Friday, February 15, 2019

Play Tends To Disappear When We Overthink It

A few years back, I was watching a boy named Henry carry a yellow traffic pylon across the playground. He carefully placed it on the ground, not on it's base, but on it's side, taking care to get it "just so," before climbing atop an old packing crate. He stood poised atop the crate for a moment then launched himself, coming down on the pylon. Crack! I heard the sound of the pylon breaking from across the yard.

Stupidly, I asked him, "Henry, why did you do that?"

Without missing a beat he replied, "I wanted to see if I could break it." Duh.

We had a brief conversation about property after that, although in hindsight I think that "property" has a somewhat different meaning when we spend our time on a junkyard playground like ours, but I keep this episode in mind whenever people begin to talk about "play with a purpose," a mantra for those who have accepted the importance of play while clinging to the hubristic notion that children need adults to "make" it educational. Here was a boy with a question, one of his own devising, and therefore one in which he had a genuine interest. He was motivated by his curiosity, Can I break this? and set up an experiment in which he discovered his answer.

The standard definitions of play frame it as "for enjoyment" or "recreation," which can clearly both be aspects of play, but those of us who spend our lives observing children going about the business of actually playing know that there is always a question behind what they do, even if it's not one that can be stated as clearly as Henry's. The purpose of the player isn't always evident to the observer, but there is always, beneath the enjoyment or recreation, an inquiry of some sort at work, one that might not always lead to a definitive answer as Henry's experiment did, but is an exploration of oneself, the other people, and both the physical and psychological environment in which the child finds himself. Play is how our instinct to educate ourselves manifests.

When it comes to education, play is enough: it contains within it all the important questions and answers. We don't need adults commanding, coaxing, coaching, or cajoling the children in order for it to be purposeful. When I hear people use the phrase "play with a purpose" (or something similar) I cringe because no matter how well intended, I know that these are people who don't trust the children's natural instincts and so feel compelled, however gently, to turn their self-directed learning into yet another adult-directed activity that may or may not lead children to answers that are important to them.

Not long ago, I watched a teacher attempt to compel a group of five-year-olds through a type of relay race she had designed to help the children "deepen" their understanding of the autumn leaves they had collected, matching like-with-like and so on. The teacher's enthusiasm and the children's curiosity about this "game" she was describing was enough to keep them interested for a few minutes as they waited in queues for their turn to race from one end of the room to the other, but it wasn't long before there were children exploring under tables, chatting with friends, and, in the case of one boy, simply moping against the wall. The teacher started by trying to cheerfully coax them all back into the game, but it didn't take. She tried to ignore the rebellions to focus on the children who were still engaged in her play-with-a-purpose game, although it seemed to me that most of them were doing it by way of pleasing their teacher more than because the game held their interest. I sympathized with the teacher as I watched her jaw twitch because I have experienced similar episodes in my own teaching past, but the bottom line is that she had managed to turn their natural interest in things like collecting fall leaves and running into a chore from which none of them were learning much other than perhaps a lesson in obedience and disobedience.

Children's play is always purposeful even if we can't tell what that purpose is and it's always educational even if we don't know what they are learning. The moment the adult imposes her own agenda, play comes to an end no matter how playful their top-down agenda tries to be. Children will always lose interest because the questions are not their own and without interest "learning" becomes a chore for everyone.

Play is a pure good, like love or happiness, and, like love or happiness, it tends to disappear when we overthink it.

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Thursday, February 14, 2019

You Get Out Of It What You Put Into It

I want our school to be a warm and welcoming place for both the children and their parents, so I strive to behave in a warm and welcoming way. I hope every preschool teacher does. We do it because we know that our classrooms will never feel warm and welcoming if we, the teachers, don't give out that it is. Teachers who behave in a cold and grudging way will never create a warm and welcoming environment. It's all quite obvious.

We also know that if we are warm and welcoming, most of our students and parents will strive to return the feeling, at least eventually. That's the way it usually works with the other humans and when it doesn't we grow concerned for them, asking about their home life, recent events, behavior in other circumstances, trying to understand why our warmth and welcome are not being returned. It's odd to us because most people most of the time will come, in their own way, to reflect our attitudes back to us. It works with cold and grudging even better than it does with warm and welcoming.

In other words, you get out of it what you put into it, which is one of the great truths, although it's a tenant more commonly applied to the fruits of hard work. That's what they tell college freshmen for instance. We talk about it around the Woodland Park Cooperative School in a different vein, especially when it comes time for parents to volunteer for their "jobs" for the year. It's a way to encourage fence sitters to make a bigger commitment than they were originally inclined. And as a sales pitch it has the virtue of being true: you really do get out of it what you put into it. I've experienced and seen it for over two decades now.

Living in the heart of a big city isn't for everyone, but my family has chosen it. Cities have a reputation for being cold, anonymous places, full of people going about their lives behind earbuds, smartphone screens, and brisk, purposeful gaits. And it is that way when that's what we're putting into it. Indeed, there are times when I want to be left alone with my thoughts in a crowd, but I've found that if I don't want it to be that way, if I want it, say, to be warm and welcoming, I can make that happen by, obviously, being warm and welcoming: smiling at people, nodding, making eye contact, holding doors. The big, cold, anonymous city becomes a small town because people are people. You get out of it what you put into it.

It doesn't always work the way we want it to. We don't always get what we want. Some of us are born with disadvantages. Some of us are hated for who we are. And sometimes we can't help what we're putting into it: we're too sad or too afraid or too oppressed or just too weary. That's why we need the other people. Maybe it doesn't take a whole school or village or city to start being warm and welcoming; maybe it just takes a few people to get things going, just getting out of it what they're putting into it. Today I can be one of those people.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

"Loser Teachers"

On Monday, while speaking at a campaign event for his father in El Paso, Texas, the President's son said, "Keep up that fight. Bring it to your schools. You don't have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers that are trying to sell you socialism from birth." Later at that event, his father verbally attacked journalists, stirring his crowd into a frenzy, prompting one of his supporters to physically attack a BBC cameraman who was just there doing his job. This is not the first time, the President's supporters have attacked journalists. Are teachers next?

This is dangerous. It's dangerous for not just for teachers, but for the children we teach. I don't care where you stand politically, there can never be an excuse for inciting violence against our fellow citizens, and especially those doing the important work of the press (the only profession specifically protected by the Constitution) and teachers (the midwives of democracy). These are attacks on democracy itself: indeed, a free press and an educated population are two of the pillars upon which self-governance is built.

I don't know a single teacher with the time or inclination to indoctrinate children as socialists. Indeed, it's clear from the man's comments that he either doesn't know what socialism is or is intentionally misunderstanding it. I do know a few teachers who identify as social democrats, people who believe that government (the mechanism democratic societies use to do those things we need to do together) should work to level the playing field for those who need help. What upsets authoritarians is that teachers are teaching about equality, fairness, and cooperation. What teachers are doing is helping children achieve their highest potential, to become critical thinkers, to think for themselves, to question authority, and to stand up for what they believe in. These are democratic values.

And even if there were a teacher or two attempting to turn children into socialists (something for which he ought to be fired, just as he should be fired for indoctrinating them as capitalists), this kind of highly charged language condemns an entire category of people (teachers) for the behavior of a few, which has become a hallmark of this administration. Words like "loser," "socialism," and "indoctrinated" are designed to spur hatred. It's called bigotry and it leads to violence. Since these people have come to power, there has been a sharp increase in violent attacks on journalists, asylum seekers, immigrants, and people of non-European backgrounds in general, not to mention against those who do not fit into the straight-jacket of traditional sexuality or gender identity.

I am one of those loser teachers, yet I will do more good in one day for the children I teach and for our democracy than this pampered billionaire will in his entire life. If I'm a loser, then what does that make him? I will not indoctrinate children, but I will help them acquire the skills and habits and knowledge that will allow them to know when someone is trying to indoctrinate them, especially when they are doing it with the tools of ignorance: name-calling, bigotry, and hate.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Our Dream Life

Normally, I seek to avoid petty annoyances by developing ritualistic habits and routines. For instance, I perform what I call a "four-point check" at regular intervals, patting pockets as I go: keys, phone, wallet, asthma inhaler. The idea is that if one of these essentials is missing, I'll know right away and be able to easily retrace my steps. Strangely, however, I had lately begun to forget my keys on a fairly regular basis. Fortunately, in each case I had been with my wife who did have her keys and all was good.

A couple mornings ago, I was reflecting on this uncharacteristic turn of events when I realized that I hadn't actually been forgetting my keys at all; it had merely been a series of recurring dreams I'd been experiencing over the past few weeks. After shaking my head over how mundane my dreams have become, I began to wonder how many other dream "truths" I, and others, live with in an unexamined way. I mean we've all had the experience of arguing with a loved one in a dream, then found it hard to set the anger aside upon waking. What if the dream isn't so dramatic? What if it's about buttoning shirts or stumbling on stairs or forgetting ones keys, things that one doesn't wake up recalling as part of a dream? How much of what we "know" about ourselves, other people, and the world comes from dream experience.

Maybe none. It's quite possible that we catch most of them before they fully cross over, but it seems likely that at least some of the more nuanced aspects of our dream world come to life in our waking world. And I think it highly likely that this is more true for young children with less experience in reflective practice than it is for adults. All of the research I've seen into dreams focuses on the question of what do they mean, from Freud and Jung through their contemporaries. And dream interpretation has long been an industry unto itself, but I've never seen anything about this possibility of our dream worlds leaking over into our waking lives in this way.

Again, maybe this is nothing, but I've been thinking about the three-year-old who last month became lost in the woods for 55 hours during some brutal winter weather. When he was finally found, he told the story of a friendly bear who had cared for him. Most have written it off as a fantasy or hallucination, but I think it's just as likely that this bear simply crossed over from his dreams. His story sounds familiar to me. Children regularly tell me fantastical stories that don't seem like lies or fabrications. A three-year-old once went a week as if convinced that she could sometimes sprout wings from her back like a fairy and fly around. She didn't know how it happened and didn't have any control over it, but she was certain it was true. Another told me that she had another mommy, one I'd never met, who gave her candy whenever she wanted it. Again, she told me about it with a straight face and while I didn't try to poke holes in her story, she seemed as if she fully believed it.

It's easy to dismiss our dream life as separate from our "real" life, although I still carry with me a few very strong memories (emotional and otherwise) from dreams I had as a child, memories that are as clear and real as any others. As adults we tend to be more firmly convinced of the difference, but the children we teach are still working that out. And, of course, it also makes me wonder what we have lost when we grow up and learn to pack our dreams tidily away.

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Monday, February 11, 2019

Thank You, Teachers, For Fighting For Our Democracy

Los Angles public school teachers recently went on strike, demanding, among other things, pay increases and smaller class sizes. Despite the fact that the district pled poverty, the money was ultimately found to do both. There has been a wave of teacher strikes across the country of late, most of them more or less following the same pattern, with strikes in Denver and Oakland in the offing. For the most part these strikes have been successful because they have had the overwhelming support of parents whose children attend those pubic schools. According to a Loyola Marymount study, some 82 percent of parents supported the teachers in LA.

That said, public schools are genuinely in a financial bind in the US. No matter how much lip service elected representatives give to the importance of education, they have been reluctant to adequately fund pubic schools for years, which is why we continue to hear stories of classrooms with 40 kids and teachers being forced to work second and third jobs to make ends meet.

While pay and class size issues make the headlines, there are other important matters causing teachers to walk out. In the case of LA, they fought for nurses and librarians in every school, while fighting against random searches of students and the proliferation of high stakes standardized testing. In other words, they are fighting not just for themselves, but also the children they teach, which is, I reckon, why they have enjoyed such widespread support despite the millions being spent by anti-union billionaires like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Koch brothers to demonize them.

One of the most overlooked drivers of our current problems in public education are these billionaires. In state after state they have sought to introduce "free-market" style capitalism into the mix by promoting things like charter schools which are designed to siphon money away from traditional public schools. All charter schools do this "whether they're opportunistic and for-profit or presenting themselves as pubic, progressive and enlightened" (click the link for a full accounting of the damage charters are doing to public education). Economic competition may have it's place in our world, but when it comes to education it is destructive: our children should not be made to work in test score coal mines in order to provide profits to school owners. Across the country, the charter movement is slowly undermining public school systems with the state of Michigan being a prime example. The LA teachers, seeing the damage charters are doing to their schools and their students, won a commitment from the school board to call for a cap on new charters in their district and a statewide review of the role and impact charters are having on public education. From the Los Angeles Times:

The state's law authorizing the creation of charter schools has been around since 1992 and legislators have made it easier during the ensuing years for such schools to open. In L.A. Unified, their growth has been explosive: The district now has 277 charters, most of them independently run, though they receive pubic funding. Most are non-union. They enroll close to 140,000 students -- about one in five in the district. Their growth is responsible for about half of the declining enrollment in traditional pubic schools that has sapped the district's finances over the last 15 years.

This situation is not an accident: it is an intended consequence, as detailed by Diane Ravitch in her book Reign of Error. The plan is to create a crisis by starving schools in order to open the door to full-on privatization. A plan by billionaire education "reformer" Eli Broad was recently leaked in which he is proposing that half of LA students to be in charters within eight years. In Michigan, many school districts have already been completely privatized via charters which has lead to the state's schools to fall from the middle ranks nationally as a place to get an education to one of the worst. At least one school district was left entirely without public schools when the private charter operator shut down citing lack of profits.

Our public schools are imperfect, but they will not be made better by starving them. Our public schools are imperfect, but they will not be made better by making them less democratic. Our public schools are imperfect, but they will not be made better by subjecting our children and their teachers to the dog-eat-dog competition of corporate-style capitalism, through charters or vouchers or whatever they come up with next. I'm grateful to our nation's unionized teachers for bringing democracy into our schools and for standing up to the billionaire "reformers," not just for themselves, but for the children they teach. We must stop this insane practice of underfunding schools, then blaming them when they fail. Like all democratic institutions, our public schools must be guided by an open, fair, and transparently democratic process, not the mythological "invisible hand" of competition.

As the great John Dewey wrote: "Democracy must be born anew with each generation and education is its midwife." This is about the children, but it is also about all of us. Thank you, teachers, for fighting for our democracy.

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, February 08, 2019

“I’m Looking At You”

"Teacher Tom, look what I made!"

"I'm looking at what you made."

I strive for Woodland Park to be a place where children are as free as possible to create, explore, study, and play with as little adult judgement as possible. I am not there to critique their work or to teach them tricks, but rather to be the resident expert on safety, schedules, and courtesy, while providing the time and space for children to ask and answer their own questions about their world.

When a child says, "Look what I made!" most adults respond as if it's a request for judgement and offer some sort of knee-jerk praise. "It's beautiful!" we might say, placing our benign stamp of approval on the child's work. I was taught that a more appropriate response is to instead focus on the effort (e.g., "You worked on that for a long time") or to simply stick with the facts before you (e.g., "You used red paint and some bits of string"). It's the difference between children learning to be motivated extrinsically versus intrinsically. Our constant critiques, even when offered as praise, teach children that their value is in the eyes of others, and in particular those with power, while our goal, I hope, is to teach them to judge their work for themselves, to be guided by their own internal light.

Even though most of us already know this, it remains challenging. It's hard to not want to praise children. And, especially as parents, it's even harder sometimes to avoid criticizing them, especially as they get older and we fear they are headed for pain and heartbreak or, if we are honest with ourselves, embarrassing us. I have been trying to train myself in the art of speaking with children for a couple decades now and it is still hard for me. I still catch myself making mistakes daily.

When I'm at my best, however, when I'm truly creating a place in which children can practice thinking for themselves, it's when I am unhurried enough to take a moment to collect myself before speaking. I've found this to be a key for me: that pause to make sure I am saying what I want to be saying. And I've noticed in recent years that even the words I'm saying, when I'm at my best, are even less intrusive that those comments about effort or a factual description of what I see before me.

When a child says, for instance, "Look what I made!" I find myself responding directly to her words and nothing more, "I'm looking at what you made."

"Teacher Tom, this is for you." . . . "This is for me."

"Teacher Tom, I fell down." . . . "You fell down."

"Teacher Tom, look what I can do." . . . "You can do that."

"Teacher Tom, I'm here." . . . "You're here."

It's as if I'm a mirror for the children, a surface upon which to reflect. Most of the time this is enough, the child just wants to know that he is heard, even though some children then proceed to tell me what they want me to know rather than having been directed into a channel dug by my adult assumptions. Perhaps they will then describe what it is they've made, or share that they were or weren't injured, or detail the process by which they achieved whatever it is they've achieved. Most often, however, they simply smile in recognition of having been heard, then go back about their business, turning away from the mirror of me, and returning to the inspiration coming from within.

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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Thursday, February 07, 2019

Building A Wall

The two of them, a boy and a girl, built a wall. They had the entire checker board rug to themselves, they had all the baby wipe box blocks to themselves, and they decided together to build a wall to, in their words, "keep the others out."

The goal was to build it so high that "no one could get over" and for quite some time no one even tried. They used all the blocks and had all that space.

A classmate finally came to examine the wall.

"It's a wall to keep people out," they said, "You can step over it and come in." When that first friend accidentally kicked part of the wall down in the process, they decided they needed a door.

More friends joined them, using the door in the wall built to keep the others out. Soon there were a half dozen of them inside the wall. Someone said, "This is our new play area."

There were no other toys in the walled play area and the blocks were all incorporated into the wall. All they had was one another, the checker board rug and that wall that was not really keeping anyone out.

They decided to make it a place for dancing. I put on some West African marimba music. They danced within the wall in their own spaces and in their own styles.

One boy found a box full of small, plastic rainbow people and brought it inside the wall. He began arranging them along the top of the wall saying, "These people are our audience." Some of the kids helped him arrange the rainbow audience while the others danced.

As is usually the case with four and five year olds, it isn't enough to play together without also touching one another. The dancers danced together until it evolved into a kind of pig pile under which one of them was trapped. She didn't cry, but they saw pain in her face and decided to play more gently.

Amazingly, after a good 45 minutes, the wall with it's precariously balanced rainbow audience was still standing. By now there was at least a dozen kids inside the wall that had been built to keep the others out, the wall in which they had built a door, a wall inside which they had danced and grappled and empathized and compromised.

Then, as is every wall's destiny, they kicked it over with such an eruptive suddenness that it alarmed us all. I had walked away just prior to that moment and returned, worried that they would somehow need big, responsible, adult me in the aftermath of that wall coming down, but I saw only smiles on beet red faces as they made rubble of that wall that could no longer even pretend to keep anyone out.

Moments later a cry went up, "Let's build a tower!" And together they did.

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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