Monday, September 24, 2018

Side-By-Side Education




A majority of the children I teach are with me for multiple years, many of them three, and some even longer if they are a younger sibling following the steps of an older. Few experiences give me greater joy than to say to a child, "I knew you when you were in your mama's belly," and every year there are at least a half dozen to whom I can say that.

This is the foundational principle of cooperative schools: families belong at the center of a child's education. We own the school collectively, we run the school collectively, and we work together in the classroom not as "volunteers," but as essential personnel. If human existence were a 12 hour clock, we were hunter-gatherers for 11 hours and 59 minutes, evolving to live together as a collection of families, working together, creating a community in which not just our children, but all of us, can thrive.


I was a cooperative parent, which is true of most, if not all, of the teachers in our "system" of some 40 schools that affiliate through North Seattle College. I am still friends with people I met when our own daughter was a preschooler, still connected even as our children are now young adults, spread out around the world. Nearly every time I'm out and about in north Seattle on my evenings and weekends, I run into former cooperative parents, people whose children are now in grade school, middle school, high school and college, they call out, "Hi, Teacher Tom," and we catch up the way old friends do. This is what stands at the center of our school: families.


Teachers in more traditional settings often ask me how I do it, concerned that all these "untrained" parents would tend to "get in the way" or "do things wrong," but I can honestly turn that around: I don't understand how they do it without the day-to-day help of the parents. I mean, what they lack in pedagogical skills, they more than make up for by being the world's leading expert on their own children. I don't have to guess about things going on at home. I don't have to wait to ask questions. The parents of the children I teach are my colleagues, right there with me through the highs and lows, side-by-side, helping me noodle things out, just as I help them. And, of course, nothing can replace the love that parents bring into the room with them, not just for their own child, but, as time passes, all the children of the community.

If you are interested in learning more about how cooperatives work, click here. If you want to find out about the North Seattle College cooperative preschools, click here. And for more information about our own Woodland Park Cooperative School (preschool and kindergarten), click here.

As cliched as it has become, it does take a village to raise a child and that is exactly how the cooperative model does it.


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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Friday, September 21, 2018

As Long As They Live In A World In Which They Experience Them




Parents are forever trying to get their kids to say things to me.

"Say 'Good morning' to Teacher Tom."

"Say 'Thank you' to Teacher Tom."

"Tell Teacher Tom your name."

I get it, of course, parents want their children to be courteous, or at least responsive, and when they aren't they coax them. Naturally, most of the kids don't yet know or have simply forgotten that a response is called for. When we say "Good morning" to someone, the convention is to respond in kind. It's part of the ebb and flow of social intercourse, one of those niceties that lubricate social interaction. There is a rhythm to the choruses and duets we sing with our fellow humans that many young children, being inexperienced in dealing with people outside their family, still have not learned.

"How are you?"

"I'm fine, thank you. And you?"

Our day-to-day life is full of these simple, friendly interactions. For most adults, we engage in them without thinking, a kind of call-and-response routine.

"Thank you!"

"You're welcome!"

I've thought a lot about this, and I can only come up with three categories of things about which adults are truly more knowledgable than young children, safety, schedules, and courtesy, and this is all part and parcel with the later. Learning to engage in these ritualized indications of goodwill is essential: we find adults who don't do it to be off-putting at best, but more likely we consider them rude or even suspicious. Learning about these simple day-to-day courtesies is one of the first things we must do when visiting another country, especially one where we are just learning the language. Indeed, these give-and-take courtesies are so important that they are typically covered on the first day of language class or the first chapter of the language book.

So, I get why parents prompt their children this way, it's important stuff, even if most of us haven't really even thought much about it. When our children don't play their part in this sort of dialog it hits our ears as strange, out of rhythm, or even off-key, and we react almost instinctively, directing our children to do their part.

"Say 'Good morning' to Teacher Tom."

"Say 'Thank you' to Teacher Tom."

"Tell Teacher Tom your name."

The problem with phrasing things as commands, however, is that humans are notoriously resistant to being told what to do. I can't tell you how often I've seen a child who may well have been inclined to respond to me suddenly clam up when ordered to do so. No one likes to be told what to do at any stage in life, it's part of our evolutionary heritage, and it's why, when we want another person to do something, commanding them is possibly the worst way to go about it.

No, I'd rather see parents strive for informational statements. For instance, a simple statement of fact like, "Teacher Tom said 'Good morning' to you," creates a space in which a child can do her own thinking, rather than simply obey or disobey. She may still not say "Good morning," but the odds go way up that she will, upon reflection.

"When people do nice things for me, I say 'Thank you'."

"Teacher Tom told you his name."

But, of course, the best way to learn these things is the way we learn all language: through role modeling and practice. Language is more than a tool for communication. It's a song we sing together, a way of connecting beyond the meagerness of words alone. Virtually all neurotypical children will learn it simply by living in and around it, the way they learn our preschool songs after a few weeks of repetition. The prompts might help speed things along a little, but in the end, our children will learn these basic courtesies as long as they live in a world in which they experience them.



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Thursday, September 20, 2018

"Hey! This Is My Game!"



"Hey! This is my game!"

"We're playing too."

There was a pause. You could tell he was wrestling with his options. Then he replied, "Well, I guess it's our game . . ."

It happened in an instant. It could have gone a different way, escalating into yelling, even hitting, but this is how it normally goes for most of the kids, most days. We remember the times we had to intervene, stepping in as adults to help settle things, and it is the memory of those rarer incidents that so often causes us to step in too soon, but in my experience children will most often choose a peaceful solution when allowed to talk it through on their own.

Earlier in the day, one girl was rolling out all the play dough. As she did, other children gathered around, saying, "I need some play dough" and "She has all the play dough." I was sitting right there, but said nothing, letting the words of sink in, giving the girl time to reflect on what they were saying. There was a time when I might have made suggestions, evoking the word "share," interrupting an important thought process to replace it with a kind of imbalanced power struggle between adult and child: one of reaction instead of contemplation.

Instead, I said nothing, leaving her to consider the situation without the threat of compulsion. It took several minutes for her to think it though, more time than well-intentioned adults typically allow. She wore a look of concentration, as if focused on the work of rolling out all that dough, but I knew she was thinking of her classmate's words, juggling her options. She could have shouted, "Mine!" and she might have had someone made a grab or had I inserted myself, but instead, after what felt like a long time, she began breaking off fists full of the stuff to pass around the table.

I've come to the conclusion that this is what humans are designed for and that every instance of turf-protecting selfishness is evidence not of flawed human nature, but of a flawed society, one that values stuff or power or money or winning over relationships. When I don't step between the children, I more often than not find myself in awe of their natural inclination to seek agreement, to understand that this is not my game, but rather our game.

"Well, I guess it's our game," he said thoughtfully, then shifted gears, beaming with his own brilliance, "Let's build a castle!"

"Yeah! I can be the princess Mama, you can be the princess daughter, and you can be the princess Dada!"

"We have to make it big enough for all of us!"

They worked together for several minutes, excitedly, doing what humans are meant to do, weaving their world from invitation and agreement. Then, as so often happens, another child inadvertently toppled one of their castle's towers. There was an outcry. "You knocked over our tower! Hey!"

This is when I could have intervened again, but games like this are not so fragile, and soon there were four of them living in that castle.

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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 putting 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.

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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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.

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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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.

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

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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