Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Joy To Come

Our dog, Stella, has a collection of toys that we keep in a metal basket in the living room. She will go for weeks without thinking of them, but then, looking for something to do, I suppose, or for a way to engage my wife or me, will rummage through for just the right one, romp with it for a bit, gnaw on it, tantalize us with it, then finally leave it randomly on the floor. If we have company coming over, I might then put it right away, but typically I'll leave it out for a day or two because Stella takes such joy in "discovering" it again hours or days later. She'll spy it behind a chair and pounce on it, sometimes tossing it into the air, or maybe she'll give it a threatening growl before attacking. It's the accident of coming across it in these unexpected places, that makes it so much more fun.

The old Yiddish proverb, "Man plans, and God laughs," is usually applied those circumstances in which our plans are ruined, such as rain on our picnics or awaking with food poisoning on the days we meant to get things done. But it occurs to me that while we are often frustrated by our plans being thwarted by the unexpected, those accidents are just as likely to bring us joy.

Yesterday, I was watching a large group of children taking turns, hanging from the long metal bar that extends across the front of what we call "the stage." They were queuing up, some of them using a step stool to reach the bar, then one-by-one shimmying along it from one end to the other. They were referring to it among themselves as the "monkey bar." This bar is connected on either end to a pair of upright poles. There are another two poles on the back corners of the stage and a much taller one emerging from the ground in front of the stage.

As I listened to the children negotiate their game, the older, not always gently, teaching the younger about things like waiting in line and taking turns, I wondered what people might think of our set-up. Why are these poles here? The children regularly use them in their play, hanging from them, circling around them, tying things to them, attempting to climb them. They clearly bring joy, but at the same time they are clearly remnants from something that came before: not necessarily part of the plans.

Several years ago, a mother whose child was enjoying his parkour lessons suggested that we build a specialized climbing apparatus in an unused corner of the playground. I'm not a fan of climbers for school playgrounds because they tend to fall into disuse and then you're stuck with a big piece of inflexible equipment occupying a lot of precious space. When I hesitated at her idea, she said that not only would she pay for it, but that there would be no hard feelings if we decided to, in the future, remove it in favor of something else. So we wound up with a pretty magnificent parkour-style climber with bars at wacky angles. It was a popular thing at first, but then, as I expected, it fell into relative disuse after the children played the risk out of it. A year or so later, when we decided to build a platform (our playground otherwise had no flat ground), we removed the horizontal bars and built around the vertical ones, largely because they were set in concrete and presented a lot of extra work.

And now we have this happy accident in this corner of the playground, a place that no one would have planned, yet, in it's unexpectedness it brings such joy. God (or fate, if you'd rather) certainly does laugh at our plans, but he is not laughing at us. More often than not, I think, in the long run, he laughs with us, knowing the joy to come.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2019


It had started as a mutually agreeable wrestling match, the kind that often break out between five-year-old boys, but one of them, for whatever reason, changed his mind and called out, "Stop!"

This is something we work on at Woodland Park, the right to assert, "Stop!" And we've all agreed that if someone says, "Stop!" to you, you must stop and listen to what that kid has to say. It's safe to say that we are all much better at the former than the latter.

In this case the boy calling, "Stop!" which he did repeatedly, continued to "be wrestled" for several seconds before he was heeded. By then he was in tears. Through those tears he said, "I said 'Stop' and he didn't stop." This was said to me, not so much in the spirit of tattling, because I'd obviously been there all along, but more, I felt, the way one reports a crime to a cop.

I said something like, "I can tell that upset you. I would tell him what you told me." Of course, the child in question was only a few feet away and heard the whole thing, but my goal was to steer the conversation back where it belonged, between the children.

"I said 'Stop' and you didn't stop."

"I did too," a true statement, even if it had been delayed.

And here's the dilemma: it's quite well accepted that when an adult feels compelled to ask a question of a young child, one typically must wait 12-15 seconds, at minimum, for a response, something adults rarely do. It simply takes most preschoolers that long to process the information and formulate an appropriate response. In reality, I know that some children, especially when focused deeply on something, like the sort of joyful wrestling in which these two had been engaged, need quite a bit longer to pull themselves together enough to respond.

Our 4-5's class had, while engaged in formulating their rules, their agreements, came up with this particularly awesome one: "Don't do anything to anybody unless you ask them first." This is a step beyond the classic "Golden Rule" in my view, because it requires one to not just consider one's own perspective, but to actually inquire about the perspective of others, in order to receive, what we're calling in our contemporary parlance, "consent."

"No you didn't! I said 'Stop' and you kept wrestling and you didn't ask me to keep wrestling!"

I'm among those who don't understand why other adults are so confused about the idea of consent, especially when it comes to adult behaviors like sex. I have no questions about our cultural attempts to shift from "No means no," to "Yes means yes," but evidentially some people do, which has fueled a backlash against what some see as "political correctness" run amuck. But these are young children here, not adults. I think it's fair to expect adult people to stop more or less instantly when told "Stop!" by a fellow human, but we simply can't expect that from five-year-olds. Their brains and bodies simply will not allow them to do it, just as the brains and bodies of infants will not allow them to walk or talk.

As I watched the poor accused boy sit there at a loss for a response, I pitied him for this moment of what could only be a confused self-reflection. He had, from where I sat, done everything in his power to respond to his friend in a timely matter, and in fairness, it had not taken even close to 12 seconds to release his grip and roll off of his wrestling mate. He simply didn't know why he had continued beyond the hard line of "Stop!"

By this time the boy who had been in tears was wiping them away, while his friend's eyes were about to crest.

I was at a loss and probably should have left things as they were, but instead, I said, "You said 'Stop' and he did stop, but not right away." The emotional event had by now drawn a crowd of both children and adults. It didn't feel right to leave things like this in light of the fact that both boys, in my view, had behaved in an exemplary manner, one standing up for himself and the other, to the best of his developmental ability, had responded according to the children's self-imposed rules and, as evidenced by welling tears, with empathy. So I said, loud enough for everyone to hear, "Let me tell you something I know about five-year-olds: sometimes it takes 15 seconds before they can do what you want them to do." Then I counted out 15 seconds using my fingers.

No one said a word for a moment. I'd spoken, perhaps ill-advisedly, out of a place of not knowing what to say, and as we sat in silence, I figured I'd just blathered a few of those nonsense words that adults so often say to children. At least, I thought, the adults had heard me. We sat this way long enough that children began to return to their play, leaving the three of us alone.

I hadn't been counting on my fingers, but I reckon about 15 more seconds had passed. That was when the boy who had stopped, but not right away, said, "I'm sorry," then burst into tears.

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Monday, July 15, 2019

The Freedom To Think

I make no plans for what children will or should learn when they come to our school. How could I? For one thing, it's impossible to know what another person will or should learn, no matter how meticulously one plans. Only they can know that, although more often than not even they themselves don't realize what they are learning. To be honest, I don't even necessarily want the kids to learn anything, let alone according to some hopeful plan I've devised. It's not my business what they learn. It is only my business to create a place around which, and be a person around whom, they are comfortable exploring, doing, and thinking about whatever it is they want to explore, do, or think about.

I suppose I can understand the mind of the well-intended adult who seeks, in the children's "best interest," to inflict this or that piece of knowledge or way of thinking upon them, but it is exactly this hubristic notion that one knows other humans' best interest better than those humans do themselves that repels me. It's a mindset of possession, one that sets the adults up as masters of the child, people with so much power over these smaller humans that they even seek to control what they think about.

From John Holt's book Escape from Childhood:

No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than this. A person's freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interest and concerns us.

There are those who agree with this sentiment, in part, arguing however that there must, of course, be plenty of time for play, but it must be balanced with at least a measure of adult-led learning. What is appealing about this is the notion of balance, I think, this idea that for everything there is an opposite that must be placed in the scale as well. This shows up in our conversations about work-life balance, for instance, or the idea that the solution to every political problem must be found in the middle somewhere. It smacks of common sense, but I've found that more often than not, this approach merely leads to a muddle. I suppose that some freedom to think is better than none at all, but it's hard to imagine how one's life is made better by it being balanced with others directing half your thinking.

But what about important things that we all need to learn in order to live productive lives in the modern world, like reading or mathematics? How will children learn these things if they are only pursuing their own interests?

If reading is so important, and it is, then it seems only natural that a child, as they go about asking and answering their own questions, will come to this realization as a part of their freedom to think, then either teach themselves or turn to an adult or older child to help them learn. This is how it already happens for many kids. I have known any number who were reading without any direct instruction by the time they were five. Unschoolers who allow reading to emerge find that it does, naturally, as a part of their children's self education. Indeed, there is a growing body of evidence that reading is as fundamental to how humans have evolved as walking or talking. (This isn't to say that intervention isn't sometimes needed in the case of humans who are not neurotypical.)

Basic ciphering is learned the same way. As for higher mathematics, most of us won't ever need it, and for those who do, they can either teach themselves or find others to teach them as part of their freedom to think rather than being force-marched through algebra and calculous "for their own good." I'm sure there are many things that we now force children to learn that would fall by the wayside, but then we must ask ourselves, were they really that important to begin with? By the same token, I'm also sure that many new things would emerge, subject matter custom-tailored, self-tailored, to the one doing the actual thinking.

The human animal is fully capable of educating itself. This is the starting point for how I look at my role in the lives of the children who come my way. My job is not to compel or trick them to learn any particular thing, but rather to create a community, a place, and be a person in which and through which they can fully exercise their freedom to learn and think.

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Friday, July 12, 2019

"Why Didn't You Tell Me?"

When our daughter Josephine was little, I decided to expose her to a little "culture" and rented the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It had been a long time since I'd seen it. My memories were of silly dwarfs, uplifting songs, and a handsome prince. I'd completely forgotten the frightening parts, especially the terrifying early scene where the huntsman raises his knife to cut out the heroine's heart followed by her pell-mell escape through the dark and forbidding forest.

It overwhelmed Josephine. She demanded I turn the movie off, but then, to my confusion and surprise, a few minutes later she asked me to show that part to her again. Then again. Then again. We must have watched that scene a dozen times or more before she permitted us to move on. It scared her, but at the same time compelled her enough to want to confront the fear and peer more deeply into that particular abyss.

Some time ago, an online group of parents and teachers were discussing a book called The Amazing Bone by the author William Steig. Now this is a book I've been reading to preschoolers since I discovered it nearly two decades ago, but most of the people in the group felt it was entirely inappropriate, even for older children. In particular, they found this page to be disturbing:

The illustrations show masked bandits attempting to rob poor Pearl at gun and knifepoint. The text reads: "You can't have my purse," she said, surprised at her own boldness. "What's in it?" said another robber, pointing his gun at Pearl's head.

It's a frightening scene, no doubt, one that annually prompts deep and meaningful classroom discussions, taking us into our darker places.

I understand the instinct to want to protect children from disturbing imagery, and I did it myself as a parent. For the first many viewings of The Sound of Music, for instance, I would declare "The End" just before the Nazis began to pursue the Von Trapp family. When, years later, Josephine discovered what I'd done, she chewed me out. 

When she was six, she reacted even more strongly to learning that the catastrophe of 9/11 happened during her lifetime. We were approaching the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center towers had once stood. As I told her the story she angrily interrupted me, "You mean it happened since I've been alive? Why didn't you tell me?" I explained that she had been too little, just three-years-old. She scolded me, "I want to know these things! I want you to tell me the truth about these things!"

It's a story I've told before, and one I'll certainly tell again. It was a moment that changed me forever; my wee, innocent baby demanding truth. Up until then, I thought I'd been the epitome of an honest parent, never shying away from her questions, but that moment, a moment that occurred as we approached the scene, Josephine quivering in tears, caused my own conceit of integrity to collapse within me.

I hadn't told her about it, I thought, because I hadn't wanted her to be afraid. And now not only was she afraid three years removed, but feeling betrayed by her own father. I'm just glad she had the fortitude or courage or whatever it was to call me on it. I don't want to ever again be in that position, not with my child, my wife, or anyone for that matter. It's one thing when the world is crap. It's another to make it crappier.

When we lie, either overtly or by omission, especially to a loved one, we might tell ourselves it's altruism, but at bottom it's almost always an act of cowardice. It's us who don't want to face truth. When we say, "She's too young," we're really saying, I'm not ready to face the pain or the shame or the fear

We skip pages in books. We fast-forward through the scary parts. We distract their gaze from road kill.

I'm not saying that we should, unsolicited, lay out the whole unvarnished horrible mess before them, if only because we don't need to. It will reveal itself to them soon enough. Our job is neither to distract their gaze nor draw their attention to it. It is rather, out of our love for them, to answer their questions, to speak the truth as we know it, and to say, "I don't know," when that's the truth.

What anchors our children is not a sense that the world is perfect. They already know it isn't. They have known it since their first pang of hunger. They don't need more happy endings. They need to know we love them enough to tell them the truth, and to accept their emotions, to hold them or talk to them or just be with them. It's adults, not children who worship the false idol of childhood innocence. It's only adults who don't want to grow up.

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Thursday, July 11, 2019

Monkeys Jumping On The Bed

"There were one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven . . . little monkeys jumping on the bed . . ."

As I fit the classic chant to the number of children jumping up and down on the table, I began to be concerned about the possibility of someone falling. I was particularly worried about the two-year-olds up there crowded together with all those four, five, and six-year-old bodies. The table isn't exactly high, but they were rowdily jumping up and down right near the edge of the table: all it would take would be for one of them to lose their focus or decide to take it to the next level or give in to an impulse to create more personal space with a push and someone would find themselves head over heels on the ground.

It's a game I've often played with the kids over the course of this past year, one I have mixed feelings about pedagogically, because it puts me too much at the center of things, but there had been quite a bit of pleading, so I'd given in.

". . . One fell off . . . two fell off . . . three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven . . . fell off and bumped their heads . . ."

They jumped one at a time and several at once, landing on their feet, then falling to the ground. I was concerned about the possibility of someone landing on someone else. I was particularly worried about the two-year-olds being stomped on by one of those four, five, and six-year-old bodies. The ground isn't exactly soft: all it would take would be for one of them to get a little crazy or to miss time or aim their jump or to decide to find out if it enhanced the fun to land unexpectedly on top of another person.

When we've played this game in the past, not as many kids opt in. Usually, we have a half dozen or so, but this game grew to include double that at times, not to mention a few who appeared to be waiting for the crowd to thin a bit before joining in, probably feeling concerned, like me, that this game was a knocked noggin or bruised knee waiting to happen. Specifically, I imagine they were thinking about the potential for their own bodies to get injured, assessing the risk at this time to be a little much for their taste.

". . . Teacher Tom called the doctor and the doctor said . . . " And this is where I put on the show of frustration that the kids find so hilarious, "No more monkeys jumping on the bed!"

Then they clambered back up on the table, jostling one another as the each found a place of their own in anticipation of the next round of the game. I was concerned again about the possibility of a fall or push or a finger being stepped on, but once more the children kept managing to keep any of my worries from coming to fruition.

As we played the game again and again, I found myself admiring how they all, from oldest to youngest, jumped on that crowded table in their own self-space; how they each measured and timed their jumps to the ground so as to ensure (to the degree possible in such a game) that both their own body and the bodies of their playmates remained uninjured; how they created space for themselves and one another as they reassembled on the table top; how the children in the "audience" took their places with confidence when the crowd of monkeys thinned.

My concerns didn't exactly lessen. I remained close and vigilant, but the children's behavior didn't once prompt me to act upon my concerns. The kids, two, three, four, five, and six-year olds, were taking care of themselves and those around them, while at the same time having a rowdy good time.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Beauty That Children Always Create

He had taken off his shoe to shake out sand and was struggling to get it back on. He asked me for help, but since my hands were occupied, I answered, "I'm busy right now. You can wait for me or find someone else to help you."

We're a cooperative school, so there are always plenty of adults around and it was these "someones" I was thinking about. Instead, a girl his own age who he had only met the day before, a girl whose name he didn't even know and who didn't know his, offered, "I'll help you." He accepted, so she began to wrangle his foot and ankle in the effort.

The Woodland Park Summer Program is currently in progress, two week summer sessions in which we enroll mixed-age groups who spend all their time on our state-of-the-art junkyard playground. Superficially, it's a lot like our regular school year, but the part that's missing is the sense of community that grows over nine months of coming together day-after-day with the same people. It's like the first couple weeks of the school year over and over, a time when we don't really know one another as individuals, let alone as a community.

Yet still, moments like this one show me that even two days in, the seeds have already begun to sprout, this desire to help, to take part, to form ourselves into something larger than our individual selves. Yesterday, I watched children pushing one another on the swings. Children created simple games together, collecting "gems" (florist marbles), digging channels in the sand in which the water from our hand-pump could flow, forming play "families," and approaching one another with sentences that began, "Let's . . . " the invitations that form the starting point of community.

Not all of them have begun to connect with the other children. Some are barely two-years-old and perhaps not developmentally there, some are temperamentally slower to warm or more inclined toward solo play, but the beginnings of "we" are well underway. The process will include both compassion and conflict, of course, but it's one of the fundamental activities of humans, to form community, perhaps even counting as our purpose. It's the beauty that children always create when left to play together amongst beautiful things, even if that beauty is that of a junkyard.

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

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Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Is Slavery Too Strong A Word?

Over the weekend, I read a story about a father who forcibly cut his daughter's hair because he objected to her new highlights. I imagine he was attempting to teach her a lesson through shaming, a cruel practice that has become even more so in the age of social media. We don't resort to punishment at Woodland Park, mainly because there are better ways to teach children, but this type of thing goes beyond the run-of-the-mill punishment. Indeed, this sort of public humiliation can be be far more emotionally damaging to a child than even the physical pain of corporal punishment.

I get anger, I've been there as a parent, even to the point of losing control, but when I read about things like this, I can't help but see a deeper problem, one that strikes at the core of adult attitudes about children. There are some of us, it seems, that consider our children to be our possessions to be used and abused however we see fit, and the dictionary word for that is slavery. It's a strong word, I know, perhaps too strong, but it's one worth exploring in the context of adult relationships to children.

Children are expected to do as they're told, to live where they're told, to behave as they're told. They must stay indoors when adults tell them to and go outside, likewise, when commanded. Most are confined to their bedrooms at certain times of day, are expected to eat and sleep on a schedule not of their own making, and are made to do tasks whether they want to or not. And should they object to any of this, they can be punished at the whim of the adults in their lives. To be certain, the adults aren't always cruel, and what they do is often done out of genuine caring; the cages might be gilded, but they are cages nevertheless.

And school can be even worse, where every minute of their day is structured to serve not their ends, but those of the adults, who, channeling the spirit of the so-called "good" slave-owners, are "doing it for their own good."

Children have no money of their own, no freedom to live elsewhere (other than another prison-like setting such as foster homes or institutions), no ability to undertake paid labor of their own, their sex lives are regulated, and they don't even have the right to vote, all characteristics of slavery. As is illustrated by the example above, they don't even get to control their own bodies unless their adults grant them that right. And to those who would assert that "as long as they live under my roof" I have these rights over them, I respond that they did not ask to be born, they did not ask to live under your roof, and that the obligation seems, in fact, to run in the opposite direction. Parents owe their children at least as much as their children owe them; probably, from a purely moral standpoint, the owe them more.

But they're children, people argue, they aren't capable of handling freedom: it's up to us to protect them until they are old enough to take care of themselves. To which I answer, it's true that we are charged with their care and safety: it is a necessity of biology, at least for a certain period of time (a time that for most children should end far before they are 18). Humans are a species that is born dependent upon adults and continue to be so for a longer time than other animals. They are without a doubt our responsibility, but that does not lead to the conclusion that they are our possessions.

We argue that we love our children and therein lies the difference. Our love is the thing that makes these rights of ownership something other than the rights of a slaveowner, and there is no doubt that the love many parents feel toward their children mitigates some of the more extreme abuses, but I have little doubt that the father who forcibly shaved his daughter's hair at least believes that he loves her; indeed, perhaps that he did it out of love, not anger. But that just furthers the point that most children are indeed slaves. We can do nearly anything we want to them, restrict any freedom, command any behavior, just so long as we assert it is done in the name of parental rights and parental love. No adult would stand for it.

Certainly, there are limits set by our laws. We cannot unreasonably beat them, although most states still grant parents the right to hit and otherwise manhandle their children. We cannot unreasonably confine them, although it is legal everywhere to confine them to their rooms as punishments, to commit them to house arrest (ground them) indefinitely for whatever reason, to set strict curfews, and to demand that we know their whereabouts 24 hours a day, not too much different that the ankle bracelets put on prisoners when they are out on furlough. We must provide them with food, clothing, and shelter, but the bar for this is no higher than the one we must clear when providing necessities for convicts: in fact, they are lower in many cases with inmates often having a legal right to better overall treatment than the typical child.

And as for the excuse that we must keep them in this state by way of preparing for the realities of the world beyond the cage of childhood, what kind of logic is it that concludes that we should prepare humans for freedom by keeping them in slavery?

There was a time in America, not so long ago, when both adults and children were owned by others. There was a time, not so long ago, when our marriage laws gave virtual ownership of wives to their husbands. The arguments in favor of continuing these clearly immoral arrangements were in many ways the same as the arguments for our continued ownership of children.

I imagine that I'm as uncomfortable with the word slavery as anyone reading this, but this is something we need to be talking about. Maybe slavery is too strong a word, but I'm having trouble making a case in my mind for why it is not the right one.

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