Monday, July 22, 2019

"Everyone Who Is A Problem Is My Teacher"

Teaching preschoolers keeps you humble. Even after decades, the moment you think you've seen it all, a child comes along who let's you know that you don't. That is both the blessing and the curse of our profession.

Not long ago, for instance, I found myself with a three-year-old who solved most of his conflicts by hitting or shoving other children. And he had a lot of conflicts. Indeed, it was almost as if he sought out reasons to disagree. This is not such a rare things, of course, but what struck me as most odd was that he didn't show any visible signs of emotion: no yelling, no crying, no grimacing or glowering. To me it appeared as if he were just going about this business of hitting and shoving like another child might go to work on a disassembled puzzle he found on a table. In contrast, of course, he left plenty of obvious signs of emotion among the victims of his hitting and shoving. And making matters worse, he often continued pummeling children who he had already reduced to tears until an adult intervened. Infuriatingly, he didn't even seem to go easier on younger, smaller children, treating them to the same sort of violence without discrimination. Someone along the way had obviously managed to convinced him to "use his words," which manifested most often as him saying to a child, "My turn!" as he delivered his first blow, or "Share with me!" as he shoved a child to the ground.

As you can imagine, I spent the first few days with this boy, trying everything in my toolbox; shadowing him, trying to anticipate him, stopping the violence physically when I could, and talking, talking, talking. I needed to get him on my bandwagon, I knew that, but how? I started our day together being his best buddy, hanging out with him, showing him cool things, complementing him. When he engaged in hitting or shoving, I tried reasoning, but he wasn't having it, cheerfully changing the subject, no matter how sternly or sincerely or pointedly I delivered my message about the importance of not hurting other people. I offered him suggestions for alternatives to hitting or shoving, again with no luck. The only time he showed emotion in conventional ways was when I thwarted him in his efforts, taking his hand for instance in mid-punch and saying, "I can't let you hit people." Then he would shout and cry, but not, it seemed out of any sense of remorse, but rather because he was now mad at me for preventing him from getting his way through hitting or shoving.

One day, I caught his arm from behind before he could deliver his first blow to a child who was blissfully unaware of what was about to happen. He had simply wanted the toy she was holding and was going to get it the most efficient way possible. At least that's how it seemed to me. He immediately reacted to me violently, twisting his body this way and that in an effort to free his arm from my grip. He then tried to hit the poor girl with his free hand, so I grabbed that one too. I had dropped to my knees and so we were face-to-face. He showed no emotion as he struggled against my grip. I said, as calmly as I could muster, "I can't let you hit people."

When he continued to wrestle, his eyes still on the toy he had wanted, I said, "I'm much stronger than you. I'm not going to let go because I'm worried you're going to hurt people," still striving for an even, calm voice.

It took several minutes, but finally he began to settle down, still tugging and pulling, but with lesser and lesser urgency, but he didn't stop entirely until the child with the toy moved farther away. Then he turned his back toward me and fell into my lap. I was still holding his arms, which were not crossed over his chest, with mine crossed there as well. It was almost a if he were using me as a blanket in which to wrap himself. I said again, "I'm holding you because I'm worried that you will hurt someone. If I let you, go will you hit someone?"

He didn't respond verbally, but seemed to almost sink more deeply into my lap. I let go of his wrists and simply held him for a moment. He made no effort to escape. After a couple minutes I said it again, "I'm holding you because I'm worried that you will hurt someone. If I let you go, will you hit someone?" He still didn't respond, so I continued to hold him. Then after a time I again asked the question, "If I let you go, will you hit someone?" This time he answered, "No," so I let him go. I was prepared for him to chase down the child with the toy he wanted, but he didn't. From that point on, I approached him with an offer of my lap and a hug, something he always accepted. The behaviors didn't disappear entirely, but they did lessen both in frequency and intensity.

That boy was only in my life for a few weeks so I never really got to know him, and certainly not enough to seriously entertain my suspicions about sensory integration or other potential "causes" for his behavior, but I will never forget him because of what I learned from him that day.

A couple nights ago I attended a meeting with one of my early mentors, a man named Tom Drummond. At one point, discussing a completely different topic, he said, "Everyone who is a problem is my teacher." And that's why I'm thinking of that boy, my problem and teacher, today.

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Friday, July 19, 2019

Doing Their Job

Some of the younger children still don't like to go to the bathroom alone. If we weren't a cooperative school with lots of adults available for escort duty, it would be a real pain given that our toilets are located down a long hallway which means that the classroom is down two adults (our rules don't permit any adult to be alone with a child that is not their own) for a considerable amount of time when this happens. It's not that the kids necessarily need us there with them in the sense that most have mastered the physical aspects of the process, but rather that they are in the habit of having an adult with them. So most of the time, the adults are there to more or less keep them company as they go about their business.

Our summer program is in a somewhat better situation because we spend our full days outdoors and the toilet is visible from the playground. Many of the kids are happy so long as an adult is visible, which means one of us just needs to hang around near the doorway so they can see us. Still, it's an obligation that temporarily depletes my team of parent-teachers each time it happens. I don't want to make this sound like it's a major issue or anything; it's more of a occasional annoyance.

Last week, a situation came up when a two-year-old, performing the classic dance, announced that he needed to "go potty." I was in the midst of doing something from which I couldn't be immediately extricated, but telling someone who has recently graduated from diapers to wait doesn't usually lead to success. I looked around for another available adult. They were all either likewise engaged or not visible, so I said, "You know where the potty is, right?"

He nodded.

"Maybe you can go by yourself. I'll come as fast as I can."

He continued to dance in place, "I want someone to go with me!"

I was about to say he would have to wait a minute, when one of the five-year-olds offered, "I can take him." She then took the boy's hand, walked him in to the bathroom, and remained with him right through hand washing.

It was an eye-opener for me. For the rest of the week and into this one, whenever a child indicated they wanted to be escorted to the toilet, I would announce to the surrounding children, "X wants someone to take her/him to the potty," and every single time there was a four or five or six-year-old volunteer. For the last couple of days, I've not even always needed to make any sort of announcement, as I've witnessed any number of older children walking younger ones to the bathroom totally unprompted by me.

Yesterday, they took it up a notch. Not once, not twice, but thrice, I heard a younger child crying, only to be beat to the comforting hug by an older child, and in one case several older children, on the spot, caring for the younger children, doing what has now clearly become their job.

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Thursday, July 18, 2019

From There We Create Our World

Several years ago, a child fell and bumped her head hard enough that we decided to apply an ice pack. I fetched one of those single-use gel packs that one activates by squeezing it in the middle until the internal bag pops and the chemicals mix. I had left one of our parent-teachers at the scene with the crying child. Being first aid certified, I was going to take charge of matters, before remembering that this particular parent-teacher was, in her real life, an actual medical doctor, so I naturally deferred, handing her the ice pack. She wrestled with it for a couple minutes before handing it back to me sheepishly, saying, "The nurses usually do this."

I don't share this story to shame her in any way, but rather to point out that doctors rely upon nurses. The knowledge and abilities of the two professions naturally overlap, but each is characterized by distinct set of complimentary expertise: together they heal, cure, and save lives. Of course, both doctors and nurses also rely upon a whole host of other people to get their jobs done, from educators and administrators to orderlies and custodians. No one does it alone.

Schooling tends to be about teaching everyone the same thing at the same time. Everyone learns the same math, the same science, the same history, and then they are tested and graded on how well they've learned it, no peeking over another person's shoulder. This focus on individual knowledge, however, disappears in the real world, a place where solving problems relies not upon individual knowledge as much as collective knowledge, people coming together to contribute their unique expertise to make an enterprise work. When a new bridge is needed, we don't call together a team comprised only of engineers, people with the same skill set, to get the job done. No, we must also include contractors, geologists, and other suppliers of all sorts in order to actually get that bridge built, each contributing to the completion of the whole.

And the real world demands more than just knowledge. It requires the ability to work well with other people, cooperating, and sharing. Traditional schooling, with its focus on competition for grades, tend to discourage the development of these vital traits, focusing instead on the hoarding of knowledge like one might a commodity.

If the purpose of schools is to prepare children for the real world, it seems we're going about it all wrong.

I know virtually nothing about dinosaurs, but I don't need to because the children, among them, know everything they collectively need to know. When the subject comes up, and it comes up often in preschool classrooms, the children share what they know, building upon one another's knowledge, disagreeing, discussing. We use words like carnivores and herbivores, concepts like extinction and evolution, and eras like Jurassic and Cretaceous. Some of them act out the behaviors of certain dinosaurs, moving their bodies and using their voices to bring concepts to life. Others ask questions, encouraging us to probe deeper. Some merely listen, absorbing knowledge that they can then share  with other children in other places, each of them bringing their own knowledge and abilities to the table to cobble together a perfectly age-appropriate curriculum. 

This is the way the real world works: this is how play-based education works. We come together around projects and ideas, working together for the benefit of everyone. What I know and what you know come together as what we know. And from there we create our world.

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Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Joy To Come

Our dog, Stella, has a collection of toys that we keep in a metal basket in the living room. She will go for weeks without thinking of them, but then, looking for something to do, I suppose, or for a way to engage my wife or me, will rummage through for just the right one, romp with it for a bit, gnaw on it, tantalize us with it, then finally leave it randomly on the floor. If we have company coming over, I might then put it right away, but typically I'll leave it out for a day or two because Stella takes such joy in "discovering" it again hours or days later. She'll spy it behind a chair and pounce on it, sometimes tossing it into the air, or maybe she'll give it a threatening growl before attacking. It's the accident of coming across it in these unexpected places, that makes it so much more fun.

The old Yiddish proverb, "Man plans, and God laughs," is usually applied those circumstances in which our plans are ruined, such as rain on our picnics or awaking with food poisoning on the days we meant to get things done. But it occurs to me that while we are often frustrated by our plans being thwarted by the unexpected, those accidents are just as likely to bring us joy.

Yesterday, I was watching a large group of children taking turns, hanging from the long metal bar that extends across the front of what we call "the stage." They were queuing up, some of them using a step stool to reach the bar, then one-by-one shimmying along it from one end to the other. They were referring to it among themselves as the "monkey bar." This bar is connected on either end to a pair of upright poles. There are another two poles on the back corners of the stage and a much taller one emerging from the ground in front of the stage.

As I listened to the children negotiate their game, the older, not always gently, teaching the younger about things like waiting in line and taking turns, I wondered what people might think of our set-up. Why are these poles here? The children regularly use them in their play, hanging from them, circling around them, tying things to them, attempting to climb them. They clearly bring joy, but at the same time they are clearly remnants from something that came before: not necessarily part of the plans.

Several years ago, a mother whose child was enjoying his parkour lessons suggested that we build a specialized climbing apparatus in an unused corner of the playground. I'm not a fan of climbers for school playgrounds because they tend to fall into disuse and then you're stuck with a big piece of inflexible equipment occupying a lot of precious space. When I hesitated at her idea, she said that not only would she pay for it, but that there would be no hard feelings if we decided to, in the future, remove it in favor of something else. So we wound up with a pretty magnificent parkour-style climber with bars at wacky angles. It was a popular thing at first, but then, as I expected, it fell into relative disuse after the children played the risk out of it. A year or so later, when we decided to build a platform (our playground otherwise had no flat ground), we removed the horizontal bars and built around the vertical ones, largely because they were set in concrete and presented a lot of extra work.

And now we have this happy accident in this corner of the playground, a place that no one would have planned, yet, in it's unexpectedness it brings such joy. God (or fate, if you'd rather) certainly does laugh at our plans, but he is not laughing at us. More often than not, I think, in the long run, he laughs with us, knowing the joy to come.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2019


It had started as a mutually agreeable wrestling match, the kind that often break out between five-year-old boys, but one of them, for whatever reason, changed his mind and called out, "Stop!"

This is something we work on at Woodland Park, the right to assert, "Stop!" And we've all agreed that if someone says, "Stop!" to you, you must stop and listen to what that kid has to say. It's safe to say that we are all much better at the former than the latter.

In this case the boy calling, "Stop!" which he did repeatedly, continued to "be wrestled" for several seconds before he was heeded. By then he was in tears. Through those tears he said, "I said 'Stop' and he didn't stop." This was said to me, not so much in the spirit of tattling, because I'd obviously been there all along, but more, I felt, the way one reports a crime to a cop.

I said something like, "I can tell that upset you. I would tell him what you told me." Of course, the child in question was only a few feet away and heard the whole thing, but my goal was to steer the conversation back where it belonged, between the children.

"I said 'Stop' and you didn't stop."

"I did too," a true statement, even if it had been delayed.

And here's the dilemma: it's quite well accepted that when an adult feels compelled to ask a question of a young child, one typically must wait 12-15 seconds, at minimum, for a response, something adults rarely do. It simply takes most preschoolers that long to process the information and formulate an appropriate response. In reality, I know that some children, especially when focused deeply on something, like the sort of joyful wrestling in which these two had been engaged, need quite a bit longer to pull themselves together enough to respond.

Our 4-5's class had, while engaged in formulating their rules, their agreements, came up with this particularly awesome one: "Don't do anything to anybody unless you ask them first." This is a step beyond the classic "Golden Rule" in my view, because it requires one to not just consider one's own perspective, but to actually inquire about the perspective of others, in order to receive, what we're calling in our contemporary parlance, "consent."

"No you didn't! I said 'Stop' and you kept wrestling and you didn't ask me to keep wrestling!"

I'm among those who don't understand why other adults are so confused about the idea of consent, especially when it comes to adult behaviors like sex. I have no questions about our cultural attempts to shift from "No means no," to "Yes means yes," but evidentially some people do, which has fueled a backlash against what some see as "political correctness" run amuck. But these are young children here, not adults. I think it's fair to expect adult people to stop more or less instantly when told "Stop!" by a fellow human, but we simply can't expect that from five-year-olds. Their brains and bodies simply will not allow them to do it, just as the brains and bodies of infants will not allow them to walk or talk.

As I watched the poor accused boy sit there at a loss for a response, I pitied him for this moment of what could only be a confused self-reflection. He had, from where I sat, done everything in his power to respond to his friend in a timely matter, and in fairness, it had not taken even close to 12 seconds to release his grip and roll off of his wrestling mate. He simply didn't know why he had continued beyond the hard line of "Stop!"

By this time the boy who had been in tears was wiping them away, while his friend's eyes were about to crest.

I was at a loss and probably should have left things as they were, but instead, I said, "You said 'Stop' and he did stop, but not right away." The emotional event had by now drawn a crowd of both children and adults. It didn't feel right to leave things like this in light of the fact that both boys, in my view, had behaved in an exemplary manner, one standing up for himself and the other, to the best of his developmental ability, had responded according to the children's self-imposed rules and, as evidenced by welling tears, with empathy. So I said, loud enough for everyone to hear, "Let me tell you something I know about five-year-olds: sometimes it takes 15 seconds before they can do what you want them to do." Then I counted out 15 seconds using my fingers.

No one said a word for a moment. I'd spoken, perhaps ill-advisedly, out of a place of not knowing what to say, and as we sat in silence, I figured I'd just blathered a few of those nonsense words that adults so often say to children. At least, I thought, the adults had heard me. We sat this way long enough that children began to return to their play, leaving the three of us alone.

I hadn't been counting on my fingers, but I reckon about 15 more seconds had passed. That was when the boy who had stopped, but not right away, said, "I'm sorry," then burst into tears.

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Monday, July 15, 2019

The Freedom To Think

I make no plans for what children will or should learn when they come to our school. How could I? For one thing, it's impossible to know what another person will or should learn, no matter how meticulously one plans. Only they can know that, although more often than not even they themselves don't realize what they are learning. To be honest, I don't even necessarily want the kids to learn anything, let alone according to some hopeful plan I've devised. It's not my business what they learn. It is only my business to create a place around which, and be a person around whom, they are comfortable exploring, doing, and thinking about whatever it is they want to explore, do, or think about.

I suppose I can understand the mind of the well-intended adult who seeks, in the children's "best interest," to inflict this or that piece of knowledge or way of thinking upon them, but it is exactly this hubristic notion that one knows other humans' best interest better than those humans do themselves that repels me. It's a mindset of possession, one that sets the adults up as masters of the child, people with so much power over these smaller humans that they even seek to control what they think about.

From John Holt's book Escape from Childhood:

No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than this. A person's freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interest and concerns us.

There are those who agree with this sentiment, in part, arguing however that there must, of course, be plenty of time for play, but it must be balanced with at least a measure of adult-led learning. What is appealing about this is the notion of balance, I think, this idea that for everything there is an opposite that must be placed in the scale as well. This shows up in our conversations about work-life balance, for instance, or the idea that the solution to every political problem must be found in the middle somewhere. It smacks of common sense, but I've found that more often than not, this approach merely leads to a muddle. I suppose that some freedom to think is better than none at all, but it's hard to imagine how one's life is made better by it being balanced with others directing half your thinking.

But what about important things that we all need to learn in order to live productive lives in the modern world, like reading or mathematics? How will children learn these things if they are only pursuing their own interests?

If reading is so important, and it is, then it seems only natural that a child, as they go about asking and answering their own questions, will come to this realization as a part of their freedom to think, then either teach themselves or turn to an adult or older child to help them learn. This is how it already happens for many kids. I have known any number who were reading without any direct instruction by the time they were five. Unschoolers who allow reading to emerge find that it does, naturally, as a part of their children's self education. Indeed, there is a growing body of evidence that reading is as fundamental to how humans have evolved as walking or talking. (This isn't to say that intervention isn't sometimes needed in the case of humans who are not neurotypical.)

Basic ciphering is learned the same way. As for higher mathematics, most of us won't ever need it, and for those who do, they can either teach themselves or find others to teach them as part of their freedom to think rather than being force-marched through algebra and calculous "for their own good." I'm sure there are many things that we now force children to learn that would fall by the wayside, but then we must ask ourselves, were they really that important to begin with? By the same token, I'm also sure that many new things would emerge, subject matter custom-tailored, self-tailored, to the one doing the actual thinking.

The human animal is fully capable of educating itself. This is the starting point for how I look at my role in the lives of the children who come my way. My job is not to compel or trick them to learn any particular thing, but rather to create a community, a place, and be a person in which and through which they can fully exercise their freedom to learn and think.

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Friday, July 12, 2019

"Why Didn't You Tell Me?"

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.

Some time ago, 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, Josephine quivering in tears, 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.

 I've 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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