Sunday, July 31, 2011

Making It Their Own

Shortly after we'd undertaken to build our new outdoor classroom, Pastor Judy of the Fremont Baptist Church, whose office overlooks the space, told me, "Ever since you started doing all this, there have been a lot more birds out here."

We'd all noticed the "wildlife," at least in contrast to our previous space. It's mostly crows and squirrels, of course, but also some stellar jays, sparrows, and robins as well, not to mention an abundance of insects, like the large black ants that swarm across the ground. Maybe not the best place for a picnic, but perfect for curious young minds and fingers.

Not so much for our attempts at gardening, however. Ultimately, we intend for our garden to be located on the other side of the church, but for the summer Jody's mom Jennifer built us a set of raised beds from lumber she salvaged from the old place.

The garden itself, comprised of transplants installed by Jen, has grown quite well, but every time we try to plant our own seeds, the critters have treated them like a buffet. This has been more a problem for me than the kids given that the transient comings and goings of our summer enrollment means that most of the children haven't been around long enough to witness the results of the "patient art" of gardening. Yes, we've enjoyed harvesting a few snap peas, gnawing on spinach leaves, and observing the emergence of our broccoli and strawberries. We've also investigated lady bugs purchased from Swanson's Nursery and tossed handfuls of quick sprouting lentils and wheat berries into the worm bin on Thursdays, then opening it the following week to witness the magic of green sprouts which we then turn into worm food. So, it's not as if the garden has been fallow ground, but still I had the idea that we should try to do something about the varmints, which was my first mistake.

I thought a scarecrow would be a fun project, even if it didn't intimidate the crows. After all, we'd made one at the old place and it had turned out to be a creative construction project for a day. What I'd forgotten about that previous scarecrow is that the idea for it had emerged from the children, not from Teacher Tom.

I also decided that we could employ the bamboo cane and zip tie construction technique we'd so successfully explored last Fall, not remembering that we had explored those materials for several days before we were up to launching into an actual project.

In other words, it was an adult-generated project, using a construction technique for which most of the kids weren't sufficiently experienced, which explains why our parent-teacher at the workbench that day (Malaika and Liam's mom Phillipa) had to work so hard to get the kids involved. Typically, when that happens, I leave the instruction to just get going and make room for the kids to pitch in where they will and can. Phillipa worked hard to lure the kids in, but I think she did most of the construction work herself, including dressing the framework she'd built, although the kids took an interest in decorating the styrofoam head I'd made available for the purpose, then proceeded to apply paint to the straw hat and pants in a last minute flurry of finally claiming a bit of ownership.

The board and tangle of string leaned there against the scarecrow's leg
was a subsequent addition, that will have to be explained in a future post.

Building the scarecrow wasn't a complete disaster, after all, but also not one of those great moments in preschool history, which is kind of the story of much of what transpires in a play-based classroom. Still, we built a scarecrow, the kids had a certain amount of fun making it, and those that participated seem to feel at least a small degree of ownership, even if it's only that they know the story of how it got there.

A far more enduring a legacy of this project has been the introduction of those bamboo canes to the outdoor classroom. They're the type of cane sold for staking things up in the garden, the same ones that were the perfect size and weight for our spear throwing experiments.

I've been doing this long enough to know that in a place that hosts 2-year-olds, it can be rather hazardous to have lots of long, pointy sticks laying about. It seems that their favorite thing to do with them is to wave them around in other people's faces, especially near the eyes. This doesn't mean that we forbid such objects, but during the normal school year, when the same kids are coming week after week, we have the opportunity to teach them how to respect long, pointy sticks; how to carry and use them safely in their play. It's a teaching process that typically requires many days, a luxury we don't have in the summer.

As Phillipa and a small gaggle of kids worked on the scarecrow, many of the remaining bamboo canes were commandeered for other purposes, like fishing poles and wands, but most often, I'm afraid, swords. I did not take the canes from children, although I did quite often find myself "taking hold" of them as we talked through the potential hazards of using them this way versus that way. After all, the children were finding a way to make the adult-generated project their own and it's my job, in a play-based curriculum, to make it possible for them to do that without hurting themselves or their friends. That's not to say that when I found a cane abandoned on the ground, I didn't gather it up and return it to the workbench, but at the end of the day, there were canes scattered across the space.

When the children were gone for the day, I did my best to collect the canes, stashing them back into our storage area where I told myself they would remain until the start of the regular school year when they could be introduced in a more controlled manner.

The problem with these canes, however, is that they camouflage themselves very nicely against our wood chip covered ground, as well as amongst the like-sized lilac stems, so over the course of the next few days, the bamboo canes turned up here and there. I would thank the kids for finding them, wait until they dropped them on the ground, then discretely put them away.

Ah, but unbeknownst to me, I was not the only one on this mission. Last week, more than a week after our scarecrow project, I poked my nose into one of the the lilac forts as I prepared for our day, and what did I discover?

That's right, a stash of at least a dozen bamboo canes, hidden away like treasures in the one place the adults rarely go. I'd seen no evidence of them for several days, concluding I'd gathered them all up. It was a secret, I suspect, the older children were keeping amongst themselves, one they were keeping even from the younger kids because otherwise they would have been waving them about in people's faces, drawing attention from the adults.

I chose to leave them where I'd found them. Over the course of the day, I spied one or two in the hands of a few of the older boys, furtively, evident for a moment, then taken back into hiding. I'm sure they were swords because the game of the day was pirates.

The children still don't care that the squirrels and crows are eating our seeds and they are only mildly interested in the scarecrow, but indeed, as they so often do, they got the adult out of the way so they could make my stupid scarecrow project their own. Now my job is to try to keep up.

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Saturday, July 30, 2011

This Is Greatness

A few days ago, I shared a quote from Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in a post about talking with young children about great tragedy.

If one man can show so much hate, imagine how much love we can all show together.

Yesterday, a friend sent me a collection of comments from Norwegian political leaders.

Fabian Stang, Mayor of Oslo:

We shall punish the terrorist, and this will be his punishment: more democracy, more tolerance, more generosity.


I don't think security can solve problems. We need to teach greater respect.

Jens Stoltenberg, Norwegian Prime Minister:

. . . the answer to violence is even more democracy.

 Steinar Gil, Norwegian diplomat:

Norway will not change. Evil will not prevail.

And from Haakon, Crown Prince of Norway, whose own step-brother was one of the victims:

Tonight, the streets are filled with love.

We have chosen to respond to cruelty with togetherness.
We have chosen to meet hatred with unity.
We have chosen to show what we stand for.

Norway is a country in mourning. We think of all of those who have suffered losses, and all of those who made a heroic effort to save lives, and restore our peace of mind.

Those who stayed on Utoya were targets of terror, but it has effected us all. Clear and terrible, we have seen how much impact in individual's actions can have.

After 22 July, we can never again allow ourselves to think that our views and opinions are irrelevant. We must face every day prepared to fight for the free and open society that we are so fond of.

Dear young people: you are our corrective, our courage, and our hope. It is you who will shape and determine which Norway we will have in the years ahead. Each one of you is priceless -- but we have lost many.

No one will take our Norway from us.

Tonight the streets are filled with love.

We face a choice. We cannot undo what has been done, but we can choose what this will do to us as a society, and as individuals. We can choose that no one should have to stand alone. We can choose to stand together.

It is up to each one of us now -- it is up to you, and it is up to me. Together, we have a job to do. It is a job to be done around the dinner table, in organizations, through volunteers, men, and women throughout the nation.

We will have a Norway where we will live together in communion with the freedom to think; where we will see differences as opportunities; where freedom is stronger than fear.

Tonight the streets are filled with love.

This is "a job to be done around the dinner table, in organizations, through volunteers, men, and women throughout the nation." From the depths of their pain, this is what Norway's leaders are calling upon their people to do. This is leadership. This is greatness.

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

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Friday, July 29, 2011

How To Be The Best Parent In The World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I believe that infants and babies whose mothers give them loving comfort whenever and however they can are truly the fortunate ones. I think they’re more likely to find life’s times of trouble manageable, and I think they may also turn out to be the adults most able to pass loving concern along to the generations that follow after them. – Mister Rogers
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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Making A Bomb In A Bag

Recently, I posted about having received Gever Tulley's book Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) as a gift from Max, and mentioned the plan to spend our summer session giving as many of those things a go as feasible in preschool.

We threw spears, we tried licking 9-volt batteries, we broke glass, set out to master the perfect somersaulthammered nails, and threw rocks. This time we made a bomb in a bag.

Now, with all due respect to Mr. Tulley, the children of Woodland Park feel that they have devised a superior "bomb in a bag" technique, one that perhaps does not create as large an explosion, but really delivers when it comes to building suspense. 

The basic idea of both types of bag-bombs is to combine baking soda and vinegar in a zip-lock style plastic bag, then let the pressure that builds from the chemical reaction burst the bag open with an explosive Pop!. Since the baking soda and vinegar react with one another instantly, the challenge is getting the bag sealed before the reaction loses too much of its energy. The book's version of the experiment involves wrapping the baking soda in a square of paper towel, adding the vinegar to the bag, then keeping the two compounds segregated while closing the bag. I've tried it. It does buy you time to get the bag sealed and makes for a wonderful explosion.

Our version was the kind of happy accident that comes from letting kids mess around with various liquids and powders. If you want to read the full story of our how we learned to make a bomb in a bag last summer, click here, but in a nutshell we combined baking soda with dish soap, then added vinegar. The soap, we found, replaces the paper towel, acting as a retardant, slowing down the chemical reaction enough that one can get the bag sealed in time. In this kind of bag-bomb the pressure builds more slowly as does our anticipation as we stand around in a semi-circle giggling in suspense.

Sealing a zip-lock baggie isn't a skill many preschoolers have mastered even under the most sedate of circumstances, so that was a job left to me, which explains why I don't have any photos from this year's efforts -- my hands were too busy. The ones you see here are from last summer.

We started by carefully placing our bombs on the ground, tables, or other surfaces, but as we became more comfortable with them, many of the kids opted to hold their bombs, feeling with their hands as the pressure first builds, then releases with the explosion.

After a couple dozen explosions, Thomas had the idea to try burying one in the sand pit. It was a memory, I think, from last summer when we tried the same thing to little effect. We dug a hole, created a bomb on the spot, then quickly buried it. I hadn't expected much, but the sudsy liquid spouted through the sand a good 8-inches into the air, "like a volcano."

At the end of the day, we still had a half gallon of vinegar remaining, along with quite a bit of baking soda, so yesterday I turned the materials over to Dennis, Vivian, and George's dad Terry, along with one-gallon zip-lock bags. I wasn't a witness, but I heard from across the outdoor classroom, first the squeals of anticipation then the cheering, with each giant explosion.

(In all honesty, I'm not sure that our version of the bag-bomb is objectively superior in any way, other than having been invented by us. But then again, that's everything, right?)

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Holding The Hose Together

Last week we did that mad scientist thing we like to do involving free form play with powders and liquids.

It's science in it's purest form: flour, corn starch, and baking soda; water, white vinegar, liquid dish soap, and liquid water color. Let's see what happens when we mix them.

Many of the kids have done this before, so a lot of the effort at first is to determine which is the baking soda and which is the vinegar. Young children aren't known for taking things systematically, so it usually takes a few minutes before someone has their eureka! moment.

But it comes for each of them in due time, some get there by asking their neighbor who's been there before, but most just keep right on going until it suddenly begins to rise before them: "Look at mine! Look at mine!"

And like any good lab, when the explosions are done, there's a mess.

We were using our magnificent sensory table, which contained most of our overflow, creating a nice thick mud of flour, corn starch and soap (I'm assuming most of the baking soda and vinegar effervesced away). 

There was rain in the forecast for the weekend, a lot of it. I'm an essentially lazy person, at least in the sense that I don't see the point in doing work (meaning any of that stuff that is unpleasant) until and unless I absolutely must, and I tend to assume that others are like me, so I let everyone off the hook for cleaning out the sensory table, declaring that we would leave it to Mother Nature.

I'm not complaining, mind you, but I returned this week to find she had done a rather incomplete job even though we'd left the table right out in the open, on a slope, with both plugs pulled. There still remained a goopy film over the galvanized steel, into which was fixed the fossilized remains of leaves and insects.

My next thought, after realizing the work really will need to get done, is typically to try to figure out how I can get the kids to do it in the guise of having fun. So yesterday I tried to sell it as a dino play set, adventure land sort of thing. They didn't buy it at first, but over the course of the morning, we got a few tentative takers.

Then I announced that we needed to "hose it out," a ploy that worked as I'd hoped. "The hose!" "I want to use the hose!" I had at least 8 kids fired up for my plan. Excellent!

"But first," I said, "The hose is up there, so we have to get this sensory table to the top of the hill." I then left the scene to deposit my phone with its built-in camera in a place safe from water, which explains why there are no photos of this stage of operations.

The sensory table probably weighs close to 100 lbs. It's on casters, but that doesn't really help on our uneven, wood chip bestrewn outdoor play surface. When I returned, Elana said, "Watch this, Teacher Tom," and together the kids lifted the table off the ground. "That's a heavy table!" I said. Liam then had the idea of tying a rope around one of the legs to help with the hauling, so we secured it. And then, all together, we began to pull and push and wrangle that table, up the hill, through the swing set and to the edge of the sand pit where the hose resides in it's normal capacity of refilling the cistern under our cast iron pump.

We turned the whole thing on its side before I realized we had a potential pinch point that might make for trouble. By now we probably had a dozen kids and each of them would want a turn with the single hose. I left the hose in the charge of Elana, one of our oldest kids and the one who had taken on the leadership mantel, while I went across the outdoor classroom to turn it on. As I did, I was working through in my mind how I was going to manage the turn taking.

By the time I was back with the children, I'd settled on counting, but the kids had already figured it out. "Look, Teacher Tom, all three of us are holding the hose together!" And sure enough it was true. Then Matty said, "And when they're through me and Makaila and Liam are going to have a turn together." And that's how we got it clean.

Having turned off the hose, the kids then helped return the table onto its legs. Hose in one hand and an empty sensory table in front of him, Matty said, "Let's make a swimming pool!"

So that's what we did, all of us taking turns holding the hose together.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Will That Be On The Test?

I wonder if this will be on the test;

The wooden horse we buried in the sand.

We left his head out so he could see: is that answer a, b, c, or d?

Should we be worried if it's none of the above?

Or that we didn't show our work?

Or that our percentile is too low or high?

How about extra points for the times we failed although we really, really tried?

For this we didn't need a strategy -- making a wooden horse into an island.

A friend just stood at the top and pumped.

And water played it's game down to us; we dug and dug and dug.

We took turns, and helped, and made some plans;

We filled one another's heads with games and names;

We repaired and prodded as what we did became something else,

And yet something else again.

We did what we did, and we gave it our best.

Why isn't that ever on the test?

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