Tuesday, November 13, 2018

"They Could Be Building With Blocks"



The younger children might come to school for the toys, the songs, or Teacher Tom, but by the time they're approaching four, the thing to which they're most looking forward is one another. We tend have a minimal agenda as it is, but this is why the decks are left especially clear for the first hour of our time together. The kids need that opportunity to greet one another, to lay hands on one another, to giggle over their burgeoning love for one another. Certainly, there are times when this or that child will want to be off on her own for a time, and there are always a few who are more inclined to solo play, but most of the kids, most of the time, need the other children in order to be at their best.

I don't think this inclination goes away as we get older. Meaningful human contact, be it with friends, colleagues, or teachers, is essential to mental and intellectual well-being. This goes for introverts and extroverts alike, albeit the "doses" may vary. We have evolved as social animals, we're at our best when we're social, we learn more, and more deeply within the context of community. We solve problems more creatively when we work together. Indeed, from where I sit, that is the primary reason we go to school: to be together in a place where children form their own community around shared interests and goals. Everything else that education is, will emerge from that.

Last week, 100 students in Brooklyn walked out in protest over their school's adoption of an online curriculum called "Summit Learning" designed by Facebook engineers and funded by CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Their main complaint being that they hated staring at their computer screens all day. "The whole day, all we do is sit there."

Screen-based "education" is a nightmare for children, especially young ones who don't have the opportunity to walkout. The developers' of these programs promise of "personalized learning" might sound good because, indeed, children learn different things according to different timelines, but the rush to shove screens in front of more and more children threatens to undermine the very thing that makes schools educational.

Says teacher Mark France speaking about a similar screen-based curriculum called AltSchool, "The vision was a curriculum that catered to every child so they're learning at their level all the time. But when every child is working on something different, you're taking away the most human component in the learning process, which is social interaction -- learning from one another and collaborating to solve problems. They're developing a relationship with their tablet but not one another."

Screen-based "education" erodes community. Humans have evolved to learn from one another, together, as a collaborative process. Not only that, but even by the narrow measures used by these purveyors of online "education" to demonstrate success (e.g., standardized tests), online learning has shown, at best, minimal improvement over methods that focus on human interaction, and in many cases, the results have been worse. No one with any meaningful background in education would be surprised by this and to make guinea kids of our children so that education dilettantes can test our their theories is deeply immoral, not to mention damaging. Good on those high schoolers for walking out, and good on their school for canceling the program.

As for France, who has since left AltSchool to teach in a school that places its emphasis on human interaction:

. . . the turning point came one morning when he looked around a kindergarten classroom, "and the kids were staring at their tablets, engrossed by them. And I'm thinking to myself, "They could be building with blocks, they could be doing a number of different things that are more meaningful that also build social and emotional skills but they're choosing not to. Why? Because the tool is so addictive, that's wall they want to do."

There is a reason that technology workers are increasingly restricting screen time for their children and choosing schools for them that eschew screen-based technology. There is a reason that doctors and researchers are recommending dramatically curtailing the use of screen-based technology for children. Yet the technologists, these corporate "reformers" who would impose their experiments on our children are undaunted. There is money to be made, so damn the children. Thank you Brooklyn high schoolers for standing up to them. Your walk out is for all of us.

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

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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Monday, November 12, 2018

Honoring Veterans




(I've been post a version of this piece on Veteran's Day for several years now. Some of the statistics may be a bit dusty, but regrettably, I'm certain that the gist of them remains the same.)


My daughter has grown up in a country at war. 

I grew up in a country at war. 

My parents grew up in a country at war. 

My grandparents grew up in a country at war.

Whatever we feel about ourselves, it's not difficult to understand why there are people around the world who view the US as a warlike nation. It's one of the things we do, sending our army to Europe or Asia or Africa or South America to fight against our "enemies" or support our "friends." War has become the wallpaper of our lives, something that most of us only think about when there is particularly ghastly or encouraging news, or on special days set aside to think about war, like today, Veteran's Day.

Some of us, of course, think about war every day: those whose children or loved ones are in harm's way. How could they not? Even now, or perhaps especially now, as our entanglements have been moved to the back pages, it's impossible, I'm sure, not to worry about the stray bullet. The stress on those families must be incredible and what anxious joy they must feel knowing that the two longest wars in our nation's history are finally winding down. I'm sure they think all kinds of things about the wisdom of those wars or the ways in which they have been conducted, but I'm equally sure they are united in their desire to actually touch and see and hear their sons and daughters; their mothers and fathers.

Whatever you think of war in general, or the specific wars in which our nation has engaged, whether you believe that those who enlisted are brave patriots, misguided souls, or victims of the economy, there are few among us who don't appreciate the risk and sacrifice of these young men and women, nor do we want to shirk the responsibilities we have to them as they seek to re-join the civilian world, a place where they can hopefully sometimes forget about war.

This is a place where 1 in 3 male veterans between 20-24 are jobless. It's a place where nearly a million veterans are unemployed, where the unemployment rate for veterans is over 12 percent, 3 points higher than for the rest of us. And unless we turn things around fast, it's only going to get worse as an estimated 1 million more veterans return from foreign wars to rejoin the civilian workforce over the next 5 years.

This is a place in which 1 in 5 suicide victims are veterans. It's an epidemic of despair and mental illness that claims an average of 18 lives per day. Suicide prevention hotlines set up to serve veterans receive 100,000 calls per year. 

This is a place where people will boo you and try to strip you of your rights as a veteran and a citizen if they learn you are somehow not the "right kind of American."

This is a place where big banks, like Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and JP Morgan Chase will brazenly defraud you because you are a veteran and they think you're a soft target, often taking your home and sending you into bankruptcy.

This is a place where 83 percent of veterans receive no pension at all and where even that pathetic number is under threat of the budget axe, along with veteran healthcare benefits, because we don't have the political will to raise taxes on the the super wealthy, such as those very bankers who are defrauding veterans. 

This is the world we've created for our post-9/11 veterans. This is not what they fought for.

I don't feel at all good about the legacy of war we are leaving to our children, just as our parents left to us. Violence always represents failure, and this is a torch of shame we pass along. But this is a failure of politics, a failure of self-governance, and has nothing to to with our veterans who have placed themselves in service to our nation. These are our children, our mothers, and our fathers. For better or worse, we've sent them to risk their lives for us and caused their families to sacrifice for us. We must do better by them.

We don't honor veterans by glorifying war. These Americans, of all Americans, know the truth that war is horrific. No, we honor them by creating a society in which diplomacy is the highest political good. We honor them with a functioning economy and a world-class health care system. We honor them when we have social and economic justice. We honor them when we work to end war. We the people need to do these things every day, and that, more than parades and ceremonies, is how to honor veterans.

But most of all we honor veterans when we stop what we're doing to really see the wallpaper that's been hanging on our walls for generations, contemplate it, and wonder if it's time for a change.

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

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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Friday, November 09, 2018

What Motivates Me





There's a song I sing when it's time to gather around for circle time, our community meetings. It's something I made up, I think, although it probably grew from a kernel planted by one of my mentors. It always starts off the same way, "Come on over to the checker board rug, come on over to the checker board rug, come on over to the checker board rug, and have a seat on the floor . . ." After that, it can pretty much go off on any number of tangents, each one sillier than the last, usually inspired by something one of the kids has done or said. It's just a way to goof around until everyone is settled in. And then, since I typically don't have anything specific planned, we usually just goof around together some more. In a nutshell, that's the Teacher Tom method.

Honestly, I was never particularly motivated to become a teacher. There were a couple of my high school teachers to whom I looked up, but that had more to do with my perception of their lifestyle as teachers -- being cool role models, coaching sports teams after school, having summers off -- than anything to do with helping kids' brains grow bigger. Even when I finally became a father, I had little interest in teaching our baby anything: I just wanted to goof around with her.


People assume I'm interested in pedagogy and curricula and brain development, and I am, I suppose. I've done just enough reading, and taken just enough classes, and attended just enough workshops, to have a working knowledge of most of what's out there, but everything I know about teaching, really, I've acquired more by osmosis than any sort of concentrated study, and frankly, I rarely think about any of it anyway. Likewise, I'm not all that interested in knowing about spectrums or disorders or syndromes or any other kind of diagnosis. I'm not ignorant of them, of course, and I recognize that there is value in this kind of knowledge, but it generally only reveals such a tiny piece of what makes a child who he or she is that it borders on the irrelevant, at least when it comes to the way I do "teaching."

And speaking of irrelevant, I know and care even less about much of the stuff my public school colleagues talk about, like "Common Core" or grading papers or assigning grades or achieving all those various certifications and qualifications and whatnot. I mean, I've looked into some of it, and found it has so little in common with what I do on a day-to-day basis that it hardly looks at all to me like what I call "teaching." If it wasn't threatening to take over the whole of what we call "education" in America, I would gladly ignore it entirely.

As I've had the opportunity to travel around the world presenting and facilitating education workshops, people express enthusiasm for learning more about my approach, methodology, and pedagogy. And that's what I talk about, although I'll never be able to offer a tidy list of "10 Tips" or "12 Steps To Success." I mostly talk about how I goof off with kids.

I came into teaching through a back door, not even really knowing where I was, to be honest, holding my own daughter's hand. We found a bunch of kids there and started playing with them. Everyone called it "school," so we did too. I was never particularly motivated to become a teacher, but when I saw what my mentors Sue Anderson and Chris David did in their little cooperative classrooms, I was motivated to do that.


We spent our time together at this kind of school mostly just goofing around, although by virtue of being adults we occasionally had to work with children to help them be safe, to treat one another fairly, to express our emotions in healthy, productive ways. But that wasn't our "curriculum," heavens no, all of that adult stuff was just by way of getting back to the core of why we were together: to have an interesting time goofing around.

I'm still not particularly motivated to be a teacher, but I do enjoy being Teacher Tom. I love nothing more than dropping to my knees and playing with the children, talking with them, listening to them, being their friend. My main job, as I do it, is just to find a way to get each kid on my bandwagon, which can only be done by forging a relationship based upon a two-way street of listening, acceptance, and love -- and a sacred agreement that no one is the "boss" of anyone else. The rest is just goofing off together. 

I may not be motivated to be a teacher, but I am motivated by the unique joys and challenges of creating a relationship with each child. It's endlessly amazing to me that the more I've done this, coming to a place called school each day to goof around with kids, that there is still so much more to learn, that there is always a deeper depth and a higher height and a sillier way to sing that old song.

Finding those new places is what motivates me; finding them with the kids, going there together, then goofing off. That's what motivates me.

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

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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Thursday, November 08, 2018

Independent And Interdependent




Earlier this week, I saw something that made me very happy. One of the younger girls was outdoors wearing a coat she had put on by herself. I knew she had put it on by herself because it was upside down.



Being a cooperative, we tend to have lots of parents around the place, and it's an easy thing to fall back on our habits of "helping" children whether they need it or not. Our style of schooling tends to attract naturally helpful types to begin with and with so many of us around it's hard to not jump in when we see children struggling with things like dressing themselves, using the toilet, pouring water, or engaging in conflict.

When we ask parents about their goals for their children at the beginning of the year, many, if not most, list "learning to be more independent" as one of them. It's hard to learn to be independent, however, without opportunities to practice being independent, so I ask the parents to remember that it's not about efficiency in preschool and urge them to step back and allow the struggle; to avoid jumping in at the first sign of a conflict, but rather to give the children the time and space to see if they can solve it themselves; to accept a few spills and missed toilets and upside down jackets as part of the process of learning to become an independent human.


At the same time, we also want our kids to learn to work well with others, to get along with the other kids, to form a community, to become more interdependent. And that too, is something we all need to practice. This is why we make our own rules together, coming to agreements about how we want to treat one another. This is why we try to leave most of the tidying up to the children. This is why when a child asks for help, say with working a puzzle or untangling a knot or when they want someone to push them on the swing, I ask the parents to fight the instinct to be the helper. Much better is to simply call out to the crowded classroom or playground, "Sally needs help with this puzzle," or "Carl wants someone to push him on the swing." Young children are naturally helpful types as well. Invariably, one of them, often many of them, will offer their services.

Independence and interdependence are our goals: the traits of good citizens in a democratic society.

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

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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Wednesday, November 07, 2018

It Might Sound Like A Little Thing




"We don't hit people."

"We don't run in the hallways."

"We don't take things from other people."

I strive to be honest with children, yet I lie to them, or at least tell them these sorts of falsehoods almost every day, and I'm not the only one.

I hear it in our classroom and on playgrounds: many of us have fallen into the habit of "correcting" children with sentences like the ones above, "we" sentences, that are objectively false statements. Of course, I understand that "We don't hit people" is spoken in the spirit of aspiration, in the sense that we hope to one day be a place where no one hits anyone, but since we almost always say it in the immediate aftermath of someone indeed being hit, it's simply not true that "we don't hit people" and everyone knows it. If "we" don't hit people, then why does my nose hurt?

"I don't want you to hit my friends." Now that has the virtue of being true. 

"She's crying because you hurt her." True. 

"I can't let you hit people." Safety is part of my job, so yes, this is true, and not only that but I'm role modeling being responsible. 

And because of the way the children make their own rules at Woodland Park, I can even say, "We all agreed, no hitting," perhaps the most powerful true statement I can make in that circumstance because it includes the unity of "we" with the virtue of truth.

It might sound like a little thing this trading out one set of words for another, and in a way it is, but the foundation upon which we build the future is always made of little things, one atop the other. And whenever we can replace false with true in life, it's never a small thing.

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

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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Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Bill Gates Has Failed




The reason that people listen to billionaires isn't that they are smarter than the rest of us. We listen because their obscene wealth means that when they latch onto an idea, no matter how harebrained, they have the wherewithal to actually try to make it happen.

Since 2009, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent more than $400 million on the creation and implementation of what is called the Common Core, a centrally mandated federal curriculum for public schools, one that from the start was created largely without the input of professional educators. It was a nightmare from the start. As education historian Diane Ravitch said in 2014:

Early childhood educators are nearly unanimous in saying that no one who wrote the standards had any expertise in the education of very young children. More than 500 early childhood educators signed a joint statement complaining that the standards were developmentally inappropriate for children in the early grades. The standards, they said, emphasized academic skills and leave inadequate time for imaginative play. They also objected to the likelihood that young children would be subjected to standardized testing. And yet the proponents of the Common Core insist that children as young as 5 or 6 or 7 should be on track to be college-and-career ready, even though children this age are not likely to think about college, and most think of careers as cowboys, astronauts, or firefighters.

Indeed, the Common Core national curriculum was a driving force nationwide in the cruel, wasteful expansion of the high stakes standardized testing that has come to characterize many of today's public schools. The Gates Foundation was also responsible for the rise in teacher evaluation programs that pitted teacher-against-teacher, and school-against-school, in a misguided attempt to impose his Ayn Randian, competition-at-all-costs ideology on a profession that is, at its best, collaborative. Many of us have been speaking up for years, warning that the Common Core was a significant contributor to a generation of stressed out children who where hating school at younger and younger ages.

And now, after the damage has been done, after nearly a decade of arrogance and insults against professional teachers, after compelling the federal government to direct more than $4 trillion toward implementation, Bill Gates has finally admitted that the Common Core was a failure. Or at least has come as close to an admission of failure as we're likely to see.

This is what we get for listening to billionaires. His hubris, arrogance, and ignorance has damaged a generation of school children and now he's blithely stepping away with a tacit, "My bad." The sick part is that he's now talking about "pivoting" to some other harebrained education idea, and sadly, because he's a billionaire, people will listen. I'm here today to say that I'm already against it, whatever it is. Hasn't this man already done enough damage?

In case you're curious, here are a few other posts I've written about the Gates Foundation and the Common Core:

Common Core's Pustule Encrusted Underbelly
Parents, Teachers, and Students in Common Cause Against Common Core
Pushing the Pendulum
Untethered from Reality
Stopping the Coal Trains
This is Child Abuse
Serving Wall Street
Cruel Sadistic Bastards
Bill Gates is Ignorant
This is What We're Up Against
They Are Willing to Profit From It
Hey Bill, We're Not You're Enemies


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

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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Monday, November 05, 2018

This Is The Way Democracy Is Supposed To Work



Like many preschools, we are always a little short on storage space. We do have a separate storage room and a couple of outdoor sheds, but our classroom walls are still lined with a hodge-podge of shelves and cabinets. A few of these pieces of furniture have doors, but most are open shelves which are covered with curtains of butter yellow fabric.

One of the first things children learn about our space is that when the curtain is in place, the items on those shelves are "closed," while when the curtain is removed, that means "open." Even the youngest children get the system within a couple weeks. Of course, that doesn't mean they don't peek, but by this time in the school year, it's exceedingly rare for a child, even a two-year-old, to take the next step of actually playing with what they find there.

I'm always impressed by this level of self-control. After all, they're only curtains, attached with velcro. The shelves are full of attractive items stored at eye-level. No one has ever threatened or scolded them about these shelves. During the first few weeks of school, as they are figuring out the boundaries, they are told, "That's closed" or "That's opened," statements of fact about our storage-challenged classroom, said in the way one might say, "That's a window" or "This is a chair." We help them re-hang any curtains that have been removed in the process. We might discuss when we should "open" the shelf in question (we usually agree on tomorrow). And after a couple weeks of experimentation, we all seem to more or less agree on the system.


There is one curtain, however, that needs new velcro. Indeed, it has needed new velcro for several years. Pretty much anytime someone brushes against it, it falls. It's located on a shelf adjacent to our checkerboard rug, an active place where we regularly engage in both circle time and a lot of large motor, dramatic, and constructive play. Needless to say, it falls open several times a day. A child could easily be excused for assuming that meant that those blocks are "open," yet they never do.

Almost every time the curtain is knocked down, a child will take it upon her or himself to re-attach the velcro. No one asks them to do it. No one even suggests it. Yet the moment the curtain falls, someone is on it, often more that one, and usually without saying a word. Over the years, parents have volunteered to repair it with new velcro, but I tend to decline the offer. There is something beautiful to me about how the children have taken responsibility for it year after year, often struggling with it, often needing help, but nevertheless making the effort, "closing" the inadvertently "open" shelf, not because it's a rule or because they've been told to do it by an authority figure, but simply because that's the way we do things here at Woodland Park.

Every time I see it happen it occurs to me that this is the way democracy is supposed to work.

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

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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