Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"I Did It!"

Someone placed a plank to bridge the newly formed gap between the final cedar round lining the lower level of the sand pit and the upper level of the playground. Two weeks ago that gap wasn't there, or rather, it was covered by sand that had, as sand does when played with on a slope, eroded downhill, filling in the low spots. An adult work team recently bent their backs to shovels and wheelbarrows on a sunny Saturday morning to move the sand back uphill, something we do thrice a year.

The older kids had immediately noticed the enormous pile of sand that now occupies the top of the hill, and it also hadn't taken long to realize that the sand level at the bottom of the hill hand fallen by a good two feet in places. The older kids have been working the cast iron pump that now sits atop the new sand pile to, as one logically would, make a pond in the new, large basin we've uncovered down below. As we adults have stood back, joking about how the kids are now systematically undoing all our backbreaking work, they've been stomping in a large puddle they're calling "the pond."

The two-year-olds, however, have been playing with the gap that the older kids haven't noticed. It may have been one of the older kids who placed the plank in that spot, but it's these younger children who have found a "just right challenge." It's not particularly high off the ground, perhaps 12-inches at its highest, but they've been cautiously inching their way across it, concentrating, not usually on their feet, but rather at a point a few steps ahead the way tightrope walkers do.

On Friday last week, I was standing nearby making a few comments like, "O is crossing the bridge," and "E is balancing," and "K is concentrating," just tossing out some words and concepts, in context. As I did this, more children, of course, were attracted to the play and soon there were a half dozen attempting to cross, from both directions. I didn't offer them coaching or suggest taking turns or urge them to all walk in the same direction, but rather continued making informational statements like, "O is trying to go down and K is trying to go up." They didn't say anything themselves, they were concentrating too hard, especially as the plank was bouncing unpredictably with the weight of other children moving on it, but rather tended to stop and simply stare at one another, silently asking the question, "What shall we do?" In every case, one child would choose to step aside or turn back.

One boy attracted by my words, P, found himself repeatedly in those impasses. He was trying to go up the hill, while the other children were coming down one after another. Each time, P shuffled a few feet along the plank, then when faced with a classmate, turned back and stepped off to make way, wordlessly. After a half dozen attempts, he gave up attempting to go against the flow and went off to find other things to do.

Yesterday, Tuesday, I found that the plank had been pushed aside, probably an unintended consequence of the pond play. Seeing it and recalling Friday's two-year-old game, I replaced the plank, then went about my business near the swings. P happened to be tummy swinging so I stopped to watch him as he studied the ground while slowly moving himself back and forth. After a bit, he broke from his reverie, noticed me and gave me a smile. Then the newly installed bouncy bridge caught his eye.

He approached the bridge from the uphill side, surveying it for a moment. No one was using it. He had it to himself. I expected he would give it a go, but he instead walked away, so I went back to goofing around with some other kids. A couple minutes later, however, I spied P again. He had circled around to the downhill side of the plank-bridge from whence he had made his attempts last week. Carefully, he stepped onto the bridge and slowly, slowly shuffled his way along the plank, his whole being concentrating on the effort. One inch at a time he made his way, unblocked and unmolested, until finally he stepped onto solid ground.

He looked into the sky and beamed, saying it aloud, but to himself, "I did it!"

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

These Are The Boxes We've Created

Years ago, my wife and I read Deborah Tannen's book You Just Don't Understand as part of a book club of which we were members. It was a fascinating look at how women and men tend to communicate differently. Everyone in our group agreed that she hit the nail on the head, except, of course, for when it came to us. None of us felt that we or our spouses fit the dichotomy, but the rest of the world did. I feel the same way about birth order: my siblings and I don't fit the theories, but everyone else does.

A couple boys found themselves playing with our collection of My Pretty Ponies and troll dolls, items usually found in the "girl" box.

We are always wrong whenever we try to put individual people into boxes based on their genitals or race or age or other accidents of their birth, but that doesn't mean that the boxes aren't real. Young children are born without knowledge of our boxes because they are a societal, not a biological construct, even as all of us, in our bigotry, sometimes live as if they are. A great deal of the learning that happens during the preschool years is learning related to those boxes: it's why most of the girls spend at least some time, even if only for a day, exploring princess play or why most of the boys, even if only for a day, explore tough guy characters like super heroes. These are the boxes we've created for "girls" and "boys," even as we strive to show them that they don't need to climb into those boxes.

"Help me! My baby is lost!"

When my daughter Josephine was a baby, I dressed her in overalls and kept her hair short. As she got older, we played sports together, worked in the garage with tools together, and generally did "manly" things. Then, one day, at around two-years-old, she came into possession of a bejeweled crown, put it on her head and said to me, "You just don't understand what girls do." She then wore a crown of some kind almost every day until she headed off to kindergarten. She was exploring that box because she had to explore that box, just as I had spent much of my boyhood playing at soldier or cowboy or Batman because I had to.

"I'll rescue her! What does she look like?" "She's orangish-yellow and has long hair and pictures of bows on her side."

Then, once we understand the box, we spend the rest of our lives trying to climb out as we strive to create who we are, who we really are, as individuals. Meanwhile, the rest of the world, in their lazy bigotry, seeks to keep us in those boxes, even feeling threatened by us or worried for us when we try to climb out.

"Don't worry, I'll find her!"

The boxes are real and at one level they are useful, just as Tannen's book helped me better understand "women." On the other hand, they are traps, just as her book told me nothing valuable about the individual women with whom I actually spent my life. We're not going to get rid of the boxes. Even if we did manage to tear them all up, we would simply, as a society, construct new ones because it's part of what humans do. I guess we just like to play with boxes.

What we can do, however, is to remember that the person with whom we are, just like us, is striving to climb out, and to offer them a hand if they need it.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

Maybe, Just Maybe

(I've posted a version of this post for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for the past several years. I believe that I identify so strongly with this holiday, with this man, because most of his story, and by that I mean the dream of which we've all been a part these past five decades, is the story of my life. In preparing the post for this morning, I wondered if I could post it again in light of our recent Presidential election campaign, but I think it remains fundamentally true, even if it seems that the pendulum has recently swung in the wrong direction. Of course there are still racists, but when I look back over where we've been and where we are going, I can see that the long arc of moral history is still bending toward justice, just as MLK dreamed it would.)

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

When I was in 2nd grade at the Meadowfield Elementary School in Columbia, SC, there was one black boy in my class. He and I called one another “best friends”. We played together at recess. We were the two fastest runners in our grade. He never saw my house and I never saw his. That was 1968, the year Martin Luther King was assassinated.

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

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

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

When I spoke to the kids at Woodland Park about Martin Luther King, I told them about segregated restaurants, schools, and water fountains and they agreed it was unfair. Owen, in particular nodded along with me, saying angrily, "That makes me so mad!" When I said, “Today we try to be fair to everyone,” he looked relieved. When I said, “It's still our job to help make Martin Luther's dream come true,” he blurted out, “Yeah!”

I believe that we have solid evidence that his dream is coming true. Of course, racism has not been eradicated in our country. Indeed, it has shown it's ugly face of late, but the kind of overt, day-to-day racism that confronted those kids with whom I went to school at Atlas Road Elementary has been in retreat my whole life. Racists are decisively in the minority and polls indicate that it’s an ever-shrinking one, even as we still have a lot of work to do on the kinds of institutional racism that continues to make life unfair for our black sisters and brothers. And it might not feel like it on this Martin Luther King Day, but it’s only going to get better because our children are growing up in this world we’ve created, not the one in which we grew up. Remember, as the great man said, "The arc of the moral universe is long."

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

This was a major battle in our ongoing Civil War: non-violence and love continue to win, because while the are of the moral universe is long, "it bends toward justice."

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

As we celebrate today, we should feel good about ourselves. We are cutting off one chain of hate and evil. But racial justice is only the first part of the mission MLK set before us. The poverty I glimpsed in that 4th grade classroom is still with us, and there are still too many who think war is the solution.

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

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Friday, January 13, 2017

Why We Need Freedom

A couple days ago, I illustrated a post with some photos of some skewer and berry basket play. The photos had nothing to do with the content of the post, but I'd liked the pictures and wanted readers to see them.

The foundation of what you saw had been created by an adult who had been messing around with the materials because the kids weren't. I'd been a bit disappointed, because I thought it was a cool provocation, and several children did swing by to investigate the adult-created sculptures, contributing a skewer here or there, but for the most part the kids didn't share my definition of "cool."

But I've learned over the years that it sometimes takes a few days and a few tweaks to spark their curiosity. So I've let it ride for the last few days, although I did move it all to a different table and added old-fashioned wooden clothespins, some cardboard egg flats, and a few plastic counting bears. And sure enough, over the course of the week, more and more kids engaged the materials with each passing day, finding more and more complex ways to interact with both the materials and with one another via the materials.

At first their attempts were along the lines of Monday's adult -- one child in solo play using the baskets and skewers for constructions -- but it wasn't long before they began collaborating. A couple kids, for instance, invented a kind of board game involving the bears and the egg flats, a game they called Castle Capture and involved a complex set of rules by which you could move your bears "between the mountains" in the quest to "defeat" your opponent. It played a bit like Chinese Checkers and I never once saw a castle actually captured.

Then someone discovered how the peg-style clothespins worked and found they could be used to connect the berry baskets. This innovation lead to an explosion of play at the red table as kids, usually working together and in constant conversation, began to manufacture increasingly complex structures, both physical and social, sharing engineering and dramatic play ideas with one another in a mini-frenzy of viral learning.

This, of course, is how most of humanity's greatest advancements have occurred, people coming together in the spirit of cooperation, sharing their ideas and wisdom, sparking off one another, lifting one another, supporting one another, until something new and better emerges. It's the sort of thing, however, that can really only happen when humans are free: to associate with whom they wish; to tinker for hours and days; to think their own thoughts, try their own experiments, and to collaborate without the heartless mandates of beat-or-be-beaten competition.

I tried to remain aloof from the goings on at the red table, standing fully erect, observing, not wanting to step in and accidentally step on their freedom, because, you know, we're all counting on these kids.

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Talking, Laughing, And Making Up Stories

Over the weekend we had one of our thrice yearly, all-hands-on-deck, Saturday workdays. I can count on some 20 able-bodied folks to show up at each of them because participation is a requirement of enrollment, but also, honestly, I believe that most of our families would show up even if it wasn't.

One of the things we did was pull all the furniture away from the walls and sweep up all the debris that has collected there. While doing this, one parent came across our box of plastic sea creatures and mentioned that her daughter "V," a shark fan, would be thrilled if we could play with them, especially the sharks. So I've had the sharks in the sensory table this week.

We have several model sharks, but the "center piece" of our collection are four Great Whites, larger than the others in scale, with wide open, tooth-lined mouths behind which are their deep, hollow bodies. They are the reason I often segregate the sharks from the rest of our marine animal collection: they tend to invite a kind of play that involves aggressively jabbing the damn things in other people's faces, which not everyone likes. So, on Monday I put them in the sensory table and prepared myself to coach the kids through their episodes of jabbing.

Our 3's class more or less ignored them, but the 4-5's class, in which our resident shark admirer is enrolled, mobbed the table. I'd provided more than just the sharks, including dozens of smaller fish, octopi, lobster, artificial seaweed, and our collection of polished petrified wood, recently given to us by Pastor Gay's husband Leonard, an accomplished rock hound. There was no jabbing. Instead, V and her friends stuffed those hollow sharks full of whatever they could shove down their throats, while talking and laughing and making up stories.

I am always struck by this type of play: children using surrogates like these sharks to interact with one another. In most cases, each child at the table selected one of the sea creatures to be "me."

"I'm your baby!"

"I'm going to eat you!"

"I can fly!"

"Let's pretend we're friends . . ."

No one teaches children to wield these kinds of hand-held avatars. It comes naturally, perhaps not to all kids, but a lot of them. Of course, the classic of these surrogates are dolls, but we've all seen children do it with cars or rocks or flowers or just about anything one can hold in one's hand. It's something fundamental to learning to play with other people, a way to experiment with roles, environments, and situations; to try out, for instance, what it would be like to live in water with no arms and legs, but rather a powerful tail, rows of sharp teeth, and an insatiable appetite. And through that alien avatar play, they deepen their understanding of working and living together.

By the end of Monday, the group around the sensory table was essentially down to V and a couple of her oldest friends. They spent a good 20 minutes using the hollow sharks to scoop the water from one side of the sensory table to the other, eventually leaving one side dry, all the while talking and laughing and making up stories.

They played sharks on Tuesday and yesterday as well: being "me" the shark, emptying one side of the sensory table, "making an ocean" on the other. And all the time they've been talking, weaving their story together, one that has continued in installments for three days. And at no point did our sharks feel compelled to jab themselves into the human faces of their friends, leaving us adults with nothing to do but watch.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Failures, Mistakes, And Poor Judgement

In our cooperative school, there are days, like one right after the holiday break when a bunch of kids were still out sick or traveling, when there are as many adults in the room as kids. Even on regular days our classes have adult ratios of anywhere from 1:2 to 1:5, depending on the ages of the kids. When folks who are unfamiliar with our model hear this, they typically ask some version of, "Don't the parents get in the way?" 

My standard reply is that they don't get in the way any more than the children do. Now, if the question is, "Do our parent-teachers always do everything the way I want them too?" then the answer is, of course not. Nor do the kids. Nor does anyone for that matter. But just as so much of children's learning comes through what are commonly called "failures," "mistakes," or "poor judgement," the same is true for adult learning.

We are not here to just to educate young children, but rather entire families, which is one of the great strengths of the cooperative model. We call them parent-teachers, but in reality, they are students right alongside their kids, learning through the experience of living with the other people. And I would assert that a family that develops the habit of learning together is one that will be better prepared for the social, intellectual and emotional roller coaster ahead.  

My mother once said about being a parent, "You want them to be independent, but then you're terrified when they are." It's a piece of wisdom I reflect on daily as I watch parents struggle with their end of "letting go," of learning to trust their children. It's hard to watch any child struggle through their necessary failures, mistakes and poor judgement, and especially when it's your own "baby." It's heartbreaking when their hearts are broken and mortifying when they break someone else's heart. It's terrifying when they try to climb higher or run faster or step up in front of an audience of peers to perform. 

Most of our families are with us for three years and what they mostly learn during their time with us is to step back, to loiter with intent, and when and when not to step in. But we also learn how to play with our children, how to join them where they are, how to serve not as a leader but a follower of our own children, a role that teaches us perhaps the most of all. But mostly what we learn is that our children have to experience the consequences of their failures, mistakes and poor judgement, just as we did and continue to do.

So no, all those adults don't get in the way. Indeed, they are, as much as the kids, the reason we are here.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"Hey, It's Not A Race"

"We must prepare our children for the jobs of tomorrow."

"We need to out-educate the rest of the world."

These are the kinds of statements we most frequently hear from our elected representatives when they talk about education, framing their comments always in the context of economic competition. Competition is at the heart of the corporate education reform idea, the one adopted by both Republican and Democratic administrations: pitting student against student, teacher against teacher, school against school, district against district, state against state.

I've written before about one of the reasons I believe that corporate-types and other power freaks are so gung-ho on turning our schools into education factories. It's not because they have any actual data or research to support their plans (that is all on the side of those of us who advocate for progressive education reform) but rather because the factory is simply a model they understand from their day jobs of producing widgets, most of them having never spent a day in a classroom since they themselves were students. Another bedrock of this businessman's ideology is this notion of competition: a faith that competition always leads to the best and the cheapest, and the more unbridled the competition, the better. This is also not supported by anything that has ever happened in the real world, but rather by theories that live beautifully on the pages of text books, but that when implemented in the real world always lead to the inevitable result of the rich getting richer and the ranks of the "lazy" poor expanding.

No, perhaps competition would be the best way to organize education if the goal was purely to prepare children to take their place in the economy, if we accept the idea that we are here to serve the economy rather than the other way around. But I even doubt that. The most successful companies rely at least as much on teamwork and collaboration to succeed as they do competition. At most, competition is a part of the puzzle of business success.

But that's all almost beside the point. The purpose of public education is so much broader than preparing the workers of tomorrow. That's certainly not what I ever want for my child's education. I wanted her, first and foremost, to acquire the skills of good citizenship. Good citizens, the kind with the critical thinking and interpersonal skills required to truly assume the rights and responsibilities of self-governance, must be prepared to contribute to society in ways far beyond the mere economic. We must be able to count on our fellow citizens to contribute socially, artistically, politically, culturally, spiritually, and in all the other ways that make life worth living. A well-rounded citizen is more than just a worker: our schools exist to prepare the well-rounded citizens required for democracy to flourish, people capable of doing more than just hold a job.

Education simply doesn't work as a competition. At it's best, education it's a collaborative process with students and teachers and administrators and schools and districts and states working together, sharing, building upon the work and ideas of one another. This is how democracy is supposed to work as well: not as some competition between polarized political ideologies, but rather as the self-governed standing on the shoulders of one-another to build a better, more fair, more responsive, more beautiful, more enlightened, and yes, even a more prosperous society. Competition is all about "me." Democracy is about "we."

And likewise, education is about "we." Or as my friend Jaan, then a 4-year-old, said as his classmates were pushing and shoving to get through a narrow doorway, "Hey, it's not a race. The playground's only good when we're all out there."

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