Thursday, February 21, 2019

Strive To Be The Person You Want Them To Be

When people complain, "He doesn't listen to me" what they really mean is that their kid doesn't do what they want them to do when they want them to do it. Believe me: they are listening to you. They are almost always listening to you. You just disagree with what they opted to do, or continue doing, after listening to your words.

Of course, some of the time, they simply don't understand us, they're not ready to "get" what we're saying to them, like when I talk to young two-year-olds about knocking down other people's block constructions, but more often than not they are listening, then choosing something else.

We know they're listening because our own words come back to us, channelled through them, often days or weeks or even months later. I remember when my own daughter first cursed traffic from her carseat. We know they're listening because they repeat word-for-word, usually at a holiday party right in front of everyone, the catty comment we made about the harvest of hair growing from Aunt Millie's nose. I know a child's been listening when she can repeat, word for word, the argument her parents had that morning over a piece of dropped toast.

We know they are listening when they insist on wearing their unicorn bicycle helmet ice skating, like a four-year-old once did, saying, "I'm going to wear my helmet because I might really fall instead of almost."

We know they are listening when they turn to us and say, like a three-year-old did a few weeks ago, "When someone does something mean to me I talk to them to stop."

We know they are listening when they are courteous to their friends, like a two-year-old was earlier this week when he said, "Hello Anna. My name is Elliott. Let's play!"

And we know they are listening when they put their arm around a sobbing friend, like one two-year-old year old did to another, saying softly into his ear, "You're crying about something. I'll take care of you."

They are always listening. Not just to the words we say to them, but those we say in their presence to others. That is their real classroom. When we adults take that seriously, that's when our children begin to make us better people, the kind who think about the words they say and the tones we use with the people in our lives. They make us work to become the people we've always wanted to be if only because that's the sort of person we want them to be.

Children don't learn anything from obedience other than how to command and obey, a dubious education at best. They learn everything else by listening (and watching, of course). Real learning requires processing, repetition, time, and experience to fully comprehend. It takes place on their schedule, not yours, which is why it can seem as if they are not listening. But they are, know it, and strive to be the person you want them to be. That's the real work of teaching.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Becoming Our Own Unique, Quirky Selves

In the last couple weeks, I've traveled to speak at early childhood education conferences in Virginia, Florida, and Ohio. For whatever reason, I'm more often invited to speak in other countries, so it's been a treat to find myself among my fellow American citizens talking about values like education, freedom, democracy, and play.

I can't tell you how thrilling it is to mix and mingle with these dedicated, passionate educators, people who are not doing this to get rich, famous, or, even (in some cases) respected. It's clear to me that for most of us, what we are doing isn't a job as much as a calling. Indeed, while I do believe that teachers deserve to be paid more for the important work we do, I'm also aware that if, by some miracle, our average salaries were raised to the level of, say, lawyers, the profession would begin to attract those whose motivation is more monetary, and we would all suffer for that.

I'm at these conferences to share the stories from our progressive, play-based cooperative school located in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. There is no other place like it in the world and I like to think that our school, our Fremont school, reflects this unique, quirky community. It's the Center of the Universe where we sometimes dance naked in the streets; where we gather annually to light up and sing Festivus carols around a 16-foot tall, seven-ton cast bronze statue of Vladimir Lenin; where we celebrate the Halloween birthday of a giant, VW devouring troll who lives under a bridge; where we brew beer, create art, make chocolate and go about our day-to-day lives in a place where you are officially advised to set your watch ahead five minutes upon crossing our borders. Not all of our families live within the physical limits of the neighborhood, but since being a Fremonster is a state-of-mind, we are all citizens of the Artist Republic of Fremont. This is where we are choosing to raise our children, this is our community, and our school strives to reflect the values and spirit of this special place.

That said, there are things we do at the Woodland Park Cooperative School that other schools cannot and, indeed, should not do. Every community is special, every neighborhood has its own character, its own reason for being, and if there is any message I want to convey at these conferences it's that our preschools must reflect the community in which they exist. We might be inspired by the schools of Reggio Emilia or Roseville or Framingham or Fremont, but at the end of the day every school is at it's best when it acknowledges and embraces the place the children themselves call home. Woodland Park could not exist in Richmond or Ft. Lauderdale or Columbus, just as the schools I visited in those places could not exist in Fremont. And that's the way it ought to be.

As education author Alfie Kohn wrote, "Progressive education is marinated in community." For 99.9 percent of human existence, humans have lived in hunter-gatherer societies, small communities that create and were created by a unique set of values, history, and geography. It is from within these types of communities that we learn most readily. It is within the context of community and through the process of play that humans have evolved to learn, especially in the early years.

I do not write this blog to tell anyone how to do early childhood education, just as I do not speak at conferences to provide a blueprint for how to do it. No, my hope is only that I can provide food for thought, that by telling our stories I can help others to reflect upon their own stories. I don't expect anyone to agree with everything. In fact, I hope no one does. No, what I strive to do is to make my own reflective practice and journey transparent, to share it with my colleagues and peers, and hope that in some small way I can help others build their own unique, quirky community, and in that way provide a place in which the children can become their best, unique and quirky selves.

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, February 19, 2019

Myth, Science, And Persuasion

I think some of us believe we live in a post-mythology world, but we couldn't be more wrong. Some time back, for instance, I wrote about the "myth of boot straps," the notion that everyone can just pull themselves up by their own if they would only apply themselves or work harder. It's part of the larger "myth of the self-made man." What people have forgotten in this neo-Calvinist framing, to pull one's self up by one's boot straps is an impossible task, an absurdity, just as is the notion of the someone being self-made. Everyone needs help, no amount of boot strap pulling can extract us from the mud; asking for help is a vital life skill, but our mythology treats it as a sign of shame and weakness.

This is far from the only myth that guides our daily lives: things are not true objectively, but due to our human tendency toward confirmation bias, we repeatedly head down that tunnel with no cheese. In education, we're living through that right now as schools continue to believe, without evidence, but rather based upon the stories told by our myth-makers, that what children really need is longer school hours, more homework, and more challenging tests. The research is firmly on the side of the sort of emergent, play-based, child-lead education that schools like mine offer, yet the myth persists that we must drill-and-kill them. I can't tell you how many teachers I speak with who tell me that they are fully on board with what the science tells them, but they are stuck bending their charges noses to the grindstone because of pressure from policy makers, administrators and parents, die hard worshipers at the alter of myth.

Myths are persistent things: humans have a hard time rising above them, and those of us who do are usually labelled as misfits or radicals, when, in fact, we are the ones pointing out that we've climbed to the top of Olympus and found only snow. This isn't to say that I am not also influenced by certain mythologies. All you have to do is go back and read some of the things I was writing a decade ago on this blog to see some of the myths inside which I once lived. And this also isn't to say that myths are, on their face, bad things. They share with science the desire to explain the unexplainable, but because stories are more powerful than science for many humans, we haven't developed the scientist’s trait of tossing away old ideas when more true ones are discovered. Indeed, we live in an era in which myth seems to be acendent with more and more science doubters trusting their stories over the scientific method in all areas of life.

And I’m not saying we should never doubt what scientists tell us. Some of what passes for scientific knowledge these days is actually bought-and-paid-for industry propaganda filtered through a media that is not always unbiased, so it pays to not take everything at face value. It pays to dig deeper, but at bottom, we as a society must always chose science over myth. If we are to live in a fair and just society, we must always be prepared for our myths to be disproven just as we are with scientific theory because they are in many ways the same thing: attempts to explain how the world works. Indeed, in many ways scientific progress is the process of our old ideas, no matter how much we loved them, turning from truth into myth.

Many of us in the worldwide community of play-based educators find ourselves in the position of having moved beyond the old myths of boot straps and “academic rigor” into a world where science informs us that play is the highest use of our time, at least when it comes to educating young children. Yet, all around us is a world where old stories continue to hold their own: our administrators, our regulators, our licensers, our policy makers, and even the parents of the children we teach continue to cling to the old myths of play as a waste of time, a relief from learning rather than the mechanism by which humans most effectively and efficiently learn.

We want them to change their minds, to see the light, yet despite our best efforts they cling to their myths the way people always do, doubling down, not able to hear the manifest logic in our arguments. It frustrates us as we strive to do what is best for the children we teach even as we must continue to, in many cases, pay homage to their ancient myths, complying with their standards, administering their tests, adhering to their learning objectives, adjusting to their catrophic imaginations. We do these things for their myths even as we ourselves have moved beyond them. We do it because above all else we care for the children we teach.

No one has ever changed the mind of another person and a part of that is because myths are always “science” until they are not. No matter how much we argue, they stick to their beliefs. In the end, people must change their own minds. I’ve pretty much given up on trying to show others how wrong they are through argument. If I want someone to come toward the light, the first and most important thing I can do is simply show them how much I care; not about the science or being right, but about the children. It’s only through our caring that we can bring others to question their myths by asking why, which is the first step toward changing one’s own mind. And it is through making our caring evident that we will ultimately transform education.

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, February 18, 2019

“Teacher Tom, You Should Teach Us Things”

He said, "Teacher Tom, you should teach us things. You never teach us anything, just silly things."

I answered, "What do you mean? I teach you stuff all the time."

"No, you don't. You just teach us silly things."

"Okay, so what do you want me to teach you about?"

"I don't know."

This is a boy who enjoys knowing things. He has previously informed us that he knows everything about spiders, likewise volcanoes, and has followed that up by lecturing us with his impressive store of knowledge. Every preschool classroom has children like this, those who pursue their narrow passions, absorbing everything they can comprehend through the repeated watching of videos and library books and asking questions. It's self-directed learning at its most obvious. 

Of course, every child is in the process of learning "everything" about something, it's just that their passions don't always fall so nicely into one of the "academic" categories like biology or geology. Some, for instance, might be going deep on their friendship skills or drawing the perfect butterfly or Star Wars. And some simply aren't specialists in life, at least not yet, opting instead, as my own daughter did to be more of a generalist, dabbling in lots of different pots, exploring the breadth of the world instead of its depth. That's also what self-directed learning is about.

I said, "Okay, how about I teach you everything about trees?"


"Then I could teach you everything about buildings."


"What about cheetahs?"

"No." By now he was grinning as if he has suddenly understood a joke I was telling, as if he somehow realized that it was up to him, not me, to pick the subject, and that I was being silly yet again in even suggesting otherwise.

"Tell you what, when you think of something you want me to teach you, just tell me and I'll teach you."

"No, I'll teach me! You just teach silly things." 

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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Friday, February 15, 2019

Play Tends To Disappear When We Overthink It

A few years back, I was watching a boy named Henry carry a yellow traffic pylon across the playground. He carefully placed it on the ground, not on it's base, but on it's side, taking care to get it "just so," before climbing atop an old packing crate. He stood poised atop the crate for a moment then launched himself, coming down on the pylon. Crack! I heard the sound of the pylon breaking from across the yard.

Stupidly, I asked him, "Henry, why did you do that?"

Without missing a beat he replied, "I wanted to see if I could break it." Duh.

We had a brief conversation about property after that, although in hindsight I think that "property" has a somewhat different meaning when we spend our time on a junkyard playground like ours, but I keep this episode in mind whenever people begin to talk about "play with a purpose," a mantra for those who have accepted the importance of play while clinging to the hubristic notion that children need adults to "make" it educational. Here was a boy with a question, one of his own devising, and therefore one in which he had a genuine interest. He was motivated by his curiosity, Can I break this? and set up an experiment in which he discovered his answer.

The standard definitions of play frame it as "for enjoyment" or "recreation," which can clearly both be aspects of play, but those of us who spend our lives observing children going about the business of actually playing know that there is always a question behind what they do, even if it's not one that can be stated as clearly as Henry's. The purpose of the player isn't always evident to the observer, but there is always, beneath the enjoyment or recreation, an inquiry of some sort at work, one that might not always lead to a definitive answer as Henry's experiment did, but is an exploration of oneself, the other people, and both the physical and psychological environment in which the child finds himself. Play is how our instinct to educate ourselves manifests.

When it comes to education, play is enough: it contains within it all the important questions and answers. We don't need adults commanding, coaxing, coaching, or cajoling the children in order for it to be purposeful. When I hear people use the phrase "play with a purpose" (or something similar) I cringe because no matter how well intended, I know that these are people who don't trust the children's natural instincts and so feel compelled, however gently, to turn their self-directed learning into yet another adult-directed activity that may or may not lead children to answers that are important to them.

Not long ago, I watched a teacher attempt to compel a group of five-year-olds through a type of relay race she had designed to help the children "deepen" their understanding of the autumn leaves they had collected, matching like-with-like and so on. The teacher's enthusiasm and the children's curiosity about this "game" she was describing was enough to keep them interested for a few minutes as they waited in queues for their turn to race from one end of the room to the other, but it wasn't long before there were children exploring under tables, chatting with friends, and, in the case of one boy, simply moping against the wall. The teacher started by trying to cheerfully coax them all back into the game, but it didn't take. She tried to ignore the rebellions to focus on the children who were still engaged in her play-with-a-purpose game, although it seemed to me that most of them were doing it by way of pleasing their teacher more than because the game held their interest. I sympathized with the teacher as I watched her jaw twitch because I have experienced similar episodes in my own teaching past, but the bottom line is that she had managed to turn their natural interest in things like collecting fall leaves and running into a chore from which none of them were learning much other than perhaps a lesson in obedience and disobedience.

Children's play is always purposeful even if we can't tell what that purpose is and it's always educational even if we don't know what they are learning. The moment the adult imposes her own agenda, play comes to an end no matter how playful their top-down agenda tries to be. Children will always lose interest because the questions are not their own and without interest "learning" becomes a chore for everyone.

Play is a pure good, like love or happiness, and, like love or happiness, it tends to disappear when we overthink it.

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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Thursday, February 14, 2019

You Get Out Of It What You Put Into It

I want our school to be a warm and welcoming place for both the children and their parents, so I strive to behave in a warm and welcoming way. I hope every preschool teacher does. We do it because we know that our classrooms will never feel warm and welcoming if we, the teachers, don't give out that it is. Teachers who behave in a cold and grudging way will never create a warm and welcoming environment. It's all quite obvious.

We also know that if we are warm and welcoming, most of our students and parents will strive to return the feeling, at least eventually. That's the way it usually works with the other humans and when it doesn't we grow concerned for them, asking about their home life, recent events, behavior in other circumstances, trying to understand why our warmth and welcome are not being returned. It's odd to us because most people most of the time will come, in their own way, to reflect our attitudes back to us. It works with cold and grudging even better than it does with warm and welcoming.

In other words, you get out of it what you put into it, which is one of the great truths, although it's a tenant more commonly applied to the fruits of hard work. That's what they tell college freshmen for instance. We talk about it around the Woodland Park Cooperative School in a different vein, especially when it comes time for parents to volunteer for their "jobs" for the year. It's a way to encourage fence sitters to make a bigger commitment than they were originally inclined. And as a sales pitch it has the virtue of being true: you really do get out of it what you put into it. I've experienced and seen it for over two decades now.

Living in the heart of a big city isn't for everyone, but my family has chosen it. Cities have a reputation for being cold, anonymous places, full of people going about their lives behind earbuds, smartphone screens, and brisk, purposeful gaits. And it is that way when that's what we're putting into it. Indeed, there are times when I want to be left alone with my thoughts in a crowd, but I've found that if I don't want it to be that way, if I want it, say, to be warm and welcoming, I can make that happen by, obviously, being warm and welcoming: smiling at people, nodding, making eye contact, holding doors. The big, cold, anonymous city becomes a small town because people are people. You get out of it what you put into it.

It doesn't always work the way we want it to. We don't always get what we want. Some of us are born with disadvantages. Some of us are hated for who we are. And sometimes we can't help what we're putting into it: we're too sad or too afraid or too oppressed or just too weary. That's why we need the other people. Maybe it doesn't take a whole school or village or city to start being warm and welcoming; maybe it just takes a few people to get things going, just getting out of it what they're putting into it. Today I can be one of those people.

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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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

"Loser Teachers"

On Monday, while speaking at a campaign event for his father in El Paso, Texas, the President's son said, "Keep up that fight. Bring it to your schools. You don't have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers that are trying to sell you socialism from birth." Later at that event, his father verbally attacked journalists, stirring his crowd into a frenzy, prompting one of his supporters to physically attack a BBC cameraman who was just there doing his job. This is not the first time, the President's supporters have attacked journalists. Are teachers next?

This is dangerous. It's dangerous for not just for teachers, but for the children we teach. I don't care where you stand politically, there can never be an excuse for inciting violence against our fellow citizens, and especially those doing the important work of the press (the only profession specifically protected by the Constitution) and teachers (the midwives of democracy). These are attacks on democracy itself: indeed, a free press and an educated population are two of the pillars upon which self-governance is built.

I don't know a single teacher with the time or inclination to indoctrinate children as socialists. Indeed, it's clear from the man's comments that he either doesn't know what socialism is or is intentionally misunderstanding it. I do know a few teachers who identify as social democrats, people who believe that government (the mechanism democratic societies use to do those things we need to do together) should work to level the playing field for those who need help. What upsets authoritarians is that teachers are teaching about equality, fairness, and cooperation. What teachers are doing is helping children achieve their highest potential, to become critical thinkers, to think for themselves, to question authority, and to stand up for what they believe in. These are democratic values.

And even if there were a teacher or two attempting to turn children into socialists (something for which he ought to be fired, just as he should be fired for indoctrinating them as capitalists), this kind of highly charged language condemns an entire category of people (teachers) for the behavior of a few, which has become a hallmark of this administration. Words like "loser," "socialism," and "indoctrinated" are designed to spur hatred. It's called bigotry and it leads to violence. Since these people have come to power, there has been a sharp increase in violent attacks on journalists, asylum seekers, immigrants, and people of non-European backgrounds in general, not to mention against those who do not fit into the straight-jacket of traditional sexuality or gender identity.

I am one of those loser teachers, yet I will do more good in one day for the children I teach and for our democracy than this pampered billionaire will in his entire life. If I'm a loser, then what does that make him? I will not indoctrinate children, but I will help them acquire the skills and habits and knowledge that will allow them to know when someone is trying to indoctrinate them, especially when they are doing it with the tools of ignorance: name-calling, bigotry, and hate.

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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