Friday, February 05, 2016

Lifelong Learner

I recently had the opportunity to have it pointed out to me that I'm imperfect. Indeed, that's a sentence I could write at any moment because, to my never-ending chagrin, I'm wrong or behave badly or screw things up at least once a day . . . And that's a good day. In this case, I actually hurt someone's feelings, so it was a big deal, but most often, thankfully, the flaws that are revealed to me are of what most people would consider to be of the more petty variety, the things that reveal some aspect of my personality I thought I had hidden too well for others to notice or, sometimes, things about which I was previously completely unaware.

For instance, one of our school's parents told me recently, over a beer, as an aside in a larger discussion, that I sometimes "bark" at the parent-teachers working as my assistant teachers in our cooperative school. In all honesty, I completely lost track of what else she said as I processed that "bark." Do I do that? Why would any parent put up with sending their kids to a school where the teacher barks at the parents? When she was done making her point which may well have been a compliment for all I know, I said, "I'm really sorry. I don't mean to bark at anyone." She laughed, said it was okay, that she understood, that she knew I was just trying to make the classroom function more smoothly, that she knew I was so focused on the children that I sometimes neglected the adults, that if she ever took it personally, she didn't any longer.

I had almost given upon on the classic preschool "art" project of scissors, glue, blank paper, and old magazines, the sort of thing that is supposed to turn into a collage. I've put these materials out dozens of times over the years, only to watch the children avoid them like the plague. Last week, however, a parent brought in a fresh stack of magazines, so I gave it another go with very low hopes and, indeed, it immediately became a dead spot in the classroom. In frustration, I sat myself down at the table and began cutting pictures, while saying, "Once upon a time . . ." as if telling a story. I don't know why this has never, over the course of 15 years, occurred to me before, but of course children started gathering around as I put my story together piece by piece. Soon every seat at the table was full of children making their own stories. Not only that, but several of them demanded that we "read" their story to their classmates at circle time. When the older children arrived in the afternoon, I tried the same technique with similar results. Even now, even with something so simple and ubiquitous, there is still so much for me to learn.

I wanted to continue grilling her for specifics, but I held back because the whole barking thing had nothing to do with the larger point she was making. 

I don't doubt that I sometimes express myself briskly, perhaps even brusquely, during the course of the preschool day and this parent, as well as the others at whom I've apparently barked, returned the following day despite my barking, so my good points must still outweigh this bad one, but it's a wake-up call nevertheless. I don't want to be a guy who barks at his colleagues: petty to this parent perhaps, but not me.

When I first started teaching, I told the parents that I was clay for them to mold, that as a new teacher I recognized that I was as malleable as I would ever be, that this was their chance to shape me into the teacher they most wanted for their children. I also noted, simply because I'd found that it's the way most humans work, that their opportunity to shape me would diminish with each passing year as I got older, more experienced, and even "calcified." Well, I reckon I now have some evidence of my calcification. Barking, from where I sit, is just one step removed from shaking my fist and yelling at the kids to "get off my lawn."

We always say we want the children we teach to be "lifelong learners." I guess this is part of what it looks like, there are special things we need to learn at each stage. I'm not going to promise to never bark again, but I'm going to work on it.

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Thursday, February 04, 2016

That Is Why Life Is Hard

"This life's hard, man, but it's harder if you're stupid!"  ~from the movie The Friends of Eddie Coyle

This is a line I think of a lot, usually addressed to myself in those moments of frustration, when I've done something stupid, and my life is now, naturally, harder. This is a universal truth. Ignorance is not bliss. Knowing stuff makes life good, and knowing how you best get to know the stuff you want to know makes it even better. For me, deep knowledge, the kind that shapes my life, usually comes from a process that involves those moments of stupidity, moments that are often accompanied by a sense of despair or futility, and then pushing just a little farther, sometimes in a kind of rage at just how stupid I am, and it's usually only then, just behind that moment, where I find Eureka! has been hiding.

I've known other adults who share this penchant, but very few preschoolers, although maybe it's just because they've not yet learned to label life as hard or themselves as stupid. I've certainly seen frustrated preschoolers, ones who are in tears over their inability to do whatever it is they're trying to do. And I've known many who, after a long struggle, will, once they've finally figured it out, say, "That's easy" and immediately set about demonstrating to the next kid who comes along just how easy it is, a sort of good natured way of acknowledging their own previous stupidity.

I've also known both adults and children who don't push a little farther, who stop at the frustration, who give up. I've done it before. I stopped taking math classes after my sophomore year in college, for instance, not because I'd decided I was too stupid or even because it was too hard, but rather because I'd lost interest in the actual knowledge and had come to recognize that I'd been sticking with it simply for the bragging rights that went with being enrolled in higher level math classes. No, if I was going to work my brain that hard, to deal with that frustration, it was going to be while learning the things I wanted and needed to know.

Most of our classroom day is spent in free play. There are a dozen or so planned activities to go along with the everyday stuff like play dough, stuffed animals, and the sand pit, but children are not expected to engage with them. Most rotate from activity to activity as their interests dictate, plunging their hands in when it looks like something they want or need to know, or edging past when something seems, say, too messy or challenging or tedious. Some kids only want to be where the action is, never picking up a paint brush unless there's a friend at the adjacent easel. Others want the field cleared for themselves as they explore, preferring to wait until the initial wave of excitement has receded before stepping up to the plate. This is why it's important to let certain activities run for a day or so beyond their "hey day."

I often say that my business is not to decide what a child learns, but rather that they learn, but that's actually taking more credit than is due. In a play-based curriculum it really is all up to the child because what they are ultimately doing is figuring out something they can only figure out for themselves. By playing in an environment in which exploration and experimentation are the highest values they are teaching themselves not just how to learn, but how they learn. And as frightening as that is to the control freaks out there, this isn't something you can do to or for someone else. It's something you can't judge or measure or test because it's a process that you are simply too stupid to understand. The only expert is the one doing the learning.

As Albert Einstein famously said, "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." That is why life is hard.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2016

First Love Them

I recently heard the story of a mother who, in the midst of her child's tantrum and while on the verge of a tantrum herself, summoned the ability to stop herself, "Before I say another thing, I want to hug you and love you." 

As a teacher, I start from the assumption that I love each of the children who cross our threshold: not that I will grow to love them, but that I already do. This is where all the power is, all the time, in love of the unconditional type. This is where success lies. It's where a good life lies. Everyone knows it, yet, as the mother in the story experienced, it's sometimes a monumental thing to be able to actually do it.

For the most part, I find it easy to love the children I teach, although there are some children, or at least some of their behaviors, usually of the repeated variety, that sometimes make it difficult for me to remember that I need to first love them, for both of our sakes. Usually, I'm present enough to love them in the moment, but too often it's only after weeks of frustration, like an epiphany, that I remember that I first need to love them. It's hard because that means I have to set aside all my anger and self-righteous self-talk, but I know that if anything good is going to come of our relationship, I'm not only going to have to love them, but I must make sure they know it.

Indeed, this is an important lesson that I'd figured out even before becoming a parent. I have, in the past, had a rather strained relationship with one of my relatives. Whenever we were together there was a good chance of at least one of us winding up mad or sad. Then one day I was in an exceptionally good mood and quite assertively complemented her for an achievement, telling her, honestly, that I was proud of her. The response was so good, I complimented her again on an unrelated matter, and the evening got even better. That's how I figured out that the best way for me to be with her was to love her even "more" -- more often and more loudly -- than I normally do my relatives with whom it's easier for me to pass the time. I suppose I'm open to the accusation of being a "phony," but there is enough about her to compliment that I've always been genuine in my praises. I've just learned to sing them a little louder in spite of the other feelings I may be experiencing.

That's likewise how I strive to approach the children whose behaviors make it hard to hang out with them. (And all children fill the bill at one time or another, see "Note" below.) I am honest and sincere when I say, "I'm happy you're here," and "I really like being your friend." I mean it when I say, "I like playing with you." And you can bet that any day now, I'm going to be moved to say, "I want to hug you and love you." Sure, I say these kinds of things to all the kids, but some people need it turned up a little louder to appreciate it, which is why I greet these children at the door or gate with all of my love, "You're here!"

(Note: Utah Philips said, "I respect kids. I love especially little kids. Little kids are assholes. But they're their own assholes, you see? It's when they . . . grow up and become somebody else's assholes (that) we're all in trouble, you know, like bankers or B-52 pilots and such.")

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Tuesday, February 02, 2016

"Yeah, We Drank The Kool-Aid"

Yesterday, one of our three-year-old girls impulsively snatched a chopstick from a classmates. When the classmate objected, "Hey, that's mine," she readily handed it back, saying sweetly, "I'm sorry. Can I please have it?" Her friend responded by handing the chopstick back to her.

Down at the work bench the other day, one boy, demanding a specific Duplo building block that a classmate was using, wound himself up into a full-on cry, which caused the classmate to double down on not giving up that Duplo, but almost the moment an adult reminded the crying child that he could just tell his friend he wanted it when he was done, he stopped. "When you're finished with that block can I have it?" As reluctant to part with the block as his friend had been moments before, the boy now turned it over with hardly a hesitation, saying, "I want it back when you're done." Mere seconds later he had it back in his hand.

I've written about the children in this year's 3's class before and five full months into the school year I'm stunned to report that they're still the most cooperative, copacetic bunch I've ever taught. I'm knocking on wood as I write this, but we go entire days without significant conflict erupting, and such common preschool behaviors like hitting and yelling are incredibly rare. Of course, there are disagreements and misunderstandings, but at most they need a gentle reminder from an adult about our rules, or to suggest a strategy, and they seem capable of taking it from there on their own. Of course, I'm jinxing it by writing about it, but it remains one of the wonders of my teaching life.

I'm not the only one who has noticed it. Parent-teachers who have been through our cooperative school with older siblings often remark upon how "calm" and "quiet" it seems. Some speculate that it may have to do with the fact that 100 percent of the children in this class were together last year in our 2's class, and that may have something to do with it, but that condition alone really doesn't explain it for me. Some figure that the high percentage of kids with older brothers and sisters might be a part of it, but I've not noticed that improved social skills are an automatic result of sibling dynamics. And then there is the idea that the parents themselves are such a cooperative, copacetic bunch that it has just rubbed off on the kids, a theory that includes genetically-encoded temperament traits and the positive impact of adult role modeling. I figure that this one comes closer to the truth, although judging from what parents say about their children's behaviors at home, we're not benefiting solely from a mere psycho-social quirk of demographics.

Last night as we sat in a circle of adults for our monthly, mandatory, class parent meeting, we discussed "positive discipline" techniques and strategies under the guidance of our parent educator Katie Becker. At a couple points during the evening, we broke up into the small group discussions. I don't usually take part in these, given that this is parent education and the idea is for them to construct their own learning together. I did, however, sit right beside one group as they discussed such things as "parenting strategies that didn't work," "the big hug" and "routine charts." As they talked, I realized that they already knew the answers, or at least they had been over this material before, and while none of them professed mastery, all of them were already deeply and foundational-ly committed to honest, connected relationships with their children and the rejection of authoritarian parenting.

When we returned to the larger group, it was clear that we all, as a community of parents, already understood why yelling doesn't work, why punishments and rewards are to be avoided, and why the most important gift we can give our children is the gift of being able to discuss and process emotions. At one point a father said, "Anytime I can remember to get the discussion focused on feelings, mine and theirs, then it goes a lot better . . . Of course, that's true in any relationship." 

Later in the evening, as I was discussing the fact that "you and your children continue to be the most cooperative and copacetic bunch I've ever taught," I joked that I'm so accustomed to children "learning through conflict" that I sometimes worried their kids weren't learning anything at all. I then added, "And I think that has mostly to do with the remarkable jobs you guys do as parents." This was met with laughter. I hadn't meant to be funny. "No," I said, "I mean it. After listening to all of you discuss positive discipline for the last hour, it's clear that this might be the first class we've ever had where everyone was on board and it's showing in the classroom." 

Again, they laughed, one saying, "Yeah, we drank the Kool-Aid!" They laughed because even with all these great tools in our tool belts, being a parent is still a challenging, frustrating job that leaves even the best of us feeling inadequate much of the time. And while I've never been a big fan of the Kool-Aid metaphor I think it does, at least in part, explain why we're such a cooperative, copacetic bunch: we're learning how to get what we want, while also getting along.

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Monday, February 01, 2016

"I've Tried, In My Way, To Be Free"

Like a bird on a wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried
In my way
To be free

The great Leonard Cohen wrote these lines for what is one of his signature songs, "Bird on a Wire," but they only really got through to me when Johnny Cash sang them late in his career. There is something about his old man bass tremolo that speaks to my soul.

When I was five-years-old, I went to kindergarten, my first time in any sort of school. Mom trusted me with the tuition check (kindergartens were all private back then), which she put in an envelope, which I put in my ball cap, which then went on my head. I gave it to Mrs. Jennings by tipping my hat to her. Even now, I think that's a pretty dashing and nifty way to introduce yourself to a teacher. You see, I had things figured out when I was five. Then I turned six and had to figure it out again, then seven, then eight, then twelve when not only did I have everything figured out, but I was also certain that the rest of you conformists had it figured out wrong, a state of affairs that continued well into my twenties.

I have tried, in my way, to be free, and for me at least that has been a process of trying to figure it out. Not the meaning of life, exactly, although I'm interested in that question too, but more simply: given what I know so far, how should I proceed? At a very primal level, I seem to believe that if I can figure that out, today, I can be free at least for today.

I imagine that's what we're all doing, trying, in our way, to be free. And I imagine that we're all going about it in our own ways, be it gathering together or casting away, reaping or sowing, hating or loving; trying to figure it out for ourselves. Or maybe not, I don't know, I can only speak for myself, but what I do know is that tomorrow will not be like today, next year won't be like this year, the lesson of decades is that change is the only constant, and if I'm not constantly trying to figure it out, life traps me. When I'm not striving to be free, it captures me and I find myself wondering where the days have gone.

What we did in Mrs. Jennings' class was play. We built with blocks, we painted, we dug in the sandbox and chased one another on the playground, the very things we do today at the Woodland Park Cooperative School, where we spend our days figuring it out again and again and again, because ultimately that's what play is all about: figuring it out. We play to stave off the curse of rote, which is how life captures us. We play not because it's the only way to prepare ourselves for this life, but rather because it's the only way to be free.

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Friday, January 29, 2016

The Only Way Democracy Works Is If We The People Stand Up And Make It Work

On Tuesday, I wrote about the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, and his cronies knowingly poisoning the people of the city of Flint with drinking water that contains 16 times the allowable amount of lead. Most tragically, are the 8,500 or so children who have been drinking and bathing in this crap for two years: lead is known to cause irreversible brain damage.

Over the course of this last week, I've become increasingly angered and appalled at the state of affairs in a place I once called home, each day discovering some new outrage committed by this governor who deserves the title of genocidal sociopath. (I don't use the term "psychopath" only because his crime seems to be the result of selfish disregard for the lives of others rather than an overt attempt to injure them, a distinction without much of a difference in this case I know.) Competing with the urge to march on the governor's mansion with torches and pitchforks, is a desire to do something for the people of Flint.

I'm not the only one. Millions of bottles of water have been sent to Flint by everyone from Pearl Jam to Walmart, but as Flint's most famous native son, filmmaker Michael Moore, writes on his website:

You would have to send 200 bottles a day, per person, to cover what the average American (we are Americans in Flint) need each day. That's 102,000 citizens times 200 bottles of water -- which equals 20.4 million 16 oz. bottles of water per day, every day, for the next year or two until this problem is fixed (oh, and we'll need to find a landfill in Flint big enough for all those hundreds of millions of plastic water bottles, thus degrading the local environment even further). Anybody want to pony up for that? Because THAT is the reality.

He goes on to write:

This is a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. There is not a terrorist organization on Earth that has yet to figure out how to poison 100,000 people every day for two years -- and get away with it. That took a Governor who subscribes to an American political ideology hell-bent on widening the income inequality gap and conducting various versions of voter and electoral suppression against people of color and the poor.

What he doesn't mention is that over half of all of Michigan's black citizens currently live under the financial thumb of the emergency manager dictators who are, via the governor, to blame for the mass poisoning of Flint.

We have now seen the ultimate disastrous consequences of late-20th century, neoconservative, trickle own public policy. That word "trickle," a water-based metaphor, was used to justify this economic theory -- well, it's no longer a metaphor, is it? Because now we're talking about how actual water has been used to institute these twisted economic beliefs in destroying the lives of the black and the poor in Flint, Michigan.

Moore's piece is entitled "Don't Send Bottled Water." Instead, if you really want to help:

(W)hat we need in Flint -- and across the country -- right now, tonight, is a nonviolent army of people who are willing to stand up for this nation, and go to bat for the forgotten of Flint.

The first thing to do is sign this petition that demands the immediate removal and arrest of Governor Rick Snyder. Then click over to Moore's site and read the full piece which includes a list of other things we can do. And none of them are things that you can do, only things that we can do.

Some of you may ask what this has to do with the early childhood education. I'll repeat what I said on Tuesday. This tragedy was caused by the same "American political ideology" that informs the corporate-style education "reform" movement, the one that is destroying our public schools with standardized testing, standardized curricula, school closures, union-busting, and scandal-plagued charter schools, all of which are the educational equivalent of switching our water supply to the Flint River. The only thing that can fix this is democracy and the only way that democracy works is if we the people stand up and make it work.

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Thursday, January 28, 2016

If We Don't Play In The Rain, We Don't Play Outdoors At All

Last winter was a dry one here in Seattle, mild and dry with more sunny days than we're accustomed to seeing here in the Pacific Northwest. It was pleasant, but I for one am glad that we're back to normal this year as the atmospheric rivers have returned to their proper course, alternatively dousing and dribbling on us, filling our water reservoirs to overflowing and building up snow pack in the mountains that provide us with plenty when the dryer summer months return. They say that wars of tomorrow will be fought over water: I reckon I live on a future battle field.

If you've read here for any length of time, you know that I have many bones to pick with how our public schools do business, but in all honesty, the thing that provides the sharpest burr under my saddle is how they deal with rain. I mean, more often than not, when it's rainy, and it's pretty much always been rainy for weeks now, the kids stay indoors for what's called "rainy day recess." And when they do go out in the damp, the kids are commanded to stay out of the puddles. In fact, a couple years back the mother of a former student sent me pictures of a magnificent puddle that had formed at her son's school. She said that the kids spent their recess standing outside of a line of caution tape watching the custodian try to sweep it away.

That is a special kind of crazy.

In contrast, we play with a lot of water at Woodland Park, going through a hundred gallons or so a day, most of which flows through our cast iron water pump and down through the sand of our two level sand pit, even when it's dumping from the sky. I know this sounds decadent to those of you who live in water challenged parts of the world, but, you know, I'm sure you have things aplenty that we would covet. Still, I recognize how lucky we are and have no problem living with the 9-10 months a year of cloud cover that is the price we pay for living in one of the greenest places on earth.

Children never tire of playing in and with water: experimenting with it, studying it, attempting to control it, splashing in it, feeling it soak through their pants or shoes or sweaters. Perhaps the most popular fashion accessories, after rubber boots, are what we call "Muddy Buddies," light-weight, full-body rain suits that cover the kids from head to toe. I see it as one of my special missions as a preschool teacher to spend as much time in the rain as possible. I mean, after all, we all know how important it is for all of us, and especially children, to be outdoors. If we don't play in the rain, we don't play outdoors at all.

I once met an educator from the Reggio Emilia region of Italy who was touring our area. She said to me, "All the preschools here say they are Reggio Emilia. How can they be Reggio Emilia in Seattle? Why can't you be Seattle preschools?" Well, rain and mud are Seattle, which is why they are a central element of what we learn about through our play.

Most of our rain comes in the form of misty drizzle, but last week we played in torrential rain, the kind that feels as if someone is dumping buckets of water on your head. A magnificent puddle formed  at the bottom of the sand pit. There was no caution tape or custodians and when there were breaks in the rain, the kids kept it full with the pump. 

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