Tuesday, July 07, 2015

"Then Everybody Can Have Some Berries"

File:The Lorax.jpg

One of the crops that grow particularly well in our Pacific Northwest climate are berries. For the past several years, our schoolyard garden has grown strawberries and raspberries, and this year we added blueberries. So far, over the course of several growing seasons, we've not once had a berry survive until it was ripe. No matter how carefully we eagle eye those hard, green, immature berries, every one of them gets picked too early. In fact, this year, many of our strawberries were harvested early in the spring in the form of a tiny bouquet of white and yellow flowers. 

This year, most of the un-ripe blue berries were at least consumed, as one of our three-year-olds discovered she had a fondness for sour fruit. She went through our entire crop in a single sitting. Growing up, they always warned us kids that eating green berries would give us tummy aches. Apparently, that's not always the case, but I'm tempted to revive that myth for next year's efforts. That said, we've hopefully remedied our problem of early harvests with the addition of our new greenhouse, an operation that will allow us to better control harvesting so that our communally grown plants benefit more than just a single sour berry lover, while still retaining the freedom of our little playground "grazing" garden.

I'm currently reading Jared Diamond's most book, Collapse. Whereas his book the preceded it, Guns, Germs and Steel, took a look at the factors that underpin "successful" societies throughout history, this one is about the conditions that cause civilizations to rise to great heights before failing, with a focus on those that did so spectacularly. The ancient Mayan civilization is a case in point, having risen to become one of the most prosperous, creative, and thriving societies in the world, only to, in very short order, fall apart. Providing example after example from history and prehistory, Diamond is meticulous in laying out the dynamics that caused each demise, drawing parallels not just to one another, but also to our modern times. He has identified a set of five factors, any or all of which can cause a collapse, some of which are beyond human control, but most of his examples are case studies in human shortsightedness, especially regarding economic and environmental activities.

In case after case, from the Polynesian kingdoms to the Mayans in Central America to the Anasazi in what is now the American Southwest, as well as civilizations that rose, prospered, and the fell on every continent, the seeds of their demise are found in a failure of foresight, usually driven by an elite that was either unable or unwilling to give up a little today in order to have a tomorrow. Or, as we might say today: their lifestyles were "unsustainable," yet they pursued them to the bitter end. 

The most stunning example to me is the story of Easter Island, an isolated land that was once heavily forested by the largest palms ever known, growing to nearly 100 feet high, with trunks seven feet in diameter. When humans first settled the island, those trees became the foundation of a great society, providing not only building and boat making material, but the sweet sap could be fermented to make wine or boiled down to make sugar. The nuts were a delicacy and the fronds useful for everything from thatching and baskets to mats and boat sails. By the time Westerners "discovered" Easter, however, those palms were gone, the island completely deforested, the farmlands exhausted, and the once thriving civilization that built those mysterious giant stone heads reduced to only a few hundred natives scratching out a meager existence. Someone made the decision to cut down that last tree the way the Onceler did in Dr. Seuss' masterpiece The Lorax.

Of course, there is no way to know exactly what happened on Easter because they were a pre-literate society and the stories come to us thousands of years later as part of an oral tradition, but as I read Diamond's book it becomes clear that a major contributor to collapse, perhaps the major contributor, are elites who chose the maintenance of their privileged lifestyle, their greed, despite the evidence before their very eyes that it was coming at the expense of the long term success of the rest of their civilization.

The girl who picked that bouquet of strawberry blossoms isn't a member of any sort of "elite," but by skimming off those flowers for her own pleasure, we were left without berries for the rest of us. The girl who loves the green berries, deprived the rest of us of our share of the bounty in pursuit of her short term enjoyment. I'm not blaming these girls for anything because they are simply children exploring their world, but I do blame adults, who should know better, when they destroy our Commons in pursuit of their own short term self interest.

There are no new lands to discover on our planet and, very slowly, maybe too slowly, we are beginning to understand that the pursuit of our short term pleasures is making our world increasingly less livable. There is still a ridiculous debate centered in the US as "climate deniers" continue to advocate for their own short term self interest, but much of the rest of the world is waking up to the fact that we're going to have to change our ways, and quickly, if we aren't going to "collapse."

Last week, the Greek people voted overwhelmingly to reject economic austerity measures that the elites representing the European Union are attempting to force upon them. I have a particular fondness for Greece and her people, having lived there as a boy and traveled there more recently as an adult. I've been engaged for the past couple of days in fascinating and alarming discussions on Facebook and elsewhere with smart people who disagree about what has happened, what could happen, and what should happen. It's a mind-bendingly complicated situation, with so many moving parts, ideas and opinions that it's nearly impossible to know which end is up. It's become clear to me that anyone who claims to know what is happening, or what should happen, or what could happen, is just guessing right along with the rest of us. Historians of the future will, of course, be able to tell us what we did right or wrong, but in these unprecedented time, I must commend the Greek government for turning toward democracy in the search for answers. There was nothing that required them to make this a matter for referendum, and indeed, the bankers warned them not to, but in lieu of a clear path forward, they turned to the people. And the people have spoken. "No."

The farther we get away from the worldwide financial crisis of 2008, the clearer it becomes to me that our international banking system has been engaged in a kind of economic clear cutting operation whereby they gave irresponsible subprime mortgage loans to people who couldn't afford them, packaged them up as ticking time bombs called "mortgage backed securities" then sold them to pension funds and cities and countries throughout Europe, skimming off hundreds of billions in the process. The biggest banks, who knew exactly what they were doing, then bet that those bombs would explode, which they did, resulting in the big banks buying the smaller ones at a great discount, raking in billions more in profits from the people they bankrupted, and blackmailing taxpayers for trillions in bailouts while the rest of us lost our jobs, homes, and standards of living. The Greek people alone bailed out their bankers to the tune of $30 billion. Governments around the world took on massive debt, then, from the very people who caused the problem, which is the primary reason they are all so deeply in debt today.

Now these bankers, stuffed with green berries, are standing before the final Truffula trees demanding that we let them cut them down. The Greek people have said, "No."

This might seem like it is just about Greece with its economy that is about the same size as a major American city, but there are a half dozen other nations in Europe that appear to be headed toward a similar conflict with the technocratic bankers at the helm of Europe's economic ship. And those bankers seem hell bent on cutting down that last damn tree. That tree belongs to all of us.

A couple weeks ago, I was in our garden with the girl who consumed our entire crop of blueberries. There is still some hope for a few strawberries and raspberries and we were discussing them. She told me she really wanted to pick them because they were so "good for my tummy." There were several other children with us, listening to our conversation. One by one they said that they didn't like green berries, but they did like ripe berries. Then this three-year-old said, shrugging, as if teaching us all a lesson she had now learned, "We have to have patience. Then everybody can have some berries."

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Monday, July 06, 2015

I Hope You Had A Happy Independence Day

I've been re-posting a version of this piece for the past six years. I missed my opportunity over the weekend, but still wanted to share it again.


We must hang together gentlemen . . . else we shall most assuredly hang separately. ~Benjamin Franklin

Happy Independence Day! And “happy” is the appropriate greeting for it. The Declaration of Independence was the first historical instance of the word "happiness" appearing in the founding documents of any nation.

In 1776, 56 men signed their names to this radical document. As a result they were, without trial, proclaimed traitors by the government and sentenced to death. These were middle class people. John Hancock was the wealthiest among them and he was not even a millionaire by today's standards. The wealthy sided with the king. Most of the signers were working people -- farmers and tradesmen primarily. None of them left behind a family fortune, or a foundation, or any other kind of financial memorial of their lives. Our nation is their legacy.

Their average age was 33 (Thomas Jefferson's age at the time). The youngest was only 20-years-old. The oldest was Benjamin Franklin, who was 83.

As a result of having signed the Declaration of Independence, all 56 of the signers were forced to flee their homes. Twelve returned to find only rubble.

As a result of having signed the Declaration of Independence, 17 of them were wiped out financially by the British government.

As a result of having signed the Declaration of Independence, many of them were captured and tortured, or their families were imprisoned, or their children were taken from them. Nine of them died and 4 of them lost their children.

As I read the Declaration of Independence, as I do each July 4, I find myself in awe of their courage. They were all aware of the likely consequences, but they did what they knew must be done. Two centuries later, I still feel the outrage they must have felt as I read through the specific governmental abuses that lead them to that critical moment.

Even more than our Constitution, the Declaration of Independence is the beginning point for the United States of America. I find it both educational and inspirational to return to the source before heading out for fireworks.

When Franklin was asked what kind of nation they were forming, he answered, "A republic, madam, if you can keep it."

I worry at times that we won't be able to keep it, that, in fact, we've already lost it. I worry that too many of us have declared our independence not from tyrants, but from one another, not understanding that in creating a constitutional government of, by, and for we the people, we were also declaring our interdependence.

At the signing to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Franklin famously said, "We must hang together gentlemen . . . else we shall most assuredly hang separately." 

And while we came together this weekend to commemorate our independence from tyranny, this is also a time for embracing our fellow countrymen, for celebrating our interdependence. In that direction lies happiness.

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Friday, July 03, 2015

Protecting Everyone

There are no off-limits topics at Woodland Park. The subjects we push underground, only become more glamorous in their mystery, so when the subject arises naturally, we have frank and honest conversations about body parts, babies, sex, violence, race, or whatever comes up in our play. I try to stick to facts and stating my own opinion without judgement. I've learned to stay calm, even when the things said inflame me. The following dialog was really quite light despite the subject matter. We do this all the time, negotiating our agreements with one another. I could have made this an emotionally charged situation, I could have become scold-y, but I'm glad I managed not to. I think we wound up in a good place without anyone feeling ashamed of "mistakes" they may have made while exploring something dark.

This story may also sound sexist in that everyone assumed stereotypical gender roles. I suppose there was some of that, but mostly it was about friends sticking up for friends. The girls had done their own share of scheming against boys and they often played heroic roles both with their girlfriends as well as alongside their boyfriends, and in turn, many of the boys had played the role of being rescued. On this day, however, it happened like this:


One day, a group of boys got outside first. They had been spending a lot of time figuring out their "teams" ("I'm on your team," "Are you on my team?" "Are we bad guys or good guys?") usually eventually settling on everyone being on the same team which is what was happening as I approached.

"What does our team do?"

"We're going to catch the girls, then we're going to kill them."

I know it looks shocking here in print, but it was offered as a kind of joke. I said, keeping an even tone, "I don't think the girls will like that. I don't think anybody wants to get killed."

"We're just going to chase them and pretend to kill them."

"Do you think the girls will like that?"

"Don't tell them."

"We have to tell them. We have to ask them if they want to be caught and killed. Those are our rules."

"Teacher Tom, you'll ruin our trap."

"I don't think they'll like being trapped either. I think I should ask them."

Usually, I send the kids to do their own asking, but most of the girls were still inside, eating a snack together. The kids don't always divide themselves up by gender, but today they had. "Hey," I said, "The boys outside want to know if the girls want to be caught and killed."

They answered, "No!" together.

"I didn't think so. Do you want to pretend to be caught and killed?" 

Only one of them thought that might be a fun game.

"So, I'll tell them you don't want to be caught and killed and only one of you want to pretend to be caught and killed. Do you want to be trapped?"

They answered, emphatically, that they didn't want to be trapped.

As I started toward the door to carry the message back outside, one of the boys at the snack table called out, "I want to protect the girls."

Then another, "Me to, I want to help protect them."

In fact, all of the boys at the snack table agreed they wanted to be on the girl's team and protect them.

When I returned outdoors, the boys were still scheming. I reported what I'd learned: "The girls don't want to be caught and killed and only one of them wants to pretend to be caught and killed. None of them want to get trapped . . . Oh, and you should know that all the other boys have decided they're going to protect the girls."

For a moment we all stood in silence, then one of the boys said, "I want to protect the girls too."

"Me too."

By the time we were done, all the boys agreed they were going to protect the girls.

When the girls came outside, the boys chased the girls chased the boys, wildly, around and around our outdoor space, all flushed and breathing hard, chasing without catching, everyone protecting everyone.

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Thursday, July 02, 2015

The Jobs Of Tomorrow

The schools we have today evolved alongside, and many say as a part of, the Industrial Revolution. The assembly line was all the rage and it's efficiencies were brought to the classroom where (to borrow from Sir Ken Robinson) incomplete humans are sorted by "manufacture date," then sent on their straight-line journey from chapter to chapter, from text book to text book, from grade to grade, until, at the end they were stuffed full with education and ready to assume those "jobs of tomorrow" which would mostly involve standing at a factory assembly line performing the sort of repetitive, rote task for which they had been prepared.

Business efficiencies continue to be the enemy of education today, although the "jobs of tomorrow" are no longer assumed to be in factories (those are being shipped overseas), but rather service sector employment where "standardization" is the buzzword. They're attempting to standardize it all, from teacher evaluations to high stakes tests and curricula, with the ultimate goal of turning as much of the process as possible over to for-profit corporations because they will, in the mythology of neoliberalism, manufacture that education even more efficiently.

The idea of efficiency in education is an absurdity. The core idea is that if we subject children of the same age to the same information in the same manner at the same time, and if we are sufficiently rigorous, we will produce the kinds of workers they imagine they'll want two decades from now. It's all based on a sort of sociopathic fallacy. Children are not incomplete humans; they are already fully formed just as they are. Children are not primarily on this planet to fill job vacancies; they are here to create the future. Children cannot be standardized; each of them is a unique and wonderful person on a unique and wonderful journey. And anyone who claims to know anything about those "jobs of tomorrow" is blowing smoke; by the time our children assume their adult roles, those guys will be in nursing homes baffled by a world that has passed them by.

The purpose of education, particularly of the public variety, has nothing to do with jobs, but it has everything to do with tomorrow. Children don't follow in our footsteps, but rather walk along beside us so that they are prepared to carry on the journey when we give out. We help them along the way, teaching them what we know, sharing our experiences, not manufacturing them to some sort of specifications based upon yesterday, but supporting them as they become the human they need to be today. As they get older, they begin to show us a future that we can't imagine, seeing both farther and wider than us, just as we saw farther and wider than our elders.

We should not be preparing our children for the jobs of tomorrow. We should be preparing them to create their own future.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Listening Is Where Love Begins

Mister Rogers:

"More and more I've come to understand that listening is one of the most important things we can do for one another. 

Whether the other be an adult or a child, our engagement in listening to who that person is can often be our greatest gift. Whether that person is speaking or playing or dancing, building or singing or painting, if we care, we can listen.

In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.

Listening is a very active awareness of the coming together of at least two lives. Listening, as far as I'm concerned, is certainly a prerequisite of love. One of the most essential ways of saying, "I love you" is being a receptive listener.

Listening is where love begins: listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors.

(And) when we love a person, we accept him or her exactly as is: the lovely with the unlovely, the strong along with the fearful, the true mixed in with the facade, and of course, the only way to can do it is by accepting ourselves that way."

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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Always Bending Toward Justice


The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. ~MLK

When I was born in 1962, interracial marriage, abortion, and same sex marriage were all illegal in large parts of the United States. In 1967, the Supreme Court held in Loving v. Virginia that laws forbidding marriage between people of different racial backgrounds were unconstitutional. In 1973 the Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal across the country and now, with Independence Day approaching, we are celebrating Obergefell v. Hodges, the decision that made marriage equality the law of the land.

The court's decision last week felt to me both like a foregone conclusion as well as a miracle. Even ten years ago, the idea that same sex couples might legally marry was a scoff-worthy concept. Some of us thought that maybe we could get to civil unions or another contractual arrangements that would provide the legal protections and benefits of marriage, but the idea of marriage was one that lived in the realm of impossibility. 

I've been told by my elders that both Loving and Roe felt the same, impossibilities suddenly, almost magically, becoming real. I imagine people felt that way in 1920 when the 19th Amendment passed giving women the right to vote. I don't mean to in any way minimize the hard work and individual sacrifice that went in to making these social changes happen, but in a very real sense, these are victories of democratic self-governance.

Bloomberg Business has recently updated its collection of charts (I would embed them, but I don't know how) entitled "This is How Fast America Changes It's Mind." I came across these many months ago and bookmarked them so that I could revisit them in the aftermath of Obergefell, or whatever event eventually signaled the beginning of marriage equality. Just imagine, it was only in 2004 that Massachusetts courts ruled that their same sex marriage ban was unconstitutional. Honestly, at the time, even as a supporter of gay rights, I was certain that opponents would find some way to get around that court ruling, but that decision turned out to be the trigger, even though it was a long four years before Connecticut finally joined them. Then a year later it was Vermont and Iowa, then New Hampshire in 2010, then New York in 2011, then Washington and Maine in 2012. The floodgates had been opened. In 2013, eight more states joined them, then 19 more in 2014. With Florida legalizing same sex marriage earlier this year, there were 36 states already on board and the Supreme Court decision was, frankly, a foregone conclusion even as many of us waited on pins and needles for the announcement.

It's a familiar pattern, one that most major social change seems to follow in America. For centuries it's unthinkable, then some event gets us all thinking and talking until a tipping point is reached, and then we the people make it happen. Even if Obergefell had been decided otherwise, last week was still a foregone conclusion given that expanding majorities of us, and particularly among younger generations, wanted this to happen.

In Leo Tolstoy's great novel War and Peace, the Russian general Kutusov demonstrates a deep understanding of this concept of historical inevitability. As Napoleon's army advances, he embraces a strategy of retreat, choosing to fight only when absolutely necessary: that is, only when the soldiers, of their own accord engage in battle. His army retreats in this way until the French walk into Moscow. He alone knows that his army has already fatally wounded the French army, the trigger, in a seemingly minor battle and that the pendulum, as pendulums must, was poised to return and the Russians then, more or less, simple followed the French forces as they return to France. Tolstoy's idea is that "leaders" have little to do with history and that it is inevitably the people, the troops in this case, who decide when and where great things will happen, and the role of leaders such as himself is to serve simply as a cog in the machine of history.

I see this phenomenon very clearly in the major social changes that have taken place and continue to take place in America, and indeed, around the world. I remember the utter shock I felt when the Berlin Wall came down after a lifetime of Cold War fear mongering, yet a part of me always knew it was coming. South African apartheid was a fact of life until, in a flash, it wasn't. Again, I don't want to discount the struggle, but in historic terms, these changes were like one day to the next. There are leaders, of course, and heroes, often of the reluctant variety, but at best they serve as cogs in our inevitable democratic moral arc of justice.

This is why it is so important to me that the children I teach learn to think critically, to think for themselves, to question authority, and to, perhaps most importantly, speak their minds. As long as we have this, we're going to be okay.

This is how democracy works, indeed, this is how human beings in all societies work. The people always lead. We may retreat and retreat and retreat, we may lose and lose and lose, but it is a foregone conclusion that we will ultimately win because we the people always bend toward justice.

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Monday, June 29, 2015

They've Created It For Themselves

We don't have a water spigot near our playground garden, so we've semi-permanently installed a garden hose that we use to fill a pair of 5 gallon buckets that we use for watering the plants. The idea is to fill smaller watering can from the buckets. I call it "garden water," a term a repeat whenever I'm in the area, by way of emphasizing my intent for the whole set up. I talk about how the plants need water, along with sun, soil and time, to grow. I role model watering the plants: all the adults do. Most of the kids take our cues and make sure to splash water on most of the beds most of the days.

Across the playground and up the hill, we have a cast iron water pump set in the sandpit. This is the place officially designated for water play, where children can fill and pour and splash and flow to their hearts' content. We say to the kids, especially the ones who tend to be particular about getting wet or dirty, "If you play near the pump, you'll probably get wet."

Yet every day, at least one two-year-old, and often several, methodically use their watering cans to empty our 5 gallon garden buckets anywhere but on the plants, often just dumping it onto the ground beside the buckets. I say to those kids, "Hey, if you want to play with water, you can go over to the pump. This water is for the garden."

Older kids generally take me up on my suggestion, but the younger kids usually look across the way to where I'm pointing, then return to methodically emptying those 5 gallon buckets onto the ground, or, when they get tired of that, into any other empty container they find to fill -- a wagon, the inside of a tire, another watering can -- but rarely the garden.

One day, I tried to manipulate things by moving all the "empty" things away from the garden in the belief that they would then, in their search for something to fill, have no choice but to water the plants. Within minutes several of them had removed their boots and were filling them with water before then emptying their boots onto the ground beside where the plants grow. Another time, I tried pre-filling all the empty containers in the area with water in the same mistaken belief. Instead, they spent their time putting fistfuls of wood chips into the containers until they overflowed onto the ground beside where the plants grow.

Maybe the big kids are too rowdy up by the pump or their water play too sophisticated or it's too crowded or whatever, but I've finally come to understand what the younger children are telling me; that they need their own water play area in this particular spot with these particular materials. Indeed, they've created it for themselves, collectively. 

I'll keep attempting to engineer things toward my own ends, and the garden is hardly dying from neglect, so it's not of great importance, but it's become one of those things with which I feel an urge to keep on tinkering.

One of the ways the older kids play with water is to create dams or holes or canals in the lower level of the sandpit. They then fill our large muck bucket with water and dump it down the hill, running alongside the water flow, making a study of how their theories hold up to the real world. I guess that's kind of what I'm doing over by the garden except with two-year-olds instead of water.

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