Friday, December 08, 2017


I have the best job in the world. I can think of nothing I'd rather be doing with my time on the planet, yet each Monday morning I reluctantly pull myself from bed, reluctantly get dressed, and reluctantly make my way to work. And this is nothing compared to the feeling I have upon returning from a holiday break. Just one more day, I beg the universe, even as I know that I'm returning to a place I love and where I am beloved, a place of joy and purpose, a place that feeds my soul. It's not until the children start arriving, however, that I find myself back in my element and those feelings disappear not to return until the following Monday.

When parents ask why it is that their kids so often resist coming to school when it's clear that they love being at school, I use the example of Monday morning. Transitions are hard for everyone, harder for some than others, and that doesn't change as we get older. The difference is that we adults have had decades to figure out rituals and philosophy and mind games to help us over the hump, whereas children are still new at this. If I had a parent to push back against on Mondays, believe me, I would.

As adults, however, we have nothing to rely upon other than our sense of responsibility to get us out of bed in the mornings, but that doesn't mean we have to like it. And kids don't have to like it either. The transition each day from home to school is the biggest, but there are typically two or three other transitions throughout our school day, places for us to practice the rituals, philosophies, and mind games we're going to need as we get older. One of the things that eases my Monday morning transitions are those little choices I get to make: maybe I'll sleep in later and take the bus, maybe I'll get up earlier and eat a proper breakfast, maybe I'll do things in this order or that order. That's why I typically survey the children prior to any transition, going around the room or playground asking the children if it's time to "bang the drum," our signal for transitions. Many tell me "right now" but most request two or five or seven minutes more, an accommodation to which it is easy to agree. Some ask for "one hundred minutes," to which I respond by letting them know what they will be missing if we don't make the transition in a timely manner, a bit of information that almost always causes them to nod and agree to some smaller number.

Some are still reluctant when the moment arrives, but generally speaking, we manage it with philosophy instead of tears. No one is told how to handle the transitions: most pitch in with tidying up, some even take the lead, while others mill about or even hide in a corner, children making little choices to ease the transition. Most importantly, there are no adults commanding them to do anything other than, perhaps, move out of the way.

Too often we expect more from young children than we do from ourselves, something I am reminded of every Monday morning.

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, December 07, 2017

What It Means To Be Equal And Free

Very often, when those who live outside our progressive education bubble hear about our practices, their response is to envision a sort of chaotic mob rule, in which children are allowed to run wild. They warn of devastating consequences, of children who will grow into criminals or sociopaths, and that what we are doing will lead to a sort of tyranny of the children in which Hobbesian brutishness rules the day.

These are, of course, very similar to the arguments that have always been made against democracy, and by some accounts (but by no means all) these fears did come to pass to some extent when the ancient Athenians attempted to govern themselves through direct democracy, a form in which there is a danger that the will of the majority will trample the rights of a minority. Our founders were, of course, aware of this potential for "tyranny of the majority" and so when choosing what form of government to embody in our Constitution, they went with a republic in which representatives are elected democratically. In other words, instead of government directly controlled by the people, it is indirectly controlled: what dictionaries at the time defined as a "representative democracy." Encyclopedias have been written, and will continue to be written, discussing the nuances of the republic vs. democracy debate, one that I'd rather not engage in here, except to say that however you define our form of government, we are, together, attempting to self-govern with democracy as the centerpiece, and that, as it has been from the onset, is a grand experiment.

Similarly, our little cooperative preschool democracy is an experiment, one not bound by a constitution, but rather by the presence of loving adults. This is not, as some fear, an exercise in laissez fair parenting/teaching, but rather a laboratory in which we provide the space, tools and autonomy in which children experiment with what it means to live among one another as equal and free citizens.

It is my view, one shared with our nation's founders, that a well-educated citizenry is the foundation of a democracy.  The longer I've been a teacher, however, the more aware I become that our standard educational model, the one that emerged largely from the factory model of the Industrial Revolution, a model that supposes we need only fill those empty vessels with letters and numbers and dates, moving them along from grade to grade, is not up to the standards required for self-governance.

I believe we've lost sight of the promise of our nation. I cannot recall ever hearing an elected official speak of education in anything other than economic terms, and I have never heard one connect it to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I rarely hear of our presidents or legislators spoken of as "representatives," but rather as "leaders." Voters stay away from polling places in droves, apathetic, let alone engaging in the day-to-day processes of democracy, not caring or perhaps not knowing how. Or worse, not feeling that they can or should have any impact on the civic life of our nation. We distrust and vilify government, painting it as a "them vs. us" conflict, and when I dare to point out that "them is us" I'm scornfully asked, "Where have you been hiding?"

The average citizen has withdrawn from the process of self-governance, leaving behind a vacuum that has been filled by political parties, corporate lobbyists, and radical partisans, who have taken us so far away from the promise of self-governance, that many of us, if not most, feel helpless in the face of it, withdrawing and wishing pox on the whole lot of them, castigating political discourse as base and impolite.

I teach the way I do, because, I suppose, I'm an idealist. I do believe in the promise of day-to-day, retail self-government: the kind of government that is made up of friends and neighbors capable and willing to discuss the issues of the day over their back fences, in their churches, and while waiting in line as the supermarket. The kind of government in which we the people are capable and willing to listen, to debate, and to think for ourselves. I'm the kind of idealist who believes that schools should be preparing children to engage with one another as equal and free humans who are fully enfranchised.

I teach the way I do because I want the children who pass my way to have the opportunity, at least during their time with me, to practice what it means to be equal and free. In part, I write about it here because I hope that others will be inspired to do the same. We are a young nation and our experiment in democracy is only just getting under way. If we are to succeed, it won't be because some hero swoops in to save us, but rather because we decide we must do it together, day-to-day, thinking critically, speaking honestly, listening passionately, and acting as if we are, indeed, equal and free.

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Rabble Rousing

We live in a time when there exist committees of men and women who come together to decide what our children should learn: what they should understand from the literature they read, what kinds of equations they should be able to solve, what scientific processes they'll need to know, which dates and important battles they must recite. These men and women in their collective wisdom, pick and choose from the infinite universe those bits and pieces that will define what it is to be educated in this school or that school, in this district or that district, in this state or that state, and (I'm quite confident the effort is underway in this era of internationalization) in this nation or that nation. These committees determine not only what children are to learn, but by when they are to learn these things.

This committee-created standardization is then enforced through a system of "benchmarks," measured through high-stakes standardized tests that, bizarrely, focus almost exclusively on the even narrower areas of literacy and math. It's a system of dog-eat-dog competition, pitting teacher against teacher, school against school, district against district, and state against state in winner-take-all cage match for funding and jobs.

It's happening, of course, with a propagandistic veneer of benevolence, even philanthropy, promoted by the promise of "serving students," a faux outrage about old methods that are failing us, the soaring rhetoric of egalitarianism, and with the strangest sight of all in our times, apparent political bipartisanship, bought and paid for by for-profit education corporations that have only just begun to raid the money that we the people have quite rightly set aside for the purpose of educating our children.

I could go on, and have, but I've tried to make this introduction as concise as possible because I've already dealt extensively on this blog with what those of us in the progressive education bubble deride as "corporate education reform."

Needless to say, I do not believe that this situation "serves children," let alone democracy, which as I complained of before is never mentioned in any of our public discussions: these efforts to impose an anti-democratic, top-down corporate-style super-hierarchy on our schools is quite explicitly an attempt to turn public education into a lucrative system of vocational training.

One of the main reasons I teach the way I do, and write about it here on this blog, is that I want parents to be dissatisfied and suspicious of what is being planned for their children who are so much more than the rhetorical "workforce of tomorrow." I want teachers to feel frustrated and even outraged that if they are to truly serve the student in their classroom instead of the theoretical student proposed by these committees, they must do so subversively, and at the real risk of finding themselves on the street. I don't know what form it will take, but increasingly it looks to me like the push back will ultimately need to take the form of civil disobedience: a student's rights movement lead by parents, teachers and the students themselves.

That's right, one of the reasons I teach the way I do is because I'm a rabble rouser.

The history of progress in our nation is one of rabble rousing, of civil (and sometimes not so civil) disobedience. Thomas Jefferson correctly predicted that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract our notice, we could be relied upon to set them right, from the American Revolution right through our various civil and labor rights movements.

And I try very hard to not be a hypocrite about this. It's my hope that as a teacher-servant to the families and children of Woodland Park, that I avoid the kind of top-down curriculum I decry. I see my role in our play-based curriculum, not as the arbiter of what the children ought to learn or by when, but rather as an administrator of invitations to explore. Most of us in the preschool world are familiar with the idea of viewing art as a "process" rather than a "product," and I strive for this to hold true for everything we do. I provide materials, information, circumstances, challenges, and sometimes even examples, but so long as the children stay within the confines of the rules that we've agreed upon together, what, or even if, they learn is entirely up to them as individuals and as a community.

This leads often to a messy, noisy process, one that "borders on" or appears to be "controlled" chaos, but just as often it results in a circle of small heads bent over a single shared mote, discussing minutiae. That's what democracy always looks like, whatever our age.

In fact, democracy, when it functions as it should, is itself a play-based learning process, one in which we all engage or not, bringing our own wisdom, knowledge, perspectives, and temperaments to the table. And together, through the process, we can be counted on to set things right, chaotically perhaps, slowly perhaps, difficultly perhaps, but without rebellion.

I've written before about civil disobedience in my own classroom, about times that the children have risen up against me as I attempt to impose my will upon them against theirs. People outside the progressive education bubble very often envision our school as an out-of-control, law-of-the-jungle kind of place, a Hobbesian dystopia, but that is not how it plays out, unless, of course, I chose to not listen to the will of the people. And then it is not the children who are subject to correction, but me. When I, for instance, attempt to hold the children at circle time beyond their attention spans or patience, the "rabble" lets me know it, first on the fringes as children begin to squirm and fidget. I know it is beginning to happen when I hear myself repeating things like, "I'd like you to sit on your bottom." When it's just one or two children, I may keep going forward with the things I've planned, things I hope we can explore together, but if my invitation doesn't compel the rest of of them, if I've overstepped my authority and tried to make their bodies or minds do something for which they are not ready, if there is something else they would much rather be learning, I better wrap things up and move on unless I'm prepared to deal with a full-on rebellion.

This is not misbehavior. This is democracy. This is not a "problem" in our classroom, but rather an important part of how the children learn to be in charge of their own learning.

I don't know if we've yet reached the moment for civil disobedience when it comes to the corporate education reform. Maybe we can still afford to be "polite." Maybe there are still "proper channels" that need to be explored. Maybe there are hidden allies somewhere among our elected representatives who have listened and are preparing even as we speak to take a leading role. Maybe. Right now, however, I worry that we are being drowned out by the well-financed corporate reformers who control the microphone, that our objections are merely bouncing off the insides of our bubble, echoing back to us, creating the false illusion that the rabble is more roused than it is.

But every day, every day, I hear from parents or teachers who are angry, or desperate, or confused, people who know that schools can and should do so much better than turn a greasy profit and prepare children for corporate jobs; schools that "teach" the skills we know the future, and democracy, will demand: creativity, flexibility, resilience, motivation, and the ability to work with others. If it were my circle time, I'd be thinking about starting to wrap things up, but it's not. It's ours and only we can decide what must happen next.

In the meantime, I will keep attempting to rabble rouse by teaching as I do and then writing about it.

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Tuesday, December 05, 2017

"I Want To Know These Things!"

When our daughter Josephine was little, I decided to expose her to a little "culture" and rented the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It had been a long time since I'd seen it. My memories were of silly dwarfs, uplifting songs, and a handsome prince. I'd completely forgotten the frightening parts, especially the terrifying early scene where the Huntsman raises his knife to cut out the heroine's heart followed by her pell-mell escape through the dark and forbidding forest.

It overwhelmed Josephine. She demanded I turn the movie off, but then, to my confusion and surprise, a few minutes later she asked me to show that part to her again. Then again. Then again. We must have watched that scene a dozen times or more before she permitted us to move on. It scared her, but at the same time compelled her enough to want to confront the fear and peer more deeply into that particular abyss.

Recently, an online group of parents and teachers were discussing a book called The Amazing Bone by the author William Steig. Now this is a book I've been reading to preschoolers since I discovered it nearly two decades ago, but most of the people in the group felt it was entirely inappropriate, even for older children. In particular, they found this page to be disturbing:

The illustrations show masked bandits attempting to rob poor Pearl at gun and knifepoint. The text reads: "You can't have my purse," she said, surprised at her own boldness. "What's in it?" said another robber, pointing his gun at Pearl's head.

It's a frightening scene, no doubt, one that annually prompts deep and meaningful classroom discussions, taking us into our darker places.

I understand the instinct to want to protect children from disturbing imagery, and I did it myself as a parent. For the first many viewings of The Sound of Music, for instance, I would declare "The End" just before the Nazis began to pursue the Von Trapp family. When, years later, Josephine discovered what I'd done, she chewed me out. 

When she was six, she reacted even more strongly to learning that the catastrophe of 9/11 happened during her lifetime. We were approaching the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center towers had once stood. As I told her the story she angrily interrupted me, "You mean it happened since I've been alive? Why didn't you tell me?" I explained that she had been too little, just three-years-old. She scolded me, "I want to know these things! I want you to tell me the truth about these things!"

It's a story I've told before, and one I'll certainly tell again. It was a moment that changed me forever; my wee, innocent baby demanding truth. Up until then, I thought I'd been the epitome of an honest parent, never shying away from her questions, but that moment, a moment that occurred as we approached the scene, caused my own conceit of integrity to collapse within me.

I hadn't told her about it, I thought, because I hadn't wanted her to be afraid. And now not only was she afraid three years removed, but feeling betrayed by her own father. I'm just glad she had the fortitude or courage or whatever it was to call me on it. I don't want to ever again be in that position, not with my child, my wife, or anyone for that matter. It's one thing when the world is crap. It's another to make it crappier.

When we lie, either overtly or by omission, especially to a loved one, we might tell ourselves it's altruism, but at bottom it's almost always an act of cowardice. It's us who don't want to face truth. When we say, "She's too young," we're really saying, I'm not ready to face the pain or the shame or the fear

We skip pages in books. We fast-forward through the scary parts. We distract their gaze from road kill.

I'm not saying that we should, unsolicited, lay out the whole unvarnished horrible mess before them, if only because we don't need to. It will reveal itself to them soon enough. Our job is neither to distract their gaze nor draw their attention to it. It is rather, out of our love for them, to answer their questions, to speak the truth as we know it, and to say, "I don't know," when that's the truth.

What anchors our children is not a sense that the world is perfect. They already know it isn't. They have known it since their first pang of hunger. They don't need more happy endings. They need to know we love them enough to tell them the truth, and to accept their emotions, to hold them or talk to them or just be with them. 

It's adults, not children who worship the false idol of childhood innocence. It's only adults who don't want to grow up.

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, December 04, 2017

Turning "Me" Into "We"

"We need to move this bench." She said it out of the blue to no one in particular. It's a piece of furniture made from wrought iron and wood, so not by any means light weight. Not only that, but it's been in the same spot for months. She began to wrestle with the bench as the rest of us watched her.

After a few seconds, two other girls joined her. Together they were able to wrest it from its position and lift it off the ground. She said, "We need to move this bench up there." She pointed vaguely toward the top of the playground, indicating an area near the gate. Without speaking, they began to shuffle in that direction. As they did, another girl joined them. Now there were four of them wrestling with the bench.

It was an unwieldy process. It wasn't the weight, which was something the four of them could easily manage, but rather the awkwardness of coordinating four sets of feet. "We need to rest," she said, and with that they put the bench down.

After a minute or so she said, "We need to move this bench," and together they lifted it, this time joined by yet another girl choosing to be included in her "we." They shuffled up the hill until they came to the top. There was some discussion now about exactly where the bench should go.

"We should put it here."

"No, we should put it over there a little more."

"Maybe we can move it back a little."

Once they had decided on the spot, the girl who started it all said excitedly, "Now we can sit on it!"

It's not magic, of course, but it always strikes me that way when young children begin to discover the power of turning "me" into "we."

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Friday, December 01, 2017

"That's Better Than Getting Dead"

For the past couple years, one of our students has expressed intense fear about fire, a phobia that her parents tell me was triggered by having witnessed a neighborhood house fire. When she was younger, even talk of fire would cause her to cry so inconsolably that we modified how we handle fire drills. As she's gotten older, her fear has evolved to include the prospect of her family dying in a fire, leaving her all alone.

It's not a debilitating phobia, and generally speaking she's a cheery, enthusiastic kid, but anytime the conversation turns to fire or firefighters or fire engines, as they do in preschool, she either requests that we change the subject or makes herself scarce. I get it, of course, not the specific phobia, but phobias in general. My own daughter had one about crabs and other shellfish, something that's not easy to avoid in the Pacific Northwest. And naturally I have my own phobias (although the difference between mine and everyone else's is that their's are irrational while mine make sense).

Yesterday, I was sitting with a group of kids around the snack table, one of whom was this girl with the fire phobia. I was slightly shocked when, out of the blue, she told us, with a very sad face, "When there's a fire at my house my mommy will die. My sister will die too. And also my dad."

I wanted to tell her that her house was not going to burn down, but my knowledge of her phobia stopped me. The very fact that she was discussing this without hysterics seemed to be a kind of positive step in the direction of facing her fears even if her scenario was disturbing.

"I won't get dead because I will jump out of my window. I might get hurt. I might get a cut or something. But," she added with a small nod, "that's better than getting dead." We all agreed with that.

"I'll go to the neighbor's house, then I'll go live with my grandma in California."

Her face was both sad and sincere as she finished. I recognized evidence of parental counsel in her words, something that was later confirmed by her father, although, the way kids do, she had made it her own. Despite the unmitigated tragicness of the story, it was clear that it brought her comfort knowing that there were concrete plans in place should her greatest fear be realized. I recognized right then that this is also what I do with my own phobias: imagine the worst case then plan for how how I'll deal with it.

We sat in silence for a moment at the end of her story, each of us reflecting, until a boy said excitedly, "If you live with your grandma that means you can have movie night every night!"

She looked at him wide-eyed, then squealed, "Yes!" And then everyone around the table cheered.

Books make great gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, November 30, 2017

This Very Real, Very Important Work The Children Need To Do

We don't have a huge set of big wooden blocks, which is okay because we don't really have enough space for more and besides, if the kids are going to play with them, they generally need to find a way to play with them together, which is what our school is all about.

The most popular dramatic play game during the first couple months of school had been "super heroes." It was mostly boys, but they hadn't been particularly exclusionary, with several of the girls regularly joining them, often making up their own hero names like "Super Cat" due to the lack of female characters of the type in our popular culture. This in turn inspired some of the boys to make up their own hero names like "Super Dog" and "Falcon," along with their own super powers. And although there had been a few instances of someone declaring, "We already have enough super heroes," in an attempt to close the door behind them, most of the time, the prerequisite for joining the play was to simply declare yourself a super hero, pick a super hero name, and then hang around with them boasting about your great might, creating hideouts, and bickering over nuance.

A few months into the school year, however, a break-away group began playing, alternatively, Paw Patrol and Pokemon, which looked to me like essentially the same game with new characters. One day, some boys playing Paw Patrol used all of the big wooden blocks to create their "house," complete with beds and blankets. A girl who was often right in the middle of the super hero play wanted to join them, but when the boys asked, "Who are you?" she objected to being a Paw Patrol character at all. Indeed, she wanted to play with them and with the blocks they were using, but the rub was that she didn't want to play their game.

After some back and forth during which the Paw Patrol kids tried to find a way for her to be included, they offered her a few of their blocks to play with on her own, then went back to the game.

She arranged her blocks, then sat on them, glaring at the boys. They ignored her. I was sitting nearby watching as her face slowly dissolved from one of anger to tears. An adult tried to console her, but was more or less told to back off. I waited a few minutes, then sat on the floor beside her, saying, "You're crying."

She answered, "I need more blocks." I nodded. She added, "They have all the blocks."

I replied, "They are using most of the blocks and you have a few of the blocks."

"They won't give me any more blocks."

I asked, "Have you asked them for more blocks?"

Wiping at her tears she shook her head, "No."

"They probably don't know you want more blocks."

She called out, "Can I have some more blocks?"

The boys stopped playing briefly, one of them saying, "We're using them!" then another added, "You can have them when we're done," which is our classroom mantra around "sharing."

She went back to crying, looking at me as if to say, See?

I said, "They said you can use them when they're done . . . Earlier I heard them say you could play Paw Patrol with them."

"I don't want to play Paw Patrol. I just want to build."

I sat with her as the boys leapt and laughed and lurched. I pointed out that there was a small building set that wasn't being used in another part of the room, but she rejected that, saying, "I want to build with these blocks."

I nodded, saying, "I guess we'll just have to wait until they're done." That made her cry some more.

This is hard stuff we're working on here in preschool. And, for the most part, that's pretty much all we do at Woodland Park: figuring out how to get along with the other people. Most days aren't so hard, but there are moments in every day when things don't go the way we want or expect them to and then, on top of getting along with the other people, there are our own emotions with which we must deal. Academic types call it something like "social-emotional functioning," but I think of it as the work of creating a community.

It's a tragedy that policymakers are pushing more and more "academics" into the early years because it's getting in the way of this very real, very important work the children need to do if they are going to lead satisfying, successful lives. In our ignorant fearfulness about Johnny "falling behind" we are increasingly neglecting what the research tells us about early learning. From a story about a recently published study conducted by researchers from Penn State and Duke Universities:

Teachers evaluated the kids based on factors such as whether they listened to others, shared materials, resolved problems with their peers and were helpful. Each student was then given an overall score to rate their positive skills and behavior, with zero representing the lowest level and four for students who demonstrated the highest level of social skill and behavior . . . Researchers then analyzed what happened to the children in young adulthood, taking a look at whether they completed high school and college and held a full-time job, and whether they had any criminal justice, substance abuse or mental problems . . . For every one-point increase in a child's social competency score in kindergarten, they were twice as likely to obtain a college degree and 46% more likely to have a full-time job by age 25 . . . For every one-point decrease in a child's social skill score in kindergarten, he or she had a 67% higher chance of having been arrested in early adulthood, a 52% higher rate of binge drinking and an 82% higher chance of being in or on a waiting list for public housing.

Here is a link to the actual study. And this is far from the only research that has produced these and similar results, just the most recent one.

If our goal is well-adjusted, "successful" citizens, we know what we need to do. In the early years, it isn't about reading or math. It's not about learning to sit in desks or filling out work sheets or queuing up for this or that. If we are really committed to our children, we will recognize that their futures are not dependent upon any of that stuff, but rather this really hard, messy, emotional work we do every day as we play with our fellow citizens.

Books make great gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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