Friday, August 30, 2013

Junkyard Chic


































If you've been reading here a long time, you'll already know this story. Back in 2010, The Woodland Park Cooperative Preschools were located atop Phinney Ridge, near our namesake zoo. Our outdoor space was little more than a small slab of asphalt. We annexed an area we called "the garden" by fencing in a patch of mud and installing a few raised beds, but nothing grew there because it was the only place we had for kids to dig. Several families told me that they'd almost not enrolled in our school because of our meager outdoor facilities; I'm sure many more families actually did walk away without saying a word. During the previous summer, however, inspired by my friend Jenny of Let the Children Play fame, I began to use the internet to explore more naturalistic play spaces, collecting ideas that I then brought to our parent community in the autumn of 2009, which lead to us building our first outdoor classroom, a transformation you can read about here.


In the pictures you see a nice, tidy, newly created space. And in the beginning, as I was learning on the job how to be an outdoor educator, I tried to keep it that way, but that's not how a good educational environment works: it must evolve along with the children and their play. And as I began to let go, that small space did evolve, becoming looser, more adaptable, and yes, to a certain kind of adult eye, junkier. In fact, one parent, as she explained why she would not be returning with her daughter for the following year told me that part of the reason was that she couldn't stand the "junkyard chic." Although she intended it as a pejorative, I've since used that expression in my own internal dialogs about our outdoor spaces.


In 2011, we moved to our current location at The Center of the Universe, where our community, having done it once on a smaller scale, created our current outdoor classroom, which like its predecessor has evolved a personality of its own, looking similar too, but quite different from the nice, tidy, newly created space it was 26 months ago. Periodically, I feel a ghost of my old control freakishness and hear in myself echoes of that dismissive parent as I look around and think in frustration, "damn this junkyard chic," fighting a strong urge to set everything to rights. But on most days I know I'm looking at a place where the children get to make it their own, a place in which we don't use things, but finish using them, a place where children invent, explore, discover, and play as children naturally do, without regard for chic, junkyard or otherwise.


This brings me to the subject of "adventure playgrounds," one of the concepts that has inspired me since the beginning of my own personal journey. I was recently reminded about them by Vermont-based radio producer and documentary filmmaker Erin Davis, who contacted me about her work. She has completed a radio piece and is currently working on a film documentary entitled Of Kith and Kids, focused on an adventure playground in North Wales called "The Land." I wanted to share some of her teasers with you:

An Adventure Play Documentary from Erin Davis on Vimeo.

"We haven't finished yet!" from Erin Davis on Vimeo.

I Am Good At Doing Stuff from Erin Davis on Vimeo.

I'm really looking forward to this film! Click on over to the Of Kith and Kin page to read more about Erin, her projects, The Land, and how you can support her work. And as an added incentive, Erin has included a terrific video from the 1970's about an early adventure playground in Chelsea, featuring one of the most articulate spokespeople for the idea I've ever heard.



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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Toward An Alternative To Traditional School


































In yesterday's post, I wrote about why it is children don't much like school, especially as they get older, inking to several articles by Peter Gray, author and research professor of psychology at Boston College.  Several commenters wrote asking about or wishing for alternatives to traditional public schools.

Gray is a leading proponent for self-directed home schooling, unschooling, and democratic schools, all of which are models built upon children's natural capacity to educate themselves through play. In a recent piece at Salon entitled School is a prison -- and damaging our kids, he writes:

Children come into the world beautifully designed to direct their own education. They are endowed by nature with powerful educative instincts, including curiosity, playfulness, sociability, attentiveness to the activities around them, desire to grow up and desire to do what older children and adults can do . . . Through their own efforts, children learn to walk, run, jump and climb. They learn from scratch their native language, and with that, they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, charm and ask questions.  Through questioning and exploring, they acquire an enormous amount of knowledge . . . . and in their play, they practice skills that promote their physical, intellectual, social and emotional development . . . This amazing drive and capacity to learn does not turn itself off when children turn 5 or 6. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of our system of schooling is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.

I began looking into the idea of democratic free schools several years ago and in viewing the trajectory of our own school, Woodland Park, I can see that we have been moving in that direction over the course of the last decade, not because of any dogma on my part, but rather because it has been in that direction that I've found children to be the most joyfully engaged. And honestly, I don't see any reason other than political ones why our public schools cannot move in this direction as well, although those political hurdles are enormous. It's in this direction, however, that I would like to see us push public education, and given our economic challenges, now might be a particularly ripe moment given that there is no reason it should cost more, and would probably cost less, than what we have today.

For details, I'd urge you to have a look at Gray's Salon article as well as to take a look at a new website AlternativesToSchools.com

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

They Don't Hate Education, Just School



































Did you know that that there is no credible research, data or study that demonstrates a connection between high grades/high test scores and future success, let alone happiness? None. Try it. Go to your favorite search engine and type in any combination of words that might find this kind of information ("high grades," "happiness," "success," "data," "research," "evidence," etc.). You will find nothing supporting the "common knowledge" that academic success is connected to our children attaining the things we most want for them: happiness and success. You will, however, find thousands of links to evidence that there is no connection between traditional school success and life success, and that, in fact, focusing on grades and test scores is often the surest way to make a child unhappy and unsuccessful.


Okay, so we all know there is no overarching definition for important things like happiness or success, that we all must come to our own determination of what that means, right? You can use money, of course, and a lot of people like to use that as a kind of universal marker of success in life, although any thoughtful person, while not necessarily opposed to money, has a hard time equating money with happiness or even success. That said, there is some evidence out there that the further one goes in our educational system the higher one's income, but it's not connected to good grades or test scores, just to completing a course of study and holding a certain degree. And money still won't buy you love.


Our parent educators often start each school year by asking parents to think about their "goals" for their kids; what do they wish for their child in the coming 9 months. "Happiness" is on everyone's list. This is preschool, so no one ever includes "success," but probably the second most common hope is that one's child "learns to love school," which, I think, most of us see as laying the groundwork for future academic success.


For the most part, children learn to love preschool, at least the way we do it at Woodland Park with our play-based curriculum. Children get to freely explore and experiment with their physical and social world, which is exactly how humans are designed to learn -- at any age. There are no lessons they must learn, nor tests they must pass. Simply by playing with their world, interacting with the other people, following their own inclinations and interests, they learn everything they need to know. And they love it because who doesn't love freedom?


Most go on to love kindergarten as well, where things might be bit more locked down, but there's still ample time to play. However, as time goes on many love it less and less.


I recently got to spend time with a couple of my former students, alone, out of earshot of anyone. One is now a middle schooler and the other is entering third grade. They both informed me that they "hate school," the older girl going on to elaborate exactly what it is she hates about school: "Our math class is 50 minutes long. The teacher spends the first 30 minutes talking about our homework from last night, then 20 minutes assigning our homework for the next night. Then class is over." She attends what is considered to be the top public middle school in the city. Her younger brother was more succinct, "We don't get to do anything we want to do, just stuff we don't want to do."


Children don't like school because they love freedom. We are biologically driven to learn, but we are not biologically driven to learn on command. We are not biologically driven to stuff our brains with things about which we have no curiosity. Yet that's what school is for most children: going to a place in which they have few if any choices, where everything is done according to rules and schedules in which they have no say, and then being judged by a system of grades and tests that have no connection to the rest of their lives.


And we somehow expect this to lead to happiness and success. We don't need education reform. We need to re-think schools entirely. We need to stop teaching children and let the children teach themselves. They don't hate education, they just hate school.

(While spending my morning trying the internet searches I described in the first paragraph, I came across Peter Gray's blog on the Psychology Today website. Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College, a specialist in developmental and evolutionary psychology, and author of an introductory textbook, Psychology. I spent a lot of time going through his archives, which is why this Sunday morning post is later than normal. In additional to the one I linked to above, here are a couple more you might like to see: "The Human Nature of Teaching III: When Is Teaching an Act of Aggression?""Children Educate Themselves II: We All Know That’s True for Little Kids," "Children Educate Themselves IV: Lessons from Sudbury Valley.")

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Miley Cyrus! Miley Cyrus! Miley Cyrus!







In 1912 and 1913, 25-year-old painter Marcel Duchamp scandalized first the Parisian, then the New York art worlds with his painting Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2. Now considered one of the most important paintings of the 20th century, Duchamp was mercilessly vilified and ridiculed.

When Frank Sinatra was a young artist, he outraged the establishment by the way he caused his audiences of "bobby soxers" to scream and swoon, finding himself banned from several venues. In 1965, Sinatra said of the up-and-comer Elvis Presley, "His kind of music is deplorable, a rancid smelling aphrodisiac. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people." In 1970, Elvis said, "The Beatles laid the groundwork for many of the problems we are having with young people by their filthy unkempt appearances and suggestive music."

If you thought that Teacher Tom's blog was the place to get away from reading about Miley Cyrus, you were wrong. For those of you who don't know, the 20-year-old pop star has apparently outraged the entire internet by her performance on MTV's Video Music Awards on Sunday night. I don't really follow popular music any longer so it takes something really big to catch my attention and apparently this was huge! My Twitter feed, which is usually, embarrassingly, overrun with tweets about baseball and breastfeeding suddenly started filling up with comments vilifying and ridiculing "Hannah Montana," a character of whom I am aware since I'm the parent of a daughter who, when she was little, watched the girl's TV show.

So I watched the offensive video. After the first few seconds I started laughing and couldn't stop until it was over. I am, frankly, overjoyed that young people can still outrage old people. Good on her. I mean think about this for a second. I did a little research and discovered that she took the stage after Lady Gaga and before Kanye West: never in anyone's wildest dreams could we have imagined that she would be the most scandalous one on that stage, but being the youngest it was certainly her turn. I keep waiting to read some quote from Kanye accusing her of corrupting someone's morals or something. That would make it about perfect.

I'm not saying that Miley Cyrus is destined to be the next Sinatra, but I am saying that it is perfectly meet, right and salutary that young people outrage their elders, especially when it comes to art. You don't think it's art? Well, most people didn't think what Duchamp was doing was art either. Most people thought the Beatles were just making a bunch of noise. What I saw on that video was a dance, and not even the most sexual dance I've ever seen: that was Madonna's 1984 VMA performance of Like A Virgin. What made me laugh was how joyfully she pulled it off, sticking that tongue out of her mouth like a kind of crazy jester. She reminded me of Keith Moon kicking over his drum set or Ozzie Osborn evoking Satan, just having a grand time sticking a finger in the old folks' eyes.

What outrages me far more than a 20-year-old gyrating her young body, was that she was performing on stage with an older, married guy named Robin Thicke (of whom I've never heard) yet she received at least ninety percent of the criticism. Talk about slut shaming.

Oh, and what about the "example" she's setting for those young girl fans of hers? My own daughter is now 16-years-old, a former fan of her Disney Channel TV show, no longer a little girl. I asked her what she thought about Miley Cyrus. She answered, "I think she's talented and cool. I like her new hair, although I don't really like those top knot things she's doing." And about the VMA video: "It was funny. She's a comedic actress, remember? Of course it's not serious. That's what the VMAs are for. She's a performer trying to entertain people."

So good, she didn't mistake the performance for an instructional video on how to live life. I also don't expect her to start wearing those top knots. As an aspiring artist herself, I hope that she is someday in a position to really outrage her elders, including me.

And for all any of us know, Miley Cyrus could be the next Sinatra.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Why We Need Cities


































A little over two years ago, I wrote a piece that was intended to be somewhat hopeful, although it turned out mostly depressing, about our future on this planet. It was in the midst of the enormous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and while that disaster continues to exact a horrific toll, it has been since been pushed to the background as there have been dozens of other equally grim reminders that as long as we humans walk the earth, nature will never be what it once was.


I made a commitment in that post to try to do at least one thing extra every day to reduce my own environmental footprint, and while I can't say that I've been as methodical about it as I'd hoped, I have, I think, contributed at least a little less to the disaster over the past two years than I did during the two preceding. Pathetic perhaps, but progress nonetheless. I now live in a "green" building, I've virtually stopped driving my car, and I've done my best to eat food produced close to my home. My next step is to attempt to cut sugar and beef from my diet. I expect to enjoy improved health, of course, but mainly I'm doing it because the production of both are, from what I've read, significant contributors to pollution. Please don't think I'm preaching, because I remain a huge "sinner" in this: after all, I just flew on 14 jets in 20 days during my recent trip Down Under.

I'm an optimistic person by nature, a trait that is strengthened by the fact that I work with young children, and to do so without hope, I think, would be a sort of crime. In that old post, entitled "Unnatural Places," I wrote about a project here in Seattle to restore a small piece of the wetlands that once characterized the shores of Lake Washington. I held it up as an example of the kind of "unnatural"  balance we humans must find with nature if we are to survive.


Recently, our 3-5's class took a field trip to those "wetlands," traveling there on a Metro bus that runs on biofuel. We were met by a team of docents, lead by a naturalist. We divided up into groups to study plants and animals that have "moved in." Of course we didn't see all the animals, but rather the evidence of their existence, such as chewed leaves, nests, and scat, including that of a coyote. Animals tend to make themselves scarce when humans are around.

To see how far this wetlands restoration project has come, just compare the photos in this post to the ones from my post of two year ago.

Clearly, this, in a very small way, is working the way we humans have planned, providing an unnatural natural place for us city slickers to learn without exposing what few natural natural places we have left to our trampling feet and polluting automobiles. I understand why it's hard for some folks to get excited about this sort of thing, why they see it as a poor substitute for actual nature, why they view the learning that comes from it as impoverished and second-rate. That said, it is the responsible thing to do. It is, for the foreseeable future, the relationship we need to forge with nature.


For too long, our solution was to flee cities, to move farther and farther in to suburbia, then ex-urbia, to have country homes and beach houses, pushing humanity increasingly into the habitat of bears and wolves and cougars, further destroying the very thing we were seeking to embrace. This is why I am today a committed city dweller. I see now that this is actually the right and proper way for humans to live, stacked up together, rubbing shoulders, embracing social, ethnic and economic differences, linking our fates together to build interconnected lives.


I understand those of you who crave natural nature, but frankly, you're killing it. We need you back here with us, working together with us. The last decade has seen a trend of people moving from Seattle's suburbs and into the city itself. I remember when the evening commute saw most traffic leaving the city, but the tide is turning. And you know what? I'm becoming increasingly convinced that this, living in cities, big cities, really is the only sustainable future for humanity, and not just for environmental reasons, and the first thing that needs to go are the suburbs.


I grew up in a series of suburbs, having come to city life only as an adult. I used to buy into the whole "concrete jungle" thing, viewing cities as impoverished, crime-ridden places. I still know many people who feel fearful in the city. They'll usually tell you it's crime they worry about the most, but in most places around the US it's not the cities with the highest crime rates. In Washington State, for instance, as our most populous city, Seattle's crime rate puts us in the middle of the pack, pretty average when it comes to crime, whereas bedroom communities with names like Gig Harbor and Wapato and Moses Lake and Burlington are the most likely places to be victimized.


Honestly, I feel safer in the city than I do in the suburbs. I like having all those people around me. I can't even recall which city it was, it might have been Melbourne, a city of some 4.5 million, when Niki and I saw a young woman stumble and fall in a cross walk. Before we could even take a step in her direction, four other strangers were already there to help her up, dust her off, and inquire about her well-being. It was the kind of thing that only happens in a big city, strangers taking care of strangers.

I find cites, even with their noise and grit, to be life affirming. Yes, a city puts poverty, crime, and depravities of all sorts in your face, but all of our human virtues are here too: cities also show us beauty and compassion and tolerance. Suburbs, of course, house all these things as well, because there are people there, but they're too often hidden behind their fences, with the primary view into the lives of others being car windows and the fun house mirror of television, views at a distance that too easily breed contempt and envy and, most significantly, fear. The root of most of the world's problems is fear, and most fear is irrational.


I know I'm not going to change anyone's mind by writing this, but when I look at humanity's future, if we are to have a future, it is all about cities with increasingly dense populations, while allowing the suburbs to revert over time to the natural places they once were, turning them back over to the bears, wolves, and cougars. I see abandoned shopping centers overrun with vines, 5 acre parking lots growing meadows through their cracks, and former mini-mansions housing mini-ecosystems.

This is the future of the planet anyway, even in our most populous cities, even if we just continue to spread out until we've made this place uninhabitable for human beings, because nature will prevail. I'd prefer to think we'll overcome our fears and learn to survive, but to do that we'll need you, or at least your kids, to move back into our cities.



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Friday, August 23, 2013

"We Don't Starve To Prepare For A Famine"


































On Wednesday, I wrote about the most common non-education question people have had for me as an American when I've travelled outside the country. Perhaps the most common education-related question is some version of, "How do children from play-based preschools fare when they transition to traditional public schools?"

I also answer that question several times a year here at Woodland Park. People worry that their child, accustomed to the freedom to choose, to explore, to experiment, to play as her passions and interests guide her, will struggle when faced with the prospect of being told what to do while sitting at a desk, facing forward, taking tests, and filling out worksheets.

Of course, many of our families seek out "alternative schools," ones that offer a play-based, or inquiry-based, or project-based, or child-lead curriculum. We are lucky here in Seattle to be home to several such schools, including even a couple very good cooperative primary schools (here and here) where many of our former students matriculate. But the truth is that most families opt for our public schools.

One of the wonderful aspects of teaching in a cooperative school in which teachers form such close bonds with parents is that many of them stay in touch, sometimes for years after their child has moved on. Over my dozen years of sending children off to public schools, a couple of them have indeed struggled, but that seems pretty much par for the course; some children will always have problems with change whatever their educational background. In the overwhelming majority of cases, however, our alumni children thrive in kindergarten and beyond, often returning to tell me that "kindergarten is better than preschool," which is exactly as it ought to be.

One thing working in our favor is that, around here at least, the kindergarten teachers, for the most part, do understand that they are dealing with 5-year-olds: they are unimpressed by early reading, they know young children need to move their bodies, and they do what they can to make school ready for the kids, rather than expecting the kids to be ready for school. I have been told by a number of public school kindergarten teachers that, at most, they hope their incoming students can write their own name, count to 10, and cut with scissors. I've never met a child without learning disabilities who doesn't have that sorted out by five, and most are well beyond this.


But more to the point, the experience of a play-based curriculum, one that honors children as complete human beings, fully capable of embracing their own education in their own way, produces children who are highly flexible and adaptable, who have a joyful approach toward school, who know intrinsically what they need in order to learn, and understand, therefore, how they ought to be treated in order to make that happen.

One of the few instances of Woodland Park grads who "hated" kindergarten were a boy and girl who wound up in class together. They told me, "Mrs. B-- is mean. She's always bossing us around and yelling at us. She doesn't know how to be a teacher." It didn't surprise me when this teacher was fired. I'm sure there were other complaints about her because the bar for dismissing a tenured teacher is, as it should be, quite high, but I'm incredibly proud of these kids who would not put up with what they saw as abusive, incompetent behavior. I just saw the boy yesterday and he's now a second grader who told me he "likes school," but says he could "love it" with just a few alterations which he gladly detailed for me on his fingers. Children who are introduced to school through a play-based education know what real learning looks like, and, I would assert, tend to know that they have both a right and responsibility, when faced with things that doesn't serve this, to try to affect change. They view teachers not as superiors, but as their educational partners, which is, after all, the proper stance of a student toward his teacher. Good teachers know this and thankfully most of the kindergarten teachers I've met around here are good teachers.

All I have, of course, are anecdotes that come from my informal "study" of how our kids do in the wider world of education, but from where I sit, they certainly do no worse, and often better, than kids who have already been drilled-and-killed in "academic" preschools. I used to think it was my job to get kids ready for a less-than-ideal educational future, but no longer. Play is the best way to get ready for anything life has to offer.

Yesterday, reader Dawn sent me an email, which read, in part:

Many years ago, I was wondering how to prepare kindergarteners who were accustomed to Project Approach for the transition to public school. I fretted that we may be doing harm by not getting them "ready" for this very different style of school . . . Sydney Guerwitz Clemons wisely told me: "We don't starve to prepare for a famine, Dawn. We fatten them up to the best of our ability and hope they survive."

Exactly. I will be using this line the next time someone asks me the question, which will probably be tomorrow.

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Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Myth Of Bootstraps


































Sixteen years ago my wife and I considered ourselves the kind of people who would have a wine cellar. We were motivated in no small part by the fact that we'd just purchased a home with your classic cool, dark basement, ignoring the fact that I don't drink wine and she sticks almost exclusively to a few brands of chardonnay. Since there were already shelves built into the space, I ran out and purchased a classic Ikea do-it-yourself "system," which we filled, over years, with bottles of wine people gave us as gifts and that we would likely never drink.


Fortunately, I work in a profession in which nothing need ever go to waste, so when we moved out of that house, the wine rack parts found their way to the preschool where they now serves as a building set.

The system is simple: hexagonal prisms that are about a foot long with each end drilled with four holes into which wooden pegs fit. They can be inserted by hand, but we like to use rubber mallets at the work bench. 


They're an imperfect system, especially when using the mallets. If you hit too hard, your entire structure might collapse like a house of cards. The same goes for if you don't brace the whole thing against the work bench, which makes it a perfect thing for tinkering around, especially with an adult there to lend a hand. This can be a frustrating system to work with, I know, I've cobbled them together before and repaired them frequently over the years. Few preschool-aged children are able to manage it without an adult hand here or there. In fact, I've come to realize that it's the kind of challenge that is almost rigged for young children to fail unless they have a helping hand.


Alfie Kohn has an excellent piece up over at Huffington Post about the myth that children today are too coddled and that they "benefit from plenty of bracing experiences with frustration and failure." 

Research certainly doesn't support the idea that failure or disappointment is constructive in itself. A "BGUTI" (better get used to it) rationale -- the assumption that children are best prepared for unpleasant experiences that may come later by being exposed to a lot of unpleasantness while they're young -- makes no sense from a psychological perspective. We may want kids to rebound from failure, but that doesn't mean it's usually going to happen -- or that the experience of failure makes that desired outcome more likely . . . In fact, studies find that when kids fail, they tend to construct an image of themselves as incompetent and even helpless, which leads to more failure. (They also come to prefer easier tasks and lose interest in whatever they're doing.)

When children come to our workbench, indeed when they freely chose to approach any activity in our school, the emphasis is on "tinkering," not success or failure, not reward (good grade) or punishment (bad grade), not product but process. When a child is challenged by the process of fitting two pieces together, the adult's role isn't to keep their "eye on the prize," but rather to "notice" or narrate the process in which the child is engaging. The goal of struggle is not to overcome, but to gather data:

Jerome Bruner said this: We want students to "experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information."

Most children get to a point when working with this impromptu building set when they need help to do what they want, an extra hand to hold something, a few words of strategic counsel. This isn't, of course, an invitation for the adult to take over, nor a sign of having been coddled, but rather a natural human response to a situation that is too many or too much for them. When a child asks for help with this building set, it is a request to provide support for their exploration. Often the request for help is very clear and specific, "Will you hold this for me?" an acknowledgment that she knows exactly what she thinks she needs to get to where she wants to go. Other times it's less clear, perhaps a groan of frustration or an "I can't do it!" In this case, we engage in a discussion about the nature of the challenge, my "help" coming in the form of helping the child simply formulate his request for help. Often that alone allows a child to see his way through to a solution. Sometimes I find I need to make suggestions (e.g., "If someone held that part, you might be able to do it.") or simply make statements of fact (e.g., "If you hit right here, the peg will go in the hole.")  


I have no formula to tell adults when and how to provide help. It always comes down to the child and the situation. Sometimes, as my friend and parent educator Janet Lansbury suggests, it's totally appropriate to say, "I won't help you, but I won't let you get hurt," but learning how to ask for help, learning to know when to ask for help, is as vital to "success" (however you define it) as anything else one needs to learn.

Part of what Kohn is writing about in his piece is what I call "The Myth of Boot Straps." It's a common theme that runs throughout public debate these days, one that implies that everyone can just pull themselves up by their own boot straps if only they apply themselves, stick to it, work harder. It's part of the mythology of the "self made man"; that it's a sign of weakness to ask for help.

What people have forgotten in this neo-Calvinist ideology is that "to pull one's self up by one's bootstraps" is a metaphor for an impossible task. It's an absurdity. Everyone needs help. If you're stuck in the mud, no amount of pulling at your own bootstraps is going to get you out. Learning when and how to ask for help is a vital life skill, because mythology aside, no one does it on his own.


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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Only This Time



If there was one non-education related topic that people in Australia and New Zealand wanted to talk with me about during my recent trip Down Under, it was America's relationship with guns. This was true of my trip to Greece in the spring as well. And in nearly every case, the question was some version of, "What the hell is going on?"

I answered as honestly as I could, although not always this diplomatically, "There are too many people with access to guns who should not have access to guns."

A case in point was last week's thrill kill shooting of a 22-year-old Australian baseball player in Oklahoma City by 15, 16, and 17-year-old boys. Another is yesterday's shooting at a Decatur, Georgia elementary school by a 20-year-old who was apparently "off his meds." It's far too easy for kids and mentally ill people to get their hands on guns. No one believes that children or mentally ill people should have access to guns, yet tragically, we seem to be incapable to doing anything about it, and, from what I hear in my travels, the rest of the world is aghast.

This may not be an education-related post, but it is about children. Fifteen hundred America children are killed each year by guns, that's an average of 4 per day, and tens of thousands more are seriously injured. Almost all of these are "accidental" shootings occurring in their own homes or the homes of friends or relatives. Most of these victims are boys, shot by a friend or relative. More than half of parents who own guns keep them in their homes loaded and unlocked: these people, by the NRA's own standards, are irresponsible gun owners. They think they've hidden their guns where the kids won't find them, but 80 percent of first graders say they know where their parents keep their guns. The kids in Oklahoma City may have acquired their gun by other means, but the majority of kids shooting kids with guns got those guns from their own parents.

As for the mentally ill, nearly 90 percent of Americans say they favor more stringent background checks before people be allowed to purchase guns, specifically to be certain of the sanity of buyers, yet our politicians are incapable of making that happen. In contrast, in 1996, a lone gunman killed 35 people with a semi-automatic weapon in Port Arthur, Australia. This lead to new laws prohibiting all automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and imposed strict licensing rules. They also implemented background checks and lengthy waiting periods for all gun purchases. Gun violence has not been eliminated, but there has not been a single mass shooting in Australia in the 16 years since the laws were put into place. These laws were supported by a full 90 percent of the population, more or less the same percentage of Americans who report they support stricter gun control laws. No one can credibly claim that Australia has not been successful in keeping guns out of the hands of children and the mentally ill.

In the US, a recent mass shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut in which 26 were killed, 20 of whom were kindergarteners, lead to nothing but a failed attempt by Congress to strengthen our background check laws and an insane call from many to arm teachers. I'm sorry, but I don't see how armed teachers will do anything but dramatically increase the number of kids accidentally shot and killed, adding to what is already a slow motion mass murder of American children.

And that brings me back to yesterday's shooting at that elementary school in Georgia. A mentally ill man with an AK-47, explosives, and other weapons, got into the school's office, getting off several shots, yet you may not have even heard about it. Surprised? That's probably because no one was killed or injured. All the children are alive today, not because teachers had guns in their waistbands, but because a brave clerical worker named Antoinette Tuff talked to the gunman. That's right, she talked to him. By the time the police arrived, she had talked him into voluntarily disarming himself. When the police came through the door, he was lying on the floor with his arms behind him. She was armed with something far more powerful and effective than a gun: the ability to talk a desparate person down. If we need to arm teachers, this is how to do it. In fact, I would go one step further and say that every American should receive this kind of training as part of their education.

As usual, I'm expecting gun rights people to come here to tell me I'm un-American or that I don't know what I'm talking about because I somehow got my gun terminology wrong or that "gun free" zones like those around schools are the cause of these tragedies. I will challenge these people in advance to come here with their own ideas about how to keep guns out of the hands of children and away from the mentally ill. And I will also point out that every school shooting up to now has taken place in schools that did employ armed security, some even had their own police forces, yet people were killed and injured. Only this time, in a school that was armed only with words, did we manage to walk away with no injuries or death. Only this time did we have a gunman give himself up without carrying out his unthinkable plans. Please at least think about that before you write to me.

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