Friday, January 20, 2017

My Colleague Who Knows This And Many Other Things

Our sensory table was built decades ago by someone who really knew what she was doing. It's made from solid maple, held together by long, brass screws, and finished with a marine varnish. The two square basins are galvanized steel. It predates me at the school, where I found it languishing outdoors. One of my first orders of business was to bring it indoors and have one of our handyman parents drill out a pair of drains to make it easier to empty at the end of the day. It's a good sized table with lots of elbow room so as many as a dozen kids can play there at once. The heavy-duty castors screech when we move it and the basins tend to get rusty over the course of the school year. I deal with the rust by "re-gavanizing" the thing a couple times a year; the wheels could be quieted with lubricant, but it's never risen to a level of concern that I've done anything about it. In a way I think of those squeaky wheels as her voice.

We've been teaching together my entire career, always there, always reliable, and almost always fun. I expect she'll outlast me.

On most days I fill both sides of the sensory table with the same materials: water, rice, flax seed, beans, various "goos" and potions, or as in the case of the photos you're looking at here, a mix of un-roasted and over-roasted coffee beans. Every now and then I'll put different materials in each side of the table (e.g., corn meal and coffee grounds) which tends to guide children into a frenzy of mixing, until the balance of the universe is restored and both sides are filled with the same material.

The fact that the sensory table is divided into two parts is an important part of who she is. Sometimes, like with what happened yesterday in our 3's class, there will be a few kids who want to play more wildly with whatever is in there, while others are interested in more contemplative play, so we'll designate one side for each style of play. But most of the time, the influence of her divided nature is more organic and subtle than that.

For example, when we finished the day yesterday, all the coffee beans, tree part blocks, and model Pacific Northwest animals had been moved to one side, leaving the other barren. Indeed, this is how the sensory table ends on most days in our 4-5's class, be it water, grains or legumes, and it has stayed consistent throughout the years. Sometimes it shifts back and forth several times over the course of the day. The 2 and 3-year-olds don't do it, but the older children always do it, and it's rarely the project of a single child, but rather a team of 2-4 working together, usually telling a story about a world that is experiencing a "volcano" or "earthquake" or "flood" or some other natural disaster.

There was a time when it bugged me, but as I've learned to let go, I've come to understand how important it is that children at this particular developmental stage do this. I could speculate why it's important, but it doesn't matter why they do it: the fact that they do it, that the always do it, is enough for me to know that they need to do it, together, telling their story while moving it all from one side to the other. I could guess why, but the way we do things at Woodland Park, the only one who needs to understand is the sensory table itself, this teaching colleague who knows this and many other things about the ways and whys of children's play.

I try to not get too connected to stuff, especially around the preschool where the relentlessness of play accelerates the decay of everything, but our sensory table has become a colleague who does things I can't do and knows things I can't know. The zen part of me knows that she is already rusted and rotted away, but I hope every day that she outlives me.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

"I'm Going To Need The Black Eye"

It's funny because it happened to someone else.  ~Homer Simpson

I don't think anyone who knows me would say I'm a cruel person, but I can't help myself. When anyone falls or gets hit in the head by something, I laugh. Not a big, old, mean-spririted belly laugh, but it's still clearly a guffaw, one that explodes from my chest far too quickly to be stopped. My mom did it too, even when it was her own kids landing on the pavement, so I come by it honestly, but I suppose it's a reaction that could be considered a real liability for a preschool teacher who is responsible for other people's sweet, innocent lion cubs. I've never had the lioness take off my head for it, but, you know, I could hardly blame her.

Sometimes it comes in handy, of course, this knee-jerk reaction at the slapstick misfortune of others. It causes me a moment's pause, it means that when the child looks around the first thing she sees is a smiling face, and often in that moment the child decides she's going to laugh too, sometimes right through her tears. It is, I think, a much more productive response than rushing to her side with furrowed brow -- that usually just makes it hurt worse -- but I can see why it sometimes makes me come off as heartless, even if in the next second I'm holding her in my arms, cooing soft words, as her tears warm my shoulder. I can only hope that I've made enough deposits into my loving-caring-nurturing account that when this happens the balance is still in my favor.

A few years ago, one of the guys in our 4-5's class, almost by accident, discovered a "catapult" made from wooden blocks. Before anyone knew what was happening, he'd stomped on one end, launching a small block high into the air, where it came down directly atop his own noggin.

I laughed, then said, "You hurt yourself."

He laughed too, "No, I didn't. It didn't hurt at all." 

As he re-loaded the catapult for a second launch, I said, "This time you might hurt yourself."

"No I won't." He stomped again and ducked almost simultaneously, causing the block to just miss his head. He repeated the process several more times, sometimes avoiding the falling block, sometimes not. A couple other kids gave it a go, each of them hitting themselves in the head. The whole time I was making the informative statement, "The blocks are hitting people in the head," although chuckling all the while.

One of his friends said, "Cool! I want to try it."

I said, "You're going to hurt yourself. The blocks are hitting people in the head." He ignored me, forgetting to duck and shooting the block, with velocity, into his own eye.

Yes, I laughed again, even though this time it looked like it might have really hurt. As he held his eye, I said, "Let me see it." 

He uncovered his face to reveal a red mark just below his eye and a huge smile that covered for the pain. He said, "I guess you were right, Teacher Tom."

I said, "I think you're going to have a black eye. I'll get an ice pack."

He answered, "What's a black eye?"

"It's when you get hit in the eye by something hard and you get a big bruise. Check the mirror, you already have a red mark."

He looked into a classroom mirror. I said, "I'll get an ice pack."

He answered, "No thanks, I think I'm going to need the black eye to remind me not to do that again."

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"I Did It!"

Someone placed a plank to bridge the newly formed gap between the final cedar round lining the lower level of the sand pit and the upper level of the playground. Two weeks ago that gap wasn't there, or rather, it was covered by sand that had, as sand does when played with on a slope, eroded downhill, filling in the low spots. An adult work team recently bent their backs to shovels and wheelbarrows on a sunny Saturday morning to move the sand back uphill, something we do thrice a year.

The older kids had immediately noticed the enormous pile of sand that now occupies the top of the hill, and it also hadn't taken long to realize that the sand level at the bottom of the hill hand fallen by a good two feet in places. The older kids have been working the cast iron pump that now sits atop the new sand pile to, as one logically would, make a pond in the new, large basin we've uncovered down below. As we adults have stood back, joking about how the kids are now systematically undoing all our backbreaking work, they've been stomping in a large puddle they're calling "the pond."

The two-year-olds, however, have been playing with the gap that the older kids haven't noticed. It may have been one of the older kids who placed the plank in that spot, but it's these younger children who have found a "just right challenge." It's not particularly high off the ground, perhaps 12-inches at its highest, but they've been cautiously inching their way across it, concentrating, not usually on their feet, but rather at a point a few steps ahead the way tightrope walkers do.

On Friday last week, I was standing nearby making a few comments like, "O is crossing the bridge," and "E is balancing," and "K is concentrating," just tossing out some words and concepts, in context. As I did this, more children, of course, were attracted to the play and soon there were a half dozen attempting to cross, from both directions. I didn't offer them coaching or suggest taking turns or urge them to all walk in the same direction, but rather continued making informational statements like, "O is trying to go down and K is trying to go up." They didn't say anything themselves, they were concentrating too hard, especially as the plank was bouncing unpredictably with the weight of other children moving on it, but rather tended to stop and simply stare at one another, silently asking the question, "What shall we do?" In every case, one child would choose to step aside or turn back.

One boy attracted by my words, P, found himself repeatedly in those impasses. He was trying to go up the hill, while the other children were coming down one after another. Each time, P shuffled a few feet along the plank, then when faced with a classmate, turned back and stepped off to make way, wordlessly. After a half dozen attempts, he gave up attempting to go against the flow and went off to find other things to do.

Yesterday, Tuesday, I found that the plank had been pushed aside, probably an unintended consequence of the pond play. Seeing it and recalling Friday's two-year-old game, I replaced the plank, then went about my business near the swings. P happened to be tummy swinging so I stopped to watch him as he studied the ground while slowly moving himself back and forth. After a bit, he broke from his reverie, noticed me and gave me a smile. Then the newly installed bouncy bridge caught his eye.

He approached the bridge from the uphill side, surveying it for a moment. No one was using it. He had it to himself. I expected he would give it a go, but he instead walked away, so I went back to goofing around with some other kids. A couple minutes later, however, I spied P again. He had circled around to the downhill side of the plank-bridge from whence he had made his attempts last week. Carefully, he stepped onto the bridge and slowly, slowly shuffled his way along the plank, his whole being concentrating on the effort. One inch at a time he made his way, unblocked and unmolested, until finally he stepped onto solid ground.

He looked into the sky and beamed, saying it aloud, but to himself, "I did it!"

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

These Are The Boxes We've Created

Years ago, my wife and I read Deborah Tannen's book You Just Don't Understand as part of a book club of which we were members. It was a fascinating look at how women and men tend to communicate differently. Everyone in our group agreed that she hit the nail on the head, except, of course, for when it came to us. None of us felt that we or our spouses fit the dichotomy, but the rest of the world did. I feel the same way about birth order: my siblings and I don't fit the theories, but everyone else does.

A couple boys found themselves playing with our collection of My Pretty Ponies and troll dolls, items usually found in the "girl" box.

We are always wrong whenever we try to put individual people into boxes based on their genitals or race or age or other accidents of their birth, but that doesn't mean that the boxes aren't real. Young children are born without knowledge of our boxes because they are a societal, not a biological construct, even as all of us, in our bigotry, sometimes live as if they are. A great deal of the learning that happens during the preschool years is learning related to those boxes: it's why most of the girls spend at least some time, even if only for a day, exploring princess play or why most of the boys, even if only for a day, explore tough guy characters like super heroes. These are the boxes we've created for "girls" and "boys," even as we strive to show them that they don't need to climb into those boxes.

"Help me! My baby is lost!"

When my daughter Josephine was a baby, I dressed her in overalls and kept her hair short. As she got older, we played sports together, worked in the garage with tools together, and generally did "manly" things. Then, one day, at around two-years-old, she came into possession of a bejeweled crown, put it on her head and said to me, "You just don't understand what girls do." She then wore a crown of some kind almost every day until she headed off to kindergarten. She was exploring that box because she had to explore that box, just as I had spent much of my boyhood playing at soldier or cowboy or Batman because I had to.

"I'll rescue her! What does she look like?" "She's orangish-yellow and has long hair and pictures of bows on her side."

Then, once we understand the box, we spend the rest of our lives trying to climb out as we strive to create who we are, who we really are, as individuals. Meanwhile, the rest of the world, in their lazy bigotry, seeks to keep us in those boxes, even feeling threatened by us or worried for us when we try to climb out.

"Don't worry, I'll find her!"

The boxes are real and at one level they are useful, just as Tannen's book helped me better understand "women." On the other hand, they are traps, just as her book told me nothing valuable about the individual women with whom I actually spent my life. We're not going to get rid of the boxes. Even if we did manage to tear them all up, we would simply, as a society, construct new ones because it's part of what humans do. I guess we just like to play with boxes.

What we can do, however, is to remember that the person with whom we are, just like us, is striving to climb out, and to offer them a hand if they need it.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

Maybe, Just Maybe

(I've posted a version of this post for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for the past several years. I believe that I identify so strongly with this holiday, with this man, because most of his story, and by that I mean the dream of which we've all been a part these past five decades, is the story of my life. In preparing the post for this morning, I wondered if I could post it again in light of our recent Presidential election campaign, but I think it remains fundamentally true, even if it seems that the pendulum has recently swung in the wrong direction. Of course there are still racists, but when I look back over where we've been and where we are going, I can see that the long arc of moral history is still bending toward justice, just as MLK dreamed it would.)

Nonviolence is absolute commitment to the way of love. Love is not emotional bash; it is not empty sentimentalism. It is the active outpouring of one’s whole being into the being of another.” –MLK
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." –MLK

When I was in 2nd grade at the Meadowfield Elementary School in Columbia, SC, there was one black boy in my class. He and I called one another “best friends”. We played together at recess. We were the two fastest runners in our grade. He never saw my house and I never saw his. That was 1968, the year Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Two years later the courts ordered Columbia to desegregate its public schools. Most of our neighbors chose to send their kids to private schools, but my parents put me on the bus to Atlas Road Elementary, a run-down facility in the heart of a poor, black neighborhood. One of my friends’ moms prepared me for my first day by telling me that she’d seen people “defecating in the roadside ditches” along Atlas Road. My parents, however, had taught me that we were all the same inside and I was thankfully young enough that I took them at their word.

I’m pretty sure my “three R’s” education was sub-par that year: to this day South Carolina’s public education system ranks near the bottom. But that wasn’t the point of desegregation. The point was to have black and white kids grow up together so that they could learn through experience what my parents had taught me: we’re all the same.

In fact it was economics more than race that marked the year for me. I was disappointed almost to tears when we exchanged Christmas gifts (each child brought one gift to be randomly distributed) and I wound up with a pair of socks that appeared used. And race certainly didn’t stop Shirley Jeffcoat from having a very embarrassing public crush on me. We were just kids together. We were all the same, except some of us were a lot poorer than others.

When I spoke to the kids at Woodland Park about Martin Luther King, I told them about segregated restaurants, schools, and water fountains and they agreed it was unfair. Owen, in particular nodded along with me, saying angrily, "That makes me so mad!" When I said, “Today we try to be fair to everyone,” he looked relieved. When I said, “It's still our job to help make Martin Luther's dream come true,” he blurted out, “Yeah!”

I believe that we have solid evidence that his dream is coming true. Of course, racism has not been eradicated in our country. Indeed, it has shown it's ugly face of late, but the kind of overt, day-to-day racism that confronted those kids with whom I went to school at Atlas Road Elementary has been in retreat my whole life. Racists are decisively in the minority and polls indicate that it’s an ever-shrinking one, even as we still have a lot of work to do on the kinds of institutional racism that continues to make life unfair for our black sisters and brothers. And it might not feel like it on this Martin Luther King Day, but it’s only going to get better because our children are growing up in this world we’ve created, not the one in which we grew up. Remember, as the great man said, "The arc of the moral universe is long."

The experiment of desegregation and civil rights worked and I’m proud that my parents had the courage to make me a part of it. It’s no accident that just as the “desegregation generation” came of age, we elected our first black president. I am aware of no other nation in the history of the world that has elected a member of a racial minority as its supreme leader.

This was a major battle in our ongoing Civil War: non-violence and love continue to win, because while the are of the moral universe is long, "it bends toward justice."

Love is not “emotional bash.” I’m more confident today than ever that love is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal. As MLK said, “I am convinced that love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism, but of practical realism. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, love is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love.”

As we celebrate today, we should feel good about ourselves. We are cutting off one chain of hate and evil. But racial justice is only the first part of the mission MLK set before us. The poverty I glimpsed in that 4th grade classroom is still with us, and there are still too many who think war is the solution.

Poverty and peace are next on our nation’s agenda: problems just as impossible to solve as overcoming racism in America. When the bus pulls up in front of our home, we must have the courage to put our children on it. We must fight evil with love. And we must not despair that we will not win in our lifetime, but maybe, just maybe, our children will see the promised land.

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Friday, January 13, 2017

Why We Need Freedom

A couple days ago, I illustrated a post with some photos of some skewer and berry basket play. The photos had nothing to do with the content of the post, but I'd liked the pictures and wanted readers to see them.

The foundation of what you saw had been created by an adult who had been messing around with the materials because the kids weren't. I'd been a bit disappointed, because I thought it was a cool provocation, and several children did swing by to investigate the adult-created sculptures, contributing a skewer here or there, but for the most part the kids didn't share my definition of "cool."

But I've learned over the years that it sometimes takes a few days and a few tweaks to spark their curiosity. So I've let it ride for the last few days, although I did move it all to a different table and added old-fashioned wooden clothespins, some cardboard egg flats, and a few plastic counting bears. And sure enough, over the course of the week, more and more kids engaged the materials with each passing day, finding more and more complex ways to interact with both the materials and with one another via the materials.

At first their attempts were along the lines of Monday's adult -- one child in solo play using the baskets and skewers for constructions -- but it wasn't long before they began collaborating. A couple kids, for instance, invented a kind of board game involving the bears and the egg flats, a game they called Castle Capture and involved a complex set of rules by which you could move your bears "between the mountains" in the quest to "defeat" your opponent. It played a bit like Chinese Checkers and I never once saw a castle actually captured.

Then someone discovered how the peg-style clothespins worked and found they could be used to connect the berry baskets. This innovation lead to an explosion of play at the red table as kids, usually working together and in constant conversation, began to manufacture increasingly complex structures, both physical and social, sharing engineering and dramatic play ideas with one another in a mini-frenzy of viral learning.

This, of course, is how most of humanity's greatest advancements have occurred, people coming together in the spirit of cooperation, sharing their ideas and wisdom, sparking off one another, lifting one another, supporting one another, until something new and better emerges. It's the sort of thing, however, that can really only happen when humans are free: to associate with whom they wish; to tinker for hours and days; to think their own thoughts, try their own experiments, and to collaborate without the heartless mandates of beat-or-be-beaten competition.

I tried to remain aloof from the goings on at the red table, standing fully erect, observing, not wanting to step in and accidentally step on their freedom, because, you know, we're all counting on these kids.

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Talking, Laughing, And Making Up Stories

Over the weekend we had one of our thrice yearly, all-hands-on-deck, Saturday workdays. I can count on some 20 able-bodied folks to show up at each of them because participation is a requirement of enrollment, but also, honestly, I believe that most of our families would show up even if it wasn't.

One of the things we did was pull all the furniture away from the walls and sweep up all the debris that has collected there. While doing this, one parent came across our box of plastic sea creatures and mentioned that her daughter "V," a shark fan, would be thrilled if we could play with them, especially the sharks. So I've had the sharks in the sensory table this week.

We have several model sharks, but the "center piece" of our collection are four Great Whites, larger than the others in scale, with wide open, tooth-lined mouths behind which are their deep, hollow bodies. They are the reason I often segregate the sharks from the rest of our marine animal collection: they tend to invite a kind of play that involves aggressively jabbing the damn things in other people's faces, which not everyone likes. So, on Monday I put them in the sensory table and prepared myself to coach the kids through their episodes of jabbing.

Our 3's class more or less ignored them, but the 4-5's class, in which our resident shark admirer is enrolled, mobbed the table. I'd provided more than just the sharks, including dozens of smaller fish, octopi, lobster, artificial seaweed, and our collection of polished petrified wood, recently given to us by Pastor Gay's husband Leonard, an accomplished rock hound. There was no jabbing. Instead, V and her friends stuffed those hollow sharks full of whatever they could shove down their throats, while talking and laughing and making up stories.

I am always struck by this type of play: children using surrogates like these sharks to interact with one another. In most cases, each child at the table selected one of the sea creatures to be "me."

"I'm your baby!"

"I'm going to eat you!"

"I can fly!"

"Let's pretend we're friends . . ."

No one teaches children to wield these kinds of hand-held avatars. It comes naturally, perhaps not to all kids, but a lot of them. Of course, the classic of these surrogates are dolls, but we've all seen children do it with cars or rocks or flowers or just about anything one can hold in one's hand. It's something fundamental to learning to play with other people, a way to experiment with roles, environments, and situations; to try out, for instance, what it would be like to live in water with no arms and legs, but rather a powerful tail, rows of sharp teeth, and an insatiable appetite. And through that alien avatar play, they deepen their understanding of working and living together.

By the end of Monday, the group around the sensory table was essentially down to V and a couple of her oldest friends. They spent a good 20 minutes using the hollow sharks to scoop the water from one side of the sensory table to the other, eventually leaving one side dry, all the while talking and laughing and making up stories.

They played sharks on Tuesday and yesterday as well: being "me" the shark, emptying one side of the sensory table, "making an ocean" on the other. And all the time they've been talking, weaving their story together, one that has continued in installments for three days. And at no point did our sharks feel compelled to jab themselves into the human faces of their friends, leaving us adults with nothing to do but watch.

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