Friday, May 26, 2017

Dance Party

I'm looking forward to my brief summer break for many reasons, but most of all is that I'm hoping it will give me a chance to forget the songs that are stuck in my head. Several weeks ago I wrote about our new outdoor stage, which has continued to be a popular addition to our junkyard playground. I figured the kids would like it, although I had imagined them mounting impromptu dramatic productions, whereas the kids prefer using it for dance parties.

In the beginning, I was selecting the music from my own personal collection, but when I started getting requests, I had to open an Apple Music account (which I'm loving). The big Disney songs are much in demand: Let It Go (from the movie Frozen) remains huge, but How Far I'll Go (Moana) is equally in demand. I'm not surprised that the fans of these songs know all the lyrics, right down to nailing the phrasing, because when our daughter was a preschooler she had likewise mastered the nuances of her favorite songs. These are apparently great songs for emotive expressions, emphatic stamping of feet, and swaying, ballet-like body movements.

The Paw Patrol Theme Song, however, is a pop rocker, and when it comes up, the Disney singers make way for the hip shakers, not too different from the moves invoked by Ghostbusters. Then there is the frenetic Everything is Awesome!!!!!!! (The Lego Movie), with its 120 beats per minute (or whatever) which tends to encourage a silly, convulsive dance style. There is a crew who loves nothing more than to march around to The Imperial March (Star Wars), while engaging in slow motion light saber battles. And there are few things more delightful to me than watching four and five year olds reenacting Step in Time from Mary Poppins.

One boy has attempted to break the pattern, introducing his friends to his personal favorites from the 1980's (Eye of the Tiger, Danger ZoneBad), but we've more or less settled on our limited playlist. I try to introduce new music, but when I do the kids go off to other things until I return to what has become our canon.

When we play Let It Go, I can now predict exactly which kids will drop what they are doing to take the stage. The same goes for the other songs on the playlist: they drop their playthings and converge on the stage from all corners of the playground. There is some crossover, of course, but the kids seem to be using their common love for this or that song as a sort of cultural connector, a way to find others like them.

Particularly fascinating has been the dynamic amongst a group of boys in our 4-5's class. A kind of tension has arisen between the Star Wars and Paw Patrol factions, with one group abandoning the stage when the "rival" song is played and vice versa. Sometimes they even hurl insults about one another's preferred music ("Paw Patrol/Star Wars is stupid"). It's an extension of the games they've been playing all year, wherein one group always seems to be vying against the other. There's a temptation to scuttle this sort of play, especially when it threatens to evoke real emotions of anger (instead of the faux anger that is a key element of their dramatic play) or real fighting (instead of the faux fighting they all enjoy), but for the most part we've let it take its course since the "sides" are ever-changing and they generally tend to maintain a kind of balance of power. Most of all, however, everyone seems to be having fun, even when things get tense. The other day I intervened in what looked like an altercation. The boys maintained their angry expressions until I said, "I don't want you guys to be enemies," to which they both laughed, "We're not enemies, Teacher Tom. We're friends, right?" They then went right back to their "conflict." As I watch this dynamic play out on the stage, I see that they are re-inventing the competitive dance off, something I'd never really understood until now.

Of course, most of the time, the kids who take the stage together are doing it as an act of community, of bonding, which could be said even of the rival factions. They leap onto the stage wth joy at the first few strains of "their song," identify one another as fellow travelers, look into one another's faces as they sing, and imitate one another's moves. I would have never guessed that our outdoor dance parties would become an important part of our outdoor play, but it's obviously here to stay.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Man I Was Meant To Be

I've been mulling the metaphor of teachers being rocks in a river. If you stay in one place a long time, the river passes around you and as it does you shape the river, but over time the river, in turn, shapes you.

After this week, our final week of the school year, there are many incredible people who are leaving my life forever: I'm talking about both children and adults. We intend to stay in touch, we might try a few times, and it will be fun to accidentally bump into them three years hence, but the end of our time of shaping one another is impending.

When last I wrote on this topic, I said that as a young man I thought I needed go out there into the world if I was going to have a positive impact, but I've come to appreciate life as a rock in a river, shaping and being shaped by families who come together, in goodwill, to make a cool place for their kids to play. I'm proud to have found myself at the center of a purposeful community like this, people raising their kids, face-to-face with other families of goodwill, year-after-year, the river flowing through my life. Some of these families are with me for a decade or more, but it's in the nature of a river to inevitably move on.

So, there is always an undercurrent of melancholy, which is mitigated by the celebratory nature of having completed a school year together. We've done it! We've had fun! I love my job, but there is nothing like the feeling of the last week of school, you've done your best and now school's out for summer! It's a joyful countdown, one I don't necessarily want to rush through, but one that nonetheless makes me smile when I remember it.

Rivers rise and fall with rain and the melting of snow pack. Sometimes the rock might even be fully submerged as the river rushes over it and other times it might stand dry for months on end. To all things, not just the ebb and flow of daylight, there are seasons and seasons come in cycles. This is part of how the river shapes us: each time through the cycle we gain wisdom about ourselves and the universe. And that shapes us.

We are shaped by the children who teach us the lessons that only children teach and the parents who share their knowledge and abilities, collaborating to make our school something better than it was when they arrived.

Yesterday, our 4-5's class presented the play they have been working on since January. Traditionally, this marks the end of the school year, complete with a pizza party, even as we will come together one more time today. Nearly the entire parent community turned out for the show, including grandparents, aunts and uncles, special friends, and alumni. I said a lot of goodbyes, always with the stipulation that we would stay if touch. Many of the families will return for a session of our Summer Program. For those folks, I saved my goodbyes, putting them off until they're inevitable.

Most of the kids won't remember me as they grow older, at least not with their conscious minds. Sure, they'll have pictures around and their parents will tell stories of their time in preschool, but humans don't typically retain concrete, sequential memories from before they were five. Someone asked me yesterday if that was a strange thought for me. It is, but I'll have to be satisfied with the knowledge that I have, in my small way, shaped them nevertheless, just as they've shaped me.

It is a river's destiny to flow onward. It is a rock's destiny to stay in one place. Summer is a time of ebb, when the waters flow more languidly, without the rush and crush of the regular school year, but come fall the flow resumes, filling the riverbed to the top. For the rest of this week, I'll let myself feel the bitter-sweetness over things that have passed, but there will be no time for regrets because the river, as they tend to do, is still flowing, shaping and being shaped, always making me into the man I was meant to be.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Listening Is Where Love Begins

Mister Rogers:

"More and more I've come to understand that listening is one of the most important things we can do for one another. 

"Whether the other be an adult or a child, our engagement in listening to who that person is can often be our greatest gift. Whether that person is speaking or playing or dancing, building or singing or painting, if we care, we can listen.

"In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.

"Listening is a very active awareness of the coming together of at least two lives. Listening, as far as I'm concerned, is certainly a prerequisite of love. One of the most essential ways of saying, "I love you" is being a receptive listener.

"Listening is where love begins: listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors.

"(And) when we love a person, we accept him or her exactly as is: the lovely with the unlovely, the strong along with the fearful, the true mixed in with the facade, and of course, the only way to can do it is by accepting ourselves that way."

(If you are interested in pre-ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here if you are in North America or Europe. If you are ordering from Australia, click here. If you live in New Zealand or Asia, for the time being, please email your order to Thank you!)

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"He Acts Like A Toddler"

"Four-year-olds, contrary to popular belief, are not egocentric or self-centered. They understand and care about how other people feel and think, and recognize that other people can feel and think differently from them . . . In fact, children . . . demonstrate both empathy and altruism: They will rush to comfort someone who is hurt, and they will spontaneously go out of their way to help someone."  ~Alison Gopnik

It's common enough for an adult to insult another adult by insisting that "he acts like a toddler." It's a put-down that generally means that the critic finds his target to be irrational, emotional, selfish, prone to fabrication, detached from objective reality, and inclined to be insensitive toward the needs of others.

As a teacher of young children, someone who spends most of his waking life in the company of them, and who, generally speaking, strives to be more like them, I would take it as a compliment were someone to hurl that particular insult in my direction. Indeed, anyone who would use "You're acting like a child" as an insult displays a grotesque ignorance and prejudice about a large percentage of the human population. Actual scientific research shows that children are no more prone to these negative behaviors than are adults and, in fact, in most cases are less likely to engage in them. Generally speaking, I've known preschoolers, on balance, to be extraordinarily thoughtful and honest. Yes, they may tend toward public displays of their emotions, but most therapist would tell you that this is preferable to the adult sanctioned method of stuffing their feelings then later taking it out on innocent loved ones. With rare exceptions even the youngest children I teach display a compassion and concern for their fellow humans that far surpasses that of more hard-headed adults who forever place road-blocks in the way of helping strangers in need.

I've written about the work of Alison Gopnik before. She is a well-regarded professor psychology, researcher and author. In an opinion piece that appeared over the weekend in the New York Times, Gopnik used her own research to systematically knock down this particular insult, one thats use has been on the rise in our political discourse. If you continue to support our current president you might find her political critique outrageous, but her underlying point that "the analogy is profoundly wrong" and "unfair to children" is an important one.

Last week, I posted about the fact that young children are always listening. How must they feel about themselves when they overhear adults insulting one another by calling them "childish." I imagine the same way someone with a mental or physical handicap might feel when they hear the insults of "retard" or "cripple" bandied about, even if directed at others. The words we use around young children are always important, but never more so than when we feel compelled to criticize one another. Insults are never a good look, but insults that simultaneously and prejudicially smear a large portion of our population are never okay.

Indeed, from where I sit, knowing what I know, to call someone "childlike" is not an insult at all, but rather a compliment of the highest order. If we could all be more childlike, the world would be a far better place.

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Monday, May 22, 2017

The Junk House

On Wednesday, a couple of guys in our 4-5's class decided they were going to remove the walls of the playhouse. It's designed for this, giving kids the ability to create windows and doorways wherever they want them, an innovation of one of our grandfathers. Before long, their enthusiasm had drawn in another handful of kids. It's not easy to remove the boards that make up the walls: they have to be slid up and out and often get stuck when they become askew which happens quite easily.

There was a lot of struggling and teamwork and when they were done opening up those walls, they weren't ready for it to be over so they moved on to filling the lower level of the playhouse with anything they could move: planks of wood, car tires, traffic cones, rocks, logs, furniture, gutters, shovels, pails . . . Whatever wasn't nailed down got shoved in there.

They were calling it the "junk house" and they were quite proud of it, cautiously climbing atop the pile, their heads touching the ceiling. Over the course of their project, their collective mood went from industrious to a kind of rowdy mischievousness, continually calling out to me and the other adults to "look," as they chuckled. I think some of them half expected to be scolded or at least be told they were "making a mess." The only "correction" they received from me was when I discovered that the wireless speaker we use to play dance music for the stage went missing. Figuring it was at the bottom of the pile, I used my smartphone to play a song and sure enough, we heard the frenetic strains of Everything is Awesome!!!!! from under the rubble.

Other than to ask them to dig out the speaker, my calm, non-judgmental demeanor belied what was going on inside. Normally, I wouldn't have cared, but in this case I was fully aware that on Thursday night we were hosting several dozen parents for our Summer Program orientation meeting (there are still spots in a few of the sessions if you are local and interested), people who had signed up to allow their "babies" to play on our playground this summer, many of whom were new to our school and more than a little nervous already. Our junkyard playground has a certain edgy charm when all the odds and ends are spread out over the space, but when presented as a big, tippy pile like this, something that could easily result in heavy objects sliding off and landing on the noggin of an unsuspecting two-year-old, I can imagine that it is somewhat less charming. In other words, while the kids played, I was thinking about marketing.

I finally told myself that it would be okay: either I would tell the story of how the junk house came to be as an illustration of the sorts of thing their kids might get up to this summer, or, the option I was leaning toward, taking advantage of the two hours between the end of school on Thursday and the start of the meeting to take care of it myself.

On Thursday morning, the kindergarteners were, as usual, the first to arrive, and they were not happy with the junk house. "Did you see what the little kids did to the playhouse, Teacher Tom?" I told them I had, then suggested that the might want to "fix it," a hopeful suggestion that they did not take up. Later that morning, however, our 3's class had the playground to themselves. They too had complaints about the junk house. When I suggested that they fix it "because we have a meeting tonight," one of the parent-teachers asked, "Do you want me to start emptying it out?"

And so she began to methodically remove planks and tires and cones and rock and logs from the playhouse. Her work drew in first another adult and then several of the kids who spent the next half hour un-doing the work of the older kids from the day before. When the kindergarteners returned to the playground, they joined the effort. When the space was empty, they finished by "washing" the floor by dumping several buckets of water on it.

As they worked, I found myself humming the late, great Tom Hunter's song, Build it Up and Knock it Down. The ancient Greeks had their myth of Sisyphus, a character condemned to an eternity of repeatedly pushing a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back down again. So much of what we do in life is like pushing that boulder: we make our beds each morning only to unmake them at night; we go to work, return home, then return to work again; we fill the trash can, throw it out, then refill it again. It's easy to see it all as meaningless repetition, but when I play with children, I don't feel that at all. On the contrary, filling it up and emptying it out, turning it on and turning it off, pushing it up and letting it roll back down, makes up the core of what children do all day when left to play as they see fit. Adults unlearn it, I think, as we become brainwashed into the cult of productivity. We learn instead to find it, at best, boring. Children, however, never tire of it. "Build it up and knock it down and build it up again/Knock it down and build it up and knock it down again."

The philosopher and author Albert Camus wrote an essay entitled The Myth of Sisyphus. The concluding line has stuck with me for decades:

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

This is what the children know. I will not be at all surprised if they rebuild their junk house this morning. And I won't have to imagine them happy because I know they will be.

(If you are interested in pre-ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here if you are in North America or Europe. If you are ordering from Australia, click here. If you live in New Zealand or Asia, for the time being, please email your order to Thank you!)

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Real Work Of Teaching

When parents complain, "He doesn't listen to me" what they really mean is that their kid doesn't do what they want them to do when they want them to do it. Believe me: they are listening to you. They are almost always listening to you. You just might not like the choice they made after listening to you.

Of course, some of the time, they simply don't understand us, they're not ready to "get" what we're saying to them, like when I talk to young two-year-olds about knocking down other people's block constructions, but more often than not they are listening, then choosing something else.

We know they're listening because our own words come back to us, channelled through them, often days or weeks or even months later. I remember when my own daughter first cursed traffic from her carseat. We know they're listening because they repeat word-for-word, usually at a holiday party right in front of everyone, the mean joke we made about the harvest of hair growing from Aunt Millie's nose. I know a child's been listening when she can repeat, word for word, the argument her parents had that morning over a piece of dropped toast.

We know they are listening when they insist on wearing their unicorn bicycle helmet ice skating, like a four-year-old did, saying, "I'm going to wear my helmet because I might really fall instead of almost."

We know they are listening when they turn to us and say, like a three-year-old did, "When someone does something mean to me I talk to them to stop."

We know they are listening when they are courteous to their friends, like a two-year-old was when he said to a classmate, "Hello Anna. My name is Elliott. Let's play!"

And we know they are listening when they put their arm around a sobbing friend, like one two-year-old year old did to another, saying softly into his ear, "You're crying about something. I'll take care of you."

They are always listening. Not just to the words we say to them, but those we say in their presence to others. That is their real classroom. When we adults take that seriously, that's when our children begin to make us better people, the kind who think about the words they say and the tones we use with the people in our lives. They make us work to become the people we've always wanted to be if only because that's the sort of person we want them to be.

Children don't learn anything from obedience other than how to command and obey, a dubious education at best. They learn everything else by listening (and watching, of course). Real learning requires processing, repetition, time, and experience to fully comprehend. It takes place on their schedule, not yours, which is why it can seem as if they are not listening. But they are, know it, and strive to be the person you want them to be. That's the real work of teaching.

(If you are interested in pre-ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here if you are in North America or Europe. If you are ordering from Australia, click here. If you live in New Zealand or Asia, for the time being, please email your order to Thank you!)

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017


Our daughter Josephine is a 20-year-old who found her passion by the time she was an eight-year-old and who has now pursued that passion to New York City, a place about which Sinatra sings, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere." And from where I sit, it seems she is making it: pulling down the best grades of her life, earning money, and finding plenty of time to play with her cool friends. As I recently shared a story about her, someone who has never met her interrupted to ask if she had been "gifted" as a child. I think she is gifted, of course, but not in the sense that is meant by the term. By most measures I'd say she has always presented as a fairly typical kid, good at some things (usually the things she enjoyed) and not so good at others (usually the things she didn't enjoy) which is more or less the way I'd describe myself.

We tried not to pressure her about school. We let her quit extracurricular activities when she wanted to quit. Finding something "boring" was more than good enough for me. And with few exceptions we didn't make her do things she didn't want to do. Of course, people warned that we were setting her up, saying things like, "How will she ever learn about perseverance?" They would caution that success only comes from putting our noses to grindstone, while young, doing the things we don't want to do, every day as a matter of course, painting a portrait of life as relentless, competitive, and exceedingly difficult, at least if the goal was to "make it." It was easy for me to ignore them because I'd already figured out, even 20 years ago, that what they were saying was pretty much pure BS, the kind of BS that is spread by tightly wound people who take life way, way, way to seriously.

There is entirely too much of this kind of BS out there and its impact is compounded by the fact that it passes for wisdom in too many circles. Most of the time it's just BS, but it can also be toxic, like when parents worry that their five-year-old is "falling behind," a fear that too often drives a well-meaning adults to expect junior to strive to be a champion at everything, just in case. And that's BS.

I've never had an instinct to lead children. My driving interest is to play with them, to listen to them, to make jokes, make art, make math, make engineering, to just make things, together. There's no "behind" because it's about learning in the wild, about the world, ourselves, and what it means to be ourselves in that world. That's the fundamental question we live to answer. Everything beyond that is BS.

There was a time when I would entertain myself with the cocktail party game of asking people if there was anything their parents forced them to do that they still do today. Most people couldn't think of anything and those that did always, always, cited piano lessons. Not violin lessons, not regularly attending church, not making their bed, not putting their nose to the grindstone. Indeed, it seemed that for most people, the moment their parents stopped compelling them, they ran like the wind. Yes, I'm sure that everyone can come up with exceptions to this rule, but you have to admit, it's largely true.

Putting one's nose to a grindstone is a waste of youth. Even thinking about the grindstone is an abuse. If there are grindstones in their future, and my own life is a testament that it is not inevitable, then they will learn how to deal with them soon enough, tragically. No, if there is a best time for making mistakes, for chasing dreams, for indulging one's passions, for just goofing around, it's in our youth.

As I watch the children I teach play, I see them making mistakes, chasing dreams, indulging their passions and goofing around. I don't wish wealth or fame or power or "success" on any of them. No, my hope is that they get to keep playing, throughout their lives, every day, doing those things that bring them peace and joy and love. Of course, there's crap they'll have to get through, but don't you think kids already know that? Everything they do is accompanied by pain and disappointment and conflict and fear. That's life. But when children play, when no one is harping on them about "success," but rather leaving them free to pursue their passions, it never becomes a slog. There are no grindstones. From where I sit, the only losers in life are the ones who waste it at the grindstone.

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "We are here on this earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different." Kids already know this. They show us that no one works harder, or perseveres more, than those who are farting around. And they also know to call BS when they see it. That is the secret to making it there or anywhere.

(If you are interested in pre-ordering Teacher Tom's First Bookclick here if you live in North America or Europe. If you are ordering from Australia, click here. For New Zealand or Asia, for the time being, please email your order to 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!
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