Friday, May 22, 2015

Name Calling

Have you ever seen one of those prepubescent beauty pageant girls? You know, the ones whose moms dress them up like adult women, bouffant their hair, and give them make-up to make it look like they have 18-year-old heads on 5-year-old bodies? We're appalled. It's both grotesque and sad. We pity the little girl and scorn the mother, blaming her for sexualizing her innocent child.

We don't, of course, accuse the girl herself of being "sexy." We all know that she's been taught to go through some motions that are otherwise meaningless to her. A girl that age is incapable of being sexy, but she is capable of imitating a set of behaviors she's been taught are aspects of being female, at least within her sub-culture.

Young children do a lot of things without an inkling of the adult connotations of their behaviors. When my daughter was a 4-year-old preschooler she was part of a gang of 4-5 girls who spent their days playing together, sometimes to the exclusion of other girls, fairly typical age-appropriate behavior. At about this time a couple of the moms from our school were reading a book entitled Reviving Ophelia, a fantastic, insightful book by all accounts about the toxicity of our media culture to adolescent girls, an aspect of which was the whole "mean girls" phenomenon. These moms decided that my daughter, my 4-year-old daughter, was a "mean girl," discussed it among the other parents and even went so far as to take their concerns to the teacher, all of this without speaking with me. This is likely a good thing for them because I'd have shown them what mean is really all about.

Reasonable people know that words like sexy or mean are not appropriate words to use to describe children. Frankly, it's the worst kind of vicious, back-biting name-calling. So why do so many feel it's okay to describe young boys as aggressive? A 2-year-old boy who hits a friend knows no more about what he is doing than those sad little beauty queens. A 4-year-old who experiments with his power by shouting fiercely at a playmate is no more an "aggressive boy" than my daughter was a "mean girl" simply because she experimented with the powerful feelings that come from excluding others. The same goes for the word violent. A young boy may engage in behavior that adults perceive as violent or aggressive, but he no more knows what he is doing than the little girls who parade across stages in bikinis. At some level, they have been taught that these behaviors are aspects of being a male in our culture. You personally may reject these behaviors (in fact, most of us do), just as you may reject the ritualized sexual behavior of adult beauty queens, but believe me, the kids are just trying things out and they have no idea, or a very twisted idea, of what it means.

Labeling young boys as aggressive or violent is in itself a kind of aggressive, perhaps even violent, behavior. Try this mental experiment: what do you think it would do to a little girl's future if she was repeatedly labeled sexy? Only a cruel or perverted adult would do that. Yet this is what happens to our little boys with the words aggressive and violent. Words matter.

Our job as important adults in children's lives is to teach them what their behaviors mean, not to label them. And we don't do that by treating them as we would aggressive, violent adults, but rather by engaging in rational conversation, by honestly discussing our own opinions and values, by helping them come to an understanding of how their behaviors might be perceived by others, by pointing out the difference between cartoons and real life. You know, just as we would with our girls when they experiment with sex appeal or exclusion.

Please stop using the words aggressive and violent to describe young children. You are wrong and you are doing damage. And please point it out when others do it. They are wrong and they are doing damage.

Thank you for letting me get that off my chest.

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Serving Wall Street

If you want the kids' test scores up, bring back band and bring back shop and get kids actually learning stuff instead of teaching them how to take a test. ~Adam Savage (Mythbusters)

Over the past year or so, as the deeply flawed federal Common Core State Standards curriculum has been forced upon the children in our state, some public school teachers, mostly middle and high school teachers, have told me that they don't think the standards themselves are so bad, or at least that they are an improvement on what came before them. When I ask about the high stakes standardized testing, they are, of course, appalled, but suggest that if we could separate the standards from the tests, they could get behind Common Core.

Here's the problem: the standards and the testing cannot be separated. One of the most evil aspects of Common Core is that nothing about it can be changed. Even if teachers find intellectually incorrect or pedagogically unsound aspects, and the elementary school standards are rife with them, including the soul crushing expectation that all kindergarteners must learn to read, they can't be changed. The corporate-aligned creators did no field testing, failed to build in any sort of feedback process, consulted no elementary school teachers, and created no mechanism for altering any aspect of Common Core however horrible, including the mandate of high stakes standardized testing. Common Core is all or nothing.

I'm convinced that this wasn't a mistake or hubris, but rather a conscious decision. You see, the goal has never been as much about better educated children as much as it has been about, as Bill Gates has repeatedly said, "to unleash powerful market forces" upon our youngest citizens. Now, there may be individuals who genuinely believe that the Common Core curriculum is in the best interest of children, and Gates may be one of them, but let there be no doubt that Wall Street looks at this as a way to get their skeletal hands on the money we set aside for educating children. And that's exactly what Bill Gates is talking about when he lauds powerful market forces, which is a businessman's way to say "greed."

What Gates and the rest of his business cohort are after are schools that can be treated like standardized electrical outlets (Gates' own metaphor) so that they can develop products that plug right in. Field testing, feedback, flexibility, and change threaten the standardization of those electrical outlets, which, of course, threatens profits. Therefore, businesspeople need a nationwide curriculum that is written in stone, which is what they have.

Here is what Gates had to say back in 2009, before most of us had even heard of Common Core, and before he cleaned up his language in response to our pushback:

Notice how, among his BS about how Common Core is a "state lead" effort and more talk of the "unleashing" of greed, he refers to a "large, uniform base of customers" instead of, you know, children or students. This is the key to their entire approach and teachers, with their knowledge and objections and opinions, can only muck that up, so they cut us out altogether. Even if you think the standards themselves are okay, you can't have them without the regime of high stakes testing because the "curriculum and tests must be aligned to the standards."

And that brings me to my use of the word "curriculum" to describe Common Core. I've been pointedly calling it a curriculum for some time now and each time I do, there are those who insist that I misunderstand, that the Common Core are "just a set of standards," and that it's up to teachers and schools to develop a curriculum for meeting those standards. Really?

I call it a curriculum, despite what its supporters claim, because by any rational measure, that's what it is. The simplest definition of a curriculum is "the subjects that comprise the course of study at a school." That's exactly what Common Core does, albeit by a more passive aggressive manner than most. The Department of Education has a pool of money that it only gives to states that have adopted the Common Core. To keep the money flowing, the states are required to prove, via standardized tests, that they are meeting arbitrary and unrealistic math and literacy thresholds. Teachers are punished or rewarded based on a widely discredited calculation, schools are shuttered and replaced by privately run charters, and federal funding is restricted or withheld if schools or school districts attempt to deviate. Therefore, math and literacy test preparation has increasingly become the primary subject that comprises the course of study in many of our nation's schools. That is a curriculum.

And things like band, shop, art, physical education, and the humanities, subjects that can't be measured by standardized testing, are increasingly pushed to the fringes and even out of many schools entirely. We must "get kids actually learning stuff" again, because a curriculum of test prep serves no one but Wall Street.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015


People often decide whether or not they want their kids to attend our school based upon their perceptions of the outdoor part of our classroom: either they dig on the junkyard chic or they don't. But even among those who think their kid will have fun playing here, there is a sizable portion who ask, "But where do the children climb?"

It's a legitimate question, I suppose, because we don't have one of those standard issue climbers -- what we would have called a jungle gym when I was a boy. 

I point out that we do have our concrete slide, which is an unregulated two-way street and one of our lilacs makes a decent perch, but neither usually inspires parents who ask.

No, they ask because their child has been climbing since he could walk, scaling anything and everything. They ask because their child has achieved the pinnacle of every climber within a five mile radius and they're looking for a new challenge.

The thing that's hard to explain, the thing one must see to understand, is how the children of Woodland Park create their own climbing and balancing challenges, usually employing our loose parts to manufacture their own playground.

Of course, they aren't just climbing, they're building, making a study of physics, of engineering, of cause and effect.

These impromptu climbers often look hazardous to the adult eye, and occasionally they are, but most of the time, believe me, if the kids are planning to risk their own bodies on it, they're testing and re-testing every step of the way, then approaching with the sort of caution one rarely sees when they climb out-of-the-box climbers.

One of my fundamental jobs is safety, so I'm always watching as their climbing experiments take place, sometimes stepping in with observations and opinions: "That part looks like it's about to fall off," or "I doubt that will hold you." 

Most of what the children create, while challenging, isn't nearly as dangerous as typical playground climbers. Sure they're less stable, more fraught to failure, and often kinetic in a way that equipment manufactures tend to shy away (like when we build our climbers on the swing set), but they rarely achieve altitudes much higher than their heads, usually much lower.

Every now and then someone will offer us a climber, "barely used," often quite nice, something from a backyard set up. We get offered those because the kids, as they will, have grown bored with the one-trick pony. We politely refuse because the kids will ultimately grow bored with it here at Woodland Park as well, and then we'll have to figure out who can take it off our hands.

The kids never get bored of our climbers. When they've learned what they need to learn, they make a new one.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Play First

I got up this morning, like I do every morning, at 5 a.m. This morning, I actually woke up on my own at 4:58, but even when I sleep until the alarm sounds, I sit right up, then into the bathroom where I pull on my bathrobe. 

Next, I make coffee. I would prefer freshly ground beans from a French press, but the household rousing sound of a grinder and the convenience of the pre-ground stuff has lead us to a classic drip coffee maker. When my wife Jennifer and I started living together more than three decades ago, I was appalled to find she owned no way to make coffee at home. My first gift to her was a coffee maker similar to the one we own today. I think of that almost every morning as I'm still making coffee for her.

I throw out the cold grounds from the day before, then open the coffee container. I measure out the coffee, get things going, then fire up the computer where I, like right now, get to work writing, as I've done for coming up on seven years now. When I'm lucky, I've taken a few notes the night before or even written a paragraph or two to get me going, but most of the time I've at least been stewing on an article or reflecting on a photo or set of photos from the classroom or just feeling full of righteousness about something or other, so that's what I write about. 

I write every day, and sometimes I love it, but not always. Some days it feels like a chore, just as it does to sit up at 5 a.m. and make the coffee. I feel the same way about making breakfast and packing my lunch, getting dressed, commuting, and setting up the classroom.

Most days, I eat a breakfast of fruit with plain, full fat yoghurt and pack a lunch salad topped with the night before's leftovers (I often cook extra in order to have leftovers). Some days I like it better than others, but when I try to break up the routine with a fried egg or a sandwich, I always regret it. 

I really don't like getting dressed so, like with most necessary things I dislike, I've made a system of it. I only really think about pants and shirts. I wear the same pants all week, every week, washing only when absolutely necessary. Then I wear t-shirts. When one of our Woodland Park logo t-shirts is available I wear that. Next in the pecking order are my Pink Floyd t-shirts. My shirts usually only get one wearing because of the sweating during the bicycle commute, but when I take the bus I might fold them at the end of the day and put them back in the drawer.

If I win the lottery, I won't quit my job, but I'll hire some bright, reliable people to set-up the classroom for me. Since I've not won the lottery, I manage it by arriving on the premises more than two hours before the start of class, which is my "planning" time, by which I mean I plan on my feet, putting things together based up my memories from the day before, the materials that are plentiful, requests from the kids, and whatever is on my mind that morning. I tell myself that this is my time to work with my "third teacher," the environment, and that's in part true, but there are many things I have to do every day to make our school ready and safe which I'd really rather outsource.

No one makes me do any of these dull, irritating, necessary chores. Indeed, I've chosen to live my life like this. Like all lives, it's an imperfect one, but I wouldn't trade it for any other. I have the best job I can imagine for myself. I think I live in the best apartment in the best neighborhood in the best city on earth. And I love my family more than words can say. I've got it all, baby, and yet it's rendered imperfect by the dull, irritating, necessary chores. We could, like we've done several times in our lives, reset the whole thing by making big life changes, but after having changed jobs, cities, and homes many times before, I know it would only be a matter of time before the necessary evils of life come to consume their fair portion of my day-to-day life. 

I'm living the life of my dreams, yet I spend much of my time doing things I'd rather not be doing, and that is a fact with which we must all learn to deal.

Critics and doubters of play-based preschool often want to know if we are getting the kids "kindergarten ready," or even, as is the case with the corporate education reformers, "college and career ready." Oh sure, they see how children, left to learn through their instinct to play, develop a joyful eagerness about learning, about going to school, about life, but, they ask, "What happens when they're faced with things they don't want to do?" suggesting, at least in part, that we're not doing a very good job of preparing children for these dull, irritating, necessary chores. "If all they do is play, when do they learn to work?"

It would be a laughable concern if their "solutions" didn't suck the joy out of life, leaving too many of us so focused on the dull, irritating, and necessary that we no longer have time for the life of our dreams. In preschool it might be about learning to sit still, to spend too many hours indoors, to be quiet, to walk in lines. As we get older, it's about the tedium of memorization, of drilling, homework, and testing. When we say, "But when do they play? When do they pursue their dreams?" they answer, "When the work is done."

Naturally, the work is never done because the dull, irritating, and necessary will always fill up any empty space you leave. The only way to counter that is to play first: that's how to live the life of your dreams. When play is the foundation upon which our lives are built, we place those inevitable chores in the service of our dreams rather than the other way around. And that's the only way to live.

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Monday, May 18, 2015

Adventures We Shared

There's always sadness mixed into this time of year; the melancholy of approaching the end of the school year, knowing that some of these kids, these families, many of whom I've known for 3 or more years (in some cases many more) are moving on. I take comfort, of course, in knowing that every year, most of the kids are returning or that younger siblings will guarantee I stay in touch, but there are always a few of them I'll never see again.

It's in the nature of being a teacher to be a rock in the stream, standing in one place while the river races by, tumbling over and around you, shaping you while you're shaping it.

Our 4-5's class started our final parent meeting by going around the circle remembering, reflecting on the year, what our children learned and what we, the adults, learned as well. There were some tears, as there ought to be, and we laughed too, especially when thinking back to who we all were back then and comparing that to who we are now.

One of the themes of Thomas Mann's greatest novel The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg) is the passage of time: how when one lives life "horizontally" (reflectively, disengaged, in repose) the time may seem long as you live it, passing slowly, yet when you look back, you see a largely empty blur of sameness that, in fact, passed in flash. When, on the other hand, you live "vertically" (active, engaged, moving forward) the time passes in a flash as you live it, yet seems impossibly rich, full and long in retrospect. As we pass the hopes and dreams torch around our little circles, I can't help but recognize that we've definitely lived a vertical year together. September was just yesterday, but from the perspective of May, I can't believe all that we've been through together. How could we possibly have done all that?

I may, on another day, wind up pulling out some purple-tinted prose to finish writing a sappy piece about all of this, but what I mainly want to do is bask on the best and most concrete reward of being a teacher in this community: the kind words and acts of appreciation that come my way as we wind down for the year. I've had a few other jobs over my half century -- baseball coach, salesman, junior businessman, writer -- none of which provide, like teaching does, this natural, emotional, even cathartic moment in May when we're all still together, but knowing the time is short. 

I'm looking forward to summer, but I'm also clinging to these people and their children for a few more days; and I know I'm not the only one who looks forward to the future, but wishes that the next week and a half would pass as slowly as it passed for Hans Castorp as he lay, horizontal, in his sanatorium bed running the mildest of fevers.

But that isn't who we are. We are always vertical together and it will be behind us the next we blink. But oh it will be a time to look back upon and think what fantastic adventures we shared.

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Friday, May 15, 2015


If one believes that those with more money and social status are superior to those with less, we call it classism.

If one believes that men are superior to women, we call it sexism.

If one believes that those without disabilities are superior to those with them, we call that ableism.

If one believes that whites are superior to blacks, that's called racism.

If one believes that adults are superior to children? . . . We don't have a word for it. I suppose we could call it "ageism," but that term is already in use to connote prejudice against the elderly.

The other day, my daughter and I were discussing the demographic reality that young people, whatever their political or religious orientation, are overwhelmingly in favor of same-sex marriage, and that the most staunch opposition comes from the generations closest to the end of their lives. This lead us to wonder what prejudices we currently hold that will appall our children. We wondered if it wouldn't be about what we now so casually call "mental illness." After all, many indigenous cultures have considered those we label psychologically sick to be gifts from the gods, bringing them to the center of their lives rather than pushing them to the fringe as we do today.

But, in seems, "childism" could also be the next revelation in this ever-unfolding journey of enlightenment.

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Within The Lines

Some time ago, I received an email that read, in part:

. . . I was wondering if you could share your thoughts about coloring books and coloring within the lines. I have a 4 year old who loves to paint, but he doesn't paint within the lines, he doesn't draw tree and flower shapes as his friends do and such. I am not overly concerned about this, but I would love to get your opinion . . .

In kindergarten, Mrs. Jennings handed out pre-printed pages of train car outlines for us to color, each of us with a box car or passenger car or coal car that were, when finished, to be arranged on the walls of the room as a complete train. I felt somehow honored to have been entrusted with the caboose, for which I chose red with yellow accents. She gave us careful instructions, admonishing us to not only strive to stay within the lines, but also to use only horizontal strokes as we filled in the various white voids.

My rebelliousness is not inborn, but has rather has come to me with age. I didn't perceive Mrs. Jennings' instructions as anything particularly confining. To the contrary, I recall taking pride in adhering precisely to her rules, and in the end admiring how accomplished my caboose looked when all the crayon strokes went in the same direction. The completed train ran along the wall above the blackboard for the rest of the school year, where I often admired my own handiwork. From that point forward, whenever the opportunity came to color within the lines, I took it on eagerly, employing the techniques Mrs. Jennings had taught us.

I was a boy who enjoyed coloring books and could spend hours practicing and perfecting my side-to-side-within-the-lines technique. To this day, when I doodle, I often draw shapes or find shapes pre-printed on my page, then carefully fill them in. I find the process meditative.

What I don't recall is whether or not my classmates also followed Mrs. Jennings' rules, that perhaps in all fairness, may have been offered more as "suggestions," but were merely heard by me as instructions. The proof was right there on the wall of the room all year long, each train car colored by a different hand. I remember the train as a whole, but not its individual components other than my own and the wonderful black engine Mrs. Jennings colored herself. But I'm inclined to think, knowing what I know now about kindergartners, that the others did not stick as rigorously to her techniques.

Whatever we may now think of Mrs. Jennings' project, it seems apparent to me that she did one thing brilliantly: she did not make it into a competition by comparing our finished work or making us otherwise feel that we'd not toed the mark. There they all were in the end, side-by-side, inside and outside the lines, smooth strokes or scribbled, linked one after another along the wall. I imagine other children looked up and admired their own work, being pleased perhaps by their choice of colors or swirling crayon strokes, not even noticing or even being aware that there was anything wrong with a few stray marks outside the lines. I also imagine there were others who got the project done as quickly as possible, sloppily, not caring at all for the process, never even later noticing the train on the wall.

Each year, we do a handful of potentially "inside the lines" types of projects at Woodland Park. For instance, around Halloween we always spend at least one session painting jack-o-lanterns that I've pre-drawn in permanent marker on their paper. Naturally, I don't say anything about staying within the lines, but the lines are there and a few of the older children will always accept the challenge of staying within them. In the end, whatever they look like, just like in Mrs. Jennings' class, they all get hung up on the wall, side-by-side, equally, with no editorializing or comparisons from me. Some of the children will eagerly show their parents, "That one's mine!" while others can't be bothered to even look that way again.

The same goes for drawing or painting "tree or flower shapes." A few times a year, usually with our Pre-K kids, we attempt "art" projects that involve following step-by-step instructions. For instance, I challenge them each year with "If" paintings with a proscribed process of 1) conceiving and articulating a concept, 2) drawing the picture in pencil, using an eraser if necessary to get it "just right," 3) tracing over the pencil lines with permanent marker, 4) choosing colors, and finally 5) painting. My object is not for them to produce a work of art so much as to expose them to a 5-step process. Most of them, as I did with Mrs. Jennings' instructions, take it on as it's intended, a challenge not unlike balancing across a beam or assembling a puzzle. There are always one or two, like me, who really dig on the process itself and work through it several times, taking pride in their work. And, yes, there are almost always a few who either don't or can't accept the challenge.

I'll always remember Jarin's "If" painting from several years back. Drawing was not one of his fortes, but he gamely joined the others at the table, starting with the concept: "What if 1 were 2?" As the others went about putting wings on elephants and candy on trees, Jarin sat there with pencil poised over paper, his mind apparently blown by this idea -- What if 1 were 2? As the others marched through the steps he remained there seemingly both stuck and struck by this impossible mathematical concept. In the end he wound up with a paper topped with his question "What if 1 were 2," a pair of very faint pencil marks, and nothing else, but what a lot had gone on inside his head during the time he struggled with this big idea.

I didn't hang the "If" paintings on the wall, but if I had, Jarin's would have looked feeble compared to the "tree and flower shapes" of his friends, and how unfair it would be to judge the work he did that day by this "painting."

It's as impossible as expressing Jarin's concept, I suppose, to expect humans to not, at least at some level, look around at what the others are doing and compare them with our own children. How tall are the other kids his age? Are any other 3-year-olds still in diapers? Everyone else seems to be able to draw a tree or a flower or to stay within the lines. And there is certainly some valuable data to glean from this, especially if one's child appears to be an extreme outlier, but there is real danger, I think, when this kind of thing makes us feel competitive or inadequate on our child's behalf.

The paintings on the wall, the test scores, the grades only measure how well a child manages to stay within the lines, which is, after all, at best, a limited grounds upon which to form judgments. It tells us nothing, for instance, about what happens along the way.

Coloring within the lines is a fine thing, but all you need to do is take a look at the paper train that is humanity to know that life itself is an outside the lines endeavor and that each of us strays outside them every day. If our child's caboose or box car diverges from some arbitrary "norm" it is indeed not cause to be "overly concerned." In fact, it is usually cause for celebration.

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