Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Raising All Those Babies

"We're Chinese sisters." The girls had dressed themselves up in the Chinese robes from our costume rack and had taken up residence in the top of our loft with all of our everyday babies.

I said, "You have a lot of babies."

"We're waiting for them to find mommies and daddies."

"They don't have mommies and daddies?" I repeated sadly.

"It's okay because we're taking care of them."

"We're taking care of them, but we're only 12-years-old . . . Well, I'm 12-years-old, I'm the big sister, and she's 8-years-old, she's the little sister." They both affected wee and pitiful faces; almost tragic.

I said, "That's awfully young to take care of so many babies."

"That's why we're helping them find mommies and daddies. We're only teenagers."

"We're not teenagers. Teenagers have to be older than us."

There was short debate on the topic of teenagers and whether or not that was old enough to be a mommy or daddy. They finally agreed they were not teenagers, allowing them to set aside their questions about the propriety of teenage parents.

That settled, I asked, "Could I be the daddy of one of those babies?"

"Sure, do you want a boy baby or a girl baby?"

"Hmm, I think I'll take one of each."

The girls looked at one another as if searching for a silent agreement before answering, then, "You can only have one. We have to save some for the other daddies."

"Yeah, you can only have one."

"Okay, well I guess I'd like a girl baby."

The girls began checking our anatomically correct dolls, "This one has a boy bottom. Boy bottom . . . Here's a girl bottom." They handed me my baby.

It was about at this time that a group of boys marched into the lower level of the loft, acting as if their intent was to crowd into the small space where the girls had set up their adoption agency. I wanted the  boys to recognize that there was already a game taking place in the space, so I summarized, "These are Chinese sisters. They have a lot of babies looking for mommies and daddies. This is the baby they gave me. I'm the daddy." Then to the girls, "How do I take care of a baby?"

They looked at one another again, then, "You have to already know how to take care of a baby. You have to feed it and change its diapers and hold it."

"That sounds like a lot of work."

She shrugged, "Babies also cry a lot and you have to give them stuffed animals and rattles."

I said, "But what if I don't have any stuffed animals and rattles?"

At this point, without saying a word, the boys climbed back down from the loft, leaving us to our conversation. As we began to come to the realization that perhaps Teacher Tom was not equipped to take care of a baby, the boys returned, this time with their arms full of stuffed animals. "These are for the babies."

Before long, all of our stuffed animals were in the top of the loft. The girls arranged them around the babies.

As I continued talking with the girls, I heard the boys behind me:

"There aren't any more stuffed animals."

"The babies need rattles."

"There aren't any rattles."

"We'll have to make them."

That morning, we were playing with the cardboard rings left over from spent masking tape rolls. The boys figured out how to slip one inside another, creating a kind of sphere. These were the rattles.

As I continued talking with the girls, both discovering and helping to create this world of Chinese sisters with too many babies, the boys came and went in a steady stream, delivering rattles to the top of the loft.

When I walked away, the rattles had given way to plastic food from our play kitchen, as the village took on the task of raising all those babies who didn't have mommies or daddies.

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Monday, August 29, 2016

The Building Is On Fire

I have a friend who is a middle school special education teacher with Seattle Public Schools, a woman with two masters degrees who decided to go back to school in order to enter the profession in her 40's. She loves her job, but admits that it's like running into a burning building each day: she sees herself as saving the kids as much as teaching them. She has chosen to specialize in teaching children for whom school hasn't been a particularly good fit, kids with diagnosable conditions and disabilities. She runs into that building each day fully aware of the problems with our public schools, but she doesn't do it for the school or even the money: she does it for the kids, which is why she runs back in there each day to fight the battles with bureaucracy and high stakes testing and the dilettante-ish meddling of politicians and corporate-style education reformers. She tells me some of those stories, but mostly, when we talk it's about those "in the cracks" moments when these kids actually learn something.

She is a white hat teacher, for sure, and she tells me that while she may disagree with her colleagues about what fires actually need to be put out (or even what constitutes a fire), they all feel the same way about needing to save the kids because they all at least agree that the building is on fire.

That is not how teaching ought to be, of course, and I'm sure the burning building metaphor strikes many of you as overly dramatic, but I ask you this: if it isn't on fire, then why are teachers fleeing the profession in droves? Significant teacher shortages are being reported right across the nation and judging by enrollments in teaching colleges, which has fallen by over 50 percent in some places, the problem is going to get worse in the coming decades. States like Arizona, Oklahoma, Indiana, Nevada, New Mexico, and California consider the shortage so severe that many are calling it a crisis.

From Valerie Strauss' Answer Sheet column in the Washington Post:

The reasons why this is happening are important. Teachers always come and go, but in recent years there are some new reasons for the turnover. Polls show that public school teachers today are more disillusioned about their jobs than they have been in many years. One 2013 poll found that teachers satisfaction had declined 23 percentage points since 2008, from 62 percent to 39 percent very satisfied, the lowest level in 25 years. Fifty-one percent of teachers reported feeling under great stress several days a week, an increase of 15 percentage points reporting that level in 1985.

It's not a coincidence that this dramatic drop in job satisfaction has coincided with the imposition of corporate-style education "reform" measures:

Earlier this year, NPR also reported on the national teacher shortage . . . Noting the dramatic drop in enrollment in teacher education programs (a 74 percent drop in less than 10 years in California) . . . attributed at least part of the problem to the way the corporate reforms have impacted the profession . . . the Common Core and its battles, high-stakes testing, the erosion of tenure, and the evaluation of teachers by test scores, have all contributed to the crisis.

In fact, only 20 percent of teachers would recommend teaching as a profession: 80 percent are warning us about the burning building.

This is a tragedy, a fire set by the corporate reformers who started from the wrong-headed premise that "bad teaching" was the problem with our public schools. They've now created a situation in which too many schools are scrambling to just put warm adult bodies in front of classrooms. Some districts have even waived teaching qualifications to fill positions, others are recruiting administrators, and many children are going entire school years under the tutelage of a series of substitutes.

I know there are some who would argue that setting fire to the entire public school system is the best way forward, but that's not a rational approach, one based upon the "shock doctrine" lies about a failing school system that were used to get the corporate foot in the door in the first place. Our public schools, like all democratic institutions, are far from perfect, but for most kids, most of the time, they have a history of success. Our most significant "education" problem is poverty: when adjusted for our extraordinarily high poverty rates (one in five American children and over half of public school students live in poverty) American schools stand with the best in the world. If the corporate reformers really wanted to "save" our schools, they would turn their billions towards addressing the epidemic of poverty where they could actually do some good. Instead, they're setting fires from which teachers must either flee or save the children. A teacher's working conditions are a child's learning conditions. The "reformers" have clearly made it worse.

The promise of public education underpins democracy. I will always support public schools because without them enlightened self-governance cannot occur. Of course we can do better, much better, that is the nature of democracy, but first we need to stamp out the fires set by the corporate reformers and we do that by listening to and supporting the teachers who, every day, run into those burning buildings.

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Friday, August 26, 2016

Sometimes Mommy Has To Leave

Sometimes mommy has to leave and you don't want her to leave. 

When I started teaching, I was a distractor. In fact, I considered myself a master distractor. I had every confidence that I could calm any kid down in less than five minutes through a combination of goofing, enthusiasm, and "Look what those kids are doing over there!" Today, I'm more inclined to simply sit with a crying child, to listen to any words they might be trying to say, to show warmth and empathy, to assure them that mommy always comes back, and to allow them the full arc of their strong emotion. Most kids still stop crying in less than five minutes, but that's no longer the goal now that my priority is their feelings rather than my discomfort with their feelings.

So when mommy left, when he reached out to mommy as she walked away, when he screamed and cried and pulled himself from my arms, when he dropped to the floor to kick his feet in outrage, I sat there with him, blocking out the whole world but him.

I could hear he was saying words as he screamed, but they weren't at first discernible, so I said, "You're mad that mommy left," and "You're sad that mommy left." No one can truly tell another how they feel, but I was pretty sure I was close to the mark in this case. He was still saying the words through his tears, repeating them. Finally, I thought I made out, "I want mommy to come back."

I wanted him to know that he had been heard, that I understood and empathized, and I wanted it to be something that was true, so I said, "I want your mommy to come back too."

He shout-cried at me, "I want mommy to come back!"

I nodded. I worked on keeping my voice gentle. I said, "I want your mommy to come back too."

And he said back, "I want mommy to come back!"

We went back and forth like this several times. He seemed to really wanted me to know that he wanted his mommy to come back.

Other children tried to sooth him: one girl brought him a costume, another tried to hand him a construction paper fire truck. He didn't accept their overtures, although he was by now present enough to shake his head "no" at them rather than simply scream as he was doing at me.

By now he was very clearly saying, "I want mommy to come back!" And I was replying, "I want your mommy to come back too," to which he always shout-cried back, "I want mommy to come back!"

I continued to attempt to put a name to his feelings, using words like "mad," "sad," and "angry," as well as to state the truth that "mommy always comes back." But whenever I said, "I want your mommy to come back too," he shouted at me, "I want mommy to come back!" 

Then, finally, I really heard him. He said, "I want mommy to come back!" stressing the pronoun for his tin-eared teacher.

This time I answered, "You want mommy to come back."

He nodded as if to say, "Finally," and in one motion picked himself from the floor, stepped up to the art table, still crying, and got to work gluing construction paper shapes to a red fire truck pre-cut, his hands not fully under his own control. As he wadded and creased the paper, it looked almost as if he were wrestling with it, his fingers clenching and curling from the emotion that was still coursing through his whole body.

After a couple minutes, he became silent as he concentrated on manipulating the small pieces of paper, the last of his strong emotion going into this construction project.

I said one more time, "You want mommy to come back." This time he ignored me.

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

"Maybe They'll Help Next Time"

Do children understand justice? Of course, but usually not the way adults do.

For instance, a few years ago, a group of children were busy tidying up the block area, putting our Duplo blocks into their containers. A boy named River was not helping them, but was, rather, milling about in a way that seemed to me as if he was simply seeking to avoid his share of the work. This didn't seem fair to me, but since no one was complaining I didn't say anything. Then, just as the children tossed the last Duplo into the box, River grabbed the lid, and with a decisive finality, popped it on the box before carrying to to the shelf where it is kept. To me it looked as if he had let others do the work only to steal the glory. Not fair!

He did the same thing the following day and the day following that. It was really getting under my skin and I wondered how long it was going to take before it got under his "harder working" classmates' skins as well. Then the day came that in the midst of tidying up one of the other children found the lid of the box, picked it up and handed to River before going back to work. River waited with the lid until the box was full. The children then called River over to finish the job and everyone sort of celebrated as he self-importantly carried the box to the shelf.

My adult sense of justice saw an unequal division of labor. The children, however, were not only satisfied, but supportive of River's choice of how to pitch in.

This sort of thing happens all the time around the school, where our adult sensibilities are offended while the children are just fine. And too often, I think, we feel compelled to step in as the long arm of the law when it's entirely unnecessary. Every day, I see some children "working harder" than others or even "doing the work of others" without complaint or even the sense that there could be anything wrong with the equation. Of course, the argument could be made that the kids simply haven't learned or developed a "proper" sense of justice, but I tend to look at it, at least in some ways, as a more evolved sense of justice: there is work to be done, it is our community, we do the work. Sure there are always a few kids who opt out of tidying up and other "work," but I've found that if I don't make a big deal about it, the children rarely do either.

I'm reminded of my experiences in reading the classic folk tale The Little Red Hen, in which many if not most of the children struggle with the "moral" that the hen gets to eat all the bread herself because she did all the work. "Why doesn't she share with them?" they ask, or "What if they were too tired to work?" "What if they're hungry?" My adult sense of justice is offended that the lazy animals should insist on a share of the bread, but that ending rarely sits right with the kids. In all my years of reading that story, there are always a few who see "justice" the way adults do, but most do not, and I've never had a child suggest that the "lazy" roommates should suffer as a result. No, most of the time, the kids think that everyone should share the bread.

As one girl put it with a shrug, "Maybe they'll help next time." 

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Wednesday, August 24, 2016


Up until about the end of the Victorian era, the leading theory for why humans play was that it is a mechanism by which we release excess energy. Over the next few decades, however, people like John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky began to take play seriously. Particularly important, although largely forgotten today, was a German psychologist named Karl Groos, a researcher who primarily studied play in animals. He was among the very first to investigate the usefulness of play, proposing that play had evolved as an instinct that allows animals to "practice" the skills they will need to thrive.

"The very existence of youth is due in part to the necessity for play; the animal does not play because he is young, he has a period of youth because he must play."

While we still hear echoes of the Victorian idea today (e.g., "The kids just need to burn off some steam"), those of us who work with children, and in particular those of us enrolling our children and teaching in play-based preschools have come to embrace not just the "necessity for play," but even the primacy of play as the most effective and efficient mechanism for learning. In other words, we take play seriously.

The downside for many of us, however, is that we take play seriously. Seriously.

Recent decades have seen a ramping up of the idea of "good parenting." The bookshelves and blogs are chock-a-block with advice and counsel, much of it contradictory. Intentions are nobel, of course -- Who doesn't want to be a good parent? But at the same time we've been left with as many questions as answers. I often wonder if this phenomenon doesn't have something to do with our contemporary habit of dispersing families far and wide: rare is the child whose grandparents live in the same zip code. Whereas prior generations of parents primarily relied on their own parents for day-to-day guidance and support, there is now a disconnect between generations, leaving a void for the books and blogs to fill, which is simply a less personal and more confusing way to learn anything.

I wonder too if the trend toward smaller families isn't partly in play here as well. There was a time when parents relied on older children to take on some of the basic childcare responsibilities, allowing them the opportunity to develop some of the foundational skills and habits of caring for the smaller humans. And I reckon the era of mass media, followed by our current one of social media, is also a factor in that we now know there is always something to worry about.

Whatever the case, it seems that there are too many of us who, in the quest to provide our children with an authentic play-centric childhood, worry that somehow we're doing it wrong. Are we hovering too much? Are we being negligent? Do we have too many toys or not enough or the wrong kinds? Are we over-scheduled or is my child missing out on opportunities? How do screens fit in? Do I play with my child and how? There are no play-based schools where I live, what can I do? Do I homeschool, unschool, become a pain in the side of the teacher or school board? How can I protect my kids' childhood?

In other words, we take play very seriously and it's making us crazy. It seems like almost every day I receive a missive from someone seeking my counsel. I do my best to help, but listen, I'm just making it up as I go along just like you. Indeed, it's all any of us are doing on any given day: it's the beauty of life. Anything else would be rote and we'd all die of boredom.

If there was one secret I would pass along about being with children it would be to just treat them like people without forgetting that you are a person too. Attend to their needs and feelings and ideas, but attend to yours as well. Relax, you can't fail, and if one day they wind up in therapy, pat yourself on the back; knowing when and how to ask for help is itself a sign of good mental health. At the same time you'll do it wrong no matter what you do, so just do it the way you do it. Play with them when you feel like it. Teach them the games you like to play or the hobbies in which you love to immerse yourself. If you don't have a hobby then for god's sake, find one. Tell them you don't have time when you don't have time, but don't be a jerk about it. As Kahlil Gibran wrote, "Your children are not your children," they are rather fellow human beings with whom you are journeying for a time. They are special because they are people, not because they are kids. Tell them you love them because as the French proverb says, "It's not enough to love, you must say it."

Play is serious business, but it's like love or happiness: it goes away when we take it too seriously. It's the work of childhood, but it's their work, not yours. Leave them to it, join them as a person, not a parent, and only when you feel compelled. When you have any questions about life, take some time to simply observe them in their play. That's where you'll find your answers. And most of all, know that the greatness of play is that it works whatever you do.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

How To Raise Successful Children

I think most of us, if asked to define "success," would think deeply enough to consider more than the capacity to acquire great wealth. Certainly, we would cite things like having "enough" money and a holding personally satisfying job, but we would also include things like mental and physical health, good personal relationships with friends and family, and a general sense of well-being about how life is going.

There has never been a study that links early literacy or early numeracy to any of these aspects of "success," even the superficial one of wealth. None. Never. 

The research that's been done on successful people tends to find, rather, that their success comes from being motivated, sociable, and having the ability to work well with others. These are the skills and attributes children work on when they have ample opportunity to play, especially outdoors, with other children, with few toys and lots of time, and with a minimum of adult intervention. Our job as adults to prepare an environment in which free play is possible, to keep an eye out for hazards (as opposed to risks children choose to take on their own), and where children have the opportunity to do things for themselves, even if it means failing, and failing often.

As a teacher in a cooperative and a parent myself, I understand the pressures parents are under. On the one hand there are those who insist we must drill and grill our youngest citizens lest they "fall behind," while on the other, there are those who are in the business of selling us on the idea that children are constantly at risk of abduction or injury or other dangers. These twin manufactured fears, and they are largely manufactured, have caused a generation of parents to behave as what is popularly called "helicopter parents," always hovering nearby, always ready to step in, always urging and cajoling and warning, teaching helplessness instead of independence. All this leaves precious little time for the children to actually play in the way that will allow them to grow into successful adults.

I reckon by writing this, I'm now, at one level, joining the fear-mongers, providing parents who are already pulled this way and that by fear, one more thing about which to worry: is my child getting enough free play? For that I'm sorry, but the answer is, if you're a typical American parent, probably not.

We are a cooperative preschool, which means that I work more closely with parents than most teachers. I write here often about teaching children, but one of the most important things we do is to also teach their parents, which is done formally through our parent educators, and informally by our larger community of families who are, collectively, striving to offer children the opportunity to acquire the skills and attributes of success through play. It's a learning process I've witnessed time and again, one that I experienced myself as a parent. I know that for some it is a painful one of "letting go," of coming to trust the world enough to know that those inevitable bumps and bruises our children experience, both physical and emotional, those "failures," are the true building blocks of success. It's hard because we live in a culture that tells us our job as parents is to fix things for our kids, to make things easy, to soften the blows. We have to consciously push back against the culture of fear that has come to surround parenting if we are to raise truly successful adults.

Most of our three-year-olds are out of diapers. When they tell me they need to go to the potty, I point to the bathroom and say, "The toilet is in there." If you ask their parents, many will insist their child still needs their presence, if not assistance, in the bathroom, but it's really no longer true. Sure, children may want mommy with them, after all it can be an intimate, private moment, but when mommy isn't at school, they've shown they are more than capable. Yes, some struggle to get their pants back up, others miss the toilet, and I'm sure few do as thorough job of wiping as mom, but they all come out of there, mission accomplished, then hop up on the stool near the sink to wash their hands. 

It's likewise difficult for parents to step back and allow their children to engage in, say, conflict or risk, but it must be done if our goal is successful children. Yes, they will fail, and those failures form the foundation of success. Indeed, when looked at from the wider perspective they aren't failures at all, but rather steps along a pathway. As Thomas Edison famously said about the invention of the light bulb when asked by a journalist how it felt to have failed a thousand times: "I did not fail a thousand times. Inventing the light bulb was a process of one thousand steps."

In that direction lies success. 

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

What We Should Learn From Uganda

This post is a follow-up to Friday's post about how the destructive business models pioneered by companies like Walmart and Microsoft are at the core of the corporate-backed push to replace traditional public schools with unaccountable, often for-profit, charter schools.

From Valarie Strauss' Answer Sheet column in the Washington Post:

Uganda's education minister just announced that the government is closing a controversial chain of for-profit nursery and primary schools because, she said, national standards were being ignored and the "life and safety" of some 12,000 children were endangered because of poor hygiene and sanitation.

Now I don't know much about Uganda, but when I think of the country, it's as a struggling third world nation. I'm sure there are many wonderful things about Uganda, but I certainly don't think of it as a place that has the economic wherewithal to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially when it comes in the form of billions of dollars in aid from the World Bank, wealthy individuals like Bill Gates, large corporations like Pearson Education, and the US and British governments. Yet that's exactly what they are doing, shuttering 63 schools operated by a for-profit corporation business known as Bridges International Academies (BIA), funded by this who's who of deep pockets, operating hundreds of "school-in-a-box" type institutions in African countries, including Kenya and Uganda.

It doesn't surprise me that the Gates Foundation gang of "venture philanthropists" and education for-profit charlatans like Pearson Education are involved in something like this. I can imagine that Gates sees a nation like Uganda as being so desperate for cash that it makes a perfect laboratory for his experiments in "unleashing powerful market forces" on children. I'll bet it never occurred to him and his squad of education deformers that their hosts would be so rude as to bite the hand that feeds them, but with this action, Uganda is showing we first world nations what we need to do to stop these child abusers who would turn generations of children into test score coal miners working to fill the coffers of education mercenaries like Pearson Education and BIA.

For-profit corporations exist for one purpose only and that is to make a profit. I doesn't surprise me at all that BIA cuts corners on things like hygiene and sanitation. Of course they have substandard facilities. It's a given that a for-profit corporation would try to get away with "unqualified staff and teachers." I could have predicted that they would try to save money with "scripted curriculums developed overseas." I have no doubt that they ignored Uganda's national standards in the name of squeezing another dollar out of those poor kids. The thing that continues to shock me, however, is that Americans are letting these very same bad actors get away with exactly the same model in our country under the banner of charter schools, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core.

From Salima Namusobya, executive director of the nongovernmental Ugandan organization Initiative for Social and Economic Rights:

"We have long been worried that BIA schools did not respect the government guidelines on basic requirements and minimum standards for schools, for example, regarding infrastructure, purposefully used unqualified teachers in order to reduce costs, in violations of Ugandan laws, and were developing a massive for-profit business without the agreement of proper oversight authorities."

Sadly, we might not even be able to say this in the States because we have actually allowed the bad guys to write our education laws and standards. It is well known, for instance, that the Gates Foundation almost single-handedly managed the creation of the Common Core federal school curriculum and charter schools legally operate with virtually no public oversight.

From Frederick Mwesigye, executive director of the Forum for Education NGOS in Uganda:

"The Ugandan education system suffers many shortcomings. However, it does not mean that any investors can come in and make profit out of the situation by delivering low-quality education while disregarding national authorities and standards. International treaties and a recent resolution from the UN Human Rights Council make clear that it is the duty of the government to close schools that are sub-standard or that lead to commercialization of education, and we applaud the Government for upholding its obligations."

So good on Uganda for not allowing their children to be exploited by the venture philanthropists and  not letting the child labor profiteers get away with it. I presume that the US has signed on to that same UN resolution. Let Uganda be an inspiration to us. Maybe some day we will catch up to them.

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