Monday, May 29, 2017

Without Labels

I recently told a story here about a child whose friends were calling him "bad guy," then running away. He wanted them to stop doing it and when they stopped he insisted on getting an apology, which he received by taking the bold move of going and asking for it.

The three children involved in the story had been playing together almost every day for the entire school year, their games were typically some sort of engineering project in the sand pit involving water. They called themselves the Octograbbers or Super Sharks. On the day of the story, however, two of them had chosen to play a running game, while their friend opted for the swings. As they ran, they attempted to re-engage with their buddy, trying to goad him into running with him by calling him "bad guy" and running away. At least that's what I saw. It was an experiment in friendship. That one child was hurt enough to demand an apology was simply an accident, not much different than one child getting sand inadvertently tossed on him as another digs.

Several readers wrote to me about that post describing typical preschooler interactions, both casually and urgently insisting that this was an example of "bullying" and that I'd either handled it well or didn't handle it well at all.

Let me assure you there was no bullying involved. Indeed, in my nearly two decades of coming to preschool classes I can count on one hand the number of instances of actual bullying I've witnessed. Bullying requires an intent to hurt another person and in this case, as in nearly every case, there was no intent on the part of one child to either physically or emotionally injure another. Certainly, some preschoolers get so angry or possessive or overwhelmed that they lash out at other children, but I hope we all can understand that this is simply what some children must go through on the way to learning to manage those big feelings. But instances in which one child sets out to intentionally hurt another are so rare in our preschool that they are hardly worth mentioning, especially since, as a cooperative with an abundance of caring adults on hand, little of this nature escapes our notice.

I suppose there may be preschools where bullying is more common. I expect those are schools serving populations in which children are more likely to be subjected to, or witnesses to, bullying in their home lives because that's where bullying mostly comes from: dysfunctional families. There are few things that cause me more sadness than hearing stories about young children who are so damaged that they take it out on the humans who should be their friends, their Octograbber buddies. Of course, I feel bad for their victims, but my heart really goes out to those young children who have been taught such awful things. By the same token, there are few things that make me more angry than adults who are too ready to slap the label "bully" on a preschooler.

I can only speak for my school, but ninety-nine percent of the time, not only are they wrong, but they are, in fact, the ones engaged in the bullying. It's a horrible label to hang on a kid who is, in all likelihood, just experimenting, exploring the possibilities of relationships, testing out what is acceptable and unacceptable, which comprises much of the work of human childhood. Harsh judgments like "bully" are the worst kind of name-calling: a bigger, stronger person calling a smaller, weaker person a "bad guy," knowing that the slur will sting.

I know that bullying is a significant concern as kids get older, but not in preschool, not in our preschool. I guess I'm writing this to remind adults to be careful of the words they use. Words like "bully" are super-charged, especially among adults, and imply a whole host of negatives, most of which simply can't be applied to preschoolers. It's always best to try to deal with any situation without labels.

(If you are interested in pre-ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here if you are in North America or Europe. If you are ordering from Australia, click here. If you live in New Zealand or Asia, for the time being, please email your order to Thank you!)

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Friday, May 26, 2017

Dance Party

I'm looking forward to my brief summer break for many reasons, but most of all is that I'm hoping it will give me a chance to forget the songs that are stuck in my head. Several weeks ago I wrote about our new outdoor stage, which has continued to be a popular addition to our junkyard playground. I figured the kids would like it, although I had imagined them mounting impromptu dramatic productions, whereas the kids prefer using it for dance parties.

In the beginning, I was selecting the music from my own personal collection, but when I started getting requests, I had to open an Apple Music account (which I'm loving). The big Disney songs are much in demand: Let It Go (from the movie Frozen) remains huge, but How Far I'll Go (Moana) is equally in demand. I'm not surprised that the fans of these songs know all the lyrics, right down to nailing the phrasing, because when our daughter was a preschooler she had likewise mastered the nuances of her favorite songs. These are apparently great songs for emotive expressions, emphatic stamping of feet, and swaying, ballet-like body movements.

The Paw Patrol Theme Song, however, is a pop rocker, and when it comes up, the Disney singers make way for the hip shakers, not too different from the moves invoked by Ghostbusters. Then there is the frenetic Everything is Awesome!!!!!!! (The Lego Movie), with its 120 beats per minute (or whatever) which tends to encourage a silly, convulsive dance style. There is a crew who loves nothing more than to march around to The Imperial March (Star Wars), while engaging in slow motion light saber battles. And there are few things more delightful to me than watching four and five year olds reenacting Step in Time from Mary Poppins.

One boy has attempted to break the pattern, introducing his friends to his personal favorites from the 1980's (Eye of the Tiger, Danger ZoneBad), but we've more or less settled on our limited playlist. I try to introduce new music, but when I do the kids go off to other things until I return to what has become our canon.

When we play Let It Go, I can now predict exactly which kids will drop what they are doing to take the stage. The same goes for the other songs on the playlist: they drop their playthings and converge on the stage from all corners of the playground. There is some crossover, of course, but the kids seem to be using their common love for this or that song as a sort of cultural connector, a way to find others like them.

Particularly fascinating has been the dynamic amongst a group of boys in our 4-5's class. A kind of tension has arisen between the Star Wars and Paw Patrol factions, with one group abandoning the stage when the "rival" song is played and vice versa. Sometimes they even hurl insults about one another's preferred music ("Paw Patrol/Star Wars is stupid"). It's an extension of the games they've been playing all year, wherein one group always seems to be vying against the other. There's a temptation to scuttle this sort of play, especially when it threatens to evoke real emotions of anger (instead of the faux anger that is a key element of their dramatic play) or real fighting (instead of the faux fighting they all enjoy), but for the most part we've let it take its course since the "sides" are ever-changing and they generally tend to maintain a kind of balance of power. Most of all, however, everyone seems to be having fun, even when things get tense. The other day I intervened in what looked like an altercation. The boys maintained their angry expressions until I said, "I don't want you guys to be enemies," to which they both laughed, "We're not enemies, Teacher Tom. We're friends, right?" They then went right back to their "conflict." As I watch this dynamic play out on the stage, I see that they are re-inventing the competitive dance off, something I'd never really understood until now.

Of course, most of the time, the kids who take the stage together are doing it as an act of community, of bonding, which could be said even of the rival factions. They leap onto the stage wth joy at the first few strains of "their song," identify one another as fellow travelers, look into one another's faces as they sing, and imitate one another's moves. I would have never guessed that our outdoor dance parties would become an important part of our outdoor play, but it's obviously here to stay.

(If you are interested in pre-ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here if you are in North America or Europe. If you are ordering from Australia, click here. If you live in New Zealand or Asia, for the time being, please email your order to Thank you!)

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Man I Was Meant To Be

I've been mulling the metaphor of teachers being rocks in a river. If you stay in one place a long time, the river passes around you and as it does you shape the river, but over time the river, in turn, shapes you.

After this week, our final week of the school year, there are many incredible people who are leaving my life forever: I'm talking about both children and adults. We intend to stay in touch, we might try a few times, and it will be fun to accidentally bump into them three years hence, but the end of our time of shaping one another is impending.

When last I wrote on this topic, I said that as a young man I thought I needed go out there into the world if I was going to have a positive impact, but I've come to appreciate life as a rock in a river, shaping and being shaped by families who come together, in goodwill, to make a cool place for their kids to play. I'm proud to have found myself at the center of a purposeful community like this, people raising their kids, face-to-face with other families of goodwill, year-after-year, the river flowing through my life. Some of these families are with me for a decade or more, but it's in the nature of a river to inevitably move on.

So, there is always an undercurrent of melancholy, which is mitigated by the celebratory nature of having completed a school year together. We've done it! We've had fun! I love my job, but there is nothing like the feeling of the last week of school, you've done your best and now school's out for summer! It's a joyful countdown, one I don't necessarily want to rush through, but one that nonetheless makes me smile when I remember it.

Rivers rise and fall with rain and the melting of snow pack. Sometimes the rock might even be fully submerged as the river rushes over it and other times it might stand dry for months on end. To all things, not just the ebb and flow of daylight, there are seasons and seasons come in cycles. This is part of how the river shapes us: each time through the cycle we gain wisdom about ourselves and the universe. And that shapes us.

We are shaped by the children who teach us the lessons that only children teach and the parents who share their knowledge and abilities, collaborating to make our school something better than it was when they arrived.

Yesterday, our 4-5's class presented the play they have been working on since January. Traditionally, this marks the end of the school year, complete with a pizza party, even as we will come together one more time today. Nearly the entire parent community turned out for the show, including grandparents, aunts and uncles, special friends, and alumni. I said a lot of goodbyes, always with the stipulation that we would stay if touch. Many of the families will return for a session of our Summer Program. For those folks, I saved my goodbyes, putting them off until they're inevitable.

Most of the kids won't remember me as they grow older, at least not with their conscious minds. Sure, they'll have pictures around and their parents will tell stories of their time in preschool, but humans don't typically retain concrete, sequential memories from before they were five. Someone asked me yesterday if that was a strange thought for me. It is, but I'll have to be satisfied with the knowledge that I have, in my small way, shaped them nevertheless, just as they've shaped me.

It is a river's destiny to flow onward. It is a rock's destiny to stay in one place. Summer is a time of ebb, when the waters flow more languidly, without the rush and crush of the regular school year, but come fall the flow resumes, filling the riverbed to the top. For the rest of this week, I'll let myself feel the bitter-sweetness over things that have passed, but there will be no time for regrets because the river, as they tend to do, is still flowing, shaping and being shaped, always making me into the man I was meant to be.

(If you are interested in pre-ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here if you are in North America or Europe. If you are ordering from Australia, click here. If you live in New Zealand or Asia, for the time being, please email your order to Thank you!)

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Listening Is Where Love Begins

Mister Rogers:

"More and more I've come to understand that listening is one of the most important things we can do for one another. 

"Whether the other be an adult or a child, our engagement in listening to who that person is can often be our greatest gift. Whether that person is speaking or playing or dancing, building or singing or painting, if we care, we can listen.

"In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.

"Listening is a very active awareness of the coming together of at least two lives. Listening, as far as I'm concerned, is certainly a prerequisite of love. One of the most essential ways of saying, "I love you" is being a receptive listener.

"Listening is where love begins: listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors.

"(And) when we love a person, we accept him or her exactly as is: the lovely with the unlovely, the strong along with the fearful, the true mixed in with the facade, and of course, the only way to can do it is by accepting ourselves that way."

(If you are interested in pre-ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here if you are in North America or Europe. If you are ordering from Australia, click here. If you live in New Zealand or Asia, for the time being, please email your order to Thank you!)

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"He Acts Like A Toddler"

"Four-year-olds, contrary to popular belief, are not egocentric or self-centered. They understand and care about how other people feel and think, and recognize that other people can feel and think differently from them . . . In fact, children . . . demonstrate both empathy and altruism: They will rush to comfort someone who is hurt, and they will spontaneously go out of their way to help someone."  ~Alison Gopnik

It's common enough for an adult to insult another adult by insisting that "he acts like a toddler." It's a put-down that generally means that the critic finds his target to be irrational, emotional, selfish, prone to fabrication, detached from objective reality, and inclined to be insensitive toward the needs of others.

As a teacher of young children, someone who spends most of his waking life in the company of them, and who, generally speaking, strives to be more like them, I would take it as a compliment were someone to hurl that particular insult in my direction. Indeed, anyone who would use "You're acting like a child" as an insult displays a grotesque ignorance and prejudice about a large percentage of the human population. Actual scientific research shows that children are no more prone to these negative behaviors than are adults and, in fact, in most cases are less likely to engage in them. Generally speaking, I've known preschoolers, on balance, to be extraordinarily thoughtful and honest. Yes, they may tend toward public displays of their emotions, but most therapist would tell you that this is preferable to the adult sanctioned method of stuffing their feelings then later taking it out on innocent loved ones. With rare exceptions even the youngest children I teach display a compassion and concern for their fellow humans that far surpasses that of more hard-headed adults who forever place road-blocks in the way of helping strangers in need.

I've written about the work of Alison Gopnik before. She is a well-regarded professor psychology, researcher and author. In an opinion piece that appeared over the weekend in the New York Times, Gopnik used her own research to systematically knock down this particular insult, one thats use has been on the rise in our political discourse. If you continue to support our current president you might find her political critique outrageous, but her underlying point that "the analogy is profoundly wrong" and "unfair to children" is an important one.

Last week, I posted about the fact that young children are always listening. How must they feel about themselves when they overhear adults insulting one another by calling them "childish." I imagine the same way someone with a mental or physical handicap might feel when they hear the insults of "retard" or "cripple" bandied about, even if directed at others. The words we use around young children are always important, but never more so than when we feel compelled to criticize one another. Insults are never a good look, but insults that simultaneously and prejudicially smear a large portion of our population are never okay.

Indeed, from where I sit, knowing what I know, to call someone "childlike" is not an insult at all, but rather a compliment of the highest order. If we could all be more childlike, the world would be a far better place.

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Monday, May 22, 2017

The Junk House

On Wednesday, a couple of guys in our 4-5's class decided they were going to remove the walls of the playhouse. It's designed for this, giving kids the ability to create windows and doorways wherever they want them, an innovation of one of our grandfathers. Before long, their enthusiasm had drawn in another handful of kids. It's not easy to remove the boards that make up the walls: they have to be slid up and out and often get stuck when they become askew which happens quite easily.

There was a lot of struggling and teamwork and when they were done opening up those walls, they weren't ready for it to be over so they moved on to filling the lower level of the playhouse with anything they could move: planks of wood, car tires, traffic cones, rocks, logs, furniture, gutters, shovels, pails . . . Whatever wasn't nailed down got shoved in there.

They were calling it the "junk house" and they were quite proud of it, cautiously climbing atop the pile, their heads touching the ceiling. Over the course of their project, their collective mood went from industrious to a kind of rowdy mischievousness, continually calling out to me and the other adults to "look," as they chuckled. I think some of them half expected to be scolded or at least be told they were "making a mess." The only "correction" they received from me was when I discovered that the wireless speaker we use to play dance music for the stage went missing. Figuring it was at the bottom of the pile, I used my smartphone to play a song and sure enough, we heard the frenetic strains of Everything is Awesome!!!!! from under the rubble.

Other than to ask them to dig out the speaker, my calm, non-judgmental demeanor belied what was going on inside. Normally, I wouldn't have cared, but in this case I was fully aware that on Thursday night we were hosting several dozen parents for our Summer Program orientation meeting (there are still spots in a few of the sessions if you are local and interested), people who had signed up to allow their "babies" to play on our playground this summer, many of whom were new to our school and more than a little nervous already. Our junkyard playground has a certain edgy charm when all the odds and ends are spread out over the space, but when presented as a big, tippy pile like this, something that could easily result in heavy objects sliding off and landing on the noggin of an unsuspecting two-year-old, I can imagine that it is somewhat less charming. In other words, while the kids played, I was thinking about marketing.

I finally told myself that it would be okay: either I would tell the story of how the junk house came to be as an illustration of the sorts of thing their kids might get up to this summer, or, the option I was leaning toward, taking advantage of the two hours between the end of school on Thursday and the start of the meeting to take care of it myself.

On Thursday morning, the kindergarteners were, as usual, the first to arrive, and they were not happy with the junk house. "Did you see what the little kids did to the playhouse, Teacher Tom?" I told them I had, then suggested that the might want to "fix it," a hopeful suggestion that they did not take up. Later that morning, however, our 3's class had the playground to themselves. They too had complaints about the junk house. When I suggested that they fix it "because we have a meeting tonight," one of the parent-teachers asked, "Do you want me to start emptying it out?"

And so she began to methodically remove planks and tires and cones and rock and logs from the playhouse. Her work drew in first another adult and then several of the kids who spent the next half hour un-doing the work of the older kids from the day before. When the kindergarteners returned to the playground, they joined the effort. When the space was empty, they finished by "washing" the floor by dumping several buckets of water on it.

As they worked, I found myself humming the late, great Tom Hunter's song, Build it Up and Knock it Down. The ancient Greeks had their myth of Sisyphus, a character condemned to an eternity of repeatedly pushing a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back down again. So much of what we do in life is like pushing that boulder: we make our beds each morning only to unmake them at night; we go to work, return home, then return to work again; we fill the trash can, throw it out, then refill it again. It's easy to see it all as meaningless repetition, but when I play with children, I don't feel that at all. On the contrary, filling it up and emptying it out, turning it on and turning it off, pushing it up and letting it roll back down, makes up the core of what children do all day when left to play as they see fit. Adults unlearn it, I think, as we become brainwashed into the cult of productivity. We learn instead to find it, at best, boring. Children, however, never tire of it. "Build it up and knock it down and build it up again/Knock it down and build it up and knock it down again."

The philosopher and author Albert Camus wrote an essay entitled The Myth of Sisyphus. The concluding line has stuck with me for decades:

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

This is what the children know. I will not be at all surprised if they rebuild their junk house this morning. And I won't have to imagine them happy because I know they will be.

(If you are interested in pre-ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here if you are in North America or Europe. If you are ordering from Australia, click here. If you live in New Zealand or Asia, for the time being, please email your order to Thank you!)

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Real Work Of Teaching

When parents complain, "He doesn't listen to me" what they really mean is that their kid doesn't do what they want them to do when they want them to do it. Believe me: they are listening to you. They are almost always listening to you. You just might not like the choice they made after listening to you.

Of course, some of the time, they simply don't understand us, they're not ready to "get" what we're saying to them, like when I talk to young two-year-olds about knocking down other people's block constructions, but more often than not they are listening, then choosing something else.

We know they're listening because our own words come back to us, channelled through them, often days or weeks or even months later. I remember when my own daughter first cursed traffic from her carseat. We know they're listening because they repeat word-for-word, usually at a holiday party right in front of everyone, the mean joke we made about the harvest of hair growing from Aunt Millie's nose. I know a child's been listening when she can repeat, word for word, the argument her parents had that morning over a piece of dropped toast.

We know they are listening when they insist on wearing their unicorn bicycle helmet ice skating, like a four-year-old did, saying, "I'm going to wear my helmet because I might really fall instead of almost."

We know they are listening when they turn to us and say, like a three-year-old did, "When someone does something mean to me I talk to them to stop."

We know they are listening when they are courteous to their friends, like a two-year-old was when he said to a classmate, "Hello Anna. My name is Elliott. Let's play!"

And we know they are listening when they put their arm around a sobbing friend, like one two-year-old year old did to another, saying softly into his ear, "You're crying about something. I'll take care of you."

They are always listening. Not just to the words we say to them, but those we say in their presence to others. That is their real classroom. When we adults take that seriously, that's when our children begin to make us better people, the kind who think about the words they say and the tones we use with the people in our lives. They make us work to become the people we've always wanted to be if only because that's the sort of person we want them to be.

Children don't learn anything from obedience other than how to command and obey, a dubious education at best. They learn everything else by listening (and watching, of course). Real learning requires processing, repetition, time, and experience to fully comprehend. It takes place on their schedule, not yours, which is why it can seem as if they are not listening. But they are, know it, and strive to be the person you want them to be. That's the real work of teaching.

(If you are interested in pre-ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here if you are in North America or Europe. If you are ordering from Australia, click here. If you live in New Zealand or Asia, for the time being, please email your order to Thank you!)

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017


Our daughter Josephine is a 20-year-old who found her passion by the time she was an eight-year-old and who has now pursued that passion to New York City, a place about which Sinatra sings, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere." And from where I sit, it seems she is making it: pulling down the best grades of her life, earning money, and finding plenty of time to play with her cool friends. As I recently shared a story about her, someone who has never met her interrupted to ask if she had been "gifted" as a child. I think she is gifted, of course, but not in the sense that is meant by the term. By most measures I'd say she has always presented as a fairly typical kid, good at some things (usually the things she enjoyed) and not so good at others (usually the things she didn't enjoy) which is more or less the way I'd describe myself.

We tried not to pressure her about school. We let her quit extracurricular activities when she wanted to quit. Finding something "boring" was more than good enough for me. And with few exceptions we didn't make her do things she didn't want to do. Of course, people warned that we were setting her up, saying things like, "How will she ever learn about perseverance?" They would caution that success only comes from putting our noses to grindstone, while young, doing the things we don't want to do, every day as a matter of course, painting a portrait of life as relentless, competitive, and exceedingly difficult, at least if the goal was to "make it." It was easy for me to ignore them because I'd already figured out, even 20 years ago, that what they were saying was pretty much pure BS, the kind of BS that is spread by tightly wound people who take life way, way, way to seriously.

There is entirely too much of this kind of BS out there and its impact is compounded by the fact that it passes for wisdom in too many circles. Most of the time it's just BS, but it can also be toxic, like when parents worry that their five-year-old is "falling behind," a fear that too often drives a well-meaning adults to expect junior to strive to be a champion at everything, just in case. And that's BS.

I've never had an instinct to lead children. My driving interest is to play with them, to listen to them, to make jokes, make art, make math, make engineering, to just make things, together. There's no "behind" because it's about learning in the wild, about the world, ourselves, and what it means to be ourselves in that world. That's the fundamental question we live to answer. Everything beyond that is BS.

There was a time when I would entertain myself with the cocktail party game of asking people if there was anything their parents forced them to do that they still do today. Most people couldn't think of anything and those that did always, always, cited piano lessons. Not violin lessons, not regularly attending church, not making their bed, not putting their nose to the grindstone. Indeed, it seemed that for most people, the moment their parents stopped compelling them, they ran like the wind. Yes, I'm sure that everyone can come up with exceptions to this rule, but you have to admit, it's largely true.

Putting one's nose to a grindstone is a waste of youth. Even thinking about the grindstone is an abuse. If there are grindstones in their future, and my own life is a testament that it is not inevitable, then they will learn how to deal with them soon enough, tragically. No, if there is a best time for making mistakes, for chasing dreams, for indulging one's passions, for just goofing around, it's in our youth.

As I watch the children I teach play, I see them making mistakes, chasing dreams, indulging their passions and goofing around. I don't wish wealth or fame or power or "success" on any of them. No, my hope is that they get to keep playing, throughout their lives, every day, doing those things that bring them peace and joy and love. Of course, there's crap they'll have to get through, but don't you think kids already know that? Everything they do is accompanied by pain and disappointment and conflict and fear. That's life. But when children play, when no one is harping on them about "success," but rather leaving them free to pursue their passions, it never becomes a slog. There are no grindstones. From where I sit, the only losers in life are the ones who waste it at the grindstone.

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "We are here on this earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different." Kids already know this. They show us that no one works harder, or perseveres more, than those who are farting around. And they also know to call BS when they see it. That is the secret to making it there or anywhere.

(If you are interested in pre-ordering Teacher Tom's First Bookclick here if you live in North America or Europe. If you are ordering from Australia, click here. For New Zealand or Asia, for the time being, please email your order to Thank you!)

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

"I Think They Should Say, 'I'm Sorry'"

These kids have been playing together all year, every day. Part of this remarkable friendship is that they have very rarely wasted time in conflict. I've written about these kids before, about how they call themselves the Octograbbers, and about about how I usually just leave them to their own devices, which is what I was doing yesterday, sitting on a stool near the swings. I was watching some other kids playing in the hammock that our kindergarten teacher, Teacher Rachel, had hung between a couple of the trees. 

The voice came from over my shoulder, "Teacher Tom." It was one of the Octograbbers lolling about in one the swings. I turned to him and said, "You're swinging."

"I told S and V to stop calling me a 'bad guy' but they won't stop." S and V are also Octograbbers. I answered, "Are you a bad guy?"


"Then that's name-calling. We all agreed that name-calling is against the rules."

"I know, but they keep calling me 'bad guy'."

I looked for S and V who were running together quite a ways off. It was notable that they weren't carrying the Octograbbers' trademark shovels. "They're far away. I don't think they're calling you 'bad guy' right now, are they?"

"No," he concede, "but they won't stop."

 I said, "You said stop and now they aren't doing it. I think maybe they did stop."

This is more or less how I deal with tattling: I try to point out that in most cases they've already dealt with the situation so there's really not much for me to do. He's not a kid prone to tattling, which made this report of rule abuse unusual, but it was clear to me that his friends were currently far away, abiding by his request to stop calling him 'bad guy'.

He seemed to be considering this so I returned my attentions to the rowdy hammock play. Moments later S and V came racing past. S said, "Bad guy!" then the two ran off in mock fear.

"See!" he said, "I told them to stop and they're still doing it." He didn't appear particularly upset, but now I was feeling like a jerk for not believing him when he told me they "won't stop." I've taught this kid for three years. I should have known that he would have only turned to me for help as a last resort.

I said, "I heard that. You said to stop and they haven't stopped. Do you want me to remind them of the rules?"

He did, so I tracked down each of the offenders and told them that their friend was unhappy and reminded them that we had all agreed "No name-calling." S immediately said, "Okay," while V listened without a response. I returned to the swings to report, "I reminded them of the rules."

I resumed my seat on the stool while he hung in the swing for a couple minutes, then, "Teacher Tom, I think they should say, 'I'm sorry'."

I agreed, "They probably should. I would apologize if I hurt my friend's feelings."

He still didn't seem particularly upset. "They should say 'I'm sorry.'" Just then V and S came racing past, this time without saying a word. He called out, "You guys should say 'I'm sorry'!" but they either didn't hear him or were ignoring him. "See, they didn't saying 'I'm sorry'."

"No they didn't" I agreed, "But I don't know how to make people say 'I'm sorry.' I think they have to say it themselves."

He stewed it for a moment, then headed down the hill, making a beeline for S. The boys interacted for a moment, then he talked to V after which he returned to his swing. "S said he was sorry, but V didn't say anything."

"She didn't say she was sorry?"


"And you want her to say she's sorry."


We watched S and V circle around the swing set, then race back down the hill. I said, "I don't know how to make someone say 'I'm sorry'." We spent more time discussing the matter. He seemed far more upset at the lack of an apology than about the name-calling. I told him, "They called you 'bad guy', you didn't like it, so you told them to stop. Then you wanted them to say 'I'm sorry' so you asked them to say it. One of them did, one of them didn't. I think you've done everything you can do." He didn't agree, "I think she should say 'I'm sorry' too," then proceeded to spend the next ten minutes chasing her around, insisting on an apology which she was clearly not going to give.

Last night was our year-end parent potluck/business meeting which just happened to be hosted by this boy's parents. I was among the first to arrive and he was playing butler. As we waited for others to arrive, we chatted. He was in a festive mood, but wanted to return to our playground conversation. "They should have said 'I'm sorry'."

"I know, but S did say it, didn't he?"

"Yeah, he said it, but V didn't."

A parent overheard us and I summarized the situation in a couple sentences. He corrected me, "S is the one who called me 'bad guy'. V didn't say it."

"V didn't call you 'bad guy'? Do you think maybe that's why she didn't apologize? Because she didn't break our rule?"

"Probably so!" he agreed happily before racing off to answer the door his sense of justice apparently now finally satisfied. 

One boy felt offended. He spoke up. He wanted an apology and asked for it. The child who offended him apologized. The child who had not offended him declined, having nothing about which to say 'I'm sorry' and she would not be pestered into it. What remarkable kids: what remarkable humans. Conflict is inevitable, even among best friends. I don't think any people, whatever their age, could have handled this one any better than did these Octograbbers.

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Our Seattle School

Several years ago, a teacher from the city Reggio Emilia, Italy, a place renowned for it's namesake child-centered approach to early childhood education. I was, of course, flattered that she chose to visit our school and I proudly showed her around. I am familiar with the Reggio Emila approach, but I'm far from an expert, a fact that I readily confessed to her.

"Oh that's normal. I've met many Americans who say their schools are Reggio Emila schools, but they aren't." I nodded understandingly, pursing my lips to indicate that I felt this was "too bad," but that's not where she was going. "They aren't Reggio Emilia schools because they are in America. How can they be Reggio Emilia? Why would they want to be? Your school is a good one, Teacher Tom. It's in Seattle. It's Seattle school."

She had put her finger on something that I instantly knew was important to me, even if I'd not up to then been able to articulate it. Reggio Emila schools are community-based schools that reflect the geography, culture, and people who live in that community. Our school is a community-based school that reflects the geography, culture, and people who live here. Indeed, it's even more narrow than Seattle: our school is a product of the neighborhood of Fremont and environs, The Center of the Universe, and the families who have chosen to raise their children here. Of course, I can learn and be inspired by the work they do in Reggio Emilia or anywhere, but our school, as should be true of all schools, is a product of the soil from which it grows. You could not transplant it elsewhere and expect it to thrive.

I've had the opportunity to travel quite extensively over the past few years, visiting dozens of amazing schools along the way. At every stop, I've seen things I envy, that inspire me, that get me thinking, but not once have I been able to directly translate what I brought back to Woodland Park without adapting it, often extensively, to our "Seattle school."

We are a school located in one of the most densely populated parts of the US, an urban school with a playground the evokes a vacant lot, noisy, and robust. Our wildlife are rats, raccoons, squirrels, and the down and out folks who are cared for by Pastor Gay. We can walk to breweries, cycling is a regular mode of family transportation, and naked people fill the streets for the Summer Solstice. There are seaplanes overhead, drawbridges underfoot, and a troll living in the shadows of State Highway 99 that arcs above us across the Lake Washington Ship Canal. It rains a lot, people use the buses and trains, and there are a lot of hills.

The families who make up our school are choosing to raise their children here. This is where we go to school. This is where we learn to play together. This is our geography, culture, and people.

Last Thursday, we went to Gasworks Park to fly kites. We had made our own paper kites, what I think of as "running kites," as well as a few "San Francisco kites" (string tied to plastic shopping bags). Gasworks is in our neighborhood. We figured it would take our crew of nearly thirty about a half hour to make what normally would be a twenty minute hike. We could probably do it faster if we stuck to the main roads, but we opted for the Burke-Gilman trail, a nice multi-use track along the ship canal, largely segregated from car traffic.

All the kids have walked Burke-Gilman before. They know that cyclists sometimes try to bomb through there, even if some need to be regularly reminded to watch for bikes. In our yellow field trip t-shirts, it didn't take much to imagine us as bunch of mother ducks herding ducklings along, keeping them as best we could to one side to leave a lane for cyclists. There were no incidents; not even any close calls. Most of the kids picked dandelions along the way as well as other weed flowers, decorating themselves or just carrying them for a time. Doing this, walking the Burke-Gilman together, watching for bikes while picking flowers is our Seattle school.

Once at the park, we ran for the "Great Mound," a steep, man-made grassy hill with a sundial on top. There is a zig-zag path, but we chose the most direct route. It's been a record-breaking winter here as far as rain goes and this just happened to be a warm, sunny break. Children are not known for taking in scenic views, but this one captured them all as they stood together for a time, just contemplating downtown across Lake Union, spotting the Space Needle and counting construction cranes. There is almost always some wind in Seattle, but not this afternoon. The kids didn't care as they just held their kites high and ran pell-mell down the hill, feeling the resistance as they ran. No one appreciates a freshly scrubbed sunny day the way we do in our Seattle school.

It was barely 70 degrees, but after an hour or so some of us were beginning to feel overheated. Gasworks Park is built on the site of a former synthetic natural gas plant (I know, "synthetic natural gas?"). We decided to pack up and cross the park, past the skeleton of the defunct gasification facility, to the large picnic shelter that houses a collection of esoteric factory parts. Sadly, it's off limits for climbing which rendered them useless for our purposes, so we moved off into a little amphitheater-like area behind the shelter: a bowl of grass surrounded by a "forest" of cedars. I once heard an interview with Richard Haag, the landscape architect who designed Gasworks Park. He describe it as a sacred space, ringed by trees on one side and the lake on the other. If feels like a natural place even though both the park and the lake itself are largely the product of human art and engineering. One of the parents tried to slowly, slowly sneak up on a goose with her goslings that we discovered grazing on the lawn. When children ran to find out what she was doing they frightened the geese, but then we figured out how to slow down so we could get a nice long look at those cute babies. Our Seattle school is found in these natural-not-natural places.

The adults had anticipated that kids might be too tired for the hike back, which includes many blocks of uphill, so we were prepared to take the bus, but everyone seemed game so we hoofed it back toward school, sticking to the streets this time in the interest of speed. We stopped at a lot of crosswalks. Our big group was often separated at short lights, so those of us in the front would wait across the intersection for our friends. Gever Tulley once coined the term "dangerism" to refer to those hazards we simply accept in life. For the Inuits, for instance, children as young as 3 regularly use very sharp knives to cut blubber from seals. In our culture, we raise our children around traffic, far more dangerous than sharp knives I would think. When I watch these kids, they are, for the most part, quite expert around traffic, cautious without being nervous, cognizant of the hazards without being fearful. Learning to live with traffic, which is an important aspect of our Seattle school.

There was some bellyaching as we bent our backs to the final hill, the worst of which was when we turned onto Troll Way, but the visage of The Fremont Troll lurking under his bridge, perpetually devouring a VW Beatle, spurred us homeward. "I see the Troll!" "It's the Troll!" "Hi, Troll!"

Back in our vacant lot playground, the kids found a second wind, launching themselves into the sand and swings. It was such a normal day for us, boring even. It had been almost like a refresher course as we went out there into The Center of the Universe, together, and practiced living here. It's our Seattle school.

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