Thursday, December 18, 2014


One of the driving principles behind most manufacturing or services businesses is the concept of "duplication," the idea of replicating successful processes and practices over and over again in the name of efficiency and consistency. It's the fundamental concept, for instance, behind the assembly line. It's why Coke tastes the same wherever you buy it. It's why every Starbuck's has more or less the same look and feel.

It's not an easy thing to accomplish, this duplication, especially as a business grows. One the core questions business owners interested in growth ask themselves is, "Is this scaleable?" meaning can we continue to duplicate this as sales increase? The companies that thrive tend to be the ones that are the most rigorous about duplication which leads to obvious economic efficiencies as well as a consistent product, one that may not fully satisfy customers, but at least leaves them confident that they know what they'll get.

In fact, the operators of market leaders understand that their goal is not necessarily to be anyone's "favorite." For instance, few people would call Budweiser their favorite beer or McDonalds their favorite hamburger. That designation is usually reserved for something a little more special like a particular craft beer or the burgers made at a local hole-in-the-wall, but when the "favorites" aren't available, the market leader becomes a reliable alternative; it might not be great, but at least you know what you'll get. And while this may be a benefit to consumers, it also explains why, increasingly, American suburbs look the same wherever you go, an endless repetition of Walmarts, Exxons and Wendy's.

This is a big part of what's happening with the corporate education "reform" movement, these business people, like Bill Gates, who imagine themselves swooping in to "save" our schools. They look around and see what appears to them to be an appalling lack of efficiency. They figure that those of us who have made a career our of education must be idiots for not having figured our their secret of duplication long ago and are now setting about "fixing" things by imposing it upon us in the name of standardized tests, standardized curricula (Common Core), and standardized (scripted) teaching.

But damn it, education is not a business. Profit is not the goal. Children are not identical little blueberries that can be stirred into your ice cream according to a secret recipe. Children are fully formed human beings, each one unique, the only one of its kind to ever walk this planet. The principles of duplication do not apply here. Every successful teacher knows that what we do is a marriage of art and science, neither of which benefit from the efficiencies of manufacturing.

Artists must eschew the concept of duplication unless examining it to make an artistic point. The goal is not efficiency or consistency, but rather to create something new under the sun. Scientists are simply not doing their job if they merely repeat the experiments of the past. The goal is not efficiency or consistency, but rather to discover something new under the sun. Duplication is the enemy of the artist or the scientist, just as it is for teachers and the children in their classrooms, each one of whom represents something new under the sun.

It's something a businessman simply cannot understand as they duplicate their standardized widgets from here to the moon.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

That Is Enough

Someone, perhaps days ago, put toy dinosaurs and an log into a wagon. Then it rained. What do you do when you find toy dinosaurs and a log in a wagon half full of water? Play, of course.

He didn't speak about what he was doing, but by his actions, I'm guessing there was a story in his head, one that involved these great prehistoric creatures splashing about in water up to their chests.

But, you know, I could well be wrong because I didn't ask, and even if I had, I would have changed the moment. The act of my asking a question would draw his attention away from his inquiry and focus it upon my own preconceived bias about what goes on in a two-year-old's head when he finds dinosaurs, a log, and water in a wagon. If nothing else, my questions would yank him from this moment, his process, just as it would had I instead simply told him what I saw him doing, narrating how he was holding dinosaurs, splashing, making waves. Again, anything I might say would be like pointing, shouting, "Look over there!" an intrusion that, for all I know, would rob this child and possibly all of mankind of an insight or discovery beyond anything our lesser brains, those not engaged in playing with toy dinosaurs, a log, and water, could ever conjure according to our own devices. 

This is the risk we take whenever we test a child. It is the risk we take each time we direct them, however subtly.

Of course, his thoughts are probably nothing so groundbreaking, but I guarantee it when I open my mouth and steer him to the places I've already been. I don't need to know what's going on inside a boy's head when he plays with dinosaurs and a log in a wagon half full of water: I don't need to tell him how to do it. What I do know is that what he is doing is personally significant, because he has judged it worthy of taking these five precious minutes to engage, freely, without encouragement, coercion or my adult prattle.

That is enough.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

It's Just A Phase

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 begging to be worried about.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Charters In "Disarray"

Washington state voters barely approved a measure permitting charter schools to operate in the state in 2012, after supporters spent some $6 per signature to get it on the ballot, then millions on the campaign for its passage. Last week we learned that the state's first charter, First Place Scholars, is "in disarray," with high levels of turnover among its board and staff and the state charter commission citing more than a dozen areas in which the school is not living up to its charter.

Campaign supporters promised that the bar for instructional quality and sound financial management would be set high for nonprofits seeking to open charters -- free, independently run but publicly funded schools that aren't bound by many of the same restrictions governing typical public schools. In exchange for agreeing to a set of goals, called a charter, charter schools receive roughly as much public money as traditional public school districts do.

The commission notified the school it was "putting students' health, safety and educational welfare at risk," giving the school until last week to submit its plan for correcting the problems. The school's plan was rejected by the commission, which deemed it inadequate. This is the first step on the road to closure.

It doesn't appear there is any of the intentional malfeasance on the part of First Place that has plagued the charter movement since its inception, but rather the kind of managerial incompetence is quite common among charter operators across the country. As our state is just beginning to discover the dark underbelly of charters, other states are much farther down the road, with New Orleans' "public" schools being entirely run by private operators, and like in Seattle, our poorest students are paying the highest price.

Earlier this year, the Florida League of Women Voters released a damning study of charter schools, finding that charters do not perform better than public schools; that they are more segregated than public schools; that many funnel money to religious organizations; that many operate on a for-profit basis; and that the charter industry has captured control of key seats in the state legislature, with many serving on the boards of for profit charters. One in five charter schools in the state are shuttered as a result of financial mismanagement or low academic standards, many have been caught screening students, dropping those who are not "successful, and most struggle to recruit and retain teachers due to bottom of the barrel compensation.

Florida charters, of course, are not alone in their failure to improve public education, but that is, in part, by design. The goal of the corporate charter movement has never been improving education, but rather pocketing profit. As part of a "shock doctrine" campaign, charters were underhandedly sold to citizens and parents by Wall Street interests as a way to "save" our failing pubic schools (which, by any objective measure, were not and are not failing). While some small, independent charters have had some honest success, as a whole, charters have done nothing to improve public education, and, in fact, in many cases have made it worse. This is not a flaw, but rather a feature of the plan, which is to first privatize, then liquidate public schools to the tune of hundreds of billions in profit for Wall Street operators.

In her book, Reign of Error, researcher and education historian Diane Ravitch details how corporate interests are using charters to take-over public schools. And she's far from the only one to notice this Bill Gates lead corporate plot against education. And, undaunted by his continued failures as a dangerous education dilettante, Gates is now championing a new charter high school in my city of Seattle, seeding it with millions, modeling it upon failed experiments elsewhere. Dora Taylor over on the Seattle Education blog has done a nice job of exposing the scam.

Lord knows, our public schools are imperfect, but turning them over to for-profit and other unaccountable private operators is clearly not the solution. I realize that everyone involved is not as nefarious as those hedge-fund managers licking their chops at the prospect of diverting chunks of state education budgets into their own pockets, but the bad actors are too interwoven in the process to be removed. The idea was that free-market style competition would magically lead to better education, but even some of the staunchest proponents of charters are beginning to see that their ideas have failed.

Whenever people like Gates are confronted with these realities, their response is usually to huff and puff that we are engaged in a grand "experiment," and that a few bumps along the road are to be expected. Sadly, we are now over a decade into this experiment with nothing to show for it other than a generation of kids who have been guinea pigs.

So how do we improve public schools? The way we improve any institution in a democracy: get involved in your kids school. It won't be easy, but the alternative is to throw up our hands and let deep-pocket interests take over.

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Friday, December 12, 2014

The Essential Feature In Productive Thought

Albert Einstein is often credited with the quote, "Play is the highest form of research." It's unlikely he actually said that. The line was probably first used by the education researcher N.V. Scarfe in a 1962 article entitled "Play Is Eduction" as a way to sort of summarize what Einstein actually said:

The desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of a vague play with the basic ideas. This combinatory or associative play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.

I've wracked my brain to think of play that is not "combinatory or associative."

What is this thing?

I proudly use the word "play" to describe what we do. When people ask "what kind" of school we are I usually reply that we're a "cooperative preschool with a play-based curriculum." I then typically have to define cooperative: people rarely ask me to define play. I reckon most people are either so taken aback by the full-on hippy-dippy descriptions of our little democratic society that they're looking for a way out of the conversation, or they figure they already know what play is about. I don't often find myself around people who question the inherent "goodness" of play for preschoolers.

What does it do?

But I know they're out there, those who would steal play from young children, who would block their way toward productive thought, and their numbers sometimes seem to be growing, although, encouragingly, I also see signs of a backlash against those who would drive our youngest citizens with their "academic" hogwash. Still, many of us find we need to avoid the word "play," with it's connotations of unserious frivolousness. Maybe we have to raise money or recruit students from a pool of parents who have been made afraid by the corporate "reformer's" who drive their efforts to turn public schools into profitable little academic sweatshops through a campaign of fear that junior is "fall behind." We cast about for words to replace play; words like "hands-on" or "inquiry-based" or "experiential," all of which tend, to me, to sound too jargon-y and vague to really describe what we do to anyone but the already initiated.

What can I make it do?

I would like to suggest that if you can't use the word "play," there is nothing deceptive in describing what we do as "research-based." I mean, research is the essence of play anyway. All day long, that's what children are doing at Woodland Park, developing theories and asking questions about their physical or social or philosophical world, setting up experiments designed to answer their questions, then engaging in productive thought about they have experienced.

Here's another one with which to prove my discoveries.

Sometimes those questions are answered, sometimes they lead to unexpected discoveries or inventions, and sometimes the questions remain unanswered, left for another day of productive thought.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

What Do I Look Like? Your Kindergarten Teacher?

Even before a child has spent a second in our classroom, her parents have heard me at least twice warn them, "We do not push letters or numbers at Woodland Park." In fact, I usually emphatically say that I will not intentionally bring letters or numbers into the classroom unless the children themselves compel me to it.

Of course, my point is that we make no overt efforts to teach them to read, or even identify their letters or numbers for that matter, we'll let their kindergarten teachers deal with that, but it's an impossible promise to keep. For one thing, most of the 2-year-olds come in already knowing that ubiquitous A-B-C song and they obsessively count everything, so there's that.

But making it even more difficult to keep my word is our school's commitment to reusing and recycling. Those darn things all have letters and numbers on them and the kids are forever pointing them out, saying things like, "That's my letter! G!" or "That's the number 2!" Arg! What do I look like, your kindergarten teacher?

If you look carefully, and children do, you'll see letters and numbers everywhere. The kids even ask me sometimes what the words mean as if they're somehow driven to figure out the strange symbolic codes of their fellow human beings.

Naturally, I blame society for its obsession with labeling everything, printing Diet Coke . . . or Miracle-Gro . . . 

. . . or Brown Cow . . . 

. . . or whatever on our upcycled "toys."

Heck, the parents even label their kids with words and numbers. To their credit they use all kinds of tricky sizes and typefaces, but the kids still know what they are.

I suppose I could deal with it if the world would limit itself to these external labels, but really, shouldn't the insides of machines be safe havens? You might have to look closely, but they've managed to sneak a 4-9-5 in there, thinking the kids wouldn't notice. Shame on them!

You would think that gardens, at least, would be a place to escape these words and numbers, but no.

They even sneak words onto the garden spades!

I often come across articles about how to make a preschool classroom into a "literacy rich environment." Where are the articles about how to banish literacy? That's what I'd like to know. Every time I turn around, there they are, letters and numbers and words all chock-a-block with meaning.

And kids interacting with them, fiddling around, unlocking their secret abstract meanings in the course of their play.

I want to do it the pedagogically correct way as a preschool teacher, leaving these things out of the classroom until the kids are developmentally ready for them, but it's too many and too much for me. The minimum they could do is avoid putting letters and numbers on things that children find exciting or interesting.

Believe me, the undersides of these vintage Matchbox cars are riddled with
vital information about their makes and models that kids 
are always trying to decipher -- truly aggravating!

Yeah sure, sometimes we need to use a few letters for things like documenting our classroom rules . . .

. . . or recording thoughts for posterity . . .

And, yes, newspaper with all its thousands of tiny words and numbers really is the best, least expensive paper mache material.

And the burlap from discarded coffee bags is useful in all kinds of contexts.

All of these things throw letters and numbers into the faces of the kids, but I'm hoping these types of utilitarian accidents of literacy education are more than compensated for by my rigorous efforts on other fronts, although I despair.

They hide and turn themselves upside down.

They manage to inject themselves onto those fragile brains from every angle and during every moment of the day. Printed, typeset, handwritten, uppercase, lowercase, they're all there all the time.

I do my best to make our school a letter and number-free zone, but it's as if they're lying all over the ground.

Why can't they just stay in books where they belong?

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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