Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Star Wars And Superheroes

When I first started teaching, there were a lot of teachers who discouraged superhero play in preschool. There probably still are some, but for the most part, the pendulum seems to have swung back toward the idea that this sort of dramatic play is healthy for young children as long as it doesn't devolve into actual violence, which it rarely does. The arguments in favor of this sort of play are deep and various, but what swayed me was the whole "forbidden fruit" phenomenon and the memories of my own superhero play.

It's satisfying to me that most of today's superheroes are the same as the ones from my youth, like Batman, Spiderman, Green Lantern, and Ironman, characters from the DC and Marvel comic book worlds. These are characters I know even better than the kids because as thin as comic book characters can be, they're as rich as Anna Karenina compared to their movie variations. I enjoy sharing their origin stories or details from their backstories, and I've even been known to consult the remnants of my childhood comic book collection, mining them for fascinating tidbits for children who are deeply into, say, The Hulk or Wonder Woman.

A category of "superhero" that I know little about are those that come from the Star Wars movie franchise. I saw the original, like everyone did, back in high school and at least parts of a couple of the subsequent films, but as a young adult I found myself more drawn to other aspects of popular culture and I've never felt compelled to go back and fill in the gaps. Of course, relatively few of our preschoolers have actually seen the movies, but that doesn't stop them from pretending to be Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader, which means that we tend to rely on the few playmates whose parents have permitted them to view the movies as our primary source for important information like who are good guys and who are bad guys.

Whereas traditional superhero play requires lots of punching and action poses, Star Wars play revolves around light sabers, which means that I often position myself near the swinging stick action just to make sure I can step in should things get out of hand. The benefit is that I get to hear the conversation which is, by turns, comprised of accurate and what even I know is hilariously inaccurate information. I leave those sleeping dogs to lie, but I've sometimes felt compelled to interject my own two cents when one of our "experts" starts to push their lesser informed playmates around. I remember how it felt to be "on the outside" of important cultural trends and so I try to pick my moments to role model standing up for my right to play as I wish.

For instance, if an expert tells another child, "You can't be Chewbacca because he's a boy and you're a girl," I might say, "I'm going to be Princess Leia and pretend to be a girl." Indeed, I've even invented a few Star Wars characters of my own who I've trotted out when an expert becomes particularly domineering. My favorite of these is Darth Marcus. I want the kids to see that just because someone knows the movie script, it doesn't mean that everyone has to follow it. Sometimes the kids take my point, sometimes they stare at me blankly for a moment, then go on about their business.

The public schools have been closed for parent-teacher conferences this short week leading up to Thanksgiving, so, in keeping with our tradition, we've opened our doors to older siblings, many of whom are Woodland Park alumni. Lukas was one of the guys who loved to play Star Wars in preschool, but who had never seen the actual movies. When I saw him on Monday, however, it was clear that he has now seen them all and is perhaps one of the world's leading experts. Indeed, he informed me that he was preparing a "report" on Star Wars (not for school, just for fun) and was hoping that he could present it for his sister's class one day. When I said, "You can do it today if you want," he replied, "No, I'm not ready yet. I still have to do some more research. How about next Thursday?"

Later, his mom told me that he had been hiding out in his room preparing detailed notes for the presentation in tiny handwriting. She said he wasn't normally a big fan of writing, except, so far, in the case of Star Wars, one of his abiding passions. I can't say how proud I am of him.

As we chatted on the playground I reminded him of Darth Marcus. He had always been a Darth Marcus doubter, but now he was absolutely certain in his doubt. "There is no Darth Marcus, but," he added with a shrug, "you can always pretend to be anything you want to be." Exactly.

I said, "That report is going to be cool. I can't wait to learn more about Captain Kirk."

He looked at a point just over my right shoulder, lowering his eyebrows a bit as if thinking.

I feigned surprise, "What about Mister Spock? Dr. McCoy? Lieutenant Uhura? Not even Sulu?

He maintained his thoughtful gaze. I could tell he was wracking his brain, striving to figure out which esoteric tunnel into which I was delving.

I let him off the hook by saying, "Those are all pretty important characters in Star Trek."

That broke him out of it. His smile betrayed both humor and relief, "Oh, Star Trek is a different thing."

"I guess I got them mixed up."

He looked at me like only a benevolent expert can, "That's common."

I can't wait for the report. I might be inspired to do my own on the comic book superheroes.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Several years ago, our annual viral "scare" arrived in the form of hand foot and mouth disease (HFMD), a common childhood illness that causes discomfort in the form of blisters on the aforementioned hands, feet and mouth, but with very few real dangers attached to it. The fact that it only turned up in a single child doesn't mean it didn't spread throughout the community in the form of worry.

Like with the Swine Flu (H1N1) awhile years back, parents were understandably concerned, some overly so, but who can blame them? Most of us knew little about the illness and we're talking about our "babies." HFMD certainly sounded more exotic that a run-of-the-mill cold or flu. So, in spite of the relative harmlessness of this particular viral illness, we, as a community, spent a couple days in a bit of a tizzy as we learned what it was all about. And, as we do every year in the aftermath of our first virus, we settled back into a place where we were all talking about the importance of hand washing (if you click on this link, please make sure the read the excellent comments as well, especially the one from my sister Amy at the very bottom, whose take on preschool hand washing I agree with entirely).

You see, that's the genius of a virus like the one that causes HFMD. It takes advantage of one of our basic human drives: the need to touch one another with our hands. And while most viral illness can also be transmitted via airborne means, they are most often passed from person to person through our hands. You see, pure genius: taking advantage of one of the most beautiful parts of being human to make us sick.

This is a particularly vexing challenge for a preschool, where physical touch is central to the curriculum whether we like it or not. It's simply what young children do -- and it's what we adults do when we're with them.

At the end of our two year old class, the children always, without prompting from me, surge forward to give me a hug. The first time it happened, I was surprised and flattered, but I've come to learn that it really has nothing to do with me in particular: it's simply the children expressing a sense of connection or community or gratitude or love or whatever that thing is that drives us to lay our hands on other people.

Whenever I sit down for a moment, little hands are suddenly on every part of my body, instinctively caressing me, playing with my hair, fiddling with my fingers, poking, prodding, using me for support, sitting on my lap. Many of the children have learned I like to have my back scratched, so there's often quite a bit of that (a talent I hope their parents get to appreciate at home).

Their hands are always all over one another as well, holding hands, wrestling, sharing.

There is a lot research out there demonstrating the evolutionary basis for our need to touch and be touched. We all know, for instance, that if a baby isn't touched enough, even if its other basic necessities are handled, it will just roll over a die. But, I don't need any more evidence than what I receive every day in the classroom in the form of those little hands. Touching and being touched, I'm convinced, is as vital to our survival as food, air and water.

Of course, this is easy to remember when we're working with young children. Viruses be damned, we aren't going to stop because the benefits, even at the price of blisters on our hands, feet and mouth, far outweigh the cost.

As I move around the classroom, I often don't even notice that my hand is on a child's shoulder as she paints, or on the small of his back as he leans over a puzzle. In fact, being a cooperative preschool, with lots of the children's parents in the room working with me, I'm often startled to find my hand is unconsciously resting on one of their shoulders or backs. And in spite of how inappropriate that would be in most circumstances, no one has ever called me out on it at preschool.

And isn't in a shame that so many of us "outgrow" touching? I suppose as we become adults, touch becomes sexualized and many of us reserve it for that, or we fear that our hand on another person's shoulder will be misinterpreted as sexual, and often it is. So we grow cautious, not wanting to be misunderstood, reserving our hands for family and trusted friends, offering only handshakes to everyone else.

Maybe that's why I'm so proud of having helped to found the Superhuggers, our group of be-caped adults who boldly dispense hugs to strangers at public events, most notably the Fremont Summer Solstice Parade. And maybe that's why I'm so reluctant to give it up, even though its impact as performance art waned long ago. I recall the build-up to our first foray into recklessly laying our hands on strangers. We worried we'd get slugged, we worried we'd be groped, we worried we'd be sued, we worried we'd contract every virus known to man. We had no idea what we were getting into. We came up with all kinds of strategies for identifying the people who were "open" to a hug and avoiding the ones who might slug, grope or sue.

At the end of that first parade, we sat together on the slope of the grassy hill at the center of Gasworks Park, glowing from the experience of having hugged 12,000 strangers. And while there had been a certain amount of low-level groping, no one had been slugged, and there had only been a handful of people who declined our advances. And while those concerns had been the focus of our conversations prior to the parade, they were now mere incidentals to the stories each of us had about the connections we made with our fellow humans. Sharing physical touch with hundreds of strangers is a feeling like no other. It makes me feel bigger, stronger, and connected. There is no way anyone could go through that experience and not come away loving your fellow man.

And yes, several of the Superhuggers finished off June with runny noses and coughs, an exceedingly small price to pay.

I certainly don't wish blisters on the hands, feet and mouth of anyone. We will strive to be vigorous in adhering to Woodland Parks' common sense hand washing policies and procedures. But that's the best we can do, because not touching one another is simply out of the question.

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Monday, November 23, 2015

Like There's Nobody Watching

You've gotta dance like there's nobody watching.  ~William W. Purkey

We took a field trip to the Pacific Northwest Ballet rehearsal studios last week. As you can imagine, most of the girls were quite excited, arriving at school in leotards and tutus, while a few of the boys were dismissive, saying the word, "ballet" as if they were spitting it, but it was just for show. It's always exciting when we get out and go somewhere together.

It's a fantastic field trip, one I've taken with children several times in the past: a bus trip to Seattle Center, a short movement class in one of the studios, a chance to closely examine some of the fancy tutus, then a few minutes observing the professionals rehearse, in this case for the upcoming season of the new production of The Nutcracker, a show many of these kids will see every year throughout their childhoods. Then a snack on the fly followed by another bus trip back to the school.

It's a great field trip because it's "hands on" and includes a bus trip. Indeed, as far as I'm concerned, it hardly matters where we go on our field trips just so long as it meets those two criteria.

I don't expect any of the children I teach to become professional ballet dancers, even as many of them include that one their list of things they want to be when they grow up.

I do hope that at least some of them will be inspired, especially if they didn't initially think they liked ballet. The thing about teaching is that you'll probably never know.

Unless you get to see a boy dancing down the hallway like there's nobody watching.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

The Angel Usually Wins

M was playing with our baoding balls, a pair of those Chinese meditation balls that we keep nestled in a fancy box. They're special things by virtue of that box, of being shiny, and of being a scarce resource. I've written that exact description here on the blog before. Every day someone plays with them and almost as often we have some sort of conflict regarding them.

M was playing a game with herself, removing the balls from the box, shaking them in two fists to hear their chimes, then returning them to the box, closing the lid, and fixing the latch, a process she was recreating in a pattern.

Two-year-old E spied the balls in her hands and took them by force. M has an older brother and normally would have put up a fight, but E was too quick for her. Instead she shrieked her objection. As a cooperative, we have a lot of adults in the room everyday, but on this day we were hosting several grandparents in addition to our usual cohort of parent-teachers, most of whom seemed to be within a few feet of the incident.

As E made his escape, one parent-teacher went to M. I circled around to E who was joyfully shaking the balls he held in his fists. I bent down to his level and said, "You took those balls from M."

He looked at M, who was staring at him, not crying, but showing emotion in her wrinkled brow and the downturned corners of her mouth. I said, "M's face looks sad about that."

E shook the balls again, albeit less enthusiastically than before. She reached toward him with both hands. I said, "I think she's telling you she wants them back." Then I stood up and took a step back. I'd said what I could say, having stuck with the facts as I saw them. Now it was up to him.

E stood looking at M for several seconds, then walked over and handed them to M. I said, "E gave the balls back to M."

A grandmother said to me, "You could just see the little angel on one shoulder and the little devil on the other fighting it out."

I replied, "I've found that the angel usually wins as long as we don't try to tell people what to do."

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

It's Their Process

In preschool the process of making art is the process of doing science, which is to say we do it every day not so the children will have something cute to show mom and dad, but purely for the exploration and experimentation. In fact, most of what we send home with the kids isn't at all cute, but rather something that is tattered and torn, unevenly covered in shades of preschool gray. A good percentage of it winds up going directly into the recycling bin after we take a moment to reflect on where we've arrived before setting out on our next journey.

People sometimes think making art this way is about making a mess. This is a misperception. I take no special pride in sending children home with paint in their hair, but I do want everyone to know that that's okay; that if part of the process, your process, involves getting paint in your hair, no one's going to give you the business about it, which is why I need the parents on board.

Awhile back, I was surprised when Callie said, "My mom told me not to get messy today, but I got paint on my coat anyway." She didn't seem to be particularly upset, smiling as she held up her blackened coat for my inspection. I said, "Really? Your mom told you not to get messy?" She nodded earnestly. "Do you have to go somewhere after school?" "No," she answered, but there was a twinkle there that gave me the idea she was putting me on. When her mom arrived to refute the claim, "I did not say that!" Callie gave us both a smile to let us know she'd enjoyed pulling our legs.

While Callie was feigning a mess-aversion by proxy, some children are, for a variety of reasons, including constitutionally, actually anti-mess. I'm not driven to get those kids messy, but rather to support them in their own process, which often is to observe, to stand just outside the spatter zone, remarking on what they see happening. There are always other things going on at school they could be doing, so when they stop to watch, that's often when I chose to role model my own artistic process, narrating as I go.

This was the case when we set up styrofoam meat trays of paint, butcher paper, and rubber mallets. The basic idea was to dip your mallet in paint, then pound away. I knew this was going to be a particularly messy project, not just for the art maker, but for anyone in the vicinity. The first children on the scene, apparently, could see this as well, so they hung back, curious, but not ready to take the plunge, so I grabbed a mallet, dipped it deeply into the yellow paint and brought it down with a stroke that would make John Henry proud. 

"Hey!" kids shouted, "You got paint on me!"

"Sorry," but that broke the ice for the first wave of painters, while others took another step back.

While the early adopters had their first furious go, I hung out with the observers, first showing them my paint-spattered jacket, echoing Callie, "My mom told me not to get messy today, but I got paint on my coat anyway." Then I shrugged, "That's okay, I can just wash it off later." I often demonstrate the technique of wiping my messy hands on my pants, encouraging similar behavior in the kids. "That's what pants are for," I'll say, which more often than not prompts kids to wipe their hands on my pants. I made sure to point out that there was a bucket of water and a towel nearby and that some of the kids were going inside to wash their hands in the sink. I just wanted to make sure they understood their options, that their bases are covered should they, after all, decide to take a mallet into their hands.

I then announced that I was going to make a mallet painting without getting messy, which I did by gently applying dollops of paint to a piece of paper, then covering it with a second piece of paper before pounding away. When I peeled the two pieces of paper apart to reveal not one, but two identical paintings, several of the observers stepped up to take their place, eager to try this process. They wound up messy, of course, but equipped with a plan for mitigating it, none of them seemed to mind.

A couple still declined, moving on to other things. Maybe next time, maybe never, because it's up to them, even when it comes to making a mess. And that's okay; it's their process and if not getting paint their hair is part of it, no one's going to give them the business about it.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"There's No Evidence. There's No Evidence."

Something truly remarkable has happened, something for which I've hoped, even dreamed. A politician has spoken, at length, about education without once mentioning those mythical "jobs of tomorrow," "the Chinese are beating us," or, in fact, saying anything about how our children must be trained to make American great again through their toil in the economy. Not only that, but this is a major politician speaking against high stakes standardized testing, who is opposed to using those test scores to evaluate teachers, who is skeptical of charter schools, who favors increased funding for poor and special needs students, and who is calling for a reduction of competition between teachers, schools, and students.

It's like a miracle. And making matters even more confusing is that it was Hillary Clinton taking part in a roundtable discussion with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). It's confusing because, as a man who participates in the Democratic party's nominating process, I've been expecting to caucus for Bernie Sanders, albeit not because of his education policies (although I think that joining the rest of the civilized world in providing free college education is a good idea).

Of all the politicians I've heard speak, I've never heard any of them say this:

"I have for a very long time also been against the idea that you tie teacher evaluation and even teacher pay to test outcomes. There's no evidence. There's no evidence."

I've read that Clinton is good friends with the head of the AFT, Randi Weingarten. Could it be that she's managed to get a woman who could be President to actually look at the research? I don't want to sound sarcastic here, but it really seems like an incredible thing to me. For so long, politicians from both parties, and indeed, politicians from around the world, have spoken from ignorance about teaching and learning, especially when it comes to young children. It's almost shocking for one of them to look at the current state of affairs and say, as those of us in the profession have been saying for years, "There's no evidence."

Regarding the ever-growing scandal that are charter schools:

". . . (Charters) don't take the hardest-to-teach kids. And if they do, they don't keep them."


"There is also great examples of excellent public schools, and they should equally be held up as models . . . They (charters) should be supplementary, not a substitute, for what goes on."

This is in line with what the great Albert Shanker, a former head of the AFT, was envisioning when he first proposed the idea of charter schools back in 1988, a concept that has since been kidnapped and tortured by for-profit (both in name and in practice) charter chains and the public school privatization movement.

And finally, with regard to funding:

I'm going to do everything I can to raise the federal contribution. There are two big areas of federal funding that I feel strongly about. One is the special ed funding, and the other is the Title I funding, the equalization of funding for poor schools . . . Those were the earliest levels of commitment from the federal government, and we haven't really, in my view, fulfilled either one, and we've gotten diverted of into a lot of other stuff. And so, I think I would do what I can to try to provide more support.

Yes, this is a bit vague, but at it's core is an understanding, I hope, that the federal government, over the course of the Bush and Obama administrations, has overstepped it's traditional and Constitutional role in public education, usurping state and local control of our own schools, emphasizing standardization (the enemy of quality education), mandating a curriculum (Common Core; and it is a curriculum), and tying funding and teacher pay to high stakes testing.

I understand that this is a woman who is after my vote, so, like with any politician other than Bernie Sanders (which is a big part of his charm for me), I cannot completely trust that her actions will follow her words, especially since she is so closely tied by money and history with the very Wall Street types who are driving corporate-style education "reform" for profit. Still, I can't help but be excited about this truly remarkable development: a candidate who actually seems to have a nuanced understanding of what's at stake, what's going wrong, and what needs to change. It's not everything, but it's a start.

We know that Jeb Bush is completely in the tank for the corporate-style "reformers," but as far as I know the rest of the Presidential candidates still have the chance to show me they understand. I may not vote completely on education, but what candidates say will go a long way in helping me make up my mind.

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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