Sunday, September 30, 2012

Why I Teach The Way I Do


































One of the earliest things I recall is standing in the driveway of my family's new home at 134 Wembley Street in Columbia, SC. I believe the moving van was still there, or perhaps had just left. The excitement of what was happening at our house had brought John Azar from where he lived a few doors away to stand in the street at the end of the driveway to watch.

John looked to be about my age: 4 or 5-years-old. I watched him watching us for a time. I was intrigued by the men's dress shirt he had buttoned around his neck, short-sleeved, pale blue, dangling behind him in a fashion I understood to be a cape. I was entirely unaware if I had a reputation for being reserved or not, but it only seemed natural after 10 minutes of looking at each other from a distance to walk out to him and say, "Hi, I'm Tom."

He answered, but not clearly, as if he had something in his mouth, so I asked, "What?" Then more carefully, he replied, "I'm John."

"Are you playing Superman?"

"I'm playing Batman." I'd never heard of this Batman of which he spoke and thought maybe I'd misunderstood, just as I had his name. "What?"

"Batman," he answered more clearly.

"What's Batman?"

"He's on TV at 4 o'clock." I was invited to his house to watch it sometime. Soon I'd begged an old shirt from my dad.

It turned out that John had a sister, Pheobe, a year older than me, while John was a year younger, and my brother Sam was a year younger than John. The four of us with Johnny and Chucky Beale, the Wieble, Broom, and Cozart kids, John Sain, and later Will Jordan from Chistopher Street and Jeff Short from over on the more busy Winston St., came to make up the core of our neighborhood "gang."

I went to school, eventually, a private kindergarten because the public schools didn't start until 1st grade back then, and then I attended the newly constructed Meadowfield Elementary, to which I could ride my bike. I'm sure those experiences laid a solid foundation for my future academic life, but I honestly have precious few memories of anything but the playgrounds and the other kids.

I do, however, have very concrete memories of the things I learned playing with John and Pheobe and the rest of the neighborhood kids, roaming from yard-to-yard, barely conscious of the idea of private property. 


A Progressive, Play-Based Education

The very existence of youth is due in part to the necessity for play; the animal does not play because he is young, he has a period of youth because he must play.  ~Karl Groos quote

The idea of a play-based education challenges the conventional wisdom about what teaching is. Whereas the traditional idea is of a teacher standing in front of a room of attentive learners, lecturing, correcting, grading, and testing, the role of a teacher in a play-based model (sometimes referred to by more academic sounding names like "inquiry-based" or "experienced-based") is to, in effect, create an environment in which children can freely engage with materials, ideas, and people, that is to play with them, and from that play construct their own, personalized education.

As for me, the teacher, I try to play with them, to get into their flow. If I've done it right, the set up has created a "safe enough" environment, one with natural boundaries, but plenty of opportunities to fail. As the older, wiser playmate, it's my role then to help these younger children, not to direct them, but to help them do what they are trying to do or go where they're trying to go. I might share my ideas and observations, but they are like any other "loose part" that is strewn about our outdoor classroom, something to be picked up and used or not.

One thing I don't do is decide what the children will learn on this or any day. That's not the job of a teacher in a play-based curriculum, that's the job of the children. My job is primarily to create an environment, then play with them in it, helping them, but only when they really need it.


"An Excellent Way To Raise A Total Sociopath"

According to the Mayo Clinic staff, no one knows the exact reasons someone grows up to be a sociopath (or more precisely, a person who can be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder), but there are "certain factors that increase the risk of developing or triggering" it, including:


  • Being diagnosed with childhood conduct disorder
  • A family history of antisocial personality disorder or other personality disorders or mental illness
  • Being subject to verbal, physical or sexual abuse during childhood
  • Having an unstable or chaotic family life during childhood
  • Loss of parents through death or traumatic divorce during childhood


This is what medical science seems to know about the causes. 

Many well-intended people have a very strong reaction when they are first exposed to the idea of a play-based curriculum. A reader once responded to my post entitled How To Make Adults Who Will Not Be Pushed Around, by asserting that the teaching approach I advocate is an "excellent way to raise a total sociopath." I can only assume, since it doesn't appear that the other four risk factors apply here, that he is mostly worried that I am advocating for a pedagogical approach that creates instability and chaos.

But in a broader sense many people worry that a play-based education is overly laissez fair, chaotic, or dangerously permissive: that we will be responsible for spoiled, entitled children, one's without a sense of community, fairness, or morals; children who, if not on the road to full-on psychosis are at least going to be prone disobedience, and ultimately, lives of crime, addiction, and despair.

And it's true that the word "chaos" is sometimes used by adults to describe our classroom, although it is generally modified with the words "controlled" or "on the edge of," which is exactly what I expect at times, but I'm quite certain that this kind of joyful, high-spirited, inquisitive chaos that is not what is meant when the Mayo Clinic puts it on their list of risk factors for sociopathy, nor one that will will lead to ruin.

It is my intention in this long post to respond to those who are concerned for the children in our care. That said, I am not a researcher, nor even an academician, although I am a fan of both and rely upon their work for insight and direction. For the purposes of explaining why I teach the way I do, however, I'm approaching it as a philosophical exercise. In other words you won't find many references to research to support my assertions, although such exist and can be found elsewhere on this blog. For instance, most of the links I've provided throughout this post, refer to other writing I've done on these topics, much of which is linked to supporting data.

At the end of this, we may still find that we disagree, but I hope we will at least have a better understanding of one another as we all do the best we can to help children be better humans than we are.


Hobbes, Locke, and the Experiment of Democracy

This response, this concern about loss of control, of chaos, is one I commonly come across when I find myself outside our little progressive education bubble. What I hear (which I'll admit may well be different that what is intended) are people reacting to what to them is the bizarre-sounding idea that our fellow human beings, and especially our children, are capable, even at very young ages, of self-regulation, self-control, and in fact, self-governance without the firm hand of some sort of strong central authority. This point-of-view, the one that 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes defends in his masterwork Leviathan, postulates that without authoritarian control, mankind would revert to "the state of nature," which he viewed as essentially evil -- a condition that would inevitably lead to "war of all against all."

"In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Hobbes was a great and influential philosopher, but this, I think, is the central flaw in his thinking: he assumes, if left to our own devices, if left to our nature, we are all sociopaths, concerned only for ourselves, and that without the strong arm of government or religion or other institutions we are doomed to that "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" life. Later in the 17th century, in part as a direct response to Hobbes, philosophers such as John Locke and Jean-Paul Rousseau started with the opposite assumption about human nature, one that I've found borne out in my work with young children: humans are essentially "good," and that the "state of nature" is one of "equality and freedom." In Locke's view, the proper role of institutions and the authority vested in them is to preserve that natural law from those that would pervert it, so that humans could "according to reason" strive toward a state of "perfect freedom, equality, and liberty."

The founders of our nation relied heavily on the leading lights of the Age of Enlightenment, especially Locke, when they postulated a nation that would be self-governing. Indeed, it would be impossible to conceive of democracy under anything other than a Lockean world view. They created a document, the US Constitution, that did not regulate the behavior of free humans, but rather limited the scope and authority of government in order to preserve our natural state of equality and freedom. They envisioned a nation of "good," well-educated citizens cooperatively governing themselves.

We can argue about the degree to which we have achieved these goals, but as an educator in our experiment in democracy, this Lockean world is the one for which I attempt to prepare children.


Democracy and What it Means to Be "Equal and Free"

Very often, when those who live outside our progressive education bubble hear about our practices, their response is to envision a sort of chaotic mob rule, in which children are allowed to run wild. They warn of devastating consequences, of children who will grow into criminals or sociopaths, and that what we are doing will lead to a sort of tyranny of the children in which Hobbesian brutishness rules the day.

These are, of course, very similar to the arguments that have always been made against democracy, and by some accounts (but by no means all) these fears did come to pass to some extent when the ancient Athenians attempted to govern themselves through direct democracy, a form in which there is a danger that the will of the majority will trample the rights of a minority. Our founders were, of course, aware of this potential for "tyranny of the majority" and so when choosing what form of government to embody in our Constitution, they went with a republic in which representatives are elected democratically. In other words, instead of government directly controlled by the people, it is indirectly controlled: what dictionaries at the time defined as a "representative democracy." Encyclopedias have been written, and will continue to be written, discussing the nuances of the republic vs. democracy debate, one that I'd rather not engage in here, except to say that however you define our form of government, we are, together, attempting to self-govern with democracy as the centerpiece, and that, as it has been from the onset, is a grand experiment.

Similarly, our little cooperative preschool democracy is an experiment, one not bound by a constitution, but rather by the presence of loving adults. This is not, as some fear, an exercise in laissez fair parenting/teaching, but rather a laboratory in which we provide the space, tools and autonomy in which children experiment with what it means to live among one another as equal and free citizens.

It is my view, one shared with our nation's founders, that a well-educated citizenry is the foundation of a democracy.  The longer I've been a teacher, however, the more aware I become that our standard educational model, the one that emerged largely from the factory model of the Industrial Revolution, a model that supposes we need only fill those empty vessels with letters and numbers and dates, moving them along from grade to grade, is not up to the standards required for self-governance.

I believe we've lost sight of the promise of our nation. I cannot recall ever hearing an elected official speak of education in anything other than economic terms, and I have never heard one connect it to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I rarely hear of our presidents or legislators spoken of as "representatives," but rather as "leaders." Voters stay away from polling places in droves, apathetic, let alone engaging in the day-to-day processes of democracy, not caring or perhaps not knowing how. Or worse, not feeling that they can or should have any impact on the civic life of our nation. We distrust and vilify government, painting it as a "them vs. us" conflict, and when I dare to point out that "them is us" I'm scornfully asked, "Where have you been hiding?"

The average citizen has withdrawn from the process of self-governance, leaving behind a vacuum that has been filled by political parties, corporate lobbyists, and radical partisans, who have taken us so far away from the promise of self-governance, that many of us, if not most, feel helpless in the face of it, withdrawing and wishing pox on the whole lot of them, castigating political discourse as base and impolite.

I teach the way I do, because, I suppose, I'm an idealist. I do believe in the promise of day-to-day, retail self-government: the kind of government that is made up of friends and neighbors capable and willing to discuss the issues of the day over their back fences, in their churches, and while waiting in line as the supermarket. The kind of government in which we the people are capable and willing to listen, to debate, and to think for ourselves. I'm the kind of idealist who believes that schools should be preparing children to engage with one another as equal and free humans who are fully enfranchised.

I teach the way I do because I want the children who pass my way to have the opportunity, at least during their time with me, to practice what it means to be equal and free. In part, I write about it here because I hope that others will be inspired to do the same. We are a young nation and our experiment in democracy is only just getting under way. If we are to succeed, it won't be because some hero swoops in to save us, but rather because we decide we must do it together, day-to-day, thinking critically, speaking honestly, listening passionately, and acting as if we are, indeed, equal and free.


Obedience

Disobedience is not an issue if obedience is not the goal.  ~Daron Quinlan

Young children are not fully capable of fending for themselves. We are perhaps born capable of much more than people once assumed, but our species has evolved to require a comparably long period of ex vivo care from our fellow humans and typically this is the responsibility of parents. As babies we must be fed, clothed and sheltered, we must be touched and loved: from the moment we are born other humans are our life-support system. Outside our progressive education bubble, there are those who insist that this condition means that children "owe" their parents obedience, that this is the price of admission to a Hobbesian world that without authoritarian control will inevitably devolve into chaos. This is a patently anti-democratic idea: it is one that assumes that we are all, at bottom, sociopaths.

Our society has collectively, through our Constitution, cast its lot with Locke, and in this view if we are still born needing our fellow humans, and specifically our parents, it does not mean that they are our superiors. Indeed they are more experienced and physically capable, but it doesn't follow that we are subservient to them: we are born in a state of equality and freedom and we need our fellow humans. It is a challenging idea for some, this idea that adults can keep children safe and prepare them for citizenship without authoritarian tools because, quite obviously, the influence of Hobbes is still with us. It's impossible for some to understand how a child can grow into a productive, law-abiding citizen without the constant anticipation of the carrot and fear of the stick.

So, given that the world is fraught with dangers, pitfalls, and seedy back alleys, and given that young children do not have the experience or physical ability to fend for themselves, how do parents and teachers do their jobs of protecting and raising children without resorting to commanding them, without enticing them with rewards, and without threatening them with punishment? I think that's the question those outside our bubble have for us.

We may not be "in charge" of our children, but we do use our superior experience to control their environment. When they are very young we do this by covering electrical outlets, closing doors, removing hazardous objects, and generally providing spaces in which they can freely explore and begin to educate themselves about the world. We do this by being with them, talking with them, making statements of fact about the world: "That is red," "The pillow is soft," "The table is hard." As they start to push those boundaries, rather than scold them for their curiosity, we find ways to expand those boundaries, always striving to set the inner circle in such a way that when they attempt the experiment of stepping beyond it (and they will always attempt to step beyond it, no matter what their age) they will still not be killed or permanently maimed. This is what being child-directed is all about: creating a physical and intellectual space in which children "tell you" when they are ready to expand their experiences; not commanding them, not drilling them, not testing them, but simply narrating, filling their world with facts. "If you fall off that, it will probably hurt," "She's crying because you hit her," "We have to go to the store now to buy food for dinner." Our job, then, is not to "tell" children or "instruct" children, but rather to keep them safe and informed as they explore their world through play, learning as they go everything they need to know, including values and morals.

When we're out in the world, at first we carry them over broken glass, we hold their hands as we cross the street, we pull them away from threatening strangers, because they simply do not have the experience to recognize these manifest dangers. If they are not yet capable of understanding that glass will cut them, that cars will kill them, that the man shouting obscenities at a tree trunk is possibly dangerously unstable, they are also not capable of understanding your commands about them. It is our protecting them from these hazards that are the boundaries we set for them. However, as soon as our children begin to ask questions, to show an interest in the sparkly broken glass, the vroom-vroom of traffic, or the sad spectacle of a mentally ill man living on the streets, that's when they are ready to begin to understand: then we begin to teach, not through obedience, but by again narrating a world of facts and helping them safely explore their world, within the new boundaries we have created.

Some still insist, however, for their own good, exactly because young children are incapable of understanding, we must "train" them to obey our parental commands, to react without question to our words: "Stop!" "Come here!" "Sit there!" much in the way one trains a dog. (I'm sorry that this metaphor offends people, but I stand by its aptness.) If we were preparing our charges for a Hobbesian world, then perhaps they would have a point. If we are preparing children to take jobs in the military or a factory floor or any other institution organized as a pyramid with all the power concentrated at the top, then perhaps we would be doing them a favor. 

This, however, is emphatically not the world for which I'm preparing children. The habits of blind obedience, of trained reactions to the commands of others, flies in the face of our democratic experiment: they are a danger both to the child and ultimately to the rest of us who count on our fellow citizens to be equal and free. Obedience is not a democratic value.


Rules

"The Dude abides."   ~The Dude, The Big Lebowski

Our summer program typically includes many children who've never been enrolled in our school before. A few summers back, one of these children was eating his snack with Charlie, who had been with us for two years already. The new boy suggested that they do something when they were done eating, to which Charlie replied, "That's against the rules." The boy asked, "What happens if we break the rules?" Charlie thought for a moment, then replied, "We don't break the rules."

In a democracy, citizens are responsible for making our own rules about how we as equal and free individuals will live together: this is, at bottom, what democracy is all about.  Ours is not a direct democracy, but rather a democratically elected republic, which is why we elect representatives who, in turn, are expected to carry our best interests into the legislative process. In preschool, however, we practice a kind of direct democracy where we, as citizens do in a democracy, make all of our own rules. Most certainly, the purpose of a public education in a democracy, one paid for by all of us, is to educate citizens, and there is nothing more fundamentally democratic than taking part in the legislative process: perhaps more than voting, this is how we most effectively express ourselves publicly as individuals and as a community.  Our founders, most notably Thomas Jefferson, wrote extensively about the importance of an educated populace if democracy was going to thrive.

Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.

By the time children leave our school, I want them to be equipped with vast experience in the legislative aspects of self-governance. I won't get into the details here of how we go about making our own rules (I've already done that here), but the reason Charlie didn't have an answer for his new friend was that the only "consequence" we've ever had to impose for breaking a rule is to simply remind the rule breaker that he's broken a rule: "You and your friends agreed . . ." Charlie was factually wrong when he said, "We don't break rules," but he was spot on in spirit.

Our rules, as are all rules, are statements of aspiration, not statements of fact: "No hitting," "No taking things," "No screaming in someone's face," all of which are broken more or less every day. That does not make the rules flawed. That does not make the children bad. And it certainly doesn't mean that they deserve punishment because they've failed in this instance to obey. I would no more punish a child for failing to abide by a rule than I would for failing to add 2 + 2 correctly or remember the words to "Itsy Bitsy Spider." Failure is simply evidence that children are practicing how to live in a world of rule-aspirations to which we have all agreed. Following rules, in fact, is lifelong learning. After all, how many adults can say we've mastered living according to the rules we've agreed upon through our democratic process? How many of us can say that we've not jaywalked or sped or failed to turn in money found on the sidewalk? I would say it is a percentage approaching 0. How can any one of us cast that first stone at a child?

Nevertheless, what of rules and obedience? Even if we do it imperfectly, certainly the ideal is that we strive to obey the rules, even in a democracy. I know this will strike some as an exercise in semantical hair-splitting, but I believe there is a real difference between obedience to rules imposed by an authority and "rules" that come about democratically.

In a Hobbesian world, where humans are presumed to be essentially "evil," the purpose of rules imposed by institutional authority is to prevent what would be an inevitable slide into a life that is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." As followers of Locke, however, we in a democracy assume the essential goodness of mankind. The purpose of rules, therefore, is to preserve "natural law" so that reason can prevail, allowing us to express our natural selves, and together strive toward a state of "perfect freedom, equality, and liberty." This, ideally, is the power of rules in a democracy.

As I say to the children when pointing at the list of democratically arrived at rules that hangs on our wall, "You and your friends agreed: no hitting." I do not simply say, "No hitting," because that is the language of force, of command, of authority. These are not my rules, but theirs, arrived at by universal consensus in our case, and agreement among equal and free citizens in a democracy is sacred. Those outside our progressive education bubble hear bits and pieces of this and are concerned that we advocate for complete laissez fair, creating a frightening, dangerous Lord of the Flies dystopia, but nothing could be further from the truth. It's true that we are not imposing rules and sanctions from on high; we are rather providing children the tools to practice making and sticking to agreements among themselves, the true skill of citizenship. In a democracy, rules can just as easily be called agreements.

Living according to our agreements is not something any preschooler has mastered by the time she's walked out into the world, but I certainly want her to expect it from the world, and to perhaps even assert it, even in places where it doesn't already exist. Is this subversive? Only if we don't really value democracy as we say we do.

As the great storyteller and poet Utah Phillips wrote, "I will not obey," but "I was always willing to agree." Or in words of The Dude, "The Dude abides." That is the stance of equal and free men. And it is this that the children in our school are practicing.


The Executive "Branch": Managing Our Agreements

When he was 2-years-old, Henry did not respect any rules whatsoever. Of course, this was the year before we'd introduced our legislative process to the children, so it's possible that he simply objected to having no say in things, but it's more likely that he didn't care to share the space, the toys, and the adults with the other kids. It's a big step to move from your family, where you're the only child to be considered, into a world full of children. One day he declared, "I'm going to break the whole school." Thankfully, he didn't follow through, but it looked like he meant it.

Two years later, having made peace with whatever it was that caused him such frustration, I spied Henry patrolling the room, holding his hands atop his head, palms forward while rapidly opening and closing his fingers. He occasionally stopped to talk to a friend, but then moments later was again circling the room. When next he came near me, I said, "You have your hands on top of your head."

"I'm flashing them."

"By opening and closing your fingers."

"I'm a policeman."

That made sense. "And your hands are the flashing lights on your car."

"I'm reminding people when they break the rules." Just then his friend Colin jogged past and Henry was on him in a flash. "Running inside is against the rules." Colin continued on his way, walking.

I was reminded of this one day when I was riding bikes with a friend Dan in downtown Seattle. He's something of a scofflaw and was riding without a helmet because, as he puts it, "I don't need to be protected from myself." He was at least willing to stop with me at a red light, but the team of four SPD bike cops coming up behind us didn't, racing through the steady red as if it wasn't there. Dan yelled, "Hey, you ran the red light!"

One of the cops shouted back over his shoulder, "And you're not wearing a helmet!" Just a couple of citizens reminding one another of the rules.

The next time I caught up with Dan, he'd bought a new helmet, explaining, "I want to be a good example for the kids," although I knew the real reason: he'd been reminded. This is the way it usually works in our classroom, and if we had a truly educated citizenry, it's likely this is how it would work for most people, most of the time, in our wider society. As you can see, I'm a Lockean to the depths of my soul.

If there is one part of democracy where we fail the most dramatically in being equal and free, it is in the exercise of the executive function. It's my opinion that on a federal level we've ceded far too much power to the Executive branch and the President in particular, tipping our entire government out of balance. Ideally, the three branches are equal with the Legislative being "the first amongst equals," by virtue of it being the first one detailed in the Constitution. This imbalance, however, has tended to filter down through all levels of government, although many governors and most mayors are far more effectively counter-balanced by legislatures and city councils than is the President. Still, in many cities, my own Seattle being one of them, if you need any evidence that power has shifted too far toward the executive function, just look at the increased militarization of our police forces and the "widespread and routine use of excessive force," to quote a recent Department of Justice report on the SPD.

We attempt to employ a more properly balanced approach in the preschool, although it can't be forgotten that there are practical reasons why everyone is not fully enfranchised from birth, the primary one being that we expect a certain level of experience and education in order to responsibly engage in democracy. Very young children cannot be expected to have the discretion and judgement to make every decision for themselves. While it's true that when making decisions as a legislative body I've found we can rely on the children to collectively make good decisions, this is not always true of individual children who simply don't have the experience or the developmental aptitude to operate in the world without some level of external executive function: providing this, when absolutely necessary, is the role of parents and teachers.

This is where we adults come in, not as superiors, but rather in the role that Henry provided for Colin: to serve and protect. Just as a traffic cop has the job of sometimes telling me to stop, not because he is my boss, but because he has been hired by we the people to do a necessary job, and I trust that he is doing it in the name of service and protection, so too do the adults in our little practice democracy. In preschool that means that sometimes the adults simply have to say, "I can't let you do that," either because there is a rule being violated or because someone's safety in in jeopardy. (I prefer this particular phraseology because it has the virtue of being a true statement as opposed to a command like "Stop!")

Every now and then, even in our classroom practice of democracy, a child will persist in breaking one of our rules, even after being reminded several times that "You and your friends agreed . . ." In these cases, especially if the behavior is hurting or frightening the other children, I'll assume my role as a representative of the executive branch, saying, "You'll have to play in a different place until you're ready to remember the rules." Sometimes I need to take a hand or shoulder and guide him to another place, but most of the time, the child will simply move on to something else, engaging in an activity that makes it easier to remember the rule. It is entirely up to the child to determine when and if he'll return to the scene of his "crime." In 10 years, I've never had to take executive measures beyond this, even with children who decide they can return 30 seconds later.

I don't know what I'd do if a child pushed it further. Probably, I'd sit him down and attempt to engage him in a conversation, one in which I pointed out facts, my opinions and concerns included. I wouldn't lecture him on right and wrong, but I would attempt to work things around to the brilliant logic of the "Golden Rule," and how his friends expect him to abide by his agreement to not hit or push or take or whatever it was he persists in doing. Whatever I did, it would not involve evoking consequences beyond the natural ones that emerge from the behavior: "Your friends are afraid you will hurt them," "The other kids don't want you to play with them," "Suzy is crying because you took her doll."  And if it came right down to it, I would say, "I can't let you hurt the other people," which is a simple statement of fact that I would, reluctantly, back up with my greater physical strength if absolutely necessary.

Just as the bike cop did with my friend Dan, or as the Dutch do with their very loosely enforced ban on marijuana, I also fulfill my executive role with discretion, the way citizens should when dealing with fellow equal and free citizens, whatever our "jobs." It is a simple truth that all laws are not created equal. While we are fairly rigorous with things like "No hitting," because safety is at stake, rules like "No making a mess," or "No guns," are often enforced much more loosely. This is how we treat one another, with discretion and respect, when we are free and equal: most of the time it is enough that we remind one another.


The Judicial Brach: Dispensing Fairness

The Arc of the Moral Universe is long, but it bends toward Justice. ~Martin Luther King Jr.

At the heart of justice lies the idea of fairness, not that every outcome goes our way, but rather than the process by which we go about settling our conflicts reflects the essential democratic idea that all men are created equal. In many respects the story of our nation is the story of progressively discovering essential unfairness, debating it, persuading a majority, then finally deciding as a society that it's time for justice. It's a long story that arcs through the American Revolution, emancipation, women's suffrage, the labor movement, and civil rights. If it seems like we are today no closer to it than we were two centuries ago, it must be remembered that fairness isn't a destination where we will all one day sit together in perfect brotherhood, but rather a direction we've set for ourselves by adopting our Constitution and all its amendments.

Young children are deeply interested in the idea of fairness, especially as they begin to gain experience in the world of school where resources and space are limited, and it becomes essential that we discover methods by which to share. From the first day the 2-year-olds arrive at our school, they begin the journey toward an understanding of fairness if they've not already begun with the advent of a sibling and the necessity of sharing mom and dad. They arrive to find only 3 painting easels, for instance, 6 surfaces on which to paint. At first they tend to paint willy nilly. There is always at least one child bent on making her mark on each blank sheet of paper. There are others who crowd around a single canvas, their brushes swirling together. I intentionally put the easels closer together than necessary so that they must bump, jostle, and otherwise interact in this shared space. At the end of the day, it's usually impossible to know which individual made which painting, although often a diligent parent will keep a running list of names on the corner of the paper, indicating everyone who was involved. This may not appear "fair" to the adult eye, especially as one child repeatedly paints over the work of the others, but until the others object, until the others begin to feel that an injustice has been done, we have come to at least a temporary agreement about what is fair.

It's a challenge for us, but the adults strive to not impose our own ideas of fairness on the children, although certain "tools" inevitably emerge, such as the idea that rules must apply to everyone, turn-taking, one-man-one-vote, and the complicated rule "you can't say you can't play." I'm not going to pretend that these ideas come solely from the children's experiences with one another in the classroom, because so imbedded are these ideas in our culture that, of course, the children are influenced by experiences from elsewhere, but what I am saying is that it is a testament to the power of these fundamental tools of fairness that once they are introduced, once they are understood by the children, they are readily adopted and quickly become the norm.

Remembering to apply these and other tools of justice, however, is difficult in the heat of the moment, no matter what our age, which is why we hope to have impartial judges and juries of our peers.

Not only do the adults play the role of executive in our preschool democracy, but we also often have to play judge, frequently all in one fell swoop.

More often than not I walk into a situation that is already at full boil, one in which two or more children are emotional, often engaged in tussling or crying or shouting. I won't go into the details of how I work to calm the situation (because I've already done so here), but once we're able to talk, I start by trying to take on the role of arbitrator rather than a judge with the authority to make decisions, attempting to impartially listen to both sides of the story. In the beginning, I don't care so much about the rule of law, but rather whether or not these two (or three or four) equal and free individuals can work out a solution, an agreement, to everyone's satisfaction. This means that the worst thing I can do is go in with my own idea about how this should fall out: the goal is fairness in the eyes of those most directly affected.

The first step is to give everyone a chance to be heard and that means not just the "combatants," but also any other citizen who has something to say, because, after all, the things that happen in our school are everyone's business. I start by asking something like, "What happened?" or "Why are you mad?" I listen, then paraphrase as concisely as I can, making sure that the other children involved understand what has been said. Then I listen to the story from the next perspective, again paraphrasing. Sometimes I then paraphrase the stories jointly, "You both say you had the block first."

Then I wait. This waiting is an important part in the arbitration process.

Sometimes after that moment of silence a child will repeat his statement or rephrase it or expand upon it. Sometimes one of the children will propose a solution, such as, "We should take turns and I'm first." Sometimes one child will "give up" her claim, perhaps out of an understanding that she was, in fact, in the wrong, or perhaps because it's not a battle worth fighting, both nobel positions. Sometimes one or both children will appeal to me to settle it for them in some manner, at a loss for what to do. In my role as arbitrator, I simply repeat the challenge as it has been presented to me from both sides, then add, "We need a solution."

This process typically draws a crowd, which I think of as the proverbial "jury of peers." Often, especially if we find ourselves truly at loggerheads, these onlookers begin to offer their "evidence" (e.g., "Johnny had it first.") or ideas for a solution (e.g., "They should take turns.").

Throughout this, my job is to repeat or paraphrase (in the interest of clarity) what the children are saying . . . and wait.

It is in this waiting, this hanging out with our questions, conflicts, statements, and evidence, that we really begin to experience what fairness and justice are all about.

I know there are some that would have us, as adults, inject morality into this process, but I strive to avoid that, sticking as strictly as possible to the case at hand, and perhaps, if necessary appealing to our rules. It is through this process of coming to understand one another through our conflicts that our collective morality emerges. It's the place we end rather than begin.


Morality

I've got values but I don't know how or why.  ~Pete Townsend (The Who)

As a man who recently hit the half-century mark, I just missed the cultural phenomenon of tattoos. A tiny number of my college classmates had them (I'm particularly thinking of one boy who had barbed wire tattooed along one side of his jaw, dooming him, we all felt to a life of either punk rock or crime). It was my considered opinion at the time that this would be a passing fad, but I stand here 30 years later, seeing a world in which it appears that tattooing is something I do have to concern myself with as my own child stands on the threshold of adulthood.

I've never had any particular judgement about tattoos on others, but they weren't for me, not as a fashion statement, nor especially as a way to declare my undying this or that, because with each passing year I discovered that there are precious few things I'd felt so deeply about as a young man, so few things I'd want engraved in my flesh, that I could still honestly advertise them today without shame. As a boy, the only tattoos I'd ever seen were on former military men, usually hearts with the word "Mom" in the center. I can perhaps imagine still being proud of that one, but I know my mother would not, to say nothing of how my wife would feel.

One of the most valuable pieces of wisdom passed on to me by my mother, usually stated when I was playing the role of junior jurist, catching her in inconsistencies, was: "All wise people change their minds." To this day, I hold that ability, that ability to, after much thought and experience, change one's mind, as the pinnacle of wisdom. It takes great courage and humility to admit, finally, that one has been wrong, especially on important matters. But if we are to be wise, if we are to value reason, we do it.

Ah, but what of morals? Certainly there are some moral values that are absolute: black and white, good and bad, unchangeable truths about how humans ought to conduct themselves.

Often when someone from outside our progressive education bubble critiques my approach to early childhood education it is on moral grounds. Most often it is on the topic of obedience, their argument being something along the lines that obedience to God is one of the foundations of their religious beliefs and that learning it begins with obedience to parents, and perhaps teachers and other moral authorities in a child's life. But others have gone further, insisting that education must begin with the teaching of moral codes such as the Biblical "Ten Commandments." And I'm here to say as clearly as I can, these people are right: morality is absolute and must underpin everything we as individuals do.

We are all moral beings, each of us. You needn't tell me of your morals, however, because I can discover them on my own simply by observing how you live. And each of us, every day, even when we are doing things for which we will later be ashamed, even when we are doing things that we condemn in others as immoral, are behaving according to our own, personal moral code. It's all well and good to point to a holy book and to feel yourself a sinner for not obeying its commands, or to spout them proudly as statements of aspiration, but every day, in every action, we are all obeying the commands of what we believe to be true about our behavior in relationship to others.

I, like you, live each day according to my moral code. It's a morality in which some tenants have remained with me throughout my life, whereas others continue to evolve on a nearly daily basis. I rarely speak of the specifics of my own morality, but on this day, at this moment, I act according to it, and if you want to discover it, judge me not by what I say, but rather but what I do, and I will do the same for you.

As self-evidently equal and free humans, according to "natural law" as postulated by John Locke and the other Enlightenment thinkers, we are each a morality unto ourselves, whatever the priests, rabbis, imans or pastors say about it. None of us are pure in our fealty to any external morality. We may aspire to it, but we will always fail because the highest morality, the one to which we actually adhere, always comes from within.

So here we are, a society of equal and free individuals, each unique in our idea of morality, knit together by this document called the Constitution, and from this we've set ourselves the task of creating a society. Holy cow! We can't even arrive at a consensus on such manifestly true moral values as, "Thou shalt not kill," to which we've carved out dozens of legal exceptions, such as in the cases of war, capital punishment, self-defense; hell, we can't even agree upon what killing means, take abortion or living wills as examples.

The answer, if our experiment in democracy is to be successful, is that we are always charged with creating a new morality, a public one, informed by, but ultimately separate from the moral codes by which we individually live our lives. It is a morality that is not an unchangeable tattoo, but rather one that is the best we can do at this particular moment. There was a time, for instance, that the best we could do was to agree that, first in all, then in only one half of our nation, human beings could own slaves. There was a time that the best we could do was allow only half (less than half in fact) of us to vote. We now live in a time when people of a certain sexual orientation can be cast out of their jobs and their marriages broken because of it, but slowly, through our democratic process, one that is much larger than mere voting, we are coming to realizing that we, as a society, can be better. Our public morals are evolving.

It's a morality that must be situational, fluid, and changeable because that is the way of progress. It is a morality that does not require individuals to step down from their own personal moral values, but rather to acknowledge that we're equal and free and all in this together, and that compromise is the only way forward.

Our Constitution assumes that, as Locke put it, we should self-govern "according to reason" and strive toward a state of "perfect freedom, equality, and liberty," and it is therefore from a place of reason, not morality, that we must start. 

Why not start with morality? Simply because when a man begins debate with moral arguments, it is, by definition, over. No argument can trump a moral one. Compromise is not possible. When a man, for instance, says, "God says so," even if we do not believe in that man's god, for all practical purposes he has "won" the argument because no human can back down from his own morality, nor should he. And there will always be those who enter the public sphere with the fire and brimstone of moral certainty, but simply by virtue of this approach, his arguments must be set aside because there is no progress to be made there, because compromise must stand at the heart of self-governance in a pluralistic society.

This is not a problem we face in preschool. Young children never hold such strong moral convictions, although this is not to say that they have no morality whatsoever. As I mentioned before, I have no interest in what another man tells me about his morals, because I can discover them through his behavior. This is true also of the children with whom I work. Perhaps it is because we are a secular school, or more precisely, a pluralistic school, but I've never met a child who spoke of right and wrong or good and bad, except when experimenting with ideas through dramatic play. I have, however, taught many children who have clearly discovered moral values like compassion, non-violence, and fairness. These are the children, even very young ones, who will not hit or push no matter how provoked. These are the children who run to the side of a crying friend and take his hand. These are the children who, unprompted, give half of what they have to the child who has nothing.

There are some, such as another Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau, who would assert that young children are born with these values, but I'm inclined to believe, along with Locke, that they have discovered them through their experiments with the world, through play; their reason has lead them to these behaviors that betray what they have so far learned to be true. That, because man is essentially "good," so long as our "institutions" (in this case parents and teachers) preserve natural law, this is where reason will take us. And this is why I must reject the approach to morality that the ideas of Thomas Hobbes would dictate, one in which parents and teachers must impose morality because the "state of nature" is essentially "evil," and that without such authoritarian control life would be, in his most famous words, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

It's my view, therefore, that creating a public morality must be very like the creation of our individual morality. This practice of discovering morality through the application of reason, of the scientific method rather than authoritarianism or mysticism, building public morality upon the progress made by those who have come before us, is essential to civic life.

You may, of course, choose to tattoo yourself with your own morality, committing yourself to engraving it in your flesh, then clinging to it no matter what your reason later shows you. That is the right of an equal and free human. But when it comes to collective morality, we mustn't, because to be able to change one's mind is where wisdom lies, and to have tattooed ourselves with the morality of the past would certainly have us today hanging our heads in shame. 

It is through the process of debate, conflict and reason that our collective morality must emerge. Once again, it is the place we end rather than begin.



What Schools Should Teach

Man plans, God laughs. ~Yiddish proverb

Outside of my life as a preschool teacher, I live mostly among entrepreneurs, my wife among them, a class of people who peer constantly into the future. They know for certain there's a lot of money to be made there, if only they can accurately predict what shape the future will take, what niches will open up, what unfilled demands there will be, what knowledge and expertise they will need, what will be plentiful and what will be scarce. Some of them have become quite wealthy, while others are still working for the big payday that may never come. Few of them ever stop being entrepreneurs in their hearts even if they do occasionally take refuge for a time in a mere "job." All of them have left a string of "failures" behind them: ideas that were a little ahead or behind their time, ideas that just missed, ideas that others executed better, ideas that had the rug pulled out from under them by an unexpected paradigm shift brought on by new technologies, macro-economic conditions, or other unforeseen difference-makers.

They are people who are familiar with the sound of God's laughter as they plan. These are people who live the Robert Burns poem:


But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane, 
In proving foresight may be vain; 
The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men 
Gang aft agley, 
An'lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, 
For promis'd joy! 


Predicting the future is an impossible task, as even successful entrepreneurs will confess. They may be deservedly full of their own glory, but when they tell you their stories, they are tales of ups and downs, exultation and misery, of mid-course corrections, mistakes made, and sheer luck. What these women and men will tell you is that they made it through hard work, of course, but when you dig deeper you find what that "hard work" is made of: creativity, flexibility, resilience, motivation, and an ability to work well with others. 

As I've previously mentioned, I reject the idea that the purpose of education is to prepare children for a future "in the military or (on) a factory floor or any other institution organized as a pyramid with all the power concentrated at the top," because, after all, we are a democracy.  If employers need workers well-versed in the habits of obedience or any of the other non-democratic skills, then they should be prepared to train them themselves because the proper role of schools is to prepare citizens for the challenges of self-governance, not in working for "the man."

Traditionally, when we think of schools, we think in terms of subjects like math, English, and science, which are all important and valuable, but the way we've gone about teaching them has largely reflected the top-down hierarchical model that is anathema to our democratic ideals. And, in fact, I would argue that this system of lectures and desks and textbooks and tests undermines the teaching of the only things we know for certain that the future will demand: creativity, flexibility, resilience, motivation, and an ability to work well with others.

And let me tell you, no one has ever learned these skills from a lecture or book: they are only learned through sharing the experiences of ups and downs, exultation and misery, mid-course corrections, mistakes, and a little luck, all in partnership with others. Or what we call "play." Experience may not be the only teacher, but she is the best teacher, and just as I want my school (and all schools) to provide children with experience in the skills and habits they'll need for self-government, I want also for schools to provide experience in the skills and habits they will need for an unpredictable future.

There are some who would have us prepare children for the world as it is and nothing more. That seems a rather impoverished idea for education. That is certainly not what our founders envisioned for the role of education in our democracy, but neither does it serve our children, especially young ones, who are still decades away from stepping out into the world entirely on their own -- a world that will be unrecognizable to them if we are only preparing them for the present. Better is to prepare children for the future, one about which the only things we know for certain is that creativity, flexibility, resilience, motivation and the ability to work with others will be at a premium. 

I want us to have a bigger idea for education, one in which it is more than a mere servant of the status quo, but rather a transformative force, both for individuals as well as society: one in which we don't prepare children for the world as it is, but rather for the world as it ought to be.

The question of how we do this is what the rest of this blog is about.


Beyond Voting: The Vital Importance of Civil Disobedience

We live in a time when there exist committees of men and women who come together to decide what our children should learn: what they should understand from the literature they read, what kinds of equations they should be able to solve, what scientific processes they'll need to know, which dates and important battles they must recite. These men and women in their collective wisdom, pick and choose from the infinite universe those bits and pieces that will define what it is to be educated in this school or that school, in this district or that district, in this state or that state, and (I'm quite confident the effort is underway in this era of internationalization) in this nation or that nation. These committees determine not only what children are to learn, but by when they are to learn these things.

This committee-created standardization is then enforced through a system of "benchmarks," measured through high-stakes standardized tests that, bizarrely, focus almost exclusively on the even narrower areas of literacy and math. It's a system of dog-eat-dog competition, pitting teacher against teacher, school against school, district against district, and state against state in winner-take-all cage match for funding and jobs.

It's happening, of course, with a propagandistic veneer of benevolence, even philanthropy, promoted by the promise of "serving students," a faux outrage about old methods that are failing us, the soaring rhetoric of egalitarianism, and with the strangest sight of all in our times, apparent political bipartisanship, bought and paid for by for-profit education corporations that have only just begun to raid the money that we the people have quite rightly set aside for the purpose of educating our children.

I could go on, and have, but I've tried to make this introduction as concise as possible because I've already dealt extensively on this blog with what those of us in the progressive education bubble deride as "corporate education reform."

Needless to say, I do not believe that this situation "serves children," let alone democracy, which as I complained of before is never mentioned in any of our public discussions: these efforts to impose an anti-democratic, top-down corporate-style super-hierarchy on our schools is quite explicitly an attempt to turn public education into a lucrative system of vocational training.

One of the main reasons I teach the way I do, and write about it here on this blog, is that I want parents to be dissatisfied and suspicious of what is being planned for their children who are so much more than the rhetorical "workforce of tomorrow." I want teachers to feel frustrated and even outraged that if they are to truly serve the student in their classroom instead of the theoretical student proposed by these committees, they must do so subversively, and at the real risk of finding themselves on the street. I don't know what form it will take, but increasingly it looks to me like the push back will ultimately need to take the form of civil disobedience: a student's rights movement lead by parents, teachers and the students themselves.

That's right, one of the reasons I teach the way I do is because I'm a rabble rouser.

The history of progress in our nation is one of rabble rousing, of civil (and sometimes not so civil) disobedience. Thomas Jefferson correctly predicted that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract our notice, we could be relied upon to set them right, from the American Revolution right through our various civil and labor rights movements.

And I try very hard to not be a hypocrite about this. It's my hope that as a teacher-servant to the families and children of Woodland Park, that I avoid the kind of top-down curriculum I decry. I see my role in our play-based curriculum, not as the arbiter of what the children ought to learn or by when, but rather as an administrator of invitations to explore. Most of us in the preschool world are familiar with the idea of viewing art as a "process" rather than a "product," and I strive for this to hold true for everything we do. I provide materials, information, circumstances, challenges, and sometimes even examples, but so long as the children stay within the confines of the rules that we've agreed upon together, what, or even if, they learn is entirely up to them as individuals and as a community.

This leads often to a messy, noisy process, one that "borders on" or appears to be "controlled" chaos, but just as often it results in a circle of small heads bent over a single shared mote, discussing minutiae. That's what democracy always looks like, whatever our age.

In fact, democracy, when it functions as it should, is itself a play-based learning process, one in which we all engage or not, bringing our own wisdom, knowledge, perspectives, and temperaments to the table. And together, through the process, we can be counted on to set things right, chaotically perhaps, slowly perhaps, difficultly perhaps, but without rebellion.

I've written before about civil disobedience in my own classroom, about times that the children have risen up against me as I attempt to impose my will upon them against theirs. People outside the progressive education bubble very often envision our school as an out-of-control, law-of-the-jungle kind of place, a Hobbesian dystopia, but that is not how it plays out, unless, of course, I chose to not listen to the will of the people. And then it is not the children who are subject to correction, but me. When I, for instance, attempt to hold the children at circle time beyond their attention spans or patience, the "rabble" lets me know it, first on the fringes as children begin to squirm and fidget. I know it is beginning to happen when I hear myself repeating things like, "I'd like you to sit on your bottom." When it's just one or two children, I may keep going forward with the things I've planned, things I hope we can explore together, but if my invitation doesn't compel the rest of of them, if I've overstepped my authority and tried to make their bodies or minds do something for which they are not ready, if there is something else they would much rather be learning, I better wrap things up and move on unless I'm prepared to deal with a full-on rebellion.

This is not misbehavior. This is democracy. This is not a "problem" in our classroom, but rather an important part of how the children learn to be in charge of their own learning.

I don't know if we've yet reached the moment for civil disobedience when it comes to the corporate education reform. Maybe we can still afford to be "polite." Maybe there are still "proper channels" that need to be explored. Maybe there are hidden allies somewhere among our elected representatives who have listened and are preparing even as we speak to take a leading role. Maybe. Right now, however, I worry that we are being drowned out by the well-financed corporate reformers who control the microphone, that our objections are merely bouncing off the insides of our bubble, echoing back to us, creating the false illusion that the rabble is more roused than it is.

But every day, every day, I hear from parents or teachers who are angry, or desperate, or confused, people who know that schools can and should do so much better than turn a greasy profit and prepare children for corporate jobs; schools that "teach" the skills we know the future, and democracy, will demand: creativity, flexibility, resilience, motivation, and the ability to work with others. If it were my circle time, I'd be thinking about starting to wrap things up, but it's not. It's ours and only we can decide what must happen next.

In the meantime, I will keep attempting to rabble rouse by teaching as I do and then writing about it.


Mistakes Will Be Made: Hurray!

When a reporter asked Thomas Edison how it felt to have failed over a thousand times in his quest to invent the light bulb, he famously answered, "I didn't fail a thousand times. The light bulb was an invention with a thousand steps."

Traditional education is largely concerned with "correct answers," and is therefore structured so as to guide children as efficiently as possible to them, which is why so much of it is based upon the practices of direct instruction and rote practice, in which the teacher's role is primarily to tell children what they are to know and then to drill them until they are able to "prove it" on a test. This approach starts with the assumption that the teacher is a kind of dispenser of knowledge and that everything else along the way -- friendships, staring out the window, chewing gum, being silly -- is a distraction that must be controlled by rules, if not threats and force. Certainly, teachers in this model attempt to be gentle and understanding, even loving, but no matter how sing-song, a command to "Sit down," is still a command, and in the beeline path of direct instruction, anything that stands in the way must be knocked down.

A play-based education, on the other hand, is largely about making mistakes, thousands of mistakes, and is therefore structured so as to allow children to discover "correct answers" on their own through a process of their own choosing. In fact, play-based education does not even pretend to know what a child should learn except in the most general sense, assuming that the innate curiosities of children will lead them, through the instinct to play, to the discoveries that will come to form his unique education. It is through these processes, and the mistakes and struggles encountered, that he learns to be creative, flexible, and resilient. She is motivated by virtue of the fact that he is following her own passions. And he learns to work with others because he is a member of this community of equal and free citizens each pursuing his own grand experiments.

So yes, it does sometimes appear chaotic as we shape our own community through our mistakes, and, as I discussed before, our own rules which are more often than not the direct results of the lessons learned through these mistakes: rules that are intended not to simply clear a path for direct instruction, but rather to protect the rights of individuals and minorities as we each seek to clear our own path of self-directed learning. It may appear chaotic, as indeed democracy often appears chaotic, but it is a far cry from running wild or mob rule.

Many worry about our reliance upon the teaching power of "natural consequences," insisting that we must protect children from at least some of their mistakes. And, of course, this is true. Of course, when it comes to choices that threaten to cause grave injury, the adults in the room must step in, but not as an authority issuing commands. Rather we take a role that is more akin to a safety device, as an active part in the boundaries. We say, "I can't let you do that," because it is our job, in just the way an electrical outlet cover's job is to prevent inexperienced children from inserting a paper clip, until they are developmentally capable of asking, "Why?" and comprehending our answer.

But beyond matters of safety, do young children always make accurate choices? Informed choices? Choices absent of cognitive error? Of course not. And indeed no human does: every one of us fails every day. Mistakes are a central tenant of the human condition. Mistakes are necessary because making them is how we learn almost everything worth knowing. A parent's or teacher's job is not to "save" young children from making mistakes, but rather to create environments in which mistakes can be made without an undue risk of maiming or death -- this is where our adult experience comes into play. Our job, in my view, is not to command children "for their own good," but rather to provide them with the facts and honestly held opinions that help guide them in making their own decisions, which still may or may not be "good decisions," but are after all their own decisions, choices from which they reap the natural consequences and rewards.

Outside our bubble, there are those who insist that it's possible to command children to not make mistakes and that when those mistakes are made "loving" punishments must be imposed. This can, in fact, "work" if the goal is to have children learn to obey a certain set of rules: or at least it appears to work as long as the authority imposing those rules and doling our those punishments remains present. (Or, as law enforcement professionals know, if the punishment is so debilitating that the one being punished is "broken," which I hope no one would do to a child.)

We cannot prevent children from making mistakes, we can only, at best, push those mistakes off into the future.  No one has ever succeeded in preventing one human in a free society from doing what she really wants to do. Ever. I've known families who have successfully prevented their children from watching television for years, only to find that the moment they are in a televised environment, they immediately over-indulge. I've watched families who have successfully prevented their children from eating refined sugar for years, only to watch them engorge themselves the moment they are confronted with an unsupervised candy jar. I've known families who have successfully prevented their adolescents from drinking alcohol only to have them head off to college and years of binge drinking.

When we use authoritarian methods, even when excused by our superior "experience," to secure the obedience of others, be they adults or children, we rob them of the instructive power of mistakes, forbidding them the most important thing of all: practice in making good decisions.

Experience is the name we give our mistakes. ~Oscar Wilde

It's true that our school is sometimes a chaotic place, but it never becomes the sort of brutish place that those outside the bubble fear. From these many voices, from these many pursuits of happiness, from this environment of mistakes and natural consequences, our classroom becomes a place in which we learn that we must be willing and able to make agreements (which always involves compromise), it becomes a place in which codes of fairness and morality always emerge, and it is a place in which we learn to be creative, flexible, resilient and motivated because that is what naturally fills the void left when the authoritarian methods of direct instruction are removed.

This is the true experiment of democracy, the one in which we all engage every day as we do about our lives as equal and free citizens.


Why I Teach the Way I Do

Every now and then someone would lean from their window to "yell" at us Wembley Street kids for messing around with their rose bushes (we were fascinated by the thorns) or for jumping in the piles of pine needles they'd just raked up. We'd say we were sorry, then, as time passed, conjure stories about how we'd, in fact, been threatened by a "knife," spinning cautionary tales we told to wide-eyed kids who had not been there.

In the summer, we ran everywhere barefoot, testing our soles on the blistering hot pavement or by trying to cross sections of lawn that were known for harboring blackberry starts, what we called "stickers," or dog poop, stepping in which was a real-life horror that made you pariah until you could find a garden hose with which to wash it off. We made "booby traps" with straight pins we'd found in kitchen junk drawers, sticking them menacingly straight out of the dust, intended for "bad guys," but inevitably embedding them in our own calloused heels.

Pheobe, being oldest, met me each morning one summer in the Sain's front yard, calling me "Tarzan" when I turned up with no shirt or shoes. I can still summon up the sting of disappointment when one day she said nothing. I asked, "Aren't I Tarzan?" And she answered, "Your shorts are too long." I never wore those shorts again.

There were climbing trees and pine cone fights and "dangerous" kids who lived on other streets. We made up games we called soccer and football and hide-and-seek, often playing through the dusk into dark, howling like wolves and barking like dogs and making up songs about the things that interested us the most: underpants, death, poo, and flying faster than the wind.

After thunderstorms we would race outside to play in the streams that formed in the gutters that lined the curbs of our cul-de-sac, floating pine needle boats that we'd guide through rapids we created from pebbles, following the course until it was lost through the iron gratings that lead into the mysterious maw of the storm sewers. There were few things more exciting than when someone's dad would spend a weekend pruning pine branches, then pile them over those gutters where they would often wait for weeks for the irregular curbside pick up. That's where we built forts and hideouts, getting sap and splinters in our hair and under our fingernails. Later, as we got older, and bicycles made us more mobile, we found roadside ditches farther afield in which we discoverd frogs, turtles, and insects: bugs that could walk on water and mosquitoes the size of our palms.

There were still a few undeveloped parcels in our suburban neighborhood that we called "woods" and where we would spend hours creating adventures. One time Jeff Short and I decided to play with matches, lighting small fires, then stomping them out until one nearly spread out of our control. We panicked as we stomped, sweating, crying, images in our heads of the entire neighborhood burning to the ground, the echoed voices of adults with their tut-tut warnings, "Never play with matches," suddenly poignant. I prayed so hard as I stomped that I suffered from a headache that lasted for hours afterwards. It wasn't until I was a teenager than I again had the courage to strike a match. Thirty years later, this is the story I told my own daughter instead of simply commanding her to be careful with fire.

We sometimes rode our bikes into "Hampton's Land," a vaguely menacing wooded place marked off by tattered "No Trespassing" signs, owned by one or another of the vaguely menacing Hamptons who stood for us as the faceless symbol of ultimate power and wealth. In there we found places we named "The Clay Pits" and "The Sand Pits" and "The Dessert," and where we imagined ourselves cowboys and army men, uncovering evidence of other kids who had been there before us, ancients who had left behind bottle cap and candy wrapper relics for us to muse over. Sometimes we'd actually meet those kids in those places, who always seemed rougher than us, cruder. One time, however, there was a boy smaller and younger than us. He played the tough guy, threatening us, standing with his legs apart and hands on his hips. We found him amusing and began to taunt him, mocking his bravdo. Once, twice, then three times I snuck around behind him, then shoved him to the ground, laughing at how I'd sure shown him. Finally, he ran off. Thinking we'd won something, we Wembley Street kids claimed "The Clay Pits" as our own, until we saw him returning through the trees, this time with adults in tow. Not waiting for the consequence, I ran like I'd never run before, leaving my bike in the shrubbery, running over stumps and through brambles that tore my flesh. I ran with fear in my heart, with anguish over the cruelty I'd perpetrated upon the younger boy who had only wanted us to think he was something mightier than he was. Tears tracked through the dust on my cheeks as I ran, faster than ever, farther than ever, all the way back to my house where I slammed the door and spent the afternoon pacing in front of the windows, watching the street, fearing the appearance of that boy and those adults who never came.

This race home was echoed some weeks later when Jeff Short, in a peak of anger and cruelty, put his heel down on a favorite toy of mine, crushing into the mud. I ran all the way home then too, tears for both myself and the boy I'd treated with similar cruelty. Both times mom saw I was in anguish, but didn't pry, instead letting me be with my grief and with her love. I suspect she later learned of both incidents through the neighborhood grapevine, but never said a word because, I guess, she knew I'd already learned hard lessons and it was not part of her love for me to make them harder.

Other times we stuck around our homes, playing in garages, digging through boxes of junk, handling our father's tools, assembling contraptions we called race cars that we mounted on wagons. Ours was a neighborhood of few hills, so the best we could do was find someone to push us around the driveway, but it was exhilarating nevertheless, risking life and limb to our own handiwork.

One summer the city dug a huge trench down the middle of our street, at least three times as deep as we were tall. They were replacing the small concrete storm sewer pipes with much larger concrete storm sewer pipes. After the workmen went home each day, no one told us not to play there, so we did. There was nowhere else we would have rather been than down in that amazing rubble bestrewn hole, climbing over "boulders" and upon the small digger they left parked on its edge, daring one another to go just a little bit farther into the dark tunnel they were constructing. And when it was done, they paved the whole thing over with a strip of new black asphalt on which riding bicycles was the smoothest of pleasures.

There is so much more to tell, so many more memories of endless hours of unsupervised play out in the world with the children and things we found there. Moments that put joy in our hearts and hearts in our throats.

Of course, knowing what I know now, it probably wasn't as unsupervised as I recall through the sepia tones of memory. Naturally, there were mothers in all those kitchen windows, keeping an eye on us, only showing themselves when necessary, making sure we weren't being too mean or too careless, feeding us bologna sandwiches when that time rolled around, keeping the other mothers informed when the Wembley Street kids were playing in their yard. I know that's how it worked, but it sure felt like we were on our own as we conducted our experiments, made up our stories, figured things out, engaged in our debates, pretended in our capes, made our horrible mistakes, and enjoyed our magnificent triumphs.

I don't know if parents can allow their children this kind of freedom to roam any more.  Probably we could, but we don't, if only because there's so much more traffic. So maybe this is why we need schools like Woodland Park.

I've spilled a lot of words now writing about why I teach the way I do, but at bottom this is it: because I wish all this for the children who come my way.

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4 comments:

Jill said...

Awesome! It was long, but it was worth the read. Lots of good stuff in there. I'm glad people like you exist in the world. You inspire others, like me. What a gift you give to the children and parents that go through your school.

Amy said...

That wasn't a blog post, it was a thesis! I greatly appreciate your approach to teaching pre-school, and wonder how to find similar-minded education facilities near where I live... I'm in Melbourne Australia. Would you have any suggestions of organisations to search for here?

Teacher Tom said...

@Amy . . . I wrote it over the course of a week or so, publishing it as individual posts, then just pulled it all together for this one.

You should contact Donna Burns from Irresistible Ideas for Play-Based Learning. She's based in Melbourne. You can locate her through her blog of the same name. There's a link over there in the right hand column, under "Teacher Tom's Blog List."

Vik Vein said...

Thank you, thank you and again thank you! This post is so refreshing. I am trying to get my teaching degree and as I have got help with graduate papers I found some time for new ideas and you definitely support us with them. I do like your approach but I am not sure if it is real to use it in the classroom of the ordinary school where we have all these standards. I hope I will be courageous enough. And you reminded me about my childhood when I learned something new every day, just playing in the yard with my friends.

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