Tuesday, December 18, 2018


Over the weekend I was walking along my neighborhood sidewalks. As I turned a corner, a man fell in behind me, keeping pace with me. I didn't think much of it at first, but then I took note of the sound, thup-thup-thup. I looked to see he was wearing flip-flops, or thongs for my Aussie readers. It was a cool, wet day, not flip-flop weather, but whatever, it was none of my business, that is, except for the thup-thup-thup, which was getting under my skin after just a block.

I crossed the street to escape the sound, but the man crossed behind me. I sped up, putting space between myself and the aggravating sound. I felt a growing peace as the thup-thup-thup receded behind me, only to have the sound catch up when I was forced to wait at the next crosswalk. I was looking forward to a moment's reprieve as he waited with me, but as luck would have it, the light turned to "walk" before he'd come to a complete stop. Thup-thup-thup.

I told myself to calm down, to just ignore it, to try to focus on other things. After all, this was nothing, an every day sound even, not worthy of notice, let alone a matter over which to grind my teeth. A part of me wanted to scream, to lash out; it even crossed my mind to take it out on this poor guy who was probably enjoying the thup-thup-thup of his flip-flops, a reminder of a recent holiday in the sun. But try as I might, it was in my head, taking up residence there like a pebble in a shoe. Finally, I feigned interest in a shop window, standing there until I could no longer hear the sound of those damned flip-flops. Then I waited a little longer, just to make sure, before tacking along a divergent path by way of totally eliminating all possibility of catching up with him should he be attracted by a shop window or stopped by a pedestrian signal.

As I continued along my way, calmly now, I chided myself. What a silly thing, I thought, to be aggravated. This is a city; a place full of sounds. Why did I allow this one to bother me? I began to think of the children I teach, about how some of them become overwhelmed by just this sort of "silly" thing. I thought about the girl who covers his ears when we play recorded music. I recalled the boy who cried whenever we sang the birthday song. I sympathized with the kids who lash out at their classmates, verbally and physically, when spaces get crowded or rowdy or noisy. I understood those children who shout, "Stop!" at another child when there doesn't appear to be anything that needs to stop. I remembered those times when a child's face wore an expression of pain over what seemed like nothing to me.

I'm an adult person, not typically prone to these sorts of aggravations, yet a mere thup-thup-thup threw me completely off my game for a time, causing what others would consider inappropriately strong emotions, so strong in fact that I had taken measures to remove myself. Imagine being a child, less mature and experienced. Imagine being unable to pinpoint the cause of these strong, prickly feelings, not having the option to remove yourself, or the experience to do so, nor the self-control to not lash out. Imagine feeling that way much or most of the time when out in our cacophonous world. There is nothing "silly" or "mere" or "inappropriate" about these feelings, even if they seem that way to those of us who are not feeling them.

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Monday, December 17, 2018

Collective Dreams

The secret to making dreams come true is to have lots of dreams. The more dreams you have, the greater the likelihood that at least one of them, in some form or another, will make it into your reality. This, at least, has been my conviction about human dreams for a good part of my adult life. Naturally, I can look back over my history of hopes about the future and see many that have not yet come to pass -- I'm not, for instance, living in a desert island utopia created by my fellow castaways and me -- but when I consider my present, I'm living my dream.

This is not to say that life is perfect, it's simply to say that I'm living a life of which I once dreamt, not necessarily in the particulars, but in essence. I'm respected in my work; I am a writer with readers and a speaker with listeners; I'm happily married with a wife and child who are out in the world pursuing their own dreams; I'm a teacher; I spend my days amongst great minds; and, you know, in a way, our little Woodland Park Cooperative School community represents all the essential elements of castaways working together to form a more perfect community.

All of these things existed for me as dreams well before they were real. I didn't plot or scheme for my dreams. I didn't write them down. I never workshopped them or vision-quested or otherwise formally anchored them to reality by committing them prematurely to the immovable concreteness of the world. You can sometimes do that with success regarding hidebound things like personal finances or career ladders, but real dreams must be allowed to fly on their own wings, to land in their own time, because the moment we force them to the ground of current reality, they become part of the task and toil, and cease being dreams forever.

The most remarkable thing about man's dreams is that they all come true; this has always been the case though no one would care to admit it. And a peculiarity of man's behavior is that he is not in the least surprised when his dreams do come true; it is as if he has expected nothing else. The goal to be reached and the determination to reach it are brother and sister, and slumber both in the same heart. ~Halldor Laxness

I've been reflecting upon this assertion from the Icelandic author's masterpiece, Independent People, a Nobel Prize winning novel that I picked up during a recent trip. At first pass, it seems obviously untrue. Certainly, all our dreams don't come true. Taking it to an extreme, it would be impossible to argue, for instance, that any of the dreams came true for children who died in concentration camps. No, the only way that Laxness' statement could be universally true is if Laxness is writing about man's dreams in a collective sense and that he's including nightmares among our dreams. Indeed, this assertion is made near the end of a novel that itself paints a reality that is grim, becomes more grim, and then ends on a down note.

Bjartur of Summerhouse, the book's protagonist is a proudly independent man, grindingly poor, yet nevertheless proud that he and his family exist without relying upon others, accepting no charity, no governmental assistance, not even the helping hand of a neighbor. He maintains his independence right up to the very end at the cost of the happiness, the health, and even the lives of his wives, children, and livestock. He pays an impossibly steep price for his precious, and ultimately valueless "independence," a myth derived directly from the every-man-for-himself ethos of capitalism. So the dreams of Bjartur, despite the pain and suffering, do indeed come true, yet the only ones who won't call him a "victim" of the collective dream of capitalism are the wealthy (who tell him despite the evidence that he lives an enviable "nobel, peasant" life) and Bjartur himself.

I am a white, middle-aged, middle-class American male. It's relatively easy for my own dreams to come true. I'd love to be able to boast that it was my hard work and individual brilliance alone that made my dreams come true, but the world is set up for the dreams of people like me. I don't have to look far to see that our collective dream, this dream that always comes true, places the dreams of many of my fellow citizens out of reach.

As a preschool teacher, I care very little about what are labeled "academic" skills. No, our focus at the Woodland Park Cooperative School is first and foremost on the community of families we are creating together day-after-day. Of course, we come together as a collection of individual dreams, but the real work of preschool is to learn to dream together, to dream the dream of who we are together. We spend our time together not just dreaming for ourselves, but on behalf of these other people with whom we are building our lives. These are the dreams that always come true, the dreams that we make for one another.

And what is community if not our collective dreams. There are no independent people: we are interdependent, and so too are our dreams if they are going to be worth a damn.

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Friday, December 14, 2018

He Knew We Would

Like many classrooms, a lot of our stuff is stored in cabinets and on shelves (and atop cabinets and shelves) in the classroom itself. Before the children arrive, I chose what aspects of the "third teacher" will be available to them, which means only a fraction of our toys are "open" on any given day. I suppose, ideally, we wouldn't have to resort of in-class storage, and that the cabinets and shelves would be home to an ever rotating collection of things that are always "open," but the realities of our space makes that impossible.

During the first week or so of class, children who are new to our school often want to get out more toys. With the older kids, they'll usually ask if they can play with this or that, while the younger kids just start rummaging around. This is not a hard thing to do given that most of our shelves are covered by curtains that are easily pushed aside.

People often ask me, why, if we have a play-based, child-lead curriculum, I don't just let the kids decide what they want to play with and when? Why are some things "closed?" The short answer is because otherwise it's simply too much.

Researchers tell us that the more toys children have, especially for kids under five, the less they actually play. According to Kathy Sylvia, professor of education psychology at Oxford University:

When (children) have a large number of toys there seems to be a distraction element, and when children are distracted they do not learn or play well.

Michael Malone, professors of early childhood education at the University of Cincinnati says:

More is not necessarily better. This is a myth that needs to be extinguished from western suburban culture. Our work shows that having fewer toys is associated with less solitary play and increased sharing. Conversely, too many toys can cause a sense of 'overload'.

While every child is different, the ballpark recommendation is that two dozen toys is a good number for a preschool aged child. That sounds about right for the classroom as well. Yesterday, for instance, I chose to "open" our Duplos, a felt play set, and some sewing cards. There was rice, tubes, and funnels in the sensory table. We made cinnamon dough ornaments. There was also regular play dough along with a collection of related tools, like cookie cutters and pizza wheels. And there is always stuffed animals, books, baby dolls, devil duckies, our "every day" cars, costumes, and a few other odds and ends.

It was enough.

When a child wants more, however, I will say something like, "You want to play with that. Would you like it to be open tomorrow?" Some of them plead or even cry. But this only happens with the kids who are new to us, and even then only during the first few days of school. The children who have been with us for awhile know the score. 

For instance, yesterday a boy asked, "Can we play with the trains tomorrow?"

I answered, "Yes," and he was satisfied because he knew we would.

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Thursday, December 13, 2018

Sometimes Mommy Has To Leave

Sometimes mommy has to leave and you don't want her to leave. 

When I started teaching, I was a distractor. In fact, I considered myself a master distractor. I had every confidence that I could calm any kid down in less than five minutes through a combination of goofing, enthusiasm, and "Look what those kids are doing over there!" Today, I'm more inclined to simply sit with a crying child, to listen to any words they might be trying to say, to show warmth and empathy, to assure them that mommy always comes back, and to allow them the full arc of their strong emotion. Most kids still stop crying in less than five minutes, but that's no longer the goal now that my priority is their feelings rather than my discomfort with their feelings.

So when mommy left last Friday, when he reached out to mommy as she walked away, when he screamed and cried and pulled himself from my arms, when he dropped to the floor to kick his feet in outrage, I sat there with him, blocking out the whole world but him.

I could hear he was saying words as he screamed, but they weren't at first discernible, so I said, "You're mad that mommy left," and "You're sad that mommy left." No one can truly tell another how they feel, but I was pretty sure I was close to the mark in this case. He was still saying the words through his tears, repeating them. Finally, I thought I made out, "I want mommy to come back."

I wanted him to know that he had been heard, that I understood and empathized, and I wanted it to be something that was true, so I said, "I want your mommy to come back too."

He shout-cried at me, "I want mommy to come back!"

I nodded. I worked on keeping my voice gentle. I said, "I want your mommy to come back too."

And he said back, "I want mommy to come back!"

We went back and forth like this several times. He seemed to really wanted me to know that he wanted his mommy to come back.

Other children tried to sooth him: one girl brought him a costume, another tried to hand him a construction paper fire truck. He didn't accept their overtures, although he was by now present enough to shake his head "no" at them rather than simply scream as he was doing at me.

By now he was very clearly saying, "I want mommy to come back!" And I was replying, "I want your mommy to come back too," to which he always shout-cried back, "I want mommy to come back!"

I continued to attempt to put a name to his feelings, using words like "mad," "sad," and "angry," as well as to state the truth that "mommy always comes back." But whenever I said, "I want your mommy to come back too," he shouted at me, "I want mommy to come back!" 

Then, finally, I really heard him. He said, "I want mommy to come back!" stressing the pronoun for his tin-eared teacher.

This time I answered, "You want mommy to come back."

He nodded as if to say, "Finally," and in one motion picked himself from the floor, stepped up to the art table, still crying, and got to work gluing construction paper shapes to a red fire truck pre-cut, his hands not fully under his own control. As he wadded and creased the paper, it looked almost as if he were wrestling with it, his fingers clenching and curling from the emotion that was still coursing through his whole body.

After a couple minutes, he became silent as he concentrated on manipulating the small pieces of paper, the last of his strong emotion going into this construction project.

I said one more time, "You want mommy to come back." This time he ignored me.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Every Parent Must Make Their Own Decisions About Screen Time

I watched television as a kid. I started watching on a black and white Zenith. I remember when we bought our family's second set, a state-of-the-art color TV. There were four channels, five if you were lucky in adjusting the UHF knob, and children's programming was limited to Saturday mornings and a couple hours right after school. The only other sort of screens we knew about were at the movie theater.

I feel like we were more or less typical for our neighborhood, watching maybe an hour a day. It's not that we wouldn't have liked to watch more, but there just wasn't anything we found all that compelling. For a time, Batman was on in the afternoons, followed by the boring news, which was okay with us because after such an exciting half hour we were eager to don our capes (dad's dress shirt buttoned around the neck) and meet our friends outdoors to re-enact what we had just seen. Things have obviously changed. Today it's possible for kids to spend all day, every day in front of screens that deliver exactly what they want, when they want it.

Over the weekend, the program 60 Minutes reported on the early results from a new $300 million study financed by the National Institutes of Health. The goal of the study is to better understand the impact of all sorts of external influences on brain development; everything from drug and alcohol use to concussions, including the affect of screen time. It's an important thing for us to be seriously investigating. Screens have proliferated dramatically over the last couple decades, an explosion in technology with which research is only now just beginning to catch up, and given the necessity for longitudinal studies, we are still decades away from anything approaching definitive results. Up to now, the research that has been done on screen time, and particularly what people are calling "addiction," has presented a mixed bag of results, with some showing negative impacts and others showing none. Some have even indicated that there are benefits of screen time under certain circumstances. And, honestly, if these early results are any indication, this new study is no different . . . at least so far.

You can read the piece for yourself, but the bottom line is that there are reasons to worry and reasons to not worry. The truth, as it has been since I was a boy, is that we are all subjects in this grand human experiment with technology.

I suspect that if and when we ever get to the bottom of this, we'll discover that screen time impacts different people in different ways, that some, maybe even most, of us can engage with relative impunity, while others pay a price, even a steep one. One thing I do know, however, is that six hours a day (which is approximately the average for America's young children) is entirely too much. This is not a statement about technology or content, but rather that it is a physically sedentary activity, one that may engage the brain, one that may even support social and emotional learning, but also one in which children are largely indoors, slumped in a sofa while their muscles atrophy. Indeed, that's what mom would say as she chased us outdoors back in the 60's, "Get outside, get some fresh air, and move your bodies."

My own belief is that all this screen time is causing some level of brain damage, at least to some of us, and there is no doubt that it is changing our brains for better or worse (which is also true of everything we experience) but by the time we get to the bottom of it, screens will be as old time-y as black and white Zeniths. I'm not throwing up my hands, I'm just being realistic about the science keeping up with the pace of technology. In the meantime, I try to stay educated, then follow my instincts, values, and experience. One thing we do know for a fact is that humans need to move their bodies in order to be their best selves, they need regular, sustained exercise, and the younger we are the more we need: it's necessary for both the body and the brain, which are, in fact, one and the same.

Every parent must make their own decisions about screen time. I will not call you a "lazy parent" because you hand your kid the iPhone once in awhile. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. If you feel like it's too much, it's too much. If you feel like your kid is getting enough exercise, then that's the important thing, the thing we know. Personally, I find life more fulfilling when I limit my time in front of screens, when I move my body and interact directly with the other humans. I think that's true for most of us, but all I have right now are my own anecdotes and a mixed bag of science . . . for now.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Full-Body Learning

On the first day of school he told me, "There's going to be a lot of fighting this year." It was an interesting comment, funny even, coming from this particular boy. I've known him since he was a two-year-old and he had never shown any inclination toward violence, real or imaginary. On the contrary, tough guy bluster, even of the comical variety, had in the past often seemed to intimidate and confuse him; he was regularly reduced to tears by dramatic play that struck him as threatening, often retreating under our classroom loft for "safety."

Jousting with swings standing in for steeds

His mother explained that he had over the summer become fascinated with knights, including their armor, shields, and other weaponry, items he had taught himself to create using paper, scissors, tape, and staples. And that is how his "fighting" first showed up in the classroom, with him not only arming himself, but also others. He has mastered the fierce pose and when he finds another kid inclined toward "fighting," he might threaten something like, "You better watch out, I'm going to fight you." The fighting itself has been quite tame by the standards of Woodland Park play fighting, most often involving "swords," but sometimes featuring "jousting." He is clearly thrilled when someone engages with him, although the moment actual contact is made, even when it's of the light and incidental variety, he usually calls it off, often crying loudly. But once the tears are over, he's back at it, once more trying to lure others into his game of fighting knights.

This knight has been unseated

I hope this description doesn't make him seem like a problem child in any way, because he is not. No one who knows him is worried that he'll grow up to be actually violent. This is clearly an intellectual pursuit, one full of questions to which he is seeking answers. Even now, months into our school year, there is still obvious uncertainty as he approaches others with his knight game, as he tests the others to see how they will respond. He's been delighted by his successes: his face flushes with excitement when it's going as he expected, combatants committed to both ferocity and a kind of chivalry that includes not really hurting one another. He's been overwhelmed when others have surpassed him in intensity or more extreme physicality. He's been often disappointed by those who are neither impressed, nor attracted by this knight who is threaten-asking them to fight with him. He has made his knight studies at home as a self-selected "academic" pursuit and is now attempting to apply what he has learned in real life.

One of his classmates does a similar thing with his own animal studies. Earlier in the year, he could be found prowling the playground as a dinosaur, usually as a T-rex, his favorite, roaring and stalking about with his arms draw up to mimic the short forearms associated with the species. Lately, his interests have turned to invertebrates, like his pet snails, but also slugs, worms, and insects. The other day, he put shoes on his hands so that he could practice moving like an insect, developing a fuller understanding of how they crawl by studying it with his whole body, in the same way that my knight-loving friend seeks to embody a knight in order to more fully understand.

Neither of these boys would be described as particularly physical, at least not in comparison to many of their classmates who spend their days racing around the place. In fact, I'm quite certain that if their parents send them to traditional public kindergartens next year, they will adapt to desk work better than most. They won't show up as "problem children" because they possess the sort of self-control and temperaments that will allow them to adapt more easily than will those "active" kids whose teachers will chase them around the classroom, scolding, punishing, and otherwise correcting them for moving their bodies at the wrong time and in the wrong way, perhaps even going so far as to recommend drugs.

It's a pity because it's clear that all children, even not obviously active ones, learn most naturally when allowed to engage their full selves, including their bodies, not in adult-proscribed ways and at adult-proscribed times, but as their own questioning and exploration dictates. Traditional schools are notoriously bad at allowing this because so much of what happens in them is about crowd control rather than learning. We can't have knights and insects anywhere but in the form of words, read or listened to, then regurgitated in their approved form, with bodies in their proper places, doing their proper things. It's a pity because all children learn best when allowed to explore with their full-selves, teaching themselves. And they must use their full bodies to do it.

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Monday, December 10, 2018

An Anti-Gaslighting Curriculum

The following is a sample of Teacher Tom's patent-free anti-gaslighting curriculum (formerly known as his anti-BS curriculum):

"Oh look, we have three kinds of candy for snack."

"It's not candy, Teacher Tom."

"Yes, it is candy."

"No, it's not."

"It is candy . . . Look, there's peppermint candy, jelly candy, and this other kind of candy."

"No, this is celery. This is apples. And this is bell peppers."

"No, that's not right. That's all healthy food. This is kid food. Kids only eat candy."

"We do not! We eat healthy food!"

That's when I shake my head condescendingly, chuckling, "Oh dear, that's not right. Grown-ups eat healthy food and kids eat candy."

"It's not candy!"

"Listen, you're just kids. I'm the grown-up, so I know everything: kids eat candy. This is food for kids, therefor it's candy. Grown-ups don't even like candy."

"Taste it, Teacher Tom! Taste it and you'll know it's healthy food."

"I don't like candy. It will be too yucky for me."

"Taste it!"

"I already know it's candy. I don't need to taste it."

"Taste it!"

"Okay, I'll taste it, but I know I won't like it." I bring it slowly to my lips reluctantly, making an expression of anticipatory revulsion. After several seconds of hesitation, I finally touch it with my tongue. "Hey! This isn't candy at all. It's celery. I like celery." Then I look at them with as much know-it-all superiority as I can muster, "See? I told you this was all healthy food."

There is always a pause then as my most blatant lie sinks in. This is how BS artists and gaslighters do it: they lower their voices, chuckle knowingly, then claim that up is down, that black is white, that the sun sets in the east. They then count on the illusion of their authority to shut people up as they entertain their self-doubt. And there is always a brief moment when I fear it's going to work on the children I teach, but it never does. Someone will always break the silence to say, "No, we told you!"

Far too much of what happens in our schools is about obedience, learning to blindly follow, rather than question authority. This is fundamentally anti-democratic and it prepares children to be too easily gaslighted and BS'ed. It is not just the right of citizens to speak the truth as we see it, but our responsibility, especially when it means standing up to those in power, like teachers and elected representatives. I want the children I teach to listen to me and when I say something that doesn't fit with what they already know, I want them to know it's their job to call me on it, to question me, to make me either prove it or shut up. Those are the kinds of citizens I want alongside me in this grand project of self-governance.

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