Monday, June 24, 2019

What’s The Hurry?

I have spent my adult life trying to figure out why parents and society put themselves into a race -- what's the hurry? I keep trying to convey the pleasure every parent and teacher could feel while observing, appreciating and enjoying what the infant is doing. This attitude would change our educational climate from worry to joy. ~Magda Gerber

It seems to me that the greatest gift we can give to other people is to let them know we love them just as they are. That we've all heard this before in some version or other makes it no less profound and no less precious.

I think that's what we do when we simply let ourselves be with young children, without that sense of possession or protectiveness or responsibility that too often attends our interactions. It's in those moments of two humans simply being together that we convey this vital knowledge of unwavering love to even the youngest children, who themselves are then permitted to be, without the obligations that come with being possessed, protected, or a responsibility.

I'm grateful to such blog-o-sphere guides as Janet Lansbury and Lisa Sunbury who continue to educate me about the ideas of Magda Gerber, and it's this idea of sincerely and carefully observing (what I think I have previously understood incompletely as "waiting") that resonates the most with me. But this observation is an essentially academic act, I think, without our own appreciation and joy in what the infant is doing or what we are doing together. Not only do we ourselves come to a deeper understanding of the child, but it's only through this heartfelt appreciation and joy that we actually convey to children the unconditional love that is our gift.

It may seem strange, I suppose, for many of us to understand that we, at best, stand on the planet as equals with all the other people, including young children. We are each fully formed, fully valid, fully functional human beings no matter our age. Naturally, we have different lots in life, different blessings and challenges, and are on our way to different places, but we always remain, most of all, worthy of being loved for being exactly who we are.

Parents and teachers traditionally see our role as helpers, instructors or guides; agents for moving young children through the world from point A to point B along their developmental track, ticking off milestones in baby books or report cards like we might a shopping list, taking pride in each "accomplishment." We can't help but look ahead, to anticipating the next destination, worrying about the next bumpy patch, feeling guilty about our failings when we lose our way or fall behind schedule. It makes us impatient, lead-footed, prone to live outside the present moment as we move relentlessly toward a future. We forget to just be with our children as they are right now. That future child does not exist: this is the real child, the one before you right now, and she is perfect.

We are, in fact, at our best when we manage to successfully override those urges to help, instruct, or otherwise guide a young person and instead give him the space and time to struggle, to practice, to come to his own conclusions. This, not our superior experience or intellect, is the great gift we have to give to children: to stop, to really see who they are right now, and be with them in appreciation and joy, loving them just as they are.

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Sunday, June 23, 2019

Creating Connection In A Previously Disconnected World

“Teacher Tom, that tree is peeking out from behind those other trees.“ He made his observation as we sat together at the top of the playground. He enjoys telling me his observations, usually of the most mundane things, but often made poetic by his instinctive use of metaphor.

For instance, he once said, “That boy is an island,” while referring to a classmate who was standing up to his ankles in a stream of water run down the hill of our sand pit. “The clouds are building snowmen.” “That music is hitting my ears.” “My hair is making curtains on the side of my face.” It’s as poetic as it is descriptive.

I’m currently reading Peter Wohlleben’s bestselling book, The Hidden Life of Trees. It’s a fascinating read. At one level it’s a fairly mundane popularization of the science of trees and forests, covering everything you might want to know from seed to nurse log. On another level, however, it is magnificent metaphor. Instead of sticking strictly with “facts,” Wohlleben tells the story of trees as having friends and enemies, mothers and families, as suffering pain and joy. He writes of trees that have their own characters, of being bold or timid, generous or stingy. Wohlleben’s trees seem to have brains, capable of retaining memory, learning lessons, telling time, and having an ability to communicate and cooperate with one another. While it’s possible to dismiss it all as sentimental anthropomorphizing, it’s also impossible to ignore the clear similarities between the behaviors of trees and those of humans. And whether or not trees actually possess these traits and capabilities, his metaphors connect trees to human behaviors in a way that makes the stories he’s telling more poignant.

Wohlleben’s use of the metaphor of “migration” to detail how various species come to populate different regions over time, for instance, creates a story in a way that the dry scientific language never could. And, of course, it is intriguing to consider that trees may indeed have a social and emotional life similar to our own because in considering it, either as metaphor or fact, one is lead to insight and understanding far beyond what is possible to gain from more prosaic language.

Humans can hardly think without metaphor and simile. They allow us to compare our experiences with previous ones, finding parallels and shedding light, creating connection in a previously disconnected world, often in wonderful and surprising ways. Trees that peek out from behind other ones, boys who become islands; this is how we create our world. It is uniquely human, or, as Wohlleben makes me wonder, perhaps not.

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Thursday, June 20, 2019

Recombobulation Area

I’ll be traveling for the next couple weeks (which explains why I’ll be posting here at odd times). I started my journeys in Milwaukee where I was honored to speak at the Summer Spark Conference hosted by the University School of Milwaukee. I’m not the first to note that air travel can be a challenging experience: it took me almost a full day and three flights to get there from Seattle. Then on Wednesday morning, I set out on in the direction of Sydney, Australia, and another set of three, even longer flights. After passing through the TSA security line, carrying my shoes, belt, and jacket, I came to the sign in the photo at the top of this post.

Recombobulation Area.”  Nice. It cheered me up to be standing under it as I, appropriately, recombobulated myself alongside my fellow travelers who were likewise recombobulating.

We need more recombobulation areas in our world. We spend so much of our lives striving to be “combobulated,” but try as we might it can never last. Of course, our homes are such places, but you never know when you’ll find yourself discombobulated. Schools and places of work should definitely have such places set aside for when we, for whatever reason, lose it.

I expect I’ll be less combobulated than normal during the next couple weeks. If you want to come see me Down Under and help me get recombobulated, you can find my public events in New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria by clicking here and scrolling down. Hope to see you!

Here’s a note from my hosts at InspiredEC: 

If you are coming to one of Teacher Tom’s Australian events this month, please get in touch with InspiredEC ( for your coupon code. This will enable you to pre-order his book at a discounted price and collect it at the event! Pre-orders are closing soon. Be quick! If you haven’t booked, check out the events here!

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

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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Responsibility Of All Good People

The US government is running concentration camps on our southern border. (If you have any doubts about the truth of this statement, please, please click this link and read the article.) Thousands of people, many of whom are fleeing for their lives, are being imprisoned in these overcrowded camps simply for exercising their internationally recognized right to come to our border in search of asylum. I am not using the term “concentration camp” as a metaphor. I’m not using it hyperbolically to imply that these facilities share some similarities with actual concentration camps. These are full-on, actual concentration camps, by definition, which is the term for the mass detention of civilians without trail. And there are some 50,000 people currently imprisoned in our concentration camps.

These are not (yet) “death camps,” like those the Nazis ran at Auschwitz, although at least 30 people, including 6 children have died in them, but they are concentration camps nevertheless. In fact, the President intends to beginning using a place called Fort Sill in Oklahoma, a place that served as a concentration camp for Japanese-Americans the last time we succumbed to ignorance and fear during WWII. We said “never again,” yet here we are.

But this is about more than mere ignorance and fear: this is about an administration that is engaged in unabashed racist cruelty as policy. And these are not just concentration camps for adults: thousands of children have been kidnapped by these monsters, some as young as four months old, put into cages, and kept from their parents for months on end. Some have reportedly even been given up for adoption to American families. Many are sick. They are living in overcrowded filthy conditions. Perhaps these are not death camps, but this behavior is genocidal, and if we the people allow it to continue, I fear that it won’t be long before we will have actual death camps on our hands.

The President meanwhile makes jokes about shooting them. Funny guy. His is the face of pure evil. These are times of pure evil. And now that you know this, now that you cannot claim ignorance, if you continue to support this man, you are aiding and abetting evil in the same way the so-called “good” Germans aided and abetted the cruel policies of the Nazis. Indeed, even if you don’t support these monsters and their policies, if you remain silent, you too are aiding and abetting this evil. More children will have their lives destroyed, more will die. We cannot distance ourselves from this: it is being done in our name.

We must, each of us, stand up and speak out. Our representatives need to hear from us, our friends need to hear from us, our friends, neighbors, and co-workers need to hear from us. Please use your social media platforms, make phone calls, write emails. Lives have already been destroyed, so in that sense it is already too late, but it isn’t too late for someone. This is not a political matter — it is a matter of the highest moral urgency — but the only solution is political and raising holy hell is the responsibility of all good people.

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You’re Right, Your Child Is A Genius

Every parent I've ever met knows their child is a creative genius. Sometimes they come right out and say it, but most often I see it in their sense of awe as they share the stories, anecdotes about their kids. Sure, they most often frame it as "cute," but you can see it in their faces, in the tone of their voices, in the wide-eyed enthusiasm with which they talk about their kids that they are genuinely impressed and even amazed. One of the best parts of my job as a teacher in a cooperative preschool, in fact, is that I'm not just surrounded by these genius kids, but also by their parents who tend to be "turned on" by their children's genius. And as they spend time in the classroom working alongside me as assistant teachers they invariably get to know the other children and, in turn, become amazed by the creative genius of not just their own child, but all the children.

One could argue, of course, that this is just the parenting instinct at work. Certainly they aren't all creative geniuses. Certainly, true genius is as rare among preschoolers as it is among adult where it is found in a relatively small percentage of us. That may seem like the most likely explanation, but it's not, at least according scientists working for NASA who have found that a full 98 percent of the 4 and 5 year olds they tested fell into the category of "creative genius," while only two percent of adults do. And lest you think that this is just an isolated incident, the results have been replicated over and over again.

Sadly, these scientists have also found through longitudinal research that the percentage of creative geniuses falls to 30 percent by the time the kids are 10, 12 percent at 15, and a mere two percent among adults. The scientists who performed the research assert that it doesn't have to be that way, that virtually all of us could go through life as creative geniuses, but that our abilities have been systematically deadened by traditional schooling. I won't go that far. I believe there is something about the structure of society at large that tends to dumb us down with or without schooling, but it's something worth thinking about.

Here is a short TED talk by George Land, one of the authors of the study:

From the time I was a young man, I've always said that I didn't care how I spent my days just so long as I got to spend my time amongst "great brains." I did my time in academia and business, but it wasn't until I discovered my own child's genius that I realized that preschool is where the geniuses really are and that, perhaps more than anything else, is why I've stayed.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Job

It's been at least 20 years since I last slid down a slide. I sometimes sit in the swings at school, but if I actually swing it is only to go back and forth a couple of times before getting off. Likewise, I don't roll down grassy hills, play on merry-go-rounds, or enjoy seesaws. I did all of those things as a boy, of course, enthusiastically, and I have fond memories, but they have lost their savor in adulthood. Indeed, some of those things actually cause me pain and nausea. No, I've grown up, finally, and these are children's games.

That doesn't mean I've stopped playing, it's just that as an adult, I've learned what I need to learn from playgrounds. Last Friday, my wife and I went out dancing. I like figuring out what my body can do, what our bodies can do, especially to unfamiliar music. That's one of the ways I play as an adult. There are some video games I like; I like messing around in the kitchen; I'm a dilettante woodworker; I've even learned to enjoy travel, even if it is sometimes very hard for me. In many ways, when my life is working the way it should, it's all play: I'm doing what I want to be doing, trying things I haven't tried before, following my curiosity, meeting new people, failing, trying again, bickering, cooperating, sharing, living in the moment, and ultimately learning new things both about myself and my world.

That is the purpose of play, of course; it's our education instinct at work, but it's easy to lose track of it as an adult in our culture. We tend to see being an adult as being "responsible," which all too often means playing it safe, planning ahead, covering our bases, reducing risks, being reasonable, and avoiding, at all costs embarrassing mistakes. As a result, we learn less, becoming increasingly calcified in our habits and opinions, a vicious cycle that tends to manifest in doughy bodies, inflexible minds, and a world-weary suspicion that we've seen it all. One would think that a guy like me, someone who spends his days around children engaged in play, would be immune to it, but you would be wrong: just because the people around me are playing, it doesn't mean I am.

Just as play is the work of childhood, it is also the real work of adulthood. Our job in this life is not the thing we do to make money, it is not even the things we do for joy. Our real job, the job that we will never finish in this lifetime, is to learn a little more, to seek enlightenment, which is, I think, the adult word for education.

So while I'm not necessarily playing with the children I teach, if I'm doing it right, I am still playing: I'm in the here and now, observing, taking notes, loving, and trying to understand what I see and hear as these play experts slide down their slides and swing in their swings. Often, their moments of epiphany, and there are dozens every day on the playground if we only really pay attention, are also our moments of epiphany, one leading to the next in the open-ended nature of play. When I'm not doing that, when I'm watching the clock, when I become a mere manager of activities, I've forgotten that ongoing enlightenment is the job. But when I remember, that's when I'm an adult who plays.

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Monday, June 17, 2019

Bridging The Gap To Come

The picture at the top of this post is an end-of-year present I received from a five-year-old. She dictated this message to her mother:

Teacher Tom,

I drew you a picture. It's a dragon with a big eye and a seashell and a rainbow over her head. It's a magic dragon who thinks she can jump over a puddle without getting wet, but even if you are magic you might slip in a puddle! She's a nice dragon, not a mean one. And she doesn't have a belly button.

I love you, Teacher Tom. You are nice an you tell funny stories.

I'm always touched by the thought of a child sitting down to think of me, to create something for me. Creating art is part of what it means to be human; creating art specifically for another person is to share a part of oneself, part of your uniqueness, something that has never been shared before, nor will it be shared ever again. It is a gift of love.

Mister Rogers wrote:
There would be no art . . . if human beings had no desire to create. And if we had everything we ever needed or wanted, we would have no reason for creating anything. So, at the root of all art . . . there exists a gap -- a gap between what the world is like and what we wish and hope for it to be like. Our unique way of bridging that gap in each of our lives seems to me to be the essence of the reason for human creativity.
When this girl sat down, thinking of me, she did so with the knowledge that she might not see me again for a long time, perhaps never again. It's a concept that she perhaps isn't fully capable, at five, to comprehend, but when I think of her creating this for me, I imagine that our impending "apartness" was in some aspect there with her, something that neither of us want, even if we know that it has always been woven into the fabric of our relationship. I likewise imagine that she was thinking of the funny stories, the ones we tell together, and she wanted to leave me with one to remember her by, one embedded with an important message about paying attention, a unique way of bridging the gap to come in both our lives.

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

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Friday, June 14, 2019

That Is The Beauty Of Pain

Most babies cry within the first few minutes of their lives. It seems that at least some babies even cry while in their mother's wombs, apparently in response to unpleasant stimuli, like the mother's use of tobacco or as a response to certain sounds. Newborns cry, on average, for two hours out of every 24 and by six weeks they are crying for three hours a day.

We are born knowing that there is pain in the world and it doesn't take long for any of us to likewise discover that pain comes in many forms, both physical and emotional. We learn quite early that life can be unfair, disappointing, and frustrating. No matter how much we want to, we cannot protect our children from becoming experts on pain, nor should we even if we could. Of course we protect them, of course we do what we can to prevent unnecessary pain, but we will all, invariably, continue to learn the lessons of pain right up to the day we die.

Just as we know that a baby's cry is a form of communication, a signal to the world that something is not right, that something needs to change, we likewise know that pain is a message. In the beginning we must rely upon adults to make the changes needed, but the older we get, the more we come to rely upon our own resources to take action against our pain, although we will always need other people: there is no greater suffering than to suffer alone.

As parents of newborns, we see it as our job to mitigate their pain, to find the cause of their tears, and to then take actions to soothe them, to teach them that while there is pain there is also an end to pain. And this is, I think, the most important lesson we learn from our pain: it will end and it will require the help of others to bring it to an end. This is why babies whose cries are not answered roll over and die. This is why prisoners kept in solitary confinement descend into insanity. We don't like our pain, we do whatever we can to avoid it, but when we suffer, and we inevitably must, we have no recourse other than to reach out to our fellow humans, to connect with them, to be soothed by them, and we too, in turn, must soothe them. That is the beauty of pain: every cry is a cry in search of you.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
                                     ~John Donne

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