Monday, June 18, 2018

These Children Are Suffering In Our Name

I've been out of the country for the past two-and-a-half weeks. I've watched from afar in a state of both disbelief and helplessness as evidence of the current administration's inhumane policies have lead to thousands of children being forcibly separated from their parents and confined in concentration camps. Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that children are being kept 20 to a cage in 100 degree plus weather. This is inhumanity on the level of the worst atrocities ever committed by our country. I will not stand by as it happens

I've already lost friends over this and I'm prepared to lose even more. I will not broach any person who seeks to excuse or defend this practice. It is a policy based on lies, fed by hate, and driven by a desire to inflict as much pain and suffering as possible. Yesterday, a former friend accused me of being a "tool" of the left when I asserted that these children were being "ripped" from their parent's arms. What do you call it when they are taken from their mothers while in the process of breast feeding? What do you call it when they are told their child is going to be bathed, then informed "you will never see your child again?"

The lies begin with the word "illegal." Many if not most of these families, have come to our borders seeking asylum, fleeing dangers in their home countries. There is nothing illegal about seeking asylum. Indeed, that is what this country is supposed to be about: providing sanctuary for those fleeing violence, political oppression, and poverty. These asylum-seekers are voluntarily turning themselves into border authorities who are, on the spot, declaring them criminal, taking their children from them, then labeling the children "unaccompanied minors," which is the cover (the lie) they need to warehouse them in abandoned Wal-Marts. And what if they have illegally crossed the border? According to US law, that is not a crime, it is a misdemeanor, yet this monstrous policy rips (yes I'm using that word) children from their parents, perhaps the worst punishment imaginable without judge, trial, or jury.

The hatred behind this policy is clear. These are darker-skinned people from nation's that this administration has labeled "hell holes." This is not happening to white people who have, say, overstayed their visas or who are likewise seeking asylum. No, they continue to enjoy the rights and protections of our laws. It is only at our southern border that this is happening.

When I think of these children, I cannot think of anything else. These children are suffering permanent brain damage from the trauma that is intentionally being inflicted upon them. Every week, every day, every minute they spend in these concentration camps is making that brain damage worse, something from which most will never fully recover. The cruelty being done in our name cannot be tolerated.

It's easy to point fingers at the administration, but every single person involved with this is to blame in the same way that even the secretaries at the Auschwitz concentration camp are guilty for the Holocaust. Everyone who works for the Department of Homeland Security must be held to account for the abuse and terrorism. Every individual who works for the companies contracted to build and run the concentration camps, from those that supply the beds and food to those providing the fencing with which the cages are constructed, must be held to account. They know what they are doing and they are doing it for money. I will not let them off the hook. "I was just following orders," or "I didn't know," are not acceptable answers.

Several within this administration have asserted that what they are doing is "biblical," claiming the moral authority to commit these atrocities in the name of Christianity. I've not heard enough from Christians. Is this really what your religion is about?

I was relieved to see street protests over the weekend, but they were pathetically small compared to the horror of what is happening. My social media feed has gradually begun to be filled with outrage, which is a good sign, but still not enough. Our elected representatives have begun to speak out, but I've heard almost nothing from Republicans who seem determined to support this administration no matter what kind of hell they are bent upon. I've been calling my elected representatives to demand an end to this, something I know that many others have done, but that is only a beginning. We must also start to pressure the people who are enabling the abuse and terror.

A company called Southwest Keys is running the Brownsville Wal-Mart facility I posted about last week. They must be called to account, and not just their CEO, but every single person who takes a paycheck from them. Defense contractors are also cashing in on the cruelty. I have committed myself to further research into who is profiting from this. I am pointing my fingers at them. I will not forget their complicity, nor will I forget those who, in full knowledge, continue to aid and abet these monsters. Indeed, they themselves are monsters.

Today, I am calling on every other education blogger, every education leader, every parent, every person who cares about children, to step up. There is nothing more important than to end this. Our outrage is not enough. Our social media posts are not enough. Our phone calls are not enough. Our donations are not enough. These children are suffering in our name. We must move heaven and earth to end it. Whatever it takes.

UPDATE: All of the photos and information we have so far is about where they are keeping boys aged 10-17. Where are the girls? Where are the young children? We need to know.

UPDATE: Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen is claiming that these asylum-seekers are just "posing" as families. What a pack of lying sacks of sh-t these people are. And even if they are posing, that still doesn't justify putting children in concentration camps.

UPDATE: Yes, some Republicans have spoken out, but none of the leadership, and even those who have expressed "sadness" have thrown up their hands as if there is nothing they can do. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is flat-out lying when he says that the only way to fix this is through legislation. The President can end this with one phone call! Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell has been silent. This is evil.

UPDATE: Here is a list of companies that have been collaborating, along with contact information.

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Best Preschool App Is Here! Download It Today!

Let me state right up front, it wasn't my idea to download this latest app for the preschool. It was Luca's mom Megan who thought the school just had to have it. Her own kids had really enjoyed it, it was sooo educational, you know, the usual blah, blah, blah.

I guess I should quit fighting it. After all our kids are growing up in this world, and huge sheets of cardboard are going to be part of it, but I worry about what it's doing to their brains. Still, for better or worse, there we were, taking part in this grand social and developmental experiment.

It didn't surprise me, of course, that the kids took to it right away. I mean, it's cardboard, right? They all seem to be drawn to it.

Honestly, it's amazing how they somehow intuitively knew how to turn it on and start using it.

It only took a few seconds for them to figure out how to get to the napping function where they all cozied in together and made me turn off the lights. I have to say, that doesn't happen often without the app!

But what really impressed was when they discovered the fort building function. How they did it, I'll never know, but, I mean, there they were, 3, 4, and 5-year-olds already learning their forts! And I don't think they even knew they were learning anything. I mean the cardboard app can't be all bad if they're doing forts as young as three years old -- that's a lifelong skill there, people!

They started with the upright, roofless kind of fort. Like I said -- three years old. If you could see my face right now, I'd be raising my eyebrows at you in a knowing way.

Then, get this, they figured out another kind of fort that involved getting low and adding roofs! I mean, I'm an educated guy, but these preschoolers took to the technology as if they were born with it in their genes.

And I have to say, they didn't seem to be turning into cardboard zombies the way I'd feared. Only time will tell, of course, but for now they seemed quite actively engaged: not only with the cardboard, but with each other, and it really looked like it was involving their whole minds and bodies. 

I asked Megan if she'd found any need to set limits or anything, but other than "not in the living room," she hadn't so far. And she guiltily mentioned another feature that I'd secretly been enjoying myself: it really kept the kids occupied when she needed to get something done. I mean, let's be honest, that isn't always a bad thing.

Then they figured out the slide, human sandwich, pig-pile function, which made them squeal. Anything that can make children laugh like that can't be all bad. Still, I had some questions.

I decided to ask a few experts about their thoughts on young children and cardboard, starting with a psychologist who sighed, and said, "Well, it's cardboard. What can you do? You can't ban it. That will only turn it into forbidden fruit." The neuro-scientist perked up when I asked him for his thoughts, saying, "There's actually some very compelling evidence that early exposure to large sheets of cardboard stimulates not only the part of the brain that makes you feel good to be alive, but also seems to have some effect on the every other region of the brain worth developing."

This information in my pocket, but still not entirely convinced, I returned to school determined to try my own experiments. Of course I didn't tell any of my fellow teachers about this in advance for fear of being ostracized, but I took the cardboard outside.

That's right. I was nervous about it, but the kids knew just what to do, discovering the paints and painter's tools function and transforming the cardboard into everything from a bus stop to a castle to a maze to a work of art.

They engaged as if they were born to do it, creatively, scientifically, and socially. 

It's a brave new world folks. I'm a convert. Download this app today! You won't regret it.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

"I Won't Go, Go, Go"

At the moment, the song "Rehab" by Amy Winehouse is stuck in my head, not the whole song, but just the chorus. It's not there all the time. For instance, it goes away when I'm speaking or right now as I'm typing these words, but the moment I stop using my brain, there it is: "They tried to make me go to rehab/I said no, no, no . . ."

I reckon at one time or another everyone is plagued by one of these "sticky" songs or "earworms," but I sometimes wonder if maybe those of us in early childhood are more prone. I'm traveling right now and haven't been around the kids for a couple weeks, but during the school year, more often than not, the song that's going around and around in my head is one from the classroom. 

Researchers have studied the phenomenon and it's real. It seems that our auditory cortex tends to keep singing certain songs after their finished, resulting in what some refer to as an "auditory itch" and the only way scratch it is to keep singing it over and over. There are many theories about why this happens, including obsessive-compulsive tendencies or stress or tiredness. Some have found that musically-incline people are more prone to earworms, while others link it to the songs themselves, some of which appear to be more parasitic than others. Maybe it's just a way to keep our brains busy during down moments. No one knows for sure, but some 99 percent of us have experienced it and it can be maddening.

I sometimes wonder about the evolutionary purpose of this phenomenon. I mean, it could just be a side-effect or the vestige of something human's no longer need, like our little toes which I've read are getting smaller with each passing generation or our appendix which is useless except for filling up emergency rooms when they swell and burst. I wonder if other animals experience a similar thing: do birds, for instance, get their songs stuck in their heads or is it unique to us? We could blame the modern world and the fact that recorded music somehow causes it, but then how do you explain similar stories about Schumann and Mozart, classic music composures who lived long before the advent of recorded music? 

I often think that it must somehow be connected to how our brains learn. That is certainly something we see around the classroom. Most children learn their A-B-C's through a song, for instance, but that example has more to do with memorization than actual learning. That said, I have learned things from songs, but then again, that usually has more to do with the lyrics than the melody, rhythm, or harmony. 

I figured that by the time I got to this point in the post, I'd have a working theory, but I don't. The reason that humans do this remains a mystery, but that's hardly the point. The point isn't always to answer our questions, but rather to wonder, because if there is an answer that's the only way we have ever found it. Nevertheless, I thank you for reading because writing this has occupied my brain, taking up the space that was previously full of Amy Winehouse.,

And now I'm at the end and there she is again, singing that she won't "go, go, go."

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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The "Bucket List"

When I arrived in Dunedin, New Zealand last Friday, my host Susan Puha, the director of Wild Things Home Based Childcare, asked me if there was anything I particularly wanted to do while there. I answered without hesitation, "I want to see a kiwi in the wild." When she informed me that they were very shy nocturnal creatures and that this might be next to impossible given my limited schedule, I went to the next item on my list, "How about a penguin?" She said she would see what she could manage.

After a full day with the brilliant and enthusiastic Dunedin early childhood community on Saturday, I had the opportunity to be a night time tourist in the downtown of this charming university town. I made my way to what is called "The Octagon," the eight-sided public square where Susan had told me I could do a little sightseeing and find a decent meal. I wound up in a pleasant-looking pub, full, but not too full I thought for a Saturday night. Dining alone, I played the game of telling myself stories about the other people in the place.

There was a young couple who might have been on a first date. There was a group of guys who seemed to be either colleagues or teammates celebrating something or other. I spied an elderly couple who were sharing a fine looking order of fish and chips. Inspired, I placed my own fish and chips order along with that for a second beer. By the time my food arrived, however, the place had begun to empty out, leaving me more or less alone for a time, which I thought odd for a Saturday night in a college town. I was a bit disappointed. I'd been seeking a bit of night life, but then, as if responding to a cue, the doors burst open and the pub began to re-fill, urgently. Indeed, it got so full, so fast that I wound up sharing my table. Then I realized that everyone's attentions were focused on the television screens where I saw that the world famous All Blacks rugby team was warming up to play against the French side.

I'm not a rugby fan, but even I know about the All Blacks, perennially one of the world's top teams, and undoubtedly the rugby world's most revered dynasty. New Zealanders, even those who are not particularly sports fans, are understandably proud of this national team and all it has achieved. Their matches are a unifying national event. What unexpected fun, I thought: watching this game in a pub full of Kiwis. The men with whom I shared my table were a university music professor and one of his graduate students and between their side conversations about their art they helped me understand the game. I got to cheer with the local fans, adopting the All Blacks the way sports fans do, even catching myself referring to the team possessively as "we" and "our side." This was not something that was on my "bucket list," but I realized that it certainly should have been,

The following day, Susan and her husband collected me for a drive to a place called Sandfly Bay Wildlife Refuge where they were hoping to help me fulfill my goal of seeing penguins in the wild. Particularly exciting was the prospect of spotting some of the endangered yellow-eyed penguins, or hoiho, that are known to nest on the cliffs adjacent the beach. It wasn't an easily accessible place, requiring a long, steep decent on a challenging path, much of which involved sand into which we sank up to mid-shin. The rainy, cool weather contributed to the challenge. My hosts informed me that the name "Sandfly" didn't come from an insect, but rather the fact that when the winds were up, it caused the sands to "fly" which stung one's exposed skin like thousands of little needles. Thankfully, the wind was minimal. Once at the bottom of the dunes we hiked the length of the beach where several sea lions lounged as if basking in mid-summer sun.

There were no penguins in sight as we made our way to the most likely spot. Susan warned me that we may leave disappointed, that the adult penguins were currently out feeding, that they tended to return at dusk, that we were hoping to see them, but there were no guarantees. We had to cross a shallow beach stream which, of course, drenched our feet. And then we waited, standing in the cold, rain, and occasional wind. We waited and waited. At one point I thought I saw something in the waves, but it turned out to be a young seal. We speculated that maybe the penguins were staying away because of the seals and sea lions. We waited and waited. And waited. Then, disappointed in our quest, we returned home.

We climbed the steep hill back to the top of the bluff, fighting deep, shifting sand, gravity, and the limitations of our lungs and legs. At the end of the outing I was tired, sore, damp, and sweaty. My legs ached and my feet were uncomfortably wet and sandy. Before leaving the beach, I'd stopped to photograph penguin footprints in the sand, the closest I was going to come to ticking this experience off my bucket list on this day.

We talk a lot about our bucket lists, but even as the term is relatively new, the concept is not. We set our goals, we make our plans, and we strive for success in terms that we've pre-determined. Sometimes we achieve them, but more often we don't. The preceding evening I'd actually discovered a "bucket list" item, to watch the All Blacks in a New Zealand pub, even as I was achieving it. Then the following day, after much trial and effort, I'd failed in another. But I don't feel a lick of disappointment because it's never about our goals as much as it is about the setting out, the climb, and the joy of doing it in the company of others. I didn't see penguins, but I have another story to tell, a memory to reflect upon, and, most importantly, a new person to call "friend." And in the end, those are really the only goals worth pursuing.

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Monday, June 11, 2018

"I'm Sorry I Scared You"

There are always kids in our 4-5's class who spend their days together playing "super heroes." They might call it something different (good guys, bad guys, Star Wars, Ninjas, Minecraft), but it's essentially the same game: they form a team, negotiate their roles, discuss in detail just how powerful they are, then race about talking tough, making fierce faces, and striking assertive poses.

And just as predictably, there are some children who come to fear the super heroes. It's not something the kids usually talk to me about, but rather their parents, who then attempt to coach their kids through it with varying degrees of success. A couple weeks ago, an adult brought up the topic during a parent meeting, and we discovered that there were a handful of children feeling uncomfortable at school because of the super hero play.

The following day, when the children assembled for circle time, I knew I wanted to steer the conversation that way. We started off talking about our classroom rules, the agreements the children have made with one another. It's a long, comprehensive list by this point the the school year, but that doesn't mean we don't keep adding to it. Children began taking turns suggesting new rules, which we accepted or rejected. I was prepared to broach the subject of super heroes myself, but was hoping that it would emerge from the kids. I knew that one girl, H, via her mother, had been attempting to summon up the courage to suggest an outright ban on their play, and this was the day.

I said, "H has something to say," and she replied, "No super hero play."

There was a moment of dead silence as her words sank in. Then the super heroes, their expressions full of shock and outrage, raised a chorus of, "Nooooo," which was followed by a more scattered chorus of, "Yesssss." It was obvious that we were not going to reach consensus on this rule, but that wasn't the point: the point was to have the discussion. Once we'd settled down we took turns making our cases. We started with those who were feeling afraid. Several classmates joined H. As they spoke up I watched the superheroes who were listening the way one does when the topic is of utmost importance. As they listened to their classmates, their expressions turned from outrage to what I can only describe as stunned.

When it was the superheroes' turn to talk, one of them said, emotion rising in his throat, "But we're good guys." Another said, "We protect people." They were simply astonished that they had been so misunderstood. They definitely did not want anyone to be afraid of them.

The discussion that followed was long and rambling, and atypically, I worked to steer things back to the topic of the day. We knew we couldn't agree to H's suggested rule, but we talked about things we could do like being more aware of one another's feelings, being more direct with one another about how we were feeling, and figuring out better ways to share the space and resources. As we discussed, we learned that most of the children were neutral about the super heroes, sometimes joining them, but not every day. They had concrete suggestions, but perhaps their most important contribution was to let their friends know that they weren't afraid, which I think helped some of the more fearful children see that there was an alternative to either-or. I didn't check the clock, but it was a long, productive discussion in which the kids learned something about one another.

This won't be the last time we will need to talk about this, but it was a good starting point and the parents of the anti-super heroes have reported that their children came away feeling much better, empowered even. As for the super heroes they have been quite sincere in their desire to not frighten their classmates going forward, even if they sometimes forget as they immerse themselves in their dramatic play. And we adults now have a convenient reference point for supporting the children as they work this through.

On Wednesday, one of super heroes was running full speed near the swings. A boy standing nearby flinched as he passed, which caught our caped crusader's eye. He slowed briefly and said, "I'm sorry I scared you," and his friend replied, "That's okay. I was only scared for a second." Like I said, we're going to be working on this for the rest of the school year, but man that was awesome.

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Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Code Of Traffic Lights

There are few children in the world today who don't know the code of traffic lights. Generally speaking, by the time they can speak they've figured it out: green, red, yellow. It's not a "natural" thing in the sense that one doesn't find traffic lights in the forest or under the sea, but virtually every child learns it because among the many things we are designed to do is de-code attempts at human communication and this, at bottom, is communication.

They figure out what it "means" in the same way they figure out what a smile means or a laugh or a furrowed brow. And this doesn't disappear as they get older, which is why, when left to learn according to their own lights, at their own pace, most of them will learn to read and write whether we "teach" them or not. As long as they live here in this world, among the rest of us humans, this world that is rich in language, with meaning, with communication, they will, when the time is right, apply themselves to the very natural, very human project of deciphering those printed words and then, when the time is right, attempt to in turn use them to communicate with others.

We sometimes discuss traffic lights at our urban school where understanding how they work is a matter of survival. It comes up spontaneously, say, when we're discussing an upcoming field trip that will involve walking together, crossing streets, and holding hands. I don't need to tell them anything: they've watched, they've listened, they've absorbed the code and know it like they know their own names.

"Red means stop!"

"Green means go!"

They are sure of what they know because they have lived it, but there is always one part of this communication about which we disagree. Most of them tell us that the yellow light means "be careful" or "slow down," but there are always a few who have more carefully observed. They will insist, "No, yellow means go faster!" because that is what they've seen in their own lives, learning, always learning, as passengers in cars driven by adults who have taught them that yellow means punch it!

So while they are always learning, we can't forget that as important adults in a child's life, we are also always teaching. They don't necessarily learn through our words or even our intentions, but they always do from our actions, be they about the codes of communication, social skills, or the rules of the road. And they have never failed, as James Baldwin famously pointed out, to imitate us.

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Thursday, June 07, 2018

A Moveable Playground

Recently, I received a long message out of the blue from a former Woodland Park Cooperative School parent. She had attended our school with her two children for several years, but for family reasons had been forced to withdraw.

It was one of those missives that I hope all teachers get from time-to-time, one of heartfelt gratitude made especially poignant by the fact that it has been quite some time since I'd last seen her anywhere other than online.

She filled me in on the kids, expressed regrets that they hadn't been able to finish up their time with us, and complimented me, telling me that her children, even some years removed from our program still spoke of their time with us, including their friends and me, but the thing they missed the most was our playground. "They get bored on every other playground after about an hour, but the never got bored at Woodland Park even though they were there almost every day."

I write often about our junkyard playground, a canvas created and re-created by the parents for their children to paint upon. We don't have any fancy equipment: no climbers or slides or playhouses. We do have an old set of swings with a trapeze bar, but other than that our space is very much like a vacant lot, full of shipping pallets, spare tires, planks of wood, ropes, and all manner of odds and ends, most of which are in some way "broken."

We've obviously spent very little money, opting instead for accepting donations from the garages, attics and cellars of the families who enroll their children. Few things are fixed in place and the children spend their days moving them around, building and re-building it to suit their needs for the moment.

It's true that children rarely get bored on our playground. There is always something new, usually of their own creation. On a typical playground with everything locked in place it doesn't take long -- an hour, a day, a week, a month -- before they've played the challenge out of it, before it becomes commonplace, whereas our moveable playground stands ready at any moment to be transformed into something new full of new risks to take, games to play, and ideas just waiting to be hatched.

Built on a slope with trees that grant us a steady supply of sticks and pinecones, a ground that produces rocks and plants and insects, and a community that continually re-supplies our collection of junk, we are blessed with a "state-of-the-art" facility, one that looks to the adult eye like nothing at all, but to a child like paradise.

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