Sunday, October 31, 2010

All The Days Are Special

I know how to get fancy, concocting elaborateness in our preschool classroom, at least a little piece of me motivated by the idea that I might knock the socks off the moms and dads who walk through our doors this morning to see something they've never seen before, like a milking cow, or a balloon cage, or a cookie tree, or a mat maze.

And the kids, especially the older ones, the Pre-Kers who've been hanging around this place for three years or more, they've started to get it, that this is a "special day" because it's the one during which we melt metal or pour concrete.

I'm ashamed to confess that I too often get lost in this grown-up head that I carry around up here where the children don't live, and forget that all the days are special.

These are the days on which I put one, then two, then three bears upon a red block.

And when I calculate there's no room for a fourth bear, I put it aside . . .

. . . and sit back to feel for a brief moment those emotions, and think those thoughts, about what I've just done.

Then we pile everything into our friend's stroller and she takes them away.

You don't have to hang out with 2-year-olds to be reminded that all the days are special, but it helps.

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Pretending To Not Know

We once brought bales of hay into the classroom for a week. It was fun, but it turns out they're something better left for the outdoors, especially since I'm prone to allergic reactions, including asthma. Concentrating all that hay indoors for a week turned out to be a little much for me.

The good news is that opportunities abound for outdoor hay bale play around here this time of year. Our last two field trips (nursery, organic farm), in fact, have featured hay mazes, and the children always report that their favorite part of any field trip even peripherally involving a hay maze, is, well, the hay maze. We could fly to the moon on a rocket, and I'm pretty sure that if there was a hay maze prior to lift-off, that's what we would be talking about the next day.

There are secrets inside mazes, even ones made from gym mats. They make mysterious spaces out of old familiar places.

Many of us stand outside of them at first, summoning up a bit of courage. We don't have the benefit of the preview the grown-ups get from up there where their heads live. We're down here, lower to the ground where there is so much more that is unknown.

Others of us just plunge right in, making the rounds quickly, wildly, shrieking when we're surprised by a friend coming around a blind corner. Bumping into the friends who are following us, like a scene from The Three Stooges, when we unexpectedly come to a dead end. We chase around and through and between and over, finding our way, losing ourselves, finding our way again. Converting those unknowns into things we now know.

Saying to our friends, "Come on, this is the way out!"

Or, "This is a good place to hide."

Or, "This can be where we live."

As we figure things out, we start giving things names, like mapmakers do, to orient ourselves and others. "Come on, everybody, into the circle house where it's safe!" 

The light in our familiar classroom is different in here, an exciting and slightly disorienting mix of shadow and reflection off those primary colored vinyl surfaces.

It doesn't take long, however, before we've named everything, and we're all just pretending to be lost, pretending to be startled by our friends. 

And that's when it really gets fun -- knowing and pretending to not know. Try taking that attitude toward Christmas or the Fourth of July. Grown-ups rush in to correct us lest someone think we're heretics or insufficiently patriotic. All the other holidays want you to just know.

Pretending to not know: that's what makes Halloween the best holiday.

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Friday, October 29, 2010

We Went To A Biodynamic Farm

This has been a mixed up week for Woodland Park with no classes on Monday or Tuesday morning, our Halloween party on Tuesday evening, and then on Wednesday the 3-5's class took a field trip to the Jubilee Biodynamic Farm near Carnation along the Snoqualmie River. The week of steady drizzle broke up for us, providing a day of glorious fall sun, bright blue skies, and a Cascade Mountain backdrop.

Jubilee is a small, organic farm that in addition to offering fall tours for school groups, runs a successful Community Supported Agriculture program, which gives those of us interested in fresh, locally grown, organic produce a chance to "subscribe" to a share of the harvest throughout the year. They will deliver your share to your house, but most families choose to enjoy outings to the countryside, where they can spend an afternoon puttering around the farm, checking out the animals, and picking a bouquet of flowers, while also claiming their bounty. As far as I'm concerned, this is the future of farming in America. (And to those who claim that without slave-wage, oppressed, undocumented immigrant produce pickers we will pay $35 for a head of lettuce, here's proof that you're wrong.) Heck, with the way urban real estate prices are plummeting these days, it might soon be feasible to locate this type of cooperative farm in the heart of our cities. As I understand it, Detroit is already headed that way.

This, of course, wasn't the first trip to a farm for many of these kids, most have already taken a similar pilgrimage as family outings, so really what we were doing was reinforcing knowledge, giving them a chance to be experts, to teach one another. But it's different too, being out in the world together, many of us without our parents, sharing a meaningful experience with friends. Even if we never talk about the farm again, this adventure will serve as one of the touchstones that binds us together and makes this school year, and this community of children, different than any that came before it or any that will come after.

We started with the hay maze, but the "hay ride" to the by now nearly exhausted pumpkin patch was even more exciting . . .

. . . if only because we don't often get to ride anywhere on anything without being strapped into car seats.

Not that I have anything against car seats, they absolutely save lives, but there is something lost as well when one misses out on the thrill of holding on tightly while riding in the back of an open pick-up or sitting up on your knees and sticking your head out the window to feel the wind in your hair.

We got to use real tools to harvest pumpkins for ourselves.

Most of us chose pumpkins that were still partially green. That's how you know they're super fresh.

And the mud lets you know they came straight from the field.

And speaking of mud, there was a lot of it at Jubilee, as there should be on any Pacific Northwest farm. Glorious mud!

A great excuse to dawdle and experiment with our rain boots.

And many of us learned about how slippery mud can be, taking involuntary seats in the stuff.

But, naturally, no one likes mud more than pigs. Our guide, Farmer Ryan, told us that one of the most important jobs that pigs have on a farm is to eat the organic waste. "They even like to eat rotting stuff," he told us. "And they can find food buried deep in the mud with their noses."

Farmer Ryan was thankfully judicious with his use of "don't touch," always providing a good reason for us to keep our hands to ourselves. "The pigs might think your fingers are food," or "Don't touch the eggs because we haven't washed them yet."

One of the eggs we saw was green. According to Farmer Ryan, the hen with green legs was the one that laid it. In fact, he told us that the color of the shells often corresponds with the color of the hen's legs. Who knew? He also let us in on the speculation that chickens are descendants of Tyrannosaurus Rex. This was exciting news for many of the children, who agreed that they could see a resemblance.

He also informed us that, aside from laying eggs, the chickens were also in charge of eating bugs that might harm the crops.

When he asked if there were any questions, as the teacher, I was pleased when just about every hand shot up. "Why do chickens peck?" "Why do chickens run?" Good questions and so many that Farmer Ryan just didn't have time to answer them all.

This is what we did out in the world together. A shoulder-to-shoulder experience . . .

. . . in a place where there are no car seats, food grows out of the ground, animals have jobs, and mud is bountiful.

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

My Blood Is Boiling

I've been putting off going to see the much-hyped Davis Guggenheim documentary about the "glory" of charter schools entitled Waiting for Superman. I've got enough aggravation in my life right now, what with the elections coming up, and my blood is already too close to its boiling point as it is.

Yesterday, however, a friend pointed me to this piece from the Washington Post by New York University research professor, author, and education historian Diane Ravich where she takes Guggenheim to task, employing the actual data to argue against the twisted and distorted "facts" used to support the film's dangerous premise that we have no choice but to go all-in for turning our public education over to private corporations. It turns out that this is a condensed version of her review of the movie that recently appeared in The New York Review of Books in which she goes into much more depth, clearly exposing the film as little more than propaganda for the powerful Wall Street and political interests seeking to take over one of the bedrock institutions of our democracy.

The most disturbing part of this so-called "reform" movement, aside from its complete reliance on anecdotes to support its claims, is that it has become an all out assault on teachers, demonizing us as the root cause of a problem that is far, far more complex and far-reaching than these propagandists want us believe.

For many people, these arguments require a willing suspension of disbelief. Most Americans graduated from public schools, and most went from school to college or the workplace without thinking that their school had limited their life chances. There was a time—which now seems distant—when most people assumed that students’ performance in school was largely determined by their own efforts and by the circumstances and support of their family, not by their teachers. There were good teachers and mediocre teachers, even bad teachers, but in the end, most public schools offered ample opportunity for education to those willing to pursue it. The annual Gallup poll about education shows that Americans are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the quality of the nation’s schools, but 77 percent of public school parents award their own child’s public school a grade of A or B, the highest level of approval since the question was first asked in 1985.

In reality, we are more satisfied with our public schools than we have been at any point in the past quarter of a century, yet we've been persuaded that our schools are failing. And now that they've persuaded us of this, they're scapegoating teachers because solving the real problems, like poverty, require scapegoating everyone, and how do you get support for that?

Ravich is one of my heros, one of the few strong voices out there pushing back against our current misguided rush toward more testing, more standardization, and more privatization of public schools. I urge you to click on the links, especially the longer New York Review of Books piece.

Please take it on as homework from Teacher Tom. Please. Powerful forces ranging from the president, to Bill Gates, to hedge fund managers, and now big-name filmmakers are lining up behind this agenda and pushing hard. We need you to help push back.

Please click those links, but I warn you, it will make your blood boil.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010


You'd think I would be able to manage a Tuesday with no class in the morning, a single afternoon session with my Pre-K class, then the Woodland Park Halloween party in the evening, but with my wife locked down at the office preparing three simultaneous client pitches, and a daughter who needed to get to an important session of religious school at one end of the city, dogs that couldn't be left in the car for 13 hours and needed to be dropped off at home at the other end, and a vital medicine pick up at the pharmacy somewhere in between, there was no room for error.

Then I realized that what I thought was a 6:30 p.m. party start time was actually 6:00.

Knowing that there were plenty of other folks with keys to the building, fully capable of getting the show going without me, didn't really help my state of mind. Our Halloween party is always one of the highlights on my social calendar, but this year's was special. For the first time, we'd decided to make it an all-school affair, which meant blending our wee and gentle 2-year-olds with our big, bold, brave, and brash 3-5's class, as well as an unknown number of even bigger, bolder, braver, and brasher alumni. With all the costumes, the dark outdoors, the glowing jack-o-lanterns in the garden, and the unstructured ebb and flow of a party, I wanted to be on scene and ready to greet these youngest members of our community and hopefully act as a kind of anchor for them in what I knew would be a crowded, loud and sweaty scene. It would not serve for me to be rushing around distracted by last minute preparations.

I still wasn't sure how I was going to address my logistical challenges as I prepared for our Pre-K class, when it dawned on me that I had a 7 boy work crew at my disposal (down from our usual 9 due to illness). I would just put them to work! It was a stroke of genius, I tell you. We ran through our usual day at a good clip, eating lunch, learning about voting, wrestling, sharing "scary" items we'd brought from home, making encaustic monoprints with hotplates and melted crayons, playing a terrific board game called Princess on the Pea (don't let the "princess" fool you, even 4-year-old boys love this game), writing in our journals, working puzzles, and reading a book called The Monster Trap by Dean Morrissey.

Then we got to work getting ready for the party, hauling gym mats from the gym into the classroom, preparing a simple art project, setting up the sensory table, getting out the play dough, and organizing a few Halloween-themed toys and games. By the time we were through, we'd knocked a good 45 minutes off my preparation time. Yes!

You'll notice that I have no photos of anything that happened yesterday because there wasn't time to pause during the run-up, and then the fuzzy mittens that go with my giant pink bunny costume made it impossible to work things like buttons. You'll just have to trust me that it was as crowded, loud, and sweaty as I'd anticipated. And fun, fun, fun.

Our closing circle time was a truly amazing and slightly surreal experience for me. There were at least 60 kids there, ranging in age from 1-9, and when they all sat down on the gym floor, they filled half the room, crammed together like sardines in their witch, dragon, princess, and fire fighter costumes. For the last couple weeks both the Pre-3's and 3-5's have been working on the same Halloween songs/activities, so they all knew the drill. And the older kids had all gone through the same routine for three years running during their time at Woodland Park. Oh, it was a primped and primed performing troupe, eager to put on their show. And that's really how it felt. This was no circle time, but rather a kind of community ritual -- and a wild pagan-like one at that. All we were missing was a fire ceremony.

The highlight was when all 60 of them held their masks (paper plates with cut-outs to look like jack-o-lanterns) to their faces and joined me in "scaring the grown-ups":

Halloween is coming
And this is what I'll do
I'll hide behind this pumpkin face
And then I'll say, BOO!

We shook the rafters, but Isak (who came dressed as the letter "H," his favorite letter) said, "We didn't scare Shelly." And sure enough Charlie L.'s mom had been too engaged in capturing a photo of all their be-masked faces to sufficiently show her fear.

So we did it again.

Halloween is coming
And this is what I'll do
I'll hide behind this pumpkin face
And then I'll say, BOOOOOO!

This time several of the kids noticed that Shelly was too busy documenting the "parent scare" to react to it. Some of the older kids, like Thomas (kindergarten) and Esme (first grade), were beyond merely scaring the people in the room and were calling for us to frighten the people across the street, downtown, or even the aliens in outer space. Parents of younger children were covering ears. Several of the kids were howling and yowling out their own solo "boos!" This was going to blow the roof off and we all knew it.

Halloween is coming
And this is what I'll do
I'll hide behind this pumpkin face
And then I'll say . . .

And with a single inhalation, the children of the Woodland Park community drew in their collective breath, summoning up the power that can only come from all of us together, and let out a monsterous, "BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

It was so terrifying that even Shelly dropped her camera and quivered in fright.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"If We Did That, Teacher Tom, We Would Die!"

I suppose some people would think I'm a bit cold hearted when they hear me say, "Crying is a sign that someone is learning." It's not that I want a child to cry, it's rather that I've come to accept that tears are an inevitable and important byproduct of how young children learn. When I first started teaching, I instinctively reacted to crying as a sign of failure, rushing to the scene to sooth them through to the other side as quickly as possible. I'm still concerned when a wail goes up, after all it could be a sign that my first aid training is being called into play, but more often than not, I'll pause, then say to the children in my immediate vicinity, "Someone is crying. I wonder if they're sad, mad or hurt."

Of course, as a teacher in a cooperative preschool, I'm counting on one of our several parent-teachers to let me know if I'm needed, which frees me up to engage in a speculative conversation with other children about the reason for our classmate's tears. Often one or more of the kids will scout out the situation and return with facts to aid us in our guessing game. Aidan hit his head on the cabinet. Sophia pinched her finger in the doll house.

Armed with these kinds of details we can really sink our teeth into things. When it's about injuries, it's striking how often the adult solution differs from that arrived at by the children. Adults, more often than not, instinctively come down on the side of removing or altering the situation to prevent future injuries. We'll put padding on the cabinet or somehow alter the doll house hinge so that it will no longer pinch. Children, however, nearly always come down on the side of be more careful.

The kids are right, of course. Even if we could pad all the corners and alter all the hinges in our classroom, we can't pad the world beyond our fences, and that is, after all, what education is all about: preparing children for the world beyond the school.

That's why we, as a community, have started focusing on helping children get in the habit of performing their own risk assessments, taking responsibility for their own safety.

Some children are "reckless" or "impulsive" by nature while others have been lulled into a false sense of security by virtue of having lived so much of their lives in "child proof" settings. I've come to the realization that contrary to keeping children safer, what we've come to call "child proofing" is in many cases actually increasing the odds of injury down the road. At conventional playgrounds, for instance, kids just swarm up ladders without hesitation, but in the real world ladders are fraught with hazard and must be carefully tested and stabilized before they're safe to climb. When "fall zones" are covered in spongy tiles the consequences of knee drops aren't nearly as severe as those on real world pavements. 

The idea of preschool "risk assessment" is to ask children the questions you want them to learn to habitually ask themselves, "Does this look safe?" "Can I walk on it/jump from it/play with it without injuring myself or others?" "What can we do to make it safer?" And unless a child is on the verge of an impending serious injury, we try to avoid unsupported declarations like, "That's not safe!" or "You'll hurt yourself!" because those kinds of adult statements tend to supercede the child's own judgement, leading them to doubt their own ability to assess the situation.

Of course, I might say something like, "I'll bet it would hurt to pinch my finger in that hinge." I might even follow that up by saying, "Maybe you should try it and tell me if it hurts." No child ever tries it. While plugging in a glue gun, I once said to a group of older kids, "Have you ever tried sticking your finger into an electrical outlet?" They came down on me like a house of bricks, "If we did that Teacher Tom, we would die!" This was a group of kids prepared for the real world where most outlets aren't protected by those little plastic covers.

When Lachlan later burned his own finger on a glue gun, through his tears, he said, "I burned myself because I wasn't paying attention." This is a boy who knows that safety isn't a mysterious adults-only activity. Avoiding injury is his job too.

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