Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"There Was A Pig Jumping On Your Head"

Here are some more stories from the kids.
Once there was two silly glasses. They they bonked inside a mirror and a forehead. And then there was a big monster that ate everything, but not poison, fire, and ice. And then he forgot because he ate ice, and he stayed as a statue. --Jack
Once there was a pencil. And then it poked everything except the compliment chain. And then it lift him up and splatted on the face. Then they went home. --Jack
It's a angry one. There was two ghost-es. And one was a kid. And then one was a boy. And there was another monster skeleton. And then there was another monster. --Lachlan
About a monster. The monster hit a monster. And then another monster and then it bumped my pants. An dthe it bumped me. Then it bumped Teacher Tom. And then it bumped Lachlan. And then it bumped that's the end. --Lachlan
The robot was silly. Then the silly rabbit came. Then the snow. And then they put on some warm clothes. And then they climbed on a tree. And then the snow fell down again. The snow fell down again. And then they climbed on the slippery slide. And then they went ice skating. --Anjali
There was a elephant jumping on your head. There was a cow jumping on your head too. And then there was a camera jumping on a bike. --Dennis
There was a pig jumping on your head. And there was sheep jumping on your light. And there was a elephant jumping on your elbow. And there was a elephant jumping on your face. And there was a elephant jumping on your arms . . . on your head . . . on your scarf . . . on a eyeball. Tiger jumping on your ankle. There was a light jumping on your apple. Sheep jumping on your apple. --Dennis
A frog that eats mushrooms. --Orlando
A dark, dark night. --Orlando
Christmas Lights
One foggy winter when there was snow and it was Christmas. And we built a snowman. And then we made snowballs and we throwed them. And the we sleeped inside by the fire. --Katherine
The little puppy goed and had some food. And why he did that he ate a paint brush at the same time he had his food. Then he goed outside, chased a squirrel and ate it. And then he squirrel was still alive and ran away. --Katherine
Alligator. Then alligator chased a mouse. It chased it away and eat a kids. Then alligator ate a paper and then it got sick. And then Finn was away and he got hurt. --Charlie B.
Once there was a scary guy. And he scared the bunny away. And he was going to tag the bunny. And he was going being silly. And he scared the ghost away. And he scared Jack away and after ever after. The end. --Marcus
A cat found a ghost. And it ran away. Then he found some glasses. Then the cat ran away from the glasses. Then he ran to a window. --Luna
About a little unicorn and a little kitty. And they played together and played together until the sun set. And then they played, played, played until it's time to go in and they had a nice supper. And all the kitties and unicorns were snug in their beds. --Ella
Christmas time is here right now. Santa gave me a present that was like the coolest one. And then he give me a new army shirt. And then he gave me army pants. And then he gave me a army carrier boat. And then he got me a army helicopter. And then he gave me new lights. And then he gave me a race track that comes with cars. And then he got me a new trike. And then he got me a new race track that's super big. I went in the store. --Finn V.
If you're interested in our storytelling process, that post is here.

If you're interested in other stories from the kids, here they are in the order in which I've transcribed them:

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Up, Up and Away!

Our classroom is regularly invaded by superheroes, the most memorable of whom was The Hulk, who also did business has The Snow Hulk, The Cardboard Block Hulk, The Hay Hulk, and the Quiet Hulk, depending on the day. This fantastically enormous and powerful being, operating through the body of one of our most diminutive friends, is only one of a veritable legion of impossibly gifted personas to have burst through Woodland Park’s doors.

We’ve spent time with Batman, Spiderman, Superman, Thor (the Norse god of thunder), and Wonder Woman – all characters from my own childhood. I myself have actually been each of these powerful characters at one time or another. (If The Hulk can wear a pink satin slip, I can pretend to be Wonder Woman.)

These, however, are not the only “superheroes” that regularly grace our classroom. I don’t think it’s stretching the term unreasonably to include the whole glittering spectacle of princesses who walk among us, Disney and otherwise, with their own magical powers. And then there are such stalwarts as Harry Potter, Barbie, and an endless parade of fire fighters, construction workers, dinosaurs and other animals with sharp teeth.

At some point all of us need to try on a powerful persona. Everyone needs to experience what it means to fly, to triumph, to be a big deal in the big world.

To paraphrase Desmond Tutu: it’s not the darkness within ourselves that we fear; it’s the light. I think that’s what we’re dealing with here, at least at some level. Young children haven’t yet learned to be afraid of that incredible, limitless potential that each of us possesses – the 90 percent of our brains that goes unused. That is what they are engaging when they play with superhuman power. (And sadly, I think, it's our adult fear of this light that ultimately causes many of us to give up playing at superhero.)

At the same time, our children haven’t yet learned to fear the darkness either. The violence is exciting. The romance of it is thrilling. As adults, our broader experience teaches us that the horror of violence must be reserved as a last resort; that the pursuit of impossible beauty standards can lead to diseased behavior; that none of us will ever actually possess the super powers in question.

Like it or not, this is our society. These are the models of power that the larger world presents to our children. I don’t know if they are any better or worse than the models of power presented to children in other eras (Did ancient Greek children play Apollo or Aphrodite?) but I do know they are more insistently pounded into our children than ever before. Marketers target children with these superhero messages because they know your children need to imagine what it means to fly.

As parents we’re caught in between. Of course we want our children to engage in robust and imaginative power play. On the other hand we want them to understand that there are other ways to be powerful than through violence and societal standards of beauty. You can try to block it out, but it still gets in, it’s everywhere; you can slow it down, but you can’t stop it.

The society our children see through the lens of the mass media is incredibly warped and it’s our job to provide the rest of the story. Understanding this, most of us try to limit our children’s exposure to these powerful media images, but that can’t be the only thing we do. One of our jobs as parents is to equip our children with tools for dealing with the parts of our culture that emerge from the darkness. It’s our job to make sure our own opinions are understood. We need to make sure our children know where we stand on issues of violence and beauty. If we don’t do this we are letting marketers decide what our children learn about being powerful . . . And we need to do it without browbeating or anger, trusting our own honestly held beliefs, expressed clearly and calmly, to guide our children to make the right choices.

And as we gently point out the flaws in the myth of superheroes and princesses, we also must provide other, more realistic ways to exert power in the world. We need to make sure they also experience some of the thousands of other ways to shine our powerful light in the world.

For instance, one of the most popular circle time activities at Woodland Park is giving compliments. I ask, “Who wants to make someone else feel good?” and one at a time the children are called on to demonstrate their “superpower” of saying something kind to a friend. More often than not, it’s an actual compliment (e.g., “I like your shoes,” “I like your hair.”) but we’re not sticklers. Sometimes it’s a statement of affection (e.g., “I like you.”) or a wish (e.g., “I want you to come play at my house.”). Sometimes it’s whispered into a friend’s ear and the only way we know it worked is by the resulting smile. In any event, all on their own, the children have added the convention of following up their “compliment” with a hug. Throughout the exercise I repeat the mantra, “Sally (or Billy or Johnny) is being powerful by making someone feel good.”

We keep track of each compliment by adding a “link” to a plastic chain that is hung from the ceiling. The goal is to encircle ourselves with compliments by the end of the year. Our plastic chain link set came with 500 pieces. That’s a lot of power play! I love the mighty cheer each year as we add the final link. I see in their faces and hear in their applause how (super)powerful they feel. Look what we’ve done!

Some teachers ban superhero play, but I’ve made peace with it and try my best to use the power these impossible heroes embody to help children develop their own powers. At school we try to point out that the real mission of superheroes is to help people, not to scare them or fight them. We find traits beyond mere beauty to praise in each of the Disney princesses (e.g., Ariel is adventurous, we know Belle is smart because she loves to read, Cinderella is kind to animals.) Those are the real world superpowers. And I think that’s the opportunity here. If we can, even in small measure, help our children experience their own light, to find their own real world super powers – that potential represented by the other 90 percent of their beautiful brains – then we help them actually become the superheroes they imagine themselves to be.

(Reprinted, with revisions, from 6/14/09)

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Lemonade Stand

For better or worse, fundraising is part of going to school in America. Every school does it, from the most expensive private institutions to the most underfunded public schools. And while this kind of education funding results in all kinds of unfairnesses and imbalances, if you have a child in school you're going to be involved in fundraising one way or another, like it or not. I'll confess that as a preschool parent, I simply found it an aggravation and would generally just write a check in lieu of participating in initiatives like selling holiday wrapping paper or frozen cookie dough, but as a teacher I've come around on the topic, if only because these kinds of endeavors are one way to bring the entire community together around a common cause.

It's even better if you can put the children at the center of the fundraising in a meaningful way.

Charlie L.'s mom Shelly had the idea of selling lemonade during our summer session, not just once or twice, but every day. The kids make the lemonade themselves . . .

. . . measuring, mixing, stirring, tasting, and taking turns.

We started off by just selling it from a table in front of the school, but one day Ella's mom Jaimee, and Dennis, Vivian, and George's dad Terry took on the task of working with the kids to build a real lemonade stand from PVC pipe.

The kids then sell their lemonade for 50 cents a cup to one another, their parents, and even (rarely) to passersby. Many of the children have been very excited to be entrusted to keep track of their own lemonade coins, taking them in and out of pockets and backpacks throughout the day to show me they still have them. I overhear them discussing their lemonade money, comparing their coins and bills, discussing how many cups they can buy. Dennis even started bringing extra money to buy cups for "special" girls.

It turned out that the lemonade stand was too tall for the younger kids, so they had to work from the top of a step ladder.

The children served, purchased, collected money, and made change.

And, of course, they enjoyed the refreshingly tart fruits of their labors.

It's an endeavor we do together. Charlie L. is a strong advocate for spending the money on new trains.

Terry has cheerfully dubbed the entire lemonade stand project "a voluntary tax," and of course children still get to drink lemonade even if they don't happen to have the money on them and are feeling left out.

The last I heard, we've raised close to $200, 50 cents at a time, working together.

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Giggling, Squirming Chain Of Humans

One of my favorite recreations is what I call urban hiking. I love few things more than to put on a good pair of shoes and take off from my own driveway to walk my city. The best days are the ones during which I walk all day, 8-9 hours, non-stop, covering 15-20 miles.

I think of it as a kind of walk-about. I sometimes start off with my iPod playing, but usually turn it off after the first hour. I'm seeking the experience of solitude, I suppose, and the ordeal of trudging for hours on end is the way I get there. To say I "enjoy" it would be inaccurate, because I don't always like what I'm doing. I often curse myself for biting off more than I can chew, I worry about the blister I feel forming on my heel, I carry on aggravating, often argumentative imaginary conversations with the people in my life. But, after a time, if I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, my entire world becomes about simply putting one foot in front of the other, step over step, step over step, moving forward until I achieve a kind of meditative state in which even my internal chatter disappears and all I'm left with is the putting of one foot in front of the other.

I'm usually underway without a destination in mind until the final hour or two. That's when I start homing in on a location with two important features: good food and easy access to mass transit. I'm particularly fond of bellying up to the noisy bar in a place with a well-reputed kitchen, sweaty, dusty, and tired, starting with water, then a beer, then an appetizer, then a salad, then a massive gut-busting entree. I gradually re-enter the society of other humans by exchanging words with the bartender or the strangers sitting beside me, connecting with them in snippets. By the time I've finished a second beer and dessert, I'm ready to totter off to the bus stop and head home to my family.

These are special times for me because most of my life as a husband, father, and teacher is about being deeply engaged with the other people, responding to them, listening, steering, persuading, being persuaded, the stuff of which a good life is made.

I'm not the only one out there walking. There's another guy, in particular, who I often encounter on my walks. He appears to be one of the many homeless men who wander anonymously about our city.  He wears several layers of dirty clothing, including a parka, even on the hottest days. He carries a duffle bag, which he occasionally shifts from one shoulder to the other. He walks, as I do once I've achieved my meditative state, with his eyes on the ground a few feet in front of him, the bill of his dusty LA Dodgers cap keeping his face in shadow, although I've peeked under there to see a handsome, bearded face with pale blue eyes. He could be a man aged anywhere from 40 to 70. In my mind, I've named him "The Walking Man."

I don't only see him when I'm on my urban hikes. I often come across him in the my own Pandora (Seward Park) as I exercise the dogs. And I've passed him in the car as far away as Madison Park, 10 miles north of there. As near as I can tell, he spends his days, every day, slow-marching his way up and down the shores of Lake Washington, not looking left or right, just walking. I've tried saying, "Hi," but since it seems to make him wince, I've tempered my friendliness to just nodding and smiling. He does respond a bit to the dogs, moving to the edge of the wooded paths when we encounter him in what I can only see as a touching act of self-preservation. Was he bitten by a dog as a child? Was he born with a fear of dogs?

I ask myself these kinds of questions about him. I wonder about him as a child. Did he play with the other children or was he isolated even then? Were there great tragedies in his life that shut him down or is he the victim of untreated mental illness exacerbated by simple neglect? If there ever were people who cared about him, have they died or abandoned him? Or are there people, even now, who love him, worry about him, people who are seeking him out?

In one sense, of course, we are all alone in this world, and while we each must discover our own way to deal with that great and terrifying truth, most of us, most of the time, find that connecting with one another in love and common cause is the only healthy way to go. As much as I want to find a spiritual or philosophical rationale for why The Walking Man is engaged in a valid response to the great and terrifying truth, he is not. Somewhere along the way he was betrayed by the rest of us humans. Either we shut him down through abuse or neglect, or we never gave him the opportunity to learn the social and interpersonal skills we all need in order to not be alone. Without that, I can understand why he just keeps moving, putting one foot in front of the other, fixing his eyes on the ground before him and nothing else. To look up, even for a moment, is to contemplate an abyss, something none of us can do for very long without going insane.

Motivation, sociability, the ability to work with others: these are, after all, the only things worth teaching our young children. Friendliness, courtesy, appropriately processing emotions, gentleness, laughter, eye contact, smiling, curiosity: these are the skills that we all need in order to connect with the other people.

Of course, we all need to be alone as well, to recharge, reassess, renew, but without the prospect of a humans at the other end, we become The Walking Man.

We sing a song at school called "When Sammy Put The Paper On The Wall." Near the end we all come together in one of those hot-breathed, germ-sharing group hugs singing, "We're all stuck together." I slow the song down at that point, sometimes even repeating the line again, holding the note, giving us a chance to experience all of our bodies clutched together like that, vibrating with the only answer to the meaning of life that makes any sense, large and small, boys and girls, introverts and extroverts.

We then separate to the line, "Like birds of a feather," flapping our wings, and then finish big, "Since Sammy put the paper on the waaaaaaaalllllll!"

Thursday, one of the children, I don't know who, said, "Let's do a caterpillar hug!" I'd never heard that expression before, although it immediately conjured an image in my mind. Apparently, I wasn't the only one. We adults did our usual adult thing of trying to help organize them, but we were really superfluous. The children lined themselves up, one behind the other, wrapping their arms around the waist of the child in front while also being embraced from behind, all stuck together, a giggling, squirming chain of humans.

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Friday, August 27, 2010

Beach Hut Renovations: "That'll Hold"

This final 2-week session of our summer program has been on Thomas' mind for some time now. This was the session during which we decided to exclude the "little kids" (his term for the 2-year-olds). One of the things that seemed to excite him the most was the prospect of adding a second story to our beach hut (aka "the castle," "the club house," "the fort," or simply "the house"), a project he seems to think was too dangerous to undertake with the little kids around.

I don't seem to have a current photo. It's much more built-out than this, but
you get the idea.

I happen to know that this structure, without fairly substantial reinforcement, is not capable of supporting a second floor. We built the original frame on a shipping pallet, over which we nailed lengths of old fencing planks to make a floor.

The adults added 2X4's as corner posts, then used more fencing planks (a neighbor was replacing his fence) to finish it out.

We've been adding all manner of things to this structure over the past few months, from pulleys and a sewer system, to partial walls, window screens, and a burlap bag roof. And while it's been a target for quite a number of improvements, it hasn't really been used much for dramatic play. The reason was well-illustrated last week when Ella decided to set up a tea party. By the time she got a table and two chairs in there, she barely had room to move. So while a second story may be out of the question for the time being, more space is something worth considering.

We have another pallet-floor available, but I already find it quite useful for other purposes.

As a moveable platform, I use it to re-define space outdoors.

It's a great place to position things like the cookie tree.

We like having a relatively flat place to build things or
drive cars . . .

. . . or just set up interesting "loose part" vignettes.

One of my routes to and from school (I have a few routes -- driving the same roads day after day makes me insane) takes me through the industrial Sodo district of Seattle. There are always clean shipping pallets leaned against warehouse walls for the taking, so I grabbed one on Wednesday because if we were going to add a room, we would need to start with a floor. This time, however, it wasn't going to be the adults who built it. This was a job for the kids.

Nia's dad Greg helped them use a tape measure to figure out how long our planks needed to be, assisted in drawing lines with a ruler where they needed to cut, then supported them in using the jigsaw to do the cutting.

You'll notice that 1) eye protection is being worn, 2) the wood
is secured with clamps, and 3) Greg is controlling the tool
by holding the motor while the child depresses the trigger.

Then it was time for hammering. A few of the kids were worried about the "noisy" saw, and opted to skip that part of the process, but the "noisy" hammering was less of a problem. Some of the children started their own nails, but Greg and I partially drove most of the nails to get the kids started, as well as to hold the planks in place so they wouldn't slide around as the kids worked.

Thomas declared, "That'll hold," before pounding the bent
nails down into the wood.

Again, you'll notice safety glasses for all, plus as an added measure, we marked off our construction area with caution cones, warning anyone who entered the area that they would need eye protection, even if they were just watching.

So now we have our new platform, already christened with a little late summer drizzle.

This is every bit as good as the ones we adults built. With just one more week of our summer program to go, I'm curious to see where this remodeling project takes us.

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