Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Eye Of The Beholder



Our community built the prototype of our junkyard playground over a decade ago. We were in our old digs atop Phinney Ridge, working with a tiny space, but still managed to create most of the features our larger space has today: sand pit, work bench, garden, art space, and what we later learned were called "loose parts." When we moved to our current location in the Center of the Universe, we were obviously ready for the challenge a larger space presented, creating the foundation of new playground in a week because that's how much time we had before school started that year. It has since continued to evolve, as we've added, subtracted, and moved things around in the ongoing project of creating our preschool version of what we later leaned was called an "adventure playground."


From the outside looking in, the place looks a bit like a junkyard or vacant lot. This is not by accident, but it has become a sort of dividing line between those who see Woodland Park as a sort of childhood fantasy land and those who would never, under any circumstances, allow their little ones to set foot in that place. Indeed, even current parents sometimes make comments about the mud, the broken toys, the spare tires, the jumble of shipping pallets, and the general debris of crates, wood scraps, and other miscellany that is strewn about the place. Even I, one of the lead proponents and curators of our space can find myself wanting to give it a tidy.


The good news is that we have regular all-hands-on deck weekend parent work "parties," with our state-of-the-art outdoor classroom receiving the bulk of our attention. For one thing, at the behest of a five-year-old named Thomas, we built a two-level sand pit with our cast iron water pump positioned at the top, which means that the continual flow of water downhill causes the sand to re-locate from the top to the bottom. One of the big jobs at these events is to man shovels and wheelbarrows to return the sand back to the top where the process of erosion begins once more.


Another of our tasks is to essentially make a distinction between what is garbage and what still has play value. This is a job where a lot of judgements must be made because, as we all know, one person's trash is another person's treasure. In the past, I've felt the need to monitor this process with an eagle-eye, sometimes even going so far as to pull perfectly good junk out of the dumpster, sometimes even engaging in friendly debate with parents over the play-value of this or that piece of debris. But on Saturday, as our team of parents undertook the task, I realized that they no longer needed me to "helicopter parent" the playground. Each time I peeked at the trash pile, I saw nothing but actual garbage. In fact, I even heard these parents discussing who and how this or that was used yesterday or last week or a few years ago as they told the stories of our junkyard playground to one another while they worked, allowing themselves to be in awe of the ingenuity, creativity, and industriousness of the children who play there.


It wasn't long ago that our junkyard playground confused people, even those whose children played there, but no more. What I learned over the weekend is that we are now a community of adults who truly understand the value of playing in "natural" places like this, places where play is not proscribed, where loose parts dominate, and where mess, like trash and treasure, is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, we as a community really do seem to understand play.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Woodland Park Cooperative School (Seattle), we are currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. Click here for information. There are still spots available for 2-5 year olds.


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Monday, March 18, 2019

Observing



I was enjoying a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon with a walk through Seattle Center. As I approached a short flight of stairs, I found my way impeded by a girl of about five who was playfully descending by walking the full length of each step before stepping down, then walking the full length of the next step before stepping down, and so on.


I was in no hurry so I waited as she zig-zagged her way to the bottom, where her mother waited. When I interact with children I don't know in public, even if it's just to stay out of their way, I like to make friendly eye contact with their parent, but this mother was absorbed with her phone. I am in no way judging her for looking at her phone. For all I know she was dealing with something necessary. I only mention it because the girl was clearly feeling pretty happy with herself. She was beaming with what looked like pride as she followed her self-selected pattern of decent. Mostly, she was concentrating on her feet, but every now and then she looked up at her mother who was temporarily busy doing something else.

I waited until the girl had completed her game, after which she ran to her mother, who stashed her phone, and the two went off happily hand-in-hand, the girl skipping at her mother's hip. I stood there for a moment thinking about what I'd seen: a child on the quest to teach herself something about something, and judging by her behavior it looked to me like she was pretty satisfied about what she had learned, discovered, confirmed, or dismissed. I, a stranger who will likely never see her again, had witnessed it, while her parent had not.


Those of us in early childhood education spend much of our time and energy observing children and making educated guesses about what they may have learned doing this or that. Many of us are required to submit forms or write reports or otherwise document this "learning." But I worry about it. I know it's well-intended, I know that everyone from administrators to policy-makers to parents want some kind of evidence that learning is taking place, but it's hard for me to call this kind of thing "evidence," any more than I can place that label on standardized testing (or any testing for that matter). I mean, I can guess the girl on the stairs was learning something about patterns or gravity or her mom's patience, but not only do I not know, her mother, who is probably the person who knows her best in the world, doesn't know either, and not just because she wasn't watching. Indeed, even the girl herself may not know.

And had this mother been watching, it would have materially changed what her daughter learned. Had the girl found her mother looking at her when she looked up, it would have transformed the moment from one of internal motivation to one of external motivation. Had her mother been smiling, had she been wearing a look of anxiety, or one of impatience, everything about the situation, and therefor what was learned, would have changed. In fact, one could argue that adult observation actually derails the child's learning, especially if that child has come to expect that adult observation comes complete with "Atta girls" and "Be carefuls" and tut-tuts.


I spend much of my professional life observing children, which means that I am, for better or worse, part of what they are learning. There was a time when I moved around from place-to-place, sitting first with this group of children, then with that, engaging then moving on, but it became clear to me that when I did this, I materially altered their play, making myself too central. These days, I tend to perch myself in regular places, near, but not within the play. Sometimes I even leave the play yard or classroom altogether. My intent is to, as much as possible, become part of the "furniture." The children don't always allow that to happen, because, after all, we love each other, but I hope that they, as much as possible, forget about me, which they will never do as long as I'm correcting or suggesting or narrating. Several times a day, whenever I feel that I'm becoming too much a part of the play, I excuse myself for a time, heading off into a back hallway or the storage room to give the children a chance to return to their own things, confident that they are learning because they are playing, even if I'm not there to observe it.

And despite all of this, I will continue to observe, striving to be as unobtrusive as possible, not because I need to document someone else's learning, but rather because I want to deepen my own.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Woodland Park Cooperative School (Seattle), we are currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. Click here for information. There are still spots available for 2-5 year olds.


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

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Friday, March 15, 2019

The Promise Of Democracy




A cooperative is an enterprise that is owned and operated by its customers. It's a model for organizing people toward common ends that's been around for centuries and over that time it has been successfully applied to both non-profit and for-profit ventures alike. I've spent the better part of the past two decades, more than half of my working life, in cooperative preschools, and because of that I often think that I must be, by now, one of the world's leading experts on how a small-scale cooperative works.

Our political candidates are being asked these days if they are "capitalists" or "socialists." They've scrambled to figure out a palatable answer, but when I put myself in their shoes, I think I'd be inclined to answer that I'm "none of the above." If I had to put a label on it (and I'd rather not), I reckon I'd say that I'm a "cooperative-ist." Unlike with capitalism, which requires an impossibly level playing field in order to operate as the sort of meritocratic utopia envisioned by its supporters, and socialism, which requires an impossibly benevolent and uncorrupted bureaucratic apparatus to fairly distribute prosperity, cooperatives have the advantage of actually having been tested successfully in the real world. In other words, the world has never experienced a pure enough capitalistic system, nor a pure enough socialistic system, while purely cooperative systems not only exist, but thrive.

The strength of the model is that individuals have voluntarily come together toward a common end, in our case to educate our own young children. Our school is owned by some eighty families, each of which is a co-equal owner of the school, and each of which is responsible for assuming a role in the day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year operations, up to and including serving as assistant teachers in the classroom. Decision-making is necessarily democratic and transparent. Because our cooperative's "customers" are also its managers and employees, tuitions and expenses are kept as low as necessary (as opposed to as low as possible). The natural state of a cooperative is to be economically efficient without the austerity. When extra funds are needed or desired by the community, they tend to show up, one way or the other.

Of course, things are not perfect, which is the case of any human endeavor. Whereas we are unsurpassed in our economic efficiencies, cooperatives like ours can appear quite inefficient when it comes to decision-making. With so many co-equal owners, as you might imagine, we spend a lot of time in meetings, often hashing and re-hashing everything from the behavior of the children to what type of paper towels we will use. It can be frustrating for some of us, but no one ever said that democracy would be fast or easy, and at the end of the day I really can't think of a better use for my time on the planet than getting together with my neighbors and figuring out what kind of world we want to share.

Every now and then I've contemplated life outside of our cooperative, a place where I've grown up in many ways, a place where I've seen time and again the power of people of goodwill coming together without hierarchy in common cause. Every time I consider other pastures, I opt for the beauty of what I know, despite the occasional frustrations. We've overcome challenges and created opportunities together, talking, cooperating, and compromising. In many ways, I think that the cooperative model embodies the true vision of what our nation's founders had in mind when they conceived of a self-governing nation, which is why I think the most important thing we do in our cooperative community is to, on a daily basis, role model for our children the promise of democracy.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Woodland Park Cooperative School (Seattle), we are currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. Click here for information. There are still spots available for 2-5 year olds.


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

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Thursday, March 14, 2019

Bribing, Lying, And Cheating




The college admission scandal that has been splashed across the headlines for the past couple days is shining a light upon what I consider to be the ugliest aspect of education in America. On the surface, it's a salacious story about wealthy parents getting caught bribing, lying, and cheating in their quest to get their kids into prestigious universities. From where I sit, it's just the tip of the iceberg.

Private universities have always been "flexible" with their admissions policies when it comes to the children of the wealthy, powerful, and famous. Indeed, what the parents in today's headlines have done wouldn't even be illegal except were it not for the fact that they apparently lied in their tax filings, which is what might land them in prison. No, what this story highlights for me is that the stress and anxiety that caused parents to commit crimes on behalf of their children is epidemic throughout our educational system, and not just in private schools.

As a high school senior, I sent away for applications to several prestigious universities as well as one from a nearby state school. Places like Harvard sent me thick packets of material to fill out that including writing essays and whatnot with no guarantee of entry. My state schools application was a single page and because my grade point average was better than 3.0, they had to take me. From where I sat as an 18-year-old, my decision was made for me.

Sure you could call me lazy or unambitious, both of which are fair, but the point was that it was my decision to make. In fact, if mom had had her way, I'd have taken a year or two off to see the world before committing myself. There was no pressure beyond the existential one of stepping off into the unknown. I had walked into my SAT test (a standard college entry test still used by universities) with no preparation other than the actual knowledge I'd acquired during my 12 years of pubic school. No one expressed disappointment in my decision, no one told me I could later transfer to a "better" school. There was a general consensus that I ought to at some point possess a bachelors degree, but when, how, and where I went about that was up to me.

Today, for many families, even the selection of a school for their two-year-old is a matter of stress and anxiety that far exceeds what I went through while applying to colleges. And the situation around kindergarten has become almost unbearable. Parents, in their misguided quest to set junior on the path to an elite university, and thereafter, an elite profession, are scratching, clawing, scheming, and conniving. This has lead to demands that our schools become increasingly academic and competitive, which flies in the face of what evidence tells us about how humans of all ages learn. It is forcing our schools to become more hoops to jump through than places where we learn to be critical thinkers, to pursue knowledge, and learn to work together with other people. It has become all about becoming college and career ready which is not the same thing as educated. And, tragically, it is creating a generation of anxious, stressed out kids who are growing in to anxious, stress out adults, something the world definitely does not need.

I don't know how to end the insanity, but if we value our children, if we value education, it must stop, for both their sake and our own. The proper career aspiration for young children is princess or cowboy, and as far as I know, there is not a university on earth offering a bachelors in either. Successful people (and by that I mean those who are satisfied with their lives, who have careers that stimulate them, and who have good relationships with their families and friends) have never been created through anxiety and stress, let alone bribing, lying, and cheating. Successful people become that way because they are self-motivated, sociable, and able to work well with others, which are traits that come from being free to educate oneself by asking and answering one's own questions, what we in the preschool world call "play."


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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Excluding And Including



"But I want to play with you."

"We don't want to play with you. You keep following us around. We need space." I recognized her mother's coaching. A year ago there had been a child who had pestered her to play all day long, day-after-day and it had been, in part, this advice about needing space that had helped curtailed it. She was trying it again.

"I just want to play with you."

"You can't because we need space." She was referring to herself and her best girlfriend.

He stood in place, looking dejected. Just then another girl entered the scene, "Can I play with you?"

"Sure . . ." she answered, then stopped, looking at the boy she had just rejected, then at her friend as if casting about for a rationale. Then she had a bright idea. "This is a game for girls only. No boys. That's why you can't play with us." It's a common enough gambit around the preschool, to evoke gender as a dividing line.

"I just want to play too."

"It's a girl game . . . " she began before being interrupted by her friend. "It's okay, he can play." She looked back and forth between the girl and boy, as if torn between the competing loyalties of friendship and fairness. "But he has to be our brother, right?"

Everyone accepted this solution and the game continued.

Who can play and who can't is among the most fraught aspects of life in preschool. As the adult, my instinct is to advocate for some version of universal inclusion, but I know that to expect this in preschool is to insist the children attempt to do something that no humans have ever succeeded in doing. There are always people who we exclude from any group in which we find ourselves: there are always lines to define who is "in" and who is "out." Sometimes they are common sense exclusions like when a room is full to capacity and the late comers must be left on the street or when an individual has history of disruptive or violent behavior. Sometimes the lines are outright arbitrary or even cruel, and meant that way. If adults are still figuring it out, and we all are, every day, then it's only natural that children must struggle with this as well. Indeed, many of our political, social, and cultural divisions are, at bottom, questions over who we will allow "in" and who we will keep "out."

The following day, the two girlfriends were once more playing together. They had "adopted" our entire menagerie of giant plastic insects and were discussing building a block home for them. The boy again approached, "Can I play with you?"

"No . . . " She had said it reflexively and was now casting about for a reason: she knew she needed a reason. Finally, she fell back on the one from the previous day, "This is only a game for girls."

"Please," he whined. He looked as if he were about to cry.

"But . . . " she began to object before halting. I don't know what stopped her, of course, but as she looked into his face as it crumpled toward tears, I can't help but think it was empathy. We all have vast experience in being rejected, even preschoolers. We've felt it and know how it must feel in others. "But . . . " she said again, trying, I think to find a way to merge her desires with his.

Then her friend said, "We just want to play with each other right now. We're two mommies with all our babies. We'll play with you later."

This brightened him up. He said, "Okay . . . I could build the castle while I'm waiting."

The girls looked at one another as if for confirmation before saying it together, enthusiastically, "Yeah!"

The girls then huddled together with their pile of plastic insects as this boy who they had included built a castle around them.


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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

They Need Their Childhood




Why are so many of us so afraid to just let children play? 


Some time ago, we got out our boxes of Magna-Tiles. These are cool, popular building toys. If your classroom doesn't have a set or two, I recommend them. As I watched the children build, I noticed a battered page of instructions at the bottom of the box that bore the headline Magna-Tiles "where math, science & creativity meet." The text then goes on to discuss Pythagoras and the history of mathematics. To their credit, they do recommend that children be allowed to explore their toys through open-ended creative play, but the very fact that this needed to be emphasized at all is a bad sign.


It's as if we've become convinced that young children are just wasting their valuable time when they "just" play, that every minute spent not exploring math, science and creativity leaves our kids another minute behind those Chinese kids who, legend has it, never rest. The fact that all play is educational, that all toys are educational is beside the point: when did we lose sight of the fact that play is what children are supposed to do?


I reckon we can, at least in part, blame the corporate education reformers who have intentionally sewn seeds of doubt about the efficacy of our educational system, selling the story that our schools are failing, causing parents to fear that junior is fall behind, that even those precious evenings and weekends when their kids aren't engaged in homework or extracurricular enrichment activities must be chock-a-block with things like Pythagoras. 


When did we forget that all play is educational and because of that all toys are educational? Maybe we never knew it, of course; maybe our grandparents just sort of intuited that kids needed play, that they didn't need adults hovering over them drilling them with stupid questions or "teaching" them this or that. Maybe they just understood that without play, and lots of it, there is no childhood.


As I watched the children using Maga-Tiles to create castles and cars, squares made of squares and triangles made of triangles, as I heard them negotiate for blocks and tabletop space, as they chattered about their thoughts and discoveries, it didn't occur to me that they were doing anything other than playing, having fun, until I spotted that sheet of instructions telling me about Pythagoras. We were outdoors, on the playground. No one was making them sit at these tables to build with these plastic, magnetized blocks: they were choosing it, freely, and they could just as freely walk away which many of them did the moment it stopped being fun. Or rather, the moment something else looked like more fun.


And even as I write that, I can see the fear-mongers wagging their fingers, I can hear them tut-tutting: "Where's the gritWhere's the rigor? How will they ever learn about hard work?"


Anyone who has spent any time watching young children play knows that grit, rigor, and hard work are at the heart of all true free play. What they really mean to ask is "How will the children ever learn to do the rote tasks that others demand of them?" Or perhaps, "How will they learn to obey?"


That isn't what childhood is for, although that's what adulthood sometimes teaches us, and no amount of practice makes it any easier, unless what they're talking about is "breaking them." What kind of Dickensian villain would take away childhood in exchange for the work house?


At the end of the day, after the families had left, the Magna-Tiles packed away in their boxes, I reopened them to remove that sheet of instructions and threw it in the recycling. Play is its own reward; the kids don't need that piece of paper around encouraging adults to make it "educational." First they need their childhood.




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Monday, March 11, 2019

Respect Starts With Me



Last week, I posted about how I want the children I teach to question my authority. I want them to grow up knowing that it is not just their right, but their responsibility as citizens in a self-governing society to question those entrusted with power, to doubt them when they say or do things that don't match what we already know to be true, and to challenge them when necessary.

The post was shared fairly widely on Facebook and elsewhere and as I perused the various comment threads, there were some readers who agreed, but with the caveat that they expected such questioning of authority to be done respectfully. And I agree, I suppose, if what they mean is that all humans are due respect. We should all strive to treat one another with basic human dignity, courtesy, and kindness. I agree in the sense that it's a two-way street. Indeed, in any interaction between adult and child, the onus of showing respect is more fully upon the adult, the more experienced human, than on the child who presumedly is still learning.

But I find myself bridling at the word "respect," because it is too often used as a stand-in for traits like "obedience" or actions like "compliance." There is the implication that those with authority, be they parents, teachers, or elected representatives, are somehow owed deference simply by virtue of their position of power which, from where I sit, could not be further from the truth. Respect in this sense is not something anyone is due: it must be earned and we do that by treating the other humans with basic human dignity, courtesy, and kindness ourselves while simultaneously demonstrating by our words and actions that we are worthy of respect. "Respect" that is coerced or secured through threat is not respect at all, but obedience, which is a fundamentally anti-democratic concept. I earn respect when I demonstrate that I know that whatever power I have, even as a teacher or parent, is granted only by the consent of the "governed."

As a citizen, I strive to be courteous and kind to everyone, even when I'm challenging them, and I expect others to strive to be courteous and kind to me, not in a transactional sense, but simply as an aspect of living in a society. To the degree that we sometimes fail is the degree to which we are human. As a teacher or parent, however, I bear a heavier burden when it comes to respect because I am the one with authority and in a democratic society the proper use of power is to be of service to others. Respect starts with me.


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