Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Two Small Stories Of Compassion

Yesterday, a two-year-old girl wanted her mommy. She was standing by the door crying, trying to turn the knob. Her mother often sits out there in the hallway on a bench, catching up on email or whatever, wanting to give her daughter some experience with being out in the world without her, but also wanting to remain nearby for just these moments. When we opened the door, however, mommy wasn't there.

She had just run out to her car, but it was upsetting nevertheless. We looked for her for a couple minutes, then returned to the classroom. I sat on the floor. I offered my arms, I offered a hug, I offered to pick her up, but was rebuffed as the girl continued to cry and call out for mommy.

I was echoing things like, "You miss your mommy." The crying had attracted another two-year-old girl who had followed us into the hallway. She studied us for a moment, then gently took the crying girl by the shoulders, looked directly into her teary eyes, and said, "Mommies go bye-bye then they come back when we sing boom-boom." When the girl kept crying, she said it again with emphasis.

"Boom-boom" is a reference to the song we sing at the end of the day. It was one of the most wise and compassionate things I'd ever seen.

Later, I was on the playground with a couple of two-year-old boys playing with trucks. One of them lifted his truck and accidentally hit his playmate in the forehead. It didn't look like a serious bump, but the victim disagreed. His face wrinkled with pain as he cried. I don't know if the either boy knew what had caused the crying, it had all happened in a flash, but just as the girl had done earlier, a two-year-old saw a friend in pain and took responsibility for helping him, putting a hand on the injured boy's shoulder, stroking it, and sitting with him until the crying stopped.

I'm humbled that I get to spend my days with these people.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Simplest, Most Natural Thing In The World

I wish we could always just tell the truth about teaching, that it's really the simplest, most natural thing in the world.

I wish our profession wasn't in a fight for its life against deep pocket foes with a political or economic agenda, because this simplicity is really its beauty and joy.

For days, we'd been anticipating the wind and rain. Forecasters were sure of it: an atmospheric river was going to hit us and we were going to "swim" in it. And they were right, especially about the wind part. We took our parachute outside which is one of our favorite ways to play together with the wind.

We've learned to protect ourselves with an armor of jargon like every other profession as a way to sell ourselves in this sell-or-be-sold world.

At first we just held it together, feeling the wind's power, feeling it lift our arms and tear at our grips. When the gusts were particularly strong, everyone let go of their handles, leaving just me to hold it up in the wind as they danced under it. When I let go, the parachute flew over the fence and out into the street.

But teaching is not every other profession. I'm not even sure it is a profession as much as a calling. Because when we strip all that "professionalism" away, we see that the core of teaching is to love the children: every one of us knows that. And when you love, you listen. That's what teachers do.

It's when we listen with our ears and eyes and hearts that we can access not only their genius, but our own.

Again, they wanted to do it again, but by now the fabric was saturated, so when I let it go, the parachute failed to gain the height it needed to clear the fence and instead captured a line up of unsuspecting children in its cold, damp embrace. They screamed and laughed and I shouted, "Parachute attack!"

Teaching greatness is not a rare thing, I don't think, but it's hard for others to see because it takes place in intimate moments when we're down on our knees, face to face with the children, ears, eyes, and heart wide open. And then to try to talk about it after the fact, to try to satisfy the demands to make learning "transparent," we wind up wraping the moments of genius in words that detail techniques and strategies that describe only the surface manifestation of what happened because to say, "We connected," sounds too hippy dippy and namby pamby.

Again and again and again we did it. And when the wind died down, we shook our fists at the sky and cursed it for not giving us more.

Teaching is not a complicated thing, but it does take practice, lots of it, every day with lots of different kids, and even after ten or twenty years there's still a new thing to learn every day, its profundity often lost in its simplicity.

When we play with children, we engage them as they engage with their passions and curiosities, and when we listen with our whole selves, we notice instantly when that moment comes around, and then it's just a simple matter of making a statement of fact, or asking just the right question, or sitting quietly in the knowledge that that is what this child needs right now. How much better that is than to assume they are all ready for this particular knowledge at this particular time delivered in this particular manner by virtue of being more or less the same age -- what Ken Robinson calls their "manufacture date" -- then bang heads against the wall in frustration that many of them just don't get it.

To be a "gifted" teacher is really just possessing the knowledge that children are people and then proceeding to treat them like people, loving them, and listening.

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Monday, October 24, 2016

"So Everyone Thinks They're Just Fine"

For the past several years, our school's enrollment has been about 60-65 percent boys. A new parent recently asked me about that, wondering if that had to do with me being a male teacher. It does not. For the first decade or so of my tenure at Woodland Park, our enrollment was more like 60-65 percent girls. The main difference between then and now: a larger playground. Indeed, parents even told me that it had been the small playground at our old place that made them reluctant to enroll their sons. 

No one said that about their girls. In fact, when we re-imagined that small playground into a sort of mini-adventure playground, the mother of one girl, complaining about the mess and weather, said, "You know, the indoor curriculum was pretty good all by itself."

There's a sad "secret" that those of us who work in "alternative" or progressive schools don't often talk about. While our waiting lists often fill up with boy applicants, there are always spots available for girls. This doesn't happen at our school because we enroll on a first-come-first-serve basis with no attempt to balance for gender, hence the imbalance, but most schools do try and they all struggle with it. You see, many parents of boys tend to see our type of play-based, full-body, outdoor-focused eduction and recognize it as a perfect fit, while parents of girls too often feel it's nice, but their child doesn't "need" it. As the admissions director at a local progressive elementary school once told me: "It's a prejudice. Girls need this sort of education as much as boys, it's just that they're more likely look like they're sitting down and doing the work, so everyone thinks they're just fine wherever they are."

I've heard it myself from parents looking beyond preschool, saying exactly that, opining "She'll be fine," about their girls while saying, "My boy needs more time." I'm here to tell you that all children need more time if the next step is going to be sitting at desks, absorbing direct instruction, filling out worksheets, and taking tests. That's not good for anyone, let alone young children. The evidence is quite clear that the best educational foundation for children under seven, girls and boys, is play.

Perhaps it is true that boys tend to require a bit more opportunity to move their bodies, but the same holds true for many girls as well. All girls still need and deserve the same freedom to play, to explore, and to ask and answer their own questions. It's not good enough to be "fine."

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Friday, October 21, 2016

A Broken Toy

When the school year started last month, we had a Jack-in-the-box. Children played with it every day, several times a day, until, as inevitably happens when a toy designed for a bedroom finds its way into a classroom, it broke. Specifically, the little latch that holds the lid shut snapped off.

It still plays "All Around the Mulberry Bush" when you turn the crank, but "Jack" no longer surprises us when the tune gets to "Pop! goes the weasel." I figure it's time to chuck it, but as I often do with broken things, I'm waiting for the kids to tell me it's garbage. It's now been at least four weeks and that hasn't happened. In fact, the children still play with the broken toy every day.

Most of them know how it's supposed to work. I've watched child after child struggle to shove Jack into his box, tucking his arms and head all the way in, then closing the lid, only to have him pop out the moment they let go to start turning the crank. Some of them have complained, "It doesn't work," to which I've replied, "It's broken." That information doesn't stop most of them as they continue to make it work one way or another.

Most settle on holding the lid shut with one hand, while cranking with the other. Some have had friends or adults hold the lid for them. Some of them try to time their release with the tune, while others release the lid at random moments.

Whatever the case, they still laugh when Jack pops up, just as they did before the box was broken. And it's the laugh, not the latch, that makes it a worthwhile toy.

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Black Lives Matter In Schools

Yesterday, more than 2000 Seattle Public School teachers wore t-shirts that read "Black Lives Matter/We Stand Together," an action that was unanimously supported by their union as well as dozens of prominent citizens and civic organizations. Thousands of parents and students joined their teachers in solidarity for "Black Lives Matter in Schools" rallies before classes. 

Last month, inspired by professional football player Colin Kaepernick, the entire Garfield High School volleyball and football teams began taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem in protest of discriminatory academic and police practices, an action that made national news and in turn inspired other high school students across the city to take similar action.

As Garfield history teacher and author Jesse Hagopian said, "You can only understand the Seattle educator's union unanimous vote for this action in the context of the Garfield High School football and girls' volleyball teams who are taking a knee for Black lives during the national anthem and helping to inspire people across the city and the country to take action against racial injustice." 

This is one of those remarkable moments when our youth are taking the lead. Needless to say, I'm extremely proud of the students and teachers in our city. Despite threats of violence, they are taking a leadership role in the non-violent movement to bring justice to our black and brown citizens. People often criticize me for injecting politics into this blog, but I don't see how I can not, especially when I see our children and their teachers taking such a prominent role in creating a better future for our country.

As I watched the final Presidential debate last night, it occurred to me that despite the high stakes, it was still a mere sideshow to what has been happening in Seattle schools and elsewhere around our nation. It's one thing to vote, but from where I sit, that is the bare minimum responsibility of citizenship. Too many Americans looked at Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump last night and believed that they were seeing one of the two people who will be the "leader" of the free world for the next four years, but they are wrong. We don't elect leaders in our country: we elect representatives. If they are behaving as leaders then we aren't doing our job as citizens.

These Seattle students, parents and teachers are showing us what democracy is meant to be about: speaking out, standing together, and taking the lead. And if our elected representatives are worth anything, they will join our parade or be left behind.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Our Stupid Questions

They say there's no such thing as a stupid question, but I beg to differ. We hear stupid questions almost every time adults and young children are together. 

For instance, a child is painting at an easel, exploring color, shape, and motion, experimenting with brushes, paper, and paint. There is an adult watching over her shoulder who points and asks, "What color is that?"

This is a stupid question. 

Here's another example: a child is playing with marbles, exploring gravity, motion and momentum. An adult picks up a handful of marbles and asks, "How many marbles do I have?"

The adult already knows the answer. The child probably does as well, in which case, the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies in order to reply to a banality. Or she doesn't know the answer, in which case the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies to play a guessing game.

In a moment, these stupid questions take a child who is engaged in testing her world, which is her proper role, and turns her into a test taker, forced to answer other people's questions rather than pursue the answers to her own.

If it's important that the child know these specific colors and numbers at this specific moment, and it probably isn't, then we should do the reasonable thing and simply tell her, "That's red," or "I have three marbles." If it's not new information, and it probably isn't, she's free to ignore you as she goes about her business of learning. If she didn't know, now she does, in context, as she goes about her business of learning.

This is probably the greatest crime we commit against children in our current educational climate of testing, testing, and more testing. We yank children away from their proper role as self-motivated scientists, testing their world by asking and answering their own questions, and instead force them to become test takers, occupying their brains with our stupid questions.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016


I didn't see the time, I waited half my life away . . . Waiting for the miracle to come. ~Leonard Cohen

The weather forecasters had been telling us all week to expect a big storm on Saturday evening. It was going to hit right around dinner time and was to be the storm of the decade, if not beyond. It was the remnants of a typhoon that had made its way across the Pacific Ocean from Japan, winds were going to be in excess of 60 mph., and we were advised to make sure our emergency kits were up to date.

This was actually one of three major storms headed our way, a Friday, Saturday, Tuesday succession that I worried was going to impede the departure of folks who had travelled from Greece, Iceland, Australia, Canada, and the UK to take part in last week's International Play Iceland conference here in Seattle. Friday's storm hit us just as forecasted, a wet, wet atmospheric river that flowed through the city without much wind. It had been so wet that for the first time in Woodland Park history, we cut our outside time short by 15 minutes because some of our two-year-olds were so saturated they were shivering.

To be honest, I was looking forward to the big one on Saturday. Naturally, I didn't want anyone to be hurt and I wasn't rooting for major property damage, but I've always been drawn to nature's power. When visiting the Midwest for a family reunion, my daughter and I more than once rushed out into thunderstorms (a rare phenomenon in the Pacific NW), making the cousins think we were crazy. Sometimes we would dress from head to toe in our best rain gear and drive over to West Seattle to stand in a spot where storm waves could crash over us. My girl now off the college, my plan for this storm was to just sit in the living room and watch it through the windows.

The timing couldn't have been better for our international guests, all of whom either made it out ahead of the impending storm or weren't scheduled to leave until the following day. It was a successful conference, and I enjoyed helping to host, but as you might imagine, I had awoken on Friday feeling the full effects of the "let down" that often follows a much anticipated event. For weeks I'd been losing sleep over the duties and responsibilities of being the host of something like this. It wasn't as if there was a lot for me to do exactly, because the Play Iceland team was on top of things, but I had nevertheless become increasingly consumed with the process of waiting for the all those visitors to arrive for a week in my hometown.

On Saturday morning, the conference behind me, I stayed in my PJs until noon, a luxury I'd not had for several weeks, reveling in what I felt was well-earned exhaustion, but the whole time I was aware that the big storm was on its way, just as I'd been aware for weeks that the conference was on its way.  In the afternoon I pulled myself together and went to the store for bottled water, extra flashlight batteries, four kinds of cheese, a big box of crackers, cans of tuna, and a few other items that I felt would help my wife and I weather the storm should we lose power. We were being warned to be prepared for power outages that lasted days, not hours.

And then I sat in my living room and waited. I made sure our electronic devices were fully charged. I did a load of laundry. I ate some of our more perishable food for lunch. But mostly I sat in my living room anticipating the storm by following its progress on the internet. I watched impressive video of it hitting first the Oregon coast and then, moving northward, the Washington coast. Locally, things were still. Blue sky still occasionally peaked through the clouds. One forecaster said it was "the classic calm before the storm."

My wife was waiting with me. We began snacking from our storm supplies, especially the cheese. Those final hours were almost like a countdown. I could hear a few people outside going about their Saturday evening business. At 6:30 p.m., when the storm was supposed to hit, a few of the trees started moving a bit more animatedly and the sky darkened a bit -- of course, that might have been my imagination as well. I stood in the living room window for the next 15 minutes, watching for the storm, waiting for it. I began to worry that maybe we had eaten too much of our storm supplies. I wondered if I had time to rush back to the store to replace them. Fifteen more minutes passed and then it started.

Within seconds the winds went from nothing to a rage accompanied by driving, sideways rain that swept the street in waves. I saw a man on a bicycle struggling to ride into the wind before finally dismounting. A couple with an umbrella were pushed back across the street they were attempting to cross and blown into a doorway. How could they not have known about the storm? Didn't they know they might be stuck in that doorway for hours?

I stood in the open window, elbows on the sill, listening to the sound, feeling the intense, damp wind on my forearms. Within minutes the entire intersection below my apartment was several inches deep in water, a flood that caused brave/foolish pedestrians to detour nearly half a block to cross the street. This was what we had been promised. It's what I'd been waiting for this past week, this past day, these past few hours. Indeed, I realized as the storm raged, it was, at least in part, what I'd been living for.

And then, after 10 minutes, as suddenly as it had started, it was over. For awhile I figured that there must be another wave coming, that perhaps the storm was just turning and would rotate back over us in a few minutes, but wait as I might, it never came. After a half hour, I let myself believe it was over. The internet told me that part of the Eastlake neighborhood had lost power. When I went out to walk the dog an hour later, I found a couple of branches down, and the flooded intersection had already drained.

When as children we had wished it was Christmas morning, Mom would caution us, "Don't wish your life away." I thought of that in the mini-storm's aftermath, in the aftermath of my week as a host. What had I missed in my waiting? I could see in the clarity left behind after that short, dousing storm all the minutes, hours, and days I'd lost in the posture of waiting for the miracle to come, no doubt missing the unanticipated miracles that each moment holds.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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