Monday, November 30, 2009

A Passion For Volcanoes

On Saturday I wrote about Thomas and how we tapped into his abiding interest in tools to get the whole class excited about a project. I mentioned then that there is no greater teaching aid than one child’s driving passion. Calvin is the kid who taught me this lesson during my first year as a teacher.

Calvin was the oldest child in class by almost 6 months, but the fact that he had a 17-year-old brother living at home was what really gave him the edge in terms of maturity and sophistication. He had simply been exposed to more, and more exciting, things than his classmates, experiences he brought into the classroom every day.

One of those experiences was having once taken part in a baking soda and vinegar “volcano” experiment. At least once a day he would raise his hand to regale the rest of us with the magnificence of the volcano he had seen and to suggest that we erupt one of our own. Now I had nothing against the baking soda-vinegar scientific phenomenon, but I considered it such a short-lived, one-trick pony that it didn’t seem it would be worth the effort to create an entire volcano for a 5 second eruption. However, my alternative, which was to demonstrate the chemical reaction in a bottle, did not satisfy Calvin.

It had to be a volcano and by this time he had several other kids on his bandwagon, so I decided this would have to be a job for our Pre-K class. We started with an empty 2-litre pop bottle, put it on the center of a piece of thin pressboard, and made a framework of masking tape sloping away from the aperture and down to the edges of the board. We then mixed a batch of paper mache paste, tore strips of newspaper, and over the course of the next two weeks built our volcano.

I was pretty proud of us. The plan was for the maiden eruption to take place on the following Tuesday afternoon, but as we prepared for the big event, Calvin stopped us. “That doesn’t really look like a volcano. Volcanoes are brown.”

The result of the subsequent group discussion was that we would, indeed paint our volcano, but that it would be a “rainbow” volcano, in spite of Calvin’s repeated grumbling that volcanoes are brown or “maybe gray.” We broke out the primary and secondary tempera paints, created our rainbow volcano, decided it needed to dry before we erupted it and moved on to other things. At least, the rest of us moved on. Calvin remained behind, brush in hand, and hurriedly proceeded to blend our rainbow colors into wonderfully marbled brownish-gray that still contained naturalistic stripes of yellow, green and red.

I was prepared to go through a big I’m-disappointed-your-friends-agreed-on-rainbow episode, but none of Calvin’s classmates complained when they saw it. In fact, several of them marveled at how it looked like a real volcano, so I skipped the lecture and let it go, putting it aside to dry.

Our art project that day involved using salt (although I can’t recall the specific project). Several of the children carried fistfuls of salt to the still-wet volcano and gave it a pretty good dusting with the stuff. This was one of those miraculous accidents. It caused our volcano to look like it was made from granite.

The new plan was to erupt our creation on the following Tuesday. Since we had talked so much about what volcanoes looked like, I brought in dozens of photos of real volcanoes for us to look at, including several of the volcanoes among which we live here in the Great Northwest. Most of the children gave the photos no more than a cursory look – after all, they just look like the mountains we see every day – but Calvin collected the photos on his lap and got lost in examining them. As the rest of us contemplated the eruption, he studied those photos. Finally, he said, “Our volcano doesn’t have any trees.”

“Trees! Trees!” everyone wanted trees. “And snow,” Calvin pointed out. “See? There’s snow on a lot of them.”

Not having come prepared with anything more creative, we settled on cotton balls, which we painted green to serve as trees and mixed a batch of white paint and glue to stand-in for snow. Calvin more or less managed this process, with his classmates accepting his direction without question. He’d earned our respect by getting us this far.

The one thing we really hadn’t spent much time talking about up to this point was lava. For our next class session I brought in photos of eruptions and a diagram that showed the interior of a volcano. I also, for the fourth week running, had the baking soda and vinegar available. Calvin observed, “Baking soda is white. Vinegar is clear. Lava is orange. We’ll have to add paint to it.” By now his classmates were prepared to agree with anything Calvin suggested when it came to volcanoes, and this idea was readily accepted.

With a great deal of fanfare we finally prepared our volcano for its eruption. We used a funnel to introduce the baking soda. We then gave it a healthy squirt of orange liquid watercolor. We then added some liquid dishwashing detergent (a trick I’d come across in doing some of the copious reading inspired by Calvin’s passion). And then we added the vinegar.

We waited. For those of you familiar with the usual violence of the baking soda-vinegar chemical reaction, waiting is typically a sign that you need to add more ingredients, but the function of the dish soap is to retard explosiveness and replace it with a frothy lava that flows rather than explodes. Soon the bright orange lava began to push its way out of the opening and rush down the mountainside, winding its way through channels created by our “trees.”

The eruption lasted a good 10 minutes and we cheered the entire time.

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Caution Cones

When I first started at Woodland Park, I taught the 3-5’s class, while Teacher Jeanne was charged with the Pre-3’s. I liked sharing a classroom with Jeanne and I learned a lot from her, but it wasn’t exactly a partnership made in heaven. She was a wonderful teacher, but we came at it from opposite directions. While she strove for the Montessori-like ideal of calm, serenity, and focus, my classes tend to be more on the energetic, rowdy, “C’mon every body!” end of the spectrum. While she favored a larger, more spread-out classroom with lots of quiet spaces, I’m a fan of a small, compact classroom with nowhere to hide. While she favored an orderly storage room, I employ the strategy of closing the door so no one sees my mess.

For some of the kids, moving from Teacher Jeanne to Teacher Tom was the best thing that ever happened to them. They were itching to break out, break loose, and howl. For children on the other end of the temperment spectrum, however, the transition could be a bit of a shocker. Many slower-to-warm kids had to start all over again with a new teacher, even if it was the same classroom and classmates, which meant weeks, if not months of revisiting separation anxiety.

When Jeanne left Woodland Park, it was to leave teaching altogether, and while I was sad to see her go, and sorry for the children who will miss out on her love and dedication, I wanted the job for the sake of those look-before-you-leap kids. I wanted the chance to prepare them for the next step.

And it’s worked more or less as I’d hoped. We now do most of our work of getting the kids comfortably settled with Teacher Tom and the rigors of school life before they’re 3. Dealing with the challenges of separation anxiety has gone from being a daily fall occurrence to a rarity in the 3-5 class, while it is one of our primary focuses during the first couple months of the Pre-3 year.

That first year teaching the Pre-3's, however, was rocky especially since many of my tried and true textbook techniques (e.g., reading, distraction, silliness) didn’t work as consistently for the 2’s, which meant developing new material, so I spent a good part of that first year vamping.

For instance, there was one boy who would be perfectly fine until something didn’t go his way. He would then start crying, pleading for mommy, stopping for nothing until I beat our drum that indicates it’s time for a transition. The drum worked every time, even though it occasionally meant transitioning the whole class for the benefit of one child. There was a girl who I learned to calm with the kinds of spinners that come with board games. Another girl could only be soothed with paper, a crayon, and the project of “making pictures for mommy.” Hot Wheels worked for some kids and dinosaurs for others. To this day there’s more art than science in helping them over the hump, and it often changes day-to-day.

Yesterday, while writing about using our “real tools,” I mentioned a boy who was finally comforted by the presence of dozens of orange traffic cones.

Henry was a member of that first Pre-3 class. He did not like being at school. He did not like being there even with his mom, and it was clear that the noise and hubbub that characterize one of my classes was overwhelming. He was a very verbal 2-year-old and had no problem telling us how he felt, often loudly. When his mom was there, Henry stuck to her, but when she left him, he tended to hook up with his buddy, a dad named A.J., who would sit with him near the books reading and talking. One day, A.J. pulled me aside and informed me, quiet seriously, that Henry had declared his intention to “break the whole school.”

During those first few weeks, Henry would alternate between hiding out in his corner near the books and taking sudden forays around the room, running, seemingly just this side of being out of control. He never broke the whole school, but you could tell it was on his mind. Fortunately, he seemed comfortable with me, and his mom reported that he spoke highly of me at home, even while not being so sure about school itself.

This went on for about a month, when one day Henry arrived with a long, excited story about all the “caution cones” he’d seen on his way to school. There was something in there about backhoes, but his main interest was the cones.

I said, “Maybe we should have caution cones at school.”

Henry furrowed his brow and nodded. That evening I grabbed a couple of cones from my garage that the AT&T guy had left behind, and emailed the co-op families with a plea for any cones they might be able to contribute. Within a week we had enough cones to open our own construction site.

Henry had been enthusiastic about the advent of my own 2 caution cones, but I’d kept the rest of them squirreled away in a closet until we’d reached critical mass. I was excited for Henry to arrive on that following Tuesday. I’d flooded the classroom in caution cones. It was a mountainscape in orange from the art table to the upper level of the loft. And to top it off, I’d filled the block area with diggers, dump trucks and our full collection of toy tools, along with a length of orange snow fencing.

Henry stood in the doorway, stunned I think. You could see his shoulders relax as he gazed into the room, his face wearing a small, unconscious smile. He spent his morning earnestly arranging those cones, “Making the school safe,” as he explained. He touched base with A.J. a couple of times, but mostly kept himself busy in the middle of the classroom, focused on his work in spite of the noise and swirl around him.

The cones became a permanent part of our classroom for the better part of the next month (so much so that one of my mid-year evaluations from a parent said, “Enough with the construction play!”). We gradually removed the cones, repurposing them as outdoor toys, and while this wasn’t the end of Henry’s concerns about school, it was the beginning of the end.

As a member of my first class of students who stayed with me for a full 3 years, I had the honor of getting to be part of his growth from over-stimulated toddler to rock-solid kindergartener. While his fascination with construction ebbed over the course of his time with us, his imagination and his ability to translate that into narrative dramatic play, drew other kids in and put him at the center of most of the “big games.” Not surprisingly, he also became our classroom expert on order, rules, and safety. I’ll never forget one week during which he decided to be the classroom police officer and spent his days patrolling the room with his hands on top of his head serving as his flashing lights -- palms forward, fingers vibrating. When he caught a classmate breaking a rule, he would “remind” her of the rule, then report to me. He did it with a polite, official manner that caused his friends to really listen.

I spoke with his mom shortly after Henry started kindergarten. It was in a public school with a large, rowdy classroom. She told me that she’d had her doubts about being at Woodland Park at first and had considered switching schools, but was now “so happy Henry went to preschool here." She’d expected some first day nervousness, at least, but instead he just walked right into the classroom “without looking back.” 

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

“We Made Our Own Dirt”

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the rat we spotted amongst the pile of pumpkins that have been decomposing in our garden since Halloween. Rotting pumpkins have been an integral part of fall at Woodland Park as long as I’ve been here, and the idea of aborting our experiment before our jacks had fully disappeared into the dirt had me down. I wrote:

It was a very small one (rat), and only one, but now I’m facing the prospect of taking a shovel to school on Monday morning and clearing out the bed. I really don’t want to. I don’t want our tradition to be broken, but at the same time we know that rats can carry disease (although I suspect crows and squirrels do too) . . .

After I post this, I’m going to send emails to the health and safety officers of both of the Woodland Park schools. There will be some discussion about it, but I suspect we’ll decide to remove the rotting pumpkins, and that might be the right decision. Without the easy access to food, I’m sure the little guy will go elsewhere taking our risk of disease with him.

To be honest, I figured that this rotting pumpkin tradition was one that existed primarily in my own mind, but from the moment I published that post, parents began to respond, none of whom supported the idea of removing the pumpkins.

“Please don’t remove the pumpkins. Let’s come up with another solution!” wrote Liz, who is one of the parents who spotted the rat in the first place. It was a sentiment that soon filled my inbox over the course of the day.

Greg, who’s daughter doesn’t even attend Woodland Park any longer, offered to build a perforated cover for the bed, which would allow the pumpkins to continue decomposing while keeping the rats out while we weren’t playing there.

Not a single parent out of the 80+ parents in our community, supported removing the pumpkins.

Both of our health and safety officers wanted to find a less draconian solution and we devised a plan whereby I would take my shovel into the garden on Monday morning and use it to poke around every nook and cranny in search of any rodents. I would do this again just before the kids came outside to play, and then each subsequent day until the pumpkins were fully decomposed. If I found a rat, we would assume it had taken up residence in the garden and would have to be dealt with, probably with a cover as proposed by Greg.

It’s been more than two weeks now and no sign of any varmints.

In the meantime, I thought it might be useful, nevertheless, to take measures to hurry our decomposition along. This meant breaking out “real tools.” We have the usual collection of plastic shovels and rakes that the kids normally use with minimal supervision, but in the back of my workroom, stored away in the corner, are a child-sized hoe and rake with wooden handles and business ends made of forged steel. The hoe has a razor-like edge and the rake’s tines are very pointy.

On Wednesday as a group of us poked at our mushy pile of pumpkin mud, I announced, “I think it’s time for the real tools.”

Thomas loves tools. This was true when I first met him as a 2-year-old, and I’ve watched his interest grow and his knowledge deepen over the past two school years, blossoming this Halloween when he dressed as a forklift, complete with operating “forks.” I’ve never seen a child more proud of his costume. There is no greater preschool teaching aid than a student with a driving passion, which is why I wanted to make the announcement with Thomas present.

At the mention of tools, Thomas started jumping up and down, “Yeah, we need the real tools!” His enthusiasm instantly infected the rest of the kids, many of whom probably had no idea what we were talking about, but who also started celebrating “real tools.”

I said, “We’ll need caution cones to make it safe.”

Thomas replied, “I’ll get them.” We have some 30 orange cones of various sizes, assembled several years ago when we discovered that a different construction-enthused 2-year-old was comforted by their presence (a story for another post). While he retrieved the cones, I grabbed the hoe and the rake, making a show of parading them through the courtyard to the garden, collecting children as I went. When I got there, Thomas had already arranged eight cones in two lines by the garden bed where our pumpkin mud lives. Although they were a bit too close to the action, I admired the thought he’d put into it. The first row, he explained, was for him to stand behind, while the second row was for the other kids.

Once we got cones an appropriate distance away, I gave Thomas the first turn. With an audience of at least a dozen kids standing safely behind the cones, he took a mighty swing with the hoe, burying the blade in the soft mound. I said, “Ten chops, then it’s someone else’s turn.”

I counted aloud and the audience joined in. When his turn was over, Thomas played the role of safety officer, making sure his friends stayed behind the cones and explaining the rules to any newcomers who arrived on the scene. Everyone who wanted a turn got a turn, and those who wanted multiple turns got multiple turns. We used the “real tools” for the rest of the week.

When I left school on Friday, as has become my habit since the advent of the rat, I checked our pumpkin mud. There are still a few chunks of orange in there, but it now looks more like worm food than rat food.

Or as Thomas put it as we had earlier surveyed our handiwork together, “We made our own dirt.”

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Free-Range Kids

Last year, the Woodland Park parents took part in sex educator Amy Lang’s workshop on “Birds and Bees and Kids.” When she got to the topic of sexual abuse, she started by saying, “First of all, I want you to all forget about the whole stranger danger thing.” She went on to point out that strangers account for a tiny fraction of adult abuse of children and that the risk of creating a debilitating fear of unknown people (which is, obviously, most of the world) is a much greater concern.

I came away from the workshop with a ton of good information, but the call to abandon “stranger danger” is what really stuck with me. According to Lang, the best way we can protect our kids from abuse isn’t to make them afraid of strangers, but rather to provide them with accurate, age-appropriate information so that they know to say, “Stop!” when that overly-friendly uncle or neighbor cross a line. From a statistical perspective, that is overwhelmingly where the real danger of abuse lies: with people your child already knows.

In the long run, we protect our children with information, skills and experience, not our physical presence, and the older they get, the more true this is. In fact, the tendency to hover – or “helicopter” – can often make our children less safe when they ultimately find themselves on their own as this anecdote  illustrates so well:

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.”

I’ve recently discovered journalist and author Lenore Skenazy, who came to the world’s attention a while back when she wrote a column for the New York Sun about letting her 9-year-old ride the subway on his own, putting her at the middle of a firestorm. While some called her “the worst mother in the world,” she pointed out that far more children die every year from falling out of bed, than at the hands of strangers. Her point, and one that I support intellectually (while I must confess to lingering emotional reservations that I’m working to overcome) is that we are vastly over-estimating the danger of the world outside our homes and that, in fact, from an objective perspective, it’s no more dangerous now than it ever was.

Trends in parenting, like everything else, tend to swing like a pendulum, and there is little doubt that is has gone way too far in the direction of over-protective, over-involved parenting in this post-9/11 era. I’m happy to see it starting to swing back, with a little help from educators like Amy Lang and Lenore Skenazy.

Here’s a CBS piece from this morning on Skenazy and her “Free-Range Kids” movement. 

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Questioning Authority

As I prepared for class on Tuesday morning, Benjamin’s dad Andrew arrived to replace the hinges on the door of our toy oven. That old, wooden oven gets a real workout each morning, cranking out dozens of play dough cookies, muffins and pies. It’s a reliable, often overlooked, piece of furniture, having provided the heat for thousands upon thousands of imaginary meals, and this year, finally, the hinges started to sag, causing the doors to misalign.

As is often the case, this seemingly simple project developed complications that kept him there longer than I suspect he'd anticipated, so we had the chance to chat a bit. The conversation strayed into the days before Andrew was a father. “As an uncle,” he said, “I thought my job was to help refine their BS detectors.”

I’ve written before about the centrality of silliness in my teaching style, but there’s more to it than just making the kids laugh. I’m also trying to make them think. I mean really think.

When I take up a seat at the snack table, look around, and announce, “I don’t like any of this food. It’s all candy,” the kids who’ve known me for a year or more have already played this game many times. They know to smile and say, “You’re wrong, Teacher Tom. It’s not candy, it’s healthy food.”

I’ll respond with a condescending laugh, “Oh, you don’t know. You’re just a kid. I’m a grown-up. Of course, I’m right and you’re wrong.” I then go on to insist that the peas are mints, the banana slices are marshmallows, and the crackers are really tiny cookies. I tell them with a straight face that children only eat sweets and that adults only eat healthy food. No matter what they say, I continue to insist that I’m right by virtue of my status as an adult until I allow them to finally persuade me to taste the food. And even then, even after I’ve confirmed with my own taste buds that the food is indeed healthy food, I don’t let up. I’ll say, “Hey that is healthy food. See, I was right. I told you it was all healthy food.” And the seasoned veterans of our classroom fight back, “No, Teacher Tom. We told you!” Only then do I concede, but with the caveat, “Well, I guess it is healthy food, but at least you have pop to drink.”

That’s right. I’m teaching the children of Woodland Park to question authority and I hope it drives their elementary school teachers crazy.

I start gently, of course, getting children in the habit of not passively accepting everything I say when they are tender 2-year-olds. On the very first day of class, I always have our toy barnyard animals available so I can pick up a cow and say, “The cow says, ‘Oink’.” I love seeing their little eyes narrow and brows furrow as they try to make sense of this strange man who is clearly wrong. Most of them don’t say anything at that early point of the school year, it’s all so new, but there’s always at least one who corrects me, “The cow says, ‘Moo’.” Once I’ve found that child I go through the entire box of animals, getting each of their sounds wrong and being corrected in front of that audience of 2-year-olds.

As they get older, I up the ante. Yesterday, as a group of 3-year-olds hammered golf teas into Styrofoam, I said, “Let me show you how to do this.” I then grabbed the wrong end of the hammer and began poking at my target. These kids have all been with me for over a year, so they know by now that their job is to teach Teacher Tom. “No, go like this,” they said, wielding their hammers in the conventional fashion. Later, while playing with stick ponies outside, I held mine upside down and angrily asked, “Hey, who took the head off my pony! You’re not supposed to break the toys!” A small knot of kids gathered around the investigate my headless stick before saying, in as close to unison as I’ve ever heard preschoolers, “Teacher Tom, you’re holding it upside down!”

Then there are my 4 and 5-year-olds, most of whom have spent over 2 years with me and know to be constantly on guard for Teacher Tom’s mistakes. They love to bust me, even when I’m not actually pulling their legs. By the time they’re in Pre-K, I can’t simply tell these kids things, I need to prove it to them. A perfect example came a few weeks ago when I told them we were going to melt metal. We’d melted ice and wax already, but when I said we were going to melt a piece of lead over a candle, they laughed at me, saying things like, “No, Teacher Tom. You can’t melt metal.” So I had to prove it, a lesson I'm confident they'll remember forever.

I have no interest in a classroom full of children who simply accept everything I say. I want them to doubt, question and challenge, which is the better half of learning, not to mention the proper role of a citizen in a democracy. If I can’t prove or demonstrate the validity of the things I say, then maybe I have no business saying them. And that goes for all the other authority figures out there. It’s a high bar sometimes, but the bar should be high.

So be forewarned all you kindergarten teachers, the Woodland Park kids are coming to you equipped with well-tuned BS detectors and they know how to use them.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bubble Prints

Remember how much more fun dinnertime was when mom let you use a drinking straw in your milk? I’m old enough that I was present at the advent of the articulated straw, which made it even more fun. And then later my brother and I got Silly Straws (probably by Ronco) which were clear and allowed you to actually see your beverage ascending a coiled tube. Big fun. If we didn’t have company we were allowed to put our fingers over the tops of our straws and experiment with air pressure.

But one thing we were never allowed to do was use our straws for their single most fun purpose: inserting them in the milk and blowing.

Last week our 3-5’s class got to blow bubbles to our hearts content, creating mounds of froth with no one telling us when to stop. Purely as a side benefit a few of us made some beautiful art to take home for the walls.

As with our recent experiments in encaustic monoprints the point here was the process and I’m sure we left many masterpieces behind as we pursued our scientific aims.

The process is fairly simple. We put out six cafeteria trays (to capture the overflow) and on each tray a small bowl that contained water, a couple squirts of dish soap, and a healthy splash of liquid watercolor; a primary or secondary color for each bowl. As a child took up her position at the table she was handed a clean straw and encouraged to “blow.” Within seconds she had a mound of bubbles that more often than not spread across her tray. If she was so inclined, she was then offered a piece of paper to place atop the bubbles to make a print.

Needless to say, once the kids got wind of what was going on at the art table, it became a mad house as Jaimee (our art parent for the day) scrambled to provide adequate straws, paper, and instruction. I pitched in, but it was pretty much a bubbly free-for-all during the first 15-20 minutes of class, which is to be expected. As the morning progressed, and the children dispersed to other parts of the room, they left behind the space and time for deeper exploration.

Some of the kids focused on a single color, repeatedly blowing bubbles, then re-using the same piece of paper to collect more and more bubble prints, while others carried the same piece of paper around the table collecting prints from each of the bowls, creating, as Josephine put it, “rainbow bubbles.” Some, both intentionally and inadvertently, included some of the pooled soap solution from their trays in their prints.

Charlie L., one of our youngest classmates, learned the important lesson that soapy, painty water is not tasty. He wore a ring of purple paint around his mouth for several minutes as he made a silly show of saying, “Bleh! Bleh! Bleh!” A couple years ago I tried this project in our Pre-3 class and this result was more the norm than the exception. And believe me, most of them did not take it as good naturedly as Charlie! There must be some developmental milestone that most kids reach between 2-3 where they figure out blowing. They are, of course, born knowing how to suck. (I later took Charlie to our sensory table where we were stirring up frothy water using egg-beaters and wire whisks. I demonstrated blowing the suds from the palm of my hand. He really wanted to do it, but couldn’t manage even the faintest breeze, which was true of most of the 2-year-olds when I tried it the day before . . . Scientists! Get on this!)

Anyway, here are some of our results:

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Luckiest Man On Earth

In 1984, a BS in journalism from the University of Oregon in my pocket, I crammed my life’s possessions in my 1965 Dodge Dart and headed for my parent’s new home near Seattle. The idea was to take a couple months, then hit the pavement in search of a job in advertising, preferably as a copywriter, but already my heart wasn’t in it. The closer I got to earning my degree, the more I felt that I’d made a mistake. I didn’t want to spend my life persuading people to buy things, but that’s what I was “qualified” to do, so that was the plan.

As luck would have it, my parents’ real estate agent clued me into an unpaid internship at a small public relations firm in downtown Seattle before I was even a month into this “last summer vacation of my life.” I was reluctant to pursue it at first, but was finally persuaded by the idea that I probably wouldn’t get it anyway. This must have given me just the edge I needed because business partner Sheila offered me the position on the spot and I was to start the following day.

When I say Richardson-Hurshell Public Relations was a “small” firm, it is to say that my hiring grew the staff by 25 percent, me being the sole male in the office. Sheila seemed like a seasoned, no nonsense business type, while Caroline, the company’s only paid employee, was a dynamo with a British accent that came and went depending on circumstances. I didn’t meet the other business partner, Jennifer, until a couple days later when she came up behind me, put her hands on my shoulders and said to the office at large, “Someone needs to tell this guy that we don’t wear suits around here.”

Jennifer immediately struck me as a dreamy, earth-mother type, with her wild red hair, and casual office attire. I liked her right away. I was to later learn about her widely-held reputation as a hard-driving, ball-busting, razor-smart entrepreneur. She was only dressing “down” during that period of her life because R-H’s largest client was a sportswear company. As wrong as I seem to have been about her, I now know that there is a dreamy, earth-mother inside her that only I was able to see.

Today is our wedding anniversary.

Today, 23 years ago, we impulsively (well, as impulsively as Washington State’s 3-day wait period will allow) went to the King County Courthouse, having swept up a couple R-H employees to serve as witnesses, and said, “I will.” This lack of ceremony is a tradition that will continue today. I don’t think either of us have ever remembered our anniversary without my mom prompting us. In fact, Jennifer was out of town for 7 of our first 9 anniversary dates, which were celebrated with little, “Woo hoos!” over the phone before moving on to more pressing business.

I joke sometimes that we’ve been married for 23 years, but it only feels like 22, and as cynical as it might sound there’s a beautiful truth in there. When Jennifer and I committed ourselves to one another, it emerged out of 2 years of having worked together shoulder-to-shoulder. Of course we laughed and played as well, but the core of our time together has been as partners, counting on one another, learning to take advantage of each other’s strengths and covering for weaknesses. We fell in love at work and it’s when we’re pulling together, side-by-side, counting on one another, that we are at our best. There can be no better foundation for an enduring partnership. The work of marriage is not always easy, but it is infinitely rewarding.

We have done so much together. We’ve survived and thrived together. We’ve coasted and we’ve struggled. We’ve lived in palaces and hovels, traveled the world, rubbed shoulders with royalty and paupers. We’ve made friends together and fought enemies together. I never even try to imagine life without her – sometimes it’s best to avert ones eyes from horrors. When I look into her face, I see a reflection of myself perfected. I don’t walk the world as a solitary man; there are always footprints in the sand that parallel mine. I love her with every fiber of my being.

I’ve never been more happily married, nor more proud of any accomplishment, than I am today. On my dying day, it will be as the luckiest man on earth for having found my female half when I was young enough to spend my entire adult life with her. The world may take away my money, my home, my reputation and my pride, but those things are nothing to me as long as I have Jennifer.

I love you, Nif. Happy anniversary!

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Monday, November 23, 2009

"I Said She Was Wrong"

There is not “should” or “should not” when it comes to having feelings. They’re part of who we are and their origins are beyond our control. When we can believe that, we may find it easier to make constructive choices about what to do with those feelings. –Mister Rogers

Five-year-old Josephine (my daughter) had spent the afternoon with an older relative and on the car drive home she was fuming.

“She always tries to tell me how I feel!”

“What do you mean?”

“When I said I’m not hungry, she said, ‘Of course, you’re hungry.’”

“Are you sure you just weren’t trying to get out of eating broccoli?”

“She also said I wasn’t sad when I said I was sad.”

It rang true. I could imagine this relative saying, Oh, you’re not sad, or Don’t be silly, you don’t have anything to be angry about. I asked, “What did you do?” expecting her to answer, Nothing.

Josephine stared straight ahead, “I said she was wrong.”

Good for you, I thought, while at the same time dreading the phone call that would accuse us of raising an impolite child.

Each of us, even children, is the ultimate authority on our own feelings. Older, wiser people might be able to coach us, credentialed professionals might be accomplished guides through the emotional landscape, but when it comes right down to it only we know how we feel.

A couple days ago I wrote a post about shyness, which is an emotional state, not a character trait, and how readily some adults are to label a child “shy” the moment he shows any reticence in social circumstances. How do they know the child is feeling shy? Maybe he’s afraid. Or he could be feeling angry, sad, or just downright surly. Maybe he’s doing a complex math problem in his head and they’re interrupting him. The truth is that no one knows how that a kid feels except that kid, but when we rush in  to diagnose that emotion, we’re doing so, at best, as an educated guess.

None of us can control our emotions at any given moment. They are often triggered by something outside ourselves, but the form they ultimately take is dependent on a complex brew of temperment, experience, and the response of those around us. Most adults I know are at least occasionally challenged in the efforts to come to grips with their own emotions. So is it any wonder that young children are often mystified and confused by their own strong feelings and it doesn’t help for the adults in their lives to play the game of guess-the-feeling or start tossing labels at them. Or worse, tell them they’re wrong when they try – in a psychologically healthy way – to talk about how they feel.

Emotions are an adaptive human trait. Whenever they stray from the realm of contentment or happiness, they are functioning as early warning signals, letting us know that something isn’t quite right. Developing the ability to clearly understand our feelings is essential to our survival. When young children hear adults dismiss their emotions (e.g., “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”) or mislabel them, it’s at best confusing. If it happens repeatedly they can learn to distrust their own feelings, which makes it that much more difficult to use their emotions the way nature intended.

One of the most important things we do as adults working with young children is to learn to listen to them, especially when they’re experiencing strong emotions. I rarely see it as my role to comfort a child experiencing strong emotions, although comforting is usually a side effect of listening to that child, then echoing their words without judgment.

And while we cannot control what emotions we feel, it’s also important to learn that we are not our emotions, which is what labeling implies. Emotions are something we feel in the moment, and that moment will pass, leaving behind who we really are, whatever that is. What we can learn to control, however, through practice, is how to behave in response to any given emotion.

We may feel angry, but that doesn’t mean we hit the person who took our toy.

We may feel sad, but that doesn’t mean we have to curl up in a ball in a corner.

We may feel shy, but that doesn’t mean we have to hide behind mommy’s leg.

No one is born knowing the socially acceptable ways to react to their emotions. It’s something we learn, largely through experience. It’s no more reasonable for me to expect a 2-year-old to never hit a friend than it is for me to expect a 2-year-old to overcome her shyness in an instant and say, “Hi,” to a stranger in a grocery store. We are all, always, works in progress, and that goes doubly for preschoolers. It’s not reasonable for me to expect a young child to have mastered this any more than it’s reasonable for me to expect him to have mastered long division. Some day, yes, but real learning takes time and patience.

I was proud of Josephine because she understood her own feelings well enough to call her older relative out for being wrong. Several days passed and we didn’t receive the expected phone call about our “rude” child.

It was really out of character for this relative to remain silent, so I asked Josephine, “Was she mad when you told her she was wrong?”

She didn’t have to think about it, “No, because I smiled when I said it and told her I loved her.”

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Neighborhood Characters

Just before school started I wrote about Woodland Park’s experience with a homeless person squatting in our courtyard playground and how it took a biohazard clean-up team and a new higher fence with a lock to make sure he didn’t come back. In that post I tried to draw connections between that man and the broader problem of homelessness in our city.

I’ve since learned more of the truth about our summertime house guest. His name is Atticus (a pseudonym due to the fact that he is actually the namesake of one of our students). I’ve had interactions with him before. At least four years ago, long before we raised the fence to its current 7-foot height, this scruffy character leaned across our wall as we played outside. He appeared more unsavory than dangerous, but I’m ultimately responsible for the safety of 20+ children and a half dozen young women. (I know that’s sexist, of course these grown-up women can take care of themselves, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to the protective impulses.) I positioned myself next to him and asked, “What can I do for you?”

“I’m just watching the kids play.”

I assumed he was in the area because of the Wednesday afternoon soup kitchen that operates out of St. John’s Lutheran Church across the street. “I see. Are you here for lunch? It looks like they’ve opened their doors.”

We watched a clutch of guys filing into St. John’s for a moment before he answered, “Those guys are a bunch of drunks. I’ll wait ‘til their done eating.”

That ploy having failed I was trying to think of another friendly way to tell him to beat it when he said, “I’m in charge of those guys.”

I’d occasionally found people sleeping on our porch in the morning, even way back then, so I figured I’d take advantage of having the ear of their boss, “Really? Would you tell them not to sleep in here? I don’t care if they sleep on the other side of the building, but this is where kids play.”

He took me seriously. “So, they can sleep up on the Phinney (Ave.) side, but not here? I’ll let them know.” And with that he shuffled off across the street, ostensibly to pass on the message. All I cared about what that I’d gotten rid of him without conflict, but an interesting thing happened. It may have been coincidence, but from that day until last summer we never again had a problem with guys sleeping in our courtyard. I often noticed bedrolls up on the Phinney side of the building, but not in our area.

I spotted Atticus around the neighborhood after that, usually alone, often carrying flowers he’d plucked from someone’s garden, not apparently in charge of anything. But one morning as I was setting up for class, I noticed him struggling with the latch on our gate, then finally coming into the courtyard. He was carrying flowers, what looked like a baby food jar, and a long piece of wood with a rusty nail sticking out of one end. We have an old row boat out there for the kids to play in and Atticus carefully arranged his items on its bench, putting the flowers in the impromptu vase. He then shuffled across the courtyard and knocked on the door. I really didn’t have time for this, but I answered it anyway.

“I need to come in.”

“I can’t let you in. If you’re looking for the soup kitchen, it’s across the street.”

He seemed agitated, “I need to come in.”

“I’m sorry, but I have to get ready for school. There’s no one else here. You’re going to have to leave.” I tried to keep my voice steady and friendly, but firm.

That’s when he lost it, “What are you doing in there?! I’m the teacher of this school! I have to come in and get ready for the kids!”

Atticus is an older guy, skinny, and obviously feeble. I wasn’t afraid of him as much as I was concerned that dealing with him would take up the rest of my morning and I wouldn’t be ready when the children arrived. “Listen, I don’t have time to argue with you. I’m going to shut the door now and I expect you to clear out.” I then followed through, but he did not. Instead Atticus went back to his collection of objects, climbed into the row boat and got to work arranging them. Once it became clear he was settling in, I phoned 9-1-1 using the fact that he was “armed” with a piece of wood with a nail embedded in it as a way to urge a rapid response.

When the cop arrived I stepped outside to meet him, but he didn’t need me. Instead he turned to the intruder. “Atticus,” that’s when I learned his name, “I thought we talked about this. You’re supposed to stay away from the churches.” Atticus sheepishly gathered his things and left. I thanked the police officer who told me he was “harmless,” but to call again if he came back.

Over the next couple years, people from the neighborhood told me stories about Atticus and not all of them were convinced he was harmless, but no one could think of an instance when he went beyond yelling. I’m pretty sure Monkey’s Mama’s post from last month, Fun Stealer, was about Atticus. He seems to fancy himself a friend and protector of childhood.

I’ve now learned that our summer squatter was indeed Atticus, apparently forgetting his promise to sleep on the Phinney Avenue side of the building. I’ve also learned that he’s not homeless. He has his own apartment in the neighborhood. I wonder if he doesn’t just get lonely and take to the streets for companionship.

I haven’t seen him in awhile. I hope he’s okay. After all, he’s our neighbor.

I was inspired to write this update by former Woodland Park parent Julie Howe Gwinn, who has a wonderful piece about the importance of neighborhood characters up on her blog right now. Check it out

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

She's Not Shy. She's Thoughtful.

When my daughter Josephine was a preschooler, it typically took her awhile to warm up to new situations. As much as I tried to role model enthusiastically leaping in (which wasn’t necessarily in my nature) she tended to hold back, observing and assessing before finally taking the plunge. Looking back, I think I did a pretty good job of honoring this part of her temperment, but that doesn’t mean that there didn’t remain a part of me that felt she would somehow be better off if only she could learn to be a little more like those kids who play first and ask questions later.

You know the child I’m talking about. He’s the one who enters talking, unselfconsciously announces his presence, drops to his knees, and gets down to playing. He’s eager for every transition, responds to every call to action, and gets right to the front of every line. As the parent of a child who takes longer to warm up, it’s hard to not wish for a little of that attitude to rub off on one’s own child. It’s a deeply ingrained prejudice, one based in no small measure on the fact that we’ve all missed out on things in life because we held back when it would have been better to just go for it.

Of course, we’re also blissfully unaware of the many scars and bruises we’ve avoided through our hesitation. If someone is going to get injured, it’s almost always the kid who leaps before he looks. If someone is going to be embarrassed, it’s typically the person who hasn’t done his due diligence. If someone is going to get into trouble, it’s most likely to be the one who hasn’t taken the time to learn the ropes.

There’s a reason that most of our kids have a healthy suspicion of the unknown. No matter how colorful and exciting something might be, it’s a sign of intelligence – or even innate wisdom – to hold back a bit and see what happens to the other kids before risking our own necks.

I see this all the time, of course, during the early part of every school year, especially among the 2-year-olds who don’t yet know me, their classmates, or the school. Even now, two-months into the school year, there are still a half-dozen kids who have their doubts about me. Their parents tell me they talk about me at home, often even pretending to be me. They sing the songs and look forward to certain aspects of our day together, so I know they’re engaged and that’s what’s important.

This would be a problem in a traditional school with only one or two teachers in the room, but since we’re a co-op, there is no dearth of grown-ups to turn to – including one’s own parent – when an adult is needed. We have the luxury of honoring the children’s instincts and letting them take it at their own pace.

I’ve written here before about Sammy who spent the bulk of her 2-year-old year fleeing whenever I was anywhere near her, never speaking to me, and generally making it perfectly clear that she preferred her Teacher Tom at a distance, but who now treats me with the casual friendliness of old friends.

After all, it’s not a race, and in our preschool, which is really a 3-year program, we have all the time in the world to get from here to there.

This isn’t always true, however, in the world beyond our yellow walls. For instance, with the holidays fast upon us, our kids are going to be set upon by hoards of strangers (in the form of friends and family) who will be demanding cheery greetings, kisses and hugs. And when the kids do what comes naturally by hiding behind mommy’s leg or burying their heads into daddy’s shoulder, these people will call them “shy,” one of the most insidious and potentially self-fulfilling of all the names you can call a kid. And many of us will feel embarrassed, even while we might sympathize, and be pressured by the weight of social conventions to insist that they let these strangers handle them, kiss them, and even pinch their cheeks without even the buffer of a proper period of getting-to-know-you.

Seriously, first they call you a name, then they lay hands on you, then they slobber on your cheek and worse. Yuck! It makes me want to hide behind someone’s leg.

Of course, these aren’t bad people, in fact they’re probably some of your most beloved. And they just want to love your child. And you want your child to love them. And your child may already love them, but this isn’t an issue of love, but rather of trust. Trust between people doesn’t spontaneously appear for children any more than it does for adults. It’s something that grows and everything that grows takes time.

If you foresee this scenario in your near future, it would probably be a good idea to talk to your child about what to expect in advance. Remind her of who is going to be there and warn her that they’ll want a hug. Whether or not another person touches me, should be my own choice, but reality dictates that there are going to be times when I don’t really have a choice, especially if I’m a child and the hugger is grandma. If that’s in your child’s future, you owe it to him to prepare him: “Grandma is going to hug you.” And when he answers, “I don’t want to,” your response will have to be, “I know, but Grandma will still hug you.”

That said, in most cases we should have a choice about being touched. Instead of siding with the “stranger” and urging little Billy to “say, ‘Hi’” or “hug Uncle Louis,” it would probably be more productive to let their relationship develop at its own pace. Uncle Louis is a grown-up, he’s just going to have to accept it when you instead say something like, “Billy will say ‘Hi’ later,” or “He’s not ready for hugs.”

It can be a little trickier when someone hangs the “shy” label on your kid. That’s a tough tag to live with, and if your child tends to be slow to warm, she’s going to be hearing it a lot, possibly even to the point of internalizing it. As a parent, I never let “shy” go by uncorrected. I would respond with things like, “She’s not shy. She’s thoughtful.” If you say it with a knowing smile, a sensitive adult will catch on to what you’re doing – replacing a word with negative connotations (shy) for a word with positive ones (thoughtful) – and play along. But even if the adult is a little hurt by the correction, at least your child will have heard that label refuted. Of course, if we’re talking about friends and family, it should be easy to just pull them aside and let them know that you’re trying to avoid using the label of “shy” around the kid. They’ll understand.

The real fun comes when it’s a complete stranger who feels compelled to call your kid “shy.” It’s remarkable how often unknown people are compelled to demand attention from your child, then respond with something like, “Oh, aren’t we the shy one?” when he retreats behind the shopping cart. Parent educator Dawn Carlson, suggests replying with something along the lines of, “He’s not shy. He just doesn’t feel like meeting strangers right now.” Or, if it’s a particularly egregious example, “He’s not shy. He just doesn’t want to talk to you.”

As our kids get older, it’s important to keep giving them the tools that will ultimately allow them to stand up for themselves and to understand their own strengths even in the midst of the barrage of “shy” that our culture seems to accept in every day conversation. Often those who get labeled “shy” grow to feel that there is something wrong them. We all feel some level of anxiety or nervousness in new situations and it’s important to find age-appropriate ways to share that with our children, letting him know that their feelings are normal and universal. Teaching them how to politely decline unwanted advances with words like, “No, thank you,” is equally important.

The time it takes to build trust and the social demands for politeness are often at odds when it comes to young children and it’s our job to help them find a balance. There are times when we have to hug grandma, even if she does smell like oatmeal, but more often than not honoring our children’s social instincts should trump niceties. It’s not a race. We have all the time in the world.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

The Realms Of “We”

We had 5 balloons left over from a Tuesday afternoon session of Pre-K “volleyball,” and didn’t want to waste them so when I set up the gym for yesterday’s large motor session, I tossed them into the mix.

From the very start we had problems: essentially the first 5 kids who came into the room grabbed a balloon and held onto it. Sure, a couple kids tentatively tossed the balloons into the air, but then immediately chased after them shouting, “That’s mine!” as other children went after them. It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen before with this particular 3-5 class. We have ten 11” sponge balls that we often use indoors, and the same thing tends to happen with those.

Generally speaking, I pride myself on my patience with preschoolers, but this fad drives me crazy. There are always one or two kids in every class with the instinct to protect their toys rather than play with them, and we can usually work around that, but when half the class shows this proclivity we’ve got a problem.

My first somewhat impatient response, which is pedagogically suspect, was to answer the kids who said, “That’s mine!” with “No it’s not. That balloon belongs to everyone.” I don’t think I’ve ever set off so many quivering lower lips in such a short span of time. I backed this up by loudly and repeatedly announcing, “The balloons are for throwing and hitting into the air, not for holding,” and, “If you’re just holding a balloon I’m going to take it from you and throw it into the air.” Before long there were 8-10 whimpering kids wandering around the gym complaining about “my balloon.”

That’s when I said, “That’s it. I’m going to put away the balloons,” and with the help of a parent we gathered them up. And there we stood knee-deep in teary-eyed children pleading for the return of the balloons. I really intended to put the balloons away, but looking at their wet faces, hearing their plaintive words, it dawned on me that this was about more than the return of the toys. They might have each been pleading their own selfish cases, but as a body they were begging, in concert, to be taught how to play together with a limited resource. I realized that taking those balloons away would work as far as bringing an end to the bickering, but it would be the coward’s way out.

While I had their undivided attention I repeated, “The balloons belong to everyone. They are for throwing into the air, not for holding. When people hold the balloons it makes other people cry.” I then let them know that if any of the adults saw a child just holding a balloon, we would take if from them and toss it into the air. There were at least 4 other adults in the room as I set these rules of the game and the five of us began playing our role as referees, snatching balloons from the grips of unwary kids, batting them back an forth over their heads, swatting them into the far corners of the room, and generally foiling any attempts to claim “possession” of any single balloon. There were still some tears, but after about 5 minutes the children who hadn’t given up on the game altogether were getting the hang of it. We did have to emphasize that the snatching was the exclusive right of the adults, but there were so many of us and we were so quick that there were often 5 balloons in the air at any given moment.

As the adults role modeled the “ethic” of keeping the balloons in the air, and enforced the rules of “community ownership,” new games began to emerge. Jack and Finn V. took a balloon off to the side where they practiced hitting it back and forth between them. When another child would intervene, they laughed and chased after it. Orlando, Isak and Charlie L. had fun bird-dogging their favorite colored balloons around the room. But mostly we played the game of working together to keep the balloons aloft. It wasn’t entirely joyful play, but that’s to be expected. It's hard work stretching your brain beyond the comfort zone of “me” and into the mysterious and exciting realms of “we.”

The balloons will remain with us next week. This isn't the work of a single day.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Small Children In Small Spaces

Our classroom feels like a small crowded space in the best of times and I often go out of my way to make it feel even smaller and more crowded.

Since our highest mission at Woodland Park is to learn how to live together, I like to manufacture situations in which the children are forced to be in close proximity so that they have no choice but to interact. When I set up the art easels, for instance, I position them close enough together that the children bump and jostle one another. That closeness encourages the need for conversation, negotiation and collaboration, and in a cooperative classroom there is always an adult nearby to help coach them through the more challenging parts of dealing with the other humans.

When I started teaching I would try to carve out a corner of the room that could serve as a quiet refuge, usually under our loft, but as time has gone on I’ve dumped that idea altogether. Our 3-5’s school day is only 2½ hours, while our 2-year-olds are only in class 4 hours a week. This is the time to be together. They have the whole rest of the week to read books in a quiet corner.

And the older the kids are, the more developmentally capable they are to enter into the complexities of human relationships, the closer together I try to get them.

A perfect example is the camping set-up we’ve been playing with this week. On Tuesday when the 2-year-olds were in session we had 3 tents set up, but yesterday when the 3-5’s took over the room, I removed a tent, leaving us with only 2 small tents and 21 children. One of the tents in particular became the venue for a particularly intense, jam-packed game that revolved around a group of our older girls, a stack of campfire logs, some plastic food, and a pile of stuffed animals.

It was the kind of noisy affair that attracts others. There were times when that small 2-person tent housed 6-7 active preschoolers with another half-dozen milling around just outside. The static electricity build-up caused their hair to stand on end. Tensions alternated with sweaty joy throughout the morning, but the only tears were when Lachlan was accidentally knocked down by his older sister Katherine, one of the hazards of small children in small spaces.

Another natural consequence of preschoolers in small spaces is that at some point one of the 4-year-olds will inevitably come up with the idea to say, “You can’t come in.” And sure enough, as I knelt beside the tent it happened.

Max, as has been his tendency for the past few weeks, was pretending to be a monster. Most of his monster fierceness, however, tends to reside in his imagination and gets expressed through his impressive vocabulary, so he’s a monster who doesn’t really frighten his friends. As he started to unzip the tent flap to enter, Katherine barred his way, saying, “You can’t come in.”

Alive with the idea that I was in the midst of a teachable moment, I pointed to our list of rules and said, “But Katherine, you and your friends made a rule that says, You can’t say you can’t play.”

Katherine, quite uncharacteristically, gave me something of a stink eye, then returned her focus to Max. “Are you a nice monster or a mean monster?”

Max answered, “A nice monster.”

As Katherine unzipped the flap, Max turned to me and explained, “When I’m a mean monster I destroy the house so I can’t go in.” He then crawled into the tent and Katherine zipped the door shut behind him.

I left the campsite and went to the puzzle table where the kids needed me.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Our Encaustic Monoprints

As I’ve written here many times before, for me preschool art is about the process of creation with the end result being at best secondary, and in many cases totally irrelevant.

In fact, we produce a lot of art that goes directly into the recycling bin at the end of the day because it was either a group art project and we’re out of wall-space, or because the “finished” work can’t be practically saved, such as a collage project upon which the child has emptied several bottles of white glue. We have the luxury of doing this, in part, because as a cooperative preschool the children’s parents are in the room to observe their child making art so the need to take home a “trophy” at the end of the day is less pressing than it might be a traditional setting.

Last week both the 3-5 and Pre-3 classes had the chance to experiment with the process of drawing with crayons on hot plates, then if they chose they could press a piece of paper on their result to make a print. A parent asked if these were “encaustic paintings.”

My blogging/Facebook friend and Seattle-area artist Kari Young (here are her website , blog) has been working with encaustic paints (a mixture of bees wax, resin and pigment applied to wood boards with a heated iron, torch and brush) for the past couple years so I posed the question to her. Her answer was that they could probably be called “encaustic monoprints,” then asked me to share some of the finished pieces with her.

Now, it is the nature of preschool process art to go through a beautiful phase, but young children rarely stop there, so much of what we wound up with were gray and brown puddles of melted wax, but I told her I’d check our cooling racks to see what we had. And much to my surprise I found some beauties:

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Repairing Things

If I were a toy manufacturer and I really wanted to know how sturdy my products were, I’d test them in a preschool classroom. I can’t count how often things get broken the first time we play with them. It’s not because the children aren’t careful. They’re mostly under 5-years-old and they’re playing with those toys exactly the way they should be playing with toys, which is to say, like mad scientists, poking, prodding and seeing what else this thing can do.

Things break. It’s in the nature of preschool for things to get broken and when they do it’s an opportunity to teach about repairing them.

A few years back, for instance, one of our bathroom sinks was clogged solid. A child had apparently poured a cup full of hard red wheat berries down the drain. One of our parents said that she would take care of it. The next day she arrived in class with a European brand vacuum cleaner that had a special attachment made for sinks. She’d never had the opportunity to use it at home and wanted to give it a try. As part of her small group activity she took 7 kids into the bathroom and they blew those wheat berries out of our pipes. The kids came pouring back into the room cheering like they’d won a championship, then escorted their friends back in to demonstrate their handiwork.

Books often need repair. I love that inexpensive printing and binding techniques have made it possible for small, non-profit operations like ours to afford an extensive library, but those 2-staple binding jobs are not designed to last in a multi-user environment. Fortunately, one of my predecessors had the foresight to purchase a special book-binding stapler, which I use to return loose signatures to their proper place. 

I usually start by holding up the damaged book at Circle Time saying something like, “Look what happened. These pages came out of the book. Now no one can read it.” I try to infuse it with the kind of serious concern that an unreadable book deserves. The statement never hangs in the air very long before someone pipes up with, “We could try to fix it.” That’s the cue to break out the special stapler, make a show of repairing the book, cheering, then quickly reminding everyone that we need to be a little more gentle with the books.

We have 3 plastic pizza-wheel type cutters that we use as play dough toys. A few weeks back one of their handles snapped under the pressure of someone who really wanted to make sure he was getting all the way through to the other side. We had a long discussion about how to go about fixing it, settling on tape as the solution. When it broke again after a couple weeks, we opted for tape and glue. Here it is:

What I've noticed about this repaired dough cutter is that in spite of there being two un-repaired wheels available, this one has become the cutter of choice for our 3-5 class. Ever since the repair-job it always needs to be put away at clean up time, while the other two languish in the toolbox. Yesterday, when Ella spotted it she enthused, “Oh look, it’s the one we fixed!” and went right to work with it.

Kids often bring books to me and say, “I’m reading the one we fixed,” usually showing me the page we returned to its rightful place, even sometimes pointing out the new staples.

It’s important that the children are learning that broken doesn’t need to mean forever and that sometimes, in fact, the repaired item is more valuable because its been repaired.

It occurs to me that these are concrete examples of a larger lesson we want our children to learn about damage and loss. We can’t help feeling sad or disappointed – that’s normal – but we needn’t give-in to despair. Repair is often possible. Sometimes our “repairs” return things to a like-new condition, as with our books or a friend to whom we genuinely apologize for an inadvertent hurt. Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, we can never completely return things to the way they once were, like with our dough-cutter or a betrayal of trust. We can still use that dough-cutter, but we’ll always have a reminder in the form of duct-tape and popsicle sticks that it can be broken, which probably makes us use it a little more cautiously than we once did, but we can use it nevertheless.

Of course, there are some things that can’t be repaired. We’ve taken apart enough old vacuum cleaners, radios, and other machines in class to know that some things are broken for good, but you never know what those things are until you first try to repair them.

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