Tuesday, April 24, 2018

All Human Problems And All Human Glories



Marcus was working on a cardboard block tower. Lilyanna was helping.

They built it as high as they could, arriving at a point when they struggled to reach the top. It was really quite beautiful, these two-year-olds spontaneously coming together in common cause like this, not talking, just doing. It takes a combination of concentration and speed to build something that tall, with another person, in a crowded classroom where everything is being continually jostled. But when they arrived at that point where their bodies were not tall enough to reach, their agenda's diverged. Marcus clearly wanted to pursue the challenge of continuing to make it even taller, while Lilyanna joyfully pretended to fall, intentionally pulling the building down with her, where she lay on the floor laughing as the blocks rained down on her.


Marcus reacted by lowering his eyebrows, appearing irritated and slightly aghast, I think not at Lilyanna, but rather, if I had to guess, at the lost opportunity. He'd perhaps been planning to find a chair or something else to stand on, to reach even higher. He then went back to rebuilding, with Lilyanna once more pitching in. They went through this full cycle six times, each go around reaching that point where their agendas diverged and the walls came tumbling down.


The general ethic of our classroom is that if you build it, only you can knock it down, but we don't really have a way to deal with this, when they build it together toward different purposes. I suppose I could have, after a couple repetitions, suggested that each child build her own building, but I didn't, mainly because Marcus didn't seem particularly upset (in fact, he appeared rather philosophical) and usually when young children repeat a play pattern over and over I interpret that as a sign that they are trying to learn something that is personally important.

It's impossible to have a judgement here, to side with one child or another. Each was pursuing his own perfectly legitimate, viable agenda. It was incredible when they merged, and that they merged for so long. Together, for a time, they built higher and faster than either could have alone. I even expect that had Lilyanna been able to hold off just few minutes longer, those agendas would have re-converged and they could have knocked it down together, because that is always the destiny of block towers, but that is the way life with the other people sometimes works.


All human problems and all human glories result from the great truth that we go about our individual lives working our own unique agendas. From our first cries, using our only tool for connecting with the other humans, we seek out sensations, connections, and even objects that in some way satisfy those agendas, and we pursue them relentlessly. We have our conscious agendas and our unconscious agendas, overt and covert, ones we announce proudly and those we shamefully leave unspoken. And these agendas shape how we engage with the world. There are so many agendas working at so many purposes at any given time, that it seems a miracle that we ever get together on anything at all.

This is a big part of why we're in preschool, to learn to work our agendas together; to learn how to find where they match, because together we can do things that we can't alone, but also to learn how to deal with those inevitable times when they diverge and the building comes crashing down around us. 


There are some hard, complicated lessons to learn about agendas. There are times, of course, when we must stand and fight, but we also must learn to pick our battles. There are times when we must step aside. Sometimes we must conclude, as Marcus finally did, that we will not be able to complete our agenda today, and learn when to walk away, hopefully to return another day. Most often we need to talk, to compromise, to find a way to alter our agendas in order for them to imperfectly merge in order to achieve a kind of "second best" result that leaves all parties both satisfied and dissatisfied. And, naturally, the more people, the more agendas that must be included, the more difficult it gets. This whole business of living with the other people is an emotional tangle, full of pointy parts to navigate, made even more challenging as we begin to understand that those other people are navigating too. But as difficult as it is, it's important because it's exactly the process of picking our way through this jumble of agendas that teaches us empathy, which is just another complication in this complicated business.

Some days I have no idea how any towers ever get built in the world. It all seems so impossible.

Yet we keep doing it, throughout our lives, re-engaging in this difficult business of other people.





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Monday, April 23, 2018

A Journey Without End



I've done a lot of traveling lately. In the past three weeks I've been to eastern British Columbia, Vietnam, and Sandusky, Ohio, where I keynoted the OAEYC conference. It's an honor and a thrill to have been invited to those places to meet like-minded colleagues and share our stories. It's been both a whirlwind and a grind, the way modern travel always is: I've been on 11 planes, eaten countless restaurant meals, and only slept in my own bed four nights during that span. I've stood in front of an audience of over 2000, but more often been all alone, an island of anonymity in a sea of strangers. Needless to say, I've had ample opportunity to reflect on journeys, both actual and metaphorical.


If you had told me ten years ago that I'd be doing this, winging my way around the globe to stand in front of audiences of strangers, I'd have accused you of wishing a curse upon me. I'm fairly introverted by nature, a man who needs his time alone in order to re-charge his batteries, and the idea of public speaking was a terror to me. During my first year as a teacher, I couldn't even bring myself to make eye-contact with parents of the children I taught as I sang and danced with the children, a fact that resulted in several performance reviews that read, "He's great with the kids, but needs to work on his communication with adults." Looking back from where I stand this morning, I can see that I've come a long way, even if I still have a long way to go.


I've been writing here on this blog since 2009, doing so conscious that I was setting out on a kind of journey, one with no particular destination in mind, but one that I expected to take me somewhere nevertheless. I've been hyper-aware over the past few weeks of regular life interrupted of how important this daily ritual of sitting in my darkened living room to write these posts has become to not just my practice as a preschool teacher, but also as a human living in this world of other humans. I would be lying were I to say that I didn't want people to read what I'd written, or else otherwise I'd have just jotted notes in a private journal, but I didn't really expect anyone to take note other than the families of the children I teach. I can't express how flattering and uplifting it is to have educators and parents approach me in far-away places to tell me they've been reading this blog, sometimes for years, letting me know that I've found fellow travelers, moments of meeting and recognition that are the greatest rewards of having put myself out there, one foot in front of another on this journey. I feel almost like I'm finding long lost sisters.


Sometimes when I go back and have a look at some of the things I wrote nearly a decade ago, some of the things I've believed and thought, I'm embarrassed beyond belief, so much so that I've considered deleting them. But I've stopped myself because those posts, as flawed as they are, are evidence of my own journey, reminders that I've not always been where and who I am today. It would be easy to call them missteps, but I'd rather look at them as necessary way stations without which I'd never have gone anywhere at all. As I've meet all these other travelers spread across states, provinces, territories, nations, and continents, I've become conscious of their journeys as well, and even if we don't always see eye-to-eye, I can't judge them, nor should I attempt to hurry them along their way. If they ask, I can point them in a direction, but the journey, for each of us, is our own, and we must be free to pursue it, even if it somethings takes us through places that we will later look back upon with regret. I fully expect to look back on the things I'm writing here today from the perspective of where I find myself ten years hence, and cringe at my ignorance. That's in the nature of a journey.


But we can't dwell there for long, because it is in the nature of a journey to look forward, to put our regrets on our shoulder alongside our worries and to take that next step in anticipation of something higher, clearer, and better.


Last week, we visited the local fire station with the kids. It's an easy 10 minute walk, just up the hill, and across a few streets, but I allowed 45 minutes because it's spring and the flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, and the temperatures are mild. Young children, like the rest of us, are better served when we don't hurry along our way, when given the time to pick some flowers, even if we are only going a short distance from here to there. We might start out with a destination in mind, although that's not essential, because as cliched as it is, it's our journey that comprises our life, and every destination is nothing more than a place to catch our breath before choosing a direction and continuing on, a journey without end.




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Friday, April 20, 2018

The Best Stick Collector



"I'm the best stick collector." He said it to me earnestly, as if telling me something I didn't already know. His cubby, the place designated for his personal belongings, is always overflowing with sticks. His mother tells me that he has a similar collection at home near their front porch. Yesterday, he was wielding a length of bamboo, which had looked from afar to be a copper tube. When I remarked on it, he informed me that one of his friends had found an identical one, but that he had lost it, while he, the great stick collector, still had his.

He brings sticks from home. He finds sticks on the way to school. He finds them on the playground. The world is covered in sticks and he, the best stick collector, has an eye for which are worthy of his collection and which are not.

At any given moment, he has a stick in his hand, an extension of his body, a fantasy ninja weapon, a tool, a pointer, an instrument of science. He waves his sticks around, flourishing them in sudden bursts according to the script that is always playing in his head. Sometimes adults who aren't aware that he's the best stick collector will warn him to be careful not to poke or hit his classmates, but I never worry about him. He seems to always be aware of his body in space, including those sticks which are mere extensions of it.

The best stick collector focuses on relatively short sticks, typically not longer than 12 inches, leaving the longer ones to the amateurs. He favors ridged sticks because, it seems, he prefers precision tools. Upon occasion, I've discovered sticks that I think he might like, offering them to him the way one might an unusual stamp to a philatelist. Most often, he rejects them with only a glance, but every now and then he'll take a closer look, studying it for a time. Once, and only once, he accepted my find as worthy, although it wound up in his cubby with the back-ups, never entering the rotation of favored sticks.

He is a connoisseur, a prodigy, a master. He is the best stick collector and he is my friend.


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Thursday, April 19, 2018

I Stand With Them




I've never understood how people who believe in democracy can be opposed to labor unions. Most workplaces are, in fact, small dictatorships set up in the midst of our supposedly democratic society, and while it's true the dissatisfied workers have the theoretical right to simply quit their jobs, that isn't a reality for most Americans who need their incomes to feed their families. Coming together to collectively bargain and, yes, to sometimes to act together to withhold their labor in some form of a strike or work slow down is how working people inject self-governance into an otherwise top-down system.

I've never understood why corporations are free to ally themselves through cooperative working agreements, mergers, and acquisitions, while so many want to deny those very same rights to every day working people.

Over the course of the last few months, public school teachers across the country, protesting stagnant and even falling wages as well as the underfunding of schools, have been forced to resort to taking matters into their own hands. Over the past decades state legislatures have responded to pressure from corporations by lowering their taxes, in an era of record profits, then pleading poverty when it comes to schools. These strikes are evidence that we are reaching the inevitable breaking point.

The opinion polls I've seen indicate that parents, despite the hardships strikes in places like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona have caused, are backing their teachers. And they should. After all, our teachers' working conditions are our children's learning conditions. Crumbling buildings, broken furniture, out-of-date text books, and wages that require many teachers to take on second jobs just to make ends meet while also paying out of their own pockets for essential classroom materials are far from ideal learning environments. Our children, in a very real sense, are paying for those corporate tax cuts with their futures and both parents and teachers have had enough.

The good news is that so far these strikes are ending well for our children, with elected representatives scrambling to come to terms. The state of Oklahoma even reversed decades of tax policy by increasing taxes on oil and gas companies to pay for it. What teachers and parents are showing is that no one can stand in our way when we come together to fight for our children. No one.

Underfunding to public schools is not isolated to these states: it's a nationwide problem. Teachers and parents in other states like Indiana, Texas, and North Carolina are now considering their own actions. And our children in those states will win if we stick together.

I know that I'm hard on public schools on these pages, but I try to never be critical of my fellow teachers, most of whom are doing their best to teach the children despite deteriorating learning conditions. Every day I hear from public school teachers who know how they should be teaching, and who are subversively at times, doing so within the cracks and crevices, even as they are being forced into the drill-and-kill methods that have come to dominate our schools. We all know that a child who must worry about where their next meal will come from will struggle to learn; we also know that a teacher with the same worries will struggle to teach.

There will be more strikes, I'm afraid. No one wants that, but I thank public school teachers for being courageous enough to go there, not just in support of themselves, but also for our children. No one can stand before teachers and parents united. I stand with them because I stand for democracy.



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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Story Of How He Fell And Got Back Up





As the two-year-old boy tried to walk up a short, sand-dusted concrete slope, his feet slipped from beneath him. He fell forward onto the concrete. I saw it happen. He took a moment, still prone, to look around as if deciding if he was going to cry. When he saw me looking his way, his face wrinkled into a look of anguish and he let it out.

I walked to him. I usually walk in circumstances like this for the same reason I strive to maintain a calm expression: running conveys panic and the last thing I want to do is compound his pain with fear. Taking a seat on the ground beside him, I said, "You fell." Putting a hand on his back, I said, "I came to be with you."


When he cried louder, I asked, "Did you hurt your hands?"

He shook his head. I left some silence for him to fill with the details he wanted to share, but instead he filled it with crying.

"Did you hurt your tummy?"

He shook his head.

"Did you hurt your chin?"

This time he nodded, still crying.

I saw no mark on his chin, "It's not bleeding, but I can get you a bandaid."

He shook his head.

Another two-year-old boy had also seen it happen. He had joined us, looking from me to his classmate throughout the exchange. When I left more silence, this boy decided to fill it, almost as if showing me the proper formula, bending down and asking, "Are you okay?" This is what adults say to a fallen child, a phrase I've struck from my own lexicon figuring that an injured child will let me know soon enough if he's hurt without my planting of the idea with that question. In this moment, however, from a two-year-old's lips, I heard it as a courtesy, like saying "Please," "Thank you," and "How are you?"


He still cried, but not with the intensity of before, notching it down to a breathy, moaning, head up, his fingers tracing paths in the dusting of sand that had been his undoing.

Yet another two-year-old boy joined us. He had not seen what had happened, and asked me, "Why is he crying?"

I replied, "He fell and hurt his chin."

"I'm a doctor."

I asked the boy who had fallen, "Do you need a doctor?"

He shook his head. There were three of us now in a circle around our friend who was winding down his cry, finishing it.

The boy who had asked "Are you okay?" took what the older kids sometimes call "the easy way" up the short slope, a path in the dirt that circumvents the concrete part, intending, I thought, to go about his play. Perhaps that had been the plan, but he stopped and turned to check on his friend, saying once more, "Are you okay?"


This time his friend nodded. His cry had become a soft whimper. I said, "You're not crying now." He didn't respond. His fingers fiddled with the sand until they found a twig which he bent and twisted. I had been sitting beside him. I said, "I'm going to get up now," which I did. I had a vague idea that I was role modeling a possible next step for him, but he didn't immediately follow my lead. Instead, my place was taken by the doctor who sat, as I had done, silently beside him. We're always role modeling, but we can't pick what they will chose to imitate -- or even who will do the imitating.

I kept an eye on the situation from a few feet away. There was some conversation between the boys, but I couldn't hear it. The boy who had taken the easy way up, then climbed to the top of the concrete slide and slid down before circling back to the scene of the fall.

By now, the boy who had fallen had completely finished his cry and was on his feet. There was more discussion amongst the three boys that I didn't hear, but judging from the body language, I'm guessing it was either about the fall or about how to best navigate the short, sand-dusted slope. Then, the two boys who had come to their friend's aid, ascended via the easy way. The boy who had fallen, however, tacked the concrete slope. His boot slipped a bit, but this time he made it without injury. He then ran back down and tried it again, then again, four times in all before he moved on.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

"They Have Never Failed To Imitate Them"





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

I don't claim to be a parenting expert.  I'm just a guy who has spent a lot of time playing with children, from that I've learned a little bit, and because of this blog people write me for my take on things. If there is any one thing that people write me more than anything else, it's something along the lines of, "I've tried everything and nothing works." I'm talking about universal parenting aggravations like getting kids to eat their vegetables, take a nap, or participate in household chores. And these are important things. Not only do we want our children to be healthy, rested, and responsible today, but these behaviors represent the values of good health and responsibility that, if we can only "instill" them, we know will serve our children throughout their lives.


While I try to be more sympathetic than this with individual readers because I know they wouldn't write to some guy on the internet wearing a red cape unless they were truly at the end of their rope, my answer to their dilemma is really quite simple: Quit trying.

You can serve children healthy food, but you can't make them eat. So quit trying.

You can put children into their bed, but you can't make them sleep. So quit trying.

And you can't make them clean up their room without the promise of a reward or the threat of punishment. 


So, I suppose I could reply to these parents that they haven't, in fact, tried "everything," because obviously you could always come up with a carrot that is sweet enough or a stick that is painful enough that you can get a child to do what you want them to do, but I would never suggest that anyone consciously step onto the vicious cycle of reward and punishment. Rewards and punishments may appear to work in the moment -- the promise of ice cream may well motivate a child to eat a few peas; the threat of having toys taken away may well motivate a child to tidy up -- but human nature dictates that, being unnatural consequences, the value of the rewards and the severity of the punishments must be regularly increased or they lose their effectiveness. Not only that, but the lessons taught in the long run, to be motivated by the approval or disapproval of others, are certainly not what we wish for our children. Values must come from within; they are not imposed from without: that's called obedience an unsavory and even dangerous trait.


Whatever we publicly proclaim, our actual values (as opposed to the values to which we aspire) are always, always, always most accurately and honestly revealed by our behaviors. When we eat junk food, we demonstrate that we value convenience or flavor over eating healthily. When we don't get enough sleep, we demonstrate that we value our jobs or our hobbies or our TV programs more than rest. When we let our homes become cluttered and dirty, we demonstrate that we value something else over a well-ordered household.


No, the better course, I've found, when it comes to teaching values is to simply give up trying to make another person do something that you want them to do. If you value healthy food, then eat it. If you value being well rested, then sleep. If you value a tidy bedroom, then keep yours tidy. And ultimately, with time, sometimes lots of time, it will be your role-modeling of these behaviors that your child will come to imitate, not on your schedule, but one of his own, which is all we can expect of our fellow humans.

You cannot instill values in other people, you can only role model them. And while I've avoided mentioning them in this post, no matter what your priest, rabbi, pastor, imam, or guru says, this goes for moral values as well.

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Monday, April 16, 2018

Like Water In A Raging River



As young boys, my brother and I would contend over who got to stand on the transmission hump in the middle of the back seat floor of our family's Chevy Impala in order to have an unimpeded view out the front windshield. An accident or even a sudden stop could have easily launched our small bodies through the glass. There were lap belts, but they were more often than not lost beneath the seat cushion. Sometimes we wore them, but only for the game of buckling and unbuckling them. Few people, no matter their age, belted up. Today, of course, American kids are in car seats for a large part of their childhoods and I know few adults who don't automatically buckle up. This saves lives. It's a good thing.


Still, deaths by car accident remain one of the leading causes of childhood death in our country. And yet every day we put our kids in cars and drive them around, while fretting about things like "stranger danger," pointy bits, and tripping hazards. We worry that our child will be injured on a swing or slide or while using a hand tool, even as we place them in far greater statistical danger just driving them to school in the morning.


Gever Tulley, the founder of the Tinkering School, Brightworks School, and author of 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do), has coined a useful term, "dangerism," to discuss how a society or individual decides what and what is not dangerous, often relying upon rationalizations and fear rather than facts. One example he uses is to point out that Americans tend to keep their kids away from sharp knives until they are "old enough to handle them," yet even two-year-old Inuits are handed these very same tools to cut seal blubber. Every culture both under and over-estimates the risk of certain activities leading to such irrational things as removing swing sets from playgrounds while at the same time driving their children around in automobiles, a far greater danger.


I've had the opportunity to reflect upon the concept of dangerism these past few days while here in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to present at an early childhood education conference hosted by the South Saigon International School. I love few things more than exploring new places by foot, but doing so here is a harrowing experience. There are many videos of the phenomenon (like this one here) posted on the internet by westerners, but let me assure you that watching it from the comfort of your computer screen is nothing like finding yourself in the middle of it. Stop lights are optional, every traffic lane is two-way, sidewalks are extensions of the roadway, it's not unusual for people to ride their motorbikes right into shops, and the swarming buzz of their motors is incessant. One of my colleagues here told me that she lived in the city for a year before she stopped feeling like crying every time she crossed a street.


On Monday, I found myself on foot crossing a long bridge during rush hour. The sidewalk that was only about 18 inches wide which I had to share with a steady flow of motorbikes trying to get around the congestion. I had no where to go so I pressed myself into the railing to let them pass, turning my feet parallel to the wall in the hope of saving my toes. Amazingly, I still have all ten. Also amazingly, nearly every rider made eye contact with me as they passed, nodding and saying either "Sorry" or "Hello" as they passed, their friendly calmness in stark contrast to my sense of danger.


This is a clearly dangerous situation to this American, yet here were every day Vietnamese people, often four to a bike, often with young children and even babies on board, some with children even standing between the adult's legs, just going about their business with apparently no sense of danger at all. I have no conclusion to draw from this reflection other than to say I didn't see a single accident even though I was sure one was about to happen at any given moment. Far be it from me to judge another culture, but holy cow, what a way to live!


I spent most of the day yesterday walking around this sweltering and exciting city. I have to say that my own sense of danger has diminished quite a bit even as the reality of that danger hasn't. By the time I got downtown to take in some of the tourist attractions, I was feeling pretty confident, so much so that I gave tips to an American couple who were, it appeared, on the verge of tears as they attempted to merely cross from one side of the street to another. And while I'm sure that the incidence of injury and death by motorbike would be completely unacceptable at home, I found myself feeling joyful about the remarkable amount of beautiful cooperation required to make it all work and I must confess that there were moments when I felt that I was a part of it as I crossed the street with motorbikes flowing round me like water in a raging river.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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