Tuesday, May 24, 2016

I'm Not Sure That's Teaching

I said, "I'm going to teach you how to eat your snack."

"Teacher Tom, we already know how to eat our snack."

"How did you learn that? I don't remember teaching it to you."

"We just know, Teacher Tom."

"But, I'm the teacher. What am I going to teach you?"

"You can teach us new songs, okay?"

"Good, how about I teach you the Frozen song?" Then tunelessly, "Frozen, frozen, frozen all the daaaaaay!"

"That's not it!"

"No, that is it. I'm the grown-up and you're the kid. I know."

"You're wrong, Teacher Tom. It goes like this . . ." She then proceeded to tunelessly sing a few lines from the movie's theme song, a couple of her friends joining in less expertly, following her lead.

I think a lot about what I do in my capacity as a teacher here at the Woodland Park Cooperative School. I certainly don't do what most folks think of as teaching, which would be coming up with some knowledge that I think the kids should know, then somehow inserting it into their brains. Mostly what I do is goof around with kids like this, stepping in when safety is in question, responding to their requests, and keeping track of the schedule. 

I'm not sure that's teaching. And by the same token, if I'm not teaching, is what we have here even a school? Probably not in the sense that the wider society perceives it, yet we call ourselves a school and I call what I do teaching, I think, because there's not really another name for what we do, at least not in America. In New Zealand, they call their play-based, cooperative preschools "Playcentres," which, I think, is a more descriptive word for what we do, and the UK has a profession called "play worker," which seems a lot more like what I spend my days doing. But words are meant to communicate and "playcentre" and "play worker" are meaningless terms where I'm from, so for the time being we're going with "school" and "teacher."

I find myself feeling increasingly alienated from what the rest of the world calls "school." Indeed, if we didn't need there to be a safe, inexpensive place for our children to spend their days while mom and dad go to work, I wonder if we would even need schools. Woodland Park serves a community of families that don't need us to serve as day care. They either are getting by on one income, are self-employed, or have otherwise cobbled together work schedules with the flexibility to allow them to spend their days with their kids. If everyone had this luxury, would they still send their children off to those institutions we call schools?

I reckon most would because we've largely bought into the idea of school as a good thing. I mean, we all went to them and we have memories of having learned some useful things, although it's hard for us to recall most of what they tried to teach us. Speaking for myself, I can only come up with a short list of lessons learned from pubic schooling that serve me today, hardly a great return on the 12 years I invested there (kindergarten was not part of the public schools when I was young). Most of my education happened in an extracurricular manner, on the evenings and weekends and lunch breaks and between classes, when I spent time with my friends outside of the classrooms.

I've been reflecting quite a bit these last few days on an essay entitled On the Wildness of Children written by Carol Black. She begins with a quote from Ellwood P. Cubberley, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education, writing in 1898:

Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials -- children -- are shaped and fashioned into products . . . The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of 20th century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifics laid down.

This, essentially, is the model of public schooling we have followed ever since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and it is based upon the idea that children, indeed, all humans are essentially evil and that it was incumbent upon society to create institutions with the goal of elevating humans above our base "natural state." And we've been doing this for the past seven generations: none of us know any differently.

I urge you to take the time to read this long, well-written and well-argued piece in which she asserts that humans have evolved to learn best through "wildness," and that we do our species a great disservice when we seek to separate ourselves from "nature":

In many rural land-based societies, learning is not coerced; children are expected to voluntarily observe, absorb, practice, and master the knowledge and skills they will need as adults -- and they do. In these societies . . . even very young children are free to choose their own actions, to play, to explore, to participate, to take on meaningful responsibility. "Learning" is not conceived as a special activity at all, but as a natural by-product of being alive in the world.

This certainly fits what little I feel I've learned about being a "teacher" in a "school," but most of my colleagues don't spend their days teaching the way I do, nor are they in schools like we have at Woodland Park: 

Researchers are finding that children in these settings spend most of their time in a completely different attentional state from children in modern schools . . . it may have much in common with the Buddhist concept of "mindfulness." If something moves in the broad field of perception, the child will notice it. If something interesting happens, he can watch for hours. A child in this state seems to absorb her culture by osmosis, by imperceptible degrees picking up what the adults talk about, what they do, how they think, what they know.

I'm not claiming that Woodland Park achieves this ideal, because, after all, we were all subjected to the schools spawned by the Industrial Revolution, but we try each day to keep in mind this essential truth about human learning. To spend one's day being compelled to "learn" about things that don't inherently hold our interest leads only to stress for the sake of stress whereas when we are allowed to spend our hours pursuing our interests we find our passion for life.

If professional educators can't understand how kids outside of school learn so much without being taught, it may be because they don't understand how this kind of attention works. They shut it down as soon as the bell rings. In school children must turn off their powers of observation, they must narrow their attention and "focus," which means they must not notice what's happening around them. They are told not to look out of windows. They are told not to let their eyes -- or their minds -- wander. A child who maintains a state of open attention in the classroom will be diagnosed with an attention "disorder" and drugged.

Humans are not widgets to be manufactured, yet this is how schooling treats us and, as Black illustrates, the mindset of rote, subjugation, and obedience has come, horrifyingly, to become a cornerstone of our political world. Again, I urge you to read it.

Today's education reformers aren't as fixated upon assembly lines as they are on upon computers, but they are just as wrong as those earlier corporate reformers. "The human brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge, or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer," but because they seem to believe this is true they are actually doubling down on the anti-human aspects of our pubic schools, making them into the sort of test score coal mines that would have made even our Victorian era ancestors cringe.

I don't know if I'm a teacher, but when I talk to "real" teachers it is clear that I don't spend my days doing what they do. I don't know if we are a school, but when I look at "real" schools it is clear that we don't do what they do, which is to strive against our industrial school past to create a place in which children follow their own interests, together, with adults around to support them. Perhaps we're not yet "wild," and perhaps our environment falls short of "nature," but it is the direction we are going.

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Monday, May 23, 2016

Striving Toward Our Ideal

A common characteristic of play-based schools are informal policies discouraging adults from helping children with things they can do for themselves. This goes for everyday personal care things like putting on jackets and using the toilet, as well as physical challenges like climbing to the top of the playhouse or using the swings.

Ideally, we step back as they engage their struggles. When they begin to get frustrated, we might support them with narrative statements like, "You've put your arm in the sleeve," or perhaps helpful informative statements like, "Your other sleeve is behind you." When it's something necessary like dressing appropriately for outdoors or peeing in the potty, we then might step in with actual assistance when it appears the challenge is still too much for them, but only after giving each child a chance to do what he can for himself. When it's something with which the child is challenging herself, like climbing a tree, we might move closer and offer words of encouragement, or say things like, "I won't help you, but I won't let you get hurt."

Competence is built upon perseverance and these struggles with meaningful, real-world challenges (as opposed to the manufactured challenges of tests and homework) are the foundations upon which confident, self-motivated humans are built.

As a cooperative preschool in which parents work in the classroom as assistant teachers, this is one of the most important and difficult lessons some parents learn. Teachers who have never worked in a cooperative often ask me if parents "get in the way" or intervene too much or too quickly, and my answer is, "Yes, they do." When families arrive at our school with their two-year-olds, many are still brand new to the parenting game, primarily experienced in caring for infants who need so much done for them. For first time parents, that is the only parent-child relationship they know, and while there was a time when it frustrated me, I've come to realize that part of my job is to recognize where they are on their journey and to be there as they, and their child, transition into this new phase.

In other words, we don't always live up to our ideal, but rather, as is the case with any ideal, we always strive in that direction. 

The "unicycle merry-go-round" is one of the features of our outdoor classroom. It's made to sit on a paved surface, which we had when we acquired it, but it's now installed on sloped, wood chip covered ground. There's a "track" upon which the wheels are meant to turn, but it's almost always blocked with wood chips and other debris making it nearly impossible for children to peddle. At the beginning of the school year, in our 2's class in particular, there is almost always an adult bent to the task of pushing the children.

But by this point in the school year, however, it's thrilling to see clear evidence of the progress we've made along our journey. Now the adults stand back without my encouragement, as children struggle with the apparatus. The kids identify the wood chip problem themselves. They find brooms to sweep the track. Some choose to be "riders" while others are "motors," pushing one another around and around, taking turns by an unspoken system of their own devices, while the adults stand back, not helping, all of us striving toward our ideal.

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Friday, May 20, 2016

Work And Responsibility

On Wednesday, our 4-5's class took a field trip to the Center for Wooden Boats on the south shores Lake Union in downtown Seattle, the lake at the heart of the city. I very much look forward to this field trip and not just because I live in the neighborhood.

First off, I'm an unabashed civic booster and proud that ours is a city that supports an institution dedicated to preserving this ancient utilitarian art form. But more importantly for us, they offer an adventure for preschoolers that involves making your own wooden boat using hand tools and crewing a short cruise paddling an umiaq, a traditional skin-on-frame canoe. When I polled the children yesterday at circle time, most of them reported that both activities were their favorites. 

It's an exotic in-city destination if only because the entire facility is floating on the lake, tethered like houseboats to docks, right there in the shadow of our equally field trip worthy Museum of History and Industry

We do more carpentry at our school than most, I reckon, and the kids were expertly enthusiastic about using brace-and-bit drills, hammers, and scissors to festoon wooden boat blanks with wine corks, bottle caps, twine, and fabric scraps: a wheel-house Woodland Park project. The classroom, with wooden rowing sculls hanging from the ceiling and views out toward the lake makes a great workshop. It's definitely an adults-help-kids kind of activity, which is perfect for a cooperative school like ours with lots of adult hands available for holding nails and tying knots.

The highlight for me, however, is getting out on the water. I didn't grow up around boats, so every time out on the water is special, and I'm especially fond of being on Lake Union. The picture illustrating this post is of us looking back toward my neighborhood, with the core of downtown being just over the horizon, the Space Needle off screen to the right, and our school in Fremont behind us. There are a couple dozen construction cranes visible from out on the water. This is where we live, these families of Woodland Park. It seems that most locals are bemoaning our city's rapid growth, but I like it: indeed, my family has chosen to live right in the middle of it.

Prior to setting out, Skipper Brant, a skipper with whom I've sailed before, gave us an important run-down on the proper use of paddles (not oars), and basic water safety. This is a time when direct instruction is appropriate, because, after all, we were going to be engaging in an inherently risky activity and the price one pays for that is to receive important safety information like how to hold a paddle so that you don't hit other people. I completely loved watching our crew earnestly walking together, each holding her paddle in the proper "oars up" position, while staying in the middle of the dock as the skipper had cautioned. This is when a little drilling is meaningful, as opposed the make-work drilling kids do to prepare for high stakes standardized testing.

Setting out together in a umiaq with our community of preschoolers and parents, it took all of our concentration at first. We strove to row together according the cadence that Skipper Brant had taught us, while holding our paddles properly, staying seated and, of course, keeping an eye out for the float planes we all know reside at this end of the lake. This was not "fun" in the stereotypical sense: there was hard work and responsibility and we, as a community of preschoolers stepped up to it together. Yes, of course, Brant, an expert boatsman seated in the stern provided much of our momentum and all of our steering, but it was clear that the children perceived the realness of their own part in making this happen. No paddles were dropped in the water, no one tried to stand up, no one squirmed or whined or messed with one another, although a few took little breaks to allow their paddles to drag through the water.

When we reached our most distant point, we stopped, placed our paddles in the "rest position," then drifted for a bit, taking in this special view of our habitat.

Yesterday, as we debriefed about our field trip we got excited about the idea of trying to build our own umiaq, a conversation that involved a lot of debate about how we were going to go about capturing a walrus, which provides the traditional hide that is stretched over the wooden frame. When the reality of going to Alaska and then actually killing and skinning a 3,400 pound sea creature sunk in, however, we decided we could instead use "thick fabric" like they do at the Center for Wooden Boats. I wish we had more than a single week left of school: I'd like to see where that enthusiasm would take us.

Instead, we floated our wooden boats in the sensory table, which is how young children have always first practiced being out on the water, but now we did it with some first-hand knowledge of the work and responsibility that the reality entails.

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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Pressure And Listening

"I think the young feel pressured by the older generation. 

But I realized it isn't just the older generation doing the pressuring. 

Young people are pressuring older people to change, too, and it can make us feel uncomfortable. 

But it isn't all bad either.

I know how much I learned from my parents and teachers, and now I know for sure that I'm learning from my children and the young people I work with.

I don't do everything they want me to do, and they don't do everything I want them to do, but we know down deep we'd really be impoverished if we didn't have each other."

"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." ~Mister Rogers

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Real Rigor

The opposite of play is not work, it's rote. ~Dr. Edward Hallowell

Our outdoor classroom is one big slope and within that slope there are many ups and downs, reflecting our city which iss built on hills. We're forever experimenting with gravity out there, rolling and flowing things downhill or dragging and pushing things up. There are parts of the space that are so steep one needs a running start to get to the top and there is very little flat upon which to rest one's legs.

We have a pair of wagons, which are regularly used on the hills. Once, we made an airplane. 

From my photos, it's easy to see the physics and engineering learning, but those were minor aspects, side-effects, of the bigger, more important project, which was figuring out how to get along with the other people.

There are those who question the "rigor" of a play-based curriculum when, in fact, we're engaged in the most rigorous curriculum known to mankind. There is simply no greater or more important challenge than the one of balancing our own individual desires and needs with those of the other humans with whom we find ourselves. 

A play-based curriculum is rigorous because of it's subject matter, which is the all-important one of getting along with the one another, something children are passionate about. Traditional schools, on the other hand, are rigorous simply because they attempt to teach less interesting things by rote, lecture, and text book, the most difficult way to learn new things because most children find them tedious and frustrating. It's an artificial rigor designed, I guess, to make the adults feel important.

Many people confuse hating school with rigor, saying things like, "It prepares them for life," but those of us who work in a play-based environment spend our days amongst children who love school, who arrive each day eager to tackle the challenges of community, and I would assert that there is no better preparation for life. Make no mistake, it's not pure joy, it's not all laughter. There are tears. There is conflict. There is negotiating and compromise. Children might complain, but they return each day eager to engage, to figure out the things they are most driven to figure out: the most important things of all.

There was so much to learn about flying our airplane together. Would it be safe? Where would everyone sit? How many of us can go at a time? Who gets to steer? Who rides and who "launches?" How do we get it back to the top of the hill? How do we make sure everyone gets a turn?

For the most part, we adults stood back, taking a few pictures, letting the kids work it out. Sure, the first few times they launched themselves down the hill, I jogged just ahead of them, prepared to intervene in the name of safety, but as it turned out on this day, I was unnecessary, even when the airplane crashed and burned.

I'll take the real rigor of play over the artificial rigor of rote any day. And so would the kids.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Cruel, Sadistic Bastards

Last week, I spent an evening with a friend who is a public school teacher here in Seattle. I knew her before she became a teacher. We've had long discussions over the years about what's wrong with public education, and specifically about the disastrous Common Core national curriculum, the one that was developed largely by career bureaucrats and for-profit testing companies with precious little input from actual teachers, especially those who work with young children. She has always taken a more cavalier approach than me, insisting that fads like this come and go and that she was confident that she would be able to engage her students in "real learning" between the cracks.

She was not feeling that way last week. Her school was in the midst of administering high stakes standardized testing that were supposedly Common Core aligned. I say "supposedly" because who knows? No one outside the classroom is allowed to see the questions being asked -- not the school board, not the administration, not the parents, and certainly not the taxpayers who are on the hook for this mess. Only teachers and students are allowed to see the questions on the day of the test and they are emphatically not allowed to discuss the questions with anyone, even with one another. The companies that make these tests are actually monitoring the social media accounts of older students to make sure they don't discuss anything "proprietary." 

My friend's students were freaking out in anticipation, some in tears, some in ways that sounded bizarre to me. She is not even allowed to tell the kids' parents that they have the right to opt their children out of these tests, even when parents came to specifically ask her if they can opt out. 

Even if these test measured anything worthwhile (and they don't), the results will be useless to my friend, just as they are useless to all teachers, because by the time she receives them, it will be next fall: she may not even be teaching at that school, let alone working with those kids. And even if she did find herself still teaching one of them, she would have no way of knowing what he needs to do to improve because the whole damned thing is secret. Not even the President is allowed to see these tests that we spend billions on each year.

I can only draw one conclusion, the companies that make these tests and the state superintendents of eduction who signed contacts with these companies are all cruel, sadistic bastards. They are making the lives of children hell and they are making the lives of teachers hell, all under the cloak of secrecy and hollow assurances of "trust us." They are making a generation of children hate school even more than they already hate it and they're doing it exclusively for a greasy buck because there is simply no educational value in what they are doing. None, and no one is even attempting to make that case any longer.

A parent recently shared with me a letter she received from the school district in response to her decision to opt her child out of the tests. The superintendent's main argument was that she was placing her child's school's funding in jeopardy (although he did, laughably, also evoke her child's infamous "permanent recored").

I'm sick of these ignorant charlatans. What fools we've been to buy their cleverly concocted snake oil. These tests are designed to make failures of children. To wit, a test question which was anonymously revealed by a teacher in which 4th graders were asked to write essays based upon a reading assignment that was written at a 7th grade reading level (and a high school interest level). The failure is intentional because the very companies who make these super secret tests can then turn around and sell text books and other bogus "learning" materials to families and schools with the cynical promise of helping their little failures do better next time.

Companies like Pearson Education are grifters of the highest order. What a scam: we have secret tests, we make everyone associated with them sign non-disclosure agreements, the school districts aren't even allowed to tell families that the test are optional, then they freaking fail the kids on purpose just to get deeper into our pocketbooks. I'll say it again, these corporations and the people who contract with them, are cruel, sadistic bastards.

And believe me, the words I've used in this post are mild compared to the ones that are going through my head.

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Monday, May 16, 2016

Star Wars

In 1977, my girlfriend and I viewed a midnight showing of a sci-fi movie called Star Wars. We had heard nothing about it prior to entering the theater -- the attraction had been the show time. I saw the next two sequels, then lost interest, but obviously the rest of the world did not. 

Of course, the franchise today has taken over the world. Even two-year-olds wear the t-shirts to school. They all know what is meant by terms like "light saber," "Darth Vader," and "R2D2," and as the kids get older, there is a great deal of cache in knowing the more esoteric trivia. There are preschool Star Wars experts just as there are preschool dinosaur experts.

I have some reservations about showing these violent action movies to preschoolers, although in fairness, most of the kids I teach have received their Star Wars education second-hand, through brand marketing and their dramatic play with the few kids who have indeed watched one or more of the films. It's impossible to escape in much the way it's impossible to escape at least some knowledge of the latest Disney princess.

This is the world we live in and the children are not idiots. Star Wars is clearly important, not just to preschoolers but to the rest of society. It's not a fad: fads don't last 40 years. No, this is by now an important piece of culture, if not art, one that has become so ingrained in or society that the children have decided they must approach it like a course of study. At any given moment on our playground, there are light sabers being wielded, for instance. There is one kindergarten boy who spends most of his time outside using a stick pony to practice his slow motion fencing moves, sometimes with others, but often all alone with his imaginary opponents. There are long, intense debates among the children about the "light side" versus the "dark side," who is related to whom, and whether or not a storm trooper can be defeated with this or that particular weapon. It's obviously more important for boys to learn these things (because even the robots in the movie are "boys"), but girls are making a study of it as well, more often as critics than as participants, although there is some of that as well.

I know there are some schools that ban Star Wars play (indeed, all play that involves weapons or fighting), but I hardly think that's wise. I mean, we're talking about culturally significant art here, something that surpasses even Harry Potter, if only because it has been with us long enough that many of its biggest fans are parents of these children. I am not saying that Star Wars is great art any more than I would say that the music of Miley Cyrus is great art, but it is undoubtedly art of such power that banning it only pushes it underground with the rest of the forbidden fruit.

I cannot stop the children from playing Star Wars even if I wanted to and I don't. It doesn't inspire me, but it certainly inspires a large swath of my fellow citizens and that's why we will play Star Wars at preschool: not because it's what I want to teach, but because that's what the children want to learn. That's what child-led education is all about.

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