Friday, January 23, 2015

Monkeys Jumping On The Bed

A couple days ago, Isaac and Mile's mom Lisa asked me if the school could use an inflatable full-sized mattress with a built-in electric pump. The mattress, she said, had a slow leak and their family had not been able to give it away, having literally left it on the curb in front of their home with a "Free" sign on it for several days. That's almost unheard of in Seattle. It's an article of faith that if you have something with any value left in it at all, you can get rid of it by putting it at the curb with a "Free" sign. I myself have done this many times and nothing has ever sat unclaimed for more than a few hours. Recognizing it as pure garbage, Lisa decided to offer it to us before hauling it off to the dump. And, of course, I said yes.

This is exactly what I'm talking about when I say that one of the functions of preschool in society is not to use stuff, but to finish using it. We run our school on garbage, literally: toilet paper tubes, egg cartons, yoghurt containers, wine corks, bottle caps, and occasionally things like leaky inflatable full-sized mattresses with built-in electric pumps.

Yesterday, we put the un-inflated mattress on the workbench. Lisa was the parent-teacher responsible for that station. 

The first things that she and the kids figured out as they unfolded the mattress was that the workbench was too small. The nearest flat, open area was over by the art station, where kids were making stuff with toilet paper tubes, theater lighting gel, tape, scissors, twine and hole punches.

I was busy coming and going, so I followed the project intermittently. The next time I stuck my nose in,  the pump motor was running and a half dozen kids were sitting on the still flat mattress. A few kids then began working on the theory that the mattress would inflate faster if they all got off it. They began urging their friends to "get off" the mattress, having the experience all teachers have had, the one that makes us feel like we're herding cats: as soon as they had shooed one kid off another would step on, but finally they cleared it and, indeed, the mattress at least appeared to be filling faster.

The next time I turned my attention their way, there was a debate about whether or not they should be jumping. Some of the kids felt it was "too dangerous" and others wanted to use the mattress to "sleep" which the jumping made impossible. Lisa was moderating by more or less repeating what the various children were saying. At some point the classic early years song "Five Little Monkeys Jumping On The Bed" came up. Silas replied, "There are more than five monkeys on this bed!" This seemed to stand for everyone as a final mooting of the "no jumping" argument.

I noticed too that the motor was still running, despite the fact that the mattress appeared full. A few kids were messing around with the controls. Lisa occasionally asked, "Do you think it's time to turn it off?" a question to which the children universally replied, "No." If this hadn't been garbage, we adults would have likely made them turn it off, but since it was garbage we could treat it like garbage.

And that's the point of building a curriculum around garbage. This piece of garbage, not even good enough for the curbside, was the focal point of ongoing, free-form social, physical and scientific experiments, lead by the children themselves. And, perhaps more importantly, since it really was pure garbage, we adults found ourselves in the pedagogically correct position of not having to worry that the kids would "break it." This is the power of garbage: it's already garbage, we're just using it one more time before sending it off to the dump.

Then the inevitable happened. We heard a pop and a whoosh. "It popped! It popped!" Then from the other end of the mattress there was another pop. Both holes were easy to find; the size of quarters.

It was at this moment that the adults who had gathered around to watch began to talk over the kids' heads. This was the end, and we all knew it. We said things like, "It was fun while it lasted," and "I'm glad the kids got one last hurrah," and "I doubt there's any way to patch this thing." Meanwhile, the kids, after experimenting with staunching the flow of air with their hands, continued their sunny community experiments despite the overcast of us naysayers.

Henry shouted, "Tape!"

We adults continued our conversation over the kids' heads, "I wonder if duct tape would work?" "Maybe, but we just used up our last roll yesterday . . ." blah, blah, blah.

Henry went straight to the art table a cut off a nice long piece of the cheap colored masking tape we keep on our "tape machine" and put it over the hole. After putting his cheek down to it, he declared, "It's working" which prompted his friends to add more and more tape to each of the holes. Some kids continued to romp on the mattress while this repair work was underway. Others managed the pump controls, officiously regulating the air flow into the mattress, keeping it fully inflated. The impromptu repair crew used their eyes, ears, and hands to determine the exact location of where air continued to leak out from under their tape, then added more tape in a game of whack-a-mole. When that didn't work to their satisfaction, they tried taping on pieces of the theater lighting gel. Mateo had the idea of filleting a toilet paper tube, showing it to me saying, "I'm going to try to block the air with cardboard."

At the end of the day when the kids came inside for a final story, Lisa remained outdoors deflating and folding the mattress. She reported that the kids' patchwork efforts were "pretty effective" -- it had taken her longer than she had anticipated to get the air out even with the pump running in reverse. 

It may be a long time before this leaky inflatable full-sized mattress with a built-in electric pump becomes garbage again.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Good Parenting

"It's the people we love the most who can make us feel the gladdest . . . and the maddest! 

Love and anger are such a puzzle! It's hard for us, as adults, to understand and manage our angry feelings toward parents, spouses, and children, or to keep their anger toward us in perspective. 

It's a different kind of anger from the kind we may feel toward strangers because it is so deeply intertwined with caring and attachment.

If the day ever came when we were able to accept ourselves and our children exactly as we and they are, then, I believe, we would have come very close to an ultimate understanding of what "good parenting" means. 

It's part of being human to fall short of that total acceptance -- and often far short. But one of the most important gifts a parent can give a child is the gift of accepting that child's uniqueness." ~Mister Rogers

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Majority Of US Public School Students Live In Poverty

According to a recently released report by the Southern Education Foundation, a majority of public school students live in poverty.

I just want you to let that sink in for a minute. 

In just 60 years, the span of a lifetime, our nation has gone from one that had created the largest, most prosperous middle class in the history of the world to one in which one of every two children has to worry about food, clothing, and shelter. It's not schools that are failing: it's the economy.

We've unleashed an economic doomsday machine upon the middle class in the form of neoliberal economic policies; policies that have re-distributed wealth from the middle class to the wealthy, and those that have profited the most from its demise, billionaires like Bill Gates, the Walton family, and the Koch brothers, men and women who fancy themselves education "reformers," are blaming our schools for the destruction their economy has wrought. They cravenly claim they're champions for the poor, even calling their cynical venture philanthropy a "civil rights movement" and accusing those of us calling them out on their chicanery "racists."

This past weekend, many of us celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. day by listening to all or parts of his famous "I Have A Dream" speech, an inspirational highlight of a genuine civil rights movement, one that lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What many of us don't know about King, and what billionaires don't want us to know, is that in the years leading up to his assassination in 1968, he had turned his attention to what he considered to be even greater social causes: peace and poverty.

King saw this neoliberal doomsday machine for what it was, probably because they started by testing it out on people of color, people who were already poor. Now, for the first time in history, most of the children in our public schools are poor, and the billionaires are telling us to look the other way. They are telling us that our economy is failing us because our schools are failing us, blaming teachers, blaming unions, blaming the poor themselves. Meanwhile their machine continues to devour the middle class, and indeed, the entire planet. As Bill Clinton might say, it's the poverty, stupid.

It's happened in the span of a lifetime. It happened in the span of my lifetime and I feel ashamed, which is why I'm using the years I have left to do what I can.

I'll leave you with two minutes from the television program Frontline featuring rare footage of Dr. King talking about economic justice. This is the King the billionaires don't want you to see.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Woodland Park Kindergarten Enrolling Now!

I'm proud to announce that the Woodland Park Cooperative schools are now enrolling it's first class of kindergarteners for the 2015-2016 school year. For interested families, we've scheduled open houses for Sunday, January 25 and Saturday, February 14, both 1:30 - 3 p.m. You'll find us at the Fremont Baptist Church, 717 North 36th Street in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. Please visit our website for enrollment details.

The last you heard about the kindergarten on these pages, we were searching for a teacher, and I think we found the perfect fit. Not only does Rachel Troutman have a background in early childhood, but she is a former Woodland Park cooperative parent, having sent her two daughters to our school. I've always had fun working with Rachel and I can't tell you how excited I am to be her colleague on a day-to-day basis.

Over a year ago, parents interested in continuing to provide their children with the sort of progressive, play-based education we provide here, got to work creating this new cooperative school. The goal is a child-lead kindergarten classroom that is a natural extension of our preschool program, a place where children can set about answering their own questions about the world in the context of a loving community of families. 

Particularly exciting for me is that the advent of this class will coincide with construction of our new state-of-the-art greenhouse and the introduction of our year-round urban gardening program, one that I expect to become a model for other urban schools around the country.

This is going to be an exciting year at Woodland Park. We'd love your family to be a part of it. Please help us spread the word!

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Commitment To The Way Of Love

I've posted a version of this post for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for the past several years. I identify so strongly with this holiday, with this man, because most of his story, and by that I mean the dream of which we've all been a part these past five decades, is the story of my life. Of course there are still racists, and what they do and say is depressing and infuriating, but when I look back over where we've been and where we are going, I can see that the long arc of moral history is bending toward justice, just as MLK dreamed it would. For those who find this post too optimistic, I simply say that today I prefer to celebrate our victories. There will be plenty of time tomorrow to bemoan the challenges.


Nonviolence is absolute commitment to the way of love. Love is not emotional bash; it is not empty sentimentalism. It is the active outpouring of one’s whole being into the being of another.” –MLK
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." –MLK

When I was in second grade at the Meadowfield Elementary School in Columbia, SC, there was one black boy in my class. He and I called one another “best friends.” We played together at recess. We were the two fastest runners in our grade. He never saw my house and I never saw his. That was 1968, the year Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Two years later the courts ordered Columbia to desegregate its public schools. Most of our neighbors chose to send their kids to private schools, but my parents put me on the bus to Atlas Road Elementary, a run-down facility in the heart of a segregated neighborhood. One of my friends’ moms prepared me for my first day by telling me that she’d seen people “defecating in the roadside ditches” along Atlas Road. My parents, however, had taught me that we were all the same inside and I was thankfully young enough that I took them at their word.

I’m pretty sure my “three R’s” education was sub-par that year: to this day South Carolina’s public education system ranks near the bottom. But that wasn’t the point of desegregation. The point was to have black and white kids grow up together so that they could learn through experience what my parents had taught me: we are all created equal.

In fact it was economics more than race that marked that year of desegregation for me. I was disappointed almost to tears when we exchanged Christmas gifts (each child brought one gift to be randomly distributed) and I wound up with a pair of socks that appeared used. And race certainly didn’t stop Shirley Jeffcoat from having a very embarrassing public crush on me. We were just kids together. We were all equal, except some of us were a lot poorer than others.

When I spoke to my Pre-K kids about Martin Luther King, I told them about segregated restaurants, schools, and water fountains and they agreed it was unfair. Katherine, in particular nodded along with me. She looked like she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. When I said, “And today we try to be fair to everyone,” she looked relieved. When I said, “Martin Luther King’s dream has come true,” she blurted out, “It did!”

I believe that we have solid of evidence that his dream has come true. Racism has not been eradicated in our country, but it’s in full retreat. Racists are decisively in the minority and polls indicate that it’s an ever-shrinking one. And it’s only going to get better because our children are growing up in this world we’ve created, not the one in which we grew up.

The experiment of desegregation and civil rights worked to bend the arc of moral history and I’m proud that my parents had the courage to make me a part of it. It’s no accident that just as the “desegregation generation” comes of age, we elect our first black president. I am aware of no other nation in the history of the world that has elected a member of an ethnic minority as its supreme leader.

This was the final battle of the Civil War. Non-violence and love win.

Love is not “emotional bash.” I’m more confident today than ever that love is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal. As MLK said, “I am convinced that love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism, but of practical realism. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, love is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love.”

As we celebrate today, we should feel good about ourselves. We have cut off one chain of hate and evil. But racial justice is only one part of the mission MLK set before us. The poverty I glimpsed in that fourth grade classroom is still with us, and there are still too many who think war is the solution.

Poverty and peace are next on our nation’s agenda: problems just as impossible to solve as overcoming racism in America. When the bus pulls up in front of our home, we must have the courage to put our children on it. We must fight evil with love. And we must not despair that we will not win in our lifetime, but maybe, just maybe, our children will see the promised land.

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Friday, January 16, 2015

The Law Of The Jungle

One of the great "lies" in all of literature is William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies. For those unfamiliar with it, and I can hardly believe there are many over the age of about 35, it's the story of a group of British school boys who find themselves castaways, without adults, on a tropical island. Their efforts to form a society, however, fall apart as they succumb to their essential evil natures becoming brutish murderers, saved when adults in the form of the British navy arrive, drawn by the smoke from a fire the boys have set that is consuming the island.

I'm not saying it isn't a good book, but rather that it takes an exceedingly grim view of human nature, one based in the ideas of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who argued that without strong control from government, religion, and other social institutions, life among humans is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." 

I mention this book because it is quite regularly brought up to me by those who have objections to the child-centered, play-based approach advocated on these pages. There is a strain of thought that what we do leads to a sort of law-of-the-jungle free-for-all that will ultimately end in tears, chaos, and worse.

This, of course, is the opposite of the truth that I have found in the world, and is why I call it a lie.

Yesterday, inspired by a couple of our classmates who brought their new skateboards for show-and-tell, we broke out our classroom "scooters." There were ten wheeled vehicles for 20+ kids. In the first few moments there was a mad, competitive scramble, with a few children complaining loudly, "I want a turn!" Conditioned by a world that tends to buy into Hobbes whether we like it or not, we adults girded ourselves to manage the negotiations, assuming they would need our strong control.

Of course, as anyone knows who works with young children the way we do, that's not what happened.  After an initial flurry of back-and-forth amongst the kids, some of it angry, some of it sad, they settled into their play. 

Despite racing about at high speeds in randomly chosen directions, there were few accidental collisions, as the children instinctively knew when to brake and how to steer in order to avoid harming one another. This isn't to say there weren't collisions, but those were most often encountered by mutual consent, one that was typically forged by making eye contact, smiling, and then slowing down to create a controlled contact. A few felt it necessary to fortify this agreement by announcing, "I'm going to crash you!" just to make sure everyone was on the same page. Indeed, the children, even while speeding across the floor, were in constant communication, talking, scolding, warning, objecting, listening, and agreeing.

After a time, rather than breaking up into "civil war" as Golding and Hobbes would predict, the opposite happened. The longer they played the more they joined together cooperatively, creating games of catch, and trains of kids on wheels, each grabbing hold of the one in front, laughing until their cheeks were red.

After our initial forays into adult control that generally only made things worse, we found ourselves stepping back, sitting off to the sides, joining the games when invited, but otherwise observing that the law-of-the-jungle, at least our jungle, is actually one from which a great society could be built. I'm not saying there weren't conflicts and tears along the way, but instead of steps toward a burning island in need of rescue, those moments were part of a general movement of the children in the contrary direction, toward one another rather than away; they were instinctively exploring a path toward a cooperative existence, the way human nature tends when the "adults" seek to support rather than control.

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Most Challenging Part Of Being A Parent

For me, the most challenging part of being a parent of a young child was when her friendships aren't going the way she wanted them to go. Especially heartbreaking were those teary car rides home from school when someone had rebuffed, insulted, or otherwise treated my baby badly. I suspect every parent knows the anguish of helpless pity and impotent rage; that objectless casting about for someone to blame or punish or at least be the deserving recipient of the whipsaw of karma, all of it made worse by the knowledge that no one deserves any of that; that these are just children with parents just like you who are all trying to figure it out as well.

We all have a vast pool of experience when it comes to being rejected. Researchers have found that even the most popular kids in elementary school are rejected 30 percent of the time when they seek to enter into play with others. Knowing this, of course, does nothing to reduce the sting, and in particular the special pain we suffer when it is experienced by proxy as it is when it's our own child.

I still have these feelings as the parent of a teenager, but they're now tempered by 18 years of what I'll call wisdom; the experience of having my child repeatedly come through on the other side where there really is friendship. We still, quite regularly, remind ourselves of the great genius of her classmate Katrina who I once overheard successfully comforting my then 6-year-old by saying, "She's mean to me too. When she's nice to me, I play with her. When she's mean, I don't play with her."

As a teacher in a cooperative, I am right there with parents as they see their child struggling with friendships, being rejected, but also, perhaps even more painful, rejecting others. I know how it's impossible to not drop to your knees and plead with your child to behave or feel differently, to accept, if only just this once, your advice and counsel. Or to tell them they must apologize or make amends or buck up or take it philosophically. I'm there as all of these efforts fail because we, as parents, really are helpless and impotent when we try to do anything other than hold them, and listen to them, and feel with them.

Learning about friendship, learning about how we make friends, is, in fact, a lonely road. Learning to populate that road with fellow travelers is something we have to do for ourselves, through the experience that comes from trial and error. "You just don't understand!" is a great truth our children shout at us when we try to do more than just let them finish their cry. We don't understand, even while we have a vast experience.

Friendship is a joy found quite often through pain, sometimes great pain. That's why it feels so good when we get there.

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