Monday, August 31, 2009

Colored Guns Lined Up In Cubbies

(Note: This post is a follow-up to my piece from a few days ago entitled “Playing Guns.” It’s been republished on Dad-Blogs, where I’ve just started as a regular weekly contributor. It’s a cool site dedicated to providing a father’s perspective on parenting and just about everything else.)

During the summer before I went to kindergarten, part of my daily routine involved meeting my best friend Phoebe Azar in John Sain’s front yard. This being South Carolina in the sunshine, I wore nothing but shorts, usually a pair of Toughskins that mom had cut off just above the knees.

Phoebe was a year older, a year more sophisticated, and the only girl I knew. She always greeted me, “Hey Tarzan,” which I took as a high compliment.

We would then round up the other kids we could find, which might include our younger brothers or the Beale boys, then set about playing army. As I mentioned in the post from a few days ago, “Playing Guns," I spent a lot of my childhood playing army, but this was my first foray into the world of guns and it was unlike any other that followed.

Phoebe took the role of “general.” She would line us up according to seniority (which meant I was first in the line) then march us around the neighborhood with our stick rifles on our shoulder. “Hut two three four, Hut two three four . . .”

We carried guns every day for months, but I don’t remember ever once firing them. That was the game of army with a girl in charge. The Azar family moved away before the following summer, I got to know some of the older boys, and from then on it was a blood bath in which death lasted until the count of 10.

I have no memory of adults being a part of any of this other than the time Mrs. Sain scolded us from her bedroom window for peeing in her rose bed. (Yes, Phoebe just "stood guard.")

I completely support any parent or teacher who wants to ban violent dramatic play, just as I support anyone who allows it. What I don’t support are adults who encourage it, especially in an educational setting. That’s not just giving children the chance to explore the real and imaginary violence they see around them, that’s actively teaching children how to be violent.

That’s why I was shocked when I read former Crown Hill Co-op parent Katy’s post that was accompanied by this photo of an officially sanctioned art project from a summer camp her 5-year-old attended in Luxembourg:

In the comments, Katy wrote:

It was an eerie feeling to see all the colored guns lined up in the cubbies ready to be taken home.

It’s an eerie feeling just thinking about it.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

In Case You Missed It

A lot of new readers have been visiting the blog during the past month. In fact, the average daily readership has nearly quadrupled over the past 30 days. Thank you!

Since it’s a lazy Sunday and the post I’d planned for today will take a little more time, I thought it might be a good opportunity to draw attention to some things from the archives you might have missed.

“Why We Wrestle”
I’ll bet Woodland Park is the only preschool on earth at which wrestling is an official part of the curriculum.

“What’s So Bad About Ronald McDonald?”
This is my treatise on protecting young children (and your own sanity) from television advertising

Waiting For Me In Peace and Joy
Death is a difficult topic for most parents to talk about with their preschoolers.

“Up, Up And Away!”
Superheroes and princesses are only two of the ways children explore power through their dramatic play. At Woodland Park we also try to teach them how to be powerful without resorting to violence.

“A Cooperative Manifesto”
Our school is a cooperative preschool. This is my attempt to explain and glorify this model of early childhood education, with a dash of radical left-wing economic thinking thrown in for good measure.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor”
When I grow up I want to be Mister Rogers.

Thanks for reading!

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

“Good Job! You’re So Smart!”

When my wife Jennifer and I were kindergarten shopping one of the schools we looked at required an I.Q. test. I recoiled at the idea, phoning a child psychiatrist friend, looking for support for my knee-jerk response. Of course, testing the intelligence of a 5-year-old is a bad idea.

Richard responded by saying he’d spent his entire career around these tests and had never seen them damage a child in any way. In fact, the kids he tested usually enjoyed taking them. “But,” he added, “I’ve see a lot of parents use the tests to hurt their kids.”

He explained that a high percentage of parents who have their children tested also tend to be of the high strung, hovering variety, and that these tests just give them one more way to pass their anxiety on to their kids. That’s kind of what I’d expected him to say, but then he went on to add something I hadn’t thought of. He said that these tests are just snapshots and not predictors of the future. “I try really hard to make sure parents hear me say that I.Q. test results for a 5-year-old are only valid for 6 months, but they just don’t listen. If they get a high score, parents like sticking the label of genius on their kids as if it’s a badge they get to wear for the rest of their lives. Then they burden them with praise.”

Praise is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to our children.

A 10-year study of New York City 5th graders conducted by Carol Dweck while a professor of psychology at Columbia University, found that praising kids for their intelligence might actually be causing them to underperform academically. It seems that children who have been praised for their innate intellectual gifts tend to give up more easily when challenged, suffer more emotionally when they fail, and avoid taking risks when they perceive there is a chance their genius could fail them.

As Dweck puts it:

Teachers should focus on students' efforts and not on their abilities. When students succeed, teachers should praise their efforts or their strategies, not their intelligence.

I would assert that this is not only true for intelligence, but also for anything that could be construed as “innate,” like beauty, athleticism, or artistic ability. Effort is where praise is best applied because unlike inherent traits, it is something a child can actually control. In Dweck’s study, the children who were praised for their effort rather than intelligence were far more likely to persevere, try new things, and be less hard on themselves when they failed.

But what about self-esteem? How do we help our children build that without praising them?

Researchers at Florida State University have concluded:

. . . it is more likely that good performance leads to high self-esteem rather than the other way around . . . (T)he researchers found that efforts to boost self-esteem have not been shown to improve academic performance and may sometimes be counterproductive.
In other words, self-esteem is not built though hollow praise, but rather from mastering skills, which can only be done through experience and hard work. We help our children build confidence by giving them the opportunities to try, try, try again. Encouragement, not praise is our greatest tool.

North Seattle Community College Instructor Tom Drummond takes it one step further. He recommends avoiding praise altogether unless it is absolutely genuine, claiming that children, even very young ones, know the difference between sincere and insincere praise. He asserts that an endless barrage of “Good jobs!” teaches children to seek external validation rather than looking into themselves for motivation. Instead, he advises teachers and parents to concentrate on observable facts about a child’s activities.

Instead of, “What a beautiful red circle!” one might simply say, “You used a red crayon to draw a circle.”

Instead of, “You’re a terrific jumper!” one might say, “You’re jumping very high.”

Instead of, “You’re so smart!” one might say, “You worked hard at that.”

In the end, it seems to me that this is really the most important gift we can give to our children: the capacity to continue to strive even when things are difficult. And ultimately that can only come from within.

So now you’re at the end of this post. “Good job! You’re so smart!”

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Friday, August 28, 2009

There Are No Adequate Metaphors

I was the official host of Woodland Park’s traditional final play date of the summer yesterday, and it was so much fun!

Dennis was the first to greet me. He ducked behind his dad’s leg to summon up some courage before launching himself at me, arms wide. Last year at this time, he would have bowled me over, so I braced myself. But now, as a mature 3-year-old big brother who has clearly learned the importance of gentleness, he pulled up just before a collision to enfold me in a tender embrace.

The next child to discover me was my old friend Sammy, who’s a first grader now. When she was a 2-year-old she would flee to another part of the classroom whenever I came into the area in which she played. Yesterday, not only did she run up to me, but she was already in the midst of a conversation about the bubbles she had caught in her hand, almost as if it were a continuation of a conversation we’d been having the last time we saw each other. Right behind her was her 3-year-old sister Alex who has more or less grown up in our classroom with never a moment of shyness around Teacher Tom.

Seconds later I was encircled by a dozen kids ranging in age from 3 to 7. I got lots of hugs, my hands were tugged, everyone had something they urgently wanted to tell me. I was buffeted, wrenched and wrangled from all sides. There is no metaphor adequate for the magnificence of that moment.

I could have stayed that way forever, but I had other important business to attend to. Among the dozens of children swarming through the sunshine, I needed to find the 2-year-olds who didn’t yet know that I was their teacher and friend.

Once the initial tide of big kids pulled back for a moment, I found Charlie. We became friends in a moment. I met Owen, who’s still unsure about me, and Aedan who seemed to accept our friendship as a matter of course. I made a few quite moments for Ruby by sending the big kids off on missions to “climb the mountain” and “run fast,” which gave us a chance to chat a bit and smile at each other. Judging from his expression, Ben seems to think I’m some kind of a big goof, which shows he has the capacity for piercing insight. I’m sad that I didn’t get to spend as much time as I’d like with Sylvia, because I had to leave shortly after she arrived, but I get the sense we’re going to be great friends, she just doesn’t know it yet. And yellow-shoed Violet is another confident life-long Woodland Park-er following in a sibling’s footsteps.

The people who got short shrift, I’m sad to say, are the adults the children brought with them. This won’t be the last time I’ll apologize for seeming rude, but know they’ll understand.

I did, however, have a nice moment with Charlie’s mom who had just recovered from a small moment of panic when she couldn’t immediately find her boy, only to spot him a ways off, right in the midst of a gang of big kids, some of whom were twice his size and more than twice his age. She said she’d been trying unsuccessfully to satisfactorily describe to her relatives in another part of the country about “this community we’ve become a part of.”

Before leaving the park, I made the rounds trying to say a personal goodbye to each of the kids. Some had already slipped off and others were far too engaged in playing with their friends to care. Others gave me hugs. The kindergarteners and graders promised to visit and keep me updated on their new schools.

And to each of the 2-year-olds I sang:

Boom boom,
See ya’ later,
Later alligator.
After while
Bye for now.

It’s a song that means nothing to them now, but will be the bane of their parents’ existence by the end of September.

As I walked to my car, I stopped several times to scan the playground, making sure I hadn’t missed anyone. And there they were, chasing bubbles, that incredible community of which I’ve become a part. As I drove off, it occurred me that I have the same problem as Charlie’s mom: it’s hard to describe things when all the adequate metaphors sound like hyperbole.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

More Mothers Tied Into Knots

(Note: This blog has a large number of email subscriptions and many readers access it through my Facebook page, which explains why the comments to my posts tend to get spread out over email, Facebook, and the blog itself. Sometimes the comments are so much better than my original posts, that I feel a need to corral some of them into a post of their own.)

The original inspiration for Tuesday’s post, “Mothers Tied Into Knots,” were email dialogs I’ve been engaged in this summer with a pair of a new mothers who are concerned about the job they’re doing as parents. As I was collecting my thoughts, I came across a powerful rant on a site I regularly read, which gave me some new insights into the broader social context about which, as a man, I’d not previously given much thought.

One of the most rewarding parts of my special teaching situation is that I get to know children and their families over the course of multiple years, and it’s not just the kids who grow and change. I’ve watched hundreds of families evolve from being “tied into knots” into confidence. It’s a pattern that repeats itself over and over at Woodland Park. In the beginning there is a tendency for our new parents to focus on me for advice and council, but it’s not long before they discover our school’s real parenting experts: their fellow parents. This is one of the primary, often unacknowledged, strengths of the cooperative model. It's a model with the mantra "It takes a village to raise a child" at its heart.

When I read “Victims of the Mommy Wars” I was at first a little stunned. My entire adult life has been lived in what most people would consider a gender role-reversal with my wife being the high-powered business executive and entrepreneur, while I’ve followed her around the world cooking, taking care of the home, and holding down a series of part-time and freelance jobs. When our daughter Josephine was born, we didn’t even have to discuss who was going to be the stay-at-home parent. Of course it didn’t escape me that I was often the only father involved in our playgroups and preschools, but it always felt like it was only a matter of time before that would change. And from my current perch as a male preschool teacher I’ve seen a slow, but steady increase in the number of fathers fully participating in our cooperative preschool. In fact, we had a Thursday two years ago that featured 7 working parents, only one of whom was a woman. Our Circle Time sounded like a freakin’ men’s chorus -- and I loved it!

From this admittedly narrow (and somewhat idealistic) perspective it looks like parenting is rapidly becoming a gender-neutral activity. But as I watched the comments section of the mommy wars piece fill up, I became aware that the parenting experience is a different animal for many women, than for men.

My high school classmate Rose, a family lawyer in the Portland area, commented on these pressures:

Despite the fact that we now have decades of women who are "doing it all," the housework, household management, child rearing and working, there is still much social pressure on defining women by their parenting skills. If a woman decides that Dad would be the better primary parent in a divorce, she is subject to social criticism about her lack of worth as a person, because of her alleged lack of worth as a mother, without any connection between Dad as primary parent and Mom as a good parent. Social pressure aside, I notice that women are much more likely to have their kids as being their first choice of conversation, whereas men are more likely to talk about their jobs, all other things being equal.

Susan had a different take on the pressures she feels:

. . . as a mom in these times, my own tensions are not caused by the parenting skills I never had the chance to learn from my own tribe, but the question of - Am I succeeding at giving my child every chance to sample every possible activity and interest that catches his eye, and how can I ever do that, since nowadays opportunities for kids are so plentiful? Such issues are the spawn of these rich times we live in. As little as a century ago, life was on the edge. Children worked on the farm. They ate their biscuit and syrup sandwiches cold at lunch, grateful to have food. They wore patched clothes and made their own games in the dirt with sticks. Parents didn’t give a damn about helping their child “find his bliss.” If he was healthy, respectful, and clothed in clean if not new clothes, fine . . . Now we have a society that is vastly rich by comparison. My son doesn't have to do any kind of real work. Instead, his work is practice the fiddle, study maps, play soccer, practice archery, sample ballet, act in a play. And if I can’t find the time in schedule for these things, I have a vague fret that I’m depriving him.

Toby, a Woodland Park parent and parenting blogger, commented on how the media helps strip women of their confidence as parents:

. . . it doesn’t help that most mainstream parenting media hypes up the anxiety with their “Top 10 Things You Think Are Safe That Can Actually Kill Your Baby” articles.

And, finally, P.J., a proud stay-at-home dad and blogger commented on the role of fathers:

I agree with your point that the expectations for fathers in society are different than mothers, hence the reason why we don't outwardly project the same concerns. Despite the generational shift we are experiencing with fathers becoming more involved in our children's lives, we are still not viewed as being capable of nurturing. As a result, less judgment is passed over the roles we play. 

Personally, I don't really care what people think of how my wife and I are raising our son. And I don't much care how other people are raising their children. As long as they love, provide for, and encourage them, that is all that matters .

 . . Books and parents magazines aren't geared towards us because they think we don't care or are too stupid to figure it out. That is fine, the only person’s opinion of how I am doing as a father that matters belongs to my wife. We discuss everything that involves our son and come up with what we both feel is in his best interests. And since I'm the one that stays home with him, it is my job to execute the plan. 

Does that mean it is always the right choice, who knows? Only time will tell.

Lord knows there are parental challenges that fathers are more likely to face than women, but when it comes to these types of societal pressures, I find myself tending to think the situation P.J. describes is the healthier one. It’s probably because I’m a man, and I know it’s much, much easier said than done, but whenever I’m working with a young mother who seems tied into knots, I now realize that I’m subconsciously trying to steer her to the position P.J. states so clearly, “I don’t really care what people think of how my wife and I are raising our son.”

To use a very masculine baseball analogy: P.J.’s is a statement of parental bravado that belies the kind of underlying confidence a coach looks for in his players.

And since baseball analogies don’t work for everyone, I’m very happy that the parents at Woodland Park have those other 40+ experienced and confident parents to talk to when Teacher Tom and his baseball analogies fail them.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Playing Guns

The children in the Woodland Park 3-5 class make their own rules and it usually doesn’t take long for them to ban guns at school, real or pretend. I’m glad the children do it because otherwise it would be up to the adults. We would probably make the same decision, but for all the wrong reasons.

As far as I know (and I’m prepared to be corrected) there is no scientific study that shows a connection between preschoolers playing with toy guns and future violent proclivities. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed no correlation between the boys (and it’s mostly boys) who have a strong urge to “play guns” and their propensity for actually hurting their peers. And personally, between the ages of about 4-8 I carried a lot of guns as part of pretending to be a cowboy, soldier, or The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and today I’m a pacifist to the tips of my toes. But knowing our Woodland Park community, if left to the adults to make the rules, I’m pretty sure that the concern about future violence would carry the day.

There are many theories about why young children play guns, but most revolve around the concept that being powerful through violence is deeply ingrained in both our culture and psyche, if not our genetics. Our nation’s history, in many ways, is the story of using gun violence to exert power. From the Revolutionary War through our current violent occupations of the Middle East, we’ve “proven” our superiority from behind the barrels of guns. Our literature is rife with the conflict between good and evil, with “necessary” violence more often than not being at least part of the solution. Any home with a television, no matter how strictly monitored, will eventually bring gunplay of some sort – be it the news or a cartoon – into the home.

Whatever our personal opinions about guns, it’s hard to argue that our children are not surrounded by violent imagery and it shouldn’t surprise us that they bring that into their dramatic play. Just as they might play with dolls to experience the nurturing they see around them, or basketballs to emulate athletes, they pick up toy guns (or more often than not, form them from their fingers) as a way to explore the violence in their lives, real or imaginary. And it’s mostly boys because guns are almost always connected in some way to masculinity.

This is important work they’re doing and as a teacher I have a hard time standing in the way, but I must because the children always ban guns.

It usually goes something like this:

Child: “I have a rule.”

Teacher Tom: “What rule would you like to suggest?”

Child: “No guns.”

Teacher Tom: “No guns in preschool. Why should we have that rule?”

Child: “Because guns scare me and I don’t like to get shot.”

Teacher Tom: “We don’t want people to be scared at school and getting shot hurts. What about pretend guns?”

Child: “No pretend guns either.”

Teacher Tom: “Why don’t you want pretend guns in school?”

Child: “Because they scare me and I don’t like to get shot.”

Teacher Tom (to the whole group): “Does anyone like to be scared?”

Class: “No.”

Teacher Tom: “Does anyone like to get shot?”

Class: “No.”

Teacher Tom: “So should we have a rule that says, No Guns In Preschool?”

Class: “Yes.”

And that’s how guns get banned. But just as a real-life gun ban doesn’t mean that there won’t be guns in society, our preschool gun ban doesn’t guarantee there won’t be guns in the classroom. As the executive in charge of enacting legislation, I feel it’s my responsibility to use some discretion in enforcing the ban. I’ll usually look the other way as long as the gunplay stays within a self-contained group of children and doesn’t start involving the children who would rather not be “scared” or “shot.”

It’s a tightrope that has many pitfalls, both expected and otherwise, as you will see.

One day Cash was standing in our loft with what was clearly a gun he had fashioned from some ½” PVC pipe he’d found in the block area. Since he was quietly playing on his own, it was the kind of thing I normally allow to pass, but one of his classmates noticed, objected, and complained, “Cash has a gun,” so I had to do something.

I said, “That looks like a gun.”

Cash lied, “It’s not.”

This is one of the very real negative side-effects of a strict preschool gun ban, it encourages kids to lie.

I pushed on. “You and your friends made a rule that says ‘No guns in preschool’.”

“It’s not a gun.”

“It looks like a gun.”

“It’s a love shooter.”

Giving him credit for quick thinking, I said, “That doesn’t sound so bad. Do you think your friends know it’s a love shooter?”

Cash looked down upon his classmates, “No, they probably think it’s a gun.”

“And they’re probably scared because they think you’re shooting bullets at them.”

Cash answered, “I’ll tell them,” and with that he descended from the loft and went from child-to-child informing them that the PVC construction in his hand wasn’t a gun, it was a love shooter. By the time he was done, he’d collected a team of boys, each with his own PVC love shooter. They marched back into the loft and proceeded to rain love down on a group of girls who were dancing around with their hands over their heads.

I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the mom in charge of the drama station, proudly watching the scene, enjoying my own magnificent ability to turn violence into love. I said, “Look at them spreading love instead of war.”

She answered, “And the girls are loving it too.”

It must have clicked for both of us at the same moment. Our eyes locked as we shared a look that bespoke horror. We watched in awkward silence as the boys and girls joyfully played a game that looked to us adults like some sort of bizarre, slightly-pornographic fertility rite.

She finally broke the silence, “They have no idea, right?”

And I answered, “I hope they get tired of it soon.”

When it comes to children, adults often see things that aren’t there, be it sex, violence or an objection to eating beets. That’s why I prefer the children making their own rules. They often know better than us what’s what.

Extra reading

When it comes to playing guns, I always make sure the tell the kids that the “No Guns” rule applies only to preschool and that their own families may have different rules. For those of you who would like a little further reading about guns and preschoolers, I’ve provided some links to articles I found insightful/useful:

Beyond Banning War and Superhero Play: This piece by researcher Diane Levin makes a strong case for allowing children to explore violence in their play.

Super Heroism and War Play In The Preschool: This is a well-written think-piece based in large part on Diane Levin’s research.

Guns and Boys: Okay to Play?: This is a short, practical guide for parents.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Mothers Tied Into Knots

As a preschool teacher, I get to know too many women who are tied into knots over every detail of their parenting. To a certain extent, I suppose it’s always been this way, but I have to believe that modern life has greatly exacerbated and magnified the anxiety level.

Throughout most of human history the job of raising children has been strictly “women’s work,” and like all of the other things that fell into that category (e.g., cooking, housekeeping) it required a set of “job skills” passed down from women to their daughters. Girls were expected to help out with their younger siblings in a kind of generational on-the-job training program that ultimately lead to a societal assumption that all women are naturally gifted caretakers. I’m not going to dismiss the possibility of a genetic “mommy instinct,” but I will assert that this kind lifelong learning at the feet of “the master” lead to more realistic expectations about the job and greater confidence in carrying it out at a younger age.

In much of the world this continues to be the experience of girls. I’m not saying that it makes them better parents. What I am saying that this experience means that they are less likely to get tied up in knots about it.

Parenting is still something we learn on-the-job, but most of us today don’t start learning it until we have a baby of our own. Like any new job, there’s going to be anxiety, self-doubt, and moments of feeling out of control. Add to that the fact that most of us have internalized, at least at some level, the vestigial message that being a “good” mother is an instinctive part of being female. Then subtract the very real day-to-day support of older, experienced women (grandmothers) and the hands-on help of younger women (12-year-old daughters). And finally, calculate in the reality that most young mothers now have jobs outside their home (or the nagging feeling that they should) and husbands who aren’t as fully engaged in parenting as they might be, and we’re looking at an equation destined to produce anxiety.

An enormous industry has arisen to fill the void left by grandmas, one that produces thousands of new book titles, studies, theories and warnings every year. And while I’m sure that each one is issued with the best of intentions, many mothers experience it as a flood of things they should know and do, but don’t.

A few years ago, the subject of parental anxiety was the topic of our monthly parent education session. Mothers voiced their frustration and concern that it seemed like whatever they did they were somehow failing their children. They feared they weren’t patient enough. They were concerned they weren’t providing enough of this or that kind of experience. They worried about diet, exercise, role-modeling, emotions, sleep, television, toy choices, attachment, separation, you name it. It was a tense and somewhat angry meeting.

Finally, our parent educator Jean Ward, a wise, calm, experienced woman, said, “Listen, if you do what the parenting experts say 35 percent of the time, you’re the best parent in the world.” As she let that statement hang there, the release of tension from the room was palpable. I have no idea where she came up with that statistic, or even it’s true (although I suspect it is), but if I could have read the thought bubbles around the room, I’m sure they would have said something to the effect of, I can do that.

A companion phenomenon that I’ve observed as a preschool teacher is that the most anxious women tend to be first-time mothers of 2-year-olds, and they always become noticeably less anxious over time, just as what would typically happen with any new job. And most of them are downright cavalier by they time their child is ready for kindergarten. It’s all about experience. If they’re bringing their second kid to preschool, they come in exuding confidence. And if they have a third, they seem as wise and calm as any grandma who ever lived.

I’ve not written about fathers in this post because, to be honest, it’s very rare to come across one who is tied into knots over every aspect of his parenting, even among stay-at-home dads. Of course, it could be a function of our notorious unwillingness to confess weakness, especially to other men, but I suspect it has much more to do with the fact that we aren’t as burdened with the weight of historical expectations. Men tend to be “graded” as parents almost exclusively on effort and earnestness, which in my view is really how it should be for parents of either gender.

I believe that infants and babies whose mothers give them loving comfort whenever and however they can are truly the fortunate ones. I think they’re more likely to find life’s times of trouble manageable, and I think they may also turn out to be the adults most able to pass loving concern along to the generations that follow after them. – Mister Rogers

Update: In the comments my friend Floor Pie reminded me of a serious omission. I was inspired to write this by a powerful rant over on Offsprung called "Victims of the Mommy Wars". Thanks Toby.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Clean Up Time!

There is no good reason for having one clean-up song for the Pre-3 class and another for the 3-5’s, but we do. Our Pre-3 song is the classic:

Clean up,
Clean up,
Everybody everywhere.
Clean up,
Clean up,
Everybody do your share.

When it’s clean-up time for the older kids, we sing (to the tune of “Heigh Ho” from the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs):

Hey-hey, hey-hey,
Put everything away
Into the place in which it stays.
Hey-hey, hey-hey-hey
Hey-hey, hey-hey
Put everything away . . .

We start our preschool days with Discovery Time (e.g., free play, choice time) and when I beat the drum and start singing it is our first transition of the day. We expect the children to pitch-in. It’s often a huge project with blocks to put away, a sensory table to empty out, puzzles to reassemble, paint-covered tables to wash off, play dough to store in air tight containers. And while for reasons of health and safety we need to count on the adults to handle real cleaning and sanitizing, the children – if the grown-ups remember to stay out of the way – can handle much of the rest of it themselves.

It’s their classroom after all, and there’s no better way to claim ownership of a place than to be responsible for keeping it tidy. Naturally, they aren’t going to do things as efficiently as adults, but that’s fine with me. I consider this time to be the real centerpiece of our curriculum, so if it takes 15, 20 or even 30 minutes to get it done, so be it.

This is an important transition. We’re moving from free, independent play, with little direction, into group activities that are going to require more cooperation, and the process of working together on cleaning up is a great way to get their little minds shifted into the new paradigm.

There are few things I love more than the days that we put away the “big blocks.” These are large wooden unit blocks, some of which are too heavy for any but the oldest kids to carry on their own. Not only that, but we store them in the hallway which means the children must lug them through a doorway and up two steps to get them where they belong. I position myself in the hallway, singing, while the children navigate the challenges. Some of the kids like to show off their muscles by bringing me 2 or 3 small blocks at once. Other blocks arrive on the palms of a dozen hands. Some children drag the blocks, while others carry them on their heads. There’s a lot of negotiation around the bottleneck of the doorway and getting up and down the stairs. It’s not unusual for as many as 15 of the 22 kids to take part in this amazing team building exercise. There are often a few tears and lots of laughter.

We have some cherry wood logs that we normally keep in the playground, but several times a year I drag them indoors to play “camping.” When it’s time to clean up, the logs need to be moved back outside. Some are quite heavy, even for an adult, and being logs, the threat of splinters is an ever-present possibility. It usually takes 5-6 children to move them. Last year, our two-year-olds, lead by my friend Dennis, maneuvered the biggest log across the classroom and out the door. I had my hands on it to make sure it didn’t get dropped on any toes, but I bore none of the weight. It took 10 of them working together for almost 5 minutes to manage it.

Often I’ve tipped a table or two on their sides or moved them into the hallway to make room for art or drama projects that need floor space. When it’s time to return them to their proper places, I call the children to help me wrestle these large pieces of furniture back to where they belong, finishing with a big team “push” to get it back on its legs.

Two summers ago Willie and Mikey’s family donated a nice set of shelves and cabinets that gave us a lot more in-class storage space. One of the things I was excited about was that this would allow us to finally store the “big blocks” in the classroom. I cleared out a space along the wall, but as parents came in to help me set up, several expressed sadness that the kids would no longer bring the blocks to me in the hallway while I sang.

So they stayed in the hallway. Hey, it’s their classroom too.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Lemon-Powered Clock

The first time I powered a clock using the electricity generated from a lemon, I did it using two pieces of fruit, pennies, zinc coated paperclips, and copper wire. I rigged everything up according the instructions. Then we waited, eight kids and three parents staring at the tiny LED screen. I knew it should have happened instantly so I wiggled things around. Just as I was about to give up, one of the kids said, “It’s working!” We’d created an electrical circuit!

I now have a couple of nifty kits specifically designed to extract electricity from a single piece of fruit, but each time we bring that small clock to life, I get that same sense of excitement I did the first time. It works!

And the kids get it. Last year, my Pre-K children spontaneously applauded when the clock lit up. They knew they were watching something very cool. Electricity from a lemon! Our 2 and 3-year-olds wouldn’t appreciate how exciting it is, so they have to wait for next year. This is something we save for the 4-year-olds who know enough to doubt that we can get electricity out of a lemon, which allows them to be appropriately impressed when we do.

After this amazing experiment I get out our set of Snap Circuits and build a simple circuit to power a light bulb. Then we turn on a small motor that causes a pinwheel to soar over our heads. The children want to try it themselves so badly, but they have to wait until it’s time for “stations” to get their hands on the Snap Circuit sets.

I then divert them into turning the classroom lights off and on. As we do it, I talk about how they are “breaking” or “reconnecting” circuits each time they flick the switch. I point out the streetlights and remind them of the stoplights and the lights in their homes. We talk about how we make electricity work for us by routing it into circles.

We then spend the rest of our day looking for “circles” in the world, both physical and metaphoric. We move on from geometric circles to more abstract circles, like bus routes, daily routines, and seasons. We wait for the second hand on our analogue clock to complete a one-minute circuit. We talk about hours, days, weeks, months, and years. We act out the circle of seed, sprout, leaves, flower, fruit, and back to seed again from whence we start all over. We notice that everything that lives does so in a circle we call a life cycle.

For weeks thereafter, kids always have new insights about circles.

This past year Jane arrived in class the day after our experiment and asked excitedly, “Did you know the Earth revolves around the Sun?”

Mikey pointed out that the wheels on his mom’s car were circles.

Esme wanted me to know that the letter “O” is a circle “and so is zero.”

Elliott T. informed us that many of the shapes we were calling circles were actually not circles, like the trip he took each day from his house to school, which was really a “long, skinny oval.”

When I read Eric Carle’s book The Tiny Seed, Nia’s hand shot up, “The whole story is a circle!”

Keira painted a circle inside of a circle inside of a circle.

Malcolm and Jarin raced their cars around a “circle” racetrack they created in the block area.

Ava made play dough donut and bagel circles.

Elliot O. wanted to know why we call it “Circle Time” if we don’t sit in a circle.

Each of these insights might seem small, maybe not even worth mentioning, but they’re vitally important to understanding our physical world. I like to imagine Stephen Hawking as a preschooler, tracing circles in the sandbox, beginning the chain of insightful connections that have lead to a deeper understanding of the orbiting of planets, the Big Bang, black holes, and light cones, none of which would be at all comprehensible without our preschooler’s understanding of the circle.

But circles are not just key to understanding the physical world. They are essential to comprehending the metaphysical as well. As another great scientist realized:

Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty. –Albert Einstein

That’s why each year, over and over, we make the lemon-powered clock. It makes us cheer and makes us think big thoughts.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

You Raise Them To Be Independent

Fatherhood Friday at Dad BlogsAlthough Woodland Park doesn’t open its doors for the new school year until the week of September 14, much of the rest of the country has already undertaken the annual rite of sending their precious babies off into the unknown of their first day of school and the internet is awash in parental expressions of sadness and joy.

I’ve been hearing my mother’s voice:

You raise them to be independent, then you’re heartbroken when they are.

That pretty much sums up the experience of parenting. From the moment they’re born we know our job is to raise them up to set them free. I do a pretty good job of locking that reality into a corner of my brain on most days, but the bittersweetness washes over me at every milestone: first word, first step, first sitter, first sleepover, first day of school, first overnight camp, first philosophical response to a great disappointment, first crush, first period, first job . . .

This summer has been one full of little milestones for me.

It brought a lump to my throat when the monorail ticket seller doubted my 12-year-old still qualified for the youth fare.

I had to pull over to the side of the road to collect myself after dropping her off at her first babysitting gig.

I felt a strange combination of protective outrage and parental pride when I caught young men ogling her and her friends as they walked ahead of me on the sidewalks of downtown Seattle.

And I don’t know how to describe the experience of standing at poolside last week as all these little girls I’d known since kindergarten unselfconsciously striped down to their swimsuits to reveal bodies well on their way to becoming those of young women. I turned to a mother who was dropping off her son and said, “These are the luckiest boys in the world.” I chuckled casually, but if she was listening carefully I’m sure she would have heard echoes of the abyss in my voice.

Like all the parents who’ve ever loved their children, I know I’ll regain the solid ground of remembering that this is just part of the job. The emotions are real and complex, and they’ll never go away. They’ll just wait there in the corner I’ve pushed them into, ready to emerge at the next milestone to stop up my throat and push tears into my eyes.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

The Only Way To Learn About Each Other

I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m not a psychologist. I don’t even hold a degree in early childhood education. I’m just a guy who has gotten to know a lot of young children.

I’ve never met a child who isn’t a perfect specimen of the human species. Some are startled by every sudden movement or noise. Some are oblivious to jackhammers. Some can’t focus on anything for more than a few seconds at a time. Some can lose themselves in contemplation of a mote. Some can scale the sides of a building. Some sit on their bottoms to scoot down the stairs. Some know the names of all the dinosaurs. Some barely know their own names. And each of them is perfect.

I’m speaking scientifically.

We live in an age in which it seems everything outside the norm gets a label. There are so many “conditions,” “disorders,” and “syndromes,” it’s impossible to keep track. All of the kids I've ever known could be placed along one “spectrum” or another: ADD/ADHD, gifted, and Autism Spectrum Disorders are the trendiest labels, but there are dozens of others we hang on our kids.

Name calling is never okay, and that’s what this is. These diagnosies are medical or academic terms, used by professionals to help guide them through the literature related to specific symptoms and behaviors. In the mouths of anyone else, it’s name calling. None of us really know what we’re talking about when it comes to this stuff. Indeed, there is the occasional parent who has studied up on a subject because a label’s been hung on her child, and I give her credit for her expertise insofar as her individual, beloved child is concerned, but not much beyond that. They’re all so different, especially as preschoolers whose development is notoriously “spikey,” it’s impossible for us laypeople to generalize from one child to the next.

Every child arrives in the world as an amazing collection of biological tendencies and potentials. When we teach, we strive through our love and attention to shape those tendencies and potentials. Setting labels aside, what scientists are really telling us is that every child processes information differently, and it’s our job as teachers to figure out how to best teach each child as an individual, not according to stereotypes.

Many children, for instance, need to use their whole bodies to learn, fidgeting around, sticking their noses into this place and that, almost as if they’re hunting for knowledge, which is what author Thom Hartmann (author of 8 books on the topic) says is the core characteristic of people who are often labeled with ADD or ADHD. He theorizes that this is left over from our ancestral hunter-gatherer instincts and it often shows up as a problem in our contemporary “agricultural” society. The problem isn’t with the kids. The problem is that we try to get them to sit in desks, facing forward, and learn with just their ears and eyes. They instinctively know it’s an inferior way for them to learn, so they “rebel” by insisting on learning the way best suited to them.

Traditional schools with one teacher and 20+ students have a hard time serving these kids, so the children are too often made to fit the traditional school through interventions or medications such as Ritalin. (I even know of one instance where a public school gave a family a choice about their 3rd grader: drugs or expulsion.)

Other children have brains ready-made for understanding the physical and theoretical world through its patterns and policies. They readily comprehend order, repetition, consistency, and rules. We often call them “geniuses" (which is a loaded label in its own right). I once sat beside one of these pattern-seeking boys watching other children playing pirates and mermaids on and around a pirate ship built from blocks. He watched thoughtfully for a time, then leaned over to me and asked, “Is this pretend?” This boy upon whom the label “gifted” could easily have been hung, spent his free-play time deftly organizing small objects by size and color, working puzzles, and counting anything and everything, but the behavior of his peers was a mystery.

These little brains crackle with the mathematical foundations of patterns and sequencing, but they often struggle with the parts of life that involve comprehending the unpredictable complexities of the other human beings, especially their preschool-aged peers. Traditional schools with one teacher and 20+ students have a hard time serving these kids, so they are often ghetto-ized in “gifted” programs full of other children who are equally confused by human behavior or, worse yet, promoted to higher grades where their peers are on an entirely different social plane.

Found along the same continuum as those with the “gifted” label we find other children who sometimes seem locked up within themselves, and often miss the emotional and social cues that other kids more readily interpret. They want to make friends, but struggle to communicate appropriately, not instinctively comprehending the importance of eye contact, proximity, or facial expressions. They might even display behaviors that strike us as awkward, or even bizarre. The labels of “autistic," “Aspergers,” or even “obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)” are whispered about them.

Traditional schools struggle to serve these kids as well, and like the children upon whom is hung the “gifted” label, these children find themselves segregated, very often into programs full of children with similar challenges. How does one ever learn social skills in that kind of environment?

At one time or another every child demonstrates symptoms of ADD/ADHD, giftedness, autism and all the other syndromes and conditions out there. I’m not saying these labels don’t refer to real phenomenon, but rather that the “symptoms” are also all part of the normal range of behavior found in a preschool classroom. Because we are a cooperative preschool, with a plentitude of engaged adults at hand, our Woodland Park community represents a good model for accommodating and incorporating these various methods of processing information. We have the ability to work with these children within a community setting, without turning the entire school on its head, drugging them, or segregating them according to their label.

We provide a wide variety of adult-monitored activities for when children need to bounce from thing to thing. On a typical morning we run 6-7 stations, each “staffed” by an adult, and the children are free to spend as much or as little time as they want at each of them. They can sit or they can stand. They can work alone or as part of a large group. They can be loud or quite. They can even choose from a dozen or so other options found around the classroom. And if that fails, I'm happy to go to my storage closet and pull out something else.

We also provide intensive one-on-one attention to the children who have an intellectual need to focus deeply. When a child wants help with a challenging puzzle, for instance, there is always an adult available to guide her through it. When a child wants to quietly study the way sand moves through funnels and tubes, there is an adult there to help hold things and to provide scientific words like gravity, erosion, or consistency. And when children are confused by the behavior of their peers, there’s an adult available to provide social words like sharing, pretending, and joking.

We also have the manpower to provide on-the-spot, individualized coaching when children are struggling with how to appropriately interact with their friends. There is always an adult available to remind a child to make eye contact, touch gently, stand closer, or speak more clearly.

In large part, it’s this ability to teach children as a group as well as individuals that makes the cooperative model so powerful and effective. Our community is not built so much by a teacher or a curriculum or an educational theory, but by our ability to aggregate and accommodate all the strange and wonderful differences found in these perfect specimens of humanity. We get to learn together and learn from each other. Both children and adults are taught important lessons about diversity and tolerance.

I strive every day to avoid treating any child according to stereotypes, and when one comes to me with a label already attached, I take it as a personal challenge to remove it. And it’s not just these “serious” labels with which I take issue. When a parent drops off a child saying, “She’s crabby this morning,” for instance, I set out to prove that label wrong as well.

I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t heed their doctors and teachers when they hang a label on their child. I’m not even saying that these labels don’t have their clinical usefulness. And I’m aware that there are extreme examples of everything that call for extreme solutions.

But out here in the real world, where everyone is a perfect specimen, it’s important to give all of our children the opportunity to be a member of a robust and diverse community, with all its awkward spikiness, and without labels. Whatever our learning style, whatever our strengths and weaknesses, being together as representatives of the whole world is the only way to learn about each other.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

All She Can Do Is Fall Right Down!

My wife Jennifer was raised in European opera houses by a pair of top-flight singers and her younger brother is a conductor. My daughter Josephine sings beautifully and has a clear hereditary feel for music.

Needless to say, they are all slightly horrified by the thought that I lead groups of children in song. I’ll confess to an inability to carry a tune and an ear so bad I don’t notice. I enjoy singing (some say tragically) and I think I’ve improved over time, but my musical abilities are limited. I try to make up for it with enthusiasm.

I mentioned a couple songs in yesterday’s post and a few people asked me about them.

Jump Jim Joe
I learned this song from Chris David, Josephine’s preschool teacher at Latona Cooperative Preschool.

I think of this as Woodland Park’s anthem. It’s a simple physical song that draws a distracted circle together, or lets an antsy group burn off a little energy. We’ve discovered that this song lends itself to endless variety. We sing it loudly with large body motions, or softly with fingers dancing on the palms of our hands. We’ve sung it sad, scary, angry, and laughing. We’ve used our high voices and our low voices. We’ve even sung it backwards.

I like it best when we sing it “in our heads.” There are few things more stunning than 20 two-year-olds silently “singing” together. We erupt in celebration when we’ve done it. It’s a real accomplishment to be quiet together for that long.

A few years ago, Josephine’s elementary school held a square dance. I was surprised that Jump Jim Joe was one of the calls.

The lyrics tell you what to do:

We’re gonna
Jump Jim Joe.
Nod your head,
Shake your head,
And point your toe.
And around and around and around we go.

Mother Gooney Bird
I can’t remember where I learned this song, but this is exactly what I was talking about yesterday when I wrote about having to sometimes set aside one’s adult dignity. It starts slow and then builds into a frenzy. A parent once told me that she learned this song in Jewish school as Father Abraham Had Seven Sons.

We sing the first verse standing, but with no gestures until the last line:

Mother Gooney Bird
Had some chicks
Some chicks had Mother Gooney Bird.
And she can’t dance.
And she can’t sing.
All she can do is this right wing.
(We tuck a thumb into our armpit and flap our wing.)

While flapping, we sing:

Mother Gooney Bird
Had some chicks
Some chicks had Mother Gooney Bird.
And she can’t dance.
And she can’t sing.
All she can do is this right wing, left wing.
(Now we’re flapping both wings.)

While flapping both wings we sing the third verse ending with:

All she can do is this right wing, left wing, right foot. (Now we flapping both wings and stamping our foot.)

And so on, until we get to:

All she can do is this right wing, left wing, right foot, left foot, nod your head, turn around.

The kids are always laughing wildly by the time we to the end, which is:

All she can do is . . . . fall right down!

And we land on the floor. I then try to bring them back from their frenzied edge by asking them to be little self-reflective. I feel my heart, “My heart is beating.”

And they feel their hearts. Some of them say, “Mine too.”

I take a deep breath. “I’m breathing hard.”

And they pant. Some of them say, “Me too.”

I feel my brow and say, “I’m even a little bit sweaty,” and they wipe their brows. Some of them say, “Me too,” but just as many say, “Not me.”

“We got some exercise.”

And then we’re usually wound down enough for whatever’s next.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Look How Brave We Can Be

As the stay-at-home father of a young sibling-less child I knew it would be healthy for us to get out into the world to interact with other people, and one of our first regular forays was to a play program called Gymboree. Once a week we would go to a place full of various age-appropriate large motor equipment (slides, small climbers, balancers, balls, etc.) then take part in a circle time hosted by a woman whose name I’ve forgotten, but whose energy and enthusiasm were legendary. Josephine looked forward to it each week.

Here’s the problem: I was an adult man, possessing whatever dignity that suggests, and there was a tacit expectation that I would stand up in front of all these adult women and dance to ridiculous chants like, “Wishy washy, wishy washy, wishy washy weeeeeee!” It just took me one session, however, to figure out that if I didn’t participate, Josephine wouldn’t either, so I focused my eyes on our ball-of-fire leader and threw up my arms and wiggled my butt with the best of them.

This would have been hard enough had I been doing it in front of friends, or even a group of unknown men, but somehow making a fool of myself in front of these strange women intimidated me. It was the right thing to do, and it was the first time I experienced the phenomenon of how our children lead us to become better people: it was for my child that I was overcoming my lifelong fear of looking foolish in public.

During my first year as a teacher in our little cooperative preschool, I found that I still couldn’t make eye-contact with the other adults as I lead songs and dances at Circle Time, so I developed a laser-like focus on the kids. It shouldn’t have surprised me when my mid-year evaluations came back with comments like, “Great with the children. A little distant with the parents.”

A decade later, I can now break out into silly songs and dances any time, anywhere – often to the great horror of my now 12-year-old, who inadvertently lead me to this point. Heck, my alter-ego Captain Superhugger is all about goofing off in the middle of the street in front of tens of thousands of strangers. I’ve come a long way.

At Woodland Park, we expect the parents to join in at Circle Time as well, but it isn’t a tacit expectation, it’s overt. And as far as I’ve traveled in my journey toward being an unself-conscious public goof, I try to stay sympathetic to the adults in the room just starting down this path. My focus doesn’t stay exclusively on the children any more, and sometimes when my eyes land on one of these brave adult creatures it can choke me up right there in the middle of singing “Jump Jim Joe” or “Mother Goony Bird,” a pair of songs that can strip any adult of his robes of grown-up dignity in a matter of seconds, leaving him to face the world in nothing but his foolish underwear.

Occasionally, one of the children will notice the catch in my voice, or the small surge of moisture in my eyes, and ask, “What’s the matter, Teacher Tom?”

I’m thinking, Look how brave we can be for our children, and I answer, “I’m just so happy.”

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Everybody Sit On A Thorny Rose

When I’m ready for the children to assemble on our blue rug for circle time I sing this song, which I learned from my daughter Josephine’s kindergarten teacher:

Not on the ceiling
Not on the door
Everybody find a seat on the floor.

Over the years I’ve added some of my own verses:

Not on your feet
Not on your knees
Everybody sit on your bottoms please.

Not on your back
Not on your tummy
Everybody sit right on your bummy.

Not on your head
Not in a bed
Everybody sit on your bottom instead.

Keep your hands to yourself
Sit in your own self-space
I expect everyone to stay in one place.

Raise your hand
If you’ve something to say
You don’t get to talk any other way.

There are more verses, and they change over time, but each one was created in an ever-escalating effort to focus an unruly group of kids. It's a moving target because, let’s face it, unless constantly refreshed the novel silliness of not sitting on the door wears off rather quickly, and is soon not nearly as entertaining as Henry’s efforts to turn a summersault or Sophia’s hot whisper in your ear. Each time I introduced a new verse, I bought myself a couple of days of attention focused where I want it at Circle Time – on me – but it never lasted and I was forced into creating newer and newer verses until one day I hit on this one:

Not on your fingers
Not on your toes
Everybody sit on a thorny rose.

When I realized what I’d sung, I spontaneously stood up slightly, hands on my bottom, and said, “Ow!” And the kids laughed. The next day, several of them requested, “The thorny rose,” so I did it again, and this time a bunch of them imitated me. By the third day, most of the children were raising their little bottoms in unison, saying, “Ow!” and even the ones who didn’t physically participate were focused on Teacher Tom.

I was onto something. Instead of shouting at them to “Shut up!” or even striving to entertain them with my clever rhymes, I’d accidentally stumbled upon a way to involve the children in their own group focusing exercise. The whole point of Circle Time is to get the entire group engaged in activities together, and that’s exactly what this did.

We’ve now added dozens of “Ow!” verses and they never fail to pull a rowdy, fragmented group of preschoolers together.

Not on a reef
Not on some beef
Everybody sit on a shark’s teeth.


Not on a snail
Not in the jail
Everybody sit on a rusty nail.


Not on a mass
Not on the grass
Everybody sit in some broken glass.


Not on a wire
Not on a tire
Everybody sit right in a campfire.


Last year, we discovered a new wrinkle:

Not on a dud
Not with a thud
Everybody sit in a puddle of mud.


I can’t wait to expand our “Ew!” repertoire in the coming year.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Keeping It Short

A parent educator once told me that preschool teachers are just middle class bag ladies, so it shouldn’t surprise you that when my father-in-law retired from his position teaching English at the UW I saw it as a great opportunity to get “quality goods” cheaply. Since I was seeing him weekly, I began asking for ideas about what I ought to be reading. He started me out with Tom Jones. As I made my way through it, I kept Otto appraised of what I thought. He would listen patiently, then let me know how wrong I was.

This has been going on for more than 10 years now and is the reason I rarely read anything written since 1950. I’m only half joking when I say I’m earning a masters in English.

There is so much to love about classic novels, but my favorite part is mining them for epigrams. I know not everyone is as fond of the pithy comment as I am (my wife has no patience for them, for instance), but I can spend entire afternoons contemplating the implications of certain well-turned phrases. One of my first orders of business upon being hired at Woodland Park was to start sharing them on the bulletin boards of our classroom. I didn’t limit myself to novels, however; I’ll steal from television as readily as from Joseph Conrad.

Here are some of the quotes that have graced our walls over the years.

Laurence Sterne
My Sterne quotes come from his great novel Tristram Shandy, a remarkable work from one of the great clowning spirits. Reading this experimental masterpiece (which I’ve now done 3 times) it’s nearly impossible to believe that he was writing during the 18th Century.

. . . so long as a man rides his Hobby-Horse peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him, -- pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?

I have a hundred difficulties which I have promised to clear up, and a thousand distresses and domestic misadventures crowding in upon me thick and threefold, one upon the neck of another.

-- Certainly it was ordained as a scourge upon the pride of human wisdom, that the wisest of us all should . . . outwit ourselves, and eternally forego our purposes in the intemperate act of pursuing them.

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Both of these quotes come from the greatest novel ever written, The Brothers Karamazov. It’s one of the few books that have truly moved my soul.

As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naïve and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too

No one grows wise through another man’s woes.

George Eliot
Eliot’s a great novelist, of course, but probably not of the highest order. She does, however, come up with some of the greatest epigrams in all of literature.

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

So our lives glide on: the river ends we don’t know where, and the sea begins, and then there is no more jumping ashore.

It was that mixture of pushing forward and being pushed forward, which is a brief history of most human things.

Truly . . . the uncertainty of things is a text rather too wide and obvious for fruitful application; and to discourse of it is, as one may say, to bottle up air, and make a present of it to those who are already standing out of doors.

It is not true that love makes all things easy: it makes us choose what is difficult.

No list of quotations would be complete with out him . . .

There is nothing to be done for a person who isn’t constantly asking What should be done?

How can you love people without encouraging them? And how can you be loyal to people without educating them?

Hold the young in awe.

The Tao Te Ching
The difficulty with the Tao is two-fold. First of all the “church” that has evolved from Lao Tzu’s teachings barely resembles its source. And secondly, it’s nearly impossible to translate ancient Chinese into English without losing a lot. That said, I keep a copy of the Tao in my car and read from it almost every day.

Don’t aim to perfect yourself.
Don’t rush into changing yourself.
Just do what needs doing
while accepting your feelings.

Let your feelings flourish . . .
and get on with your life of doing.

Water is frail and feeble.
Yet it gets its water work done.
It moves toward its goal.
Just being water.
You know its power.
Just be water.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
I originally began looking into MLK’s writings five years ago as I was preparing for our classroom celebration. Like most people, I was only really familiar with the I Have A Dream speech, but I learned that it was only the tip of the iceberg.

I am convinced that love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism, but of practical realism. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, love is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love.

Nonviolence is absolute commitment to the way of love. Love is not emotional bash; it is not empty sentimentalism. It is the active outpouring of one’s whole being into the being of another.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation.

Mister Rogers
I will never have his personality, but I do aspire to be like Mister Rogers. You probably know that he was an ordained minister and he always spoke of his work with children as his “ministry”. The best thing is that he could teach without preaching.

Love is like infinity: You can’t have more or less infinity, and you can’t compare two things to see if they’re “equally infinite.” Infinity just is, and that’s the way I think love is, too.

Listening is where love begins . . .

Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.

All our lives, we rework the things from our childhood, like feeling good about ourselves, managing our angry feelings, (and) being able to say good-bye to people we love.

Tom Waits
I tend to be drawn to the solitary, male singer/songwriters like Johnny Cash, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. As far as epigrams go, Tom Waits gets the special star.

Ask a king or a beggar
And the answer they’ll give
Is we’re all gonna be
Yea, yea.

You must risk something that matters.

I don’t wanna have to shout it out
I don’t want my hair to fall out
I don’t wanna be filled with doubt
I don’t wanna be a good boy scout
I don’t wanna have to learn to count
I don’t wanna have the biggest amount
I don’t wanna grow up.

Grab bag

It is love, not reason, that is stronger than death. --Thomas Mann

You shouldn’t wish your child is a genius, you should hope (s)he’s an optimist. --Edward Hallowell

The opposite of play isn’t work, it’s rote. --Edward Hallowell

Nothing is perfect . . . except everything. --Josephine (age 3)

In limitations he first shows himself the master. --Goethe

Love is what's in the room with you . . . if you stop opening presents and listen. --Bobby (age 5)

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties. --Francis Bacon

Isn’t it love that keeps us breathing?
Isn’t it love we’re sent here for?
--Bonnie Raitt

Time is eternity that stammers. --Umberto Eco

I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvelous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural . . . --Joseph Conrad

That’s what life is . . . coming to places like this. --Six Feet Under

Together we’re a genius. --Six Feet Under

Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. --Rumi

(Fairy tales) tell children what they unconsciously know – that human nature is not innately good, that conflict is real, that life is harsh before it is happy – and thereby reassure them about their own fears and their own sense of self. --Arthur Schlesinger

This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. --Jack LaLanne

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name. --Chinese proverb

There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in. --Leonard Cohen

It is not only necessary to love: it is also necessary to say it. --French Proverb

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Rotten Island

During the rest of the week the 3, 4 and 5 year olds at Woodland Park are in class together, but we set aside one afternoon for the oldest children to have their own special class that we call Pre-K. This class is comprised of the 8-10 children who we will be sending off to kindergarten. One of the benefits of this is I get to expose the kids to my favorite children’s book author and illustrator, William Steig.

I start off each school year with a reading of Rotten Island, which is the book that changed my mind about what a children’s book could be. From its opening words you know you’re reading something different:

There was once a very unbeautiful, very rocky, rotten island. It had acres of sharp gravel and volcanoes that belched fire and smoke, spewed hot lava, and spat poison arrows and double-headed toads.

The spiny, thorny, twisted plants that grew there had never a flower of any kind.

There was an earthquake an hour, black tornadoes, lightning sprees with racking thunder, squalls, cyclones, and dust storms.

Steig goes on to detail the menagerie of monsters that live on this rotten island, describing “electric eels of high voltage,” “armour-plating full of tacks and rusty nails,” and “clacking shells covered with grit and petrified saurkraut.” They fight and claw for fun. They bathe in hot lava and laugh when others suffer pain. They take revenge, break things, caterwaul, and give each other bad dreams.

Rotten Island was their Paradise.

Once, after reading it to the group, Calvin raised his hand and said with the smile of a child tasting a forbidden delicacy, “I know why this is a Pre-K book; because it has violence in it.”

This is not a book for the feint of heart or even many 3-year-olds, who I’ve seen become overly frightened by it. In fact, most of Steig’s books fall into this category.

There’s Dr. De Soto, the mouse dentist who bravely performs dental surgery on a fox, knowing full well that he could be eaten at any moment. Adding to the suspense is the fact that the readers are privy to the fox’s inner monologue in which he has “definitely decided to eat them – with the help of his brand new tooth.”

And Solomon The Rusty Nail, in which our bunny hero, who has the magical ability to transform himself into a rusty nail, finds himself pounded into a wall by a hungry cat.

Or The Amazing Bone, in which gun toting bad guys are scared off by our pig heroine’s talking bone.

There are the horrifying creatures, such as in Shrek!.

And the equally horrifying concepts of Kafka-esque justice and bottled up parents found in The Zabajaba Jungle.

But most importantly, and the reason these books are so vital and beloved by the Pre-K children, is their straight-forward honesty about an imperfect world. Grown-Ups Get To Do All The Driving is so painfully honest that I’ve had parents request we remove it from the classroom.

Steig certainly wrote some less challenging books, such as the charming Pete’s A Pizza (which I read to the younger children as well) or the clever CDC? and CDB! But most of his work uses big words to address big ideas like life and death, peace and violence, truth and beauty -- just like real literature. And while adults often cringe because these books are so unlike much of the gentle butterfly sweetness found in other picture books, the children’s attentions are fixed and their eyes are round with amazement as I read. They can hardly contain themselves when I’m done. They are compelled to talk, to examine these heady concepts, and to clearly enjoy the flavor of truths that seem forbidden.

Steig’s stories put me in mind of classic fables and fairy tales and their ability to convey great truths from generation to generation. Until Walt Disney put his hands on it, for instance, children knew that the story of Cinderella ended with pigeons pecking out the eyes of the “false sisters.” Or that Snow White’s step mother is condemned in the end to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she falls down dead.

I don’t think we do children, especially “Pre-K” children, any favors by protecting them from the kinds of truths found in these stories. As Arthur Schlesinger said:

(Fairy tales) tell children what they unconsciously know – that human nature is not innately good, that conflict is real, that life is harsh before it is happy – and thereby reassure them about their own fears and their own sense of self.

Honest fairy tales give us a safe, fictional place in which young children, along with their adults, can explore the darker side of life, think about it, consider ways to deal with it, and generally prepare themselves for the real world.

And it’s something they really want to explore. I need only look into the faces of our Pre-K kids as I read Rotten Island, hear their gallows laughter, and share their discussions, to know that this is true. And the more we do this, the more confident they become that they will be able to handle whatever the world throws in their way.

At the end of The Zabajaba Jungle, Leonard frees his parents from a bottle in which they’re mysteriously imprisoned.

“Where are we?” his father asks.

“In the Zabajaba Jungle.”

“How do we get out?”

“Follow me,” says Leonard.

The truth, whatever our age, will set us free.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

I Don’t Know What To Do

(Note: I wrote this short story several years ago as part of one of my teaching courses at the college. We'd been given the challenge of "creatively demonstrating" our understanding of one of the core concepts of the course. Although it's longer than a typical blog post, I've been wanting to re-publish it here for some time. For me, it still illustrates some "core concepts" that I hold dear. I wonder if it does for anyone else? )

The Dykemaster

The dyke was leaking. Then again, it was an old dyke – ancient – and it was always leaking. It’s to be presumed that there had been a time when the dyke that surrounded the village wasn’t crumbling, but that day was lost in the mists of time. Lost there too was the source of the wisdom that caused the original settlers to decide upon building the dyke instead of moving away from the rising waters that daily threatened their survival.

But build it they did -- of stone and mortar.

The most important citizen in the village was the one in charge of maintaining the wall: the dykemaster. A venerated elder, the dykemaster’s task was one that required on-going diligence and an army of strong arms and legs to labor at the task of preserving the dyke. So vital to their survival was this mission that each of the village youths was expected to serve a 3-year stint in the service of the dykemaster, toiling at the wall, and receiving essential education at the feet of the master.

One day, as the dykemaster made his daily round of inspection, one of his charges ran up to him. “We’ve a leak, but no mortar!”

The dykemaster himself was to blame for this. He had only that morning ordered those in charge of mixing mortar to leave off in order that they might help with more pressing work in the rock quarry.

“You’ve no mortar, then use your finger,” he directed. “We’ll have fresh mortar as soon as humanly possible.”

The youth did as he was told.

Being as leaky as it was, the dyke typically sprung several leaks every day, but as luck would have it, on this day there were dozens more than usual. To each of the youths who ran up to the dykemaster, he answered, “Use your finger.”

The dykemaster finished his rounds, just as black storm clouds began to loom over the village. We must shelter those youths from the weather, the dykemaster concluded, after that we will mix more mortar. “Build tents for them,” he commanded. As the youths stood with their fingers in the dyke, others toiled around them, erecting heavy canvas coverings.

Dinnertime drew near. We must feed those youths, the dykemaster concluded, after that we will mix more mortar. “Cook dinner for them,” he commanded. As the youths stood with their fingers in the dyke, while others toiled around them erecting tents, the remaining youths scrambled to cook and deliver dinner to everyone.

By the time dinner had been eaten, it was late and the workers were tired. We must get some sleep, the dykemaster concluded, after that we will mix more mortar. “Sleep,” he commanded those not charged with keeping their fingers in the dyke.

The dykemaster was awakened in the night by reports that many of those with their fingers in the dyke had fallen asleep. We must give those youths a break, the dykemaster concluded, after that we will mix more mortar. “Go and replace them at their posts.”

The dykemaster, now fully awake, could not possibly sleep after this. He foresaw that the morning would bring breakfast. After that there would be more leaks, youths who needed rest, then lunch . . . He needed to get around in front of this process. After several hours of contemplation, he devised a plan.

The next morning, he gathered together those of his charges who could come.

“We are coming upon a time of great hardship and we must each of us take on added weight to our burden. As you are aware, we are tending each leak with a finger. The task of a leak, however, has proved too taxing for but one finger. I will therefore assign 3 fingers to each leak: one to plug the hole, one to tend to the needs of the one plugging the hole and the third will rest. Those not assigned to a leak will serve as cooks.”

“What about the mortar?” one of them asked.

“That will have to wait until our crisis has passed.”

The dykemaster was proud of the way his disciples took on their unusual duties in these unusual times. When a new leak was discovered, he immediately dispatched a team of 3 who plugged their hole, erected their tent, prepared their bed, and initiated communications with the kitchen. The youths were in high spirits, it was fun for them, and the dykemaster took this as a sign that he was doing his job with creativity and flare.

After several days, however, it became necessary to forego lessons altogether as the dykemaster’s remaining troops were sent in threes to take up positions on the wall. Shortly after that, the kitchen staff began to erode, until finally all that could be mustered for sustenance were crackers and carrot juice.

The dykemaster knew it wouldn’t be long before the grumbling began.

It’s time to pro-actively rally the troops, he thought, and set out on a “goodwill tour” of his ever-multiplying outposts. The first thing he noted was how comfortable they had made themselves. Most had hung hammocks or had gathered mounds of soft hay upon which the dyke fingerer could repose. Many of the tents had been either replaced or augmented by wooden walls, some with windows, all with fresh paint. It seems the various outposts had formed alliances with one another and shared work to such an extent that they had time for such things as decorating. One team had already planted a garden in response to the crackers and carrot juice. “Free time” was so rampant that a wide variety of hobbies had sprung up: book clubs had formed, a dance was scheduled, there was talk of a recreational volleyball league . . . The youths seemed happy and enthusiastic.

The dykemaster, as might be expected of a great and wise personage, was horrified. “What has happened here?” he cried. “We’re not here for pleasure, we’re here to work, to strive . . . For god’s sake, it’s a time of crisis!”

The youths to whom he had addressed this diatribe looked up insolently from their game of backgammon and shrugged. “What can we do? We must mind our leak.”

The dykemaster arrived home in a foul mood. How could matters have gone so wrong? He wanted to blame his youths, but in his heart he knew that he had mismanaged the entire business. If only he had made the time for mixing the mortar at the very start.

That, of course, was how he would correct the situation – he would have mortar made at once. He sent word that one of every three was being recalled from the dyke to mortar mixing duty. Word came back, however, that not a single one of them could be spared. Word went out again that they had no choice in the matter. Word once more returned to the effect that should he continue on in this haughty tone, the youths, acting in unison, would remove their fingers from the dyke, which would result in the destruction of the village.

It had come to this.

The dykemaster burnt-out the flame of his outrage, then fell into a state of melancholy reflection. As angry as he was, he had to admit one thing: they were enjoying themselves. He even chuckled at the memory of their devices and admitted respect for their inventiveness and self-motivation – there was just no . . . direction to it. Whatever else they did, they emphatically were not fulfilling the fundamental charge of their existence: they were not, in any way, maintaining the wall. But what could he do about it? He had lost his power to command – without that, how could anything be accomplished?

He paced through the night, then, finally, in desperation, he went to the nearest of the encampments. There he found one of the most senior of his youths – a girl named Sara.

Dispensing with the formalities customary when a great and wise personage addresses a youth, the dykemaster explained his situation as clearly as he could: “We must mix mortar or we will all die. I don’t know what to do.”

Sara thought a moment. “None of us want to die.”

“But you will not mix mortar.”

“That’s because we know that if we do, everything will go back to the way it was. We will live in the dormitories, rising and sleeping by your schedule, doing as you tell us. This is much better.”

“I understand,” said the dykemaster gravely, “but we can’t keep our fingers in the dyke forever. We need mortar.”

“I understand,” answered Sara, mirroring the dykemaster. She consulted with her teammates, then said, “If you let us remain here, living like this, the three of us will mix the mortar to fix our hole.”

Armed with this small success, the dykemaster proceeded from tent to tent saying, “I don’t know what to do.”

Soon the mortar was mixed and the holes were patched. The youths then, through their system of alliances, made sure that they would never again be without mortar.

At first, the dykemaster did not know what to do with himself. As he stood by, he felt helpless, but at the same time thrilled. Never before had he seen his charges so alive. Yet, never before had he felt so useless: he was no longer called upon to direct. The maintenance of the wall no longer needed him; the youths were educating themselves through their hobbies; they had even managed to get more from the kitchen than crackers and carrot juice.

He still felt at sea on the day when the village elders awarded him the honor of “Dykemaster of the Millennium”.

The old dyke still leaked as always, but many thought it did so less frequently than in times past. The youths grew in body and intellect.

And the dykemaster finally came to understand his new role. It was simply to look around and be the one to say, “I don’t know what to do.”

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