Friday, September 18, 2020

It's the Difference Between Freedom and Captivity


People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some fine, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.  ~Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

A group of us kids once broke away from our families while on a beach outing and began scrambling on the some rocks above the waves until our parents were mere dots below. We began challenging one another to climb higher and higher where we discovered a small cave and, miraculously, growing from an unlikely patch of soil, was a fig tree heavy with fruit. It was an isolated perch with a sweeping view of the Aegean Sea. We were, however, not the first to have found this idyllic place. Someone had built a small fire just outside the cave. We wondered, our hearts racing, if that person lived there. Had we invaded their home? Would they return to scold us or worse? This led to the group of us, four boys and a girl, to imagine that maybe we would live there. We each picked out where we would sleep, argued about how we could restart the fire, discussed the possibility of learning to fish, made crude furniture from rocks, and ate a feast of figs. There was the challenge of figuring out where we would defecate, finally deciding that we would have to climb back down and poop in the sea, where the water would wash us clean. We figured we needed weapons to protect ourselves from potential intruders and antagonists, so we fashioned spears and swords from the fig tree's cast offs. 

We stayed there, planning our utopia for an hour or more, creating a new civilization, until we finally grew restless and climbed higher. We balanced on ledges no wider than our hands, the waves churning against the cliff face far below. A slip would have killed us, a fact that we only discussed amongst ourselves having achieved a paved roadway that ran along the bluff. We guessed correctly that the road would lead back to our beach, where we discovered we hadn't been missed.

Education involves learning and learning involves, as far as we can tell given the state of the art of neuroscience, a change in the strength of synapses in small circuits of neurons. In short-term memory, that change involves the enhanced release of a neurotransmitter. Long-term memory, which is what educators should be more interested in, requires the release of a neurotransmitter accompanied by the growth of new synaptic connections between two cells. This is certainly not all that is involved in learning, despite what some scientists assert, because if we've learned anything by studying the brain, it's that there is always something fundamental we still don't understand.

For instance, the current orthodoxy holds that long-term memory is induced by repeated association of stimuli, which causes many to believe in rote learning, but that doesn't account for brains that shut down out of tedium or those memories preserved from childhood, which are, as Dostoyevsky writes, "the best education." Those were one-off events so profound that they permanently changed who we are. Of course, we have these experiences throughout our lives, but the ones from childhood, because they happen early in life, are the ones that most shape and inform who we are and who we become.

I'm not the only one who has discovered that when you invite adults to share their fine, sacred childhood memories, they almost invariably talk about being outdoors, with friends, unsupervised by adults, and without a schedule. That this is the ideal learning environment for young children seems obvious, even as most schools are bereft of all of these features, although, admittedly children sometimes wind up befriending their fellow prisoners. It's not surprising that few of us have fine, sacred memories that were formed in school.

It's the difference between freedom and captivity. 

******

I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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Thursday, September 17, 2020

What Are We Going to Do?



A couple days ago, I had a conversation with the father of a six-year-old, a first grader who is gamely trying to engage in online first grade for two hours a day. He told me she is struggling: restless and distracted. She is zoned out much of the time. When those two hours are over, she is irritable and exhausted, taking herself to bed for a long nap. He is in despair because her school has just let them know that starting this week online school will become "full time." He said, "I don't know what we're going to do."

A mother of one of my former preschool students says she is "in grief" about the school year. He is bored, frustrated, and moody. "He is in a vacuum, no classmates, teachers, movement, or human-being-ness to take in and give off." As a corrective, she's started trying to do her own work in the room with him, where he asks her questions, shows off, and generally reaches out to her for the human connection he needs. She's a single mother and a small business owner, who has to get her work done, so even as she can't blame him, she can't help but get annoyed at the constant distractions. This is the most loving, devoted mother I know. This is a bright, enthusiastic, kid who always loved school. 

She writes, "The teacher's speakered-sounding, too-loud voice is reading math problems while you are supposed to follow along, and she's moving on to the next one too fast, not noticing that you have your hand up. And then there are the kids who aren't muted when they're supposed to be. Or have lots of questions and don't raise their hand, just jump in and start asking her everything about else that's going on. And the teacher doesn't know who's doing the asking, so everyone goes down that path for a bit, then the teacher tries to haul everyone back on track, barreling on to #4 when you're still on #2 . . . It's zero wonder to me that (my son) either gets upset and breaks pencils or just tunes out and does his own thing. I'm almost proud of him for that. Damn strait, it's upsetting. And then I hear myself telling him to pay attention, raise his hand for the teacher, keep going, focus. This is school. Pretend I'm not here. What would you do if you were actually in a classroom? F**k you, Mom."

These are not isolated examples. I could fill up this blog day-after-day, with stories like these. I'm not blaming teachers and neither are the parents who've reached out to me. In fact, they are in awe of their patience and their unflagging efforts to make the most of a horrible situation. The argument is that there is a learning curve, that the teachers will "figure it out," that things will begin to go more smoothly, that the children will "adapt," all of which is certainly true, but it will remain a crappy, crappy thing we are doing to children and their families. As I listen to these stories, I'm convinced that this is not "better than nothing." 

We are damaging children right now and for what? So they won't fall behind? That's pure BS. "Behind" is a noxious concept based on some some data-monger's benchmarks. Is it really so important that we deliver this top-down, adult-directed curriculum according to an arbitrary schedule? It's BS in the best of times, and downright cruelty right now.

Are we doing it to help families? I don't know any family being "helped" by this. In fact, judging from the stories I'm hearing, we are laying extra stress and strain on families during what is already a time of extra stress and strain.

Are we doing it to keep teachers employed? Is it simply an effort to create "structure" for the kids? 

None of the reasons hold water. The minimal amount of good being done is far outweighed by the harm. I don't need any more evidence: we need to stop doing this to young children (probably all children) right now.

Children and families do not need curriculum forced upon them. They need help coping during these incredibly trying times. This is where our focus needs to be. We need to spend more time listening, we need to unmute the children, we need to unmute their parents. Let's take this opportunity, and use this technology, to talk about feelings, to create human connection, and to play with one another. Do we really need to recreate the classroom with 20+ kids and one teacher, a problematic scenario under the best of times? Would it really be so bad if we allowed children to congregate in small online groups where they are free to goof around with one another? Would it really be so bad if we allowed children to wear what they wanted to wear, to use the toilet when they wanted to use the toilet, to talk when they wanted to talk, to laugh, to cry, to show off, and to play? Would it really be so awful if we allowed the children to take the lead in their own learning?

This sort of communications technology (e.g., Zoom) will never be able to replace face-to-face, but it can provide windows through which we can reach out to one another as humans during this pandemic. This is what children need right now. This is what we all need. And maybe when we can finally return to "normal," we won't want to.

******

I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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, September 16, 2020

The Most Rigorous Curriculum


The opposite of play is not work, it's rote. ~Dr. Edward Hallowell

Our outdoor classroom is one big slope and within that slope there are many ups and downs, reflecting our city which is built on hills. We're forever experimenting with gravity out there, rolling and flowing things downhill or dragging and pushing things up. There are parts of the space that are so steep one needs a running start to get to the top and there is very little flat upon which to rest one's legs.


We have a pair of wagons, which are regularly used on the hills. Once, we made an airplane. 


From my photos, it's easy to see the physics and engineering learning, but those were minor aspects, side-effects, of the bigger, more important project, which was figuring out how to get along with the other people.


There are those who question the "rigor" of a play-based curriculum when, in fact, we're engaged in the most rigorous curriculum known to mankind. There is simply no greater or more important challenge than the one of balancing our own individual desires and needs with those of the other humans with whom we find ourselves. 


A play-based curriculum is rigorous because of it's subject matter, which is the all-important one of getting along with the one another, something children are passionate about. Traditional schools, on the other hand, are rigorous simply because they attempt to teach less interesting things by rote, lecture, and text book, the most difficult way to learn new things because most children find them tedious and frustrating. It's an artificial rigor designed, I guess, to make the adults feel important.


Many people confuse hating school with rigor, saying things like, "It prepares them for life," but those of us who work in a play-based environment spend our days amongst children who love school, who arrive each day eager to tackle the challenges of community, and I would assert that there is no better preparation for life. Make no mistake, it's not pure joy, it's not all laughter. There are tears. There is conflict. There is negotiating and compromise. Children might complain, but they return each day eager to engage, to figure out the things they are most driven to figure out: the most important things of all.


There was so much to learn about flying our airplane together. Would it be safe? Where would everyone sit? How many of us can go at a time? Who gets to steer? Who rides and who "launches?" How do we get it back to the top of the hill? How do we make sure everyone gets a turn?


For the most part, we adults stood back, taking a few pictures, letting the kids work it out. Sure, the first few times they launched themselves down the hill, I jogged just ahead of them, prepared to intervene in the name of safety, but as it turned out on this day, I was unnecessary, even when the airplane crashed and burned.


I'll take the real rigor of play over the artificial rigor of rote any day. And so would the kids.

******

I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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, September 15, 2020

Clouds Must Be Free


I like the idea of being "free," whatever that means, and I like the idea of empowering others to be free. It is, one could say, the driving force behind both my personal and professional life. I don't know if I've ever achieved it, but I've always, to the best of my ability strived toward it. 

I will not obey is one of my mantras, commandeered from Utah Phillips and made my own. It is, at the same time, the attitude of a dictator unless I also strive to also make the possibilities embodied in that stance a reality for others. "I'll be the boss of me. You be the boss of you." It's another mantra, one I've tried to live for most of my adult life, especially when engaged with young children. To me it means that my relationships must be based upon agreement rather than command. 

Of course, that is only the tip of the freedom iceberg. Even if we can achieve perfect interpersonal freedom, and we likely cannot, there are still the worldly shackles of society, culture, environment, biology, and wealth that make our freedom incomplete. Philosophers and theologians tell us that nothing short of death, the return of consciousness back into the universe or heaven, can make us free; that bodies are our ultimate earthly prisons. Others, however, tell us that freedom is possible on this earth, but only through a constant process of escape, of letting go, of being water. Even if this freedom is only experienced in sips, they say, it is real freedom nevertheless. 

The philosopher Karl Popper said that life is not a clock, it is a cloud. The mistake we make is to believe that if we can find the right tool to dissect it, we will finally figure it out, the way one would a clock. This is the approach we've taken since science has usurped mythology, yet time and again, whenever we think we are approaching an understanding of the universe, or the human mind, we find that the deterministic order turns out to be a mirage, a cloud that is, in Popper's words, "highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable." 

Hopefully by now we've all heard the word that science has discovered that our brains, arguably the source of our minds, our consciousness, is, like a cloud, an ever-changing and evolving thing, never the same from moment to moment, always emerging as our neurons adapt to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Neuroscientists have labelled this constant cellular upheaval as "plasticity," and it means that life is a dialectic between the self and the world. Not too long ago neuroscientists were telling us that we are born with a fixed set of neurons at birth, a clock, but now we see that we we have more in common with clouds.

This is where our freedom can be found -- in our mind's ability to continually renew itself. Each day, we are given new cortical cells and it is up to us to decide what we will become. That is freedom. The freedom to find what we want in the highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable cloud and to chose from moment to moment who we will be.

We miseducate our children when we teach them to obey, when we show them that escape is impossible, when we confine them in classrooms (or, as we are doing now, in front of screens), when we limit their input to only that which we've detailed in curricula and their output to right answers only. This is, at best, a preparation for a non-existent clockwork universe, a neo-Calvinist place of predestination, where freedom is only an illusion. 

But life is not a clock, it's a cloud and clouds must be free.

******

I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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, September 14, 2020

Beyond Our Words


When our daughter Josephine was little, we tried out a new dentist based upon the recommendation of a friend. She was nervous and began to cry. The dentist awkwardly tried to soothe her, then turned to me to say, "She thinks that if she cries she can get out of it." This made Josephine cry harder.

I was stunned (rage at the dentist would come later) and began trying to calm her, which I knew, even as a young parent, meant not dismissing her tears, but rather acknowledging them and the fear behind them. I held her hand, ignored the dentist who continued voicing her chirpy bromides of dismissal and shame, and assured Josephine that I was there and that I wouldn't let her get hurt. 

At the time of that miserable visit to the dentist I was not experienced enough as a parent to have the confidence to just walk out, which is what I would today recommend to anyone who finds themself in a similar situation. Yes, tears can be used manipulatively, but a person who is cynical enough to attribute such ulterior motives, not to mention acting skills, to a preschooler, has no business working with them.

Anyone who has spent a lot of time around young children has spent a lot of time around a lot of crying. Indeed, at any given moment in preschool, it's likely that someone is in tears over something. Crying is our first "word" so to speak, one that is used to communicate everything from hunger to discomfort to exhaustion. It's a call to the adults to do their job, their primary job, which is to care for them. Sometimes it's simple to console them -- we return a dropped blankie to their hands, we remove the pine needle that is poking their tender flesh, we sing to them to assure them they are not alone -- but as any parent knows, sometimes children are, at least given our ability to figure it out, inconsolable. If that makes us feel helpless, imagine how they must feel.

As we get older and begin to learn more words, we become increasingly adept at communicating exactly what it is that makes us cry, but there are still times when words are inadequate, when the feeling we are experiencing is beyond the inadequacies of the simple words we know, like "sad" or "mad" or "hurt." The feeling is too immediate, too intense, too surprising, or too new, and like the outrage I felt after-the-fact toward that dentist, it is beyond our experience to know what to do or say. Words, at least the words at our disposal at the moment, are simply inadequate for the situation. 

We say to children, "Use your words," a command that young children in the throes of experiencing their wordless feeling, are often incapable of obeying. As we get older, as we gain experience, we tend to cry less often, but our tears still must suffice when words fail us. As adults, our tears are often a source of shame. We apologize for them. We show them only to our loved ones if even then, which is too bad, especially now in this time of disease, poverty, fire, and social unrest, when we are all having feelings that are beyond our words and the only consolation is one another.

*****

 If you like my blog, you'll love my books! Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe, as well as the US and Canada. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 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, September 11, 2020

Full of Meaning Rather Than Absence


I couldn't find my wallet, which was particularly worrisome because I always keep it in one of three places: my pocket, a narrow counter in the bathroom, or on the table beside where I sit and write blog posts. After looking in all of those places, I looked in those places again. Only then could I consider the possibility that I had slipped up and placed my wallet, or, heaven forbid, left it somewhere else. It would be another 15 minutes of fruitless hunting before I would begin to wonder, accusingly, if someone else had had a hand in its disappearance.

I hate hunting for lost items. It's one of those things, like cleaning out my email inbox or folding laundry, that gives me the miserable feeling that I'm wasting a chunk of my precious life. I don't care to look for lost people either, but at least those moments tend to be accompanied by the heart-in-your-throat anxiousness that lets you know you're alive. Hunting for lost items, especially run-of-the-mill things like wallets, keys, and phones, is just pure frustration for me, which is why I like to have designated places to keep them and also why, when they are lost, I tend to be at a loss. 

I know not everyone feels like this. In fact, I have one friend who insists that she actually "likes" looking for lost things. The hunt, for her, is a quest and she anticipates the feeling of accomplishment when she finally finds what she's been seeking. Whatever the case, there's no denying that trying to find something does a peculiar thing to your perception. In a flash, the world is turned into a place defined by an absence. Existence is suddenly reorganized on the basis of what is sought, giving it the quality of a ghost, glimpsed in the similar color of something else entirely, in the heft of something else in a jacket pocket or in the shape of that evocative bulge under a bedsheet. The lost thing lives in your mind, more real sometimes than when it was last in your hand. A world defined by absence is a narrower one, bereft of roses to sniff, less traveled detours to explore, and those quirks of randomness that often enrich our thoughts, words, and deeds. All that exists is what is not there.

I like my friend's idea to frame it as a quest, but I struggle to find satisfaction in it because, frankly, once I find the things I've misplaced, I know that I won't celebrate as much as feel stupid for the time I've wasted in hunting when I could have been doing pretty much anything else. Of course, I'm relieved when I find the lost object, not so much because it's no longer lost, but because I'm now, finally, free to go back to a fuller perception of the world, one that is no longer defined by absence.

Absence is as real as presence, I suppose. Indeed, it's how we too often define the world for school children, who are generally viewed as lacking. They are empty vessels that need to be filled with whatever the curriculum dictates, making their world one of things they do not know whether they want to know those things or not. Educators are to instruct and then pose questions with the intent of broadening the child's world, but instead they narrow it down to what must be found. Detours are discouraged. Discoveries not permitted by the curriculum are dismissed. Answers other than the approved ones are labelled as wrong. When children flag in their search, we try to trick them by "gamifying" it, reframing it, like my friend does, as a quest. It might work for a day or a week, but the treasure found is generally uninspiring and the only reward is another quest after an absence.

I finally found my wallet. I'd stupidly tucked it in the pocket of my bathrobe while carrying it that morning from the table beside where I write these blog posts and the bathroom counter. Freed from this mundane onus that had made my world one of mundane ghosts, I was now rid of the essentially meaningless make-work "quest" that had consumed a chunk of my precious life. I could now return to a quest of my own choosing, one full of meaning rather than absence.

******

 If you like my blog, you'll love my books! Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe, as well as the US and Canada. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 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, September 10, 2020

A World Without Vertical




Back in the late 1970's a psychologist by the name of Colin Blakemore conducted experiments in which he raised cats in an environment composed solely of horizontal stripes. The result was that as adult cats they could not see vertical stripes. The cells in their brains that would have under normal circumstances fired when presented with things like table legs and standing lamps did not fire, which meant that this part of the world was invisible to them, even as they would bump into them as they explored. Their brains had not received the stimulation, they had not had the practice, and were therefore unable to see vertical features.

As bizarre and unhappy as that sounds, a similar phenomenon has been noted in humans who have been cured of blindness: it takes time for them to learn to see faces and other shapes. This is because brains don't just passively record our world. They actively construct it based on the raw input from our senses. It makes one wonder what we are missing because we are incapable or unpracticed in the art of seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, or smelling. Our ancient ancestors did not see the color blue. We've all experienced developing an "acquired taste" for something that initially made us gag. The same goes for music, from Igor Stravinsky whose The Rite of Spring initially caused audiences to riot to the seminal Seattle grunge band Nirvana whose Smells Like Teen Spirit once sounded to a lot of us like "just a bunch of noise." Now we can hear both as background music while shopping at Nordstrom because we have constructed how to hear them.

From the moment we are born, our brains go to work constructing the world around us, making sense of what we perceive via our senses. Even such manifestly obvious things like vertical stripes must be actively constructed, yet, generally speaking, our schools are built around a decidedly passive approach to learning, with children in the role of recording devices who will be judged according to how accurately they can play it back upon demand.

I wonder how many children have seen colors beyond blue only to be told they are wrong. I wonder how many flavors or sounds or textures or scents we're missing out on because adults have decided they must construct learning for children rather than allowing them to do it for themselves. I wonder if all these invisible table legs and standing lamps into which we keep bumping would become clear to us if we could just get out of the way and let our children, as they are meant to, construct the world for themselves.

******

 If you like my blog, you'll love my books! Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe, as well as the US and Canada. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 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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