Friday, March 23, 2018

"Teach By Doing Whenever You Can"

I reckon it would be best if we didn't put so much energy into worrying about our children's futures. It would be best for both us and our kids if we could more often just be here in the present with them, wondering at who they are right now, appreciating the unique human they already are, helping and loving them right now. That would be best, but human parents have never been very good at it. Sometimes we dream big dreams for them, imagining our child, their best qualities flourishing, as a masterful something or other, admired, inspired, passionate, and supremely comfortable in their own skin. But there are times when we fear their worst qualities and fret that they will grow to be spoiled, disrespectful, and lazy, prone to messy bedrooms, selfishness, depression or worse.

Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn by no other. ~Edmund Burke

These thoughts enter our heads because we are the adults, cursed with the disease of thinking we have any control over the future. Maybe, we think, if we just lecture our children enough, take them to church often enough, give them enough chores to do, and reward and punish them appropriately we can somehow stave off the bad future and encourage the good. But that isn't the way it works.

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. ~James Baldwin

Most of what children learn about being a human being in this world, they learn from the people they most love, but not because they have been drilled, scolded, or otherwise indoctrinated, but rather because they follow their example. If we want children to be kind, we must be kind. If we want them to be tidy, we must be tidy. If we want them to be respectful, then we must be respectful, especially toward them. Indeed, the more we focus on ourselves, on being the person we want ourselves to be, the better we "teach" the most important life lessons. Our children will not learn to pursue their passions unless the loving adults in their lives set that example for them. They will not learn to be unselfish if we live with a tight fist. They will not learn to manage their emotions, if their role models haven't figured it out for themselves.

Teach by doing whenever you can, and only fall back upon words when doing it is out of the question. ~Jean-Jacques Rousseau

That's asking a lot of adults, I know, but if we are going to ask it of our children, we must also ask it of ourselves. And we must also know that we will fail in our role modeling and fail often, but in that too we are role models. Children do not expect their parents to be perfect, but they are always making a careful study of what we do when we make mistakes. Do we give up? Do we blame others? Do we rant and rave? Do we cry and mope? Or are we able to apologize, forgive ourselves, and get back up to try again? The approach we take is very likely the approach our children will, in turn, grow to embrace as their own.

Teaching is painful, continual, and difficult work to be done by kindness, by watching, and by praise, but above all by example. ~John Ruskin

Of course, we all know examples of children, perhaps even ourselves, who have overcome poor role modeling. Perhaps we eat more healthily than our own parents, or make more time for our own kids, or avoid committing felonies. But even then, we can see that is was the examples set, more than the lessons "taught" that informed the future.

No one can predict the future and only fools take their attempts to do so seriously. When we are hopeful about the future we are, as my wife and I like to say, just "spending Yugoslavian dollars." When we worry we are, at best, wasting valuable emotional bandwidth that would be better applied to right now. The only thing over which we know with any certainty is the next 10 minutes and, I've found, it's generally not too hard to be the best me, the person I most want to be, for the next 10 minutes. When we can do that, 10 minutes at a time, we are being the teacher, the parent, our child most needs. And it is from those 10 minute building blocks that the future emerges.

A master can tell you what he expects of you. A teacher, though, awakens your own expectations. ~Patricia Neal

It's not our job to "teach" our children anything, but rather to love them and to strive to live according to our own expectations, not in the past or future, but right now. The future, as it always does, will take care of itself.

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Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Long Paint Brushes

Earlier this week we got out the long paint brushes. I don't know where the idea came from, but some time ago, I got it into my head to duct tape regular length paint brushes to sturdy bamboo stakes. Usually, I then tape a piece of paper or cardboard up high on a wall so the extra long paint brushes make sense: if you're going to paint that paper or cardboard you need a long paint brush. This time, however, mostly out of curiosity, but partly because I was feeling a little lazy, I hung the paper at a regular height.

I figured that kids might gamely start by trying to use the long paint brushes, but would soon realize that they were entirely unnecessary. After all, using these paint brushes to paint on paper hung at eye level makes no sense: it transforms something simple into something challenging. I wondered what they would do once the epiphany hit them. Would they just give it up? Would they try to find some way to shorten the brushes, either by removing the bamboo or by "choking up" on the handle to give themselves more control? Would they instead opt for finger painting? I was half expecting at least one child to ask me accusatorily, "Why are we using these brushes anyway?"

And sure enough, there were a couple kids who resorted to finger painting, but for the most part, the kids who chose to pick up those long brushes stuck with the program I'd manufactured for them: making something simple into something unnecessarily complicated. No one was compelling them, of course, they were free to give in to their frustration and drop those brushes any time they chose.

Not all the kids picked up those long brushes. Most, in fact, only paused long enough to reject the idea before running along to something else. Indeed, only a handful really engaged with project -- about ten percent of the kids, I'd say -- but of those that did, most tended to stick with it beyond the point of mere novelty, approaching it as a technique or skill over which they sought some mastery.

I couldn't help but reflect on all the unnecessary challenges we adults set up for young children in the name of education: these lists of arbitrary objectives against which we measure them. The difference, of course, is that in a "normal" school all the kids are expected to not only pick up those long paint brushes, but to drill with them, together, until they are capable of producing something that the adults find acceptable, like "grade-level" reading proficiency or the ability to perform certain mathematical calculations or the memorization of spelling words, dates, or the location of some dot on a map. For a few kids, say 10 percent, this is hunky-dory, they are drawn to the challenge because it is either something about which they have a natural curiosity or they are temperamentally attracted to these sorts of challenges. There is another percentage, perhaps even a large one, who will more or less resign themselves to undertaking the task, not because they've chosen it, but because the adults they love insist that they must, or because we attach rewards (grades) or punishments (failing grades) to them.

And then there are those who simply will not be compelled, the "problem" children, the one's who don't see the point and have better things to do with their time. Most children would join them on the swings if they could, or in the sandpit, or in the midst of a game of their own creation. Anything other than wasting their time with those damn long paint brushes.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Creating A Just-Right Challenge For Themselves

A long-ish 2X4 had been dragged across the path. It was in an awkward spot in my estimation so I picked it up and, in the spirit of play, positioned it to span the gap between the tops of the cedar rounds that line the lower level of our sandpit and our playground row boat. Several two-year-olds watched me do it. I said, "It's a bridge," then immediately wished I hadn't said it. A bridge is for crossing and I wasn't sure it was a good idea to encourage kids this young to give it a go: it was narrow, un-secured, and relatively high. I said, "I'll take it down."

"I want to go across."

"Me too."

I cautioned, "It's very narrow and very wobbly. I think it might be a bridge for grown-ups and not kids. I'll show you." I started across expecting that I'd either lose my balance or that the wood would slip off of one end or another. I was prepared to make a comical show of falling into the sand, waving my arms about and whooping in mock fear, but to my surprise the span felt fairly solid. It bent under my weight, but I managed to make it.

I said, "That was hard, but I did it." A clutch of kids gathered around the other end of the wood, but there were initially no takers. Several even said, "I want to try it," but they hung back, their sense of self-preservation warning them that perhaps Teacher Tom was right, maybe this was a grown-up bridge. Then, after a minute or two, a girl who I know to be particularly physically capable stepped up. She carefully tested the 2X4 bridge with one booted foot, then another. She paused as she felt the board bend a bit, shuffled forward a few inches, then stopped, again feeling her balance. She had begun walking with her toes forward as I had, but now carefully turned her body side-ways so that her feet her perpendicular to the wood and like this, slowly, she shuffled her way across. When she reached the end, she bent down to grasp the edge of the boat with both hands and stepped in to stand beside me.

No one had told the others to wait. They had watched their friend all the way to the end, but once she had accomplished the feat, several more said, "I want to go across," although there was still a lot of hesitation. Finally, a boy, another kid who I know to be physically capable, stepped a foot onto the board. He stopped as the girl had before him, feeling his balance. He tried a second step, then stopped again. I could see he was uncertain. I said, perhaps unnecessarily, "You don't have to try it," and began to move into a position to catch him if he fell. He then crouched, lowering his center of gravity. From there he reached his hands in front of him and began to methodically crawl across the bridge, fully concentrating on his effort.

Now the floodgates were open. The next child tried stepping onto the board, then sat on it, then straddled it, with her feet dangling almost to the ground on either side. Like this, she scooted her way across. This then became the method of choice, with child-after-child scooting one behind the other.

The human instinct for self-preservation is strong. I had bumbled into setting up something that was potentially hazardous, at least for children this young. I'd misguidedly made it worse by role modeling a potentially hazardous behavior. And yet the children, on their own, these two-year-olds, with no extra warnings from me, had taken most of the hazard out of it, creating a just-right challenge for themselves. And my job was to simply marvel at it.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Occupying Their Brains With Our Stupid Questions

They say there's no such thing as a stupid question, but I beg to differ. We hear stupid questions almost every time adults and young children are together. 

For instance, a child is painting at an easel, exploring color, shape, and motion, experimenting with brushes, paper, and paint. There is an adult watching over her shoulder who points and asks, "What color is that?"

This is a stupid question. 

Here's another example: a child is playing with marbles, exploring gravity, motion and momentum. An adult picks up a handful of marbles and asks, "How many marbles do I have?"

The adult already knows the answer. The child probably does as well, in which case, the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies in order to reply to a banality. Or she doesn't know the answer, in which case the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies to play a guessing game.

In a moment, these stupid questions take a child who is engaged in testing her world, which is her proper role, and turns her into a test taker, forced to answer other people's questions rather than pursue the answers to her own.

If it's important that the child know these specific colors and numbers at this specific moment, and it probably isn't, then we should do the reasonable thing and simply tell her,"That's red," or "I have three marbles." If it's not new information, and it probably isn't, she's free to ignore you as she goes about her business of learning. If she didn't know, now she does, in context, as she goes about her business of learning.

This is probably the greatest offense we commit against children in our current educational climate of testing, testing, and more testing. We yank children away from their proper role as self-motivated scientists, testing their world by asking and answering their own questions, and instead force them to become test takers, occupying their brains with our stupid questions.

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Monday, March 19, 2018

"Always Be Closing"

Last week, a parent began to ask me, "Can you use . . ." and I answered "Yes" before she had finished. In this case it turned out to be a box full of a dozen retired office phones and some computer keyboards, junk that has been sitting in a garage or storeroom or cellar for weeks or months or years. We run our school on garbage like this, accepting it to finish using before it is finally swept up in the endless flow of waste headed toward the landfill or recycling center or toxic waste dump.

I arranged the phones around our red table and the keyboards on the blue table before the kids arrived, knowing that despite a roomful of blocks, stuffed animals, and other toys, that they would make a beeline for them the moment they entered the room. And sure enough, that's where the kids collected as they arrived, knowing without being told to lift the receivers to their ears and begin mashing buttons. Few of them have these sorts of phones at their homes, the kind with coiled cords connecting them to a console, yet they have somehow absorbed enough information about the recent past to know that these large, awkward, desk-bound things are telephones.

As they stood around the table, pretending to phone one another, we adults joked that we were getting them ready for their future jobs working in call centers, evoking the famous line from the play Glengarry Glen Ross, "Always be closing." The kids took to the keyboards in the same way, often shushing us adults when we tried to play along with a curt, "I'm working on my computer right now." We joked, but the truth was that these kids, as kids always do, really were preparing themselves for their futures, not necessarily as high pressure salespeople, but as grown-ups in a world of technology.

Children have always been attracted to "real things" over toys. If I put a toy lawnmower side-by-side with a real one, most children, most of the time, will opt for the real one. We used to have small brooms around the classroom for the kids, but they used those as light sabers or ponies or baseball bats. When it came to actually sweeping up, they always wanted the "real," adult-sized brooms. Same goes for hand tools or kitchen utensils or anything else in a child's world: they are attracted to the real stuff because they are, invariably, driven to prepare themselves for the future they see for themselves: a real world full of real stuff and not the multi-colored plastic replicas we so often foist upon them.

When you make a study of children's play, their self-selected activities, one can almost always understand it in the context of preparing for the real world they see before them, practicing skills or behaviors or habits that they perceive they need in the world. Often, the connection is obvious, like with these retired telephones, but sometimes, especially when their play behavior is confusing or upsetting, it's less obvious, but it's there. When I find myself stumped as to the cause of problematic behavior, I often ask myself, For what part of the future is this child preparing? and my answer is often as much a revelation about our adult society as it is an insight into the behavior of children.

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Friday, March 16, 2018

Looking Forward To Our Days

When I tell myself the truth, I can't fail to recognize that part of the vision for childhood that I lay out on these pages stems from the vision for the life I seek for myself: one in which I rise in the morning looking forward to the day. That's what I want for the kids I teach. A life of anticipation beats a life of dread any day. 

I've grown enormously these past couple decades as I've tried to become proficient at serving as an important adult in a child's life, in my case in my role as their teacher. But one thing that has never changed is that I've always, from my very first day, tried to make our school a place where children want to come. I've not always been successful, not with every child, but by and large, from what I'm told, the kids wake up on school days anticipating the day ahead, which is to say, their lives.

I'm proud of that even if it's a dream destined to be revealed as, at best, temporary and full of compromise, and at worst, a complete fraud. That's okay because I prefer to live out of my good intentions, however naive, than my worst fears. I think I owe it to children to try, at least for a few years, at least for a few hours, to give them that gift, the experience of knowing that their time with me is going to be a good part of their day, at least most of the time, not as a product of mere optimism, but rather as a conclusion they draw themselves from the preponderance of evidence.

Of course, I don't always wake up looking forward to the day. My seasonal allergies are at their peak right now, for instance. I've been living for a week with swollen sinuses, sneezing and snot. If I've been able to sleep at all, I haven't been rising with anticipation as much as a determination to, nevertheless, get up and make a place where children want to come. I'm not promising a place where bad things don't happen, because only a god can do that, but I am, every day, trying to keep the promise to set the crap in my life aside in order to pay loving attention to what the children are doing and help them when they need it. And so in that sense, even on my bad days, I can still awake in a kind of anticipation, if only because I know I'll be temporarily forgetting my toils as I live in the moment with the kids, the gift I receive in return for my own.

As the children get older, it will in large measure be up to them to create the life to which they awake, but for these few short years, for the short hours they are with me, I try to do what I can, everyday, even on my worst days, to help them. And for me, I get to wake up knowing that whatever else is going on, I'll spend those same hours in a place and with people who arrive looking forward to their day, which is in many ways my dream for myself come true.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Making Transitions

Most kids I've known, most days, are eager to come to school, but some kids drag their feet every day and all of them have mornings when they would rather not. I get it and I don't take it personally. After all, I love my job, but I'm not always a happy camper about getting dressed and getting out the door either.

It's typically not about school, but rather about the transition. We've all known kids who struggle with transitions and it isn't really something we necessarily outgrow. I mean, that's what Monday mornings are all about, right? Or returning from vacations. On the final night of this most recent mid-winter holiday break, I found myself wishing for just one more day and I have the best job in the world.

Children have their adults to push back against and they do. They don't want to transition from the playground to go back home, they don't want to leave home to go to school, and nearly every day I hear kids whining at their parents that they don't want to leave school, even as their mother's are telling them that their next stop is the playground. As adults, there is typically no one but ourselves to push back against, so we play games like hitting the snooze alarm, but ultimately it's our sense of responsibility rather than another person's scolding that gets us out of bed.

We all want our kids to be the sort who jump out of bed, dress themselves, make short work of breakfast and are waiting at the door in plenty of time, but it's not in human nature to be eager to stop having fun in order to have fun. Indeed, one could argue that a strong resistance to transitions is part and parcel with feeling contented with how things are right now, which is a state of enlightenment. For instance, I love when I tell the kids that I'm thinking of banging the drum (our signal for clean up time) and they call out for "five more minutes!" It means they are fully engaged. By the same token, I often feel like a bit of a failure when a kid prompts me, "Can you bang the drum now?"

Life is a series of transitions. Rarely are we in a position to let it just flow from one thing to the next, so all of us, whatever our natural temperament regarding transitions, learns our own way to handle them. And young children, more often than not, start by targeting the obvious "villain," which is the adult who is telling her she must move on, which then turns into a power struggle that leaves no one feeling happy. If our goal is to give our kids the opportunity to develop their own sense of responsibility about life's necessary transitions, then it's important that we work to take the focus away from "mean mommy" ("Because I said so!") and onto the schedule itself and our own responsibilities and feelings about that schedule:

"It's time to go."

"I wish we didn't have to go either."

"Our friends are counting on us."

"I don't want to be late."

Many parents find it useful to, in non-transitional moments, talk to their children in advance about the transitions they can expect in the coming hours, days or even weeks, depending on their age, and then regularly remind them of the full schedule, including the unscheduled parts, throughout the day. All of us tend to do better when we know what to expect because it gives us the opportunity to prepare ourselves and develop our own philosophical approach to moving on from one thing to the next. Perhaps most importantly it allows children to begin to see that it's not mommy or daddy, but rather the schedule that makes the transition necessary.

And until we have the revolution, that's the way it's going to be. In the meantime, we learn our schedules, acknowledge our emotions, and hit the snooze alarm until our sense of responsibility gets us out of bed.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Toy That Fell From The Sky

There have been a couple of windstorms around here lately. Yesterday we discovered a fairly good sized branch that had broken away from what I think is a hemlock hanging precariously over the playground, it's jagged end pointing directly downward, like, the kids said, "a spear."

It was going to come all the way down at some point, probably the next windy day, so the adults decided we should see if we could make it come down on our schedule. One of our fathers balanced atop the fence and used a long-handled shovel to wrangle it loose and down it came, not with a thud, but with a dramatic rustle of fir needles. The kids were instantly around it, in it, and on it.

There was chatter about making it a "bird nest" or a "fort." Then they discovered the thousands of tiny cones still attached to the ends of the many branches. Eventually, together, they came around to the idea of moving it and, after some discussion, decided on the bottom level of our sandpit, near our row boat.

"We need more kids! We need more kids" they shouted, turning it into a kind of a chant. The team assembled, but struggled to get everyone working together. Some pulled, while others pushed; some quit, while others were just getting started; some stood on it, while others got under it. In that way it was a bit like any new, leaderless community project, everyone involved bringing their ideas, expertise, and abilities to the table in a willy-nilly fashion.

On Monday, I had cut off a dozen or so new lengths of rope. At some point, someone said, "We need to use ropes" and the kids scattered to round up what they could find. Some of them managed to tie their ropes to the branch on their own, while I offered my services for those who haven't yet mastered the skill. In all honesty, it wasn't the most practical of ideas. In my judgement, they would have had better luck attempting to lift and carrying it, but it was a unifying idea, with each child grabbing the end of a rope and pulling. The dragging was slow, difficult work, their path impeded by a variety of obstacles, but at least they were going downhill.

At some point it became clear to me that they weren't going to wind up in the sandpit and, unnecessarily and intrusively, I mentioned it. Thankfully, they ignored me as they managed to squeeze the branch through the narrow gap between the garden planting beds and the tables and chairs in our outdoor art area. They got stuck on the unicycle merry-go-round and got unstuck with a little bit of help from me. By the time they arrived at the workbench, they were done, all of them. Someone said, "Let's leave it here," which was agreed upon by the wordless consensus of everyone dropping their ropes.

There are still a couple of old Christmas trees around the place and those were soon added to what was being alternatively referred to as a "fort," a "nest," and "our house." As the children played in, around and under the pile of trunks and branches, I was taken back to my own childhood when we would play among the refuse of our neighbors' major pruning jobs. They would pile the limbs along the curbside where they often sat for weeks waiting for the city to haul them away and we, the neighborhood children, would play there in our fort or nest or house. I recall sometimes imagining that this must be what it was like to be a squirrel or a robin, living amongst the branches, a world into which I'd been magically transported.

I don't know if we'll be able to keep our new branch in that spot for more than a day or two, but I have no doubt that it will be with us for some time, becoming part of our story, a versatile, new playground toy that fell from the sky.

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