Friday, March 29, 2019

Repairing And Maintaining A Cast Iron Water Pump



For all the readers who have asked, this is a primer on basic repair and maintenance for a cast iron water pump on a preschool playground.

We've had a cast iron water pump around the school for the better part of two decades, but only as a "permanent" installation for the past ten years. I use quotes around the word permanent because ours is actually mounted on a piece of wood that we sit over a large plastic tub that acts as our cistern. Perhaps a less transient arrangement would be more aesthetically pleasing, but the advantage is that it makes it far easier to service and repair. And if you're going to have a cast iron water pump on a preschool playground, it will require occasional, if not frequent, maintenance. It's worth the effort given that our pump is probably the single most used item on our playground, year-after-year, but it's important to know what you're getting into.


The biggest challenge is that debris like sand, wood chips, pebbles, and small toys find their way into the top of the pump. By this point in the year, even most of the two-year-olds have internalized our mantra, "If you put things in the top of the pump, it will probably stop working," but whether done intentionally or inadvertently, it still happens.

When the pump stops drawing properly, I lift the pump from the plastic tub and carry it, wooden platform, intake pipe and all, down to the workbench. I almost always do this when their are children around to watch and they tend to follow me down the hill and gather around asking questions. I carrying on a running commentary about what I'm doing and why for their benefit. I mention this by way of apologizing for the blurriness of a couple of these photos: I was being jostled by the crowd as I took them.

The only tool you need is a wrench. I usually start by removing the top of the pump which is held on by a single bolt located under the pump handle.


I loosen the bolt, then lift the handle, top, and plunger off all in one piece. 


I examine the plunger for any debris.


More often than not, I'll find that the culprit is a wood chip that is trapped between the plunger weight and the plunger cage. Here's a picture of what I'm talking about. This is the "cage" with the weight in its center . . .


. . . Here I'm using my finger to lift the weight to show you what I'm talking about. If debris is trapped between the weight and the cage, the pump won't work effectively. Usually, all I have to do at this point is to remove whatever is stuck in there and put the pump back together. And while we're looking at this picture, I want to mention that the brown part my thumb is touching is called a "cup leather." Under normal use, manufacturers say that these need to be replaced once every 5-7 years. Under our playground use, we're replacing it at least once, sometimes twice a year. It's a simple process of unscrewing the large threaded nut at the bottom, pulling off the old leather, and replacing it with the new one.


Sometimes, however, the problem is at the bottom of the cylinder.


This might require removing it from it's base. To do this, you just loosen or remove the two bolts holding it together. There is one on both sides.


This will allow you to access what is called the base valve, but what I call the "flapper part." 



I call it that because it opens to allow water to be sucked up into the cylinder and closes to hold water in, flapping up and down as kids pump. Often debris will be trapped under the flapper. And again, while we're looking at these photos, I'll point out the brown part, which is piece called the "flat leather." We replace this as well once or twice a year, usually when we replace the cup leather. One need simply remove a bolt, take off the old leather, and screw on a new one.


Finally, I always check the inside of the uptake pipe (the pipe that goes down into the water in the cistern, to make sure there is no blockage. It's rare, but every now and then something get sucked up into it.

While I have the whole thing in pieces, I like to rub a nice glob of faucet grease inside the cylinder to make things work more smoothly, although it isn't necessary. I then reassemble the pump and carry it back to it's cistern. Sometimes you'll need to pour a little water into the top as you pump to get it drawing water again: this is called priming the pump.

If you have a cast iron pump or are considering one, you'll need to know how to maintain it or it will spend most of it's life as a useless relic. Like I said, however, it's completely worth it and after you've done it a few times, it will seem simpler that perhaps it does in this little primer.


If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Woodland Park Cooperative School in Seattle, we are currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. Click here for information. There are still spots available for 2-5 year olds.


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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, March 28, 2019

"You're Not Listening To Me!"



Three girls and a boy were playing a game together that involved one of them being a baby while the others cared for her. As they played, the boy asserted that he was no longer the daddy, that he had turned into Ironman.

"No, you can't," one of them replied.

"Yeah, you can't be a superhero, you have to be the dad."

"I want to be Ironman."

"No, that's the wrong character."

"We're playing 'family'. Ironman isn't in our family."

They argued back and forth for a bit. Recognizing he was outnumbered, the boy, no matter what the girls said, started to simply repeat his reply, "I want to be Ironman."

I could see it was beginning to annoy at least one of the girls, who began to shout her arguments louder and louder while the boy replied each time, "I want to be Ironman."

Finally, in a pique of frustration, the girl stamped her foot, and said what parents have said to disobedient children for generations, "You're not listening to me!"

There was a pause before the boy replied, "I am listening! You're just saying the wrong things!"


If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Woodland Park Cooperative School in Seattle, we are currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. Click here for information. There are still spots available for 2-5 year olds.


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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

What Makes A Classroom State-Of-The-Art?



Yesterday, my friends at Fairy Dust Teaching, started a discussion on their Facebook page with a prompt:



Honoring Children . . . 

-is not about whether you have plastic or eliminate plastic from your classroom

-is not about how aesthetically pleasing your classroom is or is not

-is about the children in your classroom being co-constructors in their education process

-is about your view of the children as having rights as a full member of the classroom, school, and larger community

What would you add?


There was a time when I felt that our facilities were inadequate, that we would never be a state-of-the-art preschool. I would look at the pictures of other schools, at their matching furniture, at their orderly shelves, at their larger rooms or "better" toys or more idyllic settings, and worry that this meant that we were somehow providing something less. The whole issue of plastic toys is one that really nagged at me. Of course, wood and metal is better, but not only could we never afford to throw out the all the plastic stuff our school has collected since 1977, I couldn't bring myself to toss perfectly good playthings. Indeed, the children at Woodland Park play every day on our playground with plastic things that are well over 20 years old, while our wood toys have rotted or rusted. 

Of course, I would prefer a purpose-built classroom, with out-of-sight storage instead of the jumble re-purposed furniture we've collected over the years via donations. Of course, I'd rather have a space with better flow from here to there or more quite spaces or a prettier entryway. There are songs we sing, sensory materials we use, and traditions we cherish that always remind me that there are those prepared to sit in judgement. I was even sometimes ashamed to allow colleagues to visit, fearing that they would consider us inadequate because we didn't live up to the latest ideas and theories, but those days are gone. Naturally, we are always looking for inspiration to improve, but it is a process, often a long process, of evolution, and I can today safely say that we will never be entirely rid of plastic, which I mean here as a metaphor for all of those "shoulds" and "should nots" that the self-proclaimed experts assert.

I've now had the opportunity to visit hundreds of fantastic schools all over the world. They are all different, they are all doing it "wrong," but they are all nevertheless fantastic because at bottom, they honor the children as fully formed, fully enfranchised, fully capable human beings. And in the end, that is all that matters: that's what makes a classroom state-of-the-art.


If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Woodland Park Cooperative School in Seattle, we are currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. Click here for information. There are still spots available for 2-5 year olds.


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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

So Quit Trying




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 ask or 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 parents and readers because I know they wouldn't turn 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 children will come to imitate (or not), not on your schedule, but one of their 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.


If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Woodland Park Cooperative School in Seattle, we are currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. Click here for information. There are still spots available for 2-5 year olds.

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


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!

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Monday, March 25, 2019

Segregating



A mathematician once told me that no matter how far your mathematic studies takes you, it is always about exploring increasingly complex and beautiful ways to sequence, group, and make patterns. I'll have to take his word for it, at least when it comes to pursuits beyond the calculus I studied in college, but I've had his assertion confirmed for me by enough people who should know that I hold it to be true.

Of course, exploring sequencing, grouping, and patterns is something that preschoolers do quite naturally around the classroom, not because someone has told them to study math, but because it gives them pleasure. Creating sets of like objects is, in fact, on of the first ways that children start to create order from the chaos around them. Last week, we had our collection of "exotic" plastic animals out (animals that are not native to the Americas). All week long, the kids spent at least some of their time building zoos for the animals, organizing them by species, putting walls of blocks between them.



This emerged spontaneously in every class, no matter what the age of the kids, and it has been true for as long as I've been teaching. It's not that they don't play other games as well, but this grouping game of is always a part of the play. It is so consistent that one can't help but wonder if this desire to segregate is something that is hardwired into human beings. And if we are not born with this instinct, then it is at least something that we readily absorb from our culture very early in life.

When it comes to inanimate objects like plastic animals, or counting bears, or marbles, we celebrate this type of play as a positive, as children exploring mathematical concepts, but when it comes to, for instance, segregating our baby dolls by skin color or our classmates by gender, we cringe. One can argue that it's all mathematics, and for very young children perhaps it is, but as adults we worry about the implication of this instinct to segregate. It's all child's play, it's all math play, yet it is also always about everything else. And that is why they need us.


If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Woodland Park Cooperative School in Seattle, we are currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. Click here for information. There are still spots available for 2-5 year olds.

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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Friday, March 22, 2019

Stumbling



Yesterday morning I rode the bus to school as usual, stepping off in our Fremont neighborhood into a mild, early spring morning. I smiled hello a woman reading a novel who I don't know, but who is usually there at the bus stop waiting for her own bus. We've recently started acknowledging one another after years of keeping our eyes down as I pass her there with her back to the blank windows of the Thai restaurant that wouldn't open until lunchtime.

Indeed, only the coffee shops were open this early, although there were plenty of us out and about on our way to our places of employment. None of us seemed to be in a hurry, which, I think, tends to be, by design, the natural state of people who like to be early for things. At least that's the case for me, I like the option to saunter, and that's what I was doing, head up and on a swivel, taking the world in as I passed along these blocks I walk nearly every day of my life, noticing that some of the trees are already in bloom, shaking my head about a paper box that was knocked down overnight by some vandal, even stopping for a moment to admire the newly refurbished signpost that designates this exact spot to be the Center of the Universe. As I waited for the crosswalk light to change, I let my body relax from the top of my head down to my toes, inhaling the spring air deeply.

Crossing the street in front of the 62 bus that stopped for the light with a hiss of compression brakes, I made a study of the sharp, dark line that the rooftops of the buildings made against the lightening sky. As I did, my foot caught on the uneven asphalt causing me to stumble. In fact, I nearly fell. I felt a flash of embarrassment, imagining how it must have looked to the bus driver who surely saw me. How could that have happened? I demanded of myself reproachfully. I cross this street all the time. I know perfectly well that the pavement is warped, that's part of the "charm" of Fremont. I walk here every day. How could I be so stupid. I don't want to be one of those old men who fall all the time . . . And so on, castigating myself the way one does, irritated at myself for not paying attention.

Later yesterday morning, I watched the children on the playground going about their self-selected activities. Every now and then one of them would stumble and fall because they were not paying attention to where they were placing their feet on the uneven ground. Their heads were up and on a swivel, taking the world in as they played in this place where they have been playing nearly every day since September. Witnessing it in this context, I suddenly understood: stumbling, even falling, is an inherent risk of paying attention to the world beyond where we place our feet. If we are to fully engage the world, to fully see the world, to fully live in the world, we are going to sometimes catch our feet on warped pavement, stumbling, even falling. The alternative is to go through life with our eyes fixed in front of us, on the ground, not nodding hello or lifting our noses into the spring air.

The next time I stumble, I'm going to try to remember that it's just evidence that I'm doing it right.


If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Woodland Park Cooperative School in Seattle, we are currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. Click here for information. There are still spots available for 2-5 year olds.

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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, March 21, 2019

"I'm Playing With You"




(This is a follow-up post to one from last week on the same topic of inclusion and exclusion.)

When our daughter Josephine was a preschooler, she would complain, "I wanted to play with her, but when I asked to play, she said, No." This wasn't a once or twice complaint, but one she voiced almost daily, and more often than not she was being rejected by her best friends. 

When I asked her teacher (and my mentor) Chris David about it, she replied, "If you want to play with a preschooler, sometimes the worst question to ask is, Can I play with you? The answer is almost always No." And while I've found this characterization to be a bit of an exaggeration, it is true for most kids some of the time and some kids most of the time. These are years during which children experiment with power and there are few things more powerful than telling someone No.

Instead of asking to play, Chris suggested to "just start playing." If it's dollies, then pick up a doll and start playing too. If it's blocks, start building. If it's painting, then paint. And before long you're not just playing beside someone, you're playing with them.


Entering into play with another person can be a very challenging proposition at any age. Some kids are naturals at it, and if you take the time to observe you'll find that most of these "master players" do it just the way Chris suggested I coach Josephine. Perhaps they take a moment to survey the scene, but typically it isn't very long before they've dropped to their knees and gotten busy. They don't try to change the game in progress, they don't try to get their hands on a toy that's already in use, and they definitely don't ask for permission.

When I suggested this approach to Josephine, however, she answered, "But I have to say something!" I've since found this to be true of a lot of children. It might just be temperament or it could be that they've internalized some adult social conventions, but whatever the case, there are some kids who seem constitutionally incapable of simply dropping into the midst of things. They feel the need to announce themselves or their intentions or to otherwise make themselves heard as they enter into play.

So Josephine and I strategized what kinds of things she could say that didn't present a yes or no option.

"What are you playing?"

"You're playing with blocks."

"My dolly is your dolly's best friend."

Or the line I use to this day when role modeling how to enter into play, the straight-forward assertion of fact, "I'm playing too." 


I don't expect every game to be open to all comers, sometimes you have something going with your buddy and there isn't room for one more, but we strive, as a general rule, to create a culture of inclusion in our classroom. It starts with the adults, of course, and since in our cooperative classrooms about a quarter of the bodies in the room belong to grown-ups, that gives us a running start. As adults, we almost always respond positively to attempts to enter into play with us. After all, that's part of why we're there, and when we can't, we explain why (e.g., "I'm helping Billy with this puzzle right now"), then let them know when we will be able to accept the invitation (e.g., "I'll play with you as soon as I'm done"), then we follow through.

I tell the adults that it's their job to role model inclusive behavior, to always seek to find a way to add one more child to whatever it is they're doing. If it's a puzzle, invite a second or third child to help. If it's a board game, go ahead and stretch and bend the rules to accommodate one more. If it's playing princesses in a castle, find another throne, make another crown, or suggest another gown.

When a child complains to me, "They're not letting me play," my stock response is to reply, "I'll play with you, come on." We then head right over to the kids who have somehow given the impression they don't want to play, sit down beside them, and say, "We're playing too." I don't want to boss or guilt anyone into playing with anyone else, but if I'm going to understand the dynamic of this particular exclusion, I figure I need to get right in the middle of the play, rather than the middle of a fight about play. Most of the time, this is all it takes, the exclusion was accidental or the result of a misunderstanding, and once I've helped break the ice, the game is on, everyone finds a role, and I can begin extricating myself.

Sometimes, however, by putting myself in the middle of things, I learn a little more about why things aren't working out. Sometimes I discover that the child is being excluded for a valid reason. For instance, "She keeps knocking down our buildings." I then turn to the child and restate their objection, "They don't want you to knock down their buildings. If you want to play with them, you can't knock down the buildings. If you want to knock down buildings, we can play that game over there," setting up a couple of concrete options, giving the child a chance to weigh out what is most important to her.


Sometimes I'll find that there is already an intense game in process, one that doesn't currently have room, for whatever reason, for another participant. I'll say something like, "We want to play with you," and give them an opportunity to explain why their game is a two person operation, to which I'll reply, "Oh, then we'll play with you later. Come on, let's do something else." We then set up shop nearby, often playing the very same game they're playing. Not always, but often then, the two games easily merge into one.

Of course, often I'll see that it is a clear case of exclusion, something done simply as a way to exert power at the expense of another child. This is usually the domain of a group of three or more kids. In this case I might, as a last resort, invoke our rule, You Can't Say You Can't Play, reminding the children that this is something to which they've all agreed. If nothing else, it's a way to start a conversation.

There are times when I find myself coaching children the way I did Josephine, but at least as often, it's about the role modeling, inserting myself into the play again and again, not commanding the other children but just dropping to my knees and getting busy.


If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Woodland Park Cooperative School (Seattle), we are currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. Click here for information. There are still spots available for 2-5 year olds.

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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

There Is No Truth Without One Another



"Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth." ~Mikail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

Schools tend to view their role to be the education of individual children, each child there to become their best self. The focus is upon each of them learning a certain set of skills and retaining (however temporarily) a certain body body of trivia with the ideal purpose being that they achieve their highest potential. The degree to which this is achieved can be debated, but for the most part, even the most progressive of schools tend toward the approach that each of us are out there pursuing truth and that it must be done as individuals. This is the theory behind testing, for instance, or grading, or rules that prevent others from talking during "study time." We are, by this theory, self-contained "selfs" who may work and play together at times, but who are, at bottom, stand-alone entities.

But as Russian philosopher Mikail Bakhtin and other see it, the idea of the individual self existing separately from others, is a myth. Indeed, we create truth, both about the world and about ourselves, only through one another. Truth is not something that we acquire or possess as individuals, but rather something we create in dialog with the other people. We see this very clearly in the relationship between a newborn and its parent. And I see it every day as I observe preschoolers playing together, engaging in mutual action and dialog, collaborating, cooperating, competing, as they, together, creating truth through their play with one another. This is why play is the highest form of education: it acknowledges the collective nature of any valid search for truth.

Of course, I care about the individual children I teach, but on a day-to-day basis I find myself focused more upon the entire community and my role in it. As I see the children in their collective pursuit of truth, I can never forget that I, and the other adults, are co-equal creators of this truth, whether we want to be or not. The degree of our engagement or disengagement, the specific words we use, the things that we make available to the children, all of this shapes our collective search for truth. Our values and opinions do not hold more value to this project than those of the children, but they are a part of it. Indeed, we owe truth to the children in our lives, and part of that is truth from our perspective: we owe it to them to make transparent why and who we are. It's likewise essential that we seek to understand their values and opinions and to listen to them without judgement. The goal is not to persuade or convince them, but rather to engage in dialogue about important things, because as Bakhtin says, "truth is born between people."

There is no truth without one another; there is no self. The best education is one that puts this collective pursuit of truth at its center. And that is exactly what play does.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Woodland Park Cooperative School (Seattle), we are currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. Click here for information. There are still spots available for 2-5 year olds.


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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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