Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Becoming



The two-year-old attached himself to one of the few intact toys that exist on our junkyard playground: an ancient (more than 20 years old) plastic shopping cart. He methodically filled it with things he found on the ground, nothing special, just whatever came to hand.

Elsewhere on the playground other two-year-olds were engaged in their own solo activities, just getting a feel for the place, this being their first day of school. The children that appeared to be playing together were, in fact, interacting through one of the adults. This will change as the year progresses. 

Apparently satisfied with the contents of his shopping cart, the boy began pushing it up the hill upon which our playground is built, managing it over our uneven, wood chip bestrewn ground. It was a slow process, not because it was hard for him to do, but rather because he wasn't in any particularly hurry. He was imitating behavior he had seen, perhaps, but without the goal-oriented urgency of delivering anything from point A to point B. This was about moving that cart, not going anywhere or being anything, but rather a process of becoming a human who can move a cart.



Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli wrote, "The entire evolution of science would suggest that the best grammar for thinking about the world is that of change, not of permanence. Not of being but of becoming." I reflected on this as I watched those two-year-olds on their first day of school, their first day together on this playground, already becoming, always becoming.

When the boy got near the top of the hill, he was approached by another child, attracted as he had been by the shopping cart. In her interest, she inadvertently blocked his way, stopping his progress. She took hold of the opposite side of the cart from him, peering into its basket as if taking inventory. They stood this way for a time, he impeded, she impeding, neither of them seeming to notice the other as they studied the situation in which they found themselves. One might have expected the boy to object or the girl to insist, but it seems that neither of them have become those humans yet. It wasn't until the boy released the cart in order to drop a handful of wood chips into it, that the girl seemed to notice him, not so much as a fellow human, but as an action that drew her attention. She smiled as she watched him, then made a sound. When he looked up he found her smiling at him and he smiled back.

All of these young people, of course, are experienced in connecting with other people. Indeed, they have not fully identified themselves as something separate from their mothers and fathers, their brothers and sisters, their households of other people. They know they are part of their families; now they are becoming part of the wider world.

The two children stood smiling at one another across the shopping cart. Then they began to move, together, the girl pushing the cart down the hill, the boy pulling it, walking backwards, the two of them still smiling at one another.

This is what I expect to see from two-year-olds. Some of the change they will experience together will follow a more or less predictable pattern. They will find one another, discovering as they play that they are part of something bigger. They will struggle to figure it out, becoming more competent, more self-aware, more individuated, more connected, until it's the people, not the toys that first capture their attention when they step onto the junkyard playground. But most of the becoming we will see over the next few weeks, then months, then years, is entirely unpredictable: I might be able to anticipate the general picture, but the particulars of what they will become, both as individuals and together, can't be known until it has been created.

The boy and the girl made their way, unhurriedly, smiling, down the hill until they came to a flatter piece of ground. This time when the boy stooped to pick up a handful of wood chips, their eye contact broken, the girl looked away and they went back to their separate journeys of becoming.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

I Don't Make Lesson Plans




I don't make lesson plans, at least not in the traditional sense. I've certainly reflected upon what the kids were doing and talking about yesterday, then made my best guess about where they might want to take it today. Based on these reflections, I might make sure certain materials are available, but even after all these years I still get it wrong more often than not and spend much of my day running back and forth to the storage closet, which is my real lesson planning. That's because there is no way to predict play.


Play makes its own "plan," one that emerges as motivated learners come together to create, invent, and explore. In fact, it's that unpredictability, at least in part, that makes a play-based curriculum such a powerful and motivating way for children to learn. Predictability is one of the hallmarks of rote and no one is motivated by that. No one is motivated by being told what to learn and by when, which are the hallmarks of a typical lesson plan. No, humans are at their intellectual best when they have the time and space to both individually and collectively pursue their own interests within the context of a community, and it's impossible to know beforehand what discoveries they will make, no matter how much planning the adults have done.


Indeed, even after the fact, even as I take a moment at the end of the day to ponder what we have done together, I've come to recognize that I still have no idea what the kids have learned on any given day. I can tell you what I thought they might learn going in, I can describe their behavior and make a record of their words, I can speculate about what they might now know or not know, I can even directly ask them, "What did you learn?" but at the end of the day, the only ones who can ever know what they have learned are the kids themselves, and more often than not it's so fresh and exciting and still "in process" that they simply aren't capable of put it into words in a way that we can understand.


This is why, in the same way I don't see value in making a lesson plan, I also don't see the point of tests: they don't reveal what a child has learned, but rather what they are able to regurgitate in the form demanded by that particular test. And besides, most of what is learned from any given experience is extracurricular and falls beyond the scope of any test.


Sadly, lesson plans and tests form the backbone of what most teachers do. They are expected to make their plans, complete with learning "goals." They then execute their plan, which may or may not engage the children. If children begin to pursue their own interests, to follow their own light, they must be coaxed or scolded or otherwise guided back to the plan because later, as everyone knows, the children will be tested on a narrow, narrow range of trivia, rather than on the big picture of what they are actually learning. What incredible hubris to think that lesson plans or tests or complicated "frameworks" can allow us to know the unknowable.


The truth is that no one can ever know what another person has learned and no amount of planning or testing or evaluating will change that. In fact, most of us don't even know what we've really learned until much, much later in life, when we look back, perhaps from our therapist's sofa, and realize, "A-ha!"


No, I don't pretend to know what the children I teach are learning on any given day, nor is it any of my business. That I know the children are learning is enough for me, and I know they're learning because they are playing as members of a community where we strive to provide time and space enough for them to ask and answer their own questions. We don't need lesson plans or tests because the children I teach cross our doorstep each morning with their own personally meaningful plans and they engage the world by conducting their own personally meaningful tests. I will never know what they are learning, but I can see them striving, persevering, and experimenting; I can see them figuring out the other people and working with them toward common goals; I can see they are motivated every day because there is nothing rote or compulsory about it. That has to be enough for all of us.

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Monday, September 17, 2018

Knowing The Truth



My mother says that when I was young, I would call out, "Mower!" whenever Dad fired up the lawnmower. It was a cry of recognition, of excitement, perhaps of anticipation, a marker of something I understood about the world around me. One day a noisy VW Beetle passed us. I leapt to the car window (we didn't always wear seat belts back then) and shouted, "Mower!" No one told me that I was wrong. Indeed, they thought my mistake so cute that the family adopted the term. To this day, we often refer to Beetles as Mowers.

And they were Mowers, at least until I began to learn more about the world beyond my family. I'm pretty sure I even argued with other children about the term, insisting that they were wrong when they used the bizarre appellation of "Beetle," or worse, "Bug." Over time, however, I began to adopt the perspective of the rest of the people and today I know the truth.

It's a universal human experience, this discovery that "truth" changes based on our perspective. We've all heard the ancient parable (probably of Hindu derivation) of the five blind men describing an elephant using their sense of touch: the man feeling the trunk thought the elephant was like a snake, the one feeling the tail described it as a rope, while the ones with their hands on the ear, the tusk, and the flank described a fan, spear, and wall respectively. It's a cautionary tale about perspective, a warning that none of us, ever, is capable of seeing the full picture. Every "truth" we possess is a matter of perspective.

Indeed, we are more mistaken than correct, because we are limited to our singular perspective, a unique take on the world that is fed by what we are capable of sensing as filtered through our memories. Our brains interpret the present as a continuation of the past, the narrative we have been creating about the nature of our world since before we were born. If we have lived an experience of pain and trauma, then that tends to become our perspective, the stuff of the next step in the story we perceive from our singular viewpoint of this life. If we have lived an experience of love and connection, then that tends to become the story we create of the world, even when there is pain and trauma.

Physicists tell us that time doesn't exists, at least not as a foundational principle of the universe, that it is a "mistake" of our human perspective. The illusion of time, some think, is a product of our memories, that we perceive its flow because our memories continually connect the present to what already exists in or memories, causing us to perceive life as an ongoing story of cause and effect. It's why we can remember the past and not the future, even though both exist simultaneously.

It's a slippery notion, one that I seems to run away from me whenever I think I comprehend it. It's a truth that I can glimpse even as I can't fully comprehend it, just as I at first doubted those who would told me those noisy cars were called Beetles instead of Mowers. It requires a shift in perspective and that, it seems to me, can only be done by creating new memories, ones that will ultimately "flow" into a present in which I do understand.

I'm thinking these doughy thoughts about these things as we start the new school year, wondering especially at the two-year-olds who are taking their first steps away from the known universe of their families. They arrive each morning bearing their unique perspectives, ones comprised of truths that are now in jeopardy as they engage the wider world. Compared to me, their memories are short, not so full of the kind of fixed "truths" that make it so much harder on adults when we are forced to shift our perspective.

Over the next few weeks and months and years, over spans of time that don't even exist when we consider the grand scale of the universe, these children will be discovering a world of Beetles, where Mowers once existed. From day to day, their perspectives will change, which is, in the end, the essence of learning. They will find new aspects of truth, even as we know that all truth is incomplete, but for a time it will be their unique truth, a perspective that is their's and their's alone, a perspective without which the world would be incomplete.

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Friday, September 14, 2018

We Have Already Failed, So . . .



If you're inclined to worry, society sure has given you a good selection. ~Mark Twain

We live in an age of worry. Perhaps every generation has, but it's hard to not think that our information age is particularly hard on those who are inclined toward it. Modern parenting, in particular, is fraught: there is always a well-intended expert ready to refute the last well-intended expert.

Francis Bacon famously wrote, "Knowledge is power," but information is not the same thing as knowledge. Knowledge is solid, it gives us confidence, it empowers us: information is flighty, tending to send us into doubt and worry. Certainly, there is the potential to cultivate knowledge from information, but it can be a full time job just sifting the wheat from the chaff, which leads us to yet more worry: What if we aren't leaving enough time for the actual living?

The human brain can hardly think without contemplating what is to come. We are forever gaming out potential scenarios. The future spreads before us, not as single river keeping to its bed, but rather as a delta of options, each one taking us off toward something different. What if we make the wrong choice? What if we should be branching to the left instead of to the right? No one can see around the next bend, of course, so it's always, at best, a guessing game. We survey those who have come before us, we listen to the experts, we compile the data, and consult our own best thinking, but when it comes right down to it, as the Grateful Dead lyrics go, "Life is uncertain; it can always go wrong." And that's what we worry about.

Of course, things will always go wrong no matter which path we chose. That is the nature of life. As hard as it is to contemplate, our children will experience pain and failure and loss, indeed, they already have, many times over. From the moment we're born we cry. No matter how much we plan or worry, no matter how much information we sift through, we will never steer our children clear of every rock. We can, at best, pick the rocks we want to try to avoid, but those are just the obvious ones we can see: there are always others, unseen, unknown, and unanticipated lurking beneath the surface.

A few days ago, I riffed on a concept a Buddhist friend shared with me: "When I think of this glass, I know it will one day break. It's inevitable. Nothing last forever. In a sense it's already broken: everything is already broken. Knowing that, I've already accepted its loss. Now I'm free to just enjoy it." By the same token, we have already failed to anticipate the future. Our children are already suffering the consequences of our bad decisions. Knowing that, we are free to give them the only thing that has ever been worth a damn: our love and attention, right now.

The future, as it always has, will take care of itself. And there is no better preparation for it than love and attention.

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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Why Are We Afraid To Just Let Children Play?



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Next Surprise


I was building with the young two-year-old, taking turns placing the wooden unit blocks. I positioned a long block as a ramp, then rolled a cylindrical block down it. He laughed, then sought out his own cylindrical block, giving it a go, laughing a second time at the way gravity worked. He rolled his block several more times, laughing each time, laughing even when the block simply fell off the side rather than rolling to the bottom.

Later in the day, some four-year-olds were playing with small plastic figurines on top of a large box. There were a couple holes cut into the surface that were intended as handles. One of the kids dropped a figurine into a hole. He laughed, then his friends followed suit. The more they dropped the funnier it got.

As adults, we tend to take gravity for granted, of course, even at times cursing it, like when glassware breaks on the kitchen floor or as we strain up a steep hill. We've lived for decades with this fundamental fact of our universe; it holds few surprises for us. But playing with children brings that wonder back to us, reminding us of the magnificence of this phenomenon that many of us struggle to fully comprehend, this idea that mass bends space in a way that it attracts other objects.

As I watched these children laughing as they played with gravity, I saw a connection that goes back through Einstein, Newton, and Aristotle, some of the greatest human minds that have ever existed. I imagine they they too laughed as they played, relying on philosophy, mathematics, and science to comprehend how gravity works, delighting their minds the way the children were doing with their simple experiments with ramps and cylinders and holes and small plastic human figures.

We don't always laugh as we test the universe, our cries of "Eureka!" just as often include tears. Discovery is always a surprise, altering our perception of how the world works, upsetting what we thought we knew. The moment makes us laugh or cry, excited or fearful, delighted or afraid, but never does it leave us unemotional. Only rote does that.

The boy rolled cylinders down the ramp until it no longer made him laugh. To do it one more time, he determined, would be a chore or a bore. There was no more laughter left here, at least not today, nothing to challenge his preconceived notions, so he moved on, in search of the next surprise the universe had in store for him.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A Miracle



The two girls had met one another for the first time that morning. Indeed, they probably hadn't really even acknowledged one another until they were standing together on the stage, solo dancing to the recorded music that we use for our occasional outdoor "dance parties." Before long, however, they found one another and began dancing together.


This by itself is a rather rare thing at our dance parties. The kids usually dance on their own or if they do dance together it is typically more of a wrestle, but these girls were looking into one another's eyes, connecting through the movement of their bodies.


That was usual enough, but then they began, without words, to mirror one another. I've seen children's dance teachers struggle with this very thing, trying to convince preschoolers to imitate one another on the dance floor, with little beyond mechanistic success. I generally think it's frustrating for the adults because the children, like all human beings whatever our age, don't like to be told what to do and so resist it.


But these girls were doing it without prompting, a self-selected activity, or rather it seemed, an activity that had selected them. As I watched, I couldn't tell which one was leading, and as they danced I began to realize that neither of them were "leading," but rather they were studying one another intensely, reacting to something they "read" in one another's facial expressions or gestures or muscles.


It was a small miracles, I thought. They were fully connected, two humans so fully attuned to one another that they were moving as if with a single body.


Then it became a larger miracle. A third girl, another girl who they had just met in this moment, joined them. At first she followed the other girls, imitating them the way those dance teachers envisioned.


Then the other two girls, still without speaking, made room for her, and when they did she instantly became a part of it as well, three children now, dancing as one, going high together, going low together, swinging together, jumping together. There was a spontaneous synchronicity in their movements that surpassed what one usually sees from well-rehearsed high school musicals.


I thought I was the only adult noticing what was happening, but when I looked over my shoulder to draw attention to it, I saw a father with his camera out to record it. All the other adults were standing in groups, watching in silence as if a bit stunned. We knew we were watching something special.


Sadly, music comes to an end. I quickly queued the same song up again, hoping to extend the moment, but it was over and the girls went off to dance their separate dances. But it was a moment I will never forget: the time three strangers looked into one another so deeply, so empathetically, that they became one. It was a miracle.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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