Thursday, March 29, 2012

Who We Are

































I'm familiar with the best known pedagogical approaches out there, not expert, but at least reasonably well-read. I take from them what I think I can make work within our little cooperative preschool and while I don't exactly disregard the rest, because I do keep a lot of things in the storeroom of my mind just in case, I don't feel compelled to implement anyone else's approach lock, stock and barrel. 

That's probably why I have such a strong visceral reaction to the so-called corporate education reformers, with their high-stakes standardized tests, standardized curricula, standardized teacher training, and their expectations of standardized results. Yes, I've come to hate that they seek to profit-ize schools, turning children into a kind of labor force in their economic enterprise, that they want it's focus to be exclusively vocational, and that they desire to narrow what our schools do down to little more than math and literacy factories. But, I've had to learn to distrust those aspects of what they're doing to public education; it's the threat of cookie-cutter sameness that causes a reaction in my soul.

One of the challenges presented by these blocks (that are really diaper
wipe boxes) is that they are so easy to build with that quite often a
single child or group of children will come to dominate all the blocks.

No, you'll rarely find me advocating for "best practices," except perhaps in the context of what I've found works best for me and the children I teach. Even within the play-based world there are sometimes attempts to standardize things, or if not that, at least reduce what we do into formulas that can be picked up by others. They are well-intended efforts, for the most part, designed to help newcomers to our world to implement a play-based program in their own school. Or, quite often, they are intended to be persuasive; an attempt to put what we do in the language of standardization so that doubters will take us seriously. A necessary evil, but one that makes me cringe.

Most play-based folks, for instance, advocate for a child-lead approach, one in which the teacher helps guide or "scaffold" or support children as they make their own freely chosen explorations or are driven by their own passions. The adults' role is typically seen as getting out of the way as much as possible and it will be through the opportunity to simply play together that children will learn what they most need to learn. And, indeed, I've found all of this to be spot-on.

I suspect that this project came about because of conflicts among peers and a desire to
 find a  solution. Playing with the parent-teacher managing the block area, these girls built
a  "warehouse" for all the blocks, organized by color. The idea, as I understood it, was that
 if someone wanted a block, they came to the warehouse to take what they needed.
 The girls then returned the blocks to their proper place when the builders were done.

The problem is that I, this individual person who is a teacher, got into this game largely because I really love to play with young children. I wouldn't last long in a rigid role of quiet observation and minimal intervention. I'm not here to care for them, although I do that. I'm not here because I think they're cute, although they are. I'm not here for any reason other than that I like to play with them. I need to be down there on my knees in the middle of the game or story or project. I have no desire to lead it, no desire to control it, no desire to make it into a "teaching moment." I just want to be there too, playing along, laughing, building towers to knock down, swirling my hands in the finger paint, squishing the play dough, talking about whatever pops into my head as a result of whatever we're doing, and listening to whatever pops into their heads. I hope it's not that I still have a lot to learn from these things (although that might be a part of it) but rather than I feel I must do these thing in order to enter into the flow: their flow. And it is, I think, when we are in flow together that the universe is ours.

And then, when I feel the flow is carrying us along, that is when I step away and go find some other kids to play with. If you don't know what I mean, it doesn't matter. You have your own reason for being a teacher, one that I'll bet you'd have a hard time describing to me.

The parent-teacher played with them, taking part in the problem-solving,
inserting vocabulary like "inventory" and "supply." The children lead 
throughout, getting into an easy flow of play that engaged them. When
Sasha, the child leading the first wave of warehouse play finally moved
on to something else, Sienna took over, creating a new warehouse, modeled
on the first but horizontal rather than vertical. As she said to me, "The
other one made kids want to knock it down. Nobody wants to knock this
one down."

Because of this, I don't believe I could teach anywhere but in a cooperative, a place in which I work every day with a team of dedicated parent-teachers, each of them with their own reason for being there. I do talk to them about the importance of getting out of the way. In fact, I used to tell them that their main job was to keep their station reasonably tidy and inviting, and to only intervene when the children needed help with their conflicts, or their struggles were overwhelming them. I now tell them that their job is to play with the children, not to take over, but to simply be one of them.

I'm sorry that I can never write posts here that provide you with "5 tips" or "10 keys," but it's not like that, not for me. Teaching cannot be standardized, cannot be reduced to a list or a program that can be taught in 6 months or 4 years or a lifetime. I can tell you what I do, what we do, and I can tell you that it changes from year to year, month to month, week to week, and day to day, because we are not standardized people, the children and parents and teacher who are this school. 

If we are to ever become who we can be, we must first find a way to be who we are. And that can never be standardized.


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5 comments:

Ker said...

Teacher Tom, I cannot thank you enough for all of your posts; I've been reading along now for months and months (a year? more?) and so many of the things you write are inspiring, funny, and wonderful.

But today's went even beyond that, to draw me out of my silence and into saying--with all the simpllicity that children have when they say--I love you.

I love that you are here, that you speak so eloquently to what I (and I suspect many others) feel. I am in the process of creating a place for the things you've described in this post to thrive, but it is a long process, and some days, your words are pretty much the only thing that keeps me dedicated to the project. (Some days it is friends or family, but sometimes you just want someone who gets it from the teacher's perspective, and is living it day to day.)

Thank you, Teacher Tom.

Faigie said...

Hi Teacher Tom, I just found your blog and as a Bank Street trained former teacher and director(have you heard of Bank Street?) I want to make 2 points.
#1-I think the reason people are always looking for standardization is because it is very hard for most people to go with the flow like you obviously can. Unless someone apprentices under someone with a similar style then it is extremely hard to do on ones own.
#2 I think its great to get out of kids way but, you can definitely plan things for them to discover on purpose and THEN get out of the way. I'm sure you agree with that

Deborah said...

I agree - preschool cannot be standardized! For me, teaching is part of who I am and when I think of teaching I think of leading, inviting, directing, guiding, and then getting out of the way so you can see where things will wind up and what the children can do with it. If I were to just be an observer of children - I think I would probably be too bored. I have needs too and that is to roll up my sleeves and dive into the action where I can. I do know when it is time for me to stay out of the way or get out of the way but I pick that time moment by moment. If someone told me that I had to teach in a very specific way - I would be soooooo upset! I just can't do it anyway but the way I do it and I know it is working! I see it everyday!

Anonymous said...

All we ask is to be free, indepedent and to be the individual we want to be. You can't standardize that...we want to be treated as individuals and children are to be treated as individuals....
We were all created human, but the wonderful thing is we can grow up to be different. Our world would be a boring place if we all were the same.

Laura said...

Like Ker, I've been reading for months but felt compelled to comment on this entry in particular. I currently work in a preschool and your posts are inspiring and exciting. My coteacher is also named Tom, and we've actually shared information about you with the children when we've discussed interesting things you've done with your preschool. They've especially loved the "rain cloud" science experiment, where they all ended up wrist deep in their "storms". They also love "volcano painting", as we adore all things baking soda and vinegar. Thank you for sharing your wonderful classroom.

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