Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Blood Clots




What Homer Simpson said about beer could also apply to money: ". . . it's the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems." Yes, it's a human invention of great convenience, but it's also the source of much pain and suffering. Whenever I complain in public about money, say to bemoan income inequality or to point out that it is the root of all evil, there is bound to be someone to reply, often smugly, that money is not to blame and to do so is the equivalent of cursing the blood spurting from a puncture wound. Money, they tell me, is meant to flow through the economy like blood does through our bodies, carrying with it the nutrients and oxygen necessary for the health of our economy.

If that's true, and for the sake of this argument I will stipulate to the aptness of the metaphor, then what are billionaires if not blood clots that have formed inside the body of our economy, dramatically slowing or even stopping the flow of "blood" altogether? I mean, our economy is producing billionaires at a rate never before seen, while at the same time creating poverty at near record levels as well. This is why blood clots inside the body, especially in the legs, lungs, or brain, require immediate medical attention.

Of course, billionaires don't tend to see themselves that way. In my life, I've had the opportunity to get to know four of them, and three of those four consider themselves to be humanitarians, people of great ability and even greater intelligence who amassed their hoard by the sweat of their own brows and who are now surveying the world for problems upon which to exercise their brilliance. I did not find any of them to be particularly brilliant, but I did, like the rest of the world, listen attentively to their thoughts and ideas because, being billionaires, they actually have the wherewithal to act upon them. That's why people listen to billionaires: not because of their "genius," but because of their money, and time and again they let us down, because to turn to them to solve our problems is a lot like expecting a blood clot to fix itself.

The example that hits closest to home, of course, is how billionaires continue to muck up public education. I have frequently written about how Bill Gates (second wealthiest American), through his foundation, almost single-handedly inflicted the deeply flawed, doomed-to-fail Common Core federal curriculum on our children, causing trillions in taxpayer money to be diverted into his hobby horse, only to have him finally shrug at his failed "experiment" that has treated a generation of children as drill-and-kill guinea pigs. I recently wrote about Mark Zuckerberg's (third wealthiest American) disastrous "Summit Learning" curriculum that is so de-humanizing that children are walking out of their classes. I've also written the pernicious plans of the Koch brothers (fifth and sixth wealthiest Americans) with regards to privatizing and re-segregating our schools. And now Jeff Bezos (the wealthiest American) is pledging $2 billion to be spent on preschool education, a plan that gives me little hope and lots of anxiety.

I'm not saying their hearts aren't in the right place. I don't think they set out to do evil, but their ignorance combines with their obscene wealth to cause far more problems than they set out to solve. I'm also not saying that public education can't be improved, indeed that is the subject of most of what I've written about here since 2009, but our problems won't be solved by dilettantes no matter how well-intended or wealthy. Professional educators, on the other hand, know exactly what needs to be fixed about our schools, yet appallingly, we are the last ones to which these billionaires, and the policy-makers who they keep within their thrall, listen. So it all continues to be a senseless churn of time and money, destined to fail, with a seemingly endless queue of billionaires waiting to step up to offer the rest of us their brilliance, which is at bottom, the brilliance a hoarder in a house stacked with magazines. And meanwhile, our children suffer.

With Gates and the Koch brothers in decline, Zuckerberg and Bezos have stepped into the breach, and billions more will be wasted in their cruel experiments. I wish they would just pay their damn taxes, get out of the way, and let the professionals do their jobs.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

"Children Are The Makers Of Men"




I was riding the light rail home from the airport. A father and his son, who looked to be about five, boarded the train together. The father was immediately drawn into a conversation with a fellow passenger, while the boy, as young children do, began to make a study of the world around him. He started with the other passengers, including me, staring at each of us a bit too long as he thought his thoughts about us, then moved on to the train itself and the view outside the window.

At one point, he interrupted his father excitedly, "I think the airport is close to here!"

Dad paused in his conversation a moment to gently disabuse his son of the notion, saying, "The airport is father south. Now we're near Safeco Field." He then returned to his adult conversation. I followed the boy's eyes as he looked above the exit door, his lips moving slightly.

Moments later, the boy interrupted again, "Are we at the stadium?"

His father answered distractedly, "Yes, Safeco field is the baseball stadium."

The boy was attempting to make sense of the train map posted over the door. After a few moments of silent study he asked, "Are we going to Sodo?"

"No, we're getting off in the International District."

There was another beat of silence before the boy virtually shouted, "That's the next stop!"

This got his father's full attention, "That's right! How did you know that?"

"I read it up there," the boy answered, pointing.

"When did you learn how to read?"

The boy shrugged, then said, "Did you know that someone could ride this train all the way from the airport to the University of Washington?"

Children are always studying their world, of course, and if not the external one, then the internal one of their own emotions. We are born to be scientists, explorers, discoverers, piecing together clues and cues from the world around us, connecting what we observe, hear, feel, or intuit with what we already know to create brand new knowledge, underpinned by the old, just as this child had noodled through the symbols above the door of the train to make sense of his current place in the world and the potential for going new places. It was a door he had opened for himself and it clearly excited him.

Too many of us dismiss or ignore young children's capacity for teaching themselves through their own curiosity, falsely believing that only we grown-ups can tell them where to look. How will they ever learn to read if I don't teach them? How will they ever learn to cipher if I don't drill them? How will they know what's important unless I tell them? It's the kind of hubris that leads to the drill-and-kill model of education, the one in which adults drive and cajole children through subject matter about which they may or (in most cases) may not have a curiosity. It's the kind of hubris that leads our leaders to opine that we must educate our young for those "jobs of tomorrow," those fantastical cogs in the economic wheel that may exist today, but will be on the scrap heap of history by the time our preschoolers are looking for meaningful employment.

Indeed, adults have no idea what specific skills will be required in the future: only the children know that because, in a very real sense, it will be those young scientists, explorers, and discoverers who will create those jobs of tomorrow, not we adults who, by the time the future arrives, brought to us by our very own children, will be in our retirement homes complaining that the world has passed us by. It's the children themselves, not the adults, who know what they need to know to get from here to there. As the great Maria Montessori wrote, "If help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children, for the children are the makers of men."

As we approached the International District station, the boy on the train was quietly reading off the names of each station along the line, not to show off for his father who had gone back to his conversation, but rather by way of proving it to himself, for himself, in preparation for the future he himself will create. This is his world and he is a maker of men.

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Monday, November 19, 2018

Keeping The Kids Busy



Last week, I found a pair of our three-year-olds holed up under our loft, surrounded by stuffed animals, cracking one another up with rhymes.

"Bunny wunny!"

"Teddy beddy!"

"Doggie joggy!"



It was a silly, almost wild game, one punctuated by breathless laughter and the occasional animal throwing.

One of the most pernicious of our societal misconceptions is the one that suggests that if adults don't play a hand in keeping children busy, then they will, at best, waste their time, and to your average adult this game was a classic waste of time. They aren't even using real words for crying out loud! 

As a human with well over half-a-century under his belt, I know that the only waste of time is the time spent doing meaningless, joyless tasks at the behest of others. And as a teacher, I know that children, when left to their own devices, invariably play in ways that are, to them, both purposeful and meaningful. These kinds of rhyming games, for instance, are a way of playing with language, exploring it, delighting in it. Experts say that this sort of thing is a building block of future literacy. I can see how this would be true, but I almost hate mentioning it because I know that there are some, influenced by the cult of keeping-the-kids-busy, who will take this information and ruin everything by trying to "extend" it or "scaffold" it, by creating rhyming worksheets or computer games, or to in some other way take it over with the idea of rendering it "educational." 



With the holidays upon us, there will be a temptation to "keep the kids busy" while they're out of school, to look for ways to make things educational or productive or at least not a waste of time, but it's a temptation worth fighting. We all need more time to be bored, to be silly, to play. The kids are alright without us adults always butting in: they aren't wasting their time, indeed, they are using it for it's highest purpose . . . burpose, murpose, turpose.

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Friday, November 16, 2018

In A World Of Sharp Things



When I first started teaching at Woodland Park, I shared the space with another teacher: I taught the 3-5's and she the 2's. She had been hired a couple years before me so from my perspective it was my job to fit in around her, at least as much as I could. One day she scolded me over safety: "This morning I found a thumbtack on the floor. You need to be more careful, one of my two-year-olds could get hurt."


She was a more veteran teacher than I so I took the admonishment seriously. For years, even after she had moved on, I habitually treated thumb tacks as a hazard. But then time moved on and my views evolved. Of course, I don't want anyone to suffer pain, but we live in a world chockablock with sharp things, from knives to broken glass, and I now understand it's important to not unduly shelter the children, but rather to give them the chance to experience these potentially injurious things. Instead of artificially cocooning them, we undertake to teach children how to handle themselves around sharp things and, yes, to risk a bandage here and there.


Last week, the two-year-olds, who are now my two-year-olds, spent their morning literally playing with thumb tacks and scissors. This week our four-year-olds have been using brand new vegetable peelers (and thus quite sharp) to practice whittling, with the goal of moving on to actual knives by the end of the year.


I do understand my former colleague's concerns. No one wants their charges to bleed, to experience pain, to hurt, but these experiences are coming whether we like it or not. Did children poke their fingers on the thumb tacks? Yes. Did any of the whittlers take off a bit of skin? Yes. Then again, everyone pokes themselves with thumb tacks, especially when learning about them. Everyone takes off some skin with knives and other kitchen tools, especially when learning about them. This is part of the unalterable process of learning to live safely in a world full of sharp things.


No one has ever avoided those experiences. We may be able to prevent those small pains today or tomorrow, but eventually every one of us will suffer them. No one has ever prevented these injuries; we've only managed to pushed them off into the future. Much safer, I think, is to take the risk now, under our supervision, with our counsel, and near our first aid kit, than to leave it to that uncertain future.

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Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Crying Blocks




Before playing with them, I told the kids that I've nicknamed these blocks The Crying Blocks.


"Why?"

"Because every time we play with them, kids wind up crying. Usually, lots of kids."

"Well, I'm going to call them The Happy Blocks."

"Me too."

"I'm going to call them The Happy Blocks too."


We acquired these big, soft blocks years ago when a family made a generous donation coupled with a matching donation from their employer with the stipulation that Teacher Tom, and Teacher Tom alone, got to decide how to spend it. I'd been eyeballing these blocks for some time and spent the entire donation on the largest set, a decision I came to regret (at least partially) almost immediately. These blocks with their bright colors, soft corners, large size, and light weight speak to some children, saying, "Go crazy!" During their maiden voyage, several children were crying within minutes, having been bopped, squashed, trapped, and otherwise injured or frightened during what could only be described as a melee. Since that time, I've found it useful to preface the introduction of these blocks each year with a little discussion.

"Why do kids start crying?"

"Usually because they get hurt."

"How do they get hurt?"

"Sometimes they get trapped under blocks and other kids jump on them. Or sometimes someone starts throwing the blocks or hitting people with them. Or maybe two kids bash heads together."

"We won't do that, right?"

There was general agreement that they would take care of one another.


"The biggest problem," I said, "Is that it looks like there are a lot of blocks, but that's just because they're big. There actually aren't that many blocks. A lot of times kids start crying because they fight over blocks."

"We won't do that, will we?"

Again, general disagreement accompanied by a few comments that they were going to call them The Happy Blocks.

"I also call them The Crying Blocks," I continued, "because people knock over other people's buildings."

"We won't do that! We all agreed!" This was said while pointing to the list of agreements (sometimes called "rules") that the children have made with one another.

With that we started playing with the blocks. A handful of kids moved immediately to other activities, but most of them stayed to test themselves amongst The Crying Blocks. They began building in groups of two and three, quickly using up most of the blocks. It was generally peaceful for the first ten minutes or so. One of the girls asked me, "How many kids are usually crying by now?"

I replied, "Several."

She turned to her friend, "Teacher Tom says that usually several kids are crying by now, but none of us are crying."

Then things began to get a bit more tense. One boy straddled a block while holding two others protectively. I began to hear a lot of declarations like, "This is our building!" and "Hey! We were using that block!" and "She took our block!" I was sitting near the area on a bench, occasionally narrating what I saw, especially remarking upon any cooperation I witnessed. There were several appeals to me to help settle disputes, but I turned it back to them, saying things like, "I guess you two will have to talk. These blocks are hard to play with."

There was suddenly a flare up between a couple girls. One of them began to choke up, her tears of frustration or outrage right on the verge, then we made eye contact. I watched her fight down the emotion enough to say, "Let's play with it together!" and her friend replied, "Yeah! Let's play with it together!" 

Moments later two groups of builders began arguing about a tower that had been inadvertently knocked over. When they turned to me, I shrugged, saying, "Well, they're called The Crying Blocks for a reason."

"We're calling them The Happy Blocks, right guys?" And with both factions agreeing, they decided to "connect" their respective buildings.

"Teacher Tom, by now how many kids are usually crying?"

"Most of them."

"Well none of us are crying."

"I know! That's because you're all trying to work together."


Over the next several minutes there were more near tears as they worked things out, but it was mostly peaceful, cooperative play with lots and lots of talking. The boy who was hoarding his three blocks still sat among them, silent, scowling, experiencing the natural, miserable state of a hoarder. Then off to one side, in an otherwise unused area of the rug, two boys began to play more wildly, running and falling on the blocks while pretending to sneeze, "Achoo!" Impressively, they managed to control their bodies enough to not accidentally knock into anyone else's constructions. As they got louder and laughed harder, however, others began to like their idea. Soon the buildings had been abandoned in favor of the sneezing game, the only exception being our hoarder, who continued to sit silently in his self-imposed misery.

I said to him, striving to not betray any judgement in my tone, "You're hoarding three blocks. You don't look happy."

"Can we clean up now?"

"But the other kids are having so much fun," I answered. "I think we're going to keep playing for at least another half hour." He contemplated this information for a minute or two, then slowly stood, abandoning his blocks, and his misery, for a seat across the room at the play dough table.


The sneezing game reached a crescendo, then returned to groups of children building cooperatively, talking their way through it, self-regulating, no longer looking to me for anything. There had been a few tears, but they had been short-lived and readily wiped away with agreements. After we put the blocks away for the day, I said to the group, "You guys did it. You turned The Crying Blocks into The Happy Blocks."

"We told you, Teacher Tom."

"You sure did."

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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

"It Will Fall"



There are a couple boys in our 3's class who still struggle with the temptation to knock down the constructions of others, so I was loudly narrating my own activity by way of making sure they knew that this tower was "my tower" and it was not a "knocking down tower." Naturally, this drew something of crowd.

I announced, "I'm going to build my tower all the way to the ceiling."

"It will fall," declared one of the onlookers.

"Yes, it will fall," agreed another.

They weren't taunting me, but rather simply stating a fact. Every preschooler knows that there is a limit to how tall she can build a block tower, and if she doesn't yet know, she soon will. She knows that there is a height limit imposed either by physics, her own capabilities, or the designs of others. Indeed, she knows that this is the destiny of everything she builds with her playthings. And she knows that this doesn't just go for her, but for everyone. It's part of the human condition.

Of course, that doesn't mean she won't continue to try to stack blocks to the ceiling or the sky or to outer space. On the contrary, for many of us, that's exactly the point, to challenge ourselves, to see how far we can go before it all comes crashing down. We learn quite young to not cry when our buildings fall, unless it comes at the hands of others like the boys who are still tempted (which is why I was working to "teach" the lesson of "not knocking down"). In fact, for most of them, most of the time, the response is to laugh, often giddily, sometimes even wildly. Many, once they've recognized the inevitable bending back toward the earth are even eager to help it along, giving it an extra push.



As an adult it's impossible to not see this as a metaphor for all human activity: everything we build will fall. We may someday build that tower to the ceiling or to the sky or into outer space, but in time we still know even that will fall.

As predicted, my tower did fall. I had genuinely tried to make to the ceiling, putting my best efforts into it. The taller I built it, the more children gathered around. They knew it would fall, but they were with me, not exactly cheering, but anticipating. Maybe this time the tower wouldn't fall. And when it did, we laughed, several of them rushing it to get a piece of its demise. Then all around me new towers began to rise in imitation of my attempt, each one a tower "to the ceiling."

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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

"They Could Be Building With Blocks"



The younger children might come to school for the toys, the songs, or Teacher Tom, but by the time they're approaching four, the thing to which they're most looking forward is one another. We tend have a minimal agenda as it is, but this is why the decks are left especially clear for the first hour of our time together. The kids need that opportunity to greet one another, to lay hands on one another, to giggle over their burgeoning love for one another. Certainly, there are times when this or that child will want to be off on her own for a time, and there are always a few who are more inclined to solo play, but most of the kids, most of the time, need the other children in order to be at their best.

I don't think this inclination goes away as we get older. Meaningful human contact, be it with friends, colleagues, or teachers, is essential to mental and intellectual well-being. This goes for introverts and extroverts alike, albeit the "doses" may vary. We have evolved as social animals, we're at our best when we're social, we learn more, and more deeply within the context of community. We solve problems more creatively when we work together. Indeed, from where I sit, that is the primary reason we go to school: to be together in a place where children form their own community around shared interests and goals. Everything else that education is, will emerge from that.

Last week, 100 students in Brooklyn walked out in protest over their school's adoption of an online curriculum called "Summit Learning" designed by Facebook engineers and funded by CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Their main complaint being that they hated staring at their computer screens all day. "The whole day, all we do is sit there."

Screen-based "education" is a nightmare for children, especially young ones who don't have the opportunity to walkout. The developers' of these programs promise of "personalized learning" might sound good because, indeed, children learn different things according to different timelines, but the rush to shove screens in front of more and more children threatens to undermine the very thing that makes schools educational.

Says teacher Mark France speaking about a similar screen-based curriculum called AltSchool, "The vision was a curriculum that catered to every child so they're learning at their level all the time. But when every child is working on something different, you're taking away the most human component in the learning process, which is social interaction -- learning from one another and collaborating to solve problems. They're developing a relationship with their tablet but not one another."

Screen-based "education" erodes community. Humans have evolved to learn from one another, together, as a collaborative process. Not only that, but even by the narrow measures used by these purveyors of online "education" to demonstrate success (e.g., standardized tests), online learning has shown, at best, minimal improvement over methods that focus on human interaction, and in many cases, the results have been worse. No one with any meaningful background in education would be surprised by this and to make guinea kids of our children so that education dilettantes can test our their theories is deeply immoral, not to mention damaging. Good on those high schoolers for walking out, and good on their school for canceling the program.

As for France, who has since left AltSchool to teach in a school that places its emphasis on human interaction:

. . . the turning point came one morning when he looked around a kindergarten classroom, "and the kids were staring at their tablets, engrossed by them. And I'm thinking to myself, "They could be building with blocks, they could be doing a number of different things that are more meaningful that also build social and emotional skills but they're choosing not to. Why? Because the tool is so addictive, that's wall they want to do."

There is a reason that technology workers are increasingly restricting screen time for their children and choosing schools for them that eschew screen-based technology. There is a reason that doctors and researchers are recommending dramatically curtailing the use of screen-based technology for children. Yet the technologists, these corporate "reformers" who would impose their experiments on our children are undaunted. There is money to be made, so damn the children. Thank you Brooklyn high schoolers for standing up to them. Your walk out is for all of us.

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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