Friday, April 17, 2015

Counting Wooden Blocks And Everything

I was rushing around one morning last week before the children arrived, working with our "third teacher," and began to worry I'd not allowed enough time to do all the things I wanted to do, when I was reminded of a lesson I'd learned from my admittedly shallow readings of the Waldorff (Steiner) approach. Namely, that it is important that children see adults doing their "real" work. It is something that has stuck with me over the years and one I don't employ often enough as I too often strive to have the complete stage set when the children come through our doors.
In this case, I wanted to cut a couple dozen lengths of 2"X2" (because that's what we had available in our lumber pile) to use to create starting points for what we call "tall paintings." If I sound like I'm writing in code, please click the link for a translation, but suffice it to say that it's a typically engaging and often meditative process art activity we've been perfecting over the past several years.
As children came through our gate in ones and twos I set myself up at the workbench with our power jigsaw. With the first pull of the trigger, children, as they typically do when adults engage in real work, gathered around to ask, "What are you doing, Teacher Tom?"
"I'm cutting this wood."
After watching me saw off a couple pieces, "Why?"
"I'm getting them ready for an art project."
And then after a few more cuts, "Can I try it?"
I knew this request was coming and I was prepared with the irritating truth, "I'm sorry. I can't let you. I used to let kids use this tool, but our insurance company told me I can't let you any more."
"Because they think you'll get hurt."
"I won't. I'll be careful."
"I know, but it's a rule I have to follow."
We then had a brief discussion about insurance companies and their irrational fears which ended when one of the kids lost interest, more accepting of the fates than I, and began to pick up my cuttings from the ground where they had fallen and arranged them on the workbench. I stopped working for a moment and watched him lay them in a row, side-by-side. I said, "I want to cut 25 of them."
He began to count the ones I'd cut so far, "Nine." Another boy confirmed the count, then said, "If you cut one more, there'll be ten."
Someone else said, "If you cut two more, there'll be 11."
And another child, "Then 12."
Then someone joked, "Then a hundred!"
There were several shouts of, "No!" followed by, "He's only cutting 25: that's less than 100," "Then 13!" and "A hundred would take too long!"
So many mathematical concepts being tossed around like any other loose parts on the playground, there to be used for our play rather than, as so often happens in school, as a replacement for play.
I was working slowly, readjusting my wood in the vice after each cut. Had I done this before the children arrived it would have been the work of a few minutes, but I wanted to role model safe and proper woodworking procedures even if I don't always practice them when working on my own.
As I cut more blocks of wood, the children kept track, as a group, debating, frequently recounting, always rearranging, stacking, building, making patterns. When newcomers joined our group and asked, as children always do, "Can I try?" they replied with sad voices, "The insurance company says you can't," then explained what that meant in the way they understood it, usually with a shrug, sharing their knowledge freely.
When someone then inevitably asked, "Why?" they didn't ask me, they asked a friend who replied with the knowledge he had, "We need 25 for an art project."
They wanted to know more, so I explained the whole process: later we would use the paper guillotine to cut rectangles of cardboard, then glue guns to stick the wood to the cardboard, then we would mix paint into glue and pour it over the top of the wood to make tall paintings."
Later we did all those things, real work that a teacher might seek to do in advance by way of setting the stage. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. We all prepare for the children. In many ways, that's the main responsibility of the teacher in our kind of school. In this case, I had chosen to use my preparation time on something else.
In the meantime, the children continued counting, debating, discussing, confirming, calculating, estimating, anticipating, and accepting the realities of a world that too often makes it impossible for us to try the things we want to try even if we know we won't get hurt.
When I finally cut the 25th block, they cheered, knocked over the tower they had been building, then ran off to other things.

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Experimental Dance


Children know it's play. They know what play is, even if they typically can't define it with anything other than anecdotes, usually about whatever it is they're doing at the time. Play is swinging! Play is making trains! Play is trying to make a sand catapult!

I could regale you with a longwinded definition of play, one I've been honing in my public speaking appearances for the past three years, but at bottom, when it comes down to it, the core of play is experimentation. Perhaps not the rational, step-over-step experimentation of the scientific method, but an individualized approach unfettered by the strict rules of peer reviewable science.

In a very real sense, almost everything we do in our school is an experiment of some sort: physical, psychological, emotional, intellectual, artistic, or even spiritual. And I'm not just talking about the children. This goes for me, the teacher, as well.

For instance, some months ago I came across the term "pallet swing" and immediately envisioned the device you see in these pictures. I had just acquired a new pallet, smaller and with wider slats than is typical, which seemed like a good candidate to hang from the spot where we had previously hung other experimental swings (rope, tire, ladder, etc.). I used rope I had at hand: 150 lb. test, cotton wrapped in a colored nylon. I tied it through a pair of metal loops that had, years before my time, been used for the chains of a more traditional swing. The children's experiments with this original design resulted in a broken rope by the end of the first day.

That sent me to the hardware store for 450 lb. test nylon rope. Determining that the metal loops, due to the children's assertive experiments, had more or less "sawed" the previous rope to the point of breaking, this time I cut four individual lengths of rope and tied each one directly around the overhead bar which would reduce the friction that had caused the initial equipment failure. It took some doing to get the whole thing level and nylon rope is slippery enough that I had to explore several knot-tying techniques before settling on one that I thought would hold up to the children's play.

By now, most children, of all ages, have tested the pallet swing, the youngest often just pushing and twirling it while remaining firmly planted on the ground, but the older kids, especially a group of girls, have made a concentrated study of it.

One of the reasons it had struck me as such a good idea, was that with only two traditional swings and one trapeze bar, our limited resources had made the swing set a focal point of regular conflict and this innovation seemed like it could offer four new seats in one go, which is why I've attempted to label it "the sharing swing," implying that it's suitable for more than one kid at a time.

In the beginning, however, the individual members of our team of girl scientists stared at me blankly when I used the term, waiting for me to stop talking before going back to their solitary experiments, each of them exploring the possibilities of sitting, standing, and asking for others to push them while others awaited their turn. It frustrated me, but now that a couple months have passed, I can now see that this was a necessary process, as the girls needed to acquire knowledge in order to share it with one another as they have now begun play together. This sharing is crucial to children's experiments, just as it is with real scientists who are always building upon the work of colleagues.

The girls have discovered, for instance, that while they can cram as many as a half dozen bodies onto the "sharing swing" at once, four seems to be the correct number. This number was arrived at over a period of experimentation and negotiation. They have also discovered that while any of them can set the swing into motion on their own by standing, it's virtually impossible to sit and swing without help. Since we discourage adults from pushing the children on any of our swings, that means that one of them must take the role pusher.

Here's the problem, however: resting, the swing hangs about chest high on most of them, which means that when it is freely swinging the arc carries it through the same altitude that is most often occupied by their heads presenting a hazard what with it being made of wood with sharp corners and all. No one wants to take that to the head. It has taken some time, but to solve this problem, a problem they would not have had to solve had adults been doing the pushing, they have devised a method whereby the pusher never actually releases the swing, but rather keeps two hands on it as it moves through its back-and-forth arc. (Sadly, my pictures here only reveal the feet of the pusher as she does her job.) They have developed their own method of turn-taking, the intricacies of which are a mystery to me.

A second avenue of experimental exploration with the pallet swing by this team of scientists has been what they call "spinning." As the name implies, this involves one or more children sitting in the pallet, while someone turns the apparatus around and around, twisting my four lengths of 450lb. test rope together, then releasing it, giving the passengers a wild, spinning ride. They have now been engaged in these experiments for a couple months, growing increasing knowledgeable, both as individuals and as a group, and as their knowledge has grown, so has their courage.

As the adult responsible for creating the pallet swing in the first place and, more importantly, as an adult responsible for the children's safety, I've been watching carefully. In the beginning I tried to always stay nearby. I noted that there is a point, just as the ropes fully release their twisted embrace that the entire thing lurches suddenly. I worried that if a child was not prepared she might lose her grip and fly off, so I took to giving a verbal warning just before it happened, "Aaaaand whomp!" I still do it for the younger children who are not as far along in their experiments, but for these girls, the need for it, if there ever was one, is long past.

Lately, they have been twisting themselves up so high that the passengers must lie almost perfectly flat in order to fit under the ropes. They've determined that it takes two of them to wind the thing up that high and they have, importantly, also learned to be wary of the pallet as it spins, saying, "Ready? Let go!" before ducking out of the way. These were mental experiments they performed to figure this out: no child has been injured in the process.

Seeing the stresses they are putting on my ropes and pallet, I've been checking everything two or three times a day, often retying my knots when they look like they've slipped a bit. It's become a kind of experimental dance we are doing together, all of us learning to do things that have never been done before on the face of the Earth.

The children just call it play.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Dense With Learning


Oh sure, we hear all about extraordinary things like light-bulb-over-the-head epiphanies and ludicrous claims like babies who can read, but most learning happens on such a small scale, and in such mundane moments, that it's often overlooked. Once you know what you're looking for, however, once you're attuned to what learning looks like, you see it everywhere, in every moment, as children play according to their own lights. And the teacher's primary role is to simply be there and narrate.

Indeed, play, as opposed to the kind of education that relies on direct instruction, is so dense with learning that it's virtually impossible to not see it in every moment.

A group of 2-3 year olds were horsing around up by the cast iron pump, which sits in the upper level of our two-level sand pit. Acadia came to me with a request, "Build a sand castle, Teacher Tom."

I answered, "You build a sand castle. Do I look like a kid?"

She thought that was funny, "No, you look like a grown-up."

After a moment, Zinn said, "I built a sand castle."

Acadia and I looked at him, then at the ground nearby. Spotting nothing that looked like a sand castle, I guessed that he had misspoken, employing the present tense when he was referring to the future, a not so uncommon occurrence, so replied, "Zinn is a kid. He's going to build a sand castle."

He corrected me, "I already built a sand castle." He pointed to a ridge of sand between his feet. 

Acadia was delighted, "That's a little sand castle."

Zinn replied, "I'm gonna smash it," then proceeded to stomp it flat.

Acadia said, "Build another one."

Zinn responded by spreading his feet apart, then dragging them together, pushing the damp sand into another ridge between his feet. And again, he said, "I'm gonna smash it." He then repeated the process several times. He stopped narrating his actions, so I took it up. "Zinn made a sand castle," then "Zinn smashed his sand castle."

Spencer, who was looking on, then made his own sand castle, perfectly imitating Zinn's technique. I said, "Spencer made a sand castle," and then "Spencer smashed his sand castle."

By now Acadia had seen enough and she too made a sand castle, smashed it, then made another, as I continued to narrate.

After a short study, Calvin joined the game. Cecilia followed suit. Then Alice.

This all took no more than three minutes, each child learning Zinn's technique from the next, an idea passed on from child to child.

One might ask, But what's the point? And my response might be, "What's the point of learning anything?" I mean, it's true that knowing how to make a "sand castle" between one's feet isn't likely to be on any tests, nor, down the road, a vocational skill or resume builder. As much as others might try to shape it another way, education, at least in the early years, isn't about the trivia that is learned, but rather the practice of satisfying our curiosity, and in the case of schools, of doing so within the context of our fellow humans. 

Moments later, Cecilia was putting her foot atop a shovel by way of using her body weight to sink it into the sand. I began narrating her attempts and it became the next technique that several of her classmates were inspired to try for themselves. And from there it went on, one moment to the next, each dense with learning.

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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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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

It Buoys Me

Last week I shared some good news with you about pushing back against the corporate education "reform" agenda. I've written well over 200 posts on various aspects of this topic, going back to 2009 when this blog was in its infancy. What first caught my attention back then was the ever-narrowing public school curriculum coupled with an ever-increasing focus on vocational skills and the marginalization of the knowledge and experiences required to be fully-functioning citizens in a self-governing democracy. High stakes standardized testing is a part of that corporate for-profit agenda, and it's that aspect that has finally galvanized our small movement into a growing one, one that's getting harder and harder to ignore.

I'm not saying we're going to win, nor do I even know what a democratic win would look like, but with recent news that over half of Seattle's Garfield High School's junior class are opting out of the Common Core aligned SBAC test, with tens of thousands of students opting out of these tests nationwide, with Congress now proposing new legislation that will declaw the US Department of Education, and with major media beginning to take notice, we have definitely made it a fight.

Our opponents have deep pockets. After all, they are predatorily stalking an "industry" that is approaching $1 trillion a year, making it the second largest segment of the US economy after only healthcare. That's right, there are billions in profits to be earned off the labor of our children, just as there billions being earned off the suffering of people who are sick and dying, and our opponents are funded by those who would profit from that, a sad commentary, I think, on the cruelty of neoliberal economic policies. 

They have the money, but we're starting to show that we have the numbers with our powerful, truly grassroots alliance of students, parents, and teachers leading the parade. And that's how those of us who are not wealthy and powerful must make it happen: we start a parade and as it grows our "leaders" rush to join us. It may sound like cynical joke, but that's how it's supposed to happen. Over the last couple of years, for instance, many of the largest teacher's unions have, often tentatively, joined us. Politicians of all stripes have begun not just giving us lip service but actually taking actions to move states away from the corporate reform agenda. Last week, the Seattle/King County NAACP threw its support behind the Garfield High School community and the wider opt out movement in general.

If we win, when we win, they will then rush to take credit, but no mass movement starts with these "leaders."

This movement started with students, parents, and teachers and has grown because we are right, because we have the best interests of children and our democracy at heart. We have rallied both conservatives and liberals to our side. We have rallied folks from every part of our nation. We are doing it school by school, city by city, and state by state. Media reports often make it seem like an overnight sensation, but I've been at it for six years and others were there long before me.

No one ever said that democracy would be fast or easy, and something needs to be done about the influence of cold, hard cash on our system, but our movement, this movement lead by students, parents, and teachers, is evidence that it can still be done. We are nowhere near finished and the "leaders" who are rushing around to the front of our parade are prone to be blown this way and that by political winds, but our grassroots core is as solid as any I've ever known. I'm not declaring victory, not by a long shot, but we are winning and it buoys me.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

To Have These Experiences

Not long ago, I wrote about setting a plank of wood across a pair of tires as a kind of prompt. Last week I did a similar thing with a plank between a pair of ladders.

We've recently acquired some new, thicker planks, because we were going through one-inch planks at an alarming rate. The oldest children had started breaking them earlier in the year when they discovered they could create a "diving board" by anchoring one end under the gate, leaving the longer end to extend out over the flight of three stairs. They jumped, downhill into wood chips. Some of the kids really got into the springiness of wood, which is how we lost two of them. These new boards aren't as springy but they do have some bounce and aren't liable to break.

We started by cautiously balancing on my set up, but once we discovered the springiness all anyone wanted to do was jump off. Usually it was one at a time, but some of the kids grew proficient enough that they could bounce together, synchronizing sometimes, but mostly moving gingerly so as not to topple anyone, a feat of cooperation of which they would not have been capable only a few months ago.

After awhile, someone had the idea of arranging tires as targets. We began calling them "holes." Then the holes starting going somewhere, like China or Mexico or Iowa. We announced where we were going before jumping, sometimes asking before we leapt, "Is this the one that goes to Disneyland?" There were heated arguments over which tire hole lead where.

In this case, I would say I was playing with the kids, which means I was trying really hard to not take over, but rather attempting to play as an equal. These new, thicker planks can even accommodate a bouncy adult, so I traveled by tire hole to places like Iceland and Broadway.

It was such a simple thing, really, a plank of wood suspended 18-inches above the ground. It was a challenge, an irresistible challenge, one that allowed us to master it, then to use it to make up a game to play with our friends.

This should be why we send our children to school: to have these experiences.

Later, when the older children arrived, they immediately dismantled it to create their own challenge, a maze of planks along which they balanced. They did not play around with the springiness. I wonder if they're wary, at least in part, because they know they can break: a caution taken from experience.

They did, however, anchor one of the planks under the gate as they had done earlier in the year with the "diving board," using it to prop up another plank. It worked, but the big problem with their set up was that there are times when people need to come and go through that gate. I myself went through three times. On the third time I re-entered, I opened the gate a little too wide, removing the plank's anchor. No one was standing on it at the time, but it did cause a chain reaction of planks. I helped the kids re-set their game and was halfway down the hill when Yuri ran up to me, "You made Henry fall!"

"I did?" I looked back up the hill and Henry was dusting himself off as a parent-teacher checked him out. When I got to Henry, I said, "I'm sorry I knocked you down."

Henry said, through tears, "You didn't knock me down. I fell on my own."

"That's not right!" objected Yuri. "Teacher Tom did it when he opened the gate." Yuri then lead us through a description of the chain reaction he had observed, indicating that my actions had caused a plank to "fly up" which caused Henry to lose his balance.

I said, "I think I did knock you down."

And Henry said, "That's okay. I've knocked lots of people down.

Forgiveness, empathy, and an understanding of at least this aspect of the human condition: this too, is why we send our children to school.

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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