Tuesday, June 28, 2022

"To Treat That Like A Problem Is To Treat Life Itself As A Problem"

My friend, fellow play blogger, and author of Dirty Teaching, Juliet Robertson, is not fighting cancer, and she corrects you when, invariably, you suggest it. And it's almost impossible to not to talk about "fighting" to someone dealing with a serious affliction. It's so commonplace, in fact, that it has become a cliché that falls from our tongues, but Juliet, the optimistic contrarian, is opting for what she calls "non-violent, direct action," an approach she draws from her Quaker upbringing. "I might have a sit-in with my cancer, although it's more often a lie-in," she joked with me recently. "I don't want to be fighting," she told me more earnestly. "I want to be living."

She's doing what her doctors recommend, but she's not wasting a lot of time worrying or fighting, which in today's world seems like a radical act.

Shortly after my last conversation with Juliet, I came across an essay called Uncertain Times by journalist and author Oliver Burkeman in which he writes, "We're all in the same boat, being carried forward on the river of time, unable to know what's around the next bend -- and to treat that like a problem is to treat life itself as a problem." I thought of Juliet. She got into education as a student because, as she told me, it was the easiest course of study at her university. She got into outdoor education because, as a young teacher, she started off with "the smallest classroom in the world" and really had no choice but to start taking the kids outside. She let her first school principal know that she would never send a child to her unless it was for something "really good." As a principal herself, she was in demand because she made "happy schools" and let the rest take care of itself.

It's not surprising that Juliet's approach to cancer is a radical act; her whole life has been a radical act. There is nothing more radical than to stop trying to control life and to instead live it.

As Burkeman writes, "It was becoming a father that finally drove this home to me. At first, I agonized about what I should be doing -- in terms of nutrition, or reading books, or sleep training, or screen time, or a thousand other variables endlessly dissected in the literature on parenting -- until it finally dawned on me that approaching fatherhood in this manner would mean missing out on fatherhood entirely, to my son's detriment and my own."

To say that we live in uncertain times is to assert another cliché. We cannot know the future, we can never know what's around the next bend in the river. Every one of us, and all of us, are a phone call or natural disaster or misunderstanding or injury or diagnosis away from being transported, as Juliet has been, into a life that is out of our control. "One way of defining worry," writes Burkeman, "might be as the experience of frustration encountered in repeatedly trying, yet failing, to achieve a sense of certainty about the future."

One of our most pernicious modern myths is the one about hard work and planning. Whenever a titan of industry or star athlete or acclaimed performing artist is interviewed about their success, part of the narrative is always about how they kept their eye on the prize as they fought and scratched and clawed their way to the top. I imagine it's a comforting story to those prone to worry. It tells them, contrary to all the evidence, that there is a way to achieve a sense of certainty about what's to come. "If you work hard," they say, "if you fight, nothing can stop you."

But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. We don't interview the majority of people who find that all their worry and all their fighting went for nought. The future, as it always does, takes care of itself.

There is nothing wrong with choosing to not make life about fighting and worrying. Indeed, that is the radical approach. There is a power in opting for the easiest path. There is deep wisdom in embracing outside when the future turns out to be the smallest classroom in the world. There is peace to be found in focusing on the "very good" and happiness. And life itself is found, not in hard work and planning, but rather in our relationships that are happening right now. It's this, not fighting or worry, that is the rational approach to an unknowable and unpredictable future.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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Monday, June 27, 2022

"A Gift Creates An Ongoing Relationship"

A colleague's mom recently moved from her house into a more manageable apartment. Over the years, as one does, her mother had collected a lot of stuff in her closets, garage, cellar, and attic, most of which couldn't move with her. "Mom didn't want to throw anything away, so now my siblings and I have her stuff in our attics," she complained. She was particularly frustrated by her mother's good china. "Mom never used it. I'm never going to use it, but it's so special to her. I think it was a wedding present."

So, she was torn about what to do. For her, it was something that would just be stored away in a dusty corner somewhere to be, as she said, thrown out by her son when it was his turn to inherit it. On the other hand, she figured she could sell it or donate it, to at least get it out there in the world where someone would appreciate it. This same set of china that meant so much to her mother, meant nothing to her, except for the nagging fact that her mother had cherished it.

"It's funny how the nature of an object . . . is so changed by the way it has come into our hands, as a gift or a commodity," writes Robin Wall Kimmerer in her stunning book Braiding Sweetgrass. "A gift creates ongoing relationship."

To insult someone as "childish" is, in part, to call them selfish, but I've never found children to be any more or less selfish than the adults I know. In truth, I count young children among the most generous and thoughtful people I've ever known. They haven't yet learned our culture's lessons about consumerism, so nothing to them is a mere commodity. I wrote last week about a girl who gave me a picture she had been drawing simply because I admired it. Over the course of my decades in the classroom I could have filled a dozen garages with the gifts I've been given by children, these young humans who are emphatically unselfish, who know in their hearts the connecting power of a gift.

I realized long ago that these gifts of artwork, of nature, of found objects, and of thoughtfulness, contained, as Kimmerer writes, a "bundle of responsibilities," and that by accepting these gifts I was creating a "feeling-bond" between children and myself. That, of course, is the real value of things. 

One of the first things a baby does upon learning to grasp hold of objects, is to offer them to us, holding them out as gifts. They, in turn, take them from us, only to immediately offer them back in a cycle of gift giving that weaves our lives together. Mere objects simply don't do that. Kimmerer writes, "That is the fundamental nature of gifts: they move, and their value increases with their passage."

Many Indigenous cultures see this dynamic throughout all of nature. "Wild strawberries," writes Kimmerer, "fit the definition of gift, but grocery store berries do not." As our children grow older, more and more of their world becomes commodified, they learn the harsh lessons of consumerism, which creates no bonds other than through the tit-for-tat exchange of money. It's easy to see how this separates us from our natural impulses, which is to connect through sharing.

I don't know what my colleague will finally decide about her mother's china. She still feels, through her connection with her mother, the value of this gift, but the longer it remains boxed up in the attic, as the feeling-bond becomes lost, the more it is becoming a soulless commodity. By the time it gets to her son, it will no longer be a gift at all. I hope, for everyone's sake, that she decides to transform it back into a gift.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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Friday, June 24, 2022

The Concept Of "Learning Loss" Is BS

Just scanning the first page of my search engine's results for "learning loss" without clicking a single link I see that children have "suffered" learning loss during the pandemic, that the learning loss is "grim," that it is "unprecedented," and that schools are "racing" and "struggling" to correct it. It will, apparently, "take years to overcome" the damage that's been done to our poor children who we are counting on to fill the jobs of tomorrow.

Oh boy, we're on high seas alright. Just when we think we're seeing a light at the end of the pandemic storm, we see there are still choppy waters and dark clouds ahead, and this time it's all going to come crashing down on our children. The poor children. Think of the children!

But breathe easy. Fortunately, there are heroes here to save the day: for-profit corporations who just happen to sell exactly the lifesavers we need in the form of curricula, text books, tutoring, and, most importantly, standardized tests. Of course, it will apparently mean tossing a few less important things overboard. Recess must, of course, be reduced. School hours can be extended. Summer break can be shortened or perhaps eliminated entirely. And perhaps we can put those extras like music, physical education, and art on hold for a few years. If these measures seem harsh, please consider the poor, wee, suffering children whose brains are being, as we speak, drained of learning; who have been traumatized by what is clearly a brain damaging event. But if we act fast, with the kind of tough love only institutions can administer, and with, most importantly, rolls of freshly minted bills (that are definitely not needed to make up for the financial losses these self-proclaimed "education" corporations experienced during this dark time when children were not being rigorously drilled-and-killed), these benevolent heroes can save our children from being hopelessly lost at sea for the rest of their lives . . .

This is what they are selling and it should sicken all of us. The concept of "learning loss" is complete BS. It's been with us forever, of course, this noxious idea that if we don't keep children's noses to the grindstone year-round they fall into some sort of swoon of blithering ignorance, but now it's being weaponized and aimed directly at our children. "Learning loss" is not a real thing. It's an invention of the standardized testing crowd. If it's so fragile that a year or so, will cause it to somehow disappear, it was never learned in the first place. It was, at best, a bit of trivia that a child managed to store away in their short term memory long enough to fill in the right dot on a test. I have no doubt that kids have sloughed off tons of this sort of trivia during the pandemic months, but that isn't evidence of learning loss: it's evidence that what we've been doing to children at the behest of these testing companies isn't learning at all. Or rather it's learning in the only thing that matters to their bottomline, which is proficiency in taking tests, of cramming, of scoring points. It is a useful, self-perpetuating set of skills just so long as testing remains the center of their educational experience. It is not useful for anything they will ever face in the world beyond the classroom.

Clearly, the actual content doesn't matter, and that's usually the way children feel about it as well. Once they've used it for it's only conceivable purpose, filling in a bubble with a number two pencil, they are free to dump it to make space for the next set of test answers they must retain long enough to fill in the correct bubbles. This is not learning in the sense that professional educators think of it, which is why it's no loss at all.

Professional educators know that real learning cannot be lost except in the case of some sort of brain damage. Professional educators know that real learning continues unabated, even during a pandemic. Professional educators know that the children who have returned to their classrooms have been transformed by their experiences, profoundly, and not all for the bad. Professional educators know that "falling behind" is a concept invented by testing companies whose only measure for "behind" is the very tests they create, a convenient, cynical self-perpetuating cycle that has nothing at all to do with learning or education or life itself. Professional educators know that one must apply knowledge before it is learned and our children have spent the pandemic applying their knowledge to living through a pandemic. That's where the learning has happened.

The real heroes are the children who stayed home, who sat in front of computer screens, who continue to wear masks and keep their distance even when every fiber of their being is telling them to hug and wrestle and hold hands. The real heroes are the educators who ditched the curricula and tests, and joined the children on their learning journey, supporting them as they learned lessons that can never be lost. What they lost was the chance to play with their friends and that's what we owe them.

It's now beyond sickening to watch our elected representatives (of both parties) fall all over themselves to beat the "learning loss" drum, eager to once more sic the profit-mongers on our children. 

Have some of our children, maybe even most of our children, suffered during the pandemic? Of course, but not because of this "learning loss" BS. Have things been grim? Indeed, but not because the kids had a break from the test score coal mines. Has there been suffering and struggling? My lord, yes, but not the kind that is manufactured in institutions that are designed to run the kids through the kind of assembly line that characterizes most of what these cruel profiteers pass off as curriculum.

It's tempting to wrap up this rant with some heartfelt verbiage about how the children need us to listen, to support, and to help them process the real world events that have changed everything, at least for a time. All of this is true, and we will do it, but right now, as I contemplate the abject meanness of the "learning loss" crowd, I don't want to simply become like them by thinking we can or should prescribe anything to these kids. Let's just admit that none of us know what's next. Let's just admit that the children, overall, may well be weathering this better than most adults, and that they have learned things that we have not. We find ourselves, after a terrible storm, in sight of land, all of us together. We don't know what we will find there. All we know is that we will disembark together and from there we can begin to build something new from what we have actually been learning about ourselves and our world. But first we have to throw the "learning loss" crowd overboard.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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, June 23, 2022

I Was A Stranger

"I was a stranger, and you welcomed me." ~Matthew 25:35

We had only just met, this four-year-girl and I, but we were already sitting around chatting like old friends. Markers, scissors, and plain white paper were scattered across the table top before us.

She was drawing a spiral shape, so I said, "You're drawing a spiral."

She stopped and considered it, then said with a shrug, "I call it a nautilus, but you can call it a spiral if you want."

Once she had drawn the outline of her nautilus in purple, she capped the marker, before choosing a green one. I said, "You capped the marker."

She nodded, "Yes, if you don't, they dry out."

She colored a patch of green, capped that marker and selected another color. Then she switched to orange, then red, until I got the idea that she was making a rainbow nautilus. I said, "You're making a rainbow nautilus."

As she went back to purple, she replied, "I call it stripes, but you can call it rainbow."

I was struck by the compassion this girl was showing me, a newcomer, a stranger in their midst, making space for my difference.

We sat in silence for awhile as she finished coloring in her nautilus. When she was done, she pushed it toward me along with a pair of scissors. "I went outside the lines a little bit, but that's okay because you can just cut right around the edges." She pointed to the outline of the nautilus, showing me where she apparently meant for me to cut.

As I started, I asked, not wanting to ruin her masterpiece, "Like this?"

"Yes. Just stay right outside of that line and cut off all the poking out parts."

She encouraged me as I carefully made my way around her drawing with the scissors. I felt a little stress at having been made responsible for her artwork, especially as she gave me several tips and cautions as I went. I asked her if she wanted to cut it herself, but she held her hands up to me as if allowing me a great pleasure.

When I finished, I said, "All done," and pushed the striped nautilus back across the table to her. She pushed it back, saying, "It's for you."

Before I could take possession of it, however, she snatched it back, carefully rolled it into a tube, then flattening it. She handed to me, saying, "This will make it easier to carry in your pocket."

I told her, "Thank you."

And she answered, "You're welcome."


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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, June 22, 2022

The Artist Is Present

Marina Abramović is best known for her performance piece, The Artist is Present, which took place in 2010 at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.

Museum goers waited in long lines for their turn to sit with the artist, in silence, face-to-face, a few feet apart. Sometimes there was a table between the artist and the participant. In some ways, it reminds me of the staring contests we used to engage in as children, gazing into one another's eyes until someone "broke," usually in laughter. Participants in The Artists is Present did sometimes laugh, but more often, sometimes after having laughed earlier, they cried. Many more just cried.

I don't know if there was a time-limit set for each sitting, but from what I've seen Abramović gave each person an open-ended expanse of time during which she merely sat, her face placid, her gaze rarely breaking, simply and profoundly being present with them. Participants described the experience as "transformative," some coming back to the museum again and again.

As an artist, what Abramović did was as simple and as difficult as to sit, silently, looking into the eyes of strangers for over 700 hours, being with them as they had their experience. Critics descibed the artist as courageous. Abramović herself says the experience changed her life completely.

When I think of this performance, when I think of all those people coming simply to be with her, I think of what we do as early childhood educators. So much of the most important work we do with children is, through laughter and tears, to be present, to be a blank canvas upon which they are free to express themselves, being transformed, while we ourselves are transformed, completely, as well.

(Note: I did not take part in the actual exhibition, although I wish I had, but rather watched others participate in the HBO documentary Marina Abromović: The Artist Is Present.) 


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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, June 21, 2022

"We Can't Make Children Learn, But We Can Let Them Learn"

Public schools, since their inception, have been conceived as education factories. Having emerged alongside, if not as a product of, the Industrial Revolution, they adopted many of the processes being innovated during this move from largely agrarian and handcraft economies to industry and machine manufacturing.

It was during this time that we began to conflate education with schooling, or as as philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich wrote in his groundbreaking book Deschooling Society:

"They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby "schooled" to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with eduction, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is "schooled" to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question."

Whenever I read this, I'm reminded of a sister and brother who attended our school. As is often the case in a cooperative school where families come together to take part in the educational and social life of their children (in ways, incidentally, much more closely aligned with pre-Industrial Revolution practices), I became friends with the entire family, and so had the privilege of being part of their lives long after the preschool years. These were bright, creative, self-motivated kids, perhaps not the "best students," but certainly capable. As they moved into middle school, however, cracks began to show. One day, the older sister went into a mini-tirade about school as her brother chimed in his agreement.

"All they do is try to make learn all this useless stuff," she said, "We'll never need to know any of it." She went on to critique the whole of her school experience as a process of jumping through hoops devoid of meaning. She didn't use the word "irrelevant," but that was the gist of it. She went on to have a brilliant academic career, but she never lost her cynicism about what she was doing. She let us all know that she was just subversively "playing the game" so that she could get into the college of her choice: she earned her grades, she demonstrated she was well-rounded by filling her resume with interesting and varied extra-curricular activities, and she made sure to concentrate on her standardized test scores.

As she ranted, I recalled having a similar epiphany when I was about her age. Our own daughter had similarly learned to approach schooling as a cynic. Indeed, it can be seen as the most rational approach to such an alienating process, which is, in my mind tragic. A cynic is someone who has come to believe in an essentially selfish world, one in which the only thing that matters is self-interest. This is the horrible and inevitable result of trying to manufacture education (or health care for that matter): the best and the brightest come to understand success as grades, scores, and diplomas, while the rest, those not willing or able to play the game, are left to believe that they are incapable of "learning."

There's a well-known story about a businessman, a manufacturer of ice cream, who was invited to "inspire" a group of teachers. He gave his lecture, urging these educators to adopt the practices of excellence that could be discovered in businesses like his. He was feeling pretty good about himself until he reached the question and answer part of the program. A veteran teacher asked, "Do you make blueberry ice cream?" 

"Yes, we do," he replied, "the best in the world." 

"What do you do with the blueberries that aren't up to standards?"

"We throw them out of course."

"That's the difference between what we do and what you do," she replied, "We can't throw any of them out."

I like this story because it points out the ludicrousness of applying manufacturing processes to learning. When manufacturing ice cream, or anything for that matter, the goals is to mass produce a standardized product in the most efficient and profitable manner possible. That can't be the story of education. Humans cannot and should not be standardized. Indeed, it is impossible to standardize humans so our schools have done the next "best" thing, which is to standardize the process in the name of efficiency and to treat those who will not be standardized like those rejected blueberries. Oh sure, we try interventions and special programs designed to help them, but the goal isn't to help them become educated, but rather to make them more suitable to be used to flavor the ice cream.

Illich's critique of schooling is a critique of society and our penchant for trying to apply the principles of business and manufacturing in places where they do not belong. If the goal is a best-selling blueberry ice cream, then all is good, but education, like so many of the most important things, cannot be manufactured no matter how much we teach, test, grade, and certify. When we do this we create a society of cynics and rejects.

If our goal is learning, we must figure out a way to jump off the assembly line and re-imagine how we can best focus on the substance of education rather than the mere process. The only way I see to do this is to reject the manufacturing model altogether and perhaps instead learn something from the gardener, as envisioned by Alison Gopnik in her book The Gardener and the Carpenter. Our job is not to manufacture our children, but rather to provide them with water, sun, and soil so that they can grow:

"So our job . . . is not to make a particular kind of child. Instead, our job is to provide a protected space of love, safety and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish. Our job is not to shape our children's minds; it's to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. Our job is not to tell children how to play; it's to give them the toys and pick the toys up again after the kids are done. We can't make children learn, but we can let them learn."


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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, June 20, 2022

The Cult Of Right And Wrong Answers

Dale Chihuly

When I was a boy, a fire ravaged our neighborhood, destroying dozens houses. Our own was saved by neighbors who protected it with garden hoses, but that fire completely ravaged our yard, including our second car and our bicycles. Our family had been away for the weekend and I'll never forget returning to the devastation. We sat there in stunned silence, all of us, not speaking, not able to make sense of it. It's a feeling that has returned to me at times throughout my life: witnessing the horrors of 9/11 being replayed on the television being one example. The insurrection at our nation's Capitol was another.

I've since, of course, moved beyond the stunned silence. Our neighbors told us the story of the fire. I've since learned the story of 9/11 and we are, as a nation, now learning the story of the insurrection. Whereas, I was at first confounded by these and other things, I now "understand" them because I've been able to place them into the context of the story of my life. 

Invariably, in science fiction stories that involve time travel into the past, the protagonists are warned that they must not change a thing or else the present could be irrevocably altered. The more I learn about how the minds of humans work, however, the more it seems possible that even if time travelers were constantly tweaking the past, we in the present would never notice, except, perhaps in those moments of stunned, uncomprehending silence that come before we do the work of making this new information part of our story.

As one of the world's leading researchers in cognitive neuroscience Mike Gazzaniga puts it, "This is what our brain does all day long. It takes input from various areas of our brain and from the environment and synthesizes it into a story that makes sense." For all we know, those time travelers from the future are constantly messing around with the past, and our brains, as they do, are seamlessly weaving it into the story we are telling ourselves.

We are born into chaos. As Daphne and Charles Maurer write in their book The World of the Newborn: "His world is a melee of pungent aromas -- and pungent sounds, and bitter-smelling sounds, and sweet-smelling sights, and sour-smelling pressures against the skin. If we could visit the newborn's world, we would think ourselves inside a hallucinogenic perfumery." And from that moment, probably even before, our instinct is to begin making it all into a story, one that brings all of these sensations into some sort of order. 

This story-making instinct forms the foundation of learning. We take in new information, sensations, and ideas, then seek to fit them into our stories. Most of the time, this is relatively effortless. After all, from the moment of birth, we have been masterfully assimilating all manner of confounding and inexplicable things into our stories. We've already had our timelines disrupted countless times and we've become adept at making order from chaos.

Education as we perceive it in schools, is an attempt to one-up Mother Nature. We believe, stupidly, that we can, somehow, do a better job of ordering the world than the children themselves. We try to artificially confound them with facts, questions, and equations, then, just as artificially, usurp the role of their own story-telling brains, by equally artificially telling them our pre-approved story: the "correct" and only story. This is what I call the cult of right and wrong answers, this anti-human idea that answers are the end result of learning. 

Psychologist and educator Eleanor Duckworth explains that learning is indistinguishable from thinking. "Intelligence is a matter of having wonderful ideas. In other words, it is a creative affair. When children are afforded occasions to be intellectually creative then not only do they learn about the world, but as a happy side effect their general intellectual ability is stimulated as well." In the cult of right and wrong answers, we do exactly what we must not do: rob children of the opportunity to be intellectually creative, which is to say we attempt to replace their creative stories with our rote answers.

When we allow children to play, to ask and answer their own questions, we free them to be intellectually creative, to synthesize and re-synthesize their own stories, to discover their own genius. We can keep them safe and healthy, we can pick them up when they fall, we can sooth them when they are hurt or afraid, but beyond that, the best possible use for our time with children is to be intellectually creative ourselves: to allow ourselves to be confounded and inspired by them, and to step back and allow young people the creative freedom to tell, tell, and re-tell stories that help them make sense of the world.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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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