Tuesday, April 15, 2014

But What About Discipline?

There are a lot of reasons to drive less, but perhaps the most important for me is that when I get behind the wheel of a car I often become a person I don't like very much, especially when I'm in a hurry. I like to think that I'm a man of peace, a thoughtful guy with a capacity to remain calm in stressful situations, a fellow who can disagree without being disagreeable, a live-and-let-live type. That is not always who I am when I drive, however.  Then, I often feel right on the edge of being emotionally out of control, especially when the other drivers do things like cut me off, fail to use their turn indicators, drive too slowly, drive too quickly, talk on their phones, block intersections, or do anything else that is contrary to what I want them to be doing. 

I sometimes yell at the misbehaving drivers, from behind my closed windows and doors, cursing them, and occasionally I even honk at them punitively, thinking, I guess, that I can shame or startle them into "right driving." If traffic conditions allow me to pull up beside the offensive driver, I've been known to glower at them.  It seems that in these moments of temporary insanity, that I have the idea that I can somehow cause them enough shame and fear that they will in the future correct their misbehavior.

And for all I know, it works, right? People see me shaking my fist at them and think, for instance, Whoa! I'd better work on staying in my own lane. Then I put my feet back on the solid ground and realize how incredibly stupid that is. At best, all I've done is to make other people feel intimidated or angry, which does nothing to change their behavior, and in all likelihood makes road conditions worse as they are now driving while frightened or mad.

Awhile back, Dr. Laura of Aha! Parenting fame shared an excellent post from Mum In Search on her Facebook page, along with these words:

When I first began my work with parents, my focus was on connection, and regulating our own emotions. Parents kept asking me, "But what do I do about discipline? . . . What's the right consequence for bad behavior?"  Since I had never disciplined my children, and had never seen a need for it, I was confused about how to answer . . . 

That used to confuse me too, when parents asked me about discipline, and for years I simply answered, "I'm not a parenting expert," and referred them to our school's parent educators. In fact, it still throws me when people ask about discipline. I've only twice in 15 years attempted to "discipline" my child, and in both cases I quickly reversed course when I saw that the results were comparable to glowering at the other drivers. I'd managed to re-direct my child's focus away from the troubling behavior into being angry at, or intimidated by, me, which might have caused her to temporarily stop doing whatever she was doing, but did nothing to resolve the matter at hand, while increasing the likelihood of defiance and secretiveness in the future, calling for yet more discipline: the famous cycle in which parents and children too often find themselves.

Yes, I understand that the word "discipline" comes from the Latin word disciplina which means teaching or learning, but that is not how the word is most commonly used.  The number one definition provided by The Oxford English Dictionary is: "To subject to discipline; in earlier use, to instruct, educate, train; in later use, more especially, to train to habits of order and subordination; to bring under control." The number one definition give by Merriam-Webster online is "Punishment." 

And that's what most people mean when they use the word discipline, to punish someone in order to bring them under control, with our without anger.  I have no interest in reclaiming that word for common use: teaching or guiding are a good enough words for me.

The good doctor continues (the emphasis is mine):

. . . Until I realized that the reason we didn't need discipline was precisely because I focused on connection, and on regulating my own emotions. That was many years ago, and I've seen so many families transform when they shift their focus.

It's never my job to bring others under my control or to train them in the habits of order and subordination, even if they're children in my care.  My job is to be in a relationship with them, what Dr. Laura refers to as "connection," just as it should be with all the other people in my life.  Not long ago, I pulled up beside a "misbehaving" driver and was possibly on the verge of showing her my middle finger, when I realized that I knew her, a parent from our school, someone I've known for a couple years, a recognition that turned my glower into a smile and my rude gesture into a friendly wave. I didn't have to struggle to get myself under control either: the moment I recognized her, the moment a genuine relationship was present, my urge to control and subordinate her went away. A few days later, I told her, jovially, that she had cut me off in traffic.  She was, of course, mortified, apologetic, then we chuckled about it as I admitted that I'd almost flipped her off.

I'm as sure as I'll ever be about the future behavior of another person that she'll be a more conscious driver going forward, at least along that particular stretch of road. There had been no need for me to discipline her, to subordinate her: I'd just continued to be in a relationship with her and this exchange, I believe, made it stronger.

I sometimes say to children, "Hey, I'll be the boss of me, you be the boss of you," an attitude that serves me well in all my relationships. This doesn't mean that I don't try to persuade the people in my life when I think they're wrong or in danger, it doesn't mean that I don't tell the people in my life when they've hurt or frightened me, but it would never cross my mind to bring them under my control or attempt to subordinate them by way of regulating their behavior. When we approach our child as a fully-formed human being, we see that it is not our job to "correct" her behavior; that's her job. When we are in relationship with our child we see that we are not there to compel or trick him into doing our bidding, but rather to help him figure out a better way. When we focus on discipline we teach the subordinating skill of obedience; when we focus on connection, we teach our child self-regulating skills that they will use for the rest of their lives.

In both instances when I started down the road of discipline with my daughter, I wound up trading out punishments for conversations (not lectures) that involved her doing most of the talking, that wound up with her in tears as she processed the natural consequences of what had happened, and what she had done to bring them upon herself. In both cases, the behavior never happened again, the lessons were learned, and my role was not to bring her under control, but to instead love and comfort her as she experienced a hard truth about being the boss of herself.

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Monday, April 14, 2014


There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreampt of in your philosophy.
~Shakespeare (Hamlet)

We play around with rhyme all the time in preschool. In fact, it's one of those things we do without even thinking much about it. Most of our songs feature end rhymes, as do many of the books we read and even the "jokes" we make up often rely on rhyme more than reason to get a laugh. For instance, here's an actual one from last week:

"Knock knock."

"Who's there?"

"Teacher Tom."

"Teacher Tom who?"

"Teacher Tom . . . Bomb!"

Maybe you had to be there, but it brought down the house.

I recall the joy of figuring out how to write a poem that rhymed. I must have been around 6 or 7 because I was actually writing them down on paper to show mom. It amazed me that I could create such things, like learning I could perform a kind of magic. As a young man I continued to horse around with writing poetry, sometimes under the guise of "song lyrics" that never got set to music because music is a related type of magic that leaves me on the outside. As a writer, however, even though I don't write much poetry any longer, knowing how it works has been invaluable. One of the most important courses I took in college was a poetry workshop in which we read our work aloud to our classmates. How often does a writer get to literally see an audience respond to his work, the looks on their faces as they hear something they've never heard before? I came to understand the power of writing succinctly, densely, and how to rely on metaphor, which is the fulcrum over which most human communication takes place.

And although we all now know the two great practical truths about poetry -- all poems don't have rely on end rhymes and don't plan to earn a living from writing it -- this art form remains central to the human experience whether we know it or not, if only because of all those popular music lyrics we have stockpiled in our heads, the ones that come to us like messengers of epiphany, hope, warning, or doom when the time is right. 

In times of panic and pressure, Neil Young's Powderfinger takes over my brain: They left me here to do the thinking.

In times of despair, I hear Pete Townsend: My life's a mess/I wait for it to pass/I stand here at the bar/I hold an empty glass.

And we all want to shriek the pure joy of Alice Cooper: School's out for summer/School's out forever.

Some say that poetry is dead, but then how does that explain the continued popularity of Shakespeare, by far the world's most produced playwright, year in year out, a man who wrote almost exclusively in verse, usually iambic pentameter? You might not even know it, but you probably quote him every day:

A sorry sight
A tower of strength
Vanish into thin air
Love is blind
Set your teeth on edge
There's method in my madness
What's done is done
Up in arms
A foregone conclusion
Too much of a good thing
Wild goose chase
Make your hair stand on end
A fool's paradise
All of a sudden

All of these are direct quotes from the poetry of a man who was writing four centuries ago, and it only scratches the surface of this poet's enormous influence not only on our language, but on how we perceive the world. In fact, the great critic Harold Bloom argues, convincingly, that Shakespeare did not just create the modern English language and eloquently and incisively portray human beings, but in fact, invented the modern human in that our contemporary idea of "personality" was created by this poet. I will not go into the full argument here, but rather point you to the 700 page book Bloom wrote to defend his thesis. Whether you can be convinced or not, there is no denying the vital importance of Shakespeare's "dead" poetry.

But let's not let the eminence of Shakespeare lessen the importance of other poets. Many assert that the poet Walt Whitman invented America, that Emily Dickenson redefined the meaning of life and death, and that Rumi discovered the connections between religion, science, and love. The dismissive joke is that everyone writes poetry, but no one reads it, yet there can be no doubt that we all live poetry, written by both large and small poets every day of our lives. And none of us can predict which poet will move our soul today, let alone still be read four centuries in the future.

My own teenager discovered Shakespeare while still in elementary school and looks forward to a life as a Shakespearean actress. From the time she could speak it was with great music and poetry, her inborn sense of metaphor and rhythm often staggered me. I could not believe that my three-year-old said, "Nothing is perfect, except everything." No poet has ever written a line more dense with truth and beauty. I say to anyone who will listen that she is an artist to the core of her being. She writes songs that make me cry. After recently writing a sonnet, she said, "I decided to write it in iambic pentameter because that's how people naturally speak." And I realized she was right.

Poetry, I think, is far more central to our human experience than most of us realize, but you wouldn't know it by looking at our public schools. I recently came across this short piece from a high school English teacher that appeared in The Atlantic. I admire his attempt to defend the teaching of poetry as a practical thing, but came away depressed. 

In an education landscape that dramatically deemphasizes creative expression in favor of expository writing and prioritizes the analysis of non-literary texts, high school literature teachers have to negotiate between their preferences and the way the wind is blowing. That sometimes means sacrifice, and poetry is often the first head to roll.

Poetry is so much more than a clever way to teach grammar and spelling, yet this is essentially where this teacher winds up in answering the question of why poetry is "so important." I don't blame him, however, but this is what it's coming to in an American educational experience that continues to become ever more narrow, pinched between the mandibles of Math and Literacy. Increasingly, all that matters is what can be easily tested. There is no longer room for the magic and mystery which, I would argue, is the primarily stuff from which the universe is made.

The Los Angeles Times has long been, from an editorial perspective, a staunch supporter of the high stakes testing regime that is the source of this minimizing of education, which is why it is significant that their main education editorial writer, Karen Klein, recently announced that her own high schooler will be opting out of the tests, a choice that more and more parents are making. She gave a much more detailed rationale than this, but it's all I needed to understand her decision:

The scores have risen impressively in our district, but I can't honestly say that I have noticed an improvement in actual learning over the years. What has been noticeable: more teachers who don't feel they have time to do the creative projects with their students that they used to do. There was an elementary school teacher I particularly wanted my youngest to be taught by; she conducted poetry tea parties with her students, nurturing a love of writing, listening to writing and some good old-fashioned manners. But by the time my daughter was lucky enough to be assigned to that teacher, the poetry teas had disappeared in favor of covering everything in the curriculum that would be on the test.

Mankind without poetry is an animal without a soul, without mystery, without magic. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, a world without poetry is one of petty men ciphering the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Opt out, children, and instead read the collected works of Emily Dickenson or Rumi or John Donne or Marianne Moore or just spend some time with the lyrics printed on the back of your parents' old Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band LP . . . or the lyrics to any song for that matter. In fact, wouldn't that be the greatest, most joyful pro-education protest of all? A roomful of children pulling out their copies of Leaves of Grass instead of taking that damned test.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Motivated Math Learners

She was playing with the Hoberman Sphere, a toy I purchased years ago for my own preschooler. 

The packaging asserted that Hoberman, the inventor, was the "Buckminster Fuller of the 90's," a bit of marketing trivia I continue to pass on to the children, usually to blank stares. Whatever the case, it is a sturdy thing, having survived over a decade in our classroom, still functioning as it did the day it came out of its box.

She bent down to get a grip, then stood to expand the sphere, before squatting down to cause it to return to its resting state. She did it again and again, each time faster, calling out to me, "Teacher Tom, it's bouncing!"

I responded by smiling. 

"Teacher Tom, say it!" she commanded. "Say it's bouncing, bouncing, bouncing," wanting to share her joy of epiphany with me, so I did, "Bouncing, bouncing, bouncing."

I feel like I've written a lot lately about math learning in the early years, maybe because one of the primary areas about which the corporate drill-and-kill Common Core crowd is fear-mongering is that America is falling behind in mathematics, basing their assertions upon deeply flawed, standardized testing that primarily tests the socio-economic background of the test takers.

But it seems that another part of the problem is that they have no idea what real math looks like when it comes to young children. This girl, for instance, found a simple A-B-A-B pattern in our Hoberman Sphere and her discovery delighted her. Children this age are designed for concrete, hands-on learning, yet the yahoos with the clipboards persist in abstracting it onto paper or screens, confusing things, making them hard, creating stress, doubt and fear, with absolutely no understanding of the natural development of human beings.

If the goal is "motivated learners," as they insist, then free play is demonstrably the way to go about it. We needn't motivate them, they are already motivated: we just need to get out of their way.

Of course, teachers know that this is how math learning happens. We know that free play underpins motivation because we see it every day as the children in our charge explore mathematical concepts without ever knowing, or needing to know, that what they are doing is math. It's just something they enjoy because, after all, math is something the human animal is driven to understand, and our drive to understand is manifested in the urge to play.

This second girl, a year older, has arranged some of our classroom giraffes into a more complex pattern, three in a row, each larger than the last. Why did she add the elephant to the end? I don't know, and I don't need to know, but I'm guessing, knowing the girl as I do, that the elephant is an important part of the story she is telling in her head about the daddy, mommy, and baby giraffes.

The next thing she does, without missing a beat, is scoot over a few feet and pointedly assemble four curved blocks into a circle. I don't say, "What shape did you make?" the way so many of us do, a question that, in an instant, turns the child from her proper role as a tester of the world, into a test taker, responding to my very narrow understanding of the exploration she is undertaking. If this was a younger girl or one I didn't know well, I might say, "You made a circle," providing a vocabulary word, but in this case, I am fully aware that she knows what to call the pleasing shape she's made.

She then retrieves her giraffes, and only the giraffes, and arranges them on a rectangular blocks, which she uses to transport them to the circle. It's a story problem she has devised and solved on her own.

This is what motivated math learners look like in preschool. The only thing we can hope to do with our tests and screens and ivory tower assessments is to suck the joy out of learning, compelling children to blankly parrot things they cannot truly understand, like my joke about how some no-name hinge-designer named Hoberman can be compared to the great Buckminster Fuller.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Laughing As We Play

Play is the answer to how anything new comes about. ~Jean Piaget

Most of the actual work I do is in preparing for the arrival of the kids, and by "work" I mean the kinds of things I'd rather not be doing: the stuff for which I'd wave a magic wand if I could. Once the kids arrive on the scene, however, it's pretty much all play for me, the part of my day I'd not wish away for anything. 

Indeed, sometimes we adults need to deal with certain aspects of cleaning or snack prep or bodily functions that we might identify as "work," but really, if we're going to be a play-based classroom worth its salt, everyone in the room should be playing, children and adults. A roomful of shoulder-to-shoulder learners is one of the key features of a full-on play-based curriculum -- at least the way we do it here at Woodland Park.

Much of what play-based learning is about is making connections, discoveries that come from putting things together then comparing the results to the things we thought we already knew. This is why the exact same environment, the exact same classroom set-up, serves as a learning environment for humans of all ages. We might be starting with the same stuff, but we're not all starting from the same place. A tool, a shovel for instance, may be used by a 2-year-old to make discoveries about the properties of corn starch mixed with water. That same tool may be used by an adult to make discoveries about the properties of that child or children in general or interactions between children and herself in relation to them.

As a child struggles to pull, say, a dinosaur from a cornstarch and water muck, she's experiencing adhesion, leverage, angles, emulsion, tension, moisture, suction, and the flexing of muscles. This is like the mud she found in the same place last week -- damp, gooey, possessing properties attributable to both liquids and solids -- but different as well. And as she plays, connecting what she knows with what she doesn't yet know, the adult makes her own connections between this child and the others she's known. This is like the child she found in the same place a few minutes ago -- persevering, testing, talking -- but different as well. And these connections, these examinations of similarities and differences, the interplay between what is known and unknown, shake the foundations of our metaphors, creating new ones, opening our eyes to mysterious places within ourselves, other people, and the physical world.

We discover there are always new connections to be made: that the more we know, the more there is to know.

When a child crosses the ground from the art table where he's been driving cars through paint and down ramps, hands slimy with red, he shows us all a newly connected world, opening up avenues into the very things we just thought we'd figured out. And as children begin to run back and forth to carry their own fists full of paint to where we're playing, we adults laugh with them from the joy of our own epiphanies, wondering at their wonder. They, the adults, look up at me, their eyes sometimes more than the children alight with the joy of connection, of discovery, "He made pink! We're making pink! Now the dinos are pink!"

And the kids are saying, "Ghost dinos! Pink ghost dinos!" as metaphors take shape, new scaffolding erected, the world changing before our very eyes.

Then someone else comes over from the work bench, still clutching the Duplos he found over there, drawn by the sounds of discovery, and from that curiosity, we then all learn what happens when we drop a block in the pink goo.

I think about connections as I go through the "work" part of my day, trying to anticipate the paths it will take, and every now and then I get to experience the euphoria of being right, of having my best guesses proven in the real world of play-based learning. But that's a rare treat, one I enjoy, but no more so than the ones we all share when we play here together, connecting. Discovery is always unexpected. It's why we laugh when we play.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

One Big Pile

At any given moment, there are boys in our 5's class discussing teams. "I'm on your team," "What team are you on?" "This is our team's hideout." They usually try to divide up into "good guys" and "bad guys," but since they all want to be good guys, they've been mostly charging around as one big team, which often leaves "the girls" in the role of opponents. For their part, the girls have either been unaware, haven't cared, or have engaged as active participants, discovering that the threat to hug, kiss, or otherwise "love" the boys is enough to send them running.

We saw a different take on the team phenomena last week.

As a boy, my brother and I had a set of these cardboard blocks. I recall actually creating with our classic wooden unit blocks -- forts, castles, factories -- but what I most remember about the cardboard ones is dressing up as football players and running down our long hallway to crash through the tottery structures we had erected for the purpose.

As a teacher, I'm not so fond of them, although they have their place with our youngest kids, giving them a chance to build tall without the risk of being brained by a chunk of wood when the whole thing inevitably comes tumbling down. That said, last week several of the kids in our 5's class requested them, so we gave them a go.

At first, there were some attempts to build things, but the blocks are so light-weight and easily misshapen that progress was frustrating.

Then the hoarding behavior set in, along with the by now familiar division into teams of boys. There were three fluid groups or 2-3 who had collected blocks for their projects. There were a few furtive attempts to build, but with opposing team members always on the prowl for the opportunity to snatch an unattended brick, it was mostly about protecting those damned hoards. That's when Gus had the idea that he was selling his supply. "It's a block store."

Representatives of other groups came by to check things out. "You're selling blocks?"


"How much?"

Gus set a price. Whatever he asked for was always accepted, then imaginary money exchanged hands.

At first, the other teams took advantage of Gus, re-distributing the wealth in their own favor, but after a time, the others opened their own stores, selling off their supplies. Before long, a kind of barter system emerged in which there was a pretty nifty balance of trade, with different colors and sizes of blocks holding different values for each of the three mini-communities.

Each team had sort of leader, although their role was more as idea-man than boss. A few of the boys remained loyal to their team, but most served as go-betweens, bouncing from team to team, affiliating with first one then another, often providing the impetus for trades or as channels of communication.

The game went on like this for a time, but came to a head when Gus, in an attempt, it seemed, to become the leading businessman of his day, announced that he was no longer selling his blocks, but rather giving them away. It makes sense if you understand that the highest purpose of this economic system was not profit, but rather popularity via moving the merchandise. Not to be outdone, his "competitors" made similar announcements and before long all of these crappy cardboard blocks were stacked in the middle of the rug, one big pile that belonged to everyone.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Five Little Goldfish

The set up for this game I play with the 4-5 year olds is simple. I say, "We're playing a game at the red table. There are Goldfish and you get to eat them."

The kids who chose to join me are asked to sit around the table on chairs. I hold up the large container of Goldfish and say, "I'm going to pour out a big pile in the middle of the table. You will get to eat some, but only if you listen to me. If you don't want to listen to me, you can go do something else." And there are always a lot of things to do that don't require listening to me or any adult.

I pour out a pile of crackers in the center of the table.

"Okay, I want everyone to take five gold fish."

"My fish are all kissing each other."

Most of the kids count aloud. It takes a lot of concentration to keep your own count while others are also counting. And the kids figure that out, which I think is why when I ask, "How many does everyone have?" so many of them say, "I have five," then go back and recount, more quietly this time. In other words, they're checking their math. It's one of the basic tenants of committing mathematics -- always go back and prove it. In this case, most kids go for the recount. I've not taught any of them this: this is just what most kids do when they play this game.

"My fish are in a pattern. They fit like a puzzle."

Naturally, I'm also checking each kid's stash. There are always one or two who attempt to simply snatch gold fish. These children are good naturedly busted, permitted to eat their crackers, then sent on their way. Others simply mis-count. I take note of the kids who struggle with one-to-one correspondence as they count, then role model the habit of pointing at each object as I help them with their recount, "One, 2, 3, 4, 5."

When I'm sure it's a true statement, I say, "Okay, everyone has five. I've arranged mine in a row . . . one, 2, 3, 4, 5."

"My fish are all hugging their mommy."

This typically inspires kids to make their own arrangements.

"I made mine in a row too," expressing a proof of my mathematical assertion that 5 = 5.

"I have two on top and three on the bottom," stating both a design and mathematical truth, 2 + 3 = 5.

"I made mine in a circle," expressing a basic artistic and geometric concept.

"My fish are a school of fish."

I say, "Five little gold fish swimming in the ocean. Along comes a great big whale and eats two of them!" I always play along and pointedly eat two of my fish. "How many do you have left?"

There are always some who just know the answer, "Three!" but most have to count be be sure. Both are valid ways to arrive at the answer. Then, "Three little gold fish swimming in the ocean. Along comes a great big whale and eats one of them . . ." As the game goes on, we work with schools of up to 10 fish, sometimes subtracting through eating, and sometimes adding when I invite everyone to, for instance, "Take three more fish. Now how many fish do you have?"

"My fish make a flower."

Sometimes they help each other. It's not considered cheating. It's not frowned upon. It's a game that is most fun, that makes the most sense, that most satisfies us when everyone is getting the same answers, further and finally proving the universality of the math we are doing. Collaboration, not competition, is the essence of education.

This is math, of course, but it's not math. It's a game. I keep it a game by not belaboring mathematical ideas or concepts. Yes, I use terms like "addition" and "subtraction" and "equals," when I can as part of the natural flow of things, because it's always good to introduce vocabulary words "in context." I support the kids in any way necessary to help them figure out how many fish they have. Most grasp these basic math concepts with relish, because what we are doing is built into most humans, while others get there because they're motivated by the camaraderie of the game or the story of gold fish and whales or simply because they really like those crackers. That's built into us too.

It doesn't matter how you get there: it's about playing the game. It's all we care about. The math part just happens because that's what young children do when they play together.

And the children who have no interest in our game? They're over there playing something else, equally driven to make sense of the things that interest them. They will ultimately learn what we've been learning when they need it to satisfy themselves, not when I want them to know it, and not even necessarily when they're "ready" (although that's part of it), but when they need to know it in order to play the game they want to play.

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Monday, April 07, 2014

The Goal Of Life

Those who have never worked with young children simply cannot understand. No matter how meticulous one is, things rarely go as planned. And it's hard for those who have never taught where the children lead to understand that when things get off track, they will stay off track no matter how hard you push, perhaps especially if you push. If things are ever going to get back on track it will be because an opening presents itself and an attentive teacher seizes it. We're rightly proud of ourselves when this happens, but more often than not, and for the better, our own agendas are necessarily set aside as the children pursue the experiences, explorations, and knowledge that drive them, both as individuals and as a community.

This is how a play-based curriculum has to work. Children were designed by god or nature with not only a thirst for understanding, but a means by which to attain it: play. And by play, I mean free play, which is why a teacher's agenda can only, at best, be a starting point.

That said, it's impossible, I find, to go into my day without some sort of agenda, at least insofar as I have expectations and best guesses about what my provocations will inspire. I once set up a small stage with props, costumes, and chairs arranged like an audience only to have the first boy though the door see a ship, and that's what it was for the rest of the day. I once had an idea for how we could create a giant marble painting, only to have it turn into a tempera paint wallow. These kinds of things happen every day: last week our art table was primarily used as a place for girls in gowns to paint on purple, elbow-length "princess gloves." Despite a carefully constructed and scrupulously executed democratic process to decide how we were going to manufacture a "moon" for our year-end play, the children, in what I think of as day-to-day retail democracy, decided amongst themselves to use markers to add color to the plain white paper upon which they'd previously agreed. When I asked, they simply answered without looking up, "We're decorating it."

Nothing ever goes as planned.

Except sometimes it does.

One of those times happened a couple weeks ago in our 8 child Pre-K class. Normally, when we play with our marble runs, we do it in our awesome sensory table because the basins help contain the marbles. On Tuesday, however, I wanted to try get this group down on the floor, all together. For some reason I thought it might foster teamwork. During the transition time between our lunch together and circle time, I said, "I have marble runs."

They were uniformly enthusiastic, which is rare even for such a small group.

I said, "I want to play with them on the floor, but I'm worried the marbles will go everywhere. My idea is to spread out these towels for under the marble runs to keep the marbles from going under all the furniture." This was certainly true, I was hoping that the towels would dampen the tendency for marbles to run across the floor, but I was additionally hoping to create a smaller work area, which would cause the children to play closer together instead of spreading out into their own little fiefdoms around our larger rug. I sometimes arrange spaces like this so they have to bump elbows.

Still enthusiastic, they spread the towels out themselves, arranging them picnic blanket style, fussing over making sure all the edges matched up, creating exactly the sort of space for which I'd hoped.

Then they got busy building. All but one of them worked as part of a team, which is again something I'd imagined happening. They talked amongst themselves about what they were doing:

"Let's make it more stable."

"Let's try one now! It came out there!"

"Let's make this a double."

"Let's use that yellow one?"

"Hey, let's connect ours together."

If you had asked me before the day began, I'd have told you I wanted to hear lots of sentences starting with the word "let's," let us, a contraction that has more magic in it than the word "please." It's the invitation that makes community happen.

There was no bickering, hoarding, or excluding. There was cooperation, compliments, and sharing. Most of all, there were discussions about observations and ideas, with a few jokes thrown in for good measure. This is the goal of a play-based curriculum: this community of sociable, motivated children who work well together. It's also, not coincidentally, the goal of life. These are people who are, through their free play, figuring out the most important things.

When I suggested we rehearse our play, they all agreed, put away the toys, scooped up the towels, and raced to the stage.

Nothing ever goes according to my plan, but if I'm doing it right, it always goes according to theirs. And every now and then I get to walk away with the illusion that I know what I'm doing.

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