a play-based education within the context of community is already a perfected form.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Making A Natural Teacher

People have called me a "natural teacher." I like the sound of it. I even sense the truth of the statement, at least insofar as I can't imagine doing anything else with my days. I hold a degree in journalism, not education. In fact, I've only taken a handful of ed classes. Instead, I've spent thousands of hours working with children of all ages, stretching back to my days as a baseball coach during my teen and early adult years. And yes, it feels natural. It always has.

I had reason recently to reflect on my first day as "head coach" of a team of first and second graders. I was 16-years-old. I'd already, the summer before, served as an assistant coach to a team of preschoolers (which hadn't been baseball so much as a big daily play date with a baseball theme), but this was the first time I was on my own with a team. I was nervous, of course, but only before I'd opened my mouth for the first time. I sent them to run some laps, then we re-convened for some warm up exercises before launching into baseball skills. It was my first 9-5 job, one during which I coached teams of kids from 5-14, boys and girls, and it was glorious. I did it for 4 summers all told: outdoors, all day, playing baseball with kids. It was my first job and, I'm afraid, it ruined me for every "real" job I tried until I landed on my current one.

In a way it saddens me to realize that I wasted the next couple decades figuring out that this is where I belong, playing with children, thinking with children, learning with children. It's not everyone who falls into their perfect niche right from the start, but I was too young and inexperienced, and growing up in a time when early childhood (heck, teaching in general) wasn't considered a "proper" option for a young man. I just couldn't see it. I thought that the sense of joy came from playing baseball all day long, not the kids.

I do, of course, look back over the path I've taken and, to steal a line from the Grateful Dead, "I see now how everything leads up to this day." All the pieces fell into place, including those years during which I worked as a PR flack for corporate interests, to guide me to where I am today. Knowing for certain what you don't want to do is important too, I guess.

I reckon there are a lot of us in this profession who are natural teachers. In fact, I can't think of a single teacher I know personally who doesn't fall into this category. Admittedly, this could be an aspect of the progressive play-based bubble in which I live. I imagine there may be some of us who just "fell into it," or who somehow felt there was no other choice. Maybe there are even some who are in it for the money. And perhaps there is such thing as a "manufactured" teacher, like the kind the corporate education reformers envision, but I just can't imagine they last for very long in a career that demands your whole self every day.

So that begs the question, what is a natural teacher? It certainly has nothing to do with teaching style, because we're all over the place when it comes to that. Much of what I do in the classroom derives from those years as a coach. There's a lot of, "Come on, everybody!" and "Let's all go check out the workbench!" You know, rallying large contingents of kids into common efforts, teamwork, cooperation. It tends to be loud. I tolerate more rowdiness than many teachers. But I know plenty of natural teachers whose classrooms aren't like this at all. And it's not really about pedagogy either: there are wonderful natural teachers working through all kinds of approaches, methodologies, and techniques, including not-approaches, not-methodologies, and not-techniques. I also don't think it has much to do with the creativity of the activities we choose, our classroom schedules, or any of the other superficial things we fret over on a daily basis.

No, you find natural teachers everywhere, creating all kinds of thinking communities. The common thread, however, the thing that ties us together, is that each of us, in our own way, has learned how to connect with children, both as individuals and as a community.

It begins with warmth. I love the children that pass my way, and in each interaction I try to find a way to express that unconditional acceptance to them. Physically that involves eye contact, smiling, active listening, and gentle touching. Emotionally that means setting my own petty feelings to the side, being with them of course, but not being subject to them, wiping my own emotional slate as clean as humanly possible, leaving a space in which I can understand the feelings of another untainted by my own. And spiritually it is about stillness; being present. Of all the things I do to express warmth, it's this stillness that is most vital. I don't always succeed, but this is what I'm after each time I drop to my knees and get face-to-face with a child.

This is the greatest gift we can give children because it's only when they know they are loved and accepted that they can fully engage with the world around them, without reservation and without fear.

Secondly, a natural teacher, I think, is someone who knows that she is teaching fully formed human beings. I will not be your master, nor will I be your servant. Perhaps at times I will be your guide, just as there will be times when you are mine. It's a stance that says, you are competent and respected; that you have the same rights and, indeed, responsibilities as the rest of us. It's an approach toward children that acknowledges that the most important things children are learning (as opposed to mere academics) are things that we adults continue to learn throughout our lives, and that we have no lock on profundity or expertise.

Thirdly, a natural teacher does not confuse her role with leadership. There are times, of course, when the teacher leads, but more important are those times when we let the children take over, when we understand that our role is to facilitate, to create the forum in which play and thinking takes place, but not to steer or coral or otherwise compel the children in this direction or that. One of the most common responses from people who learn that I'm a preschool teacher is, "I don't know how you do it." This is almost always said by those with managerial type jobs in which they are responsible for teams of adults. They reflect on how hard it is to get adults to do what they want, and imagine it is only that much harder to manage a bunch of little kids. A natural teacher understands that it's not about getting the children to do what she wants, but rather to help them figure out how to do what they want.

And finally, it seems, a natural teacher is one that constantly strives to balance the needs and desires of the many with the needs and desires of the few. For me, this is where my coaching background plays it's most significant role. That this is the work of everyone, all the time, throughout our lives, at least if we believe in self-governance, makes it perhaps the most important thing we do.

Implied in the notion of a "natural teacher," I think, is the idea that we are born this way, but I think that is wrong. Natural teachers are those of us who through our lives encountered people who were able to express warmth to us, who respected us and held us competent, who acknowledged us as equals without either bossing or serving us, and helped us see that even as individuals our destiny is always tied to our community of peers.

Natural teachers are the product of natural teachers, those that connect with us and make us taller by letting us stand upon their shoulders.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

"Hey Buddy!"

Mom gave me plenty of good advice when our daughter was born. Among her pearls was this one:

"All young children want from adults is attention and they don't really care if it's positive or negative. So you might as well give them the kind of attention you want to give them because otherwise they'll take it, and you're not going to like how they take it."

These days, I would replace the word "attention" with "connection," but the core truth is one that I rely upon every day when working with young children. And, as late in the game as it is, I've in recent years come around to the understanding that this holds true for adult people as well.

Not long ago, I came across a scruffy looking man who was pestering a young woman as she apparently waited for her ride at the end of the day. I don't know what he was saying, but from her body language and expression it was clear she felt harassed. I approached the guy with my hand out, "Hey, buddy! Long time no see!" In an instant, his attention turned to me, his face lit up, he took my hand and robustly shook it, calling me "buddy" in return, the young woman forgotten in a flash of connection. The woman mouthed "thank you" to me as us buddies walked away together, chatting about this and that, trying to remember where we had met before.

Before parting ways, I said, buddy to buddy, that he ought not bug women on the street. "You scared her." He looked remorseful, saying that he knew it, "But I just wanted to talk to somebody and she looked nice."

"Well next time you should talk to me," and with that we parted ways, promising to talk again. We've not crossed paths since then, but whenever I'm in that part of town I keep an eye out for him.

Behavior is communication and very often that behavior, especially behavior that is "negative," is saying something along the lines of, "Notice me," "Pay attention to me," "Connect with me." People, children or adults, who are communicating like this are attempting, in mom's words, to "take" our attention from us. That means that the people in their lives have not been proactive enough in connecting with them. Or, even more sadly, that they have no people in their lives other than random buddies they run into on the street.

Behavior can, of course, communicate all sorts of things, but this seeking of connection is central to what makes us human. We are born needing connection in order to stay alive. Physicists and philosophers tell us that we only exist through our connections with others. Babies who are not touched, even if they are well-fed, roll over and die. Adults kept in solitary confinement more or less do the same.

The other day, I was sitting on a bench outside the Whole Foods waiting for my bus. Someone had tied their dog to a railing as they popped in for something. As I sat there, I saw person after person stop to acknowledge that dog, to coo at it, to pet it, to assure it, to play with it. Meanwhile, all but a few completely ignored the scruffy looking man sitting against a nearby wall, begging for spare change. We all know the truth about connection, but we don't always act on it, so we're left, time and again, having our attention taken from us in ways we don't like.

As I dropped some coins into the hand of the poor man outside the Whole Foods, I said, "Here you go buddy." He smiled up at me, "Thanks buddy." I could have done more, of course, but at least for a moment I gave him what he needed, and I'm not talking about the spare change.

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Monday, June 10, 2019

Should Children Have The Right To Vote?

Without an educated population, the grand experiment of democracy cannot flourish. This is why we educate our children, not so that they can one day join the workforce as a cog in the economy, but so that they can acquire the knowledge, skills, and habits required for self-governance. We need citizens who are critical thinkers, who ask a lot of questions, who question authority, who stand up for their beliefs, and who understand that they contribute to society in ways far beyond their ability to earn a greasy buck. These are not necessarily the traits of a good employee, but they are those of a good citizen.

We spend so much time and treasure preparing our children for citizenship, but what we too often neglect to recognize is that our children, even our newborn babies, are already citizens. Children are citizens who make up approximately a third of the US population. One in five of them lives in poverty. Their schools are underfunded. Infrastructure like playgrounds, swimming pools, and parks are typically the first on the chopping block. Children are exploited, abused, and trafficked at rates far above those of any other demographic group. Their freedoms are greatly restricted compared to the rest of the population, both by law and by common practice. In most places adults can even physically assault them ("spank") with impunity.

And, not coincidentally, children are also the only category of people who are denied the fundamental right of citizenship: the right to vote.

It might at first sound like a ridiculous idea, granting voting rights to children. After all, they aren't mentally fully developed, so how can we expect them to think rationally enough to vote? Of course, this is, in a nutshell, the same argument that was historically used for denying women and people of color the right to vote: it was a "ridiculous idea" because they simply didn't have the brains or temperament to participate in public life. And as for thinking "rationally," we don't deny adult citizens their right to vote if, say, they become senile, develop mental illness, or are otherwise mentally disabled. Indeed, I might even argue that anyone who doesn't vote the way I do is voting irrationally, but that doesn't mean they should be disenfranchised.

Voting is about representation, not rationality. Children are citizens who, like women and racial minorities, don't necessarily see the world the way the majority does, and if their perspective isn't included, democracy isn't going to work. History shows us that those whose voices are not included are invariably the ones who are also poorest and most likely to be exploited, which is exactly where we find ourselves today.

If children had the vote, elected leaders would have to begin to take the concerns of children seriously. Imagine that.

I understand that for many, this idea of children's suffrage is a non-starter. Even if you agree that children must be better represented, the idea of giving them the vote is simply too far out there to be seriously considered. I felt the same way until I read that the great John Holt, a man whose work I admire greatly and who continues to inspire my own work with young children, was one of the earliest advocates, a position he detailed in his book, Escape from Childhood. The idea has been percolating in my head for some time, then yesterday, encouraged by a reader, I dug in. I still have a lot more reading and thinking to do, especially around the mechanisms for how children's voting could be implemented, but the more I read, the more I'm coming to see that not only is it do-able, but necessary if we are truly interested in democracy.

There has already been progress in other nations, places like India where they have institutionalized children's parliaments, or nations like Brazil and Austria which have lowered the voting age to 16. Germany has even recently considered a proposal to grant its citizens voting rights from birth. Even the New York Times as taken the issue seriously. There are dozens of idea out there. Among the most compelling is the concept proposed by John Wall of Rutgers University writing in the International Journal of Human Rights (italics are mine):

My own proposal would be for an amended version of the German model in which suffrage is granted to all citizens at birth and exercised by a parent or guardian until such a time as each child or youth claims it for him- or herself. The difference here is that the right to vote on one’s own behalf is not granted by an adult but claimed by the child. A child claiming the right to vote can be taken as basic proof that the child possesses sufficient understanding and desire to exercise it competently.

Children represent one-third of the US population and as our youngest citizens, they will be living here long after the rest of us are gone. How can we move forward in good faith, without their active participation? And honestly, I seriously doubt that children would make a worse job of it than our current adult-only electorate. Indeed, I welcome the voices of children in public life: we need to hear them. It's time to get serious about true universal suffrage.

I've 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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