Wednesday, December 13, 2017

I Could Write Volumes, But That Would That Would Be Total BS



It wasn't until mid-morning that I noticed the box, there on the table just inside the gate to our playground. Someone had written "Junk (& Debris)" on the side. I figured it was something Teacher Rachel had cooked up for the kindergarten class so left it there. Later when I asked her about it, she told me it had been there when she had arrived and also that it said, "Danger" and "Caution" on it as well. Upon further investigation, I found that the mystery box-leaver had also written "Loose Parts" in large bubble letters. I still didn't know who had left the box (although I have my suspicions which I hope to confirm later today) but it had clearly come from someone who "got it."


After checking to make sure that the box was not, in fact, full of danger, I re-taped the top and took it indoors to unwrap properly during circle time.


I told the kids how I'd found the box and we speculated about what might be inside. A few of them squinted at the words, trying to sound them out. One of the girls got "Junk!" but the ampersand and the non-phonetic spelling of "Debris" stumped them so I read that for them, "Junk and debris," explaining that debris was basically another word for junk. We also sussed out the warning words, which lead us to wonder if the box might be full of dynamite or poisonous spiders. Finally, we read the phrase "Loose Parts" which meant nothing to us. Several of the kids scooted themselves away from me as I made a show of opening the box, heeding the warnings.


Inside, where items worthy of the label "loose parts." There were a couple different kids of wood off-cuts, a bag full of some sort of metal clips, a box of glass mason jar lids with their orange rubber seals, a large stack of yellow styrofoam trays like they use in the meat departments of supermarkets, and several dozen tubs that might have once contained some sort of yoghurt. As we went through the items I said things like, "I wonder what we could use these for," which, of course, prompted the children to offer their ideas. The wood, they thought, could be used to build our treehouse, for instance. When I pointed out that the containers I had originally thought to be for yoghurt had tiny holes in the bottom, something that disappointed me a bit because it limited their versatility, one of the kids immediately suggested that they would be perfect for planting seeds in the spring. Brilliant!


Stupidly, I then began to pack everything away again, striving to be as tidy as our benefactor, only to have several of the children object: "Why don't we play with everything now?" "Just put them on the checkerboard rug instead of blocks," "We could build some good bad guy traps with those," and "We should also have some animals to play with them." So I got out a box of small "critters" and that's what we did.


I could write volumes about what I saw happening as the children played with these random materials and speculate about what they were learning, but in all honesty, that would be total BS on my part. The truth is that I have no more idea about what they were learning from their play than the children did about what was in the box before we opened it. I could have spent my time grilling them about what they were building, creating, discussing, and pretending with an eye toward somehow gaining a better understanding of what was going on in their heads, compelling them to focus on my curiosity rather than their own. I could, I suppose, have pre-tested them prior to opening the box, then re-tested them after playing with the junk, but what would be the point? I don't need to know what they are learning, only they do. It's none of my business what they learn as they play.


So I just left them alone, secure in the knowledge that they were attempting to teach themselves what they most, in that moment, wanted to know, following their own interests and passions. That's enough. Any more than that is BS.























Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

I've just 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!
Bookmark and Share
-->

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Words Matter




Have you ever seen one of those prepubescent beauty queens? You know, the ones whose moms dress them up like adult women, bouffant their hair, and give them make-up to make it look like they have 18-year-old heads on five-year-old bodies? We're appalled. It's both grotesque and sad. We pity the little girl and scorn the mother, blaming her for sexualizing her innocent child.

We don't, of course, accuse the girl herself of being "sexy." We all know that she's been taught to go through some motions that are otherwise meaningless to her. A girl that age is incapable of being sexy, but she is capable of imitating a set of behaviors she's been taught are aspects of being female, at least within her sub-culture.

Young children do a lot of things without an inkling of the adult connotations of their behaviors. When my daughter was a 4-year-old preschooler she was part of a gang of 4-5 girls who spent their days playing together, sometimes to the exclusion of other girls, fairly typical age-appropriate behavior. At about this time a couple of the moms from our school were reading a book entitled Reviving Ophelia, a fantastic, insightful book by all accounts about the toxicity of our media culture to adolescent girls, an aspect of which was the whole "mean girls" phenomenon. These moms decided that my daughter, my 4-year-old daughter, was a "mean girl," discussed it among the other parents and even went so far as to take their concerns to the teacher, all of this without speaking with me. This is likely a good thing for them because I'd have shown them what mean is really all about.


Reasonable people know that words like sexy or mean are not appropriate words to use to describe children. Frankly, it's the worst kind of vicious, back-biting name-calling. So why do so many feel it's okay to describe young boys as aggressive? A 2-year-old boy who hits a friend knows no more about what he is doing than those sad little beauty queens. A 4-year-old who experiments with his power by shouting fiercely at a playmate is no more an "aggressive boy" than my daughter was a "mean girl" simply because she experimented with the powerful feelings that come from excluding others. The same goes for the word violent. A young boy may engage in behavior that adults perceive as violent or aggressive, but he no more knows what he is doing than the little girls who parade across stages in bikinis. At some level, they have been taught that these behaviors are aspects of being a male in our culture. You personally may reject these behaviors (in fact, most of us do), just as you may reject the ritualized sexual behavior of adult beauty queens, but believe me, the kids are just trying things out and they have no idea, or a very twisted idea, of what it means.


Labeling young boys as aggressive or violent is in itself a kind of aggressive, perhaps even violent, behavior. Try this mental experiment: what do you think it would do to a little girl's future if she was repeatedly labeled sexy? Only a cruel or perverted adult would do that. Yet this is what happens to our little boys with the words aggressive and violent. Words matter.

Our job as important adults in children's lives is to help them understand what their behaviors mean, not to label them. And we don't do that by treating them as we would aggressive, violent adults, but rather by engaging in rational conversation, by honestly discussing our own opinions and values, by helping them come to an understanding of how their behaviors might be perceived by others, by pointing out the difference between cartoons and real life. You know, just as we would with our girls when they experiment with sex appeal or exclusion.


Please stop using the words aggressive and violent to describe young children. You are wrong and you are doing damage. And please point it out when others do it. They are wrong and they are doing damage.

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

I've just 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!
Bookmark and Share
-->

Monday, December 11, 2017

Meetings




It would be an exaggeration to say that I could count all the meetings I'd attended by the time I was 19 years old on one hand, but not by a lot. I mean, there were those Cub Scout pack meetings where we sat in the church pews and our baseball coaches often called it a "team meeting" when they sat us down in centerfield to lecture at us, but those weren't meetings as I came to know them as an adult. We might have called them "meetings," but they were generally just one-way streets with adults standing in front of us lecturing.

In other words, these "meetings" were more or less like school where we had all been taught to sit in our assigned seats, to only speak when questioned, and only then if our raised hands were selected. We were chastised for whispering, passing notes, cracking jokes, or getting up from our seats out of turn. We were even expected to ask permission to go to the toilet. Things loosened up a little in high school -- as I recall there were no assigned seats, for instance -- but generally speaking this was the nature of "meetings" up until, suddenly, we were out in the world where the "skills" we had worked so hard on developing over the course of the better part of two decades were made moot by reality.

In adult meetings, there are no assigned seats and people whisper, pass notes, and crack jokes all the time. We leave our seats to go to the toilet, to get a coffee refill, or to run any number of other small "errands," including just pacing around in the back of the room when our legs start to cramp up. Heck, some people don't sit at all, instead choosing to lean against a wall, while others might, in more informal settings, opt to sit on the floor. Most of the time we forgo hand raising altogether with folks chiming in as necessary, like in a conversation, but even when the group is large enough that we need to raise our hands it's simply as a tool for making sure everyone get to speak and be heard rather than as crowd control.

On Friday, I wrote about how we too often expect more out of children than we expect from ourselves and this is another of those instances. The only time during our school day that we expect all the children to convene is at circle time, our daily classroom meeting: 15-30 minutes typically during which we come together and practice being in a group, raising our voices together, engaging in discussion, making decisions, telling stories. I know there are some play-based educators who treat these meetings as optional, but for us they form the backbone of our small democratic society. We do tend to raise hands, but not always, only when there are so many voices trying to be heard that we need a way to take turns. There are no assigned seats. Children can sit, kneel, or lie down. If they want to stand, we have designated the back of the room so as to avoid blocking the views of others. We practice whispering should we have something to say to a friend. No one has to ask permission to use the toilet. In other words, we run our circle time like the meetings I attend as an adult, including setting the agenda.

I know that most of them will move on to more traditional schools, places where they will be expected to behave in ways that are rarely found outside of schools and it's possible that their teachers will struggle with these kids who have grown accustomed to democracy, but I have no interest in preparing them for that. My job isn't to prepare children for school, but rather for life, and I will not hold children to standards that I don't live up to myself.


Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

I've just 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!
Bookmark and Share
-->

Friday, December 08, 2017

Transitions



I have the best job in the world. I can think of nothing I'd rather be doing with my time on the planet, yet each Monday morning I reluctantly pull myself from bed, reluctantly get dressed, and reluctantly make my way to work. And this is nothing compared to the feeling I have upon returning from a holiday break. Just one more day, I beg the universe, even as I know that I'm returning to a place I love and where I am beloved, a place of joy and purpose, a place that feeds my soul. It's not until the children start arriving, however, that I find myself back in my element and those feelings disappear not to return until the following Monday.

When parents ask why it is that their kids so often resist coming to school when it's clear that they love being at school, I use the example of Monday morning. Transitions are hard for everyone, harder for some than others, and that doesn't change as we get older. The difference is that we adults have had decades to figure out rituals and philosophy and mind games to help us over the hump, whereas children are still new at this. If I had a parent to push back against on Mondays, believe me, I would.

As adults, however, we have nothing to rely upon other than our sense of responsibility to get us out of bed in the mornings, but that doesn't mean we have to like it. And kids don't have to like it either. The transition each day from home to school is the biggest, but there are typically two or three other transitions throughout our school day, places for us to practice the rituals, philosophies, and mind games we're going to need as we get older. One of the things that eases my Monday morning transitions are those little choices I get to make: maybe I'll sleep in later and take the bus, maybe I'll get up earlier and eat a proper breakfast, maybe I'll do things in this order or that order. That's why I typically survey the children prior to any transition, going around the room or playground asking the children if it's time to "bang the drum," our signal for transitions. Many tell me "right now" but most request two or five or seven minutes more, an accommodation to which it is easy to agree. Some ask for "one hundred minutes," to which I respond by letting them know what they will be missing if we don't make the transition in a timely manner, a bit of information that almost always causes them to nod and agree to some smaller number.

Some are still reluctant when the moment arrives, but generally speaking, we manage it with philosophy instead of tears. No one is told how to handle the transitions: most pitch in with tidying up, some even take the lead, while others mill about or even hide in a corner, children making little choices to ease the transition. Most importantly, there are no adults commanding them to do anything other than, perhaps, move out of the way.

Too often we expect more from young children than we do from ourselves, something I am reminded of every Monday morning.

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

I've just 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!
Bookmark and Share
-->

Thursday, December 07, 2017

What It Means To Be Equal And Free



Very often, when those who live outside our progressive education bubble hear about our practices, their response is to envision a sort of chaotic mob rule, in which children are allowed to run wild. They warn of devastating consequences, of children who will grow into criminals or sociopaths, and that what we are doing will lead to a sort of tyranny of the children in which Hobbesian brutishness rules the day.

These are, of course, very similar to the arguments that have always been made against democracy, and by some accounts (but by no means all) these fears did come to pass to some extent when the ancient Athenians attempted to govern themselves through direct democracy, a form in which there is a danger that the will of the majority will trample the rights of a minority. Our founders were, of course, aware of this potential for "tyranny of the majority" and so when choosing what form of government to embody in our Constitution, they went with a republic in which representatives are elected democratically. In other words, instead of government directly controlled by the people, it is indirectly controlled: what dictionaries at the time defined as a "representative democracy." Encyclopedias have been written, and will continue to be written, discussing the nuances of the republic vs. democracy debate, one that I'd rather not engage in here, except to say that however you define our form of government, we are, together, attempting to self-govern with democracy as the centerpiece, and that, as it has been from the onset, is a grand experiment.

Similarly, our little cooperative preschool democracy is an experiment, one not bound by a constitution, but rather by the presence of loving adults. This is not, as some fear, an exercise in laissez fair parenting/teaching, but rather a laboratory in which we provide the space, tools and autonomy in which children experiment with what it means to live among one another as equal and free citizens.

It is my view, one shared with our nation's founders, that a well-educated citizenry is the foundation of a democracy.  The longer I've been a teacher, however, the more aware I become that our standard educational model, the one that emerged largely from the factory model of the Industrial Revolution, a model that supposes we need only fill those empty vessels with letters and numbers and dates, moving them along from grade to grade, is not up to the standards required for self-governance.

I believe we've lost sight of the promise of our nation. I cannot recall ever hearing an elected official speak of education in anything other than economic terms, and I have never heard one connect it to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I rarely hear of our presidents or legislators spoken of as "representatives," but rather as "leaders." Voters stay away from polling places in droves, apathetic, let alone engaging in the day-to-day processes of democracy, not caring or perhaps not knowing how. Or worse, not feeling that they can or should have any impact on the civic life of our nation. We distrust and vilify government, painting it as a "them vs. us" conflict, and when I dare to point out that "them is us" I'm scornfully asked, "Where have you been hiding?"

The average citizen has withdrawn from the process of self-governance, leaving behind a vacuum that has been filled by political parties, corporate lobbyists, and radical partisans, who have taken us so far away from the promise of self-governance, that many of us, if not most, feel helpless in the face of it, withdrawing and wishing pox on the whole lot of them, castigating political discourse as base and impolite.

I teach the way I do, because, I suppose, I'm an idealist. I do believe in the promise of day-to-day, retail self-government: the kind of government that is made up of friends and neighbors capable and willing to discuss the issues of the day over their back fences, in their churches, and while waiting in line as the supermarket. The kind of government in which we the people are capable and willing to listen, to debate, and to think for ourselves. I'm the kind of idealist who believes that schools should be preparing children to engage with one another as equal and free humans who are fully enfranchised.

I teach the way I do because I want the children who pass my way to have the opportunity, at least during their time with me, to practice what it means to be equal and free. In part, I write about it here because I hope that others will be inspired to do the same. We are a young nation and our experiment in democracy is only just getting under way. If we are to succeed, it won't be because some hero swoops in to save us, but rather because we decide we must do it together, day-to-day, thinking critically, speaking honestly, listening passionately, and acting as if we are, indeed, equal and free.

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

I've just 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!
Bookmark and Share
-->
Related Posts with Thumbnails
Technorati Profile