Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Until It Becomes A Part Of Who We Are

As I mentioned earlier in the week, we held an open house for prospective families over the weekend. Unlike many events of this sort, we urged families to bring their children. It was a gorgeous mid-winter day, crisp and sunny, so I decided that I wouldn't bother preparing the classroom for children because I couldn't imagine them wanting to play anywhere other than our state-of-the-art junkyard playground.

Among the children attending were a couple dozen current students and their families. Many of them took a turn through the classroom, then finding nothing but bare table tops, an empty sensory table, and toys generally boxed away, they perceived that the room was "closed" and proceeded back outdoors where the action was. It's not that there weren't things to play with in the classroom: there were stuffed animals, a play kitchen, costumes, dolls, everyday cars, and a few other playthings, but the room nevertheless struck them as "closed."

What I'd neglected to consider was that this is not the message the room (also known as part of the "third teacher" in Reggio Emilia parlance) sends to those who are not regular members of our community. I've long bemoaned the fact that we are forced to use our classroom for storage. Our walls are lined with shelving upon which are bins and boxes of toys of all description, colorful things that were designed to attract and delight young children. A few of these shelves are covered with actual cabinet doors, but most are simply "closed" with sheets of butter yellow fabric, and many have no covering at all. To children who have not been there before, this "closed" room obviously appears as a sort of Willy Wonka's toy factory.

I suppose I should have anticipated that these children who are not yet members of our community, would want to play with the things they found tantalizingly within reach. After all, I spend the first couple weeks of every school year coaching our newly enrolled two-year-olds on the difference between "open" and "closed," a process that is based upon simply stating the facts, "That is closed today" and "This is open," rather than commanding or bossing. By this point in the school year, children might still investigate the shelves with their eyes, but it wouldn't cross their minds to unilaterally decide things are "open." They know to tell me, "I want to play with this tomorrow," and that they can rely on me to follow through. In other words, it has by now become one of the threads of agreement from which our community is woven.

The stereotype of young children is that they are impulsive and selfish, unable to delay gratification or understand the finer points of following the "rules," but as I observed the contrast between the children on Saturday, between those who are currently part of our community and those who are not, that being the only essential difference between them, I was impressed with how much the children I teach have already internalized what it means to be part of "us." Indeed, a couple of them even took it upon themselves to "close" shelves that had been opened by our visitors, re-hanging the curtains and closing the cabinet doors before I could even get to them.

This is what we are here for, to learn how to be part of a community, and we learn it not through direction or lecture, but by living it, together, until it becomes a part of who we are.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Hard, Messy, Emotional

We don't have a huge set of big wooden blocks, which is okay because we don't really have enough space for more and besides, if the kids are going to play with them, they generally need to find a way to play with them together, which is what our school is all about.

The kids in our 4's class had been playing a lot of "super heroes." It was mostly boys, but they hadn't been particularly exclusionary, with several of the girls regularly joining them, often making up their own hero names like "Super Cat" due to the lack of female characters of the type in our popular culture. This in turn inspired some of the boys to make up their own hero names like "Super Dog" and "Falcon," along with their own super powers. And although there had been a few instances of someone declaring, "We already have enough super heroes," in an attempt to close the door behind them, most of the time, the prerequisite for joining the play was to simply declare yourself a super hero, pick a super hero name, and then hang around with them boasting about your great might, creating hideouts, and bickering over nuance.

At one point, however, a break-away group began playing, alternatively, Paw Patrol and Pokemon, which looked to me like essentially the same game with new characters. One day, some boys playing Paw Patrol used all of the big wooden blocks to create their "house," complete with beds and blankets. A girl who was often right in the middle of the super hero play wanted to join them, but when they asked, "Who are you?" she objected to being a Paw Patrol character at all. Indeed, she wanted to play with them and with the blocks they were using, but the rub was that she didn't want to play their game.

After some back and forth during which the Paw Patrol kids tried to find a way for her to be included, they offered her a few of their blocks to play with on her own, then went back to the game.

She arranged her blocks, then sat on them, glaring at the boys. They ignored her. I was sitting nearby watching as her face slowly dissolved from one of anger to tears. An adult tried to console her, but was more or less told to back off. I waited a few minutes, then sat on the floor beside her, saying, "You're crying."

She answered, "I need more blocks." I nodded. She added, "They have all the blocks."

I replied, "They are using most of the blocks and you have a few of the blocks."

"They won't give me any more blocks."

I asked, "Have you asked them for more blocks?"

Wiping at her tears she shook her head, "No."

"They probably don't know you want more blocks."

She called out, "Can I have some more blocks?"

The boys stopped playing briefly, one of them saying, "We're using them!" then another added, "You can have them when we're done," which is our classroom mantra around "sharing."

She went back to crying, looking at me as if to say, See?

I said, "They said you can use them when they're done . . . Earlier I heard them say you could play Paw Patrol with them."

"I don't want to play Paw Patrol. I just want to build."

I sat with her as the boys leapt and laughed and lurched. I pointed out that there was a small building set that wasn't being used in another part of the room, but she rejected that, saying, "I want to build with these blocks."

I nodded, saying, "I guess we'll just have to wait until they're done." That made her cry some more.

This is hard stuff we're working on here in preschool. And, for the most part, that's pretty much all we do at Woodland Park: figure out how to get along with the other people. Most days aren't so hard, but there are moments in every day when things don't go the way we want or expect them to and then, on top of getting along with the other people, there are our own emotions with which we must deal. Academic types call it something like "social-emotional functioning," but I think of it as the work of creating a community.

It's a tragedy that policymakers are pushing more and more "academics" into the early years because it's getting in the way of this very real, very important work the children need to do if they are going to lead satisfying, successful lives. In our ignorant fearfulness about Johnny "falling behind" we are increasingly neglecting what the research tells us about early learning. From a story about a study conducted by researchers from Penn State and Duke Universities:

Teachers evaluated the kids based on factors such as whether they listened to others, shared materials, resolved problems with their peers and were helpful. Each student was then given an overall score to rate their positive skills and behavior, with zero representing the lowest level and four for students who demonstrated the highest level of social skill and behavior . . . Researchers then analyzed what happened to the children in young adulthood, taking a look at whether they completed high school and college and held a full-time job, and whether they had any criminal justice, substance abuse or mental problems . . . For every one-point increase in a child's social competency score in kindergarten, they were twice as likely to obtain a college degree and 46% more likely to have a full-time job by age 25 . . . For every one-point decrease in a child's social skill score in kindergarten, he or she had a 67% higher chance of having been arrested in early adulthood, a 52% higher rate of binge drinking and an 82% higher chance of being in or on a waiting list for public housing.

Here is a link to the actual study. And this is far from the only research that has produced these and similar results.

If our goal is well-adjusted, "successful" citizens, we know what we need to do. In the early years, it isn't about reading or math. It's not about learning to sit in desks or filling out work sheets or queuing up for this or that. If we are really committed to our children, we will recognize that their futures are not dependent upon any of that stuff, but rather this really hard, messy, emotional work we do every day as we play with our fellow citizens.

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Monday, January 14, 2019

"Yes, I'm Savoring It"

On Saturday, our school held an open house for prospective families. Among the snack spread were a few sweets, including small meringue cookies. I noticed one boy carefully carrying a single meringue on a large paper plate. It required concentration because both the plate and the confection were slippery. It caused me a small measure of anxiety by proxy as I couldn't help but anticipate him tipping his plate slightly or being jostled or in some other way losing his treat to the floor. It was clearly valuable to him, likely the one sugary snack his parent was allowing him.

I lost track of him for several minutes, but when he again came to my notice, he was still balancing that cookie on his plate. When I remarked him again some ten minutes later, he was still carrying it around. I said to him, "You've been balancing that cookie on your plate for a long time. You could put it down on this counter." I was referring to the counter upon which I was seated. He took me up on the suggestion.

I said, "You've been eating that cookie for a long time."

He looked at me thoughtfully. "Yes. I'm doing that because if I eat it fast it will be gone and I won't have it any more. If you just take little bites, you get to have it for longer." That's when I noticed that indeed he had taken tiny, almost imperceptible nibbles from around the edges. He went on, "If you get to have it for a long time, then you don't want another one so fast and then someone doesn't tell you that you can't have another one."

He had used a lot of words to say that he was "savoring" it, or "making it last," but because he didn't use those more common adult expressions, I knew that he had worked this out for himself: he had re-invented the concept, and by re-inventing it I knew he also truly understood it. As adults who work with children, we so often try to "teach" ideas and concepts to children from the opposite direction: we give the lecture, we provide conventional words, then expect them to construct their understanding from there. We do it with mathematics all the time, for instance, providing the algorithms then expecting them to learn the concepts afterwords. As the great developmental psychology pioneer Jean Piaget wrote:

Children should be able to do their own experimenting and their own research. Teachers, of course, can guide them by providing appropriate materials, but the essential thing is that in order for a child to understand something, he must construct it himself, he must re-invent it. Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself.

The boy took a tiny nibble from his cookie. He let it sit on his tongue, allowing it to melt there as meringues tend to do. I watched him move the flavor around in his mouth, enjoying every nuance of it. He clearly understood what was happening, he had articulated it in his own way, he had constructed it himself, so I figured now, and only now, was the time to offer him the efficiency of a single word. I said, "You're savoring it."

He smiled at me, nodding, but not for a moment losing touch with the deliciousness. Finally, he swallowed, saying to me, "Yes, I'm savoring it."

(By the way, if you're interested in Woodland Park enrollment information for preschool or kindergarten, here's where to click.)

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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Friday, January 11, 2019

One Of The Great Educational Myths

I never pretend to know what kids will learn on any given day and, honestly, any teacher who does is either deluded or blowing smoke. No one can possibly know what another person is going to learn. You can hope. You can plan. You can lecture yourself blue. You can even, if you're especially clever, trick someone into learning something, but the idea that one person can "teach" something to another is perhaps, except under narrow circumstances, one of the great educational myths.

There is a quote that is most often attributed to the Buddha, but is more likely of Theosophical origins, that goes: "When the student is ready the master will appear." I like these kinds of quotes that persist because they are true even when they can't be traced back to the utterances of Buddha, Socrates, or Einstein. This one is even so true that there is a corollary: "When the master is ready the student will appear."

Some days I accidentally "teach" something to a kid. For instance, I once improperly used the term "centrifugal force" (when I actually should have use "centripetal force") while a child was experimenting with a hamster wheel and the kid, months later, was still misusing my term while performing his experiments, even as I repeatedly tried to correct him. But most days I teach nothing at all except, perhaps, what I convey to my students by role modeling. I've tried, believe me, to convey specific information to kids, like when I tell them that dirt is primarily made from volcanos, dead stuff, and worm poop, but most of the time the only things that stick are the things about which the kids are already asking questions.

And still, despite my utter lack of "teaching," the kids who come to our school are learning. How do I know? I watch them. I listen to them. I remember when they didn't know and then I hear them saying and see them doing things that demonstrate that now they do. And even though I'm not teaching them, they mostly learn exactly what I want them to know.

What do I want them to know?

The joy of playing with other people.

The frustration and redemption of failure.

Emotions come and go and they are important.

I'm the boss of me and you're the boss of you.

Our agreements are sacred.

It's not only important to love, but also to say it.

It's not my job to "teach" these things. It is my job to do what I can to create an environment (e.g., work with our "third teacher" in the parlance of the Reggio Emilia model of early childhood education) that is stimulating, beautiful, and safe enough: a place where children can ask and answer their own questions about the world and the people they find there. A place not of teaching, but of discovery. We call it play. It's really as simple as that.

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Thursday, January 10, 2019


I’ve been either a parent or a teacher in a cooperative preschool for more than two decades. As a parent working in the classroom, one of the teacher’s main instructions was to avoid chatting with the other parents during class. This was the children’s time, we were told, and that’s where our focus ought to be. When I later became a teacher in my own right, I carried this ethic forward to Woodland Park and it continues to be a part of my annual Fall Orientation banter to start the school year.

A couple nights ago, at a monthly parent meeting, I was talking with the father of both one of my current students as well as a former student who is now in elementary school. Normally, his wife represents the family as a parent-teacher, but he occasionally fills in for her when she has other obligations. He said, “The first time I was going to work in class, she warned me that whatever I do, don’t chat with the other parents. Teacher Tom will yell at you.” Now this was some six years ago, but I’m still pretty confident that I hadn’t made a habit of yelling at anyone, especially around the school, but it is possible, nay likely, that I was sometimes a bit scold-y, or perhaps even passive-aggressively judge-y when I perceived that classroom parents weren’t, in my view, sufficiently focused on the kids.

Reflecting on this exchange, I realized that I can honestly say that I no longer feel the way my younger self did. Sure, I still habitually give it lip service, but the truth is that when parents chat with one another during class these days, I tend to be rather pleased as long as their conversations don’t take over the class. Indeed, I even join in sometimes, chatting about movies, restaurants, or politics.

Sure, they’re not fully focused on the kids, but I’ve come to fully embrace the promise of the cooperative model: that we are not just a place for children, but rather for entire families. In our school, the parents are every bit as important as the kids: they are there to learn as well, to make friends, to create community, which is exactly why the children are there. It serves all of us, especially the children, when we spend our time amongst good neighbors, good colleagues, and chatting is a big part of how that happens.

The cooperative model is, at it’s core, the model of a village, the kind required to successfully raise a child. It’s how children have been raised and educated throughout most of human existence, not as precious pearls, but as fellow villagers, living, working, learning, and playing alongside their neighbors, both other children and adults. And in all honesty, the last thing children need is a roomful of adults ignoring one another to place themselves in silent service to the kids: I can think of few things more oppressive. No, much better I think is a village in which children and adults strive and thrive together as fellow citizens.

Neighborly chatting is how we get to know and trust one another: it is in many ways the foundation upon which civilization is built.

(If you're interested in learning more about cooperative preschools click here. I've written a five part series of posts with my best thinking on the topic. You'll want to read the posts from the bottom up, the order in which they were published.)

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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Wednesday, January 09, 2019

The Ring Of Truth

“This is the Ring of Truth.” He showed me the small metallic circle that I had tossed onto the playground in the morning, something that had been at the bottom of a bag of junk a parent had donated to our school before the holiday break.

He was earnest, perhaps even trying out some words to see if they meant what he thought they meant. I asked, “How does it work?”

“It’s my super power. It makes bad guys tell the truth.”

“How about good guys?”

“It makes good guys tell the truth too. It makes everybody tell the truth. Do you want to try it?”

I answered that I would, so he extended it out to me, “Hold it.” We remained there for a time, both of us grasping the ring. I asked, “Is it working?”

He replied, “What is the truth?”

I answered, “Everything that isn’t false.”

This answer didn’t satisfy either of us, so I asked him, “What is the truth?”


“Villains are the truth?”


Another child had stopped to listen in, “I want to try it.” Once they both had their hands on the Ring of Truth, they almost instantly started tugging it between them. I could tell by their expressions that it could easily escalate, so I put my hand on it too, joking, “Hey, I’m the one who knows the truth!” When they saw I was clowning, they got in the spirit, “No, I’m the one who knows the truth!” “No, I’m the one!” Our silly battle attracted the attention of yet another classmate who also took hold, likewise insisting that she was the one and only knower of truth. I said, “We all think we know the truth. Now we have to decide who gets to be President.” 

After a couple minutes the game broke up leaving me alone with the holder of the Ring of Truth. As we chatted, he mentioned that he was a superhero. I asked, “Is that the truth?” 

He gazed at me earnestly, “We should find out.” He extended the ring out to me, inviting me to hold it between us. I took it, asking, “Are you a real superhero?”

He paused as if in deep thought. He has been a superhero of some sort since September. “No, I’m a little boy pretending to be a superhero.”

It was a lovely moment as he considered the line between superhero and little boy; pretend and real; answering the question, “What is the truth?”

He then told me that his superhero name is The Torch of Truth before flying away

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Tuesday, January 08, 2019

They Simply Did What We Were Doing

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. 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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