Monday, April 30, 2012


The defining feature of our school's immediate neighborhood is The Troll. He lives under the north end of the Aurora Bridge on a bare, dusty patch of ground that once provided cover for nefarious doings. He's a big city retelling of "The Three Billy Goats Gruff," except instead of making dinner of goats snatched from the bridge, he's munching on a VW Bug with California license plates.

I rarely pass The Troll when there aren't at least a few pilgrims snapping photos of themselves standing on his knuckles. 

We spend our days in the shadow of the Troll's bridge. The fence is too high for the children to see it, but the adults can look out on the Aurora Bridge span from our outdoor classroom.

A few blocks down the hill is our other neighborhood bridge: the Fremont Bridge. I cross it every day on my commute. All the kids know this bridge, and not only for it's unique blue and orange paint job and neon Rapunzel who lives in the north tower, but also because it's a draw bridge. As Grey told me on a recent field trip, "It's a opening up bridge."

We're a city of bridges, in fact, and the children of Woodland Park cross several of them every day just in the course of their business. They might not know them by name, but they know them. Within five minutes of our front door there's also the Ballard Bridge, the University Bridge, both draw bridges, and the span of the I-5, not to mention the dozen of smaller passovers that connect our neighborhoods together. And then there are the two major floating bridges across Lake Washington connecting us to the Eastside. We live under them and over them, forever passing from one side to the other.

It's hard to not admire the simple symbolic power of a bridge. Each year our Pre-K kids, on the second to the last day of school, cross a little bridge I've built from blocks, a ceremony of easy to grasp meaning. A bridge means what it is, a way from one side to another: made no less profound by it's bald-facedness. 

Bridges always represent challenge as well, in their engineering, in the crossing of them, and in the anticipatory fear of what may be on the other side. When a child places a board between two places, landing it on foundations on both ends, taking the time to make sure it's secure, she is playing with the same forces, and solving many of the same problems as those faced by the engineers who designed and the workers who constructed the bridges that connect our city.

We don't always trust our own bridges the way we do the ones we drive across because we know that humans, at least the ones building our classroom bridges, are fallible. Later we'll learn about the fallibility of all humans, if we don't know it already: that sloppiness with a mere decimal point can bring it all tumbling down. A decade or so ago, a motorist drove through the concrete and landed not far from The Troll. There's that kind of fallibility too.

That's why we build a lot of our bridges closer to the ground, often just enough to keep our feet dry as you cross from one side of a trickle of water to the other. Falling from here is no catastrophe, but it does give us a place to practice and to plan for the next generation of bridges we're going to build and traverse.

In our part of the world at least, and probably everywhere, bridges are a simple metaphor, one that unlocks new ways of thinking about not just our physical world, but about every change in our lives, every transition from one thing to another, every challenge, every graduation, every billy goat that disappears. Humans can hardly think without resorting to metaphor and this, the bridge, is an important one to understand.

And the more you understand about a metaphor, the more sides from which you are able to view it, the more powerful it becomes. As the children balance across the bridges they've built to connect this place to that, raising their feet up out of the muck, they gain not just in their physical abilities of balance and large muscle control, but also their cognitive ones of anticipation, concentration, and confidence.

Not to mention their imaginations, as we wonder what might exist on the other side or just beneath our feet.

After all, we know about The Troll.

When I first saw our windmill it was being stored under the Ballard Bridge.

No one ever teaches anyone about bridges, but everyone learns about them.

And everyone finally passes to the other side.

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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Buyer Beware!

The way to tell if a for-profit enterprise is successful is to look to see if it's turning a profit. And just so we're clear, we're talking about money. 

For instance, the way to know if a television manufacturer is successful is whether or not it makes money. The quality of the actual TV set is immaterial: if they can persuade enough people to buy one, even if they break down a week after the warranty expires, they are a successful for-profit company. The argument, of course, is that this company won't stay in business very long if they gain a reputation for defective merchandise, and I suppose that's true, but that doesn't mean that they can't enjoy years of profit in the meantime. Success!

Or how about that for-profit hospital? The quality of health care is immaterial: if they can persuade enough sick or injured people to check themselves in, even if most of them never get better, or even die, they are a successful for-profit company. Again, a reputation for dead patients will ultimately hurt the bottom line, but in the meantime . . . Woo hoo! 

That's how the so-called invisible hand is supposed to protect us all in the fantasy world of free market capitalism. Eventually, if the "product" is bad, customers will just take their business elsewhere. Meanwhile, "buyer beware!" Blame yourself for those TV programs you missed. Blame yourself for the death of that loved one. You should have done better research before trusting those for-profit businesses. These neo-Calvinist evangelists say, Blame yourself! because if you blame the holy capitalist system you are a sinner-communist. 

I am not a communist. Nor, at least, am I the kind of sinner that kills people for money: that requires a particularly horrific brand of sociopathy. Neither will I label myself a capitalist, at least as long as it requires, as it does today, a blind faith in this deeply flawed economic model.

If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. ~Abraham Maslow

Capitalism may well serve some of our lower level needs, like building televisions, but when it comes to things that matter like health care or food or education, it can only result in tragedy. What they're banking on is that the tragedy is so slow-motion that no one notices until they've extracted their profits: success!

I was inspired today by Gail Collins' recent New York Times op-ed piece entitled A Very Pricey Pineapple, in which she discusses the rush to privatize public education.

It's not just the (standardized) tests. No Child Left Behind has created a system of pubic-funded charter schools, a growing number of which are run by for-profit companies. Some of them are completely online, with kids getting their lessons at home via computer. The academic results can be abysmal, but on the plus side -- definitely no classroom crowding issues.

The "leader" (i.e., the corporation that has been the most successful in profiting from our tax-payer funded schools) in this drive toward corporatizing education is a company call Pearson Education.

Its lobbyists include the guy who served as the top White House liaison with Congress on drafting the No Child law. It has its own nonprofit foundation that sends state education commissioners on free trips overseas to contemplate school reform . . . An American child could go to a public school run by Pearson, study from books produced by Pearson, while his or her progress is evaluated by Pearson standardized tests. The only public participant in the show would be the taxpayer. 

Lest you doubt the size and power of these guys, they make nearly $100 million per year off just one testing contract with the state of Texas. And this is an international company. I spent some time going through their website this morning and found myself clicking through the "Careers" section. It doesn't appear that they hire teachers: most of the job offerings seemed to be for sales people and testing experts, jobs being "sold" to prospects with the line: 

Pearson has one defining goal: the help people progress in their lives through learning.

This is either a lie or their stockholders have cause to sue. Pearson is a for-profit corporation. By definition their "one defining goal" is to make as big a profit as possible. And that profit must come at the expense of our public schools. Buyer beware!

What the corporation called Pearson is selling is an unproven batch of "education products," products designed to turn a tidy profit, while education is, at best, a secondary concern. If education were really the "defining goal" (and it simply can't be so long as we're talking about a for-profit enterprise) there would be no standardized tests, no standardized curricula, no for-profit charter schools, no online schools, and a minimal use of technology in the classroom, at least in the early years. If Pearson was really selling education it would be advocating for things like "portfolio-based" student assessment, a project/inquiry based curricula, increased funding for public schools (to be used, among other things, for advanced teacher training and smaller class sizes), and stronger partnerships with the parents of their students. This is what Pearson would be selling if education really were their "defining goal," because these are the things that actual research, performed over the past century, has shown leads to the best educated children. What they are actually selling, like all for-profit corporations, is stuff that is profitable. Period.

I know we've spent the last 30 or so years deregulating business, but certainly we still have child labor laws. It's hard not to see companies like Pearson as amoral enterprises set up specifically to make money off the labor of our children. You think that's hyperbole?  Most public schools, their administrators, and teachers are now rewarded and punished based upon the performance of students on standardized tests which are created, administered, graded, and evaluated by private for-profit corporations. How do all the adults in this system benefit? By working the kids harder, making them memorize more, drilling them, focusing them not on what they want or need to know, but on what will appear on these computer-graded tests. This is not education, this is labor, and the defining goal of this labor is profit for Pearson's stockholders. And the children's pay: a degraded education hardly worthy of the name.

Now I realize that by publishing this post, I've guaranteed I'll never work for a for-profit education company and if they, as is apparently the current plan coming out of state houses around the country, wind up taking over our educational system, I'll be looking for a new profession. You see, I'm attempting to speak the truth as I see it, and there is little room for that in corporations, which are, after all, privately run dictatorships allowed to operate here in the midst of our democracy. And perhaps more than anything else, this is what convinces me that for-profit companies should never be entrusted with education: the bottom line of education is truth, even if it undermines profit. Corporate education cannot allow that.

If we are going to stop the slow-motion tragedy of the privatization of public education, we must find a way to step back from these free-market fantasies, and re-embrace the promises of democracy, people working together toward a better world, rather than fighting amongst ourselves for a greasy buck. And we better do it soon or it will be too late. Already, large portions of our public education system are in the hands of profiteers, and what we see now is just the tip of the iceberg. Billions are being diverted away from our schools every year and into these corporations, who are answerable only to their stockholders. Buyer beware!  Already the only recourse many of us have is to whine, because we are in no position to take our business elsewhere.

With all its imperfections, public education -- owned, operated, and answerable to we the people -- is still the best way to educate our children. For-profit corporations have no role here. If we will keep it, it's going to take teachers and parents working together, in the great tradition of our democracy, to fight back against corporate education, to advocate for our children, the citizens of tomorrow. 

This way lies the only real success, the kind that is measured in the coin meaningful, productive lives which is the bottom line of a democratic education. 

Talk to your friends and neighbors! Share this post! Share Ms. Collins op-ed piece! Call and write your state and federal representatives! Attend your next school board meeting! Get active in the PTA! These are the things we do to make a democracy work.

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Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Pure Science Of Understanding Human Beings

When I dress myself up, I'm engaged in the pure science of understanding human beings; experiments in who I am and who I might be.

I make discoveries about who they are, who you are, and who we are. When I dress up I am taking on the greatest subject matter of all. There is nothing I could learn that is more vitally important.

Where does this go after preschool, really? Costume boxes are rarities even in most kindergartens, and they're certainly not there in elementary schools or middle schools or high schools. Oh sure, there they are, stored away backstage or in a closet reserved for the theater department, if there is a theater department, which there probably isn't any more. And even so, is that the only time we think we need for this, a set aside hour or two once a week or at the end of the day, for the most important exploration of all?

We dismiss it as child's play, as "just pretend," as something for the playground, to be left behind as we get older, but come on: we're designed for this, we human beings. How else do you explain that long aisle of cosmetics in the drug store? How else to you explain all those young men in their tough-guy goatees? How else do you explain those button-down lawyers who wear black leather to ride motorcycles or middle class housewives in knee-high boots with four-inch heels? And really, what else could explain camouflage pants, costume jewelry, dreadlocks, or the exploding popularity of holidays like Halloween and Mardi Gras?

I'm not making fun of anyone here. This is serious work we do when we try on costumes. It changes, however temporarily, how we see ourselves and how others see us. It puts us into different shoes, literally. It shows us a new world and helps us better understand the worlds that exist inside the other people.

When we're wearing, say, a super hero costume with a heart on the chest, not only are we ourselves emboldened, but we embolden those we encounter to share a piece of themselves that often lies hidden on the flip-side of the mirror-face we show the world on most day.

I'm lucky to have in my circle of friends, many adults who have re-discovered, or never forgotten this curricula of costumes. We know that an evening in a pink bunny get-up can sometimes teach us more than a year of therapy. 

This is how the science of who we are is done. It is not mere frivolity, but rather the most serious work we do. Putting on a costume, and accepting the costumes of others, then playing together: this is how we most directly come to understand and even love the human beings with whom we must live.

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Friday, April 27, 2012

Working With The Student Teachers

It was early in our school year, probably the first day, and one of our very young 3-year-olds shouted out an answer at circle time, oblivious to the fact that many of his classmates were raising their hands. Willie, a 4-year-old who was beginning his second year in our 3-5’s class, a veteran of how things work at Woodland Park, leaned into his new friend and in a very clear stage whisper explained, “If you sit quietly on your bottom and raise your hand, Teacher Tom will call on you.”

This is how our classroom’s communal memory is passed on from year-to-year, be it raising hands, making rules, giving compliments, dealing with someone who is hurting or scaring you, or understanding our daily routines. The older children pass their knowledge on to their younger classmates who in turn do the same the following year.

When I plan our weeks, it starts with our Tuesday afternoon Pre-K class, which is a 2½ hour session each week set aside specifically for the children preparing for kindergarten. I sometimes think of this as a kind of staff meeting where I am training my student teachers for the week ahead.

I often “preview” more challenging projects in the Pre-K class, giving the older kids a chance to master skills or acquire knowledge which they can pass on to their younger friends. I typically don’t make this expectation explicit – it just happens.

The classic example of this is cutting paper “snowflakes.” We pre-fold dozens of pieces of square origami paper (we like a rainbow of snowflakes at Woodland Park) into shapes conducive to producing an approximation of a “snowflake” if cut just so with scissors. I demonstrate the “magic trick” of making a few simple cuts then unfolding the paper to reveal the lacy, symmetrical result. We then turn the kids loose with the scissors, allowing them to experiment, including discovering what happens when they fold their own paper. There are always 3-4 kids who can’t get enough of this, which is perfect given that they will have plenty of opportunities to extend their exploration during the rest of the week.

The following day, the younger children arrive to find the art table set up with the strangely folded origami paper, scissors, and no other indication of what’s going on. If the Pre-K kids don’t descend upon the table right away, all it usually takes is for me to say something like, “Ariya needs someone to show him what we’re doing at the art table,” and he will be instantly joined by his older classmates, eager to show off what they know. After a day as an “official” art project, the scissors and origami paper – some pre-folded, some not – will appear on our do-it-yourself table where it’s not unusual for an older child or two to set up shop for the morning, assisting any and all in their efforts. The paper and scissors continue to make their appearance until the fad burns itself out.

This dynamic isn’t limited to art projects. Our Pre-K science activities often wind up in the sensory table or garden. Certain mathematical concepts we learn in Pre-K are conveyed to our younger classmates, child-to-child, via puzzles or other manipulatives. New toys and games usually make their debut with the older kids, allowing them the opportunity to gain expertise that they can pass on to their friends.

When we are confronting community-wide problems or challenges, such as the rat that appeared in our garden, these veteran students are often consulted. And while we can’t always act upon their ideas (e.g., converting the rat into a classroom pet) we often can, such as the time we used tape, glue and splints to repair our broken play dough cutter.

For their part, the 3-year-olds are blissfully unaware of this dynamic, knowing only that they are going to school with these sophisticated, glamorous friends who demonstrate the upper reaches of what a mere kid can do. Anyone with older children can attest to the fact that the second child’s learning is often accelerated in her effort to “keep up” with big brother, and in many ways, it’s this phenomenon that drives our curriculum. It’s not uncommon for younger children to develop “crushes” on certain of the Pre-K kids, tailing them around the room, imitating them, bringing them pictures from home.

Even more common is the “adoption” of a younger buddy by an older child, especially in the spring as the younger child is preparing to step up, while the older is ready to move on. For a couple months, they almost operate like developmental equals, which tells me that the Pre-K kids have pretty much wrung everything they can out of our little rag of a preschool. After 3 years with the same teacher, the same facility, and the same basic routines, they know everything there is to know. It’s not uncommon for these kids to start pushing at the boundaries, breaking rules, testing the limits. This is as it should be.

And at the same time it’s also not uncommon for their younger classmates, next year’s Pre-K kids, to remind their older friends to raise their hands, remember the rules, and stick to the routines. The student has become the master.

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

It's How We Got Here That Matters

After three days of being mowed, watered, and otherwise "tended" our indoor meadow was looking rather shabby. My plan for the day involved separating the grass from the good potting soil we'd started with, by encouraging the kids to pull the wheat grass up by the roots and fill a bucket. By way of making this happen I called some attention to myself, then attempted to yank up a couple fists full. Instead of the nice clean root-and-all extraction I'd anticipated, I found the grass just breaking off in my hand, the roots holding firmly to the soil.

Holy cow! If we'd been impressed with how tall the wheat grass had grown after only a week, we (and by this I mostly mean the adults) were at least as impressed by how deep and intertwined the roots had become. We pulled up a corner of the turf to discover the white roots had formed a tangled matt, making it possible for us to just roll the whole thing up.

This was a bit of a problem given that I'd intended to use the grass, with minimal soil, for an art project. We took one square of sod outdoors and rolled it out on our baby-steps effort at earthworks (a super secret project I'm sure I'll share with you some day) to see if it will continue to grow. The other square we saved for our art project.

The original idea had been to dye fabric with grass stains, so now, with all that unanticipated soil attached it it, the idea became to dye it with grass and dirt stains. We did this by folding the grass into an old white curtain, then going after it with rubber mallets, in effect "juicing" the wheat grass. 

Initially, a group of girls took it on, pounding together, watching the juice and dirt stain the fabric from the inside as they made rhythms. When we opened the fabric we noticed the pattern we made was symmetrical.

The pounding alone made this a successful project, I think. Sometimes the pressure of trying to hit a target, like the head of a nail, takes away some of the large motor joy one can get from just whacking something.

Our lilacs have started blooming and Henry's mom Ann had the idea of adding a bunch to our grass stain experiment, leaving a bit of purple stain behind. Once the neighborhood dandelion crop comes in later this spring, I think we'll re-create this project in bright yellow.

As fun as the pounding was, however, I suspected it would get old, so I was prepared for a next step. Earlier in the week we'd been making bubble prints, the concept being to blow a straw into a colored bubble solution, then lay a piece of paper atop the mound of bubbles to take prints that look like this:

There were several bowls of the solution left over, and not liking to waste anything, I figured the kids would, after staining their fabric with grass and dirt, enjoy overflowing their bubble bowls onto the fabric adding some "spring color" to their background of green and brown.

The girls driving this project, however, were not so keen on the bubble blowing idea and instead elected to just start pouring the paint, mixing it, and otherwise dying the fabric by their own means.

We wound up dying three pieces of fabric altogether.

I don't think I'd call the results beautiful.

But that's beside the point.

It's how we got here, and that we got here together, that matters.

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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