Friday, August 28, 2015

In Real Life, I Assure You, There Is No Such Thing As Art

In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra. ~Fran Lebowitz

For me, the moment of despair and frustration tended to come upon me while sitting in the hot circle of a high intensity desk lamp, alone and blurry-eyed. Why do I have to do this? I'll never use it in real life. And indeed I know I am not the only one who hasn't factored a quadratic equation since high school, yet I do employ some of the philosophy, the hard logic, of algebra nearly every day. I was right about the specifics, but wrong about its usefulness.

No one ever pretended to explain to me how algebra would be applicable to real life, yet no one, even me, ever doubted that there was value in studying it. We chuckle at the Fran Lebowitz joke because for most of us it's true, but we never once consider stripping algebra from the curriculum.

Usefulnessapplicabilitypracticality: these are tricky words when it comes to education. Many of the things we learn in school are not obviously useful, applicable, or practical in the vocational sense, but we rarely doubt they are essential.

Art (and in that I include music, dance, theater, etc.) of all our academic pursuits, stands virtually alone when it comes to having to defend itself in terms of usefulness.

Not long ago, a reader wrote:

. . . the school our kids are going to has a big emphasis on art but by the end of the 6 years all the kid's artwork looks the same.

I don't know anything about that specific school. I'm sure it's a fine school, but when the art classes are producing cookie cutter art, it's likely because the curriculum has been tainted with the curse of usefulnessapplicability, and practicality. These things should not be the starting point for education, but viewed rather as its inevitable bi-products, just as the hard logic of algebra remains with me long after I've forgotten how to solve for x.

As a preschool teacher in a progressive cooperative school, I don't generally feel the pressures to teach "useful" stuff. Everyone in my protected little world seems to embrace the notion of an open-ended, exploratory art process, one in which the end result is secondary to the act of creation. My colleagues teaching older children, however, especially as they approach middle school, feel intense pressure to demonstrate usefulness in everything they do, particularly when it comes to art.  Art for art's sake is all well and good for preschoolers, but now it's time to knuckle down and get serious. It's an attitude that often forces art teachers to focus on artistic technique over actual creativity. Art students in this environment often find themselves learning more about "useful" things like composition, brush work, and color theory, than about their own creative process.

Artist, teacher, and rattle snake wrangler Anna Golden from over at Atelierista once expressed her frustration in having to defend art education:

Sometimes I have to justify art education to people as a tool for getting into college, or something . . . but really, what's wrong with art, anyway? What if we all drew things and danced and sang? Would that be so bad? And why can't these rigid thinkers see that artists don't see what they do as genres or labels? It's just making stuff, or being who you are, or exploring. I so wish people could see art the way young children see it. It makes me want to think of a new name for this thing we do. Let's call it creative thinking, or fun, or learning, or Fred. That'll fool them! 

She really touched the right note when it comes to my own artistic endeavors. More often than not, when I get to work on something, I start with the question, "I wonder if I can even do this?"

When I made the piece in the picture below, for instance, it started with the idea of a saw embedded in the stack of books.

If you want to see more of my art click here for my online gallery.

There's a part of me that wants to make up a story about this piece of art after the fact, one that demonstrates my deep thinking on the relationship of humans to their knowledge, tools, and the creative process, but the honest truth is that I just thought it would look cool.

I carried the idea around in my head for weeks, not necessarily planning to make it, but one day as I killed time in a thrift shop (not an unlikely hang out for a middle class bag lady) I spotted this incomplete set of the The Complete Handyman Encyclopedia. I was struck immediately with the corny joke about an incomplete complete encyclopedia and liked the idea of my saw slicing into these particular books. While standing at the cash register forking over $7, I thought it would look particularly cool to sink four long bolts through them as well. I had no idea if it was even possible to do what I was thinking about doing. Or rather, I had no idea if it was even possible for me to do it. It was exciting to finally fire up the circular saw and lay into those books. Would the spinning blade cut properly or just shred the cardboard and paper? Would it be a nice clean cut like I envisioned or would it be a mess? How deeply should I cut? Is it dangerous to be using this tool for this purpose? Will the cut be too wide to hold the hand saw securely? Would I have to resort to glue? What kind of glue? These and dozens of other creative questions and challenges raced through my head even while I was in the process of angling into the tops of those do-it-yourself manuals. Everything about getting those bolts installed was a struggle. I cursed and sweat. I regretted that I didn't have a drill press, but only the measly 3/8" hand drill I've been using since I was in college. The paper dust kept getting impacted in the holes, and the holes refused to line up through the entire stack. I had to stop frequently because the pages kept smoking, threatening to burst into flames -- at least that was my fear. Would some scorch marks add or detract from the finished piece? I sweat and I cursed and I nearly gave it up several times. At one point there were tears of frustration in my eyes, and as I tightened down the last of the nuts, cinching the entire thing into a flexed muscle of kinetic energy, I experienced a wave of relief and joy and "I did it, you stupid m----r f-----r!" that can only come from being on the other side of the creative process.

Just making stuff. Being who I am. Exploring. 

Not long ago, I was out to dinner with a businessman who was going on about his idea that every child, whatever they plan to do with their lives, should have the experience of being "on the line for making a profit." I don't disagree, but the same argument applies to making cool stuff (which is what I think we ought to rename "art" if that's something we need to do). 

When a child approaches our art table, easels, or work bench, she most often just gets right to work, although sometimes she'll ask, "What are we doing?"

The right answer is, "I don't know," or simply to start listing the materials at hand, "I see tape, paint, scissors, pipe cleaners . . .

. . . and trust them to explore, curse, sweat and struggle their way through their own creative process on the way to making cool stuff.

In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as art. But knowing how you make it can change your life.

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Thursday, August 27, 2015


Yesterday's post showed the kids playing with a building set called Magna-Tiles, which is something of an anomaly at Woodland Park, especially outdoors, where we are, more often than not, found playing, quite literally, with garbage.

A more typical example is the boy, barely two, who approached me earlier this week with a single plastic vehicle wheel attached to an axel. He showed it to me saying, "Broken."

I echoed, "Broken."

He held it up higher and said again, "Broken."

I repeated, "Broken."

We have a lot of broken toys out there, some of which are out there because they are broken. Stuff rarely gets thrown out at our school, but rather becomes part of a process of moving toward the trash, over time, until it's just gone, probably buried in the sand or wood chips. I often ask the children if they're ready for me to toss items. Usually they aren't, then proceed to incorporate whatever it is into their play. The other day I found a chunk of what's left of a ceramic souvenir figurine that was once an Inuit mother holding her baby. All that remains is the mother's face and a bit of her arm. When I said it was broken and asked if it should go in the trash, the kids told me they needed it as an ingredient for the "soup" they were making, and so it's still out there somewhere, a shard of ceramic still not finding its way into the landfill.

Among our still fully functional items is a small collection of ancient yellow construction vehicles of various gauges, although, to be honest, this "broken" wheel and axel didn't necessarily come from any of those. As the boy toddled off, he headed toward where we generally pile those trucks at the end of the day. He then proceeded to pull the vehicles out one-by-one, checking each, no matter how big or small, until he finally found one with a pair of missing wheels. He then dropped to the ground and spent the next 15 minutes attempting to repair the broken toy: playing.

As much as I like the Magna-Tiles and their built-in capacity for being assembled into aesthetically, mathematically, and engineering-ly appealing structures, this, what this two-year-old did, finding something that is broken then trying to fix it, solving a real world problem, much better represents what a proper education ought to be about. As the great educator John Dewey said, "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself."

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

First They Need Their Childhood

Why are so many of us so afraid to just let children play? 

Yesterday, we got out our boxes of Magna-Tiles. These are cool, popular building toys. If your classroom doesn't have a set or two, I recommend them. As I watched the children build, I noticed a battered page of instructions at the bottom of the box that bore the headline Magna-Tiles "where math, science & creativity meet." The text then goes on to discuss Pythagoras and the history of mathematics. To their credit, they do recommend that children be allowed to explore their toys through open-ended creative play, but the very fact that this needed to be emphasized at all is a bad sign.

It's as if we've become convinced that young children are just wasting their valuable time when they "just" play, that every minute spent not exploring math, science and creativity leaves our kids another minute behind those Chinese kids who, legend has it, never rest. The fact that all play is educational, that all toys are educational is beside the point: when did we lose sight of the fact that play is what children are supposed to do?

I reckon we can, at least in part, blame the corporate education reformers who have intentionally sewn seeds of doubt about the efficacy of our educational system, selling the story that our schools are failing, causing parents to fear that junior is fall behind, that even those precious evenings and weekends when their kids aren't engaged in homework or extracurricular enrichment activities must be chock-a-block with things like Pythagoras. 

When did we forget that all play is educational and because of that all toys are educational? Maybe we never knew it, of course; maybe our grandparents just sort of intuited that kids needed play, that they didn't need adults hovering over them drilling them with stupid questions or "teaching" them this or that. Maybe they just understood that without play, and lots of it, there is no childhood.

As I watched the children using Maga-Tiles to create castles and cars, squares made of squares and triangles made of triangles, as I heard them negotiate for blocks and tabletop space, as they chattered about their thoughts and discoveries, it didn't occur to me that they were doing anything other than playing, having fun, until I spotted that sheet of instructions telling me about Pythagoras. We were outdoors, on the playground. No one was making them sit at these tables to build with these plastic, magnetized blocks: they were choosing it, freely, and they could just as freely walk away which many of them did the moment it stopped being fun. Or rather, the moment something else looked like more fun.

And even as I write that, I can see the fear-mongers wagging their fingers, I can hear them tut-tutting: "Where's the grit? Where's the rigor? How will they ever learn about hard work?"

Anyone who has spent any time watching young children play knows that grit, rigor, and hard work are at the heart of all true free play. What they really mean to ask is "How will the children ever learn to do the rote tasks that others demand of them?" Or perhaps, "How will they learn to obey?"

That isn't what childhood is for, although that's what adulthood sometimes teaches us, and no amount of practice makes it any easier, unless what they're talking about is "breaking them." What kind of Dickensian villain would take away childhood in exchange for the work house?

At the end of the day, after the families had left, the Magna-Tiles packed away in their boxes, I reopened them to remove that sheet of instructions and threw it in the recycling. Play is its own reward; the kids don't need that piece of paper around encouraging adults to make it "educational." First they need their childhood.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Stopping The Coal Trains

Last summer, a couple hundred of us gathered at Westlake Center in downtown Seattle, listened to speakers warn us about the dangers of fossil fuel pollution as well as speakers who pumped us up about alternative energy, after which we marched down to a waterfront railway crossing where we successfully blocked a coal train making its way to one of our region's ports where it was to be shipped, I think, to China. It was quite exhilarating to actually force one of those trains to back up.

On Saturday, I met a friend at the Olympic Sculpture Park, which is at the same railway crossing, and we found ourselves waiting for several minutes as a long coal train passed us by. Business as usual.

That's the thing about fighting against big business. They don't have the moral high ground and we can make them back up on any given day, but they know that when the sun goes down we citizen activists have lives, families, and jobs to attend to. They know that if they just back up, hunker down behind a well-crafted press release, and wait, we will go home and they can go right back to hauling that coal in open cars, right through the heart of our city. They are relentless in their pursuit of a greasy buck.

A similar thing is happening with the corporate sponsored Common Core federal public school curriculum (yes, it is a curriculum). Last year, we bruised and battered the corporate reformers, with well-publicized test boycotts, many states withdrawing, and polls showing a rapid deterioration of support among teachers, parents, students, and the general public. I've declared it dying, if not dead, on these pages and I'm not the only one, but even as I wrote it, I knew I was really just engaging in some hyperbolic celebration of our progress, because even I am not naive enough to think that Bill Gates and his profit hungry crew would back their coals trains up for good.

Today, I want to draw your attention to a couple of important posts on other blogs. The first is from the incomparable Anthony Cody writing under the title Common Core PR Offensive Rewrites History to Ignore Failure, in which he details the slick efforts of corporate reformers to regroup and begin once more driving their coal train through our city. For instance, they are now attempting to claim that it wasn't just an ivory tower coalition of businessmen and politicians who created Common Core, but rather that "teachers were involved," an assertion that only avoids being a lie based upon a technicality:

The statement that "teachers were involved in the creation of Common Core" is like saying that the seamstress who hems your trousers was involved in making your suit. In reality, the Common Core was originally drafted behind closed doors by a small group of people what included only one teacher . . . At the time these folks seemed almost proud of the fact that the work was being done in secret.

And that one teacher was a college professor. There were no early childhood educators involved at any level. There wasn't even any field testing.

Cody takes apart the current PR spin piece by piece and it is well worth the read because I expect the hype will only ramp up as the new school year begins and it's important to know how to listen to these charlatans.

Another piece to which I want to draw your attention is by Peter Greene of the Curmudgucation blog fame, writing for Alternet, in which he addresses one of the most pernicious and, frankly, disappointing aspects of these PR efforts. They have managed to persuaded many well-intended teachers that the Common Core standards would actually be "just fine" without the high stakes tests. It's pure crap, of course, because Common Core is really all about the tests and simply can't be separated, just as the standards themselves are written in stone and cannot be changed:

(T)he (Common Core State Standards) are part of a coordinated, interlocking machine, and its creators will never let you take only a piece of it home. The testing regimen is not its own separate thing that can be just thrown out, any more than it was its own thing when it was the engine of (No Child Left Behind). If you want only one cog, you can't extract it from the machine.

Or as Cody concludes:

Common Core tests take the flaws of No Child Left Behind and magnify them, and the test scores project forward a thoroughly false image of a student's ability. I am sorry that people who know better (or ought to) think that we can "work together" to make this system work. Any system that uses these standards and tests as its engine will take our students and schools into a deep ditch.

If you are involved in public education in any way, and likely even if you're not, you will be targeted with these corporate reform PR messages. It will be worth your time to read these two posts to prepare yourself because the train may have backed up last year, but they've refilled their cars with coal and they'll only stop if we get down there again and block the railway crossing.

Update: If you are looking for more deconstruction of the corporate education reform PR spin, here is a recent op-ed from the New York Times in which the author tackles the zombie lie told by people like US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that Hurricane Katrina "was the best thing that ever happened to the education system in New Orleans." Corporate reformers took advantage of the disaster to replace the entire school system with privately run charter schools. They claim success, but not only are those claims dubious, they have come at the expense of the most disadvantaged children.

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Monday, August 24, 2015

If Money Were Still No Object

As Peter Gray points out in his book Free To Learn, our current educational system is based almost entirely on habit. It is not based on research, it is not based upon evidence, it is not based upon how humans learn, but rather upon notions of efficiency derived from the Industrial Revolution. Of course, there has been research performed upon children attempting to learn within this system, in which it's been demonstrated that tweaking things here or there will produce marginal learning gains, but that's like studying tigers in the zoo then claiming to understand tigers. Of course, if you want to really understand tigers, you study them in the wild. 

And there have been researchers who have studied children's learning "in the wild," starting with such great names as Piaget, Vygotsky, Montessori, and Dewey, research that has been continued right up to our times. All of that research tells us we are doing it wrong; that if we really want to provide the best conditions for learning, we must break the habits of assembly line thinking, and instead adopt a child-lead approach, one embodied by play-based preschools and democratic free schools, places where children are free to seek answers to their own questions.

I finished last week with a post which was essentially an architectural "wish list" of what I'd like to see for our Woodland Park Cooperative School if money was no object. As folks chimed in with their own ideas, many, not surprisingly, strayed into the broader definition of what the Reggio Emilia model refers to as the "third teacher," into things like higher teacher pay and other structural changes they wished for our school system at large. I thought today that I'd take a crack at expanding upon those comments by playing the same game I did on Friday, except this time I would re-imagine public schools as if overcoming inertia were no object.

I'll start by asking the question: Why do we the people educate our children?

Contrary to what our political and business leaders with their fantastical "jobs of tomorrow" will tell you, the purpose of public education is not primarily for vocational training. If that were the reason for public schools, I would agree with those who say we ought to get rid of them altogether and let corporations train their own damn workers. No, the driving public interest in educating our youth is that the ongoing experiment of democracy, the dream of self-governance, can only work with a well-educated population. The purpose of public education is citizenship.

If that's the case, then the next question is: What are the characteristics of a good citizen?

First and foremost, a good citizen is a critical thinker, a person who can listen, discuss, and share, but will ultimately think for herself. A good citizen is someone who asks a lot of questions and who knows it is not just his right, but his responsibility to question authority. A good citizen knows that she owes it to everyone to stand up for what she believes in even when everyone else disagrees; and the flip-side of that coin is that a good citizen knows it's important to respectfully listen to those with whom she disagrees. A good citizen, ultimately, is a person who contributes to our society in ways other than his narrow economic self-interest: socially, artistically, politically, spiritually, and as a member of communities both small and large. These are the kinds of self-directed people I want helping me in the collaborative project of self-governance.

So what would these schools look like? For this, I'll borrow freely from my own experience as a play-based preschool teacher and from what I know of the democratic free school movement.

Physically, I would imagine them looking fundamentally like the school I described on Friday, expansive, free-flowing places, where neighborhood children of all ages come together and actually get to work on the project of self-governance, practicing the skills and habits of citizenship. There would be no set schedule, or classes, or curricula, except those that emerge from the children themselves. Adults would be present for the purposes of safety, of course, but their primary role would be to support children as they pursue their "happiness," within the the context of community, helping them when asked, working to secure necessary resources, scaffolding inquiries, and stepping in to assist with strong emotions and heated conflicts. Children would not be divided up by age and subject, but would rather organize themselves around their interests, their questions of the moment, going deep or going broad as their temperaments and passions dictate.

There would be nothing compulsory about these schools, other than the community meetings during which the children would settle overarching conflicts and make their agreements (their democratically determined rules) for how they want their society to operate.

The adult staff would be members of the community in which the school is located. In fact, if I had my way, comfortable, middle-class housing near (or even on) campus would be provided as part of the compensation package. Pay would be sufficient to afford a comfortable living, indexed to the local cost of living, and would, of course, include health care and a good pension.

Naturally, I'm an advocate for parent involvement and as such, the campus would be open on evenings and weekends, both for children and their families to congregate and engage in parent education and other enrichment opportunities, or to share their skills and knowledge with the rest of the community. In fact, I would envision these public schools as the hubs of their communities, literally placing education at the center of society. And I know it's a radical idea, but I would have no problem with literally paying parents to be active in their children's school lives, at least those of meager economic means who might otherwise have to sacrifice income in order to participate.

In line with that vision, state provided school funds would be the sole responsibility of the students, parents, and staff of the community school, and those schools would therefore reflect the values of their community rather than the standardized cookie cutter data mines the corporate reformers envision. And likewise, when it comes to assessments, I would imagine that being a natural function of the ongoing community dialog because, after all, we the people should always be the final arbiters. 

I can't imagine that any this would cost more than it does now. In fact, I would assert that an educational system based upon democratic communities would cost far less and would produce far better results in terms of citizenship than even our "best schools" do today.

So, this is my starting point. I'm sure I left things out. Please chime in with your ideas in the comments.

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Friday, August 21, 2015

If Money Were No Object

For one year, my daughter's cooperative preschool was housed in the rooms designated as the "laboratory preschool" at North Seattle College, but for the rest of the nearly two decades I've been working with young children, our schools have been housed in places like church basements, unused rooms in public schools, and other make-do spare spaces. Our current location in the Fremont Baptist Church in the Center of the Universe is incredible, but it's a shared-use facility that wasn't necessarily designed with young children in mind.

In idle moments, I often wonder, with money as no object, what would it be like to build a Woodland Park Cooperative School from scratch.

This video below is about a kindergarten in Tokyo designed by architect Takaharu Tezuka, which is not a bad place to start.

I'd want more natural spaces with trees and mud and rocks and bugs and hills and sand and grasses than one sees in this video, but since it would continue to be an urban school, still located in Fremont, that would be among the biggest challenges. I reckon, however, without being too greedy, a full city block would be about right. I would not include climbers of any sort at this imagined school, but rely instead on those trees and rocks and hills. Perhaps we would have swings and a slide or two, but I would prefer to see children swinging on ropes dangling from branches and cannonballing down muddy hills. There would be enormous areas of sand and several hand-operated water pumps. Since we would consequently have lots of messy children, we would need some fun washing up and changing areas . . . for the children who care.

My purpose-built school would have the sort of indoor-outdoor flow you see here and which is quite common in many of the Australian preschools I've visited on my trips Down Under. I also like the multi-level aspects of this kindergarten design, with it's skylights and rope nets creating opportunities to interact with one another through those vertical spaces.

I very much like the free-form modular furniture concept shown in this video. I think crates of various sizes, light weight enough for the children to move themselves, would give us the sort of flexibility we would need.

There would need to be a smooth paved surface sufficient for riding wheeled vehicles and a patch of lawn for sports play.

We would have a large garden, with a greenhouse, which would be staffed with a master garden educator, whose primary responsibility would be to engage the children who come there, meeting them at their level and interest, and where we would grow the bulk of the food we eat at school. We would also keep chickens.

Near the garden would be our kitchen, at least partially built to scale for young chefs, which is where we would prepare and eat our snacks and meals, and where the children serve themselves and one another.

We would have a fully equipped workshop where children would be supervised by our school carpenter. There would, of course, be hand tools for the children to use as well as age-appropriate power tools, but our collection would also include full-sized table, band, jig, and miter saws, a drill-press, a lathe, and whatever else a carpenter might need, because when our school needed something new, we would build it ourselves, right there in the workshop where curious kids could watch from behind some sort of safety partition, even while working on their own projects.

The children would have their own storefront "lemonade stand" as well, a place where kids could, when the mood strikes them, attempt to sell marketable items to the general public as they pass by, setting prices, making change, and generally learning about the economic law of supply and demand. Perhaps we would attempt to sell the produce we're growing in our garden or items we've manufactured in the workshop or created at the easel. And then, naturally, we would plan together how we want to spend our profits.

There would be Reggio Emilia style atelier equipped not only the full gamut of art supplies and a real-live atelierista, but also tons of storage so that children's work can be readily set aside and returned to again and again, day after day, until the child declares it "finished." This is where we would also keep our sewing machines because you never know when you're going to need a costume.

Near the atelier, of course, we would need a proper theatrical stage with curtains, a backstage area, lighting, and plenty of props and costumes.

Our library would be everywhere, with books stashed in nooks and crannies in every corner of the school, but I would really like a special "cozy story time" area of pillows, blankets, and stuffed animals where our librarian would always be available for reading stories to the kids. Likewise, musical instruments would be among our loose parts, available in every corner of the school, including everything from bells and rhythm sticks to full drum sets and pianos.

And speaking of loose parts, our collection of tires, planks, ropes, brooms, shovels, ladders, jewels, fairies, vehicles, and whatever else would be extensive.

Finally, there would be a massive, well-organized storage facility and I wouldn't mind a small office for myself, perhaps at the top of a tower that would give me a bird's eye view of the entire place, much the way the legendary football coach Bear Bryant used to while surveying the practices of his Crimson Tide.

I'm sure I've left out many things, and it's obviously incomplete because I've not even yet surveyed the children about their fantasy school, but what a wonderful third teacher this would be. If you have more ideas, I'd love to see them in the comments.

Update: My friend Bob suggested a laboratory, which I'll interpret in preschool as a potion mixing station, stocked with baking soda, vinegar, corn starch, oil, and other interesting, non-toxic substances, along with lots of beakers of various shapes and sizes and a large sensory table. It would be adjacent to both the workshop and natural spaces to encourage spin-off explorations.

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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Death Talk

As Jody and I played with our plastic farm animals, he began to tell a story about the horse he was holding. It was, according to him, squashed by one of our cardboard blocks and "got dead." He told the story several times in a row, not seeming particularly emotional, narrating events in an even, matter-of-fact tone, using more or less the same words each time. He seemed to be processing the concept, maybe trying to find a way for the story to continue beyond getting dead, but each time he stopped with "got dead" before starting over. On his last iteration he added, "Just dead," as a kind of final word on the subject before moving on to something else.

Death comes up in preschool. Often our discussions are prompted by the discovery of dead worms or bugs. Once there was a dead bird in the parking lot and the kids were excited to talk about it. With some classes death is not a major topic, but I've had years when it emerged as a significant theme amongst the children, and one year in particular when parents approached me as a concerned group because their children seemed "obsessed." I think particularly upsetting to these parents was that this group of boys was using death as a kind of punch line, cracking each other up with the word "dead," the way they might otherwise have done with their potty talk. (Working on the theory that the boys had the idea that talking about death was somehow "naughty" and were simply finding joy of stepping together out of bounds, we brought the subject out of the closet by making it a part of our circle time discussion for a few days. It seemed to help a lot.) Perhaps those kids were a bit obsessed with the idea of death, but that's certainly not the exclusive domain of preschoolers. 

We're not a religious school, but rather a community comprised of families who express a variety of faiths and not-faiths, and therefore there is no universally agreed upon dogmatic framework for death that I can offer the kids. So while the topic is often much discussed amongst the children, the role of adults in the room is simply to listen and perhaps make observations of fact like, "I'll bet your mommy would be sad if you really died," or when the death talk includes violence, "It would hurt to be stabbed." When questions about what happens after death is broached, however, that is a job for parents. 

Vincent, our chow, was my most constant companion for 13 years. Early one Christmas Eve morning he passed away.

During his last year his eyesight had grown dimmer (he had one prosthetic eye and glaucoma in the other), his hearing had dwindled, and his vet even suspected that he had become hard of smelling. Of course we knew it was coming – he was approaching 100 in human years – but it was sad nonetheless.

As we discussed Vincent’s last day, each member of my family confessed to having thought about the possibility of his death within the preceding 24 hours. Our then 7-year-old daughter Josephine said, “I’m sorry I thought this was going to happen,” and, “I’m sorry I was ever mean to him.”

Naturally, we assured her that her thoughts had nothing to with his death; that the long, gentle strokes she gave him as he panted through the pain, and the water she carried to him for his very last drink, comforted him and made those final few hours a little more bearable.

Intellectually I know that none of us had anything to do with his dying, but when I look inside myself I find an echo of Josephine’s sentiment in my own heart. What could I have done to give us one more day together? I could have chosen the more expensive dog food. I could have taken him for more walks. Maybe we should have tried the surgery that the doctor offered, with its exceedingly slim hope for success – at least that included hope. I shoved Vincent aside with my shin that last week when he stood in my way: I could have been more loving. Maybe that’s all he needed to go on for another day – a little more love from me.

We know that children tend to assume culpability for the bad things that happen in their lives. We’ve heard the stories of children feeling responsible for their parents’ divorce. When we’re angry they almost always wonder if they’re the cause. And even my Josephine, as a big first grader, thought that she was somehow responsible for Vincent’s death and felt regret for not having been perfect in her love for him.

It’s not just children, of course; it’s all of us. Death is one of the areas of life in which I don’t think we ever attain any kind of superior knowledge or wisdom over children. When it comes to death, we are always children. Maybe you’re one of the lucky few who feel “sure” about death, but for most of us, whatever our dogma or professed beliefs, there remains an enormous, unanswerable question.

For better or worse, we chose to provide Josephine with an answer to this unanswerable question. When she was just a two-year-old her Uncle Chris was stricken with cancer -- non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. We visited him in the hospital almost daily. She watched him get rapidly sicker and she knew it when he died. Up until that point it was not in me to discuss the eventuality of his death. I’m by nature hopeful, and until there was no longer hope, I hoped. On the day of his death, I told Josephine about heaven. Like generations of parents before me I painted a picture of a perfect existence where Chris could play his guitar, shoot baskets, and drink coffee all day long; a place where he was waiting for the rest of us in peace and joy.

My own belief is that there is peace and joy in death, but it doesn’t match the picture of heaven that I provided my daughter. It’s a lie I told her. I know that the concept of heaven gave me comfort as a young child and I grasped for it as a parent. She is now, at 18, old enough to think for herself, to doubt, and I think she has forgiven me for lying.

Death is the most universal aspect of life and, at the same time, it’s the most individual. It comes to us all and, at bottom, we must all deal with it alone. In talking to children about death, it seems to me, we must each find our own way. Some of us can rely on our own hearts, others will need to consult books and authorities, while others turn to their religion. Some of us tell lies.

We are all children in this. Perhaps the most important thing we can do in talking to our children about death is to listen. As Mister Rogers said, "(L)istening is the most powerful way to show love."

Love and hope. That’s all we have. If we speak and listen from that place, we’re doing the best we can.

Strangely enough, even as I write this, I don’t really feel like I lied to Josephine. I know I lied to her, but don’t feel it. The adult in me knows that Vincent's ashes are in a wooden box across the room from where I sit and that a part of him lives on in the relationships I have with the two dogs it took to fill the space he left. But I don't feel like I lied to Josephine because the child in me knows to a certainty that Vincent is not "just dead," but rather with Uncle Chris, eating meat and cheese, sniffing butts, and waiting for me in peace and joy.

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