Saturday, December 31, 2011

Have A Fine Year

When my daughter was little and frightening news of the world got to her, I would try to put things in perspective, "Most people, most of the time are having a fine day." That this has been true throughout all of history, even when great tragedy is unfolding in one part of it (and indeed when is it not?) I have no doubt.

Maybe it's not a great day, although someone is also always having one of those as well, but a fine one, because most things involving humans are like that -- a little high a little low, a little hot a little cold, a little smooth a little rough. Both the optimists and the pessimists are right: it could always get better and it could always get worse. 

I suspect that most of us are pro-optimism, even if we're pessimistic by nature. It's hard not to be when you're working with young children, who themselves are generally having fine days, but by virtue of the metaphor of their youth shine for us like a light into the certainty of a better future. And even if we can't help but regret in advance the equal assurance that they will suffer, it just seems that optimism is the proper stance when it comes to the young so we pull ourselves together and say, "It will heal," "The lights will come back on," "The worst is behind us."

On the long night of the Winter Solstice, as I hugged people at the door, I tried this out on the grown-ups, saying things like, "This is as dark as it gets, now we can look forward to more light," or "It all gets better from here!" Most thanked me, accepting my invitation to look forward with hope, but many drew back in mock defensiveness, bubbling back, "I love the dark! I love the long night!" denying my assertion that there could be anything wrong. I understand that they were looking into the dark with the certainty of their optimism, wearing it like a shield against doubt.

Hope and fear are the two sides of this coin and both are legal currency in the marketplace of the future. There are those that claim that we create reality through our attitude, that if we anticipate success we make it more certain, while the same goes for failure. And I expect there is some truth to that, although probably a lot less than the pop philosophies would lead us to believe. In her book Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, inspired by her struggle with breast cancer, Barbara Ehrenreich, calls this faith in the determinism of attitude "the new Calvinism," seeing a world in which we are all ultimately and personally responsible for the evils that befall us, be it cancer or unemployment, casting every set-back as a personal failure, having nothing to do with the pernicious randomness of disease or outgoing tide of economic recession.

Optimism is a magnificent thing, I hardly think I'd want to go on living without it. Living hopefully does not call for optimism of the blind variety, but rather the eyes-wide-open knowledge that this sure as hell can work given what I know to be true about the world and myself. Optimism backed up by thoughtfulness, experience, and confidence is always justified, but when worn merely as a prophylactic against fear, it sets us at the roulette wheel feverishly spinning away, doomed to go bust no matter what our attitude.

Pessimism gets a bad rap and I understand that. Relentlessly pessimistic people are hard to be around unless they're able to temper it with a cynic's humor, and even that wears thin after awhile. But that doesn't mean that the fear at the heart of the pessimist isn't justified. It could always go wrong. The future is full of pitfalls: we count on our wary pessimists to point them out. Whose investment advice would you be more likely to take: the optimist or the pessimist? The pessimist's, of course, after all if he's willing to place a bet on the future, you can be darned sure he's done his homework and is not relying on the vagaries of a "good vibe."

Young children don't think in terms of optimism and pessimism, especially the very young for whom the future really doesn't exist, let alone with enough concreteness to evoke hope or fear. And sure, as they get older they quite reasonably adopt the cloak most appropriate for the occasion; dressing for instance in eager anticipation of the holidays or in fearful anticipation of the doctor's needles. Rational responses both, ones that belie the reality that the presents are rarely as incredible as one hopes nor the pain as bad as one fears: our attitude, be it hope or fear, not altering reality, but rather helping to temper our experience with reality in a way to prevent the highs from being too high and the lows from being too low.

I'm thinking of all this today on the last day of 2011 because as I reflect back on this year in which I sold my home of 13 years and moved into a new one, in which our school moved precipitously into a new building, in which my child entered high school, and in which the world seems to be finally and angrily awakening to the realization that it's time for big economic, political, and social changes, I can't help but think of the "curse" that is usually attributed to the ancient Chinese: "May you live in interesting times."

And indeed, I have been cursed; we have been cursed. The brilliance of this curse, of course, is that it can just as easily be a blessing, because really, who would want to live in boring times? And indeed, I have been blessed; we have been blessed.

I'm going to try this year, as a resolution, to approach the future more like a child, setting aside the dogmatism of optimism and pessimism. I will let my feelings flourish, learn what I can from them, then wearing them on my sleeve, I'll seize the day while worrying about tomorrow when it comes.

When I succeed, I will credit those who hugged me when it was dark. When I fail, I will shrug and not heap all the blame on myself, knowing that I have no control over the weather.

There is a companion curse that goes along with the famous one. It's one we habitually evoke for one another this time of year as a blessing, so take it as you will: "May your wishes be granted."

And in the meantime, however, have a fine year.

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Friday, December 30, 2011

If We Had Webcams

I apologize to all the Woodland Park grandparents who didn't receive a cute, handmade craft from the grandkid over the holidays. We don't make a lot of that kind of thing around here and I always feel a little guilty each year as we head into the break without having created much of anything to box up for the grands. 

As compensation, you're invited to visit us any time at all, even without advance warning. We'd love to have you. We'd love to show you what we're doing instead of making cute things for you. 

Of course, I know that isn't much of an offer for those of you who live far away and only see the grandchildren a few times a year. What I'd really like to offer you are webcams.

This isn't the first time I've expressed a wish to have webcams installed around our classroom in such a way that every corner of both the indoor and outdoor classroom can be observed remotely. And since I’m being wishful here, I’d also like microphones installed over each of our stations so that our conversations can be selectively overheard by those same internet observers.

I would love for the parents and grandparents of Woodland Park students to have the ability, while in the midst of the drudgery of their morning at the office or of housework, or while miles away on business, or simply geographically separated for large chunks of the year by an accident of our mobile society, to have this ability to peek into and remotely share their treasured preschoolers’ lives.

I know at first blush this sounds a little Big Brother-ish and there isn’t a teacher’s union out there that would agree, I’m sure. And I know there are many teachers who would freak out at the prospect of having remote parent eyes and ears upon them as they go about their work, but as a teacher in a cooperative, that’s already a condition of my employment. It's already a condition of the kids' enrollment. Our every move is already observed by the children's parents because each of them is right there with us at least one day a week, working as assistant teachers.

So for us webcams just seem like a natural extension of what we're already doing.

If we had webcams, grandparents, you would see why we don't often get around to making cute things for you. You would see instead how we, for instance, played with styrofoam packaging, pipe cleaners and liquid water color on the table we call "the art table." You would have seen that it was messy without being particularly popular. You would have witnessed how many of the kids struggled to insert the wire ends into the foam. You would have noticed that the most engaged kids were really most fascinated by spilling paint on the table top, then using paper towels to soak it up, taking control of their own learning.

You would have seen that the whole mess went outside where it enjoyed a surge of interest for a few minutes, but then got set aside on a table where it remained for nearly two weeks until the children re-discovered it just before our holiday break and went about, on their own initiative this time, mastering the skill of inserting those pipe cleaners into the styrofoam.

If we had webcams you would have something cute from preschool not just for the holidays, but all year long. If we all wanted webcams, I bet we could find a way to get them . . .

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

We Must Resist

You're about to be told one more time that you're America's most valuable natural resource. Have you seen what they do to valuable natural resources? Have you seen a strip mine, have you seen a clear cut in the forest, have you seen a polluted river? Don't ever let them call you a valuable natural resource. They're going to strip mine your soul. They're going to clear cut your best thoughts for the sake of profit unless you learn to resist. Because the profit system follows the path of least resistance and following the path of least resistance is what makes a river crooked! ~Utah Phillips

The term "human resource" has long rubbed me the wrong way, dating back to the days when I was one myself. Phillips puts that emotional response into words that resonate for me. It's a dehumanizing term, one that objectifies human beings, casting us in a role to be exploited. It's bad enough what happens with natural resources: this is no way to treat human beings.

Any day now, I expect to hear the term "student resources" to refer to our children as they become increasingly commodified by the for-profit education sector. Miami Herald columnist Fred Grimm describes the birth and rise of this industry so well that I don't want you wasting any more time reading my lesser insights. But for those in too much of a hurry to click through right now, I'll provide a few highlights.

After describing how policies like the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" (and, I would add, the hardly different Obama administration's "Race To The Top") have created a massive, taxpayer funded testing industry that publishes, grades, and interprets some 50 million tests a year, Grimm writes:
Requirements to provide free tutors for faltering students set off another frenzy among education entrepreneurs, wanting a chunk of the $900 million a year the federal government provides for extra help. This sort of business opportunity lead to an interesting lead paragraph in a New York Times story: "Tutoring companies, rushing to tap into money available under the federal No Child Left Behind law, offered New York City principals thousands of dollars for school projects, doled out gift certificates to students and hired several workers with criminal backgrounds.

And about charter schools:
Maybe charter operators are just savvy marketers, who know how to avoid difficult students who could bring down the overall test scores and damage the school brand. The Herald's series on the charter movement last week revealed some discomfiting statistics indicating some of the more successful charters in Miami-Dade indulge in clever cherry picking . . . the kids left behind by No Child Left Behind would be the very children, most of them poor, that the reforms were supposed to rescue.

Online education offers the next big cache of public millions available to the education industry . . . Stay-at-home kids are the hot, new commodity on the education markets. No rent. No heating bills. No janitorial staff. No zoning controversies. No fights in the hallways. Lots of money for software and computer-ready courses and online charter schools with plenty left over the keep the stockholders happy.

Grimm draws a picture of a near future, if it is not here already in some parts of the country, when our kids will be valued not as people, but how much they as resources add to the fiscal bottom line. It's a powerful, concise piece, one I really hope you read.

It's one thing to attempt to treat adults as exploitable resources, but when our government turns our children over to these for-profit companies who owe their allegiance not to the children, the American people, or education, but to stockholders, it's an outrage. We must learn to resist, because "the profit system follows the path of least resistance" and we simply cannot allow this to happen to our children. Their education, indeed their childhood, is far too important.

The state of Florida is clearly farther along the path to privatizing its educational system than we are here in Washington State, at least in the Seattle School District where parents, teachers, and administrators are already sort of passively resisting these mandates, but it's only a matter of time before we're called on for active resistance. These companies are wealthy, able to afford the price of lobbyists and congressmen. We must resist by refusing to take the tests, demanding instead a more accurate, realistic and professional way to measure progress. We must resist by demanding that educators not be concerned by the demands of stockholders, but instead focus on providing the highest quality education to our children. We must resist by insisting that some things, our children certainly among them, are too important to entrust to the doomsday machine of profit above all else.

And most of all we must resist by rolling balls.

We must roll them uphill and down, over and over, learning real things. We must roll them up and down alone and with friends, letting them go then racing them down. We must roll them instead of sitting in a room in which someone tells us the answers in the name of efficiency without considering efficacy. We must roll balls because we are not resources, but people, and this is the way people learn. That is the real bottom line.

"Make a break for it, kids! Flee to the wilderness!" The one within, if you can find it. ~Utah Phillips

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

When We Feel Good We Do Good

Victory can only be claimed with both sides can say the same. ~Ghandi
Regard your opponent as a potential ally. ~Ghandi

Jack was sitting in a Playhut cube on top of a pile of giant plastic insects. In fact, it was a pile of all the giant plastic insects. He’d collected them while the other children were busy elsewhere and now he was “using” them.

Earlier in the day Charlie had developed an attachment to the giant grasshopper. When he spotted his prized insect in Jack’s pile he did what most young 3-year-olds would do: reached in and grabbed it.

This apparently wasn’t the first attempt by a child to separate Jack from his collection, and having learned to be vigilant, he laid a firm hand on the grasshopper as well, letting out a fierce wail.

Not to be deterred, Charlie held on, saying softly, “I want it.”

It’s a scene played out daily in preschools around the world. Sometimes it’s a child who uses all the blocks and simply can’t spare any for other builders. Sometimes it’s a play dough horder or a plastic fork aggregator or a baby doll adopter. The common characteristic is that while they may have acquired these monopolies fairly, they aren’t playing with the toys as much as simply defending them. It may have been fun cornering the market, but the joy is lost in the serious game of protecting the pile.

We’ve all found ourselves, often inexplicably, backed into a corner, defending an untenable position. As adults it usually involves knowing that we’ve lost the argument, but being unable in our emotional state to admit it, we get louder, less reasonable, and bent on changing the subject to something we can be right about. We find ourselves chosing to be miserable rather than admit to being wrong. The only way out of it is time for reflection (followed by an act of contrition) or better yet, an “opponent” who offers us a safe landing place.

I put my hand on the grasshopper and stated, “Jack had this grasshopper first.” Charlie released his grip, but not without saying again, “I want it.”

Jack tucked the grasshopper firmly under his knee. He was clearly miserable, which is the natural state of anyone protecting a hoard. Charlie was upset at not attaining his prized grasshopper, which is the natural state of the disappointed.

I described the situation as clearly as I could: “Jack has all the bugs. Charlie wants to play with the grasshopper.” I had no idea what was going to happen next. After making the statement, I just let it hang there.

We all sat in the silence. Jack’s insects were no longer under attack, which must have given him enough emotional breathing space to move out of the corner into which he’d retreated. After a moment, Jack pulled the grasshopper from under his knee and handed it to Charlie. Charlie beamed. Jack beamed back at him. Charlie then climbed into the Playhut cube with Jack and they sat there together for several minutes, still beaming, handing out giant plastic insects to whoever asked.

Ghandi is often said to have devised the “win-win” model of conflict resolution. There is no better win than one that makes your opponent your ally. Win-win feels good and when we feel good, we do good.

(This may be totally unrelated, but I suspect not.) Later in the day, Peter removed himself from the classroom and sat on the steps just outside the door. He looked sad. I went to sit beside him and Charlie followed me. I said, “Peter, you look sad.”

He answered something about a friend, but I didn’t quite make it out. Before I could ask him to repeat it, Charlie took Peter by the hand, walked him through the classroom, and up the stairs into our loft. Charlie put his hands on the side and started jumping up and down. Peter, smiling, started jumping beside him.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Magic Word

The day before, we'd stacked the prop laptop computers in a corner of the lower level of our loft, so it's understandable that when the 2-year-olds started opening them up and spreading them out on the following day, they did it right there in the lower level of the loft.

This took up all the space and so when our friend the tiger wanted to join them, there wasn't enough room to maneuver. 

"I'm a tiger."

No response.

"I'm a tiger."

Again, no response.

"Grr. I'm going to crawl on your computers." It's not clear to me whether he wanted them to move so he could pass or if he was just trying to engage them in play.

One of them said, "No!" The other said nothing, seemingly at peace with the idea of a tiger crawling on his computer.

I'm still working on unlearning the habit of intervention. There have been times in my life as a teacher when I would have managed this interaction. I used to think that's what teachers did.

The silent moment that followed wasn't particularly tense as everyone seemed to be simply waiting to find out what would happen next.

"Grr. Grr. Grr."

Then she said the word "let's," perhaps the most powerful words in the English language: "Let's take the computers up there."

When I was a boy they said the word "please" was the magic word, and I suppose it was when we were performing for adults in order to get something we wanted, but "let's" is the word with real magic in it. "Let's" is, of course, really two words that we speak as one, meaning "let us." It's not a command nor a question, but rather an invitation and in the mouths of children it's most often used as an invitation to play.

"Let's play trains."

"Let's be princesses."

"Let's pretend we're pirates and I fall off the boat into the water and you have to rescue me." (Without the word "let's" cooperative dramatic play would hardly be possible.)

It's not so common in our Pre-3 class, which is why it jumped out at me, but by the time the children are 4 and 5 you hear it a lot as they play together, often at the beginning of every sentence.

And that would be enough, if this magic word could do only this, but listen, it's a real magic word. You can use it for almost anything you need to do with the other people.

"Let's take turns."

"Let's make a rule."

"Let's try using a rock to open it."

Of course, there's always a dark side to every kind of magic, a way to misuse it.

"Let's take all the balls."

"Let's keep the girls out."

"Let's pretend we're pirates who push everybody else into the water."

But even so, even when we use it to experiment with the misuse of our collective power, there's no denying it's a magic word, one that brings us together, that creates room for other people, that makes our play better and our lives bigger. "Let's" is always an invitation, one that contains all of the open-ended possibilities of human beings together.

"Let's take the computers up there." They took their toys to the top of the loft, leaving space for the tiger to crawl. But he accepted the invitation as well and became a tiger, with them, typing on a laptop.

(Note: If you've been missing me on Facebook, it's because their security system has falsely determined that my computer contains malware, which automatically limits my access for a few days. I can read things and "Like" things, but I can't post. I thought I could solve this by trying a different computer, but it seems I'm just going to have to wait until they let me out of quarantine.)

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Monday, December 26, 2011

That's What We Do In Pre-K

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." ~Declaration of Independence

Our Pre-K class starts its Tuesday afternoon by eating lunch together, each child bringing something from home to eat. I take note as they arrive of their lunch boxes and bags: "I see you have a fire fighter lunch box today," or "I'll bet you have sushi in that bag." 

It's clean-up time and most of the kids, most days get to work when I announce it by
beating my drum and singing our clean-up song. I ask the adults not to help, at least
when it comes to things the kids can do themselves. We are learning what it means
to assume responsibility, but it's hard when grown-ups (as you can see in this picture)
do it for us.

Often, a child will arrive at the table without a lunch and I'll ask, "Where's your lunch?"

"Mommy has it."

"Why does mommy have it? Is she going to eat it?"

"No, I'm going to eat it, Teacher Tom." They think I'm clowning around, but I'm not. I answer matter-of-factly, something like, "I carry my own lunch."

I love this picture in which the adult is sitting with her hands in her lap, probably making
informative comments like, "The trains tracks go in this box," or "I see my friends picking
up the blocks."

By the end of the school year, all of these kids will have assumed responsibility for carrying their own lunches, taking their lunch box from their mothers' hands of their own accord because that is what we do in Pre-K.

When we're doing this right, we're not even asking the children to clean-up. They are
doing it because it is clean-up time, not for approval, not to make someone happy.
It's simply what we do. That's how one assumes responsibility.

We all want our kids to be responsible: we want them to carry their own things, to dress themselves, to pick up after themselves. We nag them when they don't do those basic things we know they're capable of doing. Or maybe we're more sanguine, shrugging our shoulders and doing it for them, not up for the battle of wills this time. Still, we know they're going to have to learn it sometime. We see what's in store for them if they don't. We fear they'll show up in the world as some sort of entitled prima donna, going through life expecting others to do everything for them.

Adults sometimes get caught up in getting these things done quickly, but that's an
artificial condition. Doing things correctly sometimes takes time. For instance, we need
to make sure we are putting the right things in the right places, comparing them to what
is already there. This is not necessarily where I think these keys ought to be, but it is
where the children decided they ought to go, together, in a place up off the floor.

Even enlightened parents try rewards (e.g., if you get yourself dressed, you get hot chocolate) and punishments (e.g., if you don't pick up your coat, you won't get hot chocolate) and they can appear to work for a time, but the external nature of the motivation makes it a temporary fix, one that stops working the moment the reward or punishment isn't present. Some of us try the route of natural consequences, but who among us can abide a messy bedroom longer than a child? They easily outlast us, their standards being much lower, and besides they possess the knowledge that Aunt Milly will soon visit and that mom will do it for us in the flurry of housekeeping that always precedes the arrival of guests, often muttering something like, "This is the last time . . ."

We show that the sensory table is closed by covering it with this orange
cloth. Hfound an item on the floor that goes in there and 
assumed the responsibility for putting it where it belongs. It
was closed, but he knew he had the right to re-open it.

I told people this holiday season that the gift I most wanted was that they take a $20 bill, find the most unapologetic street person they could, and hand it to him with a cheery, "Merry Christmas!" fighting any temptation to place conditions on its expenditure. I'm certain that none of them, even my most liberal or most Christian friends, took me up on it. (And in the interest of full disclosure, I didn't do it myself.) Many of them asked, "Why would you want that? They'll just use it for booze." Most informed me that the money would do much more "good" if funneled through a responsible charity where it would get spent on things they need like food, clothing, and shelter.

Yes, there are some things we're not ready to fully clean on our own, 
but that doesn't mean we can't be responsible for doing what we
can to make it a little easier for the adult who will take it from here.

Irresponsibility, the unwillingness to take responsibility for oneself, at least according to our own standards of what that means, be it a clean room or clean and sober life, grates on us. When it's our own kids, we grudgingly do it for them, telling ourselves that "this is the last time." When it's an irresponsible adult, even the most nobel of us hold back, not wanting to "encourage" them, thinking somehow that our $20 will just perpetuate their bad choices, their profligate ways, their degeneracy. 

It's what we want. And that's really the challenge: the conceit that we know best.

We live in a society of rights as well as responsibilities and one of those rights is to not live up to other people's standards of responsibility. In our self-righteous quest to teach lessons, we forget that responsibilities, like rights, are not something we learn, but rather something we assume. And the two, rights and responsibilities, go hand-in-hand: they don't exist independently, but rather emerge from one another.

Assuming responsibilities together is the foundation of community.

All of us, pauper or king, are born with the three rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence, in what I consider to be among the most perfect sentences ever written in the English language: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

"Life" has certain requirements that we are bound as parents and as a society to provide, among them food, clothing, and shelter. To that I would add such things as medical care, clean air, and physical touch. These are the rights every child already has to the degree that our families and society lives up to their promises, because to do otherwise is to deny this unalienable right.

Responsibilities are not chores to be undertaken reluctantly, but rather part of the joy of
being together.

"Liberty" is more challenging. Rightly or wrongly, our laws recognize an age (or ages, in the bizarre practice of granting voting rights at 18 and drinking rights at 21) at which his right of "liberty" is fully granted. This is equally challenging for parents, who with good reason fear their inexperienced child, if granted full liberty, will make dangerous, even life-threatening choices, so we must, for a time, limit it in the name of sustaining their first right of "life," at least until they're old enough to assume the full right of liberty. But at the end of the day, most of us are able to grant that all adults, whatever their station in life, have an equal amount of unalienable liberty. 

It's through the right to pursue happiness that responsibilities emerge. This is the part of the promise of democracy in which we acknowledge that we must engage with one another, accommodate, share. School is the first place most of us get to practice this right and experience the responsibilities that go with it.

As I assume my right to pursue happiness within a community, for instance, I must also assume the responsibility of following its rules: not hitting or taking or screaming in someone else's ear. As I assume my rights, I also assume the responsibilities that come with community property like sharing or taking turns. As I assume my rights to freely play and explore, I also assume the responsibility to help clean up those things when it's time to move on to something else.

These are not things I assume because I've been nagged into it. I do not assume them because of some external reward or punishment. I take on those responsibilities because "that's what we do in Pre-K." Responsibilities are not the consequence of my pursuit, they are a part of my pursuit.

If my pursuit leads me to join a church, I take on the corresponding rights and responsibilities to live according to its creed.

If my pursuit requires me to have a job, I take on the corresponding rights and responsibilities of fulfilling its obligations.

If my pursuit causes me to have a family, start a charity, organize a party, or buy a house, I also assume those rights and responsibilities.

If my pursuit requires me to stand on a street corner and panhandle, I may assume few responsibilities, but I also assume few extra rights beyond those that are unalienable. (For the sake of this argument, I understand that I've set aside the realities of homelessness and poverty, and am stipulating for a moment that living on the streets is a "choice.") 

I've written often here on the blog about how the children of Woodland Park, even our youngest members, take on the responsibility of cleaning up the classroom. Each time I do, people write me, asking what I do about the kids who "refuse" to help. And it's true, there are always on any given day, a few kids who opt out altogether. What I do about them is nothing other than to not allow them to interfere with the community project of clean-up. I say, "We're putting that away," when they continue their play. I say, "That is closed," when they try to get out a new toy. I reply, "We're cleaning up now," when they try to engage me in conversation. You see, participating in clean up is one of the responsibilities that comes with the right of being a member of our community and you simply are not a full member unless you take that on. It's what we do in Pre-K.

That still doesn't answer the question of how to get the kids to carry their own things, dress themselves, or pick up after themselves at home. But I do know that responsibilities are not things into which one is commanded or shamed, rewarded or punished: that's called obedience. Responsibility emerges only from the unalienable right to pursue happiness.

I am the parent of a teenager now, not legally an adult, but no longer a child. I've noticed that the more rights she assumes, the more responsibly she behaves. That's what we do in a democracy.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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