Friday, November 16, 2018

In A World Of Sharp Things

When I first started teaching at Woodland Park, I shared the space with another teacher: I taught the 3-5's and she the 2's. She had been hired a couple years before me so from my perspective it was my job to fit in around her, at least as much as I could. One day she scolded me over safety: "This morning I found a thumbtack on the floor. You need to be more careful, one of my two-year-olds could get hurt."

She was a more veteran teacher than I so I took the admonishment seriously. For years, even after she had moved on, I habitually treated thumb tacks as a hazard. But then time moved on and my views evolved. Of course, I don't want anyone to suffer pain, but we live in a world chockablock with sharp things, from knives to broken glass, and I now understand it's important to not unduly shelter the children, but rather to give them the chance to experience these potentially injurious things. Instead of artificially cocooning them, we undertake to teach children how to handle themselves around sharp things and, yes, to risk a bandage here and there.

Last week, the two-year-olds, who are now my two-year-olds, spent their morning literally playing with thumb tacks and scissors. This week our four-year-olds have been using brand new vegetable peelers (and thus quite sharp) to practice whittling, with the goal of moving on to actual knives by the end of the year.

I do understand my former colleague's concerns. No one wants their charges to bleed, to experience pain, to hurt, but these experiences are coming whether we like it or not. Did children poke their fingers on the thumb tacks? Yes. Did any of the whittlers take off a bit of skin? Yes. Then again, everyone pokes themselves with thumb tacks, especially when learning about them. Everyone takes off some skin with knives and other kitchen tools, especially when learning about them. This is part of the unalterable process of learning to live safely in a world full of sharp things.

No one has ever avoided those experiences. We may be able to prevent those small pains today or tomorrow, but eventually every one of us will suffer them. No one has ever prevented these injuries; we've only managed to pushed them off into the future. Much safer, I think, is to take the risk now, under our supervision, with our counsel, and near our first aid kit, than to leave it to that uncertain future.

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Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Crying Blocks

Before playing with them, I told the kids that I've nicknamed these blocks The Crying Blocks.


"Because every time we play with them, kids wind up crying. Usually, lots of kids."

"Well, I'm going to call them The Happy Blocks."

"Me too."

"I'm going to call them The Happy Blocks too."

We acquired these big, soft blocks years ago when a family made a generous donation coupled with a matching donation from their employer with the stipulation that Teacher Tom, and Teacher Tom alone, got to decide how to spend it. I'd been eyeballing these blocks for some time and spent the entire donation on the largest set, a decision I came to regret (at least partially) almost immediately. These blocks with their bright colors, soft corners, large size, and light weight speak to some children, saying, "Go crazy!" During their maiden voyage, several children were crying within minutes, having been bopped, squashed, trapped, and otherwise injured or frightened during what could only be described as a melee. Since that time, I've found it useful to preface the introduction of these blocks each year with a little discussion.

"Why do kids start crying?"

"Usually because they get hurt."

"How do they get hurt?"

"Sometimes they get trapped under blocks and other kids jump on them. Or sometimes someone starts throwing the blocks or hitting people with them. Or maybe two kids bash heads together."

"We won't do that, right?"

There was general agreement that they would take care of one another.

"The biggest problem," I said, "Is that it looks like there are a lot of blocks, but that's just because they're big. There actually aren't that many blocks. A lot of times kids start crying because they fight over blocks."

"We won't do that, will we?"

Again, general disagreement accompanied by a few comments that they were going to call them The Happy Blocks.

"I also call them The Crying Blocks," I continued, "because people knock over other people's buildings."

"We won't do that! We all agreed!" This was said while pointing to the list of agreements (sometimes called "rules") that the children have made with one another.

With that we started playing with the blocks. A handful of kids moved immediately to other activities, but most of them stayed to test themselves amongst The Crying Blocks. They began building in groups of two and three, quickly using up most of the blocks. It was generally peaceful for the first ten minutes or so. One of the girls asked me, "How many kids are usually crying by now?"

I replied, "Several."

She turned to her friend, "Teacher Tom says that usually several kids are crying by now, but none of us are crying."

Then things began to get a bit more tense. One boy straddled a block while holding two others protectively. I began to hear a lot of declarations like, "This is our building!" and "Hey! We were using that block!" and "She took our block!" I was sitting near the area on a bench, occasionally narrating what I saw, especially remarking upon any cooperation I witnessed. There were several appeals to me to help settle disputes, but I turned it back to them, saying things like, "I guess you two will have to talk. These blocks are hard to play with."

There was suddenly a flare up between a couple girls. One of them began to choke up, her tears of frustration or outrage right on the verge, then we made eye contact. I watched her fight down the emotion enough to say, "Let's play with it together!" and her friend replied, "Yeah! Let's play with it together!" 

Moments later two groups of builders began arguing about a tower that had been inadvertently knocked over. When they turned to me, I shrugged, saying, "Well, they're called The Crying Blocks for a reason."

"We're calling them The Happy Blocks, right guys?" And with both factions agreeing, they decided to "connect" their respective buildings.

"Teacher Tom, by now how many kids are usually crying?"

"Most of them."

"Well none of us are crying."

"I know! That's because you're all trying to work together."

Over the next several minutes there were more near tears as they worked things out, but it was mostly peaceful, cooperative play with lots and lots of talking. The boy who was hoarding his three blocks still sat among them, silent, scowling, experiencing the natural, miserable state of a hoarder. Then off to one side, in an otherwise unused area of the rug, two boys began to play more wildly, running and falling on the blocks while pretending to sneeze, "Achoo!" Impressively, they managed to control their bodies enough to not accidentally knock into anyone else's constructions. As they got louder and laughed harder, however, others began to like their idea. Soon the buildings had been abandoned in favor of the sneezing game, the only exception being our hoarder, who continued to sit silently in his self-imposed misery.

I said to him, striving to not betray any judgement in my tone, "You're hoarding three blocks. You don't look happy."

"Can we clean up now?"

"But the other kids are having so much fun," I answered. "I think we're going to keep playing for at least another half hour." He contemplated this information for a minute or two, then slowly stood, abandoning his blocks, and his misery, for a seat across the room at the play dough table.

The sneezing game reached a crescendo, then returned to groups of children building cooperatively, talking their way through it, self-regulating, no longer looking to me for anything. There had been a few tears, but they had been short-lived and readily wiped away with agreements. After we put the blocks away for the day, I said to the group, "You guys did it. You turned The Crying Blocks into The Happy Blocks."

"We told you, Teacher Tom."

"You sure did."

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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

"It Will Fall"

There are a couple boys in our 3's class who still struggle with the temptation to knock down the constructions of others, so I was loudly narrating my own activity by way of making sure they knew that this tower was "my tower" and it was not a "knocking down tower." Naturally, this drew something of crowd.

I announced, "I'm going to build my tower all the way to the ceiling."

"It will fall," declared one of the onlookers.

"Yes, it will fall," agreed another.

They weren't taunting me, but rather simply stating a fact. Every preschooler knows that there is a limit to how tall she can build a block tower, and if she doesn't yet know, she soon will. She knows that there is a height limit imposed either by physics, her own capabilities, or the designs of others. Indeed, she knows that this is the destiny of everything she builds with her playthings. And she knows that this doesn't just go for her, but for everyone. It's part of the human condition.

Of course, that doesn't mean she won't continue to try to stack blocks to the ceiling or the sky or to outer space. On the contrary, for many of us, that's exactly the point, to challenge ourselves, to see how far we can go before it all comes crashing down. We learn quite young to not cry when our buildings fall, unless it comes at the hands of others like the boys who are still tempted (which is why I was working to "teach" the lesson of "not knocking down"). In fact, for most of them, most of the time, the response is to laugh, often giddily, sometimes even wildly. Many, once they've recognized the inevitable bending back toward the earth are even eager to help it along, giving it an extra push.

As an adult it's impossible to not see this as a metaphor for all human activity: everything we build will fall. We may someday build that tower to the ceiling or to the sky or into outer space, but in time we still know even that will fall.

As predicted, my tower did fall. I had genuinely tried to make to the ceiling, putting my best efforts into it. The taller I built it, the more children gathered around. They knew it would fall, but they were with me, not exactly cheering, but anticipating. Maybe this time the tower wouldn't fall. And when it did, we laughed, several of them rushing it to get a piece of its demise. Then all around me new towers began to rise in imitation of my attempt, each one a tower "to the ceiling."

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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

"They Could Be Building With Blocks"

The younger children might come to school for the toys, the songs, or Teacher Tom, but by the time they're approaching four, the thing to which they're most looking forward is one another. We tend have a minimal agenda as it is, but this is why the decks are left especially clear for the first hour of our time together. The kids need that opportunity to greet one another, to lay hands on one another, to giggle over their burgeoning love for one another. Certainly, there are times when this or that child will want to be off on her own for a time, and there are always a few who are more inclined to solo play, but most of the kids, most of the time, need the other children in order to be at their best.

I don't think this inclination goes away as we get older. Meaningful human contact, be it with friends, colleagues, or teachers, is essential to mental and intellectual well-being. This goes for introverts and extroverts alike, albeit the "doses" may vary. We have evolved as social animals, we're at our best when we're social, we learn more, and more deeply within the context of community. We solve problems more creatively when we work together. Indeed, from where I sit, that is the primary reason we go to school: to be together in a place where children form their own community around shared interests and goals. Everything else that education is, will emerge from that.

Last week, 100 students in Brooklyn walked out in protest over their school's adoption of an online curriculum called "Summit Learning" designed by Facebook engineers and funded by CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Their main complaint being that they hated staring at their computer screens all day. "The whole day, all we do is sit there."

Screen-based "education" is a nightmare for children, especially young ones who don't have the opportunity to walkout. The developers' of these programs promise of "personalized learning" might sound good because, indeed, children learn different things according to different timelines, but the rush to shove screens in front of more and more children threatens to undermine the very thing that makes schools educational.

Says teacher Mark France speaking about a similar screen-based curriculum called AltSchool, "The vision was a curriculum that catered to every child so they're learning at their level all the time. But when every child is working on something different, you're taking away the most human component in the learning process, which is social interaction -- learning from one another and collaborating to solve problems. They're developing a relationship with their tablet but not one another."

Screen-based "education" erodes community. Humans have evolved to learn from one another, together, as a collaborative process. Not only that, but even by the narrow measures used by these purveyors of online "education" to demonstrate success (e.g., standardized tests), online learning has shown, at best, minimal improvement over methods that focus on human interaction, and in many cases, the results have been worse. No one with any meaningful background in education would be surprised by this and to make guinea kids of our children so that education dilettantes can test our their theories is deeply immoral, not to mention damaging. Good on those high schoolers for walking out, and good on their school for canceling the program.

As for France, who has since left AltSchool to teach in a school that places its emphasis on human interaction:

. . . the turning point came one morning when he looked around a kindergarten classroom, "and the kids were staring at their tablets, engrossed by them. And I'm thinking to myself, "They could be building with blocks, they could be doing a number of different things that are more meaningful that also build social and emotional skills but they're choosing not to. Why? Because the tool is so addictive, that's wall they want to do."

There is a reason that technology workers are increasingly restricting screen time for their children and choosing schools for them that eschew screen-based technology. There is a reason that doctors and researchers are recommending dramatically curtailing the use of screen-based technology for children. Yet the technologists, these corporate "reformers" who would impose their experiments on our children are undaunted. There is money to be made, so damn the children. Thank you Brooklyn high schoolers for standing up to them. Your walk out is for all of us.

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Monday, November 12, 2018

Honoring Veterans

(I've been post a version of this piece on Veteran's Day for several years now. Some of the statistics may be a bit dusty, but regrettably, I'm certain that the gist of them remains the same.)

My daughter has grown up in a country at war. 

I grew up in a country at war. 

My parents grew up in a country at war. 

My grandparents grew up in a country at war.

Whatever we feel about ourselves, it's not difficult to understand why there are people around the world who view the US as a warlike nation. It's one of the things we do, sending our army to Europe or Asia or Africa or South America to fight against our "enemies" or support our "friends." War has become the wallpaper of our lives, something that most of us only think about when there is particularly ghastly or encouraging news, or on special days set aside to think about war, like today, Veteran's Day.

Some of us, of course, think about war every day: those whose children or loved ones are in harm's way. How could they not? Even now, or perhaps especially now, as our entanglements have been moved to the back pages, it's impossible, I'm sure, not to worry about the stray bullet. The stress on those families must be incredible and what anxious joy they must feel knowing that the two longest wars in our nation's history are finally winding down. I'm sure they think all kinds of things about the wisdom of those wars or the ways in which they have been conducted, but I'm equally sure they are united in their desire to actually touch and see and hear their sons and daughters; their mothers and fathers.

Whatever you think of war in general, or the specific wars in which our nation has engaged, whether you believe that those who enlisted are brave patriots, misguided souls, or victims of the economy, there are few among us who don't appreciate the risk and sacrifice of these young men and women, nor do we want to shirk the responsibilities we have to them as they seek to re-join the civilian world, a place where they can hopefully sometimes forget about war.

This is a place where 1 in 3 male veterans between 20-24 are jobless. It's a place where nearly a million veterans are unemployed, where the unemployment rate for veterans is over 12 percent, 3 points higher than for the rest of us. And unless we turn things around fast, it's only going to get worse as an estimated 1 million more veterans return from foreign wars to rejoin the civilian workforce over the next 5 years.

This is a place in which 1 in 5 suicide victims are veterans. It's an epidemic of despair and mental illness that claims an average of 18 lives per day. Suicide prevention hotlines set up to serve veterans receive 100,000 calls per year. 

This is a place where people will boo you and try to strip you of your rights as a veteran and a citizen if they learn you are somehow not the "right kind of American."

This is a place where big banks, like Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and JP Morgan Chase will brazenly defraud you because you are a veteran and they think you're a soft target, often taking your home and sending you into bankruptcy.

This is a place where 83 percent of veterans receive no pension at all and where even that pathetic number is under threat of the budget axe, along with veteran healthcare benefits, because we don't have the political will to raise taxes on the the super wealthy, such as those very bankers who are defrauding veterans. 

This is the world we've created for our post-9/11 veterans. This is not what they fought for.

I don't feel at all good about the legacy of war we are leaving to our children, just as our parents left to us. Violence always represents failure, and this is a torch of shame we pass along. But this is a failure of politics, a failure of self-governance, and has nothing to to with our veterans who have placed themselves in service to our nation. These are our children, our mothers, and our fathers. For better or worse, we've sent them to risk their lives for us and caused their families to sacrifice for us. We must do better by them.

We don't honor veterans by glorifying war. These Americans, of all Americans, know the truth that war is horrific. No, we honor them by creating a society in which diplomacy is the highest political good. We honor them with a functioning economy and a world-class health care system. We honor them when we have social and economic justice. We honor them when we work to end war. We the people need to do these things every day, and that, more than parades and ceremonies, is how to honor veterans.

But most of all we honor veterans when we stop what we're doing to really see the wallpaper that's been hanging on our walls for generations, contemplate it, and wonder if it's time for a change.

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Friday, November 09, 2018

What Motivates Me

There's a song I sing when it's time to gather around for circle time, our community meetings. It's something I made up, I think, although it probably grew from a kernel planted by one of my mentors. It always starts off the same way, "Come on over to the checker board rug, come on over to the checker board rug, come on over to the checker board rug, and have a seat on the floor . . ." After that, it can pretty much go off on any number of tangents, each one sillier than the last, usually inspired by something one of the kids has done or said. It's just a way to goof around until everyone is settled in. And then, since I typically don't have anything specific planned, we usually just goof around together some more. In a nutshell, that's the Teacher Tom method.

Honestly, I was never particularly motivated to become a teacher. There were a couple of my high school teachers to whom I looked up, but that had more to do with my perception of their lifestyle as teachers -- being cool role models, coaching sports teams after school, having summers off -- than anything to do with helping kids' brains grow bigger. Even when I finally became a father, I had little interest in teaching our baby anything: I just wanted to goof around with her.

People assume I'm interested in pedagogy and curricula and brain development, and I am, I suppose. I've done just enough reading, and taken just enough classes, and attended just enough workshops, to have a working knowledge of most of what's out there, but everything I know about teaching, really, I've acquired more by osmosis than any sort of concentrated study, and frankly, I rarely think about any of it anyway. Likewise, I'm not all that interested in knowing about spectrums or disorders or syndromes or any other kind of diagnosis. I'm not ignorant of them, of course, and I recognize that there is value in this kind of knowledge, but it generally only reveals such a tiny piece of what makes a child who he or she is that it borders on the irrelevant, at least when it comes to the way I do "teaching."

And speaking of irrelevant, I know and care even less about much of the stuff my public school colleagues talk about, like "Common Core" or grading papers or assigning grades or achieving all those various certifications and qualifications and whatnot. I mean, I've looked into some of it, and found it has so little in common with what I do on a day-to-day basis that it hardly looks at all to me like what I call "teaching." If it wasn't threatening to take over the whole of what we call "education" in America, I would gladly ignore it entirely.

As I've had the opportunity to travel around the world presenting and facilitating education workshops, people express enthusiasm for learning more about my approach, methodology, and pedagogy. And that's what I talk about, although I'll never be able to offer a tidy list of "10 Tips" or "12 Steps To Success." I mostly talk about how I goof off with kids.

I came into teaching through a back door, not even really knowing where I was, to be honest, holding my own daughter's hand. We found a bunch of kids there and started playing with them. Everyone called it "school," so we did too. I was never particularly motivated to become a teacher, but when I saw what my mentors Sue Anderson and Chris David did in their little cooperative classrooms, I was motivated to do that.

We spent our time together at this kind of school mostly just goofing around, although by virtue of being adults we occasionally had to work with children to help them be safe, to treat one another fairly, to express our emotions in healthy, productive ways. But that wasn't our "curriculum," heavens no, all of that adult stuff was just by way of getting back to the core of why we were together: to have an interesting time goofing around.

I'm still not particularly motivated to be a teacher, but I do enjoy being Teacher Tom. I love nothing more than dropping to my knees and playing with the children, talking with them, listening to them, being their friend. My main job, as I do it, is just to find a way to get each kid on my bandwagon, which can only be done by forging a relationship based upon a two-way street of listening, acceptance, and love -- and a sacred agreement that no one is the "boss" of anyone else. The rest is just goofing off together. 

I may not be motivated to be a teacher, but I am motivated by the unique joys and challenges of creating a relationship with each child. It's endlessly amazing to me that the more I've done this, coming to a place called school each day to goof around with kids, that there is still so much more to learn, that there is always a deeper depth and a higher height and a sillier way to sing that old song.

Finding those new places is what motivates me; finding them with the kids, going there together, then goofing off. That's what motivates me.

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, November 08, 2018

Independent And Interdependent

Earlier this week, I saw something that made me very happy. One of the younger girls was outdoors wearing a coat she had put on by herself. I knew she had put it on by herself because it was upside down.

Being a cooperative, we tend to have lots of parents around the place, and it's an easy thing to fall back on our habits of "helping" children whether they need it or not. Our style of schooling tends to attract naturally helpful types to begin with and with so many of us around it's hard to not jump in when we see children struggling with things like dressing themselves, using the toilet, pouring water, or engaging in conflict.

When we ask parents about their goals for their children at the beginning of the year, many, if not most, list "learning to be more independent" as one of them. It's hard to learn to be independent, however, without opportunities to practice being independent, so I ask the parents to remember that it's not about efficiency in preschool and urge them to step back and allow the struggle; to avoid jumping in at the first sign of a conflict, but rather to give the children the time and space to see if they can solve it themselves; to accept a few spills and missed toilets and upside down jackets as part of the process of learning to become an independent human.

At the same time, we also want our kids to learn to work well with others, to get along with the other kids, to form a community, to become more interdependent. And that too, is something we all need to practice. This is why we make our own rules together, coming to agreements about how we want to treat one another. This is why we try to leave most of the tidying up to the children. This is why when a child asks for help, say with working a puzzle or untangling a knot or when they want someone to push them on the swing, I ask the parents to fight the instinct to be the helper. Much better is to simply call out to the crowded classroom or playground, "Sally needs help with this puzzle," or "Carl wants someone to push him on the swing." Young children are naturally helpful types as well. Invariably, one of them, often many of them, will offer their services.

Independence and interdependence are our goals: the traits of good citizens in a democratic society.

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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