Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The Community We're Creating Together

Last week I wrote about the importance of teachers and kids getting on the same "bandwagon" through the artistic process of creating individual relationships. Since then, I've been reflecting on another level of relationship: the one between children and the work of art -- the community -- we create together as we come to school each day.

By the time the children are four and five, that relationship is primarily the product of their friendships, the rocky love affairs they have with one another, but younger children, those approaching the cusp of figuring out what friendship means, it's largely about developing a concept of "we."

When the two year olds first walk through our doors, they are coming to "school" or "Teacher Tom's school." It's a largely alien place, but after a couple months, as they grow familiar with the space, the expectations, and the routines, they begin to call it "my school." And even if you don't hear those words come from their mouths, you can see the confidence of belonging and even ownership in their body language. They no longer insist that mom, that visceral connection to "my family," remain nearby, many quite literally commanding their parents to "leave now."

By this point in the school year, these kids who are one-by-one turning three, are keeping me on schedule rather than the other way around. Most don't need to be reminded that our day begins by washing our hands. Every day, a handful of children inform me when it's "clean up time." And when I look at the clock on the wall, I see their internal ones are set almost as accurately.  If we try to skip a part of our regular routine, there is a rebellion. Some begin to fuss in anticipation of the story I'm going to read to them, knowing that it signals the end of our day together and they aren't ready to go home.

When we put things away, they know where they belong; they put the toy plates on the kitchen shelf, the costumes go on the racks, the stuffed animals in the basket, the devil duckies in the box, and the play dough in plastic bags so it will be fresh for tomorrow. Sometimes we've moved the furniture around to accommodate our play. When I say, "Let's move it back where it belongs," the children, swarming together, know right where to push it.

Last week, Aza was the first kid outside after eating some snack, his classmates still indoors wrestling with their coats. He usually makes a beeline for the water pump and it looked like he was heading that way when he stopped to notice some planks of wood older kids had scattered on the ground the day before. He identified them as parts of the new playhouse; some of the pieces that allow children to fashion doors, walls, and windows wherever they choose. Before continuing on his way, he took the time to collect those planks one by one and stash them behind the windmill where I've made a habit of tossing the loose ones when not in use. I've never suggested that the children be responsible for this. I've never even suggested the parents do it. It's something I've just done myself as I putter around the place, but here was Aza, interrupting his play to take care of things.

This is what we do. This is our school. This is the community we're creating together.

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Monday, March 02, 2015

Our Pallet Swing

At some point during the December holiday break I read reference to something called a "pallet swing." 

There were no pictures or descriptions, but the idea for creating one was planted in those two words. 

I'm calling our pallet the "sharing swing" because unlike conventional swings there's room for several kids at a time.

We had just acquired a fresh new heat treated pallet and rope is plentiful around our place, so I rigged one up.

The children have been experimenting on how to use their bodies to get the pallet swing in motion.

A couple of the kids have really figured it out!

Yes, we still have swings at Woodland Park, a nice set -- two traditional single seats and a trapeze bar -- that came with the new place when we moved in three and half years ago. 

It's even more challenging when you need to work with two or three of your friends, in unison, to get the swing moving .

It's really a pity that so many playgrounds and schools are removing swings in the name of "safety." 

If everyone stands and cooperates, we've found we can get up to six kids on the swing at once.

Having lived with swings on an often crowded space for awhile, I've seen a few kids get knocked down, or topple from their seat, but we, as a community, have not judged them to be overly hazardous except, perhaps, when an adult is pushing a child higher than she would otherwise be able to go on her own. Adult pushing is something I discourage, preferring instead to see children pushing one another.

When you don't want to stand, the only way to get moving is to persuade a friend to help.

The pallet swing isn't the first alternative swing we've dangled from the crossbar. We've hung tire swings, rope swings, rope ladder swings, teeter swings, long swings and other temporary installations

This has become the most popular use of the pallet swing: twisting it up, climbing on, and letting it go.

It's important to hold on!

With each new thing, we've observed the same pattern of children cautiously exploring, alone and together, until they figure out what it and they can do, learning how to keep themselves safe by actually practicing safety.

For this "world record" attempt, adult help was solicited.

She decided she felt safer sitting down.


This is infinitely more effective than the societal norm of adults scolding, repeatedly, "be careful," or worse, simply removing the swing set. No one learns anything from that.

I don't call any of this "risky play." I call it "safety play," because that's what they're doing: learning to keep themselves and their friends safe, while having a grand time.

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Friday, February 27, 2015

And What A Healthy Thing That Is!

"The values we care about the deepest, and the movements within society that support those values, command our love. When those things that we care about so deeply become endangered, we become enraged. And what a healthy thing that is! Without it, we would never stand up and speak out for what we believe." ~Mister Rogers

Earlier this week, we learned that Seattle's Nathan Hale High School Senate, a body made up of students, parents, teachers, and administrators, voted almost unanimously to refuse to administer the new Common Core test to 11th graders. As Jesse Hagopian writes over on his blog I Am An Educator (click through for the Senate's full written statement): 

In taking this action, Nathan Hale has become the latest focal point of what has now become the largest ongoing revolt against high-stakes testing in U.S. history and an important new escalation in the national resistance to common core testing.

Last year it was Seattle's Garfield High School community that rose up against standardized testing, refusing to take or administer a particularly worthless standardized test. High schoolers in Santa Fe have walked out, with the support of parents teachers. Teachers and parents at a Chicago elementary school are refusing to subject their children to a high stakes test. 

And there have been other protests, but as far as I know, this Nathan Hale action is the first time students, parents, teachers and administrators have come together and flat-out refused to administer a test required by the Common Core national curriculum. This is a courageous act, one that likely will put funding in jeopardy and risk other punitive consequences, but this is the winning coalition: students, parents, teachers, and now administrators. Just as the Garfield walkout spurred a wave of justifiable action across the country, I expect this will as well.

When things we care about deeply are endangered, we become enraged. And what a healthy thing that is! 

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Sound And The Fury

Earlier this year, our school was collecting new and gently used books to donate for a fundraiser. Someone brought in a couple of bags of books the day after the deadline and so they've been stashed in our mud room for a few weeks. Recently, a friend of our school asked if we could help her collect children's books that emphasized diversity, so I thought I'd go through those leftover bags with the kids to see if there were any there that fit the criteria. I thought we might be able to re-visit some of the conversations we'd had about skin color from earlier in the year.

It became quickly apparent, however, once we got beneath the surface layer of board books, the bulk of what we had was adult literary fiction. A handful of 4-5 year olds had gathered around to help, so I began reading the titles to them, and if I was familiar with the book, told them a little bit about it. When I came to William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, I said, "Oh, this is a good one. It's really the same story told four times by four different people. One of the characters is a guy named Benjy. He has a grown-up body, but his brain is still three-years-old. You'll probably read this in high school."

Silas said, "I think we should read it now."

"It's a grown-up book. It's pretty complicated."

Calvin said, "We should read it."

"Okay . . . 

"Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting." I stopped there and looked around at the kids.

"Who is hitting?"

"I don't know."

"Read more."

"They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree." 

I stopped and said, "Benjy's the guy telling the story, but I wonder who Luster is."

"I think he's a dog."

"Maybe so. Dog's like to hunt in the grass." 

I went back to reading, "They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit." 

I paused again, "There sure is a lot of hitting in this book."

"I think they're having a fight."

Back to the text: "Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass." 

I tried to summarize, "So somebody is hitting and there's a dog named Luster and there's a fence and a flower tree and a flag they took out and put back in."

No one responded. We were outdoors. I didn't want to keep them from their play. I said, "How about I put a book mark at this place and we read a little more later?"

"No, keep reading."

"Okay . . . 

""Here caddie." He hit. They went away across the pasture. I held to the fence and watched them going away . . . "Listen at you, now," Luster said." 

I stopped to point out, "Luster can talk. Maybe he's not a dog."

"I think Luster's his friend."

"Hey, I know! A caddy is in golf. Maybe they're golfing! They're not fighting, they're hitting golf balls!"

"Yeah, and there's a flag they take in and out like mini-golf!"

I nodded, "That makes sense." 

I went back to reading, ""Ain't you something, thirty-three years old, going on that way. After I done went all the way to town to buy you that cake. Hush up that moaning. Ain't you going to help me find that quarter so I can go to the show tonight." 

I said, "He wants to go to a show."

"I think it's a music show."

"Or maybe he just wants to go to a movie."

"Those are both shows," I said. "Luster wants a quarter so he can go to a music show or a movie." 

I went back to reading, "They were hitting little, across the pasture. I went back along the fence to where the flag was. It flapped on the bright grass and trees."

"Definitely golfing." There were four of us still listening and we all nodded our agreement.

I tried again to set the children free, but they wanted to keep reading. When we came to what we call "the N-word" which I read aloud like any other, they interrupted me to ask what it meant. Having grown up in the deep south in the 1960's I've known what that word meant my whole life. I guess that's at least proof of a little progress. I said it was an old fashioned bad word which satisfied them.

We talked about what it meant when Faulkner wrote about birds "slanting and tilting." We discussed the propriety of telling someone to "Shut up!" and the silliness of Luster threatening to eat Benjy's cake and candles. When Benjy noted that his shadow was bigger than Luster's we figured out that it meant Benjy was bigger than Luster. I thought they would get completely lost, as I did as a teenager, when the narrative begins to jump around in time, but it didn't seem to faze them. We just stopped and tried to figure out who the new characters were. We weren't always "correct" in our surmises: we've determined, for instance, that "toddy" refers to the hot beef inside a burrito, but that's fine. We aren't the first to make mistakes about this book. I didn't correct them, but rather let them correct themselves as they had when figuring out all that hitting was just golf, not fighting.

We thought some of the grown-ups were kind of mean to Benjy, but some of them were nice. 

We agreed with Benjy when he thought the pigs were "sorry because one of them got killed today."

We had been reading The Sound and the Fury for a good 20 minutes, just the four of us, and it was time to go inside. The boys weren't ready to be finished, so I marked the page and promised we would get back to it later. Later, as we wrapped up for the day, they begged me to read it to the whole class instead of the usual picture book.

Yesterday, we took the novel outdoors again, but this time we were a larger group of 8-10, all choosing to listen to me read Faulkner instead of digging in the sand or swinging on the swings. We had a long discussion about the smell of trees, when Benjy described someone as "smelling like trees." We even smelt leaves, some of which did have a fragrance. We talked about words like "rasped" and "stooped" and "jouncing" and "snagged." Calvin showed us a few places where his coat was torn from having snagged on things.

I kept trying to stop, telling them I could just mark the page where we left off so they could play, but they were not having it. They wanted to keep reading The Sound and the Fury, so I guess we will.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Godlike Works Of A Creator

Last Spring, we were messing around with pipe cleaners and tissue paper circles. It's a craft-ish project in that most of the kids know, because I showed them, that you can make nifty little flowers by sliding the thin disks of paper onto their bendy stems one at a time, giving each one a gentle "crush" as you go. I don't have any pictures of them, but it's a common enough preschool activity that I'm sure most of my readers know what I'm talking about. (But if you want a look, here's a version from my friend Deborah of Teach Preschool fame using squares instead of circles.)

Some of the kids do their own thing with the materials available, creating "space ships" and "spiders" and "decorations," but there are always a handful who really, really want to master the flowers. Logan, I thought, was one of those kids. She plunked herself down at the art table and got to work, brow furrowed, her authoritative chatter letting us know she was on top of things. Since I'd already demonstrated my own technique, I moved on to other things, leaving the art station in the capable hands of a parent-teacher.

Later, while outdoors, I chatted with the parent-teacher, saying something like, "That art project was pretty popular today. Logan seemed to really like it."

She answered, "It was, but you know, she didn't make a single flower. She couldn't figure out how to get the tissue paper on the stem without tearing it." A huge bouquet of flowers had been created at that table and Logan had sat there, hands busy for a good half hour. How could it be possible that she hadn't produced a single flower?

"Nope, not one," was the answer, "But she worked really hard. Every time she tried to crush the tissue like you showed them, the paper came off."

I'd not been watching Logan's production, but only, occasionally, her face and body language. Not once had I seen a sign of frustration or failure. No, the girl I'd seen was hard at work, concentrating, narrating her activities, deeply involved in what I assumed was a manufacturing process like that of the other kids around the table who were making one for "mom," one for "dad," one for "grandma," one for "my pet cat Simon . . ."

"I tried to help her, but she didn't want help. She told me she was already an expert flower maker."

I said, "I guess that means we'd better keep making flowers tomorrow."


The following day, I made the same materials available, not on the art table this time, but on another table, a place where there would be no dedicated parent-teacher. Logan didn't go there right away, instead choosing a housekeeping game, but before long she was drawn in, taking up a spot, alone with the materials. I sat with her, taking up my own stem, not saying anything. I watched her slide a tissue paper circle onto her pipe cleaner, tearing a huge hole in it during the process. And as had happened the day before, when she crushed it, it came off the stem. This didn't seem to bother her at all as she tossed the wad of paper aside and reached for another. This time she worked more slowly, nudging it along carefully, still ripping the paper too much, but when she crushed it, it stayed, almost balanced in place. Gingerly, she added a second disk of paper, halfway up the stem, then a third. 

From an artistic perspective it was a pretty pathetic looking flower. She held it up, no extra pride in her expression, no sign that there was anything amiss, "That's just so beautiful," then stuck in in the glass vase where we were displaying our finished pieces. She then got to work on another.

I put a piece of tissue paper on my stem and in my best imitation of the way she had done it, tore the hole a little too big, then crushing it to keep it precariously fixed in place. Logan watched me from the corner of her eyes. "No, that's not the way," she said. "You have to do it more gently. Like this," then she showed me on her own flower.

I tried imitating her as best I could. "Good," she said, "You're getting it. Now, do another one." I followed her instructions.

She made a second flower as pathetic as the first and called it good. Before starting on a third, she watched me for a moment, growing frustrated with my attempts, although I was doing my best to imitate her. She snatched it from me, her voice infused with a false cheerfulness, "Here, let me just do that for you." In her rush, she caused all the tentatively fixed tissue to drop from my stem. "See?" she said, "That's what's supposed to happen. Now you can start over."

I did not like the feeling of failure the exchange gave me, even as I knew I'd not failed. I knew that because I'm an adult and I had practically invented this damn process, yet here I was with the tables turned. This is why I'm not a big fan of crafts in preschool: I worry that we put too many children in this situation. I said, reflexively, "I don't want to start over."

She sighed, "Okay, but you'll never figure it out if you give up."

"That's true." I got back to work, this time making a flower the way I'd initially shown the kids two days before, quickly pulling together a nice, tidy white carnation. Logan watched me work without comment, then got back to her own stem. When she was finished with yet another pathetic flower, she said, "I think we should plant these in the garden."

I answered, "They would be pretty," then joking, "But, you know, they're not real flowers."

"I know that."

"I think the wind and rain would destroy them."

"Yes, but real flowers always fall off, too," and even as she said it, one of her tissue paper wads fell from the stem she held. "Like that."

It was then that I understood Logan's flowers. She was not making the perfect little imitation flowers the rest of us were making, but "real" flowers, the kind that bloom, live, then fall away when the Spring winds blow. And in that flash, I was no longer in the presence of the pathetic attempts of a child, but rather what I saw before me were the godlike works of a creator.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

"A Great Teacher Is A Great Artist": Part Two

I've come to believe that a great teacher is great artist and there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit. ~John Steinbeck

Most of my writing on this blog takes place during an early morning hour before I head off to school. I've gotten pretty good at banging out my paragraphs while writing on that deadline, but yesterday, I was called to duty before I was finished with what I wanted to say, so this post will have to stand as part two.

I've always approached teaching as an artist, even when I didn't know it. The way I teach has been shaped as much by the media with which I work -- individual children and families and environments -- than by any specific educational theory or philosophy or technique. My highest goal as a teacher, always, is to create a relationship with each child who walks through our door, what I sometimes refer to in verbal shorthand as "getting us on the same bandwagon." The process of doing this is different for each child. Some arrive already pulling a bandwagon, so I just jump onto it and let them drive. Others look to me to offer a spot on my bandwagon. Many need time to warm up to the idea of a bandwagon. Everyone of the hundreds of relationships I've had with children has been unique because each of the children, in mind and spirit, are, like great art, the first and only one of their kind to ever exist. And while experience helps, the moment I begin to approach children as products to manufacture rather than people I want to get to know, is the moment I should retire.

When we start with relationships, we don't need a pre-packaged curriculum because the children are the curriculum. Each of them brings their own interests, passions, and abilities to the table. I don't need to force specific knowledge on them on a schedule, but rather create a space, a canvas, a relationship in which we can, together, explore and answer their own questions.

And this is what stands at the bottom of my visceral reaction to efforts to standardize education. It's why standardized testing and text books and anything that is pre-pacakaged and sold by education corporations strikes me as not only anti-education, but at a deeper level, anti-child. Children are not predictable, programmable widgets that need to be told what to learn and by when. They are fully formed human beings with their own minds and spirits. You can't manufacture education: it is something that is created through our relationships.

Yesterday, I suggested that this child-lead approach should continue beyond preschool, all the way through high school. A reader asked how this would work, for instance, in high school math. Of course, I'm not a high school teacher, but as a preschool teacher, I can tell you that math is something young children do for pleasure, spontaneously exploring patterns, sequencing, and sorting. However, democratic free schools, like the Sudbury Valley School or the Albany Free School represent models for what a child-lead approach looks like for older kids. Researcher and author Peter Gray, in his book Free to Learn, writes that American children report that they come to dislike school, and math in particular, more and more with each passing year, starting in about sixth grade. Children in democratic free schools report the opposite, saying that they like school in general, and math in particular, more and more with each passing year because what they are doing is directly applicable to their lives, their interests, and their passions, which is so much more motivating than ciphering on paper and memorizing formulas.

Indeed, math and literacy, the shining stars of the corporate education reform movement, do not belong at the center of education. Reading and ciphering are tools to help us with our real education, perhaps equal to, but certainly not superior to the arts, physical education, dance, social studies, economics, political science, wood shop, history, home ec, car maintenance, or anything else for that matter. The way we do it now, making math and literacy the core around which everything else revolves, is like spending 13 years learning how to use a hammer without ever actually building anything.

And this is the greatest strength of a child-lead approach to education. It taps directly into the most powerful educational tool known to mankind: motivation. When we are motivated, learning is easy; indeed, it's a joy. Standardization sucks the inherent joy right out of learning and no amount of gold stars or threats of losing recess will inject true motivation back into the process. When we start with the child, when we start with our relationships, when we understand that we are working with a mind and spirit unlike any that have ever existed, then we begin to create masterpieces.

Of course, corporate education "reformers," aren't concerned with any of this because their stated goal is to get all the kids "career and college ready," and all of this child-lead motivation doesn't necessarily feed the school-to-cubicle pipeline they imagine to be the future. Setting aside the fact that these guys are most assuredly wrong about the future as most soothsayers are, the future is not theirs to create: the future belongs to those who must live it. I will not be part of robbing children of that fundamental human right. Just because these guys think they'll need a certain number of worker bees in the future doesn't mean that's what they'll get. If the next generation decides they all want to be dancers, well then, we'll just have to build our little money making enterprises around dance rather than crass consumerism.

People accuse me of being an idealist. I see myself as a realist. We are designed by nature or God to learn through play, through our own curiosities, and to be motivated to answer our own questions. This is what education is, even when the majority of our society see it as something else. The goal is not jobs or math skills or any other kind of success. The goal is a meaningful life and I cannot tell anyone what that is. It's a question only we can answer for ourselves. I can, however, pick up my paint brush and help you get there.

Try not to be a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value. ~Einstein

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Monday, February 23, 2015

"A Great Teacher Is A Great Artist"

After last week's post on some of the corporations and individuals lining up to make a fast buck (or a fast billion) off the labor of our children in school, a couple people I respect, both online and in person, told me they agreed that while "unleashing powerful market forces" on our children is a bad idea, they actually supported the Common Core standards. One parent who is a public school teacher and whose daughter is currently in public school kindergarten, told me that she had read the kindergarten standards and found them an improvement over what was there in the past.

I've never read any of the Common Core standards for any grade. My criticisms of this federal curriculum is the secretive, un-democratic manner in which they were developed; that professional educators were largely excluded from the process of their development with no early childhood professionals input at all; that none of the standards were field tested in any way before being foisted upon our children; the intentional injection of greed and private profit as the driving force; the inextricable marriage between Common Core and standardized testing and the use of these tests to make high stakes decisions about funding and individual teachers' careers; and the galling fact that no matter how good or bad the standards are, no matter how developmentally appropriate or inappropriate, and no matter what professional educators discover and learn in the process of using them, there is absolutely no mechanism for feedback, changes, alterations, or re-writing

That is, the only avenue for input available for teachers, parents, and students is protest and civil disobedience, such as opting out, walking out on tests, and rallying in the streets, which is what we're doing.

My friend agreed with most of my criticisms, but felt that if the standards could be separated from the all the crap, they were better than what came before them. This is a common theme among supporters, they want to separate the "standards" themselves from the rest, but that's not possible in the real world, or at least not so far.

And it might be true that the Common Core standards, magically separated from all the negatives that go with them, are better than what came before them. In fact, I'll stipulate to that. I told my friend as much as she left, adding, however, that I'm opposed to any educational standards in which adults tell children what to learn and by when. She replied, "You're an idealist."

I suppose I am an idealist, at least in the sense of thinking we can change our societal view of children and education so dramatically that we might one day offer a child-lead, emergent, play-based, democratic curriculum in all of our K-12 schools. But this is where the research points us. In fact, the adult-lead, top-down, learning-on-a-schedule approach that has come to define schools around the world is one of the most difficult ways for anyone to learn anything. This is what independent research tells us. Oh sure, those who support adult-lead education can point to their own research, but everything they cite to support their position are studies on how children learn in schools. It's like claiming to understand tigers by studying them in the zoo; it's like studying orca whales at Seaworld.

If it is idealism to follow science, then I'll confess to idealism. Research that is focused on how children learn the most and the best, those that look at the tigers and orcas outside of captivity, always points to a child-lead, emergent, play-based, democratic curriculum. And that is what this blog has been about since the very beginning. For those who need to see the research for themselves, I will simply point you to the endnotes of researcher Peter Gray's book Free to Learn.

"I've come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit." ~John Steinbeck

Teaching is an art and a science, yet we continue to try to turn it into a job along an assembly line. Indeed, this is always the end result when you put one group of humans (in this case adults) in charge of determining when, what, and how another group of humans (children) are going to learn.

The purpose of public education in a democracy isn't vocational training as so many insist; it isn't so that we can "beat the Chinese." The purpose is to create good citizens. Beyond that, however, there is a higher purpose for education and that is to assure that each child has the opportunity to become a masterpiece of his own creation, an individual who is inspired, motivated, and passionate about life. This is the rational approach to education because it is the surest path to each of us reaching our potential.

(I have more to write about this, but I'm out of time this morning. I plan to get back to this tomorrow.)

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