Friday, July 31, 2009

The Blueberry Story

A few weeks ago, my wife Jennifer and I were out to dinner in the Madison Park neighborhood of Seattle. We were sitting at a table on the sidewalk when a pleasant older gentleman in a crested navy blue blazer asked if he could tie his dog to the stanchion nearest our table, “While I have a cocktail at the bar.”

It was a small, quiet dog, which had evidently been tied to stanchions before, so we said fine.

The man wasn’t in a hurry and we fell into conversation, when he suddenly pointed at me and said, “You should be in movies!”

I took it for an embarrassing attempt at a compliment, until he went on to tell us that he was, among other things, a film producer. One of the credits he claimed was Sleepless In Seattle. Over the next 10 minutes he mentioned having been involved with the old USFL, his educational foundation, his status as a retired billionaire, and his extensive real estate holdings. He was entertaining, charming, and quaintly proud of his gold pen with a built-in stamper that imprinted his business card information on any available piece of paper. He left us with an example, urging me to call him to talk about connecting me with his “casting people” and his plans for changing America’s educational system.

As soon as he walked away, Jennifer opined, “He’s a con man.” I waited until I got home to look him up.

J. William Oldenburg has had quite a history. I’m not saying he’s guilty of anything, but he seems to have made a career of being very closely associated with spectacular, multi-million dollar disasters.

He’s been labeled a savings and loan looter, a self-described billionaire and “Mr. Dynamite”, a vacuum cleaner salesman, a defendant in a case brought by the FDIC , and meteoric, among other things. In other words, Jennifer's instincts about him seem to have been spot on.

But this is just a long introduction to the main point of this post. At one point he went to his car to retrieve a copy of the “Blueberry Story”, saying that as a teacher I had to read it. And I have to say, it’s a pretty good story that sticks a thumb in the eye of those that think public schools should be run more like a business. It’s a first-hand account by Jamie Robert Vollmer, who has absolutely never associated with J. William Oldenburg.

The Blueberry Story: The teacher gives the businessman a lesson

“If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn’t be in business very long!”

I stood before an auditorium filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by the minute. My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes of inservice. Their initial icy glares had turned to restless agitation. You could cut the hostility with a knife.

I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the middle1980s when People Magazine chose our blueberry as the “Best Ice Cream in America.”

I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the industrial age and out of step with the needs of our emerging “knowledge society”. Second, educators were a major part of the problem: they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business. We knew how to produce quality. Zero defects! TQM! Continuous improvement!

In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced - equal parts ignorance and arrogance.

As soon as I finished, a woman’s hand shot up. She appeared polite, pleasant – she was, in fact, a razor-edged, veteran, high school English teacher who had been waiting to unload.

She began quietly, “We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.”

I smugly replied, “Best ice cream in America, Ma’am.”

“How nice,” she said. “Is it rich and smooth?”

“Sixteen percent butterfat,” I crowed.

“Premium ingredients?” she inquired.

“Super-premium! Nothing but triple A.” I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.

“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?”

In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap…. I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.

“I send them back.”

“That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s school!”

In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, “Yeah! Blueberries! Blueberries!”

And so began my long transformation.

Since then, I have visited hundreds of schools. I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night.

None of this negates the need for change. We must change what, when, and how we teach to give all children maximum opportunity to thrive in a post-industrial society. But educators cannot do this alone; these changes can occur only with the understanding, trust, permission and active support of the surrounding community. For the most important thing I have learned is that schools reflect the attitudes, beliefs and health of the communities they serve, and therefore, to improve public education means more than changing our schools, it means changing America.

Copyright 2002, by Jamie Robert Vollmer
Jamie Robert Vollmer, a former business executive and attorney, now works as a motivational speaker and consultant to increase community support for public schools. He can be reached at

I like this story. I think I came out ahead in my dealings with a world-class con man.

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Seeing The Forest For The Trees

The world would be a poor place if there were nothing but common sense in it. --George Eliot

Common wisdom holds that a preschool class of 20-24 children is too big. With only one or two teachers, it’s easy for quieter children to get “lost”, as teachers are compelled to put their energies into oiling the squeaky wheels. And as children suffer from a lack of teacher contact, a sort of “law of the jungle” community tends to emerge in which the development of social skills gets short shrift and the “weak” are dominated by the “strong”.

As a cooperative preschool, however, in which parents are expected to work alongside the teacher as assistants, Woodland Park regularly enrolls classes of this size.

In our 3-5’s class, we maintain a ratio of 1 adult for every 3 children. Our Pre-3 class’ ratio is 1 adult for every 2 kids. It may sound like a full classroom, and it is. It may seem like it would make for a noisy classroom, and it does. And it may feel like a recipe for chaos, and occasionally things do go that direction, but we’re talking about preschoolers here – chaos is in their DNA. Anyone who claims they can always control a couple dozen of them is using methods not approved by civil society!

As a cooperative teacher, I have the luxury of knowing that no one is getting “lost” in the classroom because there are so many adult eyes and hearts in the room with me to make sure needs are met, petty frustrations are handled, and learning is taking place. And while I love nothing more than to be down on my knees huddled over a picture book with one or two kids, or talking a child through a challenging puzzle, I also have the daily freedom to stick my head up over the “crowd” and take in the big picture.

While my several assistant teachers handle the physical and psychic bumps and bruises, I can be on the lookout for children who either chronically separate themselves from the group or who seem "frozen" to a spot. One of the primary goals of our preschool is for children to learn to engage with the other people, so self-isolation is a concern.

I'm not talking about a child who takes himself aside for a breather -- that's healthy. Almost every day, for instance, my friend Elliott would take a moment under the loft to thumb through a few books on his own. My friend Sarah would often request that she be left alone when she was upset, then rejoin the group a few minutes later – again, healthy behavior indicating a strong sense of self-awareness.

What I'm mostly looking for is behavior that tells me a child is afraid: afraid of the other children, the adults, the noise, the activities, the songs, Teacher Tom. Of course, fear is an adaptive emotion, but it often become a habitual response to specific stimuli; a response that has outlived its usefulness. Just as the book Go Away, Big Green Monster teaches us that we have the power to tell the monster to "Go away!" we can do the same for most of our preschool fears, but we need help. (In fact we almost always need help, throughout our lives, when it comes to dealing with fear.)

Another thing I watch for are individual behaviors and attitudes that we all know will be an impediment to forming good relationships. We can't expect to have a lot of friends if we have a reputation for hitting, screaming, or destructiveness. For those things the community has its rules and techniques for dealing with them.

What often gets overlooked by teachers who are occupied with squeaky wheels are the just as detrimental, but within-the-rules behaviors like whining, bossing, and excluding. We all engage in these behaviors at one time or another, but again, it's when it becomes habitual that it's a problem for both the child and the class. I like to try to nip those behaviors in the bud and teach alternatives, because the longer a habit has to become ingrained, the harder it is to alter.

And finally, and perhaps oddly, I'm often concerned when the physical "balance" of the classroom is out of whack. I'm probably just revealing a neurosis here, but I like to see children spread out around the room. Maybe it's related to my background as a coach: in most team sports it's important to stay spread out, covering the whole field, court or pitch. It's not always even a conscious thing, but when one part of the room gets too crowded for too long I find myself trying to lure children into underutilized corners of the room.

It’s important to me to be able to step back like this and actually see the forest for the trees on a daily basis, and it’s a luxury many teachers do not enjoy. A large, free-flowing classroom suits both my personality as a teacher and the cooperative model. But most importantly it serves the children.

Common wisdom is a fine thing, but it’s certainly not the only thing.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Law of Natural Consequences

Parent educator Jean Ward tells a story about a preschool mother who didn’t let her daughter out of her sight. She obsessively followed Sophie everywhere, but was especially attentive on the playground. Jean tried to persuade this mother to give Sophie more space, but she wouldn’t hear it. When it came time for kindergarten, the mother reluctantly let her daughter go that first day. A couple hours later the school nurse called. Sophie had fallen from the climbing structure and needed a ride to the doctor.

When the parent later reported this to Jean, she said, “My daughter broke her arm because I wasn’t there.”

And Jean answered, “Your daughter broke her arm because you were always there.”

Most things are learned best through real experiences, and in most cases, no amount of adult talk about “being careful” is going to help. Sophie had come to rely on her mother to be there to help her climb and catch her when she fell from the time she started climbing. She hadn’t experienced falling on the small, relatively safe preschooler climber, and so hadn’t developed the requisite caution she would need for the larger elementary school apparatus.

Of course, Sophie may have still broken her arm on the first day of kindergarten, but Jean’s point is well-taken: natural consequences are life’s greatest teacher.

“The best way to learn about asphalt is to fall on it,” is one of our mantras at Woodland Park. Part of our playground surface is made from the hard stuff, and no amount of warning children to be careful has ever worked as well as a scraped knee or two (or 3 or 4 in some cases) to teach children that they might want to save their wilder play for the gym or the wood chips.

Obviously, it’s not always possible to rely on natural consequences -- we wouldn’t want to use them to teach about the dangers of playing in the street, for instance -- and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be nurturing and sympathetic when a hard lesson is learned. It also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t warn children about impending danger when we see it coming. What it does mean is that one of our jobs is to let children make their own mistakes and experience the natural consequences of their actions, rather than teaching them to rely on an outside authority to regulate their behavior, if only because we won’t always be there to catch them when they fall.

The law of natural consequences isn’t only for learning about asphalt. I never make children, for instance, put on their coats to go outside even when it’s bitterly cold or pouring rain. If it’s too cold or wet, even 2-year-olds will, on their own, ask for a coat, and eventually learn to anticipate the need in the future.

The natural consequence of eating playdough is a yucky taste.

The natural consequence of putting gum in your hair is a sticky mess.

The natural consequence of not making it to the toilet in time is soggy undies.

The natural consequence of not eating a snack is hunger.

Sometimes the consequences are products of being a member of a community, and while they may not depend on physics or biology, they’re nonetheless natural.

The natural consequence of not raising your hand at Circle Time is you don’t get a chance to speak.

The natural consequence of knocking over someone else’s block building is that you have to help re-build it.

The natural consequence of breaking a rule is that someone will point at the list of rules and say, “You’re breaking a rule.”

The natural consequence of playing at preschool is that you’re expected to help clean up.

And as one boy learned last year, the natural consequence of hitting a bigger 2-year-old, no matter how sweet and gentle, is that you might get shoved to the ground, something that didn’t happen when he tried unprovoked hitting on adults.

Some of the natural consequences are too abstract for our youngest kids who are still a few developmental steps away from being able to rely on their capacity for empathy. When a toddler snatches a toy from another child, he simply may not yet be capable of connecting his action with the subsequent tears. At this age they tend to be a classroom full of individual suns around whom the universe revolves, which makes it hard to feel the pain of others. That’s why we must help them by pointing it out, “Suzie is crying because you took her toy.”

The law of natural consequences teaches through pleasure as well as through pain, but it’s only the negative consequences that loving adults often try to eliminate. Of course, we’ll always try to catch a child when we see her falling, but eventually she’ll need to learn about falling on her own. And when it does happen, we empathize and break out the band-aids.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Universal Preschooler

For the past month I’ve been horsing around with something called Google Analytics, which is a tool for website operators and bloggers to measure, calculate, and otherwise evaluate the statistical performance of their online ventures. It’s mainly designed for people trying to earn money, but it’s free, so I’ve been having fun playing with it.

The two most interesting stats to me are the measurements of what posts are being read, and where readers are coming from.

By a fairly large margin, the two most read posts over the past month are Messy Summer Art, and How I Deal With Hitting (And Kicking, Biting, Taking, Scratching . . .).

I take this to mean two things:

1) people around the world are looking to have a good old time with their preschoolers this summer, and

2) preschoolers everywhere are acting like preschoolers.

Obviously, the preponderance of Teacher Tom’s readers come from Seattle, but increasingly people are checking in from across the US (32 states) and even the world. In the past 30 days, readers have visited from 128 cities in 18 countries on 5 continents. I have no idea how this measures up to other blogs. Maybe it’s typical, but frankly, it still blows my mind.

The most interesting thing to me is that the two posts about “art” and “hitting” continue to be the most popular no matter how I parse it by state, country or continent. I have access to the “keywords” being used in their search engine queries and it’s amazing how often the phrases “messy art” and “preschooler hitting” are being used. From Seattle to Perth to Bangelore to Nairobi to Paris to La Victoria (Peru) this admittedly small sampling of parents of preschoolers seems to show a universal desire to splatter paint and stop the violence. I think it’s pretty cool.

But the coolest thing of all is the one visitor from Saudi Arabia who landed on the post, Growing Brave Children. This is a post in which I encourage parents and teachers to help children learn the skills and find the courage to stand up for themselves with words rather than fists. You don’t need me to point out that this query came from a part of the world with which the US has a history of “fisticuffs” and very little productive dialog.

This reader from Riyadh spent several minutes reading what a teacher in Seattle had to say about peaceful conflict resolution, then clicked through to read about messy art and hitting. It’s a thin, thin strand, but it’s a personal connection between two strangers who are often called enemies. Of course, we’re not enemies, and we’re really not even strangers. We’re just people who want to make art and peace with preschoolers.

For that one visitor alone I’m glad I’m blogging.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The World’s Greatest Children’s Comedian

I’m the world’s greatest children’s comedian. And so are you.

I was reading Crown Hill 3-5’s Cooperative Preschool parent Monkey’s Mama’s blog post yesterday about “Preschool Humor” and it got me thinking about what an incredibly effective tool “silliness” is.

As a man planning to enter this female dominated profession I met with North Seattle Community College Instructor Tom Drummond to pick his brain, the only other man I knew at the time in the early childhood education business. He said, “We need more men teaching preschool.” And I asked the classic preschooler question, “Why?”

Tom answered many noteworthy things, among them being, “Men are more likely to bring silliness to the classroom.”

At the time it seemed like a minor point, and while I won't comment on the gender aspect of the comment, I've since learned that silliness is, in fact, the most versatile tool in our belts. As Monkey’s Mama points out, it doesn’t work once the “tears have begun”, but in most other instances it’s worth a try. You have nothing to lose but your dignity, and as an adult living with preschoolers, you lost that long ago anyway.

It seems like at least once a week a child will say to me, “You’re silly, Teacher Tom.” And I always answer, “That’s a compliment. Thank you.”

Essentially, silliness is anything you do or say that defies expectations. For instance, mixing up words. Monkey’s Mama reports that Billy Bear is uproarious when he says, “polli-lops” when he means “lollipops”. Classic. I’ve called Harry Potter, “Pootie Hooter”. I’ve mistaken Butterflies and Flutterbies. And indeed, I’ve said “polli-lops” when I meant “lollipops”.

Sometimes I’ve forgotten how to jump.

Sometimes I speak without making a sound.

Sometimes I confuse top with bottom, on with off, or open with closed.

Sometimes I fall down for no reason at all.

Sometimes I insist that all the healthy snack food is candy.

I often use silliness to focus or re-direct a child’s attention. For instance, if you can tell that a child has boarded a train headed for a meltdown, there’s nothing like a little goofiness to derail it. When something strikes us as out of whack or unexpected, we must put whatever we're doing or feeling on hold for a moment to make sense of things. It’s in that moment that the possibility of a new destination opens to us. And when it comes to silliness, that moment usually ends with the kind of “ah ha” that causes laughter, which is an opening into a whole new emotional world.

Silliness can defuse a tense situation.

Silliness can lift a child out of sadness or ease one through shyness.

Silliness can inspire dramatic play, art, and scientific discovery.

Silliness can encourage critical thinking and listening skills. (Hey, that’s not right!)

Silliness is a way to demonstrate warmth, caring and love.

Silliness helps put things in perspective.

I often employ silliness as a means by which to bring a group of preschoolers together. And in my book, just about anything kids do together is a good thing. If I start running wildly around the gym, for example, just about every 2-year-old in our Pre-3 class will start running with me. When I fall on a mat, they all fall too. It may not be true parallel play, but it’s good practice for when they are developmentally ready to play together.

In the 3-5’s class, I like to deploy "preschool humor" to kick off Circle Time when the kids are a little too pumped up. There is nothing children this age enjoy more than laughing together, and group laughter is a great way to concentrate their attention where I want it at the start of Circle Time -- on me! I have a song about sitting in broken glass, thorny roses, and sharks’ teeth that works almost every time.

Once our Woodland Park children are in their Pre-K year (4-5 year olds), they don’t need Teacher Tom any more. They can use the tool of silliness all by themselves. There is nothing more hilarious, for instance, than the silly knock-knock jokes they tell each other:

“Knock knock”

“Who’s there?”


“Door who?”

“Door WINDOW!”

And believe me, they have a million of them.

It’s that easy. Try falling down for no reason at all. You too can be the world greatest children’s comedian.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

My Clumsy Adventure In Grassroots Democracy

Friday evening I took our new train, then the monorail, to Seattle Center to pick up my daughter Josephine. I’d arrived a little early because Mom wanted me to check to make sure the International Fountain was operational (apparently it had been closed for cleaning because of large amounts of broken glass after the Bite of Seattle event). She wanted the all's clear to take one of her grandchildren there for a romp in the spray.

As I was running this errand, a young woman approached me with a clipboard. She wanted me to sign a petition to place Referendum 71 on the Washington State ballot. This is the outrageously dishonest anti-gay initiative that would repeal our state’s newly expanded domestic partnership law. Now you must understand that I’m living under a strict vow to never again let these American Taliban foot soldiers speak in public without speaking back. I’m committed to civility and reasonable discourse, but if the last 8 years have taught me anything it’s that political silence is not an option in a democracy.

The discussion started out fine, but when she said, “I don’t want them teaching my children,” I became less than civil and reasonable. And to call it “discourse” would be stretching the term. I didn’t curse, but I did call her “a bigot” among other things, and I was wrong to do it. Make no mistake, this initiative is outright bigotry, but name-calling is never productive. It’s just intended to hurt. I try to teach this to children, but I clearly still have a lot to learn myself.

I’m somewhat more proud of what I did next. I’d come to realize that she was working as part of a team of 7 or 8 signature gatherers and they were soliciting people as they entered Key Arena for some sort of evangelical “conference”. I announced, “I’m going to stand here and speak against you.” And I proceeded to loudly inform passersby that these people were collecting signatures on an “anti-gay, anti-civil rights” petition. Then I started joining into the conversations of people being pitched, interrupting with things like, “This initiative puts the rights of a minority up to the vote of the majority. One group can’t be allowed to take away the rights of another in a democracy.” And, “Maybe I’ll come out here next weekend with a petition for a ballot measure that will make it illegal for Republicans or Christians to marry in the Seattle. It would make the ballot and it might even win!”

It seemed like this last point might have gotten through to one teenager. While the others had talked back to me, this kid stood staring with a look of pained perplexity on his face. It might have just been gas, but it could have also been the expression of someone trying to fit a round fact into the square hole his upbringing had made of his brain. Maybe, just maybe, I’d created a little cognitive dissonance, which can be an opportunity to learn something new. I wasn’t the only one who noticed this, because seconds later the patriarch of the signature gatherers took him aside for a private chat.

I’m embarrassed that I let myself get sidetracked into a theological argument, which is entirely beside the point. You can’t argue with people about morality. Once you disagree in a moral argument you’ve automatically reached a stalemate. In fact, I have a theory that the morality of a community (as opposed to the individual) can only emerge from the process of working toward compromise based on uncontested facts. If you start with morality you’re instantly faced with an irresolvable problem because people never back down from their moral values. Unfortunately, I was not of a theoretical mind on Friday.

I finally, reluctantly, left them behind as the time had come to return to my fatherly responsibilities.

In sum, I’m glad I spoke out, but I’m not at all satisfied with how I handled myself. I feel a little ashamed. Since then I’ve also experienced a major plague of “genius in the stairwell” (i.e., realizing what I should have said or done after the fact). And, the possibility of that teenager excepted, I realize that I probably didn’t change a single mind. At best, I can say that I succeeded in putting that little group on notice: You will be opposed.

But aside from writing to warn Washington State residents against signing Referendum 71, I wanted to share what happened when I picked up Josephine.

I told her what happened and she answered, “Aww, I wish I could have been there!”

Woo hoo! For those of you who don’t know, Josephine is 12 years old, an age when kids are notoriously always embarrassed by their parents. In a moment that left me with mixed feelings, the girl was telling me that I was a little bit cool.

On the way home on our fun new light-rail train, she told me some of the things she would have said had she been there with me.

I have a cool kid. And in spite of my misgivings, I wish she had been there to see me, clumsiness and all.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

One Thing at a Time

Circle Time in the Woodland Park 3-5's class is our daily children’s community meeting. Yes, we do the traditional singing, dancing, and picture book reading, but learning to engage in a group discussion is what it’s really all about.

Participation is key. For some kids, the challenge is learning to stop “participating” long enough for the other children to get a word in edgewise. For others, the notion of raising a hand, waiting to be called on, then speaking in front of such a large group, can be intimidating.

My 3-year-old friend Josephine (as differentiated from my 12-year-old daughter Josephine) was one of the latter. She participated in the singing and dancing, and was clearly engaged with the reading, but she preferred listening over speaking.

It took a few months, but one day she raised her hand to indicate that she wanted to compliment a friend. I called, “Josephine has something to say.” We held eye contact for a moment and I understood that this was really only about hand raising -- one thing at a time.

I asked, “Do you want me to call on you later?” She nodded.

For several weeks thereafter we went through this ritual whenever we were giving compliments or making rules, each time ending with our agreement to do this again next time. And then, out of the blue, I called her and she answered as if it was nothing special, “Heart Monkey is in my cubby.” Josephine still never became one of the regular contributors, but she gamely tried out rule making, compliment giving, and freelance public speaking over the course of the rest of the year.

Similarly, when it came to storytelling Josephine’s process told a more interesting story than the tales themselves.

It took a few months before she approached me as I was collecting stories to read later at Circle Time. When I asked if she wanted a turn, she shook me off. She just wanted to listen to the other kids tell their stories.

For several weeks thereafter we went through the same ritual whenever we were telling stories. Then one day when I asked, “Do you want to tell a story to read at Circle Time?” she nodded. I wrote her name on the list. When her turn came we held eye contact for a moment and I understood that this was really only about getting her name on the list – one thing at a time.

Then a few weeks later, she told this story:

Humity, humity, humity.

When it was time to read it at Circle Time, Josephine came forward without hesitation, smiled into the audience as I introduced it, then laughed as I carefully recited her words, “Humity, humity, humity.”

There is only one other story in the Josephine file:

Coma, cama, coma,
Coma Como Como coma.
Hm hm hm hm hm hm,
Hm hm hm hm hm hm hm.
Gunk gunk gunk gunk gunk.

When I read that one, she was not making eye contact with me at all, because she was too busy looking at the audience. And I already knew that her storytelling was really only about standing at the front of the class while Teacher Tom reads.

I can’t wait to hear her stories next year.

One thing at a time.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Patience Isn't Always a Virtue

In response to my post from Wednesday, several people wrote me with comments similar to this one from a former Woodland Park parent:

You're so patient with the children. You never lose your temper. I try but I have a hard time staying calm.

I'm certainly not patient all the time, and I've been known to lose my temper, just ask my family.

Everyone knows I hold Mister Rogers -- the poster child for patience -- in high esteem. Here's something he had to say on the topic:

I received a letter from a parent who wrote: "Mister Rogers, how do you do it? I wish I were like you. I want to be patient and quiet and even-tempered, and always speak respectfully to my children. But that just isn't my personality. I often lose my patience and even scream at my children. I want to change from an impatient person into a patient person, from an angry person into a gentle one."

Just as it takes time for children to understand what real love is, it takes time for parents to understand that being always patient, quiet, even-tempered, and respectful isn't necessarily what "good" parents are. In fact, parents help children by expressing a wide range of feelings -- including appropriate anger. All children need to see that the adults in their lives can feel anger and not hurt themselves or anyone else when they feel that way.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Top Ten Toys

My undergraduate degree is in journalism with an emphasis in advertising. I was going to be the creative genius behind all those incredibly funny beer commercials and sexy cosmetic spreads. For a variety of reasons, I never actually worked a day in the advertising business, an accident of fate for which I’ll be forever thankful.

I lived through my early adulthood with the attitude that advertising was a necessary benignity, but by the time our daughter Josephine was two, I’d developed an outright hostility toward those that would target my child. We watched television rarely and when we did it was public broadcasting, but even that soured when we started running across Blue’s Clues brand merchandise in every toy store in town. It didn’t matter how crappy or redundant the toy was, if it had Blue’s paw print on it, Josephine had been taught by Madison Avenue to crave it. Arg!

It was around this time that we discovered the Greenwood neighborhood’s Top Ten Toys. Woodland Park families already know about this 7,000 square foot shrine to childhood and its commitment to keeping old-fashioned healthy play alive with an enormous selection of classic hands-on toys designed to inspire creativity. You won’t find Barbies or toy guns or Leap Pads at Top Ten. And you definitely won’t find toys that are extensions of those television programs that are really just 30 minute animated commercials for crap. In fact, I don’t think you’ll find toys that are advertised at all – at least not directly to your child.

You will find a huge array of innovative board games, a truly impressive science section, art supplies for all ages, and dramatic play toys that make you want to be a kid again yourself. In fact, the staff is a bunch of adult children. More often than not they’ve played with the toys themselves so they really know what they’re talking about. My friend Brent Williamson, Top Ten’s general manager, is one of the most genuine and loving people I know. It’s an attitude you feel the moment you walk through the door, even during the holidays.

Every parent needs a place like Top Ten, if not in their neighborhood, at least in their town or city. Sadly, I know that there are large swaths of this country where the only options are “big box” operators like Toys R Us and Wal-Mart, with their mass marketed crap, and a staff that has to check the computer to see if they even stock what you’re after, let alone answer questions like, “Do you have anything that encourages pre-math skills?”

I don’t have to ask Brent to know that the economy is putting a squeeze on conscientious, independent businesses like Top Ten. If you’re buying toys, and I know you are, don’t forget Top Ten. And if you’re not in Seattle, seek out the non-violent, multicultural, non-commercial toy store in your area and give it your business.

And as an added incentive, Top Ten is having a sidewalk sale this weekend, July 25th and 26th, so come on down!

Okay, so I guess I didn’t leave advertising behind entirely.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Scatterers

Charlie and Sam were a set of twins I had in my very first class. One morning they looked into one another’s eyes and telepathically decided to feverishly scatter 150 counting bears off the table and onto the floor.

It's very common for 2-year-olds to take great joy in knocking collections of small items from a table. And, obviously, a bunch of small items scattered across the classroom floor presents both a mess and a hazard. I knew that if I picked them up it would just become a game, but what was I going to do?

After making a mental note to never again give 2-year-olds access to all 150 counting bears at once, I tried to remember what I’d learned in school. All I came up with is to avoid directional statements like, “Don’t do that,” or “Pick them up.” In the repose of writing about the episode 8 years later, I can say it’s because I don’t want children to learn to do the right thing just because an authority is bossing them around. I want them to do the right thing because they chose to do it. But at the moment I froze for what seemed like a long time before stating the first non-directional thing that came to mind, “The bears are on the floor.”

The boys just giggled, but at least they looked at the bears on the floor.

I said it again, “The bears are on the floor.” I was buying time.

They just looked at the bears again, but stopped giggling.

Then as matter-of-factly as possible I said, “The bears are on the floor and they belong on the table.”

We all looked at the bears. After a pause I repeated, “The bears are on the floor and they belong on the table.” Another pause followed by another statement of the basic facts. I must have gone through it a half dozen times. To be honest, I kept saying it because the boys kept standing there looking at the bears. But then like a miracle, Charlie picked up a bear and put it on the table.

I stuck with the strategy of making simple statements of undisputed fact. “Charlie picked up a bear and put it on the table.”

He picked up another. “Charlie is picking up a bear and putting it on the table.”

Sam joined him. I verbally noted it.

They were picking up the bears and putting them on the table while I narrated!

As they picked up those bears one at a time, I quickly realized that I couldn’t realistically expect them to pick up all those bears by themselves.

So I added a sentence to the repetition, “I’m going to help Charlie and Sam pick up the bears and put them on the table.”

Using the more advanced technique of scooping up handfuls of bears at once, I helped make fairly short work of the job.

I celebrated, “We did it!”

Charlie and Sam looked into one another’s eyes and telepathically decided to again feverishly knock 150 counting bears off the table and onto the floor.

I took a deep breath and said, “The bears are on the floor.” And we did the whole thing again, right down to the boys feverishly knocking 150 bears onto the floor for a third time. But they finally moved on, leaving those bears on the table where they belonged.

I wish I could say that it was the last time they scattered small items across the floor, but at least I can report that they allowed themselves to be coached through clean up every time, and eventually they gave it up altogether.

Since then, I’ve seen this repeated over and over in our Pre-3 class. It’s a behavior rarely carried out by a solo actor, but most often by two or more children who, like Charlie and Sam, connect with one another and make it a fun and frenzied game. Often it’s a first foray into the world of parallel play. That’s why I would never attempt to outright forbid scattering. Preschool is all about learning to play with the other people and this is one of the ways that 2-year-olds do it.

I do, however, want them to move on from this form of parallel play as quickly as possible.

Young children are biologically programmed to desire attention from adults, or as mom once said, "If you don't give children attention, they'll take it." That's why when the scattering starts, I like adults to avoid giving verbal attention to the behavior, but rather focus on the bears on the floor and their proper place on the table. In other words, ignore the behavior we’d rather not see, while waiting to give attention to the behavior (e.g., picking up the bears) that we want to see. It takes a lot of patience, but it works.

Of course, it has never worked quite as well as it did that first time with Charlie and Sam. Usually, when I say, “There are bears on the floor and they belong on the table,” nothing happens until they’re all on the floor. If I keep repeating it, however, eventually one of the children (not necessarily the ones who have knocked them on the floor) will begin picking up the small items, and I give them attention for doing it. This then tends to draw more attention-seeking children into the activity. And while the clean up team isn’t always the same as the scattering team, we get those bears back on the table where they belong.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

We Are The Visionaries

If you don’t live in Seattle, or if you’re new to the area, you’re probably not going to get how exciting this is, but our new light-rail line is awesome! Make no mistake, for a city its size, our mass transit “system” continues to be woefully inadequate, but after three days of yo-yoing between Tukwilla and downtown on our new train, I believe I’ve seen the future and it is all of us.

A few summers ago, my family rented an apartment in Manhattan. When my wife Jennifer left for work each morning, our daughter Josephine and I would hop on the subway and spend our days exploring. We saw great art, theater, and street performance. We ate in incredible restaurants. We visited some of the world’s top museums. We even experienced a Will Smith movie being shot in our block. But at the end of the day, the thing we remember the most about that month is the freedom, convenience and community of the subway.

It was depressing to return to Seattle and the headaches of driving, parking, congestion, maintenance, and fueling up. We virtually deified those Big Apple visionaries who decided to suck it up 100 years ago and start digging tunnels and laying tracks. As far as I’m concerned, without the subway, New York would be just another big city.

Why oh why couldn’t someone have done the same thing in Seattle?

It’s a small start, and we’ve been disappointed before, but I’m starting to believe that we are the Seattle visionaries who have sucked it up. There are decades of construction and legal hassles ahead, but I’ve seen a glimpse of a mass transit future these past 3 days and it has me giddy.

On Sunday, I waited in line for more that half an hour with hundreds of my neighbors at my Othello Station for a first ride. And all of us were there: recent immigrants and old-school Seattleites shoulder-to-shoulder and face-to-face; neighbors of every skin tone and ethnic heritage; neighbors of means and poverty; neighbors at the end of their lives and those just starting out.

The car was crowded so I tucked myself behind an elderly woman in her wheel chair to make room for a young African American mother with her preschool-aged son. Of course, being me, I was watching that little guy’s face as the train pulled smoothly from the station. His eyes went round. I made eye contact with the mother, then spoke to the boy, “Isn’t this cool?” He beamed. I said, “We live in the best neighborhood in Seattle!” His mother laughed, answering, “We do!”

I’m not ignorant of the environmental and economic benefits of a good mass transit system, but for me those things pale beside this. Those of us who live in the Southend have lived through the headaches of construction together and now we’re reaping the benefits of being brought together. Few American cities are as racially and economically divided as ours, but I saw a major crack in the wall these past 3 days. Infrastructure like trains, sidewalks, and stadiums help create community in ways that no amount of social engineering can.

Yesterday, I took my first “practical” trip on the train. I hopped on at Othello, rode it to Westlake, then caught the monorail to Seattle Center where I picked up Josephine after her first rehearsal for The Taming of the Shrew. (No, it was not lost on me that Shakespeare anchored the trip on each end.) We then returned home via the reverse route, admiring the magnificent underground stations (especially the “space ship” station under Beacon Hill), and reminiscing about our month in Manhattan.

Sitting next to Josephine, I envisioned her coming of age in a city tied together by a spider web of tracks. And I realized that we aren’t building this for ourselves, but for our children and grandchildren. We are sucking it up in the anticipation of a better environmental and economic future, and as we do it we’re planting the seeds for a less divided community.

At one point an elderly man wearing a cowboy hat boarded, sat behind us, and started talking without invitation. It didn’t faze him that we weren’t encouraging. He started with a monologue about which seats had the most legroom, then segued into a description of how he worried they might have mislaid the track ties near the Tukwilla Station. When I leaned over to Josephine to comment on a feature of the Pioneer Square Station, he launched into a description of what buildings were directly above us. He pulled out a newspaper, glanced at it, then dropped it distractedly on his lap. My heart melted when he said to no one in particular, “I’ve been waiting 60 years for this.” At the next stop, he produced a camera, saying, “Well, I’m getting off here. This the only station I haven’t taken pictures of.”

Indeed there are decades of construction to go, but when I look into the future I see myself as an old man wearing a cowboy hat and carrying a camera. I’ll be riding the last link in a regional light-rail system, while chattering to no one in particular about the 60 years I’ve waited for this.

We are the visionaries. All aboard!

Monday, July 20, 2009

People Outside of Time

I’ve posted before about the Fremont Summer Solstice Parade, but there is another less well-known, but just as fun, parade that takes place late on the night before.

Most of the “mass” of the parade – the floats – are built at the Powerhouse, headquarters of the Fremont Arts Council, which is located a good 2 miles from the start of the parade. Our “midnight parade” involves moving the floats through the streets of Fremont and to the starting line. It’s a surreal little event, with an audience of Friday night revelers caught unawares by giant paper mache sculptures, bizarre constructions, and dozens of giddy people who are stopping traffic to maneuver these alien objects through the night time streets. People on the sidewalks stare then cheer as they realize what they’re seeing.

I was at the front of our silly Superhuggers float along with my philosopher friend John. At one point we realized that we’d been fighting against the lock on one of our wheels. In the struggle to release the by-now firmly fixed lock we fell behind, separated from the rest of the parade by a normally busy intersection that had already been closed for far too long. It was down hill for us from that point, so once the brake was released we took off, six of us running like crazy with this unreliable conveyance of red, white and silver hearts on hardware store casters. When we cleared the intersection there was a moment of panic as we put all our weight into avoiding a full-speed collision with the Cat in the Hat float ahead of us. It would have been a tragic accident for the funny pages.

Out of breath and red faced, I asked John, “Can you believe it? We’re grown-ups doing this.”

He answered, “We’re not grown-ups right now. We’re people outside of time.”

What underpins Woodland Park’s curriculum is the proposition that play is the natural way for young children to learn, and that fostering play with other people is the most important thing we do. I think this is true for most preschools. We don’t line preschoolers up in their desks. We don’t lecture them. We don’t assign homework, conduct memorization drills, or test them. These are preschoolers and everyone knows that they learn best through play.

When do we stop learning best through play? Probably never, but by the time most of our children are in 1st grade they’re passively listening to lectures, memorizing spelling words, and studying for tests. Why?

The answer is as complex as society, of course, but it has to do with class size, official curriculum, standardized testing, and the inertia of entrenched institutions. You could make the argument that it’s a product of industrialization; that Western culture has evolved to consider the primary societal benefit of schools to be vocational training. (When was the last time you heard a politician talk about schools without mentioning the economy?) Or maybe it’s that we focus too much on what children need to learn rather than on what they want to learn.

Whatever the reasons, play becomes separated from education as children move through our educational system. It gets increasingly parsed out into PE and recess and field trips. Sure, there are a lot of innovative teachers out there who make learning fun, but the ghetto-ization of play is invariably the trend as we make our way through the years of formalized learning.

This isn’t to say that we don’t try to play as we grow into adults. We all have hobbies and recreations that we attempt to wedge in between yard work and housework and running errands, but rarely do we meet grown-ups in this country for whom play is central to their lives.

When I coached baseball in Germany, my team, the Yahoos, was comprised of men in their 20's, most of whom worked in the Volkswagen factory. They would recite their priorities:

1) Family
2) Hobby
3) Work

It was like a mantra: Familie, hobby, arbeit. The Yahoos were men who consciously lived important parts of their lives outside of time. To this day baseball is more central to the lives of these German guys than it is to most of the millions of American baseball fans. I know that when I say that baseball is one of my hobbies, what I mean is that I mostly watch it on TV. And watching TV isn’t play.

In contrast to these Yahoos, we tend to relegate our hobbies to the bottom of the list, like an afterthought. We wait until all our work is done before we play. And all too often we’re so exhausted that our play suffers. We spend the important part of our lives living almost entirely inside of time.

When it comes to play, those of us with young children in our lives are the fortunate ones. I like to think I’m pretty good at playing, but I’m a piker next to preschoolers. They are the undisputed experts. As I reflect on each day after the children have gone home, I’m always amazed by the breadth and depth of their knowledge and skill. The days seem full and long. So much happens. So much is learned. But while they play with me the time seems to pass in the blink of an eye. It almost ceases to exist, only to return to me when they have gone home.

This simple message is one of the greatest gifts our children have to give: Play is why we're here.

I’ve replayed that supercharged moment of racing across the intersection over and over in my mind for the past month. We were not grown-up people that night as our midnight parade wound its way through the streets of Fremont. We were playing together, being silly, laughing heatedly into one another’s faces. Time did not exist and all that remained was the fun we were having together.

Playing with others is love.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Best Toy

One of the constants in our classroom is playdough. Inexpensive, versatile and therapeutic, children know that they will always find a large ball of it when they come to school.

We begin our days at Woodland Park with what we call “Discovery Time” (e.g., free play, choice time) and for many kids, the playdough table is their daily starting point. Others use the soft, soothing dough as a refuge when play gets to loud or too wild or when their emotions start to overwhelm them. Some “bake” endless trays of playdough cookies and muffins, which they serve to their friends. Some construct buildings, invent monsters, or roll out long snakes.

Playdough is a comforting tactile experience.

Playdough is a medium for art and architecture.

Playdough is a vehicle for imaginative play.

We’ve tried a number of different playdough recipes over the years, but none combine the silkiness with the longevity of the one my mother taught me.

Teacher Tom’s Mom's Very Special Playdough Recipe

This is the recipe for one small batch. We quadruple it for classroom use.
1-cup flour
1/2-cup salt
2-teaspoons cream of tarter
1-cup water
1-Tablespoon cooking oil
food coloring (optional)
scent (optional, but recommended)

Put everything in a pot and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. You're looking for the dough to start separating from the sides of the pan (the time this takes depends on how big your batch is). I’ve found that the smoothest results come from stopping when it still seems like it’ll be a little too sticky. Remove and let cool for a bit on wax paper. Add color and knead to distribute color. I always add a scent (e.g., mint, wintergreen, clove, strawberry, etc.) to keep it smelling fresh.

Friday, July 17, 2009

You can’t say you can’t play!

While I implied in a prior post that the children in the Woodland Park 3-5’s class are charged with making all their own rules, there is one important exception: the rule called You Can’t Say You Can’t Play.

That one sort of gets forced on them. I’ll confess that I’ve taken to manipulating our Circle Time in order to make sure this rather complex rule gets on the books early on, because I know it’s a tool we’ll later be glad we have in the belt. (I do this by having a chat with a few of the older kids -- kids who remember the rule from the prior year -- and remind them that this important rule is not yet in place. Then I leave them with something like, “That would be a good rule to suggest at Circle Time.” When the hands later go up, I know You Can’t Say You Can’t Play is among them.)

The notion of exclusion isn’t an easy one for preschoolers to grasp, and while they all know how it feels to be on the receiving end, it’s a difficult concept to codify into the rules without some grown-up help. Because our classroom becomes increasingly full of 4 and 5-year-olds as the year progresses, children will begin experimenting with excluding one another and if we’re not ready (and even if we are) it will break our hearts and boil our blood. Few things cause more parental outrage and anxiety than when our own child gets involved in this form of power play. When our child is the victim, it churns up the emotions from our own experience. And if our child is the perpetrator, the shame can be overwhelming.

Of course, learning to be powerful in the world is a good and normal thing. Knowledge is the kind of power we celebrate. Physical fitness gives us the raw powers of endurance and muscle. Persuasiveness and charm have the power to change hearts and minds. Every skill we acquire puts us incrementally more in control of the world. But as we’re all aware, there can be an ugly side to power. And just as falling on asphalt is the best way to learn about asphalt, the abuse of power is probably the best way to learn about power from both sides of the equation.

Abusing power and being abused by power are universal experiences. All of us can guiltily recall times when we pushed someone around. We’ve also all been pushed around as well. In other words, not only do we all need to learn to use our own power benevolently, but we must all also develop skills for dealing with those who don’t. These are skills we will use for the rest of our lives and preschool is where we lay the foundation.

It’s probably because our own experiences with exclusion are so much more current and plentiful than our memories of being hit or kicked, that most of us are better able to calmly and effectively handle run-of-the-mill hitting, pushing and snatching. At the same time many of us get tied up in knots when confronted by the ickiness of children pointedly excluding one another.

Of course, most of us have no problem stepping in when it’s a clear-cut case of exclusion, such as: “No girls allowed!” At Woodland Park we remind the children, “You can’t say you can’t play.”

But it’s not usually that simple. What do we do, for instance, when two children have cooperatively constructed a game of princess castle and a third child barges in declaring the sandbox is his fire station? Naturally, the princesses will object. Of course they’ll seek to evict the firefighter. And the sophisticated firefighter can be expected to loudly respond, “You can’t say you can’t play!” That’s the point we adults generally enter into the conflict, often siding with the rule-spouting firefighter, who, in fact, is the one taking a walk on the ugly side of power.

This kind of power play is rarely a black or white issue. The rule You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, includes the corollary: "If you insist on wrecking someone else’s game by refusing to accept an appropriate role in the game, you can be excluded." This, of course, is getting far too complicated for preschoolers to grasp in the abstract. The only way they’ll learn is through trial and error.

As the children go through their trials, it’s important for us, as teachers, to take the time to listen. I like to step into the fray by giving each side an opportunity to tell her version of the story, sometimes even going so far as to take physical control of a child who attempts to just walk away. Even if I think I already know what has happened, I want the children to hear both sides of the story – I want them to learn that there is always another side to the story.

In the case of the example, the princesses should not be forced to change their game for the interloper. Ultimately, the firefighter has two choices: 1) find a role within the game already underway or 2) take the firefighter game elsewhere. Our job is to guide the children to that conclusion by stating facts and asking questions. It’s a complicated concept for young children and one that we will not always be able to succeed in helping them understand. But we have to try.

And sometimes we are successful.

Several years ago, a group of older kids were using our loft as a superhero hideout. It was a noisy, exciting game involving ropes. It attracted a steady stream of younger children to check out the action. Owain took up a position at the top of the first flight of stairs. As newcomers arrived, he would block their way and ask, “Are you a good guy or a bad guy?” Most answered, “Good guy,” and were ushered into the designated part of the loft. The few who answered, “Bad guy,” were shown to another part of the loft.

My initial impulse was to put an end to this game that involved blocking the stairs, but after a moment’s reflection I realized Owain was following the You Can’t Say You Can’t Play rule to the letter, including the corollary. An established game was in progress. Newcomers were not being excluded. On the contrary they were being offered a choice of appropriate roles in the game.

I stood watching as everyone who approached was included. As the loft filled up with good guys and bad guys, everyone looked satisfied. A few minutes later an adult stepped in and broke up the game, but I still recall it as a shining moment, one I hope is recreated throughout the children’s lives.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Thinking Inside the Box

In limitations he first shows himself the master.

“Thinking outside the box” has become an overused catch phrase intended to imply creativity. Today it seems like we want everything to be out of the box, but I was working in the business world in the early 1980’s when that phrase came into common use. For us it had a very precise and, frankly, desperate meaning: Our idea box is empty! Thinking outside the box was what you did as a last resort, when nothing else worked. Outside the box solutions were by definition of the makeshift and temporary variety. And while necessity may be the mother of invention, I strongly believe that true genius almost always comes from within the framework of rules.

Page was a smart 4-year-old boy who grew dissatisfied with the classroom rule: No name-calling.

We had arrived at this rule via our usual process of consensus and he’d voiced no objection at the time, but found himself bumping up against the confines of its “box” within days.

At first he tried getting around the rule by only whispering his insults. When charged with breaking the rule, he insisted that it didn’t count because the object of his name-calling “didn’t hear it.”

Then he tried finding loopholes. When caught calling a classmate, “dodo head”, for instance, he made the argument that “dodo head” actually meant, “good good head.” (His case fell apart when I asked if we could refer to him by this appellation.)

He once even tried the political talk show host technique of saying, “If it wasn’t against the rules, I’d call you a poop!”

Finally he initiated a one-man campaign to change the rule. For several weeks running, he raised his hand at Circle Time and spoke against it. He managed to sway a couple of his friends, but ultimately failed to rally sufficient numbers to carry the day.

After that, the matter seemed to disappear until one day Page approached me with a piece of construction paper upon which he’d made some marks with a pen that looked like letters. Most of the kids were capable of writing their own names and maybe a few other words, but there was an inordinate amount of writing on this paper, far beyond what we usually see in preschool.

“Read it,” he said with a sly grin.

The letters weren’t necessarily in a straight line, nor were they perfectly formed, but it looked something like this:


I had to sound it out: “Erin . . . picks . . . her . . . boogers . . .”

Page roared. It was too much. I shouldn’t have, but I laughed with him.

Later, when I told his mother about it, she shrugged, “He’s my little freak. He’s been teaching himself to read and write for months -- all on his own. I guess now I know why.”

In the interest of encouraging this amazing foray into accelerated literacy, Page and I made a private deal. We agreed that name-writing wasn’t technically the same as name-calling. He could therefore write whatever he wanted, but he couldn’t read it aloud and he could only show it to me. It wasn’t long before he moved on to more appropriate subject matter, but we had several private chuckles before he did.

That’s how genius works inside the box.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Rule of Law

To execute laws is a royal office.
--Edmund Burke

Rules are agreements about how people in a community are going to live together. We expect others to adhere to those rules and to the extent that they do they become an underpinning for a predictable, comprehensible world; one upon which we can depend, behave confidently, and over which we ultimately become master. Clearly defined and consistently enforced rules are an important part of creating a place in which children feel secure. And it’s really only when young children feel secure that they thrive.

As a two-year-old Henry didn’t care for school. It made him nervous. He didn’t want mom to leave, but when she did he would only (reluctantly) accept Alexander’s dad A.J. as a surrogate. One day he quietly told us that he was planning to break the whole school. Clearly he felt insecure.

Henry was big on construction, especially traffic cones, so we put out an APB to our families, rounded up some 30 orange pylons of various sizes, and filled the room with them. He thought that was pretty cool and allowed himself to be distracted from his concerns for a few minutes at a time, but it wasn’t enough.

One day he let me engage him in building a block tower. What he liked best was that I let him stand on a chair to build it even taller, but still it was only a temporary thing.

By the end of the year, he was still unsure about preschool, but he’d learned what to expect and had found a few predictable things to look forward to. It really wasn’t until the next year and the advent of “the rules” that he decided that school was a place for him.

For the next two years Henry was one of our most avid rule authorities. So much so that he would often prepare by coming to me to discuss and sort through several prospective rules, and then plan which one he was going to propose at Circle Time that day. Of course, he branched out into other activities, especially as he learned to play with his buddies, but the rules remained his touchstone.

One of the features of Woodland Park’s rule making is that we’ve never found the need to attach any consequences to breaking them, so when children inevitably run to Teacher Tom to say, “Cheryl broke a rule! She’s running!” all we have is, “Oh no, someone might get hurt. Did you remind her that running inside is against the rules?”

Naturally, an adult will step in if necessary, but it works much better to have peers remind each other about rules, than for an all-powerful adult to command obedience. The children tend to take the correction far more easily when coming from a friend. In reality, a lot of kids lose interest in any but the most egregious rule breaking when they’re cast as enforcers, but Henry took the role seriously.

One day as have millions of boys before him, Henry was playing police officer. But this wasn’t the ordinary game of pretend. He was actively engaged in the business of policing the classroom. He patrolled the school, mimicking police lights by holding his fists over his head and “flashing” them opened and closed. After each action he reported to me:

“Matt was dropping things from the loft, so I reminded him it was against the rules.”

“Lauren was standing on a chair, so I reminded her it was against the rules.”

“Faythe was splashing water, so I reminded her it was against the rules.”

Each time I would ask if they were still breaking the rule and, checking once more to make sure, Henry would answer “No.”

“Good job.”

And off he’d go, lights flashing, loving school.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"I Have A Rule!"

Woodland Park’s 3-5 class begins each year in an official state of anarchy. Naturally, the adults adhere to the basic principles of safety, but otherwise there are no rules other than the internalized ones the children bring from home or from their prior years of preschool.

It doesn’t take long, however, for the need to arise, usually within the first couple weeks. When that day comes we sit down at Circle Time and I say something like, “I saw people taking things from each other today. I saw people hurting each other. I saw people scaring each other. What can we do about that?”

This is a moment to rely on our second year students to exercise Woodland Park’s institutional memory and suggest that we need some rules. And they always come through.

I post a large sheet of butcher paper on the wall, ask, “What rules should we have?” then start calling on hands. After each suggestion we take a moment for discussion (e.g., “Does anyone like to get hit?” “Does anyone want to be pushed?”). Upon reaching “consensus” (i.e., no one insists that they want to get hit) I say, “Then that’s a rule,” and add it to the list.

This first session of rule making usually covers the important ground:

No hitting
No pushing
No kicking
No taking things from other people
No biting . . . etc.

The rules we make on this first day of rule-making tend to be the ones that would sound good to anyone, anywhere, throughout time, much like the original Articles of the US Constitution or The Ten Commandments.

But unlike these more formal founding documents, ours haven’t been handed down to us by the Founding Fathers or The Almighty. Our rules are of our own creation and that’s a very powerful thing. I don’t want our classroom to be mine. We don’t want it to belong to the parents either. We want the children to know that the classroom belongs to them and making their own rules is one of the important ways we do this. And lest you worry about turning over legislative powers to preschoolers, let me assure you that their own rules are far more restrictive and detailed than anything I myself would make. If anything, one of my main functions in the process is to talk them out of some of the more draconian proposals (e.g., “No breathing on someone else’s painting,” or “No pushing air.”)

Ultimately, however, the rules become a tool for learning about being a member of a democratic community. When an adult notices a rule being broken, we no longer have to be the heavy hand of the law. We can simply point to the list of rules and say, “I want to remind you that you and your friends made a rule that says no running inside.” In other words, It’s not me who is telling you what to do, it’s your friends. I’m just here to remind you. Even after seven years of doing this, I’m still delighted by how these pre-reading children will gaze at the scrawl of letters on the wall as if checking to make sure that the rule in question is indeed there.

I know that many of our families have instituted this rule-making procedure in their own homes.

Of course, like both the Constitution and the book of Exodus, we start with a fairly broad “document” detailing principles we hold in common, and then append it with a more detailed and ever-growing set of additional rules that reflect the fact that we continue to learn. That’s why rule-making at Woodland Park remains a regular and popular Circle Time activity throughout the year. In fact, rarely does a Circle Time go by without at least one child declaring, “I have a rule!”

As our list grows over the school year, our founding principles remain sound, while many of our “amendments” wind up striking us as ridiculously situational, no matter how vital they seemed when enacted. Rules like, “No kicking people with bubble gum,” and “No stepping on hangnails,” are destined to be repealed (like prohibition) by future generations. With imagination one might be able to conceive of a time when these rules made sense, in much the way one can with all of those anachronistic rules in Leviticus about sacrificing goats.

But whether universal or silly, each rule represents a step in the process of our children learning to live together in a community of their own creation. And teaching community building skills is one of the most important things we do. That's the road to happiness.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Baseball Coach in a Skirt

Up until having my own child, most of my experience in working with children came as a baseball coach. I was first hired by the city of Corvallis (OR) Parks and Recreation Department to lead a team of 4-year-olds when I was only 14 myself. I subsequently went on to coach some 40 more teams during the next 15 years.

Parents at Woodland Park notice that I do a lot of, "C'mon everybody. Let's go over here!" types of things, which is a carry-over from coaching where the focus is on team building. In preschool, I suppose it's better called "community building". In our 3-5's class, this technique stimulates large group play, but in the Pre-3 class it functions in a slightly different manner. That's because most 2-year-olds simply aren't developmentally geared for cooperative play, so following Teacher Tom around the classroom becomes for some kids a transitional stage between parallel and interactive play.

As we run around the playground playing firefighter and putting out "fires", for instance, the dynamic may look like kids playing together, but its really just many individual kids playing with Teacher Tom at the same time. That said, we are playing together at least on a superficial level, something upon which we can build as the year rolls on.

During the first few months of the school year, my "skirt" of children grows as more and more children decide to hop on the Teacher Tom bandwagon. Ultimately, however, the goal is to start shedding members of my entourage as they're ready. By the end of the year my expectation is that the children will be so engaged in their own activities that I'll be able to just lean against a wall and watch.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Never Be Late Again! (Or at least be on time more often)

“Quit dawdling!”

“Hurry up!”

“Do you want to be late for school?”

You can see it coming, but there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do about it. You’ve tried planning and preparation. You’ve set your alarm for a half hour earlier. You’ve had long, calm talks with your child detailing your expectations about the morning routine. Yet, invariably, day after day, you feel the knot tightening in your gut as the school bell draws nigh. Once again you’re badgering and even threatening your kids to get them out the door. Perhaps the worst part is that after all that stress and effort you’re still, as usual, 15 minutes late.

None of us want to nag or threaten. It leaves our children sulky and makes us feel like we’re turning into exactly the kind of parents we promised ourselves we would never become. It sometimes feels, however, that it’s the only option left.

How would it make you feel to not only get to school on time, but to have your own child taking the lead in making it happen? It’s possible.

Listen to yourself
Try this experiment. Point to a dirty carpet and say to your spouse, “Vacuum the living room.” You don’t need to actually try this, do you? The mental experiment is enough: there is a very low probability that your carpet will get cleaned unless you do it yourself.

Nobody likes to be told what to do and this includes children. Ultimately, you might get the results you want because you are bigger, stronger and control the key to the pantry, but is this really the kind of parent you want to be?

Listen to yourself as you go through your morning routine (it might even be helpful to tape record yourself for a few mornings). What kinds of things are you saying to your child? Most of us are addicted to directing our children, especially during transitional periods like getting ready for school. (e.g., “Pull up your socks,” “Finish your breakfast,” “Brush your teeth.”) Many of us try to soften these “bossy” statements by turning them into questions (e.g., “Wash your face, okay?”), but to your child’s ear, it’s all the same. It’s not any less of a direction if you say it in a soft voice.

Humans tend to rebel against being bossed around. We might do what we’re told for awhile, but ultimately we grow to resent it. We dig in our heels. We argue. Our inner child shrieks, You’re not the boss of me! Can we expect our children to be any different?

Another thing to listen for are questions to which you either already know the answer or that don’t really have an answer (e.g., “Didn’t I tell you to come downstairs?” “How many times have I told you to put on your shoes?”). Your preschool child either recognizes these for what they are (veiled directions) or feels challenged to actually answer the unanswerable – a stress inducing situation at best.

Putting your child in charge
The reason we rebel against directional statements is that the human animal generally wants to feel in control. Being told by others what to do strikes us as an effort to undermine our autonomy. It would therefore seem that one of the worst ways to get children to do what you want is to tell them to do it.

Am I saying that the key to getting out the door on time is to put your child in charge? Yes.

This does not mean that you must sacrifice your own desires and wisdom. In fact, Child Protective Services would likely soon be knocking on your door if you did. But the process of getting to school on time is every bit as much your child’s responsibility as it is yours. Sharing that responsibility with your child not only provides her with a sense of pride and control, but it also takes some of the pressure off of you; maybe even loosening that knot in the pit of your stomach.

Speaking informatively with your child
Now try our mental experiment again, but this time simply state, “The living room carpet is dirty.” Don’t point, don’t make “knowing” eyes, just formulate the statement. You still might have to do it yourself, but the probability of the carpet getting vacuumed goes way up. This happens because by merely making a statement of fact, you are creating a circumstance in which you put your spouse in control – he gets to make his own decision concerning what to do about the dirty carpet.

Speaking informatively with children works in the same way. Instead of directing your child in the morning, make an effort to limit yourself to informative statements. This is not as restraining as it may at first sound. You may talk about yourself (e.g., “I don’t want to be late for school,” “I can help you with your shoes,” “I expect you to be ready by the time the big hand is on the 3.”). You may talk about what your child sees, hears, or senses (e.g., “Your pants are on your bed,” “The big hand is almost on the 3,” “Your toothbrush is on the counter.”). You may talk about possibilities and connections to other things (e.g., “Yesterday we missed circle time because we were late,” “When we lay our clothes out the night before it doesn’t take as long to get dressed.”

Once you have practiced replacing your directional statements with informational statements for awhile, it's time to try the descriptive cue sequence.

The descriptive cue sequence
The descriptive cue sequence is a powerful tool developed by North Seattle Community College instructor and early childhood education faculty member Tom Drummond for helping you get in the habit of speaking informatively. The sequence gradually increases the amount of “push” with each step. Don’t move on to the next step as long as you are getting the results you want.

1. Give cue
• Instead of directing your child to get ready for school, give a cue, such as, “It’s time to get dressed.”
• Some parents might prefer sounding a signal of some kind, like a bell or a song.

2. No help
• Wait for 10 to 15 seconds
• Look for appropriate behavior and reward it by describing it or with a non-verbal recognition (e.g., thumbs up, big smile)

3. Describe
• Describe what needs to be done without telling your child what to do
• Give facts—what needs doing, where things are, etc.

4. Model
• Model the desired behavior by doing some yourself
• Talk aloud about what you are doing

5. Direct
• If inaction is still a problem, give a simple, clear direction (e.g., “Please put on your socks.”)

6. Set a contingency
• Make the next activity dependent on completion of the task (e.g., “When you put on your socks, you can pick out which Hot Wheel you want to take in the car.”)

As you and your child grow accustomed to this process, you will find a decreasing need to employ the higher numbers on the list. Many parents find it helpful to post the descriptive cue sequence on their wall in a conspicuous place, at least until they have learned the procedure.

You may not notice an immediate change in your child -- it can take time for him to grow accustomed to the feeling of control and responsibility. If you stick with it, however, your child will gain a sense of pride and power as he is given responsibility and control over his own preparation for school.

You, however, will feel an immediate change in how you feel about yourself. You won’t be nagging or threatening and very quickly you will begin to feel like the kind of parent you always promised yourself you wanted to be.

And if that’s not enough, you and your child will get to school when you want to . . . at least most of the time.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Wearing His Cape Every Day

In yesterday's post I wrote about Alex, who spent a good part of the school year telling and retelling stories about Transformers. I made the assumption that his morality tales were based on having watched the movies and that some of his knowledge had been filtered through his older brother Colin.

Their dad Blake responded:

Alex and Colin have never seen the Transformer movies. They've never even asked, because I think they sense it would freak them out. Everything Alex knows is either from a commercial or the ever present 'merchandise' interpreted by his now reading brother . . .

As impressive as it is that Alex derived so much material from such a meager source, the fact that he had Colin have the self-awareness to choose to steer clear of a violent movie is the real news.

Discovering important truths about ourselves is a lifelong, heroic quest.

Blake tells me that "Alex is still wearing his cape everyday, and telling stories." That doesn't surprise me.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

A Muddy Puddle Of Morality

Alex (3) wore his red cape to class almost every day, and on the few days he didn’t, he made a point of explaining why. He avoided both the Art and Sensory tables if there was any prospect of getting his hands or cape “messy”. Most mornings he was Captain Underpants.

Alex came to school bursting with stories. I’ve never read the Captain Underpants books, and thanks to Alex I won’t need to. He just couldn’t wait to share what he’d read at home. We typically don’t start “formal” storytelling until a couple months into the school year, so I wasn’t writing these early stories down, but it sounded like a fairly faithful retelling of a pivotal scene from the actual book. He was often one of the first kids in class, so we had a lot of quiet time together. He would tell essentially the same story every morning for a week or more. It was evidently important to him to share it with me and part of sharing was getting it just right. Sometimes he would start by correcting something he’d been “wrong” about the day before, but it became clear after awhile that every retelling of the story was an effort to correct some subtle imperfection that had crept into a prior effort.

By the time we got around to writing the stories, Alex had moved on to a new source for his storytelling passion.

A Transformer one. There was Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Bulgar, and then they killed Megatron. And then Optimus Prime knocked Bonecrusher off a bridge and he died.

This was the opening salvo in what became a steady flow of Transformer stories. Having been introduced to the glories of the movie, I’m sure, by his older brother Colin, Alex was creatively and intellectually stimulated, and his commitment to accuracy remained.

For instance, he told several stories that included a character named “Bulgar”, until one day he introduced a new character named “Bulkhead” saying, “Bulkhead is Bulgar.” He had either paid closer attention to the movie or been corrected by a Transformer authority (probably Colin). He then asked me to make the change in all of his previous stories.

There were also times when he knew he was being inaccurate, but let it go in the interest of his narrative. In that same story, after making the Bulgar-Bulkhead correction, he started as usual, then got to the line:

They get Megatron. Actually, Megatron . . .

He paused for a moment, struggling with his internal editor. There was something more to the story, a complexity that he might need to introduce. But after a moment, he gave it up:

. . . Well, they got Megatron. And put him in jail. Then they got Bonecrusher and put him in jail. And they got Shotblast and put him in jail. And then they went back to their place.

Sometimes accuracy takes a back seat to fine storytelling.

I’m sure a large part of the Transformers’ appeal for Alex was the action, but he also had a strong drive to wrestle with the ethical and moral aspects of the story.

From the start Alex was very clear about who was “good” and who was “bad”. Each retelling of the story started with a list of the good guys, followed by what they did to the bad guys. The bad guys never actually did anything bad in the stories, and the only good thing the heroes ever did was mete out consequences. It was a black and white morality destined to muddle into gray.

This is a story from his early period:

About Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and Bulger. A transformer one. They killed Megatron. And then they killed Bonecrusher. And then they killed Shot Blast.

And this is a story from mid-way through the year:

Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and Bulkhead. They put Megatron in jail. And then they put Bonecrusher in jail. And then they put Shotblast in jail. And then they went back to their planet.

It’s the same story, but this time with jail, rather than death, as the consequence of being bad. The concept of “justice” had clearly become a topic of deep thought (and probably serious discussion at home).

But this isn’t where his moral inquiry ended. Alex later told this story:

Transformer. It’s a good thing if they die because they’re robots. Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and Bulkhead killed Megatron. Then they killed Bonecrusher. Then they killed Shotblast.

I knew what he meant: It’s okay if they die because they’re not human. It’s an important rationalization if the moral center of his ongoing Transformer story was going to hold. He had determined that killing wasn’t acceptable, even for good guys, but there apparently was killing (or at least mayhem that looked like killing) in his story. The realization that the death of a robot was not comparable to the death of a living creature was essential to keeping moral order in this universe.

This seemed to settle something for Alex, opening a door to a new and fuller understanding of the Transformer story. These weren’t people after all; they were robots in a pretend movie, which is a place where anything could happen. As the school year ended, Alex was still exploring this increasingly muddy puddle of morality.

Bumblebee, Optimus Prime, and Bulkhead found Megatron right away. To put him in jail. And then Optimus Prime sliced his head off with his axe. And then Bumblebee shot his leg off, and then Bulkhead knocked his body off. And then they walked away and put Shotblast in jail. And then Bumblebee stuck his tongue out at him.

In real life, Alex is non-violent to his core. I never even saw him stick his tongue out at someone. But he’s doing hero’s work nevertheless. He may prefer to keep his cape clean, but that doesn’t mean he’s afraid of getting messy.

Here's a follow-up about Alex's storytelling.

If you want to read other posts about children telling stories, you can click here, here, here, here and/or here.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Growing Brave Children

When my mother-in-law was a preschooler, some boys bullied her. She told her father who was a manufacturer of orthopedic devices. His solution was to create a set of steel toe-inserts for her shoes. The next time the boys bullied her she was to kick them in the shins. Family legend has it that she broke at least one bone. And thus, the bullying was handled.

In yesterday’s post I laid out Teacher Tom’s 8-Point Plan For Learning Through Conflict, which dealt exclusively with what to do when a 2-year-old hits other 2-year-olds. I’m working on a piece about the extra “bells and whistles” one can apply when the conflict is between older children. In the meantime, it was brought to my attention that I neglected the more advanced topic of how to respond if you are hit (or kicked, bit, scratched, etc.).

Susan wrote:

D'ya ever read The Great Brain books? . . . Some stories revolve around a new (boy) and how he is beat up by the top boy in town. Another boy (The Great Brain) teaches him to fight. The kids have formalized fight routines. The new boy learns to fight, getting a bloody nose, black eye and pretty beat up. After he finally wins, the top kid is willing to accept him.

I remember reading The Great Brain books and while I don’t specifically recall this fight episode, it doesn’t surprise me. “Heck,” writes Susan, “even uber dad Andy Taylor advised little Opie to fight for his milk money, otherwise the bully would never stop. And he was the law!” This message was everywhere.

There’s a kind of obvious operatic justice in this approach, and while we would all be scandalized to learn that our child’s classmate had come to school equipped with steel toe-inserts, it’s hard not to sympathize with the idea that one’s child can give as good as he gets.

But let’s be honest, it’s a kind of frontier justice that simply doesn’t play in the modern world. I mean seriously, just think of what would happen if a four-year-old was discovered with steel toe-inserts?

Can you imagine this in today's world? The lawsuits? The calls of bad parenting?

We don’t live in the land of legend, and I doubt we ever did. Those who let their fists do the talking have always been in the minority. Real talking, honestly and responsibly, has always been the only real solution.

One of my proudest moments as a teacher came this year. We were playing outside. Esme held a bucket of water and Malcolm was standing beside her. She wasn’t the first child to dump the water on her friend, but what happened next blew me away. Malcolm turned to her and shouted, “You dumped water on me! That makes me mad! Now I have to go change clothes!”

I’d been rushing to intervene, but these words stopped me in my tracks. As he marched off to find the dry clothes in his cubby, Esme threw herself onto the ground, face between her hands.

Holy cow. This was as powerful as any kick to the shin and it was done with an honest and responsible use of WORDS.

If Woodland Park uses a steel toe-insert, it’s the forceful use of the word, NO!

“If someone is hurting you,” I ask at Circle Time, “What do you say?”

And all together the children show their palms forcefully and say, “No!”

“If someone is scaring you, what do you say?”


“If someone is taking something from you, what do you say?”


I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of this technique through kindergarten; it even works on strangers at a playground. My daughter Josephine, who had mastered the technique in preschool, informed me that it stops working in 1st Grade, but the principle of using words lives on.

I think that our Circle Time question holds true throughout our lives: “If someone is hurting you or scaring you, what do you say?”

“You’re just trying to hurt my feelings!”

“I’m going to walk away from this!”

“I don’t like the way you’re treating me!”

“I won’t be bullied!”

Standing and fighting is an irrelevant response to conflict. Being clever, sarcastic or insulting has nothing to do with anything. Inflicting wounds in response to being wounded only makes sense in the mythological world where the “bad guy” learns a lesson through the forceful application of a shiner.

In the real world, a violent response, a hurtful response, almost always just escalates matters.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate...Returning violence for violence multiples violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.
--Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ultimately our steel toe-insert legends appeal to us because they bespeak bravery. But speaking honestly and responsibly takes far more courage than an irrational, emotional resort to violence.

And raising brave children is really what that mythology is all about. We can do it without the violence.
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