Thursday, July 28, 2016

Turning Outward, Shoulder-To-Shoulder




Over the past few years I've had the opportunity to travel the world in my adult disguise as Teacher Tom. And during my adventures, I've played with young children in dozens of countries on every continent, and you know what? No matter how different the geography or culture or language or economic conditions or political situation, the kids are all the same.

Of course, of course, they are each unique, fully-formed human beings, destined to live a life that has never before been lived, but I've never run across a single one who isn't compelled by the universal human urge to learn about their world through their play. I'm currently traveling in Australia and at each stop along the way, when young children are present, I see them first eying me, sizing me up, then one after another they begin to poke at me, show off for me, stand closer to me, tug at me, smile at me, scowl at me, all of which I recognize as the question, "What's this guy all about?" Sometimes their adults step between us, insisting, "Say hello to Teacher Tom," or "Don't bother Teacher Tom," but when left to explore me, this new element in their world, we invariably wind up playing together.

As we play, they ask me questions, but not cautious ones adults ask me, like, "How was your flight?" or "Are you enjoying Australia?" No, their questions are of the more direct, non-verbal variety. A few nights ago, one five-year-old wanted to find out how I felt about having fists full of grass thrown at me. A two-year-old was curious about how I would respond to having a stick waved about in front of my face. A group of four-year-olds at one preschool were interested in discovering whether or not I enjoy being climbed on. And every young child I've ever met from every corner of the globe tries to learn whether we share a sense of humor or awe or adventure. They ask me, "Knock, knock?" They call out, "Look at what I can do!" They say, "Come with me!" and in my response they find answers to the questions they have about this strange man from a strange land who's been plopped down amongst them.



This is what the universal human instinct to learn looks like wherever I go. It's irrepressible, it's universal, it's manifest. The learning capacity of children at play has been demonstrated time and again through scientific enquiry. Yet despite this, only a very small number of our nations have seen clear to place play at the center of how they educate young children. And even those that have come to understand the primacy of play in the early years, such as New Zealand or the Scandinavian countries, play is systematically pushed to the side as children get older as if in our wisdom we can do better than the evolutionary process that has designed humans, and indeed all animals, to learn through play.

Those of us in early childhood talk about this phenomenon amongst ourselves all the time. In fact, usually that's why I've been invited to visit this or that nation: to sit around with like-minded professionals and talk to one another about how we do it, what we've learned, and to gripe about how the powers-that-be just don't get it. I don't believe there is anyone on earth with a more noble cause. We are in a very real sense defending childhood from the sticky fingers of those who would steal it for their own nefarious devices.

Childhood is the right of every child and at the core of childhood is the right to play.

I keep waiting for things to change, poking my head out of the little bubble in which I live every now and then to see if it has, only to find myself disappointed. I shout a few things here on the blog or from the podium at a conference or to my wife when my frustrations get too much for me to save them for a more appropriate time, but then I go back to work tending my little garden of play-based learning.

It's not enough. It's time for a revolution. I have recently hooked my cart up to the Play Iceland movement, about which I've written before and about which you will be hearing more here in the coming months. We are educators from Europe, North America, and Australia who are committed to taking the next step. It is time that we stop just talking to one another and turn to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in an attempt to affect real, concrete public policy changes that place play at the center of education. There is so much to do, so many things that need to change, that the task seems impossible, but as Henry Ford famously pointed out, "Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs," so that's what we're going to do, one public policy measure at a time.



We're beginning with the simple notion that every child deserves a childhood and that "academic" instruction has no place in the lives of children under seven. Of course, there's more to it than that, but this is the "small job" we've set for ourselves and I'm writing today to ask you to join us. It's going to be uncomfortable for many of us to become "salespeople," but that's what the children of the world need from us.

I have no idea what form this revolution will take, I only know that it has to start somewhere, so why not here? Play Iceland Seattle (my home town) is taking place the week of October 9, so consider this your invitation to join us if not in person, at least in spirit. In the coming months we will be developing public policy statements and other materials that you can use to start selling this idea in your communities. Plans are currently afoot for Play Iceland gatherings in Italy and Australia and, of course, Iceland itself. We are turning outward, shoulder-to-shoulder.

Here is the Play Iceland Facebook page.

Here is the Play Iceland website.

Please join us. The children need you.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." ~Margaret Mead 


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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A Thousand Steps



































The opposite of play isn't work, it's rote.  ~Edward Hollowell

This might sound like an odd thing for a teacher to write, but I sometimes get the idea that knowing stuff is the enemy of education. There is little gratification in it for me when I've envisioned how children will do something, then they proceed to do it in just the way I've imagined. Certainly I could claim it as some evidence of experience on my side, but it also makes me worry that it's also evidence of rote on the children's side. 


I'll leave it to future teachers to worry about teaching the kids to follow instructions if that's what they feel they need them to do. Much better things are happening in our school, it seems, when instructions are minimal and I'm constantly proven wrong in my expectations. Fortunately, when working with young children in a play-based environment, that's more the norm than the exception. 


Our classroom, every day, should be one big experiment, a place where things are not known by either the kids or the teachers, a place where we fiddle and argue and poke and prod our way toward knowledge, and where everything we come to understand is only a part of all the other things we're striving to know.  It should be a place with lots of room for failure, frustration, and conflict. It should be a place with lots of room for wonder, epiphany, and friendship.


When a reporter asked Thomas Edison how it felt to have failed over a thousand times in his quest to invent the lightbulb, he famously answered, "I didn't fail a thousand times. The lightbulb was an invention with a thousand steps." Except we're not even trying to invent anything here, but simply discover, in the spirit of pure science, conducted for the purpose of getting closer to our own truth and nothing more.


Or maybe we are trying to invent something, after all, and if we are, it's not the sort of thing that can be put into words, but rather felt or intuited. I suppose it has something to do with inventing ourselves both as individuals and as a community. It's something that can only be invented by conducting thousands and thousands of experiments; by taking thousands and thousands of steps.


And even though billions of humans have come before us, if we are playing together, we are discovering and inventing a thing that has never been discovered or invented before: us.



Anyone who tells you they have a system or method or sure-fire technique for educating children isn't talking about education at all. They're talking about standardization and efficiency. They're talking about assembly lines and cookie cutters. Anyone who doesn't start with the idea that it's all an experiment isn't talking about education at all. They're talking about rote.




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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Planning Ahead




Reader Amy posted this on the Teacher Tom Facebook page:

I found a nut-turned-seedling in the garden today and was so excited to be "in the moment" and have a "teachable moment" with some "deep discussions" and "genuine inquiry" with the children (ages 2-4). They looked at it for about 5 seconds, then -- "Tag, you're it!" -- they were gone . . . Today they needed to run, chase, and practice negotiating the finer points of tag. Works for me.

This is the sort of thing that happens all the time in a play-based curriculum. Sometimes your own agenda meshes with that of the kids. Sometimes the kids are all over that nut-turned-seedling, but often they're not, at least not in the way we anticipated with all our adult "deep discussions" and "genuine inquiry." And as hard as it is sometimes, we have to have enough philosophy, like Amy does, to let it go.

A teacher can't help but have an agenda when it comes to the children in her charge, if only because any teacher worth her salt has been thinking about the kids, anticipating them, keeping track of where they were, where they seem to be going, and what they might need from us to get there. But the children always have an agenda as well and we're primarily there to serve that agenda. When we're unable to joyfully set our own agenda aside in favor of their more important one, that's when we find ourselves in the role of cajoling, scolding, and even bossing, which ought not be a teacher's role in a play-based curriculum, even when it's about a nut-turned-seedling, rather than a worksheet.

When the door finally closes behind the last child at the end of the day, I usually take a moment to reflect on how I feel things went. I might later spend more time dwelling on specific children, challenges, relationships, activities, and opportunities, but this moment is a sort of emotional gut check, one where I'm most focused on how I feel about myself. Almost always, if I find the memories of cajoling, scolding, bossing or even just quietly grinding my teeth, I know I've struggled that day with setting my own agenda aside.

People often want to know how to "lesson plan" for a play-based curriculum. I suppose it's not a lot different than lesson planning in any school, the difference being that at the end of the day there is no shame in finding that what actually happened during the day bears little resemblance to that plan. Of course, sometimes it does. For instance, I happen to know that I'm going to draw a crowd when I, say, break out the baking soda and vinegar and start erupting our volcano, or when I announce we're going to be playing the Goldfish game, or start to read Caps For Sale, or produce the big parachute. Those are times when I'm putting on a sort of "show" and most of the kids, most of the time, adopt it as their own agenda because it's fun to be part of the big show, even if it's only as a member of the audience. Works for me.

Sometimes, however, I've planned a show, like when the cast iron pump needs to be serviced, that fails to draw a crowd. That's okay too. If only one or two kids want to hang out as I talk my way through loosening nuts and bolts, cleaning out debris, replacing leathers, and smearing plumbing grease inside the cylinder, that's still a success. Works for me.

If the art project I've planned is a dud, like the time I painstakingly cut out dozens of butterflies from watercolor paper for the kids to paint, and they turn it instead into something of their own, like saturating the paper with liquid water color and using them to apply temporary butterfly tattoos up and down their arms, that's still a success. Works for me.

It works for me because in a play-based curriculum the goal is not to "get" the kids to see the world the way I, or any other adult, wants them too, but rather for the children to make the world their own. It's a curriculum of discovery, not memorization, and the teacher's role is to reflect, prepare, then get out of the way: that space we leave when we step aside is where critical thinking happens, and that's really, in the end, what education is all about.

A nut-turned-seedling is a miraculous thing, but so is a game of tag, and today it's on the agenda. Works for me . . . Although I'll still save that nut-turned-seedling for a few days, setting in a place where it might be discovered because, you know, tomorrow's another day and that's me just planning ahead.


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Monday, July 25, 2016

Letting Them Fall



When one of my students has a new baby at home, I jokingly ask, "Have you taught them to talk yet? Have you taught them to walk?"

When they answer, "No," I then ask, "Well, what does she do all day?"

They answer, "Sleep," "Cry," and "Drink milk from mommy," because, as newly-minted experts, they know that this pretty much represents the full repertoire of a newborn.


When human babies are born they are among the most helpless creatures in the animal kingdom, relying on the "goodwill" of the adults around them to tend to their every need. And it will be years until they are fully ready to care for themselves. In our modern world, the job, of course, typically falls on loving parents who often, at great sacrifice, turn their lives over to the task.

Slowly then, over the course of months and years, our children grow, and as they grow, as they develop, as they learn about the world, they become increasingly capable of doing more and more for themselves. And it is the job of the parent to slowly, slowly step back from their child as they become more competent and capable. Ideally then, by the time the child is an adolescent, they are capable of doing most things for themselves, and by the time they are a young adult they are no longer reliant on mom and dad.


We all know that's pretty much how it ought to work, even if there are ebbs and flows and ups and downs. In the end we all aim for children who can stand on their own two feet. But our minds and our emotions don't always see eye-to-eye on this.

I meet most of the kids I teach as young two-year-olds. They are all capable of walking and talking, yet it's quite common for a parent to still be doing their walking and talking for them, at least in public; carrying them from place to place and answering for them. It's easy to be critical of these parents who are not "allowing" their charges the space to be themselves, to practice walking and talking in the wider world, but I also understand. Only yesterday it seems, these were the newborns to whom they have devoted themselves and it's sometimes impossible to see from the inside that it's time to get those feet on the ground and to allow those voices to speak for themselves.

Not all parents are like this, but many are, and I see it as my job to create a space in which they can safely begin to release their hold. Indeed, there is a fine line between holding a child up and holding him back and it's not always clear where that line is. Still, over those first few weeks and months of school, that is the main task of these children and their parents, and they all do it at their own pace, experimenting with independence from one another and experiencing all the joys, sadnesses, successes and failures that go with it.


And then there are some parents, not the usually the ones who come to Woodland Park, but out there in the world, who never really begin to release their kids. We all know who they are. These are the parents, for instance, who are still buttering their teenager's toast. These are the parents who dig through their child's backpack each night hunting for evidence of homework assignments. These are the parents who can't quite remember that they are not parenting a helpless newborn. In its extreme form this style of parenting evolves into a the type of overbearing, controlling behavior we associate with the "Tiger Mom" archetype. In the interest of "protecting" their children, they do what's "best" for them, resorting to a kind of micromanagement in which children never really learn to "walk" or "talk" for themselves.

Fortunately, most of us know intuitively that this is not good for kids and most of us never go all the way over that particular edge, but at the same time, most of us, at least some of the time, find ourselves "saving" our children when they would have been better served by being left to learn from their failures. It's such a hard thing to do for most of us, and indeed, it can even feel cruel to allow our "newborn" to fall. We want to always be there to catch them even when we know that it simply can't be.

This is may be the hardest work of parenthood and while it might take everything we've got to allow them to fall, we can at least always be there to comfort them when they do. No human is ever too old for that.



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Sunday, July 24, 2016

"But How Do They Learn To Read?"




"But how do they learn to read?"

It's the question most often asked by doubters when first learning about play-based education. Most people "get" that play is important for young children, at least to a certain degree, they're not ogres, but they just can't get their minds around the idea that most children, when left to their own devices, will actually learn to read without adult intervention.

First of all, from a purely developmental perspective, preschool aged children should not be expected to be reading. This isn't to say that some preschoolers don't teach themselves to read. I've known readers as young as two. And at any given moment, there will be a handful of four and five-year-olds at Woodland Park who are reading books on their own because that's how human development works: some children start speaking at three months and some barely utter a word until after they've celebrated their fourth birthday; some are walking by six months and some aren't up on their feet until they're closer to two. Parents might worry, but the truth is that it all falls well within the range of "normal." The research on reading indicates that the natural window for learning to read extends to as late as 11 years old!

Of course, in today's America, a child who is not reading by the time he is seven or eight is thought to have some sort of learning disability when the fact is that he is perfectly normal. A couple years back a University of Cambridge team reviewed all the available research on the topic and concluded that "formal" schooling should be delayed until children are at least seven, and that, indeed, pushing it earlier is damaging children's "academic" achievement, especially when it comes to reading.

Studies have compared groups of children . . . who started formal literacy lessons at ages 5 and 7 . . . (T)he early introduction of formal learning approaches to literacy does not improve children's reading development, and may be damaging. By the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who stared at 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later.

Their recommendation is that the best "academic" education for children under seven is the sort of "informal, play-based" environment we offer at Woodland Park because that is how the human animal is designed to build the foundation for all future learning.

The sickening thing is that today's kindergartens and preschools are charging pell-mell in the wrong direction:

A new University of Virginia study found that kindergarten changed in disturbing ways from 1999-2006. There was a marked decline in exposure to social studies, science, music, art and physical education and an increased emphasis on reading instruction. Teachers reported spending as much time on reading as all other subjects combined.

With the advent of the Common Core federal public school curriculum in the US (and it is a curriculum despite it's advocates' insistence that they are merely "standards") with its narrow focus on literacy, mathematics, and testing, it has gotten even worse since 2006. Indeed:

Last year, average math scores . . . declined; reading scores were flat or decreased compared with a decade earlier. 

We are proving the research: we are damaging our children. This is why I remain so consistently opposed to what is happening in our public schools. By law I'm a mandatory reporter of child abuse in my state. This might not fit the legal definition, but it definitely fits the moral one.

That still begs the original question: how will they learn to read?


As I learned from Carol Black's brilliant essay entitled A Thousand Rivers, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1439, very few people could read. In fact, reading was primarily the domain of the clergy who needed the skill to read and create Bibles. But the printing press suddenly made printed matter widely available. With no notion of formal literacy education, Europeans were left to learn to read on their own, passing on the knowledge from one person to the next, from one generation to the next.

Literacy rates steadily climbed for the next couple hundred years, then surged around the time of the American Revolution when Thomas Payne's pamphlet Common Sense became a runaway hit, selling over a half million copies and going through 25 printings in its first year. It's estimated that 2.5 million colonists read it, an astronomical number for the time. And it's not easy reading. Nevertheless, historians credit this viral document with inspiring the 13 American colonies to ultimately declare their independence from British rule.

People wanted to read, they needed to read, so they learned to read, which is why literacy rates in those original 13 colonies were actually higher than those we see today in in our 50 states. A similar thing has happened, albeit at a faster pace, with computer technology. I have a distinct memory of Dad buying an Apple II+, a machine that came with no software. Instead it came with thick instruction manuals that taught us how to write our own programs. You could take classes on "how to work your computer." Today, our two-year-olds are teaching themselves as these technology skills have gone viral. The idea of a computer class today is laughable, just as a reading class would have been laughable in 1776.

And just as "walking" or "talking" classes would be laughable to us today, so too should this whole nonsense of "reading" classes. Yet shockingly, we continue to go backwards with literacy to the point that most of us seem to think that it's necessary that children spend days and years of their lives at earlier and earlier ages, being drilled in a utilitarian skill that past generations just learned, virally, over the natural course of living their lives. No wonder children hate school. No wonder they are bored and stressed out.

Certainly, there are children in our world who are "at risk" for not learning to read, including those with actual learning disabilities, as opposed to the manufactured ones we are currently slapping on normal children who are simply taking a little longer to getting around to reading. And for those children, as well as for those who are being raised in illiterate households, intervention may be necessary. But for the overwhelming majority of our children, the greatest literacy challenge they face is our obsessive rush for more and more earlier and earlier. We are, in our abject ignorance, our refusal to actually look at the evidence, teaching our children to hate reading, which is in my view a crime not only against children, but against all humanity.


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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Saying "I Love You"




Implied in the word "teacher," for most people, is the idea of talking. When teachers are portrayed in popular media, we are generally shown in front of a room of dutiful students taking notes as we lecture. Even when early childhood educators are portrayed, more often than not, we're shown as bent over our charges, lips flapping.

The longer I've done this job, however, the more I'm coming to understand that listening is really what we're here to do.


Now, I'm the first to admit that I can be a chatterer, a habit I developed as a baseball player and coach, although to be honest I don't really expect anyone to be listening to my classroom banter because the purpose on the diamond, as it now in the classroom, is to create a sort of unifying rhythm for the "team," rather than to convey any specific information: I could be chanting nonsense syllables and likely get more or less the same effect. That said, every teacher needs to work on something and I suppose that the central one for me is to shut up and hear more.

"Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are indistinguishable." ~David Augsburger

You see, more than anything else, that's what you gain when you stop talking and start hearing: your silence becomes a nest of pure love for the child (indeed, any person) with whom you are. When we set aside our agenda, when we step outside those notions of the teacher who "lectures," when our focus is on hearing rather than talking, we are giving that person our greatest gift.


And there is a distinction, I think, between hearing and mere listening. It is more than just creating a silent space in which a child can express himself. And, indeed, it is even more than truly comprehending or sympathizing or empathizing.

It is not enough to love; you have to say it. ~French proverb

It's only when the child knows she is being heard that the act of listening holds the power of love. And the way we let a person know they've been heard is, in their pauses, to repeat back to them their own words, verbatim; not our interpretation or extrapolation of those words, but rather the exact words they use to express themselves. When a child says, "I am sad," for instance, we let them know they are heard, that they are loved, by echoing back to them, "You are sad." And in that echo, we have said both, "I've heard you," and "I love you."



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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Who We Are Becoming




I try to be as Zen as the next guy, you know, setting aside those "wasted" emotions like guilt and worry, those ravenous obsessions that grow to eat up the present if you'll let them. They're horrible party guests, alright, with a tendency to hang around long after their value as goads to improvement or precaution has passed.

I find guilt an easier one to wrangle out of my day-to-day life. I've had lots of practice in my half century on the planet with apologizing, making amends, and committing myself to being a better me going forward, which is all anyone can ever do. I've been a parent long enough now to know that those things about which I feel the sharpest blade of guilt, will not only be forgiven, but forgotten in the long love story that is being a father.


Ah, but guilt comes out of the past, a place already behind us, viewable through that famous 20/20 hindsight and therefore, for me at least, easier to package up and put away. Worry is about the unknowable future, the place we prepare for with, at best, educated guesses. It's harder to keep worry in its place. And as a parent, the moment you put one set of worries behind you, there is another set to keep you up at night.

As a preschool teacher I talk with a lot of parents about their worries. Almost every time I'm pulled aside it's to discuss hitting or biting or shyness or fearfulness or aggressiveness or passiveness or whatever, present tense attitudes or behaviors about which that parent is concerned. Of course, they're always concerned about "right now," about teaching their child to not hurt another or to make more friends, but it doesn't take much digging to know that the real worry is of a future bully or moody loner. This is the bud we hope to nip.


I felt those same feelings too. I worried about those same things too. I still worry about them, although not as much these days as I'm really beginning to see the woman my teenaged child is becoming. No, now I worry about the well-known hazards of the age (drinking, sex, cars, guns) but I'm here to tell you that the person she is today could have easily been predicted a decade ago if my worries had only allowed me to see it.

Parents don't always find comfort in the assurance, "It's just a phase," I know. And perhaps that particular sentence ought to be retired, but for most of the kids, most of the time, it is just a phase, an important one from which your child is learning what he needs to learn to move beyond it or through it or to make peace with it. I know it's easy for me, not being a parent of these children, but rather just being an attentive guy who has stood in one place for a long time, touching and being touched by hundreds of families as they pass my way, to answer "I'm not worried," but it's also true.


The biting will stop. The hitting will fade away. The voiceless will find their voice. The rough will learn gentleness. The fearful will find courage. Your child will move on to the next developmental stage, be diagnosed, and learn to love and be loved. That is all, inevitably, in the future.

Who we are never matters nearly as much as who we are becoming. More often than not, that's how I have to answer parents when they come to me with their worries, "It's just a phase."

My wife and I have a joke we tell one another when the pressures of life are upon us: "This is the critical phase." It's always true; both in that it's critical and that it's a phase. It makes us laugh because we know when we look back, we'll see that it really was a phase, while the critical part will remain immediately ahead of us, there just itching to be worried about.






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