Friday, September 20, 2019

Getting Home Safely

While visiting Athens, Greece some time ago, I decided to challenge myself to find the house our family lived in when I was a boy of 10-13 years old. It involved taking a train from downtown to the neighborhood of Kifissia, cutting across a large park, passing through the village, then winding my way around a maze of suburban streets. Arriving there from memory without a hitch, I set myself the additional challenge of locating the old American Club where I'd spent a lot of my childhood leisure time. This required a bit more trial and error, but I found that as well. Feeling good about myself, I elected to return to the train station via an alternative route and proceeded to get hopelessly lost.

There was no phone reception, so resorting to GPS was out of the question. I came across precious few fellow pedestrians out during the heat of the day, and I couldn't make myself understood to the ones I did solicit. I was too shy to knock on doors to ask directions. Of course, at one level I knew that I would find my way home. I would eventually find a place of business or wander out of the telephone dead zone, but there was a primal edge of panic there nevertheless, one that didn't go away until I found myself back in familiar territory.

It's unsettling to not know how to get home. As author and poet Diane Ackerman wrote in her book A Natural History of the Senses, "(R)oaming is one of the things humans love to do best -- but only if they can count on getting home safely." I think this is particularly true for young children and explains the undying popularity of such classic tales as Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, the story of a boy who roams, has strange adventures, then returns to the security of home. It is knowing that we can get home that allows us to be bold, which is where much of the magic in life is found.

I'm thinking about this here at the beginning of the school year as preschoolers everywhere suffer from separation anxiety. Even as we assure them that mommy will come back, that we will take care of them, that they will return to their homes, they still don't quite believe it. They are in an unfamiliar place without phone reception. Our assurances might appeal to their rational minds, but until they are convinced that they will get home safely, their journey will be one fraught with anxiety. This is an ancient human fear, one that can only be assuaged through practice, through learning the "map" of how to get home.

It takes time for children gain this knowledge, longer for some than others. They create their "map" home through practice, familiarity, and routine. It's obviously vital that they know we adults can be trusted, that we love them, but that is only the beginning. We can provide comfort and predictability, but the difficult, frightening work of finding the way home is theirs to do.

This is important work. The knowledge that we know the way home, safely, is ultimately what allows us to feel powerful, confident, and bold in the world.

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Thursday, September 19, 2019

An Exception That Proves The Rule

Yesterday, we painted with "long paint brushes." These are regular paint brushes duct taped to lengths of bamboo. 

Sometimes we hang the paper up high so that the use of long paint brushes makes some sense, but on this day our paper was low which means that their length contributed nothing more than to add an arbitrary level of difficulty. Despite this, whenever the long paint brushes are in use, they are in demand. This has been true over all years that we've been painting with long brushes, with children queueing up for their turn, calling out, "I'm next!" and "I want to try it!" Even children who don't normally chose to participate in art typically want have a go with the long paint brushes.

Using long paint brushes requires a level of concentration that isn't necessary with regular brushes. The children tend to move more slowly, more deliberately as they take aim, as they dip the tips of their brushes into the paint pots on the ground, as they strive to control the shape and direction of paint on paper. There is almost a meditative quality to the process as they stand or sit together, shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing a canvas.

I've never witnessed a child attempt to paint "something," like a person or a house or a tree. Getting paint on paper seems to be enough. If there is ever a "goal," it is to "paint all the white parts," something the children often spontaneously decide amongst themselves.

I suppose we could make it an individual project, one where each child gets their own piece of paper on a separate easel in order to manufacture something that they can later take home. I suppose we could offer more than three long brushes at a time to minimize the wait time. But in doing this, I expect, we would lose something. 

Normally, making something arbitrarily difficult is a sure-fire way to cause frustration, ultimately killing enthusiasm, but long paint brushes seems to be an exception that prove the rule.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Parts To Be Used Again

When I arrived at the Woodland Park Cooperative School some 17 years ago, my predecessors, a cohort that stretches back for over 40 years, had amassed an impressive collection of table top toys, manipulatives and construction sets intended for children playing either alone or in small groups. A few of them are truly vintage items, things that I treasure because they were so well-made or are particularly beautiful. Many I've disposed of in one way or another, usually by either giving them away or tossing them into the glue gun box for children to re-purpose for sculptural creations. And then there some that live on simply because they won't die.

The plastic building set in these photo is such a set. The construction technique required is fiddly, the possibilities fairly limited, and the plastic brittle. Still, I've found, that if they are available, there are always one or two kids who will set themselves the challenge of playing with them.

I don't think anyone took note of them on Monday, other than to, perhaps, knock a few on the floor as they walked past. On Tuesday, one boy spent several minutes messing around with them, I think largely because he was seeking a place away from the hubbub. Then on Wednesday, he went straight to the table upon which I'd plunked them. After nearly a half hour of uninterrupted work, he had built a massive, random structure, using nearly all the available pieces. I had thought that I would just let him take it home with him and be done with the set forever, but when it came time to tidy up, he dismantled it as meticulously as he had built it.

On Thursday, I spied him at the table again, this time building with a purpose. When I stopped by to admire it, he explained it was a "vehicle," showing me how he had figured out to make it look as if it had wheels. I wasn't the only one attracted by his work. Soon a group of boys had gathered around, both admiring and seeking to imitate their classmate who they treated as an authority. Soon they all had vehicles of various sorts. "Mine's a zoom laser motorcycle!" one declared. "Mine's a speed mech!" "Mine's a vehicle . . . like his!"

People often accuse me, lovingly of course, of being a pack rat or middle class bag lady, due to my penchant for not wanting to let things go, but this is why I keep things like this around, even when they aren't always "popular." These moments are worth the storage space. As I watched the kids enthuse over their creations, cobbled together using unfamiliar materials, according to their own lights, inspired by a friend, I thought of those building sets sold in toy stores today. The ones with a picture on the box that children are expected to imitate, that rely on less fiddly building techniques, and that are inspired by television programs or movies. I've known too many children who build with these new sets once, then put them on a shelf as "finished" products, never to be dismantled because this, according to the instructions, is the only way to use them.

When it was time to tidy up, the children, like their friend who had inspired them through example, dismantled their creations as meticulously as they had built them, reducing them to parts to be used again.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2019

"The Earth Is Flat"

Awhile back, I was in Alberta, Canada to speak at a conference. Arriving at my hotel late and hungry I stopped into the restaurant for a bite. There were a couple of other single gentlemen travelers dining at the bar so, in the interest of a little light conversation, I joined them. One of them turned out to be a truck driver, a regular, who offered recommendations from the menu. He was a good humored, talkative fellow. We started with sports: I know little about hockey, so I allowed him to educate me for awhile, but then the conversation began to stray as conversations do.

At one point, in response to something I said, I thought I heard him respond, "Well, you know the earth is flat."

Thinking I'd misheard, I said, "Excuse me?"

"The earth is flat." He was smiling so I interpreted it as a joke. I laughed.

He laughed along with me while saying, "I'm serious."

I've heard there are people who believe the earth is flat. I know they exist. There is even a Flat Earth Society, but I never thought I'd meet anyone who would admit their belief in public. "Really?"

"That's right, the earth is flat."

I started laughing. Thankfully, he laughed along with me. I asked, "How can you believe that? What about the astronauts who've looked down on the earth?"

"Every picture I've seen looks flat."

"How do you explain that an airplane can take off from an airport, fly in a straight line, and wind up landing at the same airport?"

"The earth is disk shaped. They just fly around the edge."

"So all the scientists are lying?"



"That's what I'd like to know."

I was full on laughing by now. He must have been familiar with this response because he took it well. We went back and forth for several minutes as I gamely tried to poke holes in his belief, but he was firm. We parted ways on friendly terms, his only concession being that he knew he was in the minority.

As a preschool teacher, I often find myself in conversations with people who believe things that are simply not true, who are convinced that there are Tooth Fairies and Easter Bunnies, who assert that Star Wars is real because "I've seen it," who have invisible baby sisters. And it's not just children. I know adults who believe in things that cannot be true, even if their ideas don't usually sound quite as ludicrous as a flat earth or a man who comes down your chimney bearing presents. Indeed, I often find it charming. I once read a poll that found that 80 percent of Icelanders believe in the "hidden people," trolls and fairies and whatnot. And, I suppose, at one level, I found this man's belief in a flat earth to be charming, he left me chuckling after all. But then one begins to wonder what other crackpot things he believes and to then realize, with a shudder, that he has the right to vote.

I was seven-years-old when I watched Neil Armstrong become the first human to walk on the moon. By then, I must have been familiar with the earth as a globe, but it was this event that cemented the idea for me, making it real. I spent days wondering about it, considering gravity, blowing my own mind with thoughts of people on the other side of the earth experiencing night as I was experiencing day. Today, I don't know any five-year-olds who do not know that the earth is a sphere. Yet I also know that there are adult people, probably many of the same people who believe the earth is flat, who contend that the moon landing was a hoax.

From John Holt's book Escape from Childhood:

No amount of ignorance, misinformation, or outright delusion will bar an adult from voting . . . (There are) people who believe all manner of absurd, fantastic, and even dangerous things. None of them are barred from voting. Why should young people be?

As I daily consider the intelligence, wisdom, and compassion of young children, I wonder the same thing.

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Monday, September 16, 2019

What They, And We, Ought To Be Doing

He found the cart at the bottom of the hill, checking it first by squatting to get a closer look at the wheels as if to confirm, Yes, it has wheels.

Grabbing the cart with his fist, lacing his fingers through the basket because the handle broke off long ago, he pulled it behind him with one hand. From time to time he stopped to look at his cart as if confirming it was still there before continuing up the hill. He pulled then stopped then pulled then stopped until he was at the top of the hill where he turned around and pulled that cart back down the hill.

As he descended, he tried turning to look at the cart without stopping his momentum. It was challenging. He stumbled several times on the uneven ground without falling, concentrating on the act of keeping track of what was before him while simultaneously keeping track of what was behind him, all while moving back down the hill.

At the bottom he once more turned around and started back up the hill. By now he was quite competent, walking several stumble-free steps at a time while looking backwards, moving forwards. By now he seemed convinced that the cart was always still there: now it was the wheels that drew his interest, those wheels that had drawn him to this project in the first place.

I imagine he was thinking about how they turned, perhaps comparing the four wheels, finding them the same or maybe different. The cart is light enough that he sometimes lifted some of the wheels off the ground. When he looked back at those raised wheels, they were weren't turning at all. It's possible he took that in as well, but I don't know in the same way I don't really know what anyone is thinking or learning or feeling until they tell me, and even then I may not know. 

It's not my job to know. It's my job to be here, watching, thinking. It was my job to provide the hill and the cart and the freedom to pull it up and down the hill.

Not long ago, a grandmother who had been working alongside me in the classroom for a couple weeks said to me, "I figured it out. It's like in therapy. Our job is to just to listen to what they say and repeat it back to them." I'm proud that our school is a place where adults have that kind of epiphany.

And when they are not saying anything, when they are pulling a cart up and down the hill, teaching themselves how to do it, asking and answering their own questions, then it's our job to reflect that as well, to say nothing at all, not "Well done" or "Good job" or "Look at you!" but rather to simply watch and wonder and to know that they are doing exactly what they ought to be doing.

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Friday, September 13, 2019

Thank You, Jasper, For Teaching Me And For Being My Friend

Last night I attended the memorial for Jasper "Jazzy" Echo Toms. It would have been his 17th birthday. 

My friend Peter, his father, said, "This was not part of the plan." I cannot imagine the pain his family must be suffering. Parents are not meant to outlive their children. My friend Laura, his mother, asked us to keep him alive by telling our stories of him.

I first met Japer when I was his sister Zsa Zsa's teacher. He was a bump in Laura's belly. His family came to Woodland Park to change my life, introducing me to the intentional practice of creating community through art. That picture at the top of this blog is of me playing with Jasper's family on a summer solstice when he was still my student.

I don't usually use the word "cute" to describe children, but that two-year-old Jasper, with his chubby cheeks on top of a 100 watt smile was the definition of cute. He was a boy who tried everything, but seemed mostly interested in people, both his fellow classmates and their parents. He loved to talk, to ask questions, to explain. Even in the midst of classroom chaos, I would find him engaged in conversation, looking people in the eye, his eyebrows lowered in concentration as if really trying to understand.

As he grew to be three and four-years-old, he was everyone's friend, playing with girls and boys alike, never isolating himself in one group or game for too long. It was as if he knew there was always something or someone else amazing for him to experience. At any given moment you could find him, never alone, always talking, building with blocks, pretending in a costume, squishing the play dough, or holding court at the snack table.

There was one type of play that seemed to genuinely concern him, however. He didn't care for play that involved weaponry or fighting. It didn't frighten him as much as confuse him. Should a sword fight break out he would stand off to the side, watching, clearly trying to comprehend what he was seeing. He may have gamely tried to join in once or twice, like a scientist trying to figure something out, but always stepped away after a minute or two, not sure how to take part in this energy without engaging in what he evidently viewed as unsavory behavior. These were his friends, he wanted to play with them, but not that game.

He always had a silly sense of humor and by the time he was five, he had figured out that this was how he could enter into the rowdy play, not as a combatant, but as a mirth-maker, the person who caused the others to lay down their weapons to join him by rolling on the floor (sometimes literally) laughing. The "joke" I remember most is the one-liner of simply saying the nonsense word, "Dodo!" In a way it was beneath him, this play for cheap laughs: he was an articulate, thoughtful boy and I recall almost feeling sorry for him, but he had discovered the power of lowest-common-denominator humor. Before long "Dodo" was the punchline to every classroom joke, a guaranteed laugh line, one that got funnier and funnier as the year went on. When the five-year-olds decided to write and perform an original play, Jasper chose to be a character called "Dodo," a silly jester type who was in every scene.

I learned last night from his high school classmates that he was a boy who would not be defined by social status or type, that he was a "social butterfly," a boy at home in every "friend group," be it the popular kids, the band geeks, or the debate team. I couldn't help but reflect on him as a preschooler, even then a part of every group, and when he came across one he didn't understand, he studied, then found his way into the rowdy play group without compromising one bit on his innate sense of right and wrong.

I often saw Jasper outside of school as well. One evening, we were both at a fundraiser for the Fremont Arts Council. Various artists had created art from umbrellas and it was being auctioned off. I had made a donation at the door and so hadn't intended to bid. Jasper crawled into my lap and told me he thought we should get the "dog umbrella for the school," a piece made my the artist Sarah Lovett. It was a dog fashioned from plastic mesh atop a Whinny the Pooh umbrella and filled with battery powered LED lights. It was a perfect addition to our classroom where it hung from our ceiling for years.

I saw Jasper less and less as he got older, the typical pattern of relationships preschool teachers have with their students, although we did periodically cross paths. One summer day, I found myself alone with 12-year-old Zsa Zsa and 9-year-old Jasper. Zsa Zsa had just entered middle school and had discovered one of the great truths about modern education. She went on a rant about the "total irrelevancy" of what she was expected to be learning. She would "never use it in real life." And there was Jasper, years ahead of his time, backing his sister up, providing examples from elementary school to prove the point. When I shared this memory with Zsa Zsa a couple days ago as we were sitting shiva she told me with a laugh, "We always shared a lot of joint outrage at the world."

It's not right that parents should outlive their children. As Peter said, the world is now dimmer. Jasper had grown into a fine young man, a man who had, even as a 16-year-old, already touched so many lives. But Laura is right, he will never truly be gone so long as the rest of us keep him alive through our stories, our memories, and the deeds we do on his behalf. Thank you, Jasper Echo Toms, for teaching me and for being my friend.

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Thursday, September 12, 2019

I Hadn't Expected That

A while back, I met a well-known architect who designed a building for children that has received international acclaim. I've not seen the building in person, but judging from the videos and photos, it appears to be a beautiful, well thought out, special place for children. At one point, in private conversation, I praised the building, then asked what I thought was an interesting question, "What was your biggest surprise once children and teachers actually started using the space?" He replied, "Nothing. There were no surprises. The people used the building exactly as I expected."

I didn't believe him for a second. English isn't his native language, so I have to allow for something to have been lost in translation, but I've been around young children long enough to know that nothing ever goes exactly according to plan. I'm quite certain that there are aspects of his building that children have commandeered for their own purposes, that other aspects are entirely ignored, that things have already had to be changed or altered to allow for the advent of real children in a real space. And I also know that these unknown unknowns change from year to year as the mix of children change, and month to month as the children grow and develop, and week to week as the kids invent and collaborate. The only way for things to go even close to "exactly" as expected is for the adults to act as dictators, and even then, the kids will find a way to make it their own.

I've been writing on this blog almost every day for a decade now, sharing my best thinking on whatever it is that's on my mind. Occasionally, I go back and look at some of the things my younger, less wizened self thought to be true, but not too often because it can be painful. A great deal of it is cringe worthy, especially when it came to my expectations. A prime example is what I called "Little World." If you want to take a journey though this aspect of my personal journey, you can find those posts under the tag "Little World" located on over there on the right-hand column under the heading "Teacher Tom's Topics."

At the time, we had just begun our community's our attempt to transform outdoor space to better serve children, a process that has ultimately lead, a decade later, to our current state-of-the-art junkyard playground. Little World emerged from my nascent understanding to the theory of loose parts. My idea, which seemed somehow brave at the time, was to set aside a small patch of our playground for the building of fairy houses. For this purpose, I curated a collection of bits of bark, moss, pinecones, rocks and other natural items, along with figurines of trolls, unicorns, fairies and other such magical creatures. The idea was to have this place set aside for Little World play. At first, the children played with it exactly as I expected, but very soon began to transport my precious items outside of the Little World area, taking the figurines to the sandpit and the pinecones to the garden. I found myself constantly scolding, "No, that belongs in Little World." It took me a good month, to finally realize that this would never go exactly as I expected. Looking back it was the beginning of my understanding of the true nature and value of loose parts: they must be loose and the children must be permitted to make it their own.

A couple days ago, one of those original little fairies turned up on the playground. Not much bigger than a dime, it has somehow managed to move with us from our old building on the top of Phinney Ridge, to our current place in Fremont. It has remained missing for years at a time, but keeps turning up at the tips of little fingers. When I saw it, I enthused about it like one might upon bumping into a long lost friend. Children gathered around to look at it, taking turns handling it, treating it like something special because of my reaction. And then, as suddenly as she had re-appeared, she was lost again, amidst the debris of our junkyard playground. I've been thinking since then about my journey, one that has been paved with disappointed expectations.

When I got home from school, I was emptying my pockets, and there she was again, this fairy from the past. One of the children had apparently slipped it in there without my knowing. I hadn't expected that.

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