Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Using Just The Right Amount

During my first year teaching preschool, I was appalled at the amount of glue kids were squirting from our little Nancy bottles. It just seemed so wasteful. Committed to not bossing kids around, I tried using informative statements like, "That's a lot of glue," "It only takes a dot of glue to hold a googly eye," and even the usually more powerful, "I think that's too much," but to no avail. I attempted role modeling and narrating my own "proper" glue usage with similar results. I even purchased new bottles, snipping the tips to create extra tiny holes in the hopes of limiting the flow. The kids just handed the bottles back to me saying it was "too hard," causing me to make the holes a little larger and little larger until the good white stuff was flowing freely again.

It was only after many months that I finally gave up my obsession with waste, introduced the glue table, and started just buying gallons of the least expensive glue I could find. I no longer think of glue as an adhesive, but rather as a stand-alone art medium.

This was the beginning of my journey into the deep philosophy that "waste" is in the eye of the beholder. It's not just glue. All kids some of the time, and some kids all of the time, will use the materials at hand to what adults perceive as excess, sometimes with spectacular results (bubble printing is a classic example), but more often with spectacular messes, both of which are valid results of a trail-and-error scientific process.

One of my favorite lines from all of literature is this one from Goethe:

In limitations he first shows himself the master.

More often than not, we interpret this to mean the limitations imposed from above or without, forgetting that most of our limitations in life are of the self-imposed variety. Playing with extremes is how we learn about self-limitation, which is at the heart of self-regulation or self-control. When we're not permitted the opportunity to explore limits, it means we are under the control of others, leaving us with two choices: rebellion (the natural human response to external control) or obedience (the unnatural one), neither of which tend to contribute much positive to our self-identity or our ability to think for ourselves.

I've often boasted that our school runs upon garbage, using for one last time those things heading off to the landfills and recycling centers, not using stuff as much as finishing using stuff. The fact that this is good for the environment is truly an unintended consequence: it really came about because we value managing our budget and value exploring the extremes. You just can't waste stuff that is already waste. Garbage and cheap materials are one of the ways we accommodate these seemingly opposing values.

This is why when a child dumps an entire bowl of googly eyes into a lake of glue then empties a shaker of glitter onto it, I no longer see waste. In fact, I know she is using just the right amount.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"That's What Pirates Do"

A few of the guys were playing pirates yesterday, a game that lead them to build a "hideout" or "trap" depending on who you consulted. This wasn't an argument between two factions, but rather people of differing opinions, working together, choosing to simultaneously tolerate, if not accept, an alternative point-of-view, without seeing it as a threat to his own. It's something one doesn't see enough of in the world. I wished I'd been witness to the process by which they'd arrived at this place because it might have presented a formula for world peace. I resigned myself to the awareness that it would have to be enough just knowing it's possible.

Meanwhile, Grace was in the new playhouse, alone, "selling things" from her shop. Her merchandise consisted of a pile of lose parts she'd amassed, but that alone wasn't enough to lure customers. I only learned of her enterprise because one of our parent-teachers had earlier tried unsuccessfully to promote her venture with a little word-of-mouth advertising.

I'd taken up a seat on a stump near the playhouse, not thinking about her shop, chatting with Grace about this and that, when a marauding band of pirates stormed through. They were so wrapped up in their game, I'm quite confident they were unaware they had entered a going concern, especially since Grace was outside with me, no longer actively playing her game.

There was cry of, "We need this!" and Grace and I watched as several pairs of unclean hands grabbed hold of a set of old-syle snow tire chains to drag them away, shouting and exhorting as they went.

Grace called out, "Hey!" but it was too little too late and they were off to add this vital piece to their hideout/trap.

When they had gone I asked, "That was part of your shop, wasn't it?"

"Yes." She had a right to be upset, even if their violation had been unintentional. I saw in her face the shadows of her internal debate over how to respond. Sadness or some version of despondency would be appropriate here. Also, there was a place for righteous anger or helpless frustration. And all of that flashed through her features as she watched them recede up the concrete slide in joyful oblivion over what was transpiring in their wake.

She knew that she could have those chains back. It would have required an assertion of ownership on her part, something she's fully capable of doing, and perhaps some arguing. She knew she could assert the agreement we've made with one another, "No swiping things," and even knew that I was there to support her should she need it. I suspect all of this was also present in her deliberations. 

A lot went on in her head and heart in the seconds before she turned to me and said, "That's okay. They're pirates. That's what pirates do: they steal things."

This time, I'd witnessed it happen. One person making space for the others, even when worlds were colliding. She could have retained those chains, but instead she let them go, one might even say "cast them off." 

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Monday, October 20, 2014

When Do The Children Spend Time Learning?

In Friday's post on a City of Seattle ballot measure that would inflict high-stakes standardized tests on 4-year-olds, I linked to a Christian Science Monitor article entitled, As Overtesting Outcry Grows, Education Leaders Pull Back On Standardized Tests, that quoted President Obama as saying:

I have directed [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan to support states and school districts in the effort to improve assessment of student learning so that parents and teachers have the information they need, that classroom time is used wisely, and assessments are one part of fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools.

He was apparently responding to an effort by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the people who literally own the Common Core State Standards brand (something the reporter does not reveal) and exist solely for the purpose of ramming this untested, faith-based, anti-democratic public school curriculum down our throats, to distance themselves from the onerous testing regime they've created. Apparently, these drill-and-kill salesmen have finally figured out that high-stakes tests are widely despised by teachers, parents, students, and just about anyone else who cares about public education. Instead of admitting that there is a fatal flaw in their product, however, instead of taking it back into the shop for a fix, these education hucksters are now engaged in a marketing campaign to convince us that they're listening while still peddling the same old snake oil.

Now, I don't really see any sort of concession in Obama's words, but apparently the CSM reporter does, and it wouldn't be the first time in recent months that the high-powered politicians and businesspeople who are flogging Common Core and high-stakes standardized testing have pretended to be backing off, just a little. I'm confident that these are merely marketing words, because these high-stakes tests are too firmly embedded in the Common Core/No Child Left Behind product to ever be removed. This is another sign, however, that corporate "reformers" are concerned that the grass roots "opt out" movement is seriously damaging their brand and could potentially kill it. In other words, little by little, we are succeeding.

As it now stands, the average American public school student is being tested once a month (a number that I've had recently confirmed by a local Garfield High School teacher), with many being subjected to these tests twice a month. Good lord, between test preparation and actual testing, when do the children spend time learning?

Of course, the goal is no longer learning, if it ever was: the goal is winning. If it was genuinely about improving pubic education, these guys would be giving more than lip-service to the mountains of evidence that these tests measure very little of importance, are unreliable, are unfair and discriminatory, are incapable of measuring most of what a well-rounded education is all about, eat up valuable classroom time with drill-and-kill rote learning, narrow the curriculum, are unhealthily stressful for young children, and have only managed to cause American students to perform worse on the standardized measures they seem to care most about, such as the international PISA tests

That's right, since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, which was the beginning of this high-stakes federal government intrusion into our schools, US student scores in math have fallen dramatically, from 18th in the world to 36th in the most recent tests. There has been a similar drop in science scores and no change in reading. I personally put no stock in these tests (nor, coincidentally, does the Chinese government which is withdrawing from PISA testing in the name of providing better education), but the corporatists do. So by their own "accountability measures" corporate reformers have failed in dramatic fashion. If they were a school they would have long ago been shut down, the teachers fired, and the kids sent off to for-profit charter schools where their test scores would be no better than before, but, you know, they're private sector so they needn't be held to the same standards as public schools.

When Arne Duncan's office was recently asked by Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss if they were aware of a pair of recent studies that slam the use of high-stakes tests to evaluate teachers, one of his pet projects, they said they were aware while in the same breath doubling down on their commitment to using these tests to evaluate teachers. Until now, this is pretty much how they've responded to all the research about the crap-fest that is high-stakes standardized testing. This tells me they have no interest in improving their product, but rather are committed to foisting it upon us consumers "as is."

Of course, if the folks who brought us the Common Core and the attendant testing fetishism had been interested in honest input from teachers, parents, and students they would have, at a minimum, built feedback mechanisms into the system. They did not. This is a finished, copyrighted product, owned by a cabal of what CSM calls "education leaders," being forced upon teachers, parents, and students. What I'm doing right now -- complaining loudly in public -- is the only avenue for change.

When I write these posts, there are always a few readers who, with good intentions, suggest that we would be better served to put our heads down and strive to make "change from within." I appreciate the sentiment, and god bless those of you who are subversively giving your students an opportunity for a real education "between the cracks," but this is not a legitimate alternative to engaging in the political fight before us. You don't have to be the sort of hair-on-fire radical that I've become, but democracy only works if people engage in it. These guys like Bill Gates and Arne Duncan are individually more powerful than us, but we have the numbers and they know it. Their lip-service tells us this.

This is not about education. The curtain has been pulled back and we can see it for what it is. This is quite simply about making it possible for corporations like Pearson Education and Microsoft to make money off the labor of children, breaking their spirits in the test score coal mines in the process.

This is what I think needs to happen:

  • We must continue reading, writing, and talking about the dangers of Common Core and high-stakes standardized testing, yelling louder and louder, including spreading the word about the movement to "opt out" of these tests. This is clearly having a positive impact. 

I'm doing my best on the first one. You can too by opting out and telling people why. Please share this video via email and social media and take the time to engage in discussions with people who do not agree:

As for the second, I've been regularly writing and calling my senators and congressman. They may not respond to you personally, but if they get enough messages like this, they will have to pay attention:

Dear Senator Murray,
As a teacher and parent, it has become increasingly clear that the Common Core national curriculum being promoted by the Department of Education was developed in an anti-democratic and possibly un-Consitutional manner, and it is beginning to look as if it was devised simply as a way to line the pockets of education business people. There is very little research or data to support this approach to education and mountains of research and data against it. Children, parents, and teachers are being hurt. The only ones who seem to be benefiting are for-profit corporations. I'm joining those who are calling upon you to advocate for Senate hearings into the development of Common Core and the constitutionality of how it is being implemented. Please pay attention. Our children are being damaged. 
Tom Hobson

As for transforming public education: that has become part of my life's work. So far, I've proposed a large table with room for everyone who wants a seat. For the rest I need you. What's next? Please help.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Vote "No" On Seattle Proposition 1B

Here it comes Seattle. The corporate "reformers" are after our preschoolers with their developmentally inappropriate curricula and abusive high stakes standardized testing. Just as we've begun to enjoy the minor, but nevertheless motivating success of pushing Arne Duncan and the US Department of Education to at least agree to temporarily slow down their educational abuse of our young children and even as President Obama himself is calling for a reduction in high stakes standardized testing, the forces of evil (and I use the word "evil" in a non-hyperbolic sense) have apparently redirected their relentless efforts to the local level. 

These people must be stopped.

Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess' "Preschool For All" plan is now Proposition 1B on the November ballot and if it passes it's going to be a Dickensian hell for many of our youngest children, who will be subjected to the drill-and-kill, test-prep coal mine. Please help us get the word out to vote "No" on this hideous thing, that like the Bill Gates-developed and funded federal Common Core national curriculum, has been developed almost exclusively by corporate profiteers without any meaningful input from child development experts or education professionals. The whole cast of bad actors is involved in this one from the Gates Foundation and Teach for America, to the KIPP charter chain, standardized testing monolith Pearson Education, and Head Start privatizer Acelero.

Oh, and Seattle Public Schools, which will be required to provide space for these programs, is being entirely cut out of the process, which is championed by the aforementioned Tim Burgess, a former Seattle Police detective and journalist, a man with absolutely no educational background.

I'll be honest and apologetic. I've had my head on other things these past few months, traveling Down Under, launching into our school year, and working to get our new Woodland Park developmentally appropriate, democratic kindergarten up and running. This has snuck up on me. Thankfully,  Dora Taylor, founding member and president of Parents Across America has kept her finger on the pulse of what's going on. I'm sure I'll be writing more about this in the coming weeks, but in the meantime I refer you to her post, "11 Reasons Why Seattle's Preschool for All Proposition 1B is a Bad Idea," over on the Seattle Education blog.

This cannot happen in our backyard. Please help. Tell everyone you know to vote "No" on Proposition 1B.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

"They Won't Fall"

Yesterday, we were playing with our large wooden blocks, long cardboard tubes, and tennis balls.

It was the kind of cooperative engineering play I've come to expect from this group, with a dozen or more kids playing together in a small space at any given moment. And for whatever reason, the play was getting a bit wild, with many of our boys in particular seeming to vibrate with barely contained energy.

There was a time in the not too distant past when I would have been right there amidst them, attempting to somehow settle things down, to subtly direct them, in what I now would understand as a misguided attempt to reduce the chance of injury and conflict. On this day I sat off to the side, keeping a close eye on things, loitering with intent, but saying little and allowing the kids' collective executive function space to develop.

Most of them were playing in stocking feet and after hearing several of the heavy blocks slam onto the carpet, I did interject, "If those heavy blocks land on your toes it's going to hurt." Moments later, Gio dropped a block on his foot. He limped over to me, tears in his eyes, where he took a seat on the bench beside me. I said, "You dropped a block on your foot." He answered, "I wasn't careful." I asked, "Do you want me to do anything?" He replied, "No, I'm waiting for it to stop hurting."

Later, Henry pounced on a long tube that several of the kids were attempting to maneuver into place. There were a few shouted cries of, "Hey!" Henry was clearly right on the edge with his wildness, just barely containing himself. He got off the tube, which, in this case, was a sociable response to "Hey!" but for good measure punched the tube quite hard with his fist. As the boys hoisted the tube into place, Henry fell to the floor beside the tube, wincing in pain. I said, "That hurt when you punched the tube." He replied, "I shouldn't have done that."

After a few more incidences like this, most of which were self-inflicted minor bumps and bruises, all in a day's work, the wildness began to subside, almost like a tide turning. 

I noticed a tall stack of these heavy wooden blocks, balanced uncertainly in the midst of what was still very active play.

It loomed over their heads. I said, "When those blocks fall on someone, it's really going to hurt." Three of the boys paused to examine the stack. Ket said, "It won't fall on me." I took it for bravado, but I was wrong. He helped his prediction become true, by removing the top block from the stack. Another of the guys removed the second one. And a third said, "Teacher Tom, they won't fall."

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What To Say Instead Of "Good Job"

"Teacher Tom! Look!"

"Look, Teacher Tom! Look what I can do!"

"I didn't know you could flip your tummy up on the table and balance with your legs up in the air."

"Look what I figured out, Teacher Tom! I can pop the bubbles by tearing my finger through them. Watch."

"You did that. You figured out how to pop it by tearing your finger through it."

"Teacher Tom, I'm popping them by jumping!" 

"I heard it pop! And I heard it again! You're jumping high and coming down hard to make them pop."

"Did you see what I can do? I'm making shapes! Let me show you."

"You're using your finger to hold the plastic circle in place and drawing around it! It looks like you're really concentrating."

"I can do it with other shapes too."

"I have something I want to show you, Teacher Tom. When I pull out these plugs the cars don't race any more and when I plug them back in they work again."

"Hey, you broke the circuit when you unplugged it, and you closed the circuit again when you plugged them in"

"Teacher Tom, Teacher Tom, we made this house."

"Who said that?"

"We did! We're inside here."

"Now I see you. You made a house with a sheet and clothes pins. You must have worked together."

"We did."

"Look what I made."

"You cut out all those shapes with pinking shears and used a glue stick to stick it all together. That was a lot of work. It looks like the two shapes are looking in a mirror."

"A crazy mirror!"

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Naming Ourselves

I know a lot of teachers have foregone circle time in the name of giving children "choice." Not me; not us. 

These community meetings are vital to how we function as a community. This is the one opportunity during the day for us to come together to discuss matters of consequence to all of us, such as making agreements about how we want to treat one another, or planning what we're going to do together. It's when we get to share important news with one another, such as the name of our new baby or that we've decided to be a ghost for Halloween this year. Without these meetings in which we listen to one another, it's hard for me to imagine how we become the kind of community that fosters the sense fairness, compassion, and cohesion necessary for any good democracy to function.

I've heard teachers say that the children get bored or that they'd rather be doing something else. Certainly, a child will occasionally wander off in search of "greener pastures," but it's quite rare for any of them to get out of earshot because what we're discussing is just too important. A couple years ago River and Connor got in the habit of stealing off to the loft during circle time where they flipped through the pages of books, but it was quite clear they were listening intently from afar because the moment matters turned to subjects of significance, they were back in a flash to get in their two cents. A couple weeks ago, one of our three year olds thought he had a better idea only to find himself lured back by a debate over a proposed rule to which he had objections.

I've simply never found that most kids on most days would rather be doing something else. And I think that's simply because our circle time is, by-and-large, a child lead activity, or perhaps more precisely, a community lead activity. As the facilitator of these meetings, I rarely have any sort of plan when we sit down together. I usually start vamping a little, making jokes, singing silly songs, looking for a theme to get things going. Last week, for instance, the first child who entered the room from outdoors was wearing a Seattle Seahawks shirt. I shouted, "Go Seahawks!" to which the reply was, "Go Seahawks!" When the next child scampered in we did it again, "Go Seahawks!" adding a voice to our cheer with each subsequent child, until some asked, "What about the Mariners?"

So we started cheering, "Go Mariners!" until someone mentioned the Sounders. "Go Sounders!"

Then we added the Storm. "Go Storm!"

Someone asked if we had a hockey team. We're not an NHL city, but after some discussion, we remembered our junior team is called the Thunderbirds. "Go Thunderbirds!"

Then we got into the rich vein of university mascots. "What about the Huskies?" "Go Huskies!"

"Go Cougars!"

"Go Ducks!"

"Go Beavers!"

I said, "Those are the mascots of schools."

"We're a school."

"Do we have a mascot?" 

"We should." And we were off, with nearly every child offering up a suggestion:

Sneaky Beans
Medium Sneakies
Awesome Sneakies
Flower Princess Disneys
Police Stations
Five Feet
Rocket Ships
18 Feet
People Grown-Ups
Super Awesome Sneakies
Shark Fire Rockets
600 Feet

As you can see, we inspired each another with regard to things like "sneakies" and "feet." And I'm pretty sure that Abigail was attempting to say an actual word, but I couldn't understand her attempt, so I did what parent educator Dawn Carlson suggests, simply repeating exactly what I thought I heard her say in the hopes of either understanding or being corrected, but she laughingly agreed that "Katillidians" was better than what she was trying to say.

"Those are a lot of ideas," I said, "How are we going to just choose one?"

"Voting!" So we undertook a method with the ones receiving zero or only one vote were eliminated in the first round, which pared our list down to a manageable handful of finalists. To my relief, Flower Princess Disneys barely lost out to Tornados.

This was a meaningful, community process that took the better part of a half hour. The 4-5's class has now named itself: we're the Woodland Park Tornados. And as usual, not a single child felt compelled to get up and walk away. Circle time is just too important.

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