Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Let's Just Let Children Play




Why are so many of us so afraid to just let children play? 


Not long ago, we got out our boxes of Magna-Tiles. These are cool, popular building toys. If your classroom doesn't have a set or two, I recommend them. As I watched the children build, I noticed a battered page of instructions at the bottom of the box that bore the headline Magna-Tiles "where math, science & creativity meet." The text then goes on to discuss Pythagoras and the history of mathematics. To their credit, they do recommend that children be allowed to explore their toys through open-ended creative play, but the very fact that this needed to be emphasized at all is a bad sign.


It's as if we've become convinced that young children are just wasting their valuable time when they "just" play, that every minute spent not exploring math, science and creativity leaves our kids another minute behind those Chinese kids who, legend has it, never rest. The fact that all play is educational, that all toys are educational is beside the point: when did we lose sight of the fact that play is what children are supposed to do?


I reckon we can, at least in part, blame the corporate education reformers who have intentionally sewn seeds of doubt about the efficacy of our educational system, selling the story that our schools are failing, causing parents to fear that junior is fall behind, that even those precious evenings and weekends when their kids aren't engaged in homework or extracurricular enrichment activities must be chock-a-block with things like Pythagoras. 


When did we forget that all play is educational and because of that all toys are educational? Maybe we never knew it, of course; maybe our grandparents just sort of intuited that kids needed play, that they didn't need adults hovering over them drilling them with stupid questions or "teaching" them this or that. Maybe they just understood that without play, and lots of it, there is no childhood.


As I watched the children using Maga-Tiles to create castles and cars, squares made of squares and triangles made of triangles, as I heard them negotiate for blocks and tabletop space, as they chattered about their thoughts and discoveries, it didn't occur to me that they were doing anything other than playing, having fun, until I spotted that sheet of instructions telling me about Pythagoras. We were outdoors, on the playground. No one was making them sit at these tables to build with these plastic, magnetized blocks: they were choosing it, freely, and they could just as freely walk away which many of them did the moment it stopped being fun. Or rather, the moment something else looked like more fun.


And even as I write that, I can see the fear-mongers wagging their fingers, I can hear them tut-tutting: "Where's the gritWhere's the rigor? How will they ever learn about hard work?"


Anyone who has spent any time watching young children play knows that grit, rigor, and hard work are at the heart of all true free play. What they really mean to ask is "How will the children ever learn to do the rote tasks that others demand of them?" Or perhaps, "How will they learn to obey?"


That isn't what childhood is for, although that's what adulthood sometimes teaches us, and no amount of practice makes it any easier, unless what they're talking about is "breaking them." What kind of Dickensian villain would take away childhood in exchange for the work house?


At the end of the day, after the families had left, the Magna-Tiles packed away in their boxes, I reopened them to remove that sheet of instructions and threw it in the recycling. Play is its own reward; the kids don't need that piece of paper around encouraging adults to make it "educational." First they need their childhood.



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Monday, September 18, 2017

None Of Us Wants To Be Told What To Do




My wife and I have had four dogs over the course of our three decades together. Whenever I have made the mistake of pulling on any of their leashes, they pull in the opposite direction every time. Believe me, left to their own devices, they always want to go where ever I go. I know this because when there is no leash involved they follow right on my heels, hot breath on the backs of my legs, tripping me up when I turn around unexpectedly, but if they sense I'm compelling them, their instinctive response is to rebel.

I've found this to be true in humans as well. No one likes to be told what to do, even when we know it's for our own good, even when it's something we want to do. Imagine being commanded, "Eat your dessert!" I might still eat that dessert, but there will be a moment of reluctance, of rebellion, even if it's chocolate ice cream. And I know if I do, it's not going to taste as good after being bossed into it. And depending on who says it and how they say it, there's about an equal chance I won't eat that damn ice cream at all.


Rebellion is built into us, and ultimately it is an adaptive trait. We all pull back against the leash because we are designed to act according to the pull of our own instincts and the tug of our own knowledge. Of course, we've all found ourselves in circumstances when we've decided that we must stuff our rebellious urges, but we always grow to despise those dictatorial bosses or teachers. If we do well it's usually "in spite" of them. And, of course, we wriggle out of those particular leashes as soon as we possibly can.

Parents know the truth about rebellion all too well. We set limits and rules and our children always test them. Even the most patient and progressive among us know, from the inside, that teeth grinding spiral of commands and refusals, until we finally resort to either physical force or the heavy hand of punishment. It leaves everyone feeling angry, resentful, and abused. And if we're not careful, if we're not conscious parents, these smaller spirals become part of a larger whirlpool of ever escalating rule breaking and punishments because every pull on the leash, every punishment, leads to a pull in the opposite direction.

Some of us have decided that this rebellion is a bad thing, at least when it's directed at us, and it must be quashed at all costs. We're the parents after all. We will not have our authority challenged. If that's your approach, your future will likely be either one of temporary, savorless victories followed by frustration, or a regime that involves punishments of increasingly extreme severity. Every study ever done on the subject of punishment (both parental and societal) winds up concluding that punishments only work under two circumstances:

  1. when the punisher is present; or
  2. when the punishment is debilitating (e.g., so disproportionately severe that one will never again risk it.)

Most of us are unwilling or unable to play the role of ever-present punisher. And I hope that none of us are the type to inflict debilitating punishments on our child.

The alternative is to accept rebellion as a demonstration that our child is healthy and normal, that it is not a sign that she is on her way to a life of crime and ruin, but rather evidence that she thinks for herself, trusts her own instincts, and will not be pushed around. When we accept this, we see that our job is to guide rather than command our children, to help them come to the understanding that behavior has its own rewards and consequences. I've written before about "natural consequences" and they apply here.

A parent taking away a boy's dessert because he hits his sister isn't the natural consequence of hitting. The consequence is that his sister is hurt and the evidence of that is the crying. That's where our attention ought to be. "You've hurt your sister," keeps the focus on the boy's behavior, allowing everyone to explore the consequence and potential remedies. "No dessert for you," turns the boy's attention on the "unfairness" of the parent who is pulling on that damn leash.


Rebelliousness is not a synonym for "anti-social" or "uncivil," it's merely a reaction to the leash. We all want to do the right thing and none of us wants to be told what to do.


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Friday, September 15, 2017

Lord Of The Flies



One of the great "lies" in all of literature is William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies. For those unfamiliar with it, and I can hardly believe there are many over the age of about 35, it's the story of a group of British school boys who find themselves castaways, without adults, on a tropical island. Their efforts to form a society, however, fall apart as they succumb to their essential evil natures becoming brutish murderers, saved when adults in the form of the British navy arrive, drawn by the smoke from a fire the boys have set that is consuming the island.


I'm not saying it isn't a good book, but rather that it takes an exceedingly grim view of human nature, one based in the ideas of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who argued that without strong control from government, religion, and other social institutions, life among humans is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." 


I mention this book because it is quite regularly brought up to me by those who have objections to the child-centered, play-based approach advocated on these pages. There is a strain of thought that what we do leads to a sort of law-of-the-jungle free-for-all that will ultimately end in tears, chaos, and worse.


This, of course, is the opposite of the truth that I have found in the world, and is why I call it a lie.


Not long ago, inspired by a couple of our classmates who brought their new skateboards for show-and-tell, we broke out our classroom "scooters." There were ten wheeled vehicles for 20+ kids. In the first few moments there was a mad, competitive scramble, with a few children complaining loudly, "I want a turn!" Conditioned by a world that tends to buy into Hobbes whether we like it or not, we adults girded ourselves to manage the negotiations, assuming they would need our strong control.


Of course, as anyone knows who works with young children the way we do, that's not what happened.  After an initial flurry of back-and-forth amongst the kids, some of it angry, some of it sad, they settled into their play. 


Despite racing about at high speeds in randomly chosen directions, there were few accidental collisions, as the children instinctively knew when to brake and how to steer in order to avoid harming one another. This isn't to say there weren't collisions, but those were most often encountered by mutual consent, one that was typically forged by making eye contact, smiling, and then slowing down to create a controlled contact. A few felt it necessary to fortify this agreement by announcing, "I'm going to crash you!" just to make sure everyone was on the same page. Indeed, the children, even while speeding across the floor, were in constant communication, talking, scolding, warning, objecting, listening, and agreeing.


After a time, rather than breaking up into "civil war" as Golding and Hobbes would predict, the opposite happened. The longer they played the more they joined together cooperatively, creating games of catch, and trains of kids on wheels, each grabbing hold of the one in front, laughing until their cheeks were red.


After our initial forays into adult control that generally only made things worse, we found ourselves stepping back, sitting off to the sides, joining the games when invited, but otherwise observing that the law-of-the-jungle, at least our jungle, is actually one from which a great society could be built. I'm not saying there weren't conflicts and tears along the way, but instead of steps toward a burning island in need of rescue, those moments were part of a general movement of the children in the contrary direction, toward one another rather than away; they were instinctively exploring a path toward a cooperative existence, the way human nature tends when the "adults" seek to support rather than control.


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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Talking About A Pretend Real Bad Guy Trap




There was a "bad guy trap" being built on the corner of the rug. The builder commanded, "Teacher Tom, watch me!" so I watched him. I said, "I'm watching you."

He explained how the trap worked which involved the bad guy following a complicated, yet deviously enticing, obstacle course, which ultimately brought him to a room in which saws cut him in half.

I said, "That's would be a bad thing for a bad guy."

He answered, "Yes."

I was lying on my stomach, the box of plastic farm animals at my shoulder. There was a rather fierce looking bull right on top so I grabbed it, saying, "This bull is also watching you," positioning it appropriately.

"I'll show you." He picked up a small cow figurine and walked it through the obstacle course right through being sawed in half.

I said, "That must have hurt the cow."

He answered, "Yes."

I shook my head, "I don't like to get hurt."

There was a long pause as we both sat with our thoughts. Then he perked up, "But bad guys like to get hurt!"

"Oh! So they like it when they're cut in half?"

He answered, "Yes."

"Well then I guess that's not so bad, although I don't really like the idea of anyone getting cut in half."

He answered, "It's not a person, it's a cow."

Bam! He had me. I said, "Yeah, I guess you're right, cows have to get cut in half if we're going to eat hamburgers."

He answered, "Yes." Then, "And they're bad guy cows, so they like to get ate."

I took a model sheep from the farm animal box. I said, "This sheep is also watching you," placing it beside the bull.

"Teacher Tom," he said, "But we can't play yet because my bad guy trap isn't finished."

I told him that we (referring to both the plastic farm animals as well as the small clutch of kids who had become interested bystanders to our conversation) would have to wait until the trap was finished, adding, "And now this pig is watching you," as I put it alongside the other animals. He answered, "Yes."

As we waited, the other children began adding farm animals. By the time he declared the trap finished, we had recruited a formidable line-up of livestock to watch him.

He said, "Watch me, Teacher Tom!"

I said, "We are all watching you," gesturing toward both the animals and the gathered children.

He then showed us how the bad guy trap worked, a more elaborate version of the original, still ending in a room full of saws.

I said, "I sure hope there aren't any bad guys around here because if there are that trap would sure hurt them!"

He answered, "Yes."

I said, "We're good guys. Everybody here's a good guy, right?" There was general agreement that all present fell into the more virtuous camp. "Good thing there aren't any bad guys around," another comment that was greeted with general consent.

Then our trap builder said, "But there are real bad guys! Like zombies and ghosts."

I said, "Zombies and ghosts aren't real."

He said, "Yes," adding for clarification, "but they're pretend real."

The expression delighted me, so I repeated it, "Pretend real!" Several of the other children then echoed me, "Pretend real!"  I said, "The animals are pretend real watching you."

"But you're real real watching me, right?" When I answered yes, he replied, "Then watch what happens when this pretend real bad guy cow goes in my pretend real bad guy trap."

I said, "We're all watching," to which he replied, "Yes."


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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Greatest Honor A Teacher Can Receive




Most of the kids in our 4-5's class went to school together last year and so they fell in together readily yesterday on their first day back at school. Of those new to the school this year, many of them had attended one or more of our summer sessions, so the place and Teacher Tom were at least familiar even if the other children were not. There were only a couple for whom this was truly a first day.

Of course, they felt a bit shy at first, but one girl in particular didn't want her parents to leave. She didn't cry, but she clung to them, unwilling to let go. But they did leave. They chose a moment when I happened to have ducked indoors to handle a bit of housekeeping. My head was down, but when I looked up I spied her. She had come inside looking for me.

I said, "I was just coming outside." As I approached her she reached out for my hand and we walked hand-in-hand down the hallway, through the mud room, and out the door.

I had a few things to do out there as well, so we did them together, hand-in-hand. When I sat to chat with and observe the kids, I patted the seat next to me, indicating it was for her. Instead, she cuddled into to me, holding, alternatively, my arm or my leg. Finally, I just encircled her with both arms, lightly, then spoke with the other children with her head just below mine, a little like she was a joey in her kangaroo mama's pouch.

Up to then, she had mostly communicated with me non-verbally, occasionally making vocal sounds to get my attention, but as we sat like this she began to talk to me, remarking on things she noticed on the playground. She was particularly interested in the small items on the ground, like bits of wire, wine corks, bottle caps.

Whenever I had to move from one place to another, we moved together, her tiny hand in mine. When I sat she became my joey again. Slowly, she began to roam away from my pouch to get a closer look at the objects on the ground, bringing them back to me. Soon my hands were full.

One of the other children needed something that caused me to zip inside for a moment, I said to her, "I'll just be gone for a few seconds. I'll be right back." When I returned to the playground she was waiting for me at the door where she took my hand again.

Most children take days, if not weeks, to learn to trust me like this. I went home feeling as full of love as I've felt in a long time. I am fully aware of the honor this girl has bestowed upon me, the greatest honor a teacher can receive.



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Monday, September 11, 2017

The Pursuit Of Happiness



Every now and then someone will refer to my "teaching theories" or "pedagogy" or something. They tell me that they are striving to implement my "philosophy" at their school or that they are having trouble convincing the powers that be to embrace my "style." It feels good to know that I've inspired someone, but in all honesty I really don't know what they're talking about, even if I believe they do.

My "philosophy," if you can call it that, is to wake up in the morning, get to school a couple hours before the kids to get things ready, then to spend the rest of the day listening to children, talking to them, keeping them safe enough, and otherwise just being available should they need me. The other part of my "philosophy" is to help their parents perform their cooperative school role as assistant teachers, listen to them, talk to them, and otherwise just be around should they need me. I am not anyone's superior, nor am I anyone's servant. I'm the guy they pay to get things ready, talk, listen, and otherwise be available. We're trying to create a community together, one in which we each are free to pursue our own happiness. Everything else people see as a "philosophy" or "theory" or "pedagogy" emerges from that.


When our daughter was little and I was just dipping my toe into teaching, everyone was talking about "learning styles." People suggested I read articles about learning styles, they told us that we should try to find schools and teachers that matched our child's learning style, they said we should attempt to tailor our lives to take best advantage of their learning style. I didn't do that. It sounded like a lot of unnecessary work. I had already been living intimately with this person for her entire life; no system of categories was going to give me better information because my child was a unique, stand-alone entity that simply could not be standardized. I wasn't interested in figuring out how to plug her in like a learning machine, I was only interested in her happiness.

And if there is any one thing the parents of my students most often tell me they want for their child it's that: happiness. Of course, we all know that that's a tricky thing. I've been told that Aristotle said something like this, but even if he didn't, it seems like it's true: "Happiness is the only emotion that when we recognize it in ourselves, it goes away." When I'm mad and I think about my anger, I tend to stay mad: indeed, I often get more angry. Sadness is similar. Frustration? Envy? Shyness? However, whenever we genuinely think, "I'm happy!" it disappears. Poof! That's probably because pure happiness is really only an idea. It's like light, it only exists because of darkness, and the very mention of happiness evokes the darkness. So when I'm talking about my child's happiness I'm doing so as kind of stand-in for an equation that goes something like:

general contentment+overall satisfaction+healthy relationships = happiness

As Candide famously concluded, "This is the best of all possible worlds." No truer words were ever written and it means that if we're going to find happiness it can only be within the dark medium of unhappiness.


My wife and I made the kind of study of our child over the course of years that comes from pure love and followed that up by figuring out what would most likely put her on a path toward happiness. We didn't force her into things because they were "good for her," but instead followed her lead as she discovered how to pursue happiness on her own through her passions, interests, and relationships. It isn't always good times, there are false starts and dead ends. We weren't concerned about her learning style, but rather her pursuit of happiness, the lifelong challenge that stands above all others. That this pursuit invariably becomes a pursuit of knowledge as well is merely a by-product.

So maybe that's my philosophy: wake up in the morning, get things ready, then listen to children, talk to them, keep them safe enough, and otherwise just be available should they need you. And while you're at it, make a study of the kids that comes from pure love, then follow that up by helping them figure out what would most likely put them on the path toward happiness.



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Friday, September 08, 2017

Doubt, As Far As Possible, All Things


































If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life, you doubt, as far as possible, all things. ~Rene Descartes

I've seen the photos popping up on my Facebook feed this week, those first day of school pictures featuring freshly scrubbed children wearing expressions of nervous excitement. Of course, I'm delighted by those of the more recent graduates, alumni entering kindergarten or first grade, children I still know intimately. I will get first hand reports from many of them over the coming months as they drop by for visits. But I have especially enjoyed seeing the older kids, those heading off to middle and high school, and even college. I still occasionally see one or two of them in real life, so I've actually observed them become who they are today, but these photos is all I get from most of these adolescents and young adults who have grown beyond their memories of me.

There are those who will insist that this is the purpose of preschool, to begin preparing children for the "careers" that lie ahead. For most of the children I teach, that means public school followed by college followed by a professional career of some kind, steps along a well-trodden path. That's the future tense story the children are told, not by me, never by me, and probably not even by most of their parents, but it's one they've nevertheless heard told around them and about them to the point that most, at least sometimes, see themselves in it.

But I know without knowing, that this is not the story they are living. No one ever has. And if by some chance there are those who have lived that tedious fairytale, I fear that they are to wind up like the protagonist from Henry James' short story The Beast in the Jungle "to whom nothing on earth was to have happened."

Several years ago, I found myself in a one-on-one conversation with a middle schooler, a former student who last week moved across the country to attend university. When I asked her about school, I was treated to a full-on venting. School was stupid. They were making her learn irrelevant crap. It was a hollow, soulless, hoop jumping game, one foisted upon them by people who obviously hated children. It was just an assembly line, pressing out children like manufactured products, meaningless and hypocritical. No one, I think, is better at doubting all things than a 12-year-old, which is why I always like to have one or two in my life.

She was right, of course: that story we tell children is really a kind of Stepford-like dystopia and to try to live it a nightmare. Fortunately, despite the telling and re-telling of the story few humans I've ever met have actually lived it, except perhaps in the broadest of terms. Perhaps these children brimming and beaming at me in their first day of school poses don't know it yet, but they will: they will come to doubt and it's in those doubts that their real life takes shape.

People talk about life as a journey, a useful metaphor that I've often employed myself, but this morning as I think about all those children out there in the midst of it, I'm rejecting it. No, right now it looks more like a puzzle or a woodworking project or a piece of performance art. As school wrapped up last spring, parents thanked me for giving their children a "great start," but I was just playing with them, keeping them safe, and listening. And the kids were living, day-after-day, not starting anything at all. If they were getting ready for anything it was to wrestle this day into shape, to laugh or cry or stew about it, then come back tomorrow and wrestle the new one into shape.

That's what I've found life to be, after all, when well-lived. A story or journey, at one level, always becomes a kind race to the end and who wants that? We all know how it ends. Our individual lives can only be shaped into a proper narrative in hindsight: in this moment it demands to be lived and truly living means to frequently doubt all things, especially those things are the expectations of others. It's for this that I hope I'm preparing them.



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