Thursday, January 31, 2013

Choosing The Way That Is Hard

Play is the highest form of research. ~Albert Einstein

There are easier ways of getting from here to there, but all day long children choose to cross this narrow, springy plank they've set between a pair of stumps.

Why do they do this? It requires more focus than merely walking across the ground. There is a heightened risk of injury, something even the 2-year-olds know going in: you can tell by the caution with which they approach it. There are easier, safer ways, so why do they consistently choose the way that is hard?

One of the arguments used against a play-based curriculum is that it doesn't teach children rigor, that there is no incentive to tackle things that are difficult, but every day, all day long I see evidence to the contrary. In fact, it's often hard to find a child who is not applying herself, rigorously, to her play.

In every corner of the classroom, at any given moment, we find children striving in their play to do things that are hard: making the scissors cut the paper, shaping the play dough into a sphere, negotiating over a toy with a classmate, balancing across a narrow plank. When we think of play we usually think of smiles and laughter, but look around and you'll find brows wrinkled in concentration, jaws clenched in effort, bodies tense in anger, and eyes filled with the tears of frustration. This is also true of a rote-based curriculum, the difference being the smiles and laughter.

If it were true that children are inherently lazy, that without the firm hand of teachers executing standardized lesson plans filled with things a committee has determined they ought to know, and by when they ought to know it, that they will only play and never learn to apply themselves -- if this were true then there is no explaining this plank between two stumps. No, what those who doubt play fail to realize is that what they see as laziness is really boredom. If a child appears lazy, it's because you're doing it wrong.

When we understand that play is, indeed, research, then it all makes sense. They see the smiles and laughter as evidence of sloth and distraction, whereas in a play-based curriculum we know it as evidence of Eureka! 

Children are not lazy. They are also not empty vessels that now need to be tediously crammed full of things that others believe they ought to know. No, more often than not, when left to their own devices, children chose what is hard over what is easy. Why? Because humans are flames to be ignited: we are born to research, born to explore, born to cross that plank even when it is the way that is hard. 

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Their Too-Small Castle

They had a plan, these two girls, to build a castle just for themselves.

In quiet conversation, alternating between heads together and shoulder-to-shoulder, they worked out their details, laying out a foundation that they measured not once, but twice, then three times, like all good builders do; measuring it with their bodies, standing in there together to make sure they both had room to do the royal things they would be doing.

Our collection of cardboard blocks is really an amalgamation of three different sets, each a slightly different size. In other words, if all four walls are going to be of an equal height, you must identify, then build with only the blocks that go together. The girls did not know this when they started, but they did by the time they were finished, negotiating trades with other builders to get enough "big reds" for their purposes.

They were quite proud when they thought to add a door to their castle, stopping in their play to say, "Look at our door, Teacher Tom," proud of their foresight.

All along, this was going to be a castle with a roof, but when they got to that point, they found the "big reds" inadequate for their purposes. "We need longies."

There are only eight of the longest blocks and they are typically quite popular among our builders. Patiently then, the girls collected, talked, waited, and pounced. The first four blocks fit nicely between the opposite walls, but when it came to roofing the area above the door, they were momentarily stumped as there was no place to rest the ends of the remaining four "longies" if they were to be placed parallel to the others.

"Maybe this part doesn't need a roof."

"We could pretend there's a roof."

"We could make the roof out of paper."

Then there was an explosive "I know!" the cry of Eureka! that every teacher lives to hear.

And now they were done. "Teacher Tom, look at the castle we made."

It had been a focused 20 minutes of teamwork, of calculation, of opportunism, of cooperation, of manipulation, of hard logic, and creativity. They had planned together and corrected their plans. They had done all the things that humans do together and here before them was their castle.

It was then that they discovered it wasn't a castle quite large enough for two, at least not with walls so easily knocked over. They tried, of course, to carefully, carefully, carefully fit their two bodies inside this place they had measured while standing, and at one point did, while remaining very still, both more or less fit inside.

Just as carefully they crawled back out and stood looking, both proud and disappointed, at their too-small castle. 

"Let's do something else."


And together they knocked it down.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

We Simply Gather Around

Blowing big piles of colorful bubbles is the just the thing for a gray, drizzly mid-winter day.

We do this several times a year at Woodland Park, filling those yellow bowls given to us 11 years ago by a parent cleaning out some basement storage with dish soap, water and liquid watercolor. 

We then use drinking straws to blow up mounds of rainbow bubbles. 

The final step, then, if you so choose, and many don't, is to lay a piece of paper atop them, pressing it down into them, then lifting it up to find a delicate, lacy print. 

We used to only undertake it once a year, but that was before discovering that art can and ought to be made outdoors in all weather. What a horrible thing not to know or all those years. 

We didn't do it very often because it was such a soapy, spill-y, drippy mess that I really hated to leave that indoor clean-up to parent-teachers more than once a year.

But outdoors, there is no clean up to speak of, especially when there is rain to wash everything way: dump the bowls, discard the straws, and that's it.

Of course, there is still the clean-up of children who get confused and inhale a mouthful of the soapy stuff: blue-tongued children who need to go inside to rinse their mouths. Typically, they only forget once.

I still refer to it as an "art" project, but it's an unfair label, especially since moving it outdoors where there are no walls and ceilings and floors to mop, where there are no adults hovering around to wipe up this or tidy up that. 

It is art, of course, but also a scientific exploration, a conversation piece, a step-by-step process, a sensory experience, but I don't need to know any of this and nor do the children. We simply gather around, together, each taking away our own learning, an education tailored perfectly to us.

And just as many children don't stop by the outdoor art table, their learning taking them elsewhere on this day, which is why it's good we now do this several times a year.

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Monday, January 28, 2013

"We Know The Difference"

This is my first year teaching a 5's class, although for more than a decade now I've been teaching a 3-5's class. Each year, when the younger children make their rules, their community agreements, we come to the subject of weapons and every year we agree to ban weapons, both real and pretend.

I've been part of these conversations for a long time, involving a lot of different children, and it always goes down more or less the same way. Someone proposes "No weapons" and everyone agrees. Then I ask about pretend weapons. Someone says "No pretend weapons." I ask why and someone answers that even pretend weapons are scary. We agree that no one should be afraid in preschool and that's that. I honestly don't think so, but I've often wondered if this rule is made simply because the kids believe it's what the grown-ups want, that we've expressed our anti-gun sentiments (and in Seattle, in Fremont, we're mostly anti-gun people) so clearly that the kids are just reflecting it back at us. 

This year, I'd expected our weapons discussion to go more or less the same way. As I'd expected, we banned weapons during our first week in class, but when I asked about pretend weapons, I was surprised by the response. "Pretend weapons are okay." 

I asked, leadingly, "Aren't you worried some people will be scared of the pretend weapons?"

"We know the difference between real and pretend weapons, Teacher Tom." I probed and prodded, but if anything the group's conviction became stronger. All of them, boys and girls, agreed that pretend weapons were okay.

I'll be honest: I don't like it. At any given moment, someone in the outdoor classroom is in someone else's crosshairs. And the play is intense. It's something that's happened mostly outdoors, this weapons play. We start our days out there and I've had several parents tell me that getting their child to school on time is a piece of cake compared to previous years because they don't want to miss even a single minute of "outside time." It's the boys who seem the most excited by it, but there are girls right in the middle of the action as well, usually without guns, opting more often than not for wands. I've tried, in quiet moments to get one of the girls or less enamored boys to admit to feeling afraid of the weapons play, only to be told, quite clearly, that, "No, I am not afraid."

This has been ongoing since September and it has ebbed and flowed. At one point the focus was on swords, but after Rex took home a nasty bruise on his back, the kids agreed they ought to ban "swinging weapons," both real and pretend, so we're back to "shooting weapons," and mostly guns. Children and adults have objected at times to being "targeted," so we have agreed that you may only "shoot" at people who you know are part of the game.

In truth, when I step back and really watch what's going on, as opposed to merely reacting, I see much less shooting and much more running around with sticks of one kind or another. I hear much more discussion about "teams" (it appears the requirement for joining any one team is to simply declare yourself a member and you're in) or specific roles within the games (bad guy, good guy, guard, ninja, etc.). I watch constantly for facial expressions that tell me someone is in over his head or lost himself in the game and forgotten he can say, "Stop!" I remain vigilant for things getting out of control, for someone too excited by the game, who appears to be crossing the line between pretend and real, as what happened when Rex got his bruise.

But mostly I remember similar games I played as a boy, running wildly, hiding, imagining myself as a cowboy then an indian, a cop then a robber, a good guy then a bad guy. I knew the difference between real and pretend weapons, just as I knew that I wasn't really a cop or a robber. I remember that my mom didn't like it. She would ask, "Why do you play such violent games?" but never insisted we stop, although I recall there were some neighborhood boys who were not allowed to play with us when we played guns. I reckon that my constant asking after everyone, my vigilance, is sending the kids the same message my mom sent me.

Last week our stick ponies became the weapons. It was really getting under my skin, but what made me intervene was the way they were waving those sticks around in one another's faces. After several reminders about our rule against "swinging weapons," I intervened more firmly, saying, "I'm worried about those sticks. I keep seeing you guys poking them into each other's faces."

"But we're just shooting, Teacher Tom. They aren't swinging weapons."

"I understand, but it looks like you're swinging them in people's faces. It's my job to keep everyone safe. What you're doing doesn't look safe."

Henry looked at his stick pony weapon for a moment, then flipped it around so that the plush pony head end was forward. "How about like this?"

"That part is soft and won't hurt as much if you accidentally hit someone in the face. I like it. Does everyone agree?"

Everyone agreed and the game re-commenced.

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

How Dare They Tell Me I Cannot Be A Princess?

When our daughter was young, I was the stay-at-home parent, taking on the stereotypically female roles of cooking, house keeping, and grocery shopping, while also engaging in such stereotypically male things as yard work, building things with power tools, and being a sports fan. Having been educated as a behaviorist, I simply assumed that my daughter, raised in this way, with parents assuming non-traditional roles, would grow up without having internalized many of the gender role ideas of former generations. In fact, I was quite confident she was more likely to be what we used to call a "tomboy" than anything else. I strived to make sure she had both cars and dolls, avoiding such extremities as Barbies. On a day-to-day basis I tried to keep her attire gender neutral and, in fact, took it as a sort of compliment when strangers admired my "little boy."

Upstairs in our loft, girls were playing castle, surrounding themselves with dolls, stuffed animals and purses. When I asked them if I could play I was told I would have to be a prince or a king.

Before she was 3-years-old she had rejected her overalls, telling me firmly, "Girls wear dresses." When I pressed her about it, pointing out that, in fact, the majority of girls and women in our lives wore pants, she simply said, "You're a boy. You don't know about girls." Before long she began agitating for long hair, while adding crowns and tiaras to her daily repertoire, something she only gave up when she hit kindergarten in her K-12 school where dresses (and tiaras) weren't the style of the older girls, and therefore not the style of the younger, although long hair remains the standard.

I don't know if I failed her or not in all of this, but she is still "all girl" on the outside. That's where the stereotypical girl ends, however: this young woman, from this father's perspective, is a complex, one-of-a-kind human being who seems to feel free to embrace and reject gender roles, at least those of which she is aware (there always remains the issue of the gender roles to which we all unconsciously adhere). She doesn't seem to feel trapped by them, which, I think is the lion's share of the goal.

Under the loft, a pair of boys, pretended to be plumbers, repairing damaged pipes.

As a teacher, then, I see this same pattern coming at me in waves year-after-year, as the 2-year-old girls adopt the frilly dresses, while the boys don the yellow construction-worker helmets. As for me, I horse around with gender roles, pretending to be a princess or joining a game as the mommy, but the kids aren't buying it, laughing at me or sometimes even angrily telling me, "You can't be a girl, you're a boy." Some even command me to "stop!" as if the whole idea is too unsettling to contemplate.

And here I am a big, mature adult who thinks he knows himself, who can even predict how the children will react, yet who still feels a pang of rebellion, a flash of anger, each time the children tell me what I can and cannot do. How dare they tell me that I cannot be a princess?

I know I always open myself up when I write about gender. The last time I did the words "chauvinistic" and "misogynistic" were thrown back at me. But, you know, it's an unavoidable subject when you're a preschool teacher engaged in a reflective practice. I suppose some people read what I write and feel like I'm trying to tell them or their daughters or sons what to do based upon their gender. Believe me, I understand; I don't like that any more than you do.

Tomorrow I plan to write about gender again, this time about some new developments regarding boys and guns.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Arguing From Friendship And Integrity

The children make their own classroom rules, one of the first of which is always, "No taking things from other people."

By this point in the year, most of the kids in our 3-5's class, most of time, remember to not just snatch things they want from the hands of their friends. If you watch carefully it's not hard to find evidence of children fighting down the urge in almost every interaction. Most endearing, I think, are those children who reach out for, and even go so far as to longingly touch the object of their heart's desire, but manage, perhaps with all their willpower, to not grab. I believe, and faith is what we rely upon since it's impossible to ever truly know what's in another person's heart, that at least some of it is the result of the practice we've had together so far this year; that these day-to-day acts of self-regulation are evidence that the children both collectively and individually are developing their understanding of fairness, that they are experiencing empathy, that they see themselves reflected in others, that it is truly important to them to live in harmony with their fellow humans.

I know, of course, that much of where we are now emerges from mere habit, from being reminded over and over that, "You and your friends agreed, No taking things from other people." Habit is not the same thing as understanding, but it is the material with which we pave the pathway that leads up to the house of values.

And I do know that for some of the kids, at least part of their self-control is simply that they know they're unlikely to get away with it. The rightful possessor will object, adults will step in to remind everyone of the agreements we've made together, with the result being what you by now know it was to have been all along: you'll get a turn when your friend is finished.

So what we are left with is patience or persuasion. 

We had our toy tools out last week, the ones we use for dramatic play as opposed to actually making or doing things. One of the older boys is particularly fond of a plastic pipe wrench, a one-of-a-kind classroom object. He's made a beeline for it each morning this week, possessing it and not releasing it until clean-up time. Fair enough, although on Thursday, for a brief time, he got busy with something else and let the wrench fall by the wayside long enough for a younger boy to become attached to it.

When this new circumstance became clear to everyone, the younger boy was sitting in a box of blocks, clutching a collection of tools on his lap.

Said the older boy, "Hey, that's my wrench. I want it!" 

The younger boy sat silently.

Trying to be more precise, "That one right there. I was using it."

When the younger boy again didn't respond, he picked up another wrench from the ground and held it out to him, "You can use this one. And I can use that one." Still nothing.

"Hey, you know, you're not even using it. You're just holding it. You're not doing anything."

The younger boy finally responded, "I'm driving a crane."

"What?" He made a show of widening his eyes, affecting an expression of disbelief, gesturing persuasively with his hands, "That's not a crane! You're just sitting on a box with blocks around you. It's just in your imagination."

In the silence, I could hear the younger boy making faint motor sounds from deep in his chest, sounds I assumed where those of a crane.

"It's just in your imagination, you know. You should just give me that wrench because it's mine and it's just your imagination."

It went on like this for several minutes, this attempt to find an argument, or negotiation point, that would sway the crane operator into giving up that wrench. He seemed to think the "it's just your imagination line" was a winner because he kept coming back to it. He offered specified incentives (e.g., "I'll give you $20," "I'll let you see my race car") but to no avail. I was impressed by the younger boy's resistance to persuasion, but even more by the fact that the older boy never once made a threat of any kind, not even to take away his friendship, not even of the "I'll be mad at you" emotional blackmail variety. He pestered the younger boy for sure, but stuck to arguing from a place of friendship and integrity, offering incentives and reason, but not threats.

He didn't get that wrench until much later, but what he achieved was magnificent nevertheless.

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Why Isn't That Ever On The Test?

I wonder if this will be on the test;

The wooden horse we buried in the sand.

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

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

Or that we didn't show our work?

Or that our percentile is too low or high?

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

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

A friend just stood at the top and pumped.

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

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

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

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

And yet something else again.

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

Why isn't that ever on the test?

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