Monday, January 22, 2018


Adults habitually ask young children who they've just met about their favorite part of school to which the stereotypical response is, "Recess." That was my response right through elementary school and would have likely continued to be my answer had such a thing as "recess" existed in middle and high school. Of course, the adults never accept that answer, clarifying, "I mean, what is your favorite subject in school," because, duh, if adults remember anything about school it's that recess is the best part of everyone's day.

I suppose there may be some kids who would choose, say, science class or choir or math over recess, but they stand out as the exceptions that prove the rule. After all, recess represents freedom and who doesn't choose freedom?

When people ask children from Woodland Park that question, however, recess is never the answer. That's because we don't have recess, or rather, ninety-percent of our time together would qualify as "recess" in a normal school. When ask, these kids might answer, "The water pump" or "play dough" or "painting" or "building with blocks." Some might mention the songs we sing or their friends or even "Teacher Tom."

Humans were made for freedom, we chose it whenever it's offered and rebel when there's not enough of it. None of us like to be told what to do, no matter or age. That's because every second we spend doing what others expect of us, is a second we spend not asking and answering our own questions about our world, which is part of our biological imperative to educate ourselves. 

And all children know instinctively that the best way to do that is though play, which is what we do when other people aren't telling us what to do, like during recess. We all know that animals like elephants and tigers and orca whales don't develop naturally while in captivity, so how can we possibly expect our children to develop naturally when we limit their freedom to a few minutes per day of recess?

The very existence of schools, even ones like mine, is evidence that we are failing as a society because one that truly served our educational needs would be one where children (and adults for that matter) were free to pursue their education without the compulsion that characterizes our institutions. In a heathy society, education (i.e., play) would be incorporated into our lives as naturally as it is into the lives of animals that live wild.

When children say that recess is their favorite part of the day they are expressing this great truth, one that emerges directly from their human souls that always yearn to be free.

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Friday, January 19, 2018

I Am The Boss Of Me

The other day, a boy commanded me to do this or that and I responded, "Hey, you're not the boss of me."

He replied, "I am the boss of you!" He intended it as a joke. Being a knee-jerk contrarian is where his sense of humor stands these days. His smile told me he was anticipating an argumentative response.

I obliged by saying, "You are not the boss of me."

"I am the boss of you."

"No," I corrected him, pointing comically at his chest, "You are the boss of you," then at my own chest, "I'm the boss of me." We went back and forth a bit, then I switched things up by saying, "I'm the boss of you," to which he immediately responded, "No, I'm the boss of me and you're the boss of you."

The iconic Patti Smith once said, "No one tells me what to do, except my daughter," a line that passes through my head each time a child attempts to boss me around. And there's a part of me that's always tempted to treat them all like my own child, of course, relenting in the name of love with an understanding that they don't mean to command me, that it's just a childish shortcut, but I don't. Instead, I hold my ground, sometimes adding in the spirit of Ms. Smith, "What do I look like, your mom?"

I say it first of all because it's true, but secondly I want to role model the stance that I would like to see all people be able to take toward the world: I'm the boss of me. You're the boss of you. I try to not say it with jerk-ish defiance, but rather as a statement of fact. If it's a child who knows me well, I can be confident that they all already know that they can usually get what they want from me by converting their command into a question. When it's a younger child or one I've only recently met, I generally add, "But if you ask me, I'll probably want to do what you want me to do."

There are some adults who recoil at this approach, certain that I'm teaching the children to be disrespectful and disobedient and they're half right. We are raising our kids to one day be adults in a democratic society, one in which we must be equal members if it is to work. We may as individuals choose to take a job or join a church or create other relationships in which we assume a subservient role, but the key concept is that it is a choice we make as a free human, one we should be able to quit the moment we find ourselves the victims of the abuse of power. The degree to which we don't have a choice about this is the degree to which we are not free.

As a middle-aged, white male, this is an easier stance to take than it is for others. The cards are clearly stacked in my favor, which is why I am particularly motivated to do what I can to ensure the children I teach grow up knowing that obedience, especially to me, is not required. I must earn their cooperation by cooperating with them the way I do with my fellow free adults. So yes, I am teaching children to be disobedient, at least to me, and I do so joyfully, but I hope, at the same time, I'm teaching them how to stand up for themselves on a day-to-day basis without being disagreeable. I want them to know that conversations about power, and particularly the balance of power, are not just acceptable, but necessary, be it based on age, sex, race or socio-economic status, and those conversations are most productive when they are done directly, calmly, and with the focus on finding ways to agree, because, after all, when obedience is removed from the equation, we are left with only our agreements.

And agreements among free humans are sacred.

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

"Teaching" Responsibility

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." ~Declaration of Independence

There was a time when I started Tuesday afternoon by eating lunch with the oldest kids, each child bringing something from home to eat. I took note of their lunch boxes and bags as they arrived: "I see you have a fire fighter lunch box today," or "I'll bet you have sushi in that bag." 

It's clean-up time and most of the kids, most days get to work when I announce it by beating my drum and singing our clean-up song. I ask the adults not to help, at least when it comes to things the kids can do themselves. We are learning what it means to assume responsibility, but it's hard when grown-ups (as you can see in this picture)do it for us.

Often, a child arrived at the table without a lunch and I'd ask, "Where's your lunch?"

"Mommy has it."

"Why does mommy have it? Is she going to eat it?"

"No, I'm going to eat it, Teacher Tom." They thought I was clowning around, but I'm wasn't. I answered matter-of-factly, something like, "I carry my own lunch."

I love this picture in which the adult is sitting with her hands in her lap, probably making
informative comments like, "The trains tracks go in this box," or "I see my friends picking
up the blocks."

By the end of the school year, all of these kids would have assumed responsibility for carrying their own lunches, taking their lunch box from their mothers' hands of their own accord because that is simply what we did.

When we're doing this right, we're not even asking the children to clean-up. They are
doing it because it is clean-up time, not for approval, not to make someone happy.
It's simply what we do. That's how one assumes responsibility.

We all want our kids to be responsible: we want them to carry their own things, to dress themselves, to pick up after themselves. We nag them when they don't do those basic things we know they're capable of doing. Or maybe we're more sanguine, shrugging our shoulders and doing it for them, not up for the battle of wills this time. Still, we know they're going to have to learn it sometime. We see what's in store for them if they don't. We fear they'll show up in the world as some sort of entitled prima donna, going through life expecting others to do everything for them.

Adults sometimes get caught up in getting these things done quickly, but that's an
artificial condition. Doing things correctly sometimes takes time. For instance, we need
to make sure we are putting the right things in the right places, comparing them to what
is already there. This is not necessarily where I think these keys ought to be, but it is
where the children decided they ought to go, together, in a place up off the floor.

Even enlightened parents try rewards (e.g., if you get yourself dressed, you get hot chocolate) and punishments (e.g., if you don't pick up your coat, you won't get hot chocolate) and they can appear to work for a time, but the external nature of the motivation makes it a temporary fix, one that stops working the moment the reward or punishment isn't present. Some of us try the route of natural consequences, but who among us can abide a messy bedroom longer than a child? They easily outlast us, their standards being much lower, and besides they possess the knowledge that Aunt Milly will soon visit and that mom will do it for us in the flurry of housekeeping that always precedes the arrival of guests, often muttering something like, "This is the last time . . ."

We show that the sensory table is closed by covering it with this orange
cloth. Hfound an item on the floor that goes in there and 
assumed the responsibility for putting it where it belongs. It
was closed, but he knew he had the right to re-open it.

A few Decembers back, I told people that the gift I most wanted was that they take a $20 bill, find the most unapologetic street person they could, and hand it to him with a cheery, "Merry Christmas!" fighting any temptation to place conditions on its expenditure. I'm certain that none of them, even my most liberal or most Christian friends, took me up on it. (And in the interest of full disclosure, I didn't do it myself.) Many of them asked, "Why would you want that? They'll just use it for booze." Most informed me that the money would do much more "good" if funneled through a responsible charity where it would get spent on things they need like food, clothing, and shelter.

Yes, there are some things we're not ready to fully clean on our own, 
but that doesn't mean we can't be responsible for doing what we
can to make it a little easier for the adult who will take it from here.

Irresponsibility, the unwillingness to take responsibility for oneself, at least according to our own standards of what that means, be it a clean room or clean and sober life, grates on us. When it's our own kids, we grudgingly do it for them, telling ourselves that "this is the last time." When it's an irresponsible adult, even the most nobel of us hold back, not wanting to "encourage" them, thinking somehow that our $20 will just perpetuate their bad choices, their profligate ways, their degeneracy. 

It's what we want. And that's really the challenge: the conceit that we know best.

We live in a society of rights as well as responsibilities and one of those rights is to not live up to other people's standards of responsibility. In our self-righteous quest to teach lessons, we forget that responsibilities, like rights, are not something we learn, but rather something we assume. And the two, rights and responsibilities, go hand-in-hand: they don't exist independently, but rather emerge from one another.

Assuming responsibilities together is the foundation of community
All of us, pauper or king, are born with the three rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence, in what I consider to be among the most perfect sentences ever written in the English language: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

"Life" has certain requirements that we are bound as parents and as a society to provide, among them food, clothing, and shelter. To that I would add such things as medical care, clean air, and physical touch. These are the rights every child already has to the degree that our families and society lives up to their promises, because to do otherwise is to deny this unalienable right.

Responsibilities are not chores to be undertaken reluctantly, but rather part of the joy of
being together.

"Liberty" is more challenging. Rightly or wrongly, our laws recognize an age (or ages, in the bizarre practice of granting voting rights at 18 and drinking rights at 21) at which his right of "liberty" is fully granted. This is equally challenging for parents, who with good reason fear their inexperienced child, if granted full liberty, will make dangerous, even life-threatening choices, so we must, for a time, limit it in the name of sustaining their first right of "life," at least until they're old enough to assume the full right of liberty. But at the end of the day, most of us are able to grant that all adults, whatever their station in life, have an equal amount of unalienable liberty. 

It's through the right to pursue happiness that responsibilities emerge. This is the part of the promise of democracy in which we acknowledge that we must engage with one another, accommodate, share. School is the first place most of us get to practice this right and experience the responsibilities that go with it.

As I assume my right to pursue happiness within a community, for instance, I must also assume the responsibility of following its rules: not hitting or taking or screaming in someone else's ear. As I assume my rights, I also assume the responsibilities that come with community property like sharing or taking turns. As I assume my rights to freely play and explore, I also assume the responsibility to help clean up those things when it's time to move on to something else.

These are not things I assume because I've been nagged into it. I do not assume them because of some external reward or punishment. I take on those responsibilities because "that's what we do." Responsibilities are not the consequence of my pursuit, they are a part of my pursuit.

If my pursuit leads me to join a church, I take on the corresponding rights and responsibilities to live according to its creed.

If my pursuit requires me to have a job, I take on the corresponding rights and responsibilities of fulfilling its obligations.

If my pursuit causes me to have a family, start a charity, organize a party, or buy a house, I also assume those rights and responsibilities.

If my pursuit requires me to stand on a street corner and panhandle, I may assume few responsibilities, but I also assume few extra rights beyond those that are unalienable. (For the sake of this argument, I understand that I've set aside the realities of homelessness and poverty, and am stipulating for a moment that living on the streets is a "choice.") 

I've written often here on the blog about how the children of Woodland Park, even our youngest members, take on the responsibility of cleaning up the classroom. Each time I do, people write me, asking what I do about the kids who "refuse" to help. And it's true, there are always on any given day, a few kids who opt out altogether. What I do about them is nothing other than to not allow them to interfere with the community project of clean-up. I say, "We're putting that away," when they continue their play. I say, "That is closed," when they try to get out a new toy. I reply, "We're cleaning up now," when they try to engage me in conversation. You see, participating in clean up is one of the responsibilities that comes with the right of being a member of our community and you simply are not a full member unless you take that on. It's what we do.

That still doesn't answer the question of how to get the kids to carry their own things, dress themselves, or pick up after themselves at home. But I do know that responsibilities are not things into which one is commanded or shamed, rewarded or punished: that's called obedience. Responsibility emerges only from the unalienable right to pursue happiness.

I am the parent of an adult now. I've noticed that the more rights she assumes, the more responsibly she behaves. That's what we do in a democracy.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

"It's Not A Drum"

As clean up time approached, I began to survey the two-year-olds, "Is it clean-up time?" Some said, "Yes," while others informed me that they wanted to wait "Three minutes" or "Five minutes." They all know by now that after we tidy up we go outside. I've never instructed the children to participate in cleaning up, but I have instructed the parent-teachers in this cooperative class to practice stepping back, to leave space for the children who choose to participate to do so in a meaningful way.

After three or five minutes, I retrieved the hand drum we use as a transition signal. Children were engaged in their play all around the room, although a couple of them stopped what they were doing to notice me. I said, "I'm getting the clean-up time banjo," and proceeded to "play" it like a banjo.

A few more kids noticed me. "It's not a banjo," I said, "It's a flute," and I played the drumstick like a flute.

"It's not a flute, it's a trumpet," and I played the stick like a trumpet. Now several more children were watching me. One of them laughed, saying, "It's a drum!"

"It's not a trumpet," I continued, "It's a trombone," and I pantomimed playing the stick as a trombone.

"It's not a trombone, Teacher Tom! It's a drum!" By now about half the kids had dropped what they were doing to watch me.

"It's not a trombone, it's a tuba." I used the drumstick for the mouthpiece and held the drum over my head to represent the large, flared tuba bell.

By now, most of the kids were paying attention, and most of them had come over to where I stood on our checker board rug to stand amidst the Duplos that were scattered there. Several of them shouted at me, "It's a drum!" and "It's not a tuba!"

I said, "It's not a tuba, it's a harp."

"It's not a harp!" they shouted. "It's a drum!" Some were so full of anticipation that they demanded, "Bang it!"

"It's not a harp, it's a piano."

"It's a drum!" "Bang it!"

"It's not a piano, it's a drum and I'm going to bang it so loud that your brains are going to shoot out of your ears and splat on the wall."

By now everyone was focused on my silly little show and they were demanding that I bang the drum. They were demanding the transition. It's not the first time I've done this, indeed, it's part of my regular teacher repertoire. After a couple of goofs where I pretended to miss the drum, I finally made contact, playing it gently with three soft beats because they were all so focused with anticipation that that was all I needed.

As I said, I've never suggested that these two-year-olds participate in clean-up, although they have by now been coming to class since September and many of them have been pitching in of their own accord for months. Yesterday, however, the sound of Duplos being dropped into boxes was almost deafening, as they all, as one, leapt to the task. There were a couple visitors in the room at the time, mothers touring the school with an eye toward enrolling for next year. The response was so dramatic, so instantaneous, so opposite of the stereotype we have of young children, that I couldn't help making eye-contact with one of the prospective parents boastfully, as if to non-verbally say, Surely, you want your kid to be a part of this!

I then continued to make informational statements like, "That box needs to go over here," and "Phillip is putting away lots of blocks," and "We need help at the red table," until everything was packed away. None of them complained. None of them hid. None of them sought to avoid the "work." They simply did what we were doing until it was done, then we put on our coats and went outside.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

An "Us" Day

What I wanted to do yesterday was take a "me" day. I'd been traveling and felt like I needed time to goof off. In fact, when I left the apartment, the plan was just to soak up a little of our rare mid-winter sunshine and maybe sit down to a nice brunch before heading home for an afternoon of puttering. The first part happened, but the second part did not. Instead, I found myself on the bus on the way to Garfield High School where my fellow citizens were gathering to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with a morning of education followed by a march to downtown and a rally at Westlake Center.

I was six-years-old when MLK was assassinated. I remember learning about it from the news. If the adults in my life talked about it -- parents, teachers, neighbors -- it wasn't in my presence. It wasn't until a few years later, after my family moved from our all-white suburb of Columbia, South Carolina to Athens, Greece, that I began to learn about the man and his legacy of fighting the intertwined problems of racism, poverty, and war, what MLK called the "triple evils." Too often we think of MLK's legacy merely in terms of race, but I was happy to see that my fellow citizens have not forgotten his broader legacy of anti-capitalism, pro-labor, and peace.

As my fellow citizens gathered, we sang, chanted, and chatted. We carried our signs into the street where we were escorted by a legion of bicycle and motorcycle cops. Just last week I was showing the children at school pictures of police brutalizing and arresting similar protestors, but this gathering was one of peaceful celebration, even as we discussed horrible things. There must have been ten thousand of us out there yesterday. I ran into many people I know, including several of my school families.

At an intersection near Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill, we took a knee, then proceeded downtown to Westlake Center where we held our rally.

In 1970, the courts ordered public schools in Columbia, SC to be desegregated, a direct result of the Civil Rights movement that MLK helped to lead. Sadly, today our schools are re-segregated in much of the country and the same inequalities that provoked the movement in the first place are still with us. Indeed, all of MLK's intertwined triple evils continue to afflict us and in many ways are even worse than they were 50 years ago. We call it a "celebration," but it's appropriate it takes the form of a protest. It would be easy to fall into despair, but for my fellow citizens who have come together in hope, but for the smiles and laughter of the children, but for us all coming together like this to stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity.

It was a long, exhausting, and emotional day. I traded my "me" day for an "us" day and was reminded that every day that is not an "us" day is one on which the triple evils win.

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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