Friday, December 09, 2016

The Snowy Day


It doesn't snow often in Seattle, a fact that surprises some people who only know the city from where it sits geographically, but our marine climate tends to guarantee that our copious precipitation remains rain. That said, I'm sitting in my apartment this morning, enjoying the final flurries of an overnight dusting that has apparently mucked up the roads enough that Seattle Public Schools has announced a weather-related 2-hour delay, which in turn means that we've cancelled our morning class.

We've been anticipating this snow event for several days as local forecasters have tracked the approach of a warm, wet weather system, figuring that snow would be the result of it's collision with a dry, cold one. No one was expecting major snowfall, with most calling for, at most, 1-2 inches in the city, but one can always hope.

One of the perks of being a teacher are snow days. Yesterday, I read my classes Ezra Jack Keats' classic picture book The Snowy Day. I told them that I hoped they woke up this morning with "snow as far as the eye can see." The children told me about the snow balls they were going to throw, the snow angels they were going to make, and the big hills they were going to slide down. None of them planned to try to save a snow ball in their pockets the way Peter did in the book. They all know the place to save a snow ball is the freezer.

The snow is still falling in fits and starts, but the forecasters anticipate that it will turn to rain within the hour, which means that if the children don't wake up soon, the view outside their windows may look no different than yesterday. Many of their parents expressed the hope that the snow wouldn't come at all, that the roads would remain drivable, fretting about the things they wouldn't be able to do today, things they needed to do. Those adults will likely get their wish.

The children, however, will likely get their wish too. They'll find a few pockets of remaining snow to delight them. They'll form snow balls from the thin layer of accumulation on the hood of the car and the top of the mailbox. They'll lay on their backs on their white-dusted lawns, scissor their arms and legs and call it an angel. They'll scoot down hills and stand up with muddy bottoms and call it sledding. And some will think to collect one last fistful of snow and stash it in the freezer as a reminder of their snowy day.

They will have all the fun that Peter had. Indeed, they already have.

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Thursday, December 08, 2016

"We're Not Playing A Stomping Game"

A couple weeks ago, our 3's class was playing with our regulation issue wooden unit blocks and our full collection of dinosaurs, both large and small scale. The idea, of course, is that the kids will build things and find ways to incorporate the dinos, but from the moment class started a group of rowdy boys took over the area and the game they chose was to empty the block shelves, dump the dino box, and race around kicking whatever was on the floor. It was a loud game, with lots of wild laughing, periodic shrieking, and occasional forays into wrestling or variations on the wrestling theme. Their play was interrupted regularly by angry flare-ups that sometimes included hitting, pushing, and tears, only to revert to form moments later.

It's the sort of thing that's been happening almost daily and it keeps the adults busy. On the one hand, we are a play-based school, which means the children lead, and it's not our place to put the kibosh on their self-selected pursuits. On the other hand, we're also responsible for their safety, both physical and emotional, so we were performing a balancing act between letting them do what they need to do while preventing them from killing one another or someone else.

This is important play for these kids. I see it for what it is: young boys enthusiastically reaching out to other young boys in friendship. As they get older, they'll have "better" ideas for how to play together, but for now it's exciting enough to just be together and to get a little crazy. It's enough to kick through the blocks and dinos, looking into one another's faces, and laugh like The Joker. Indeed, the excitement of being together is so palpable, so present among them on days like this, that it's probably all they can do. Their love for one another is overwhelming.

That said, when they engage in this sort of play, they effectively shut-down a part of the classroom to the other kids who are more inclined to, say, build things and find ways to incorporate the dinos. I've been thinking a lot about whether or not this is fair. On this particular day, I was sitting on a bench supporting a parent-teacher in monitoring the rowdy play when I was joined by L and J, a couple of girls who have older brothers. They sat with me on the bench, watching the boys.

L said, "Those boys are too dangerous. They're too crazy." She wasn't saying as a complaint as much as a bemused observation.

I answered, "That's why I'm sitting over here. I don't want to get hit by a block."

Meanwhile, J jump off the bench and retrieved a couple stray dinos. "This is a mommy and a baby," she told us. L waited until she saw a break in the action, dashed in for her own mommy and baby, then dashed back out, literally ducking her head. It didn't seem right that they had to risk their own safety (even if they only perceived they were at risk) to play with the toys in their own classroom. For better or worse, I decided to take action.

I retrieved my own mommy and baby, then said, "I've got an idea. Let's build a house for our dinosaurs!"

They liked the idea, so I gathered up a few blocks, then sprawled my large adult body on the carpet, sort of commandeering about of a quarter of the area, creating a space for our building. I loudly declared, "We're building a house for our dinosaurs." When the rowdy play got near us, I said things like, "Hey! You almost hit me with that block," or "This is our dinosaur house!" Before long the boys' had figured out the new boundaries for their game. And shortly thereafter, we were joined by a pair of kids, a boy and a girl, who do not have older siblings at home, kids who had previously been too intimidated by the rowdy play to even come as close as the bench. Soon we had a nice little game of dino housekeeping underway.

In fact, our play began to attract the attention of the rowdy boys, one of whom knelt down with us, his two large T-Rex models poised, it appeared, to "stomp" our house. I said, "This is our house. We're not playing a stomping game. We're playing a quiet, gentle game."

He looked at me with a face full of the genuineness of his question, "Why?"

"I guess we just don't want to be rowdy." This seemed to completely perplex him. Then he asked, "Can my dinosaurs come into your house?"

S said, "No, they're too big. They'll smash it down."

J added, "Yeah, only little dinosaurs can come into our house."

He backed off a bit, unwilling to relinquish his big dinos, but remained where he could watch us. It wasn't long before he was joined by first one, then two more of his buddies, all holding their large dinosaurs. They formed an outer circle of kibitzers around our inside core of "gentle" players. It was as if we had a bubble around us. As we played, both the inner and outer groups grew, with more and more kids dropping down to join us, either contributing to our building or our dino family, while one at a time the rowdy players came to watch, all of them two-fisting larger dinosaurs.

As new kids joined us, I repeated, "This is our house. We're not playing a stomping game," a mantra that was taken up by S and J. After a few minutes, I slowly extracted myself, leaving behind a space for building things and incorporating the dinos.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

A Job They Love

I hear it a lot, I've said it myself, and I hope there's not a parent who doesn't wish it for her child. Our great hope for ourselves and our loved ones is that we do something we love, that word "do" referring to the vocation or calling or role we play in life. It can't all be joy and sunshine, of course, but we want that activity upon which we spend the best part of our time and energy to be a thing we are motivated to do from the depths of our souls. Perhaps it's too much to hope that we get to say, as comedian Jerry Seinfeld does, "I've never had a job," but it's something like that: to at the end of our days be able to know that we've spent our time on the planet engaged fully in our passions.

This is not some new-fangled, secrets-to-success-and-happiness kind of idea. It was Confucius (551-479 BC) who is supposed to have said, "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life." And it was probably not original to him. Humans have always had access to the knowledge that work is not the opposite of play: work is the absence of play.

If you ask Bill Gates or any of the other self-appointed education reformers out there about this, I'm sure they would agree. If you ask Alfie Kohn or Sir Ken Robinson, or any of the other self-appointed progressive education advocates out there about this, I'm confident they'd agree as well. So, if everyone has the same goal, ask yourself then, which approach is most likely to lead to children who understand this? Can an educational model that calls for larger classes, more testing, and increased standardization ever hope to help children find that passion, let alone live it? Or does it seem more likely that a play-based, experiential model will get us there? I mean, could the choice be any more of a no-brainer? One approach is based on the efficiencies of the factory; the other upon the tradition of education that predates Socrates and runs through John Dewey.

No one has ever had a passion for factory work.

The opposite of play isn't work, it is rote. ~Dr. Edward Hallowell

This is why, I believe, there has been such a concentrated, if unconscious, effort to denigrate play over the past couple centuries, to dismiss it as idle and empty, to equate it with waste and laziness. Play is something, we're told, to do with the time that is left over. It's because so much of what our modern world offers up by way of jobs is mundane and repetitious, hollowed out of the opportunity for creativity, exploration or innovation. Most of us won't have the luxury of doing what we love.

But no one reading here aspires for her child to work in one of those jobs, right? I sure don't. So what do we do? Naturally, we expect they will go to college where we expect they will learn specialized skills that will qualify them for jobs that will one day lead, if they keep their noses clean, by the time they are in their 30's or 40's, to the opportunity for creativity, exploration or innovation.

I've finally reached a position of responsibility; now I can afford to be irresponsible. ~Albert Brooks (playing David Howard in Lost In America)

Perhaps I'm exaggerating, but if you take a look at the typical pathway from here to there -- decades of grades and homework and testing and resume-building and rote -- it's incredible to imagine anyone making it through to the life of passion for which all of us hope. Yet, some do, which is to me me a testament to the power and tenacity of play (and teachers willing and able to somehow buck the system).

But what a waste of years, what a long, uncertain, and unnecessarily circuitous route. If the goal is for each of us to do something we love, I say the way to learn to do that is to do it. And that is what a play-based curriculum is all about, giving children the opportunity to choose a job they love, to pursue it with their whole being, to engage meaningfully with the things and people around them; to be supported by adults who encourage and inspire them, who ask questions and make suggestions, and even give the occasional boost up to a level that is just slightly out of reach.

That's what I wish for schools.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2016

"Blue Bears"

The young two-year-old had carried the plastic bears halfway across the room to show me. "Blue bears," he said, holding them in front of his own eyes.

I said, "Two blue bears."

He looked from one to the other, then pushed them a bit closer to me as if to say, Look at them. I said again, "Two blue bears." He looked from one to the other again, then held them closer together, right in front of his eyes. There was something else he wanted to say about these bears, but he was struggling to find the words.

"You are really looking at those bears."

He said, "Blue bears, " and pushed them toward my eyes as if asking me to really look as well. I really looked. I said, "You are showing me two blue bears. One of them is darker blue and one of them is lighter blue."

He looked at them, examining them, then shoved them toward me again. I said, "You are showing me two blue bears that are different shades of blue." That's when he smiled. "Different," he said, "Blue bears different." He then took them back with him halfway across the room.

I followed him to where the kids were playing with the little plastic bears, plastic baskets, and water. One boy held an empty basket. He picked up a bear as it floated past, putting it in his basket. He beamed at me as I knelt beside him, so I replied, "You put a bear in your basket." He put another bear in his basket, then another, each time, smiling at me. When he put the fourth bear in the basket he told me, "More." I answered, "You have more bears in your basket."

He then added another and another, each time telling me, "More," "More," "More."

Later, I was learning over the top of some cabinets, watching the two-year-olds playing with our wooden trains. Children were queuing their train cars up, the way one does, one after another. A girl shouted, "Teacher Tom, look at my long train!" I looked at it. She connected another car and shouted, "Teacher Tom, my train is longer!" I nodded. She added another and another, each time proclaiming it longer until there were no more train cars in her immediate vicinity. She then announced, "It's the longest!"

I was still learning across the shelves when another girl brought me one of the wooden trees that came with one of the intermixed train sets we own. She set it in front of me. I said, "You brought me a tree." She picked up another tree. I said, "Now I have two trees." Then another. "Now I have three threes." And another. "Now I have four trees." The trees were of different colors, shapes and manufactures, but they were all trees. The she then added a small traffic sign. I looked at her in mock confusion and she laughed and laughed at the math prank she'd just pulled on me.

This is what preschool mathematics looks like in a play-based environment. It is not an academic pursuit, but rather a truly intellectual one, even a joyful one, something every child pursues as if it was coded into her genes. And indeed, it is.

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Monday, December 05, 2016

The Only Way To Understand Play

I'm so happy to live in a world in which I don't need to defend the educational benefits of turquoise water, wooden boats, chop sticks, clothes pins, and rocks.

In fact, I'm often shocked when confronted with a person who doesn't get it, who sees children as some sort of raw wood with the basic shape of a finished vessel perhaps, but in need of fixing or filling or painting or trimming or rigging.

These are not bad people. They have good intentions in wanting to mold little bodies and minds into a version of what a person ought to be, one that they feel will sail most uprightly upon the "real" seas of life.

No, they are not bad, but they are ignorant and often cocksure, convinced by the results of their own mental experiments that "prove" that more rigor, longer hours, more academics, and uniform standards will lead to smarter kids. They start from the perverse premise that knowing stuff is more important than knowing how to know. And their entire body of "knowledge" comes from a place of suppositions, books, standardized tests, and analysis so far removed from a classroom that even what they do "know" is a mere abstraction of the "real" seas of our children's lives. I'm so happy I don't need to spend my days convincing them.

I'm so happy I don't need to be dissecting our play, looking for proof that education is taking place, that they are learning this or they are learning that. I'm so happy that the people around me, the parents who send their children to our school, understand this.

Perhaps it's because they are there with us in the classroom instead of reading studies and reviewing test scores. They are right here playing alongside the kids, performing their own experiments with turquoise water, wooden boats, chop sticks, clothes pins, and rocks. They are rolling up their sleeves and doing it. And that's really the only way to understand play.

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Friday, December 02, 2016

Telling Jokes

Back in my junior executive days, a colleague and friend, a young man with whom I shared a wall and a secretary, was offered a sweet new job. He was a great guy, even if he was a bit full of himself. When he announced at a staff meeting that he was moving on, I quipped, "Wow, you're leaving one big hat to fill!" There was a beat of silence as the room took it in, then an explosion of laughter. I still think of it as the best joke I've ever told, although looking at it here in black and white perhaps it was one of those for which you had to have been there.

My jokes tend to be hit or miss, and often my best ones are funny only to myself. For instance, I'm more likely to get an argument than a laugh when I say, "The difference between your neuroses and mine is that mine make sense," but I think it's hilarious and 100 percent true.

I'm not a "funny guy." I think I have a decent sense of humor, but I can also assert, unequivocally, that I'm simultaneously the most hilarious man in the world . . . if the only audience that matters is the kids I teach. Oh, it does wonders for the ego, indeed it does, when I get the whole crowd screaming with laughter by making a silly face, or pretending to get mixed up about the lyrics to a song, or engaging in some simple slapstick. One of my best bits is one I learned from my father. He would walk toward a doorway, then pretend to bump his nose on the door frame, creating a realistic sound effect with a well-timed kick to the wall. That one always makes them laugh; a beat of silence and then an explosion of laughter when they see I'm not really hurt.

Anyone who has ever worked with young kids knows that if you want a laugh, all you have to do is start a conversation with, "Knock, knock . . ." Pretty much anything you say, so long as it matches the rhythm of the joke, will get a laugh.

"Knock knock."
"Who's there?"
"Table who?"
"Table chair!"

Then everyone laughs. It's collaborative poetry, the Knock-knock Joke, a duet that ends in laughter. It never bugs me, it never bores me, because in the end we laugh, forced perhaps, even phony-sounding, but communal: we're laughing together and that's the point. We spend entire circle times just taking turns telling these nonsensical jokes, laughing harder and harder as we go.

Even though I'm not a funny guy, humor (or at least silliness) stands at the center of my relationship with children. When a kid says, "You're silly, Teacher Tom!" I answer, "Silly is a complement around here! Thank you for saying that!" I like that "silly" is part of my reputation.

There's another "joke" of which I'm proud, this one having occurred on the streets of Manhattan. Our family was living in Soho for a month because my wife had business there. I was walking the dog early one morning, when a car alarm went off. The street wasn't NYC crowded, but there were still a lot of us out there. I stopped and loudly asked, "What's wrong with you people? Can't you hear that car is being stolen?" There was a beat of silence, then an explosion of laughter. I guess you had to be there.

There is nothing that brings people together more than laughing with them and you do, in fact, have to be there.

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Thursday, December 01, 2016


A couple years back I taught a boy who would, upon the completion of just about anything, turn to me and ask, "Is that a good job?" I would answer, "You worked hard on that," or "You sound proud of it," or something else that I hoped would help turn his search for validation inward instead of outward. I wouldn't say that he was a praise junky, however, given that he was generally a very internally driven boy, but he had apparently come to expect the automatic "good job" the way the rest of us expect the automatic "Thank you" or "You're welcome." In fact, he would in turn offer his friends a hearty "good job" whenever one of them completed something or seemed particularly proud.

Most of us know by now to avoid the sort of empty praise of "good job," "well done," or any of the other regular ways adults misguidedly attempt to bolster self esteem. If we want children to be self-motivated, the general rule of thumb is to avoid external rewards and punishments, verbal or otherwise, and instead focus on observable things like a child's effort (e.g., "You worked on that for a long time"), feelings (e.g., "You look happy about that"), or simply remarking on observable facts (e.g., "You pried the lid off that can"). 

During their three years at Woodland Park, this boy's family tried to pull back on "good job," even as they found it a hard habit to break: it can become so woven into how we interact with our kids that it's almost impossible to eradicate entirely. There are a lot of semi-conscious things like that in how we speak to not just our children, but with the rest of the world as well. When I lived in Germany, my German friends would return from travels to the states, every single one of them complaining that Americans were obsessed with telling everyone "Have a nice day," something about which I'd never given much thought. It irritated them, however: "They say it, but they don't mean it," or "Who are they to tell me what kind of day to have?" Of course, Germans have their own automatic niceties that I found every bit as grating. And that's what most of these things are for us adults, conventional courtesies that we rely upon to make our public life run more smoothly. I think that's where "good job" had migrated for this boy.

Earlier this week, I was hanging out with a group of kids, most of whom had just created various kinds of weapons from construction paper and masking tape. As they showed me their handiwork, explaining, often in detail, how it could defeat a villain, I was responding by saying "You worked hard on that." I like to think I've become quite good at avoiding the empty praise. Then one boy pushed to the front to show me his creations. He shoved them into my face, beaming with pride, saying, "Teacher Tom, look at my hard works."

It appears that "You worked hard on that" has become my own personal "good job," an automatic nicety, at least for this kid. It's a risk whenever we find ourselves interacting with others without being fully conscious or present. Sigh. I guess I'll need to work on that.

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