Friday, April 19, 2019

"Hey, It's Not A Race"



One day, when I was working in my daughter's preschool classroom, the teacher announced it was time to go outdoors. The children rushed the door, elbowing one another as they crowded through the narrow passageway. The scrum of children came to a standstill. One poor girl was pinned against the door jamb and started to cry. Others shouted objections. The adults began to fuss about, trying to to find words that would help loosen the knot. One boy stood outside the fray, a four-year-old, looking on with an expression of calm bemusement. He said to his friends, ineffectually, "Hey, it's not a race."

I often think of that moment when I consider the state of education. It shouldn't be a race, but that's how it's set up, with children being labeled as "advanced" and others as "behind." Children are compared to one another through grades. Their tests are even timed with stopwatches. We've done it despite overwhelming evidence that competition is unhealthy for children, especially young ones.

From Alfie Kohen, the author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition:

One after another, researchers across the country have concluded that children do not learn better when education is transformed into a competitive struggle. Why? First, competition often makes kids anxious and that interferes with concentration. Second, competition doesn't permit them to share their talents and resources as cooperation does, so they can't learn from one another. Finally, trying to Number One distracts them from what they're supposed to be learning. It may seem paradoxical, but when a student concentrates on the reward (an A or a gold star or trophy), she becomes less interested in what she's doing. The result: Performance declines.

There are those who insist, "But competition is part of human nature," that's not what anthropologists who study hunter-gatherer societies tell us. If one considers human existence as a 12-hour clock, we were hunter-gatherers for 11 hours and 59 minutes, and it was in these kinds of societies in which we have evolved to thrive. As Peter Gray told us at last week's Play On Early Childhood conference in Athens, Greece, there is little evidence of competition in these societies, their games tended to be cooperative contests as opposed to competitions. No, it wasn't until very recently in evolutionary terms, when the agricultural revolution introduced the notion of "ownership," that competition became normalized, and it runs counter how humans have evolved to interact with one another on a day-to-day basis.

Perhaps there is a place for competition in our wider society (although from where I sit, it is largely corrosive) but there is no place for it in eduction. Everyone learns at their own pace. We need to put the stopwatches away: it's not a race. Summer is upon us. Your children will not fall behind if they spend it picking dandelions. There are better ways to use our time than trying to beat one another.

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Thursday, April 18, 2019

Replacing False With True




"We don't hit people."

"We don't run in the hallways."

"We don't take things from other people."

I strive to be honest with children, yet I lie to them, or at least tell them these sorts of falsehoods almost every day, and I'm not the only one.

I hear it in our classroom and on playgrounds: many of us have fallen into the habit of "correcting" children with sentences like the ones above, "we" sentences, that are objectively false statements. Of course, I understand that "We don't hit people" is spoken in the spirit of aspiration, in the sense that we hope to one day be a place where no one hits anyone, but since we almost always say it in the immediate aftermath of someone indeed being hit, it's simply not true that "we don't hit people" and everyone knows it. If "we" don't hit people, then why does my nose hurt?

"I don't want you to hit my friends." Now that has the virtue of being true. 

"She's crying because you hurt her." True. 

"I can't let you hit people." Safety is part of my job, so yes, this is true, and not only that but I'm role modeling being responsible.

And because of the way the children make their own rules at Woodland Park, I can even say, "We all agreed, no hitting," perhaps the most powerful true statement I can make in that circumstance because it includes the unity of "we" with the virtue of truth.

It might sound like a little thing this trading out one set of words for another, and in a way it is, but the foundation upon which we build the future is always made of little things, one atop the other. And whenever we can replace false with true in life, it's never a small thing.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

For Their Own, Better, Purposes



I recently visited a friend's school where he pointed out their purpose-built "mud kitchen." He noted that the kids had dumped all the moveable parts of the kitchen into the sand pit, where they were being used as sand toys, something they did on a daily basis. He said, "I don't think they've ever actually used the mud kitchen." That didn't surprise me: children always have better ideas than we adults about what to do with materials. I can't tell you how many schools I've toured that feature abandoned mud kitchens. And yes, there was a time when we attempted a mud kitchen at Woodland Park with similar results.

This doesn't mean the kids at our school don't sometimes pretend to be cooking up a pot of mud stew or mud cake or mud pasta. Just yesterday, one of our newly-minted three-year-olds set up a three-course dinner along a concrete ledge using containers she collected from around the playground. But what we've learned from experience is that you can't force, cajole, or lure children into a particular type of play without rendering it "not-play." The adults might set up what they think are cool provocations, but after that, it belongs to the children: that's what I've learned, often painstakingly, over the course of many, many "failures."

Over there in the right hand column of this blog, you'll see a header labeled "Teacher Tom's Topics" and under that you'll find a link to posts tagged with "Little World." There are 19 posts there, most of which are dated from 2010. The final post is entitled, "Little World is Still Dead". When I go back and re-read these posts from the beginning, I'm more than a little bit embarrassed by most of them, even to the point of being tempted to delete a few, but I've opted to leave them up as evidence of the journey that has brought our community from there to here when it comes to the introduction of what are commonly called "loose parts." In a nutshell, our journey began with "loose parts" that were not so loose and ended with the children having taught us how to let go to the point that we rarely use the term "loose parts" any longer, going instead with the more accurate moniker "junk."

Indeed, going back over the decade of writing on this blog, there are more than a few posts, especially from those early years, that today make me cringe. I don't go back and read them often, but every time I do I become aware of how much I've grown, both as a teacher and a human being and that's why I don't delete them. I fully expect that if I'm still writing here in 2029, I'll look back on some of what I'm writing today with the same sort of chagrin. If not, that would mean that I've not continued to grow and learn which would be a sign that it's time to move on to something else.

Often, children will begin by playing with our mud kitchens or Little World's in the way we envisioned, but they quickly learn, through their play, all they can from the artificial limitations we've set and must to move on, which is why they dismantle our creations for their own, better, purposes, the next steps in their own journeys.

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

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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Sucking The Joy Out Of Their Lives



Yesterday, I was sitting on a bench near a playground merry-go-round watching our three and four-year-olds play. A pair of boys decided they wanted a spin. They mounted the apparatus, then one of them turned to me, "Teacher Tom, you push us."

I answered, "Sorry, I'm busy sitting here. You'll have to find someone else."



As the first boy tried pleading with me, the second said, "I'll get my brother to push us. He likes doing the things I like," and jogged off in the direction of where their classmates where playing. He called out to them, "Who will push us?" They ignored him so he returned to the merry-go-round. As he mounted it, he gave it a little push with his foot and the two boys began turning slowly.

As the momentum began to die, a couple of girls found their way to the merry-go-round. Without being asked, they decided they were going to push it "fast." The boys were delighted. Working together, the girls managed to get it up to speed, then the two of them jumped on as well. More children began to arrive in twos and threes, many pushed before jumping on. One of the original boys, leaning into it, head tipped back, began to chant, "Oh yeah, it's spin time! Oh yeah, it's spin time!"


The children began jumping off and on as they spun. Many of them fell to the ground upon dismount, most doing so intentionally. Occasionally, one of them would be trampled as they lay there in the path of the pushers. Some of them cried out in objection, while others squealed with delight. It was the kind of wild, breathless fun for which these machines were designed, even if adult imposed rules too often forbid it.

They were learning something, because we are always learning something when we play. I could write a list here of all the things I imagine they were learning, or exploring, or discovering. I could put those guesses into a report of some sort. Indeed, if I were so inclined I would have already filed dozens of reports on the children playing together on the merry-go-round going back to September. I could then take all those reports and compare them to today's report and use this data to pretend that I know what they have been learning over the course of months. I reckon I could even devise some sort of pre and post-test that would allow me to compare the children's progress, identify those who are behind and assign those poor kids some merry-go-round homework so they could catch up with the others. I might even decide to rank the children on various measures that I have identified as important about merry-go-round play, assigning each of them grades based on my assessment of where they fall on an arbitrary scale of learning I'd devised based on data that I and others have collected over generations. I could then use this data I've amassed to devised a merry-go-round curriculum, one that allows me to "teach" children how to play on a merry-go-round, imagine myself an expert, seeing to it that these children are merry-go-round proficient . . .


This is ludicrous, of course. I could do all of that and not only would I be no closer to knowing what these children were learning, I would have wasted vast amounts of time that I could have otherwise spent doing something more productive, like scratching my ass. No one can ever know what another person is learning. Each of those children on the merry-go-round are learning something different, something unique, something that applies only to them and their lives, and even the person doing the learning often doesn't know what they've learned, and no amount of testing, grading, or data collection will change that.


This is the greatest fraud of our educational system, this hubristic notion that adults can somehow measure learning, yet for generations we have put children through the processing plants we call schools, marching them into the test score coal mines, subjecting them to our experiments like lab rats. It's lead to a grotesque narrowing and standardization of what we call education based not on learning, but on what we can most easily measure.

I am comfortable knowing that children are learning because they are playing, and that's enough. Indeed, I have no choice because to believe otherwise, is to buy into the lie that anyone can possibly know what these children are learning. It would mean that I must take part in sucking the joy out of their lives and I will not knowingly be a party to that.

"Oh yeah, it's spin time!" That's all I need to know.

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

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Monday, April 15, 2019

Professional Patience



When I tell people that I'm a preschool teacher, among the most common responses is something along the lines of, "You must be a very patient person." Indeed, among the most common compliments I receive from the parents of the children I teach is about my patience.

I had ample opportunity to reflect on my own patience during the past week as I spent two full days traveling to Athens, Greece and back in order to take part in the Play On Early Childhood Education conference. Air travel is a great tester of patience and as I found myself grinding my teeth as I dodged through crowded concourses, tapping my toe while waiting on queue, and being filled with tension by flight delays, I recognized that contrary to popular opinion, I struggle with patience at least as much as the next person.

Patience is tested by feeling thwarted in our attempts to achieve something or get somewhere. We have a goal, and circumstances, usually of the human variety, are preventing us from attaining it on our schedule. I suppose this is why I can so readily exhibit patience while working with children: I generally have no particular goals nor other places to be. I'm not beholden to learning objectives passed down from on high. I'm not required to produce test scores or grades. I'm not expected to document learning nor in any way hurry children through a curriculum. The institutional drive to compel children to learn specific things according to an arbitrary schedule, and in ways that we can "measure," makes patience a near impossibility.

If there are goals in our classroom, they come from the children themselves. If there are schedules, they likewise emerge from the children. In fact, a big part of my job is to be patiently present with the children, available should they need me, and any agenda of my own tends to get in the way of doing that.

During her keynote address at the Athens conference Suzanne Axelsson (Interaction Imagination) discussed the concept of "professional love," as explored through the research of Dr. Jools Page, lecturer at the University of Brighton's School of Education. It occurs to me that this patience for which I'm sometimes praised could be similarly labeled "profession patience," and is probably an aspect of professional love.

I know that I'm fortunate, that not all teachers are in a position to simply be with children as they pursue their own goals in their own time, directing their own learning. Not every teacher has this luxury, but if we are going to create the kinds of learning environments children need in order to achieve their highest potential, they should. And this isn't to say that there are not times when I feel impatient during the school day, like when we're out on a field trip, there's a bus to catch, and the kids are stopping to smell the flowers, but for the most part, patience or impatience does not come into it because my goals don't come into it. I'm not a patient person, but my job, if I'm doing it professionally, requires it.

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Thursday, April 11, 2019

Either Or Both



In yesterday’s post, I shared a story from my own childhood growing up here in Athens, Greece, where I’m currently taking part in the Play On Early Childhood conference, and where I will later today have the honor of introducing Peter Gray. 

One my fondest memories of having lived here as a boy is what I think of as “taverna culture.” Our family had never been much for dining out, probably no doubt due to the fact that it can be difficult, not to mention expensive, with three children. But when we did go out during our years in Greece, it was often to a taverna where the adults could sit at a shaded table eating and drinking a while we, the children, ran about with the other children in an adjacent park or any other scrape of land, returning occasionally for a bite or a sip before heading back to the games we had cobbled together. Our parents could more or less keep an eye on us, but they were mostly engaged in their adult pursuits, leaving us to our own devices.


There is a pedestrian “high street” near my hotel that is perfectly set up for families to do this, with tavernas, coffee shops, and cafes lining both sides, while down the center is a casually maintained median of grass, trees, pavement, and fountains. And sure enough, when I walked along it on the weekend, children of all ages were everywhere, chasing, shouting, singing, hiding, startling pigeons, and playing ball games. Most of the adults, as taverna culture would dictate, could be found chatting while nursing their coffees or lingering over a glass of wine.


In this spirit, I took an afternoon a couple of days ago to nurse an espresso for a couple of hours in the shadow of the Parthenon. This was in a busy tourist area rather than the more out-of-the-way places that the taverna culture thrives, but there were still plenty of kids running around as their parents imbibed. Across the way from where I sat, a family of tourists took a table under an umbrella. There were four adults and two children, an adolescent girl and a younger boy. While the girl remained at the table, the boy began to roam, gathering stones of various sizes from the ground. He then fell to his knees and began to arrange his collection on a large brick of marble that he proceeded to use as an anvil in an attempt to break smaller stones with larger ones. For an hour he pounded rocks, chanting something to himself as he did so, perhaps counting the number of strikes it took or maybe just singing in the vein of whistling while you work. The adults ignored him, except when he would occasionally force himself into their attentions with the enthusiasm of a Eureka moment: he would show them this or that stone, obviously detailing how it had broken and what he had noticed.


His older sister, however, this girl standing on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, was less successful in ignoring him. She continually turned to keep track of her brother’s pursuits, sometimes bouncing out of her seat to stand near him, sometimes even finding a stone for him, unable to fully suppress the girl that still lived inside her. I had been about her age, 13, at the end of our family’s time in Greece, being pulled across that divide between playing with the children and sitting with the adults. No one was scolding her to stay in her seat, nor were they urging her to run off and play. This was her trying to decide where she now belonged and from where I sat the answer seemed to be either or both.


Of course, these weren’t her thoughts, but rather mine, tinged in the melancholy that often accompanies later-in-life reflections. Still, my heart went out to her as she wiggled in her seat, not  fully listening to the adult conversation nor fully engaged in the play of her brother, not knowing if she belongs in the taverna or outside it.


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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Still There For The Taking



As a ten, eleven, and twelve-year-old, I lived with my family in the Kifissia suburb of Athens, Greece. Those were formative years, ones I often look back upon with nostalgia, but never so acutely as when I find myself back in my old stomping grounds as I have been for the past couple of days. I’m here in Athens to take part in the Play On Early Education conference with such luminaries as Peter Gray (US), Suzanne Axelsson (Sweden), and Meynell Walter (UK) as well as a score of other presenters, but I’ve spent the last day and a half revisiting my childhood.


Back then, one could actually clamber about on the ruins of the Parthenon, something that was undoubtedly a disaster for preserving one of the greatest achievements of ancient architecture, but that created for me a connection to the place that could never have been achieved by viewing it from afar as one must today. I still remember the cool smoothness of the columns and the god-like height of the stairs that lead into this temple to Athena herself. I often imagined myself to be a child of the time, fantasizing about what it must have been like to live in the age of mythology. Yesterday, I walked to the Plaka, the old maze of a marketplace at the base of the Acropolis where I emerged into Monastiraki Square.


The past was suddenly and overwhelmingly upon me. I was probably 11-years-old. The “cool” kids that summer were making their own “worry beads” by stringing colored beads on leather string. I had an idea for a pattern I wanted to try but was out of the leather. The only place I’d ever purchased it was at a kiosk right outside the train station here in the heart of Athens, so I set out on my mission. I didn’t tell Mom where I was going, and while that was normal in those days, I have serious doubts that she would would have permitted me to travel alone into the city. But, I’d made the trip dozens of times, I had the cash in my pocket, and it just seemed like something I needed to do. So off I went, walking the mile or so to the Kifissia train station, jumping on the next train, and emerging, unaccompanied, into Monastiraki.


It was then as it is today crowded with vendors and tourists. Perhaps I should have been nervous being all alone there, an anonymous child in the heart of a big, foreign city, but if I had by doubts it hasn’t remained as part of my memory. The kiosk is still where it was in 1973. In fact, everything is the same, I think: the train station, the monastery, the stone paving, the sign at the entrance to the Plaka calling it a “flea market,” the backside of the Acropolis looming above it all. The only thing that has changed is that the kiosk no longer sells leather string, I asked. But the distinctive co-mingled scents of newsprint, slightly melted chocolate, and cigarette tobacco that is characteristic of every kiosk in Athens almost convinced me that I was once again a boy on an adventure.


I returned home that day, string in hand, without saying a word to Mom about where I’d been. She didn’t ask because she had assumed I’d just been playing in the neighborhood as usual. I still have the “worry beads” I made with that leather, stashed away in the back of a drawer, a pattern of reds and oranges that reminded me somehow of bacon. As an 11-year-old, I’d worn it daily as a bracelet, a reminder of my secret journey.

I told my story to a Greek acquaintance yesterday who informed me with certainty that it would be far too dangerous for a child to try today, although I have my doubts. I think our perceptions of the world have changed far more than the world itself. That train trip to the Monastiraki kiosk and back is still there for the taking and any childhood that doesn’t include it is the poorer for it.


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

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