Friday, August 30, 2019

I Chose To Educate For Freedom



Imagine a person who has lived her entire life in a cave. She has never been in a house; indeed she has never even seen one. One day, some do-gooders discover her living in this "primitive" manner and decide that, "for her own good," they are going to teach her to build a house. She doesn't know whether or not she wants a house, but they nevertheless compel her, again, for her own good.

These do-gooders begin by bringing her a hammer, nails, and some wood, then proceed to drill her on the use of those basic house building tools. Of course, having never used a hammer before, she's not very good at it. She smashes her thumb, for instance, which hurts. She bends a few nails, which she's told are mistakes, even if she found it satisfying to bend them over. But eventually, after a few weeks, she gets the hang of it and is able to drive a nail as well as any professional. Now, they introduce the saw in the same manner, followed by drills, levels, and measuring tapes. Then they bring in miter saws, nail guns, and concrete mixers, and whatever else she might need to build a house, drilling her on their use one at a time until she is proficient.

The woman still has never seen a house, even as the do-gooders continue to insist that it's something she really, really needs. The work, while perhaps interesting at first, becomes mind numbing, repetitive, and ultimately meaningless. She would rather be doing other things, but each time she tries to, say, use her newly acquired hammering skills on a rock or a tree or their noggins, she's scolded into focusing on the task at hand. When her mind wanders, when she drops her tools to chase butterflies or pick flowers, she's told she needs more grit, that she's falling behind, that she requires more homework.

Then one day, after years of this type of "education" she's told that she is finished. She now has all the skills required to build a house for herself. The do-gooders pat themselves on the back and hike off to find more primitives to educate, leaving the woman alone at the mouth of her cave, two decades older, yet still unable to build a house because she's never even seen one. She's not even sure she wants one. And not only that, she's been so busy learning her skills that she's now also ignorant about butterflies and flowers.

As ludicrous as this sounds, it isn't too far off how the US is attempting to educate its children. Our schools, controlled by "education reform" do-gooders and dilettantish policy makers have come to focus overwhelmingly on skill acquisition over knowledge. To a certain extent our schools have always done this, but with the advent of the federal mandates of No Child Left Behind (2001), followed by Race to the Top, and the Common Core, schools have been forced to focus almost exclusively on the "tools" of reading and math at the expense of knowledge like social studies, art, physical education, history, and science.

No matter how many skills one acquires, they are meaningless without knowledge, which is why knowledge must alway precede skills. Just as a person, no matter how skilled, will struggle to build a house without prior knowledge of a house, children will struggle to comprehend what they are reading or calculating without prior knowledge of the subject matter. This is why the skills based approach to public school education has been such a disaster, with American children failing to become better readers or mathematicians, while the achievement gap between wealthy and poor children continues to expand despite the do-gooders' insistence that closing that gap was their main goal in the first place.

Human beings are driven to make sense of the world, to understand, to acquire knowledge, to chase butterflies and pick flowers. It is through this process that we come to comprehend. It is our desire to then do something with our knowledge that motivates us to learn skills, like hammering, sawing, and reading. Without his motivation, without a meaningful, self-selected "project," without comprehension, the acquisition of skills will always become dull and meaningless. This is why the sort of self-directed learning at the core of play-based education is superior to the top-down, authority-directed approach favored by traditional schools. We actually put the horse before the cart, which even a cavewoman knows is the way to get anywhere.

But there is more at work here. As writer Joao Coutinho wrote, "There is no neutral education. Education is either for domestication or for freedom." I chose to educate for freedom.

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Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Gold Standard For Playing In The World Together



One of the five-year-old boys in this, our final summer session, has sparked the imaginations of several of the younger boys. He is bold and inclusive, and enjoys taking the role as the authoritative (as opposed to authoritarian) leader. Several parents have told me that their kids talk of him at home, insisting that they are going to play with him, even if, in reality they spend their days watching from afar. Most of the games this glamorous boy organizes involve, at some level, rough housing or, if not that, pretend fighting of some sort, which can intimidate some of the younger kids, even as it also attracts them.

Yesterday, the game involved shooting one another with weapons devised from sticks and other longish items.

There was a time when I would have felt that it was incumbent upon me, the teacher, to be proactive about gun play, but the longer I've done this job, the more I'm inclined to not see it as a problem until the children themselves see it as a problem. At first, their game was fairly self-contained, with the older boy and his group of admirers mainly shooting at one another, but at one point they trained their sites on a three-year-old boy who had previously been part of their game, but who had, overwhelmed for a moment, opted out without telling them. He had a worried look on his face, so I asked him, "Do you like that they're shooting you?" He shook his head, so I drew attention to that by saying, "He doesn't like to be shot. He has a worried look on his face."


The younger boys kept shooting for a few seconds, my words not immediately registering, but the older boy stopped instantly, commanding, "Stop firing! We have to find some real criminals," which caused the others to imitate him. As they roved around the playground, the older boy orally weaving the story of the game they were playing, both commanding and cajoling, he served, in a way, as the group's pre-frontal cortex. He recalled that during the school year we had, as a class, agreed, that you must ask someone before you could shoot at them, and was enforcing it on his troops. Coming from him, it was far more effective than had I been trailing around after them with reminders.

At one point, their fierceness frightened another younger boy. Their leader, seeing the tears, lowered his weapon, bent down so they were face-to-face, put a hand on his shoulder, and said, "It's okay, we won't shoot at you. You're a good guy," then after a brief pause, added, "We're just pretending." This assurance calmed the boy almost instantly. Later, they frightened another boy, who I began to console. I was thinking the play was now beginning to show up as a problem and would need some intervention on my part, but the glamorous boy, apparently sharing my concern, announced in his best voice-of-god, "No more shooting! Now we have to march!" And that's what they did: march in a well-ordered line around the place in a noisy version of follow-the-leader. Later, one of them offered himself up as "the criminal" and they spent the rest of the morning, weapons abandoned, trying to take him to "jail."

I understand why we are so quick, as adults, to jump on weapon play of this sort. It smacks of violence and other societal problems. It sometimes frightens other children. We have had school years during which it was officially banned (by a consensus of the children), but that never prevented it from happening. It just gave us adults the right to step in and scuttle it, effectively pushing it "underground." I won't pretend to explain why, but I know that this sort of play emerges all over the world wherever children play in groups of any size. I know that there has never been a connection made between this sort of play and future violence: indeed, some research seems to indicate that children who are permitted to play these games are less likely to be violent adults. I know that dramatic play is how children process what they see in the world around them, how they come to understand it from all sides, and how it can become the foundation for empathy. I also know that forbidden fruit is always the sweetest: since I've stopped being so proactive about weapons play, instead treating it like all other sorts of play, I've definitely seen a drop in the amount of time and energy children spend on these games.

Yesterday was an exception in the sense that it rose to the level that it was beginning to frighten some of the other children. They took it to the edge, but they were, with the help of their leader, for the good of everyone, able to reign it back in. For me, that's the gold standard for playing in the world together.

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Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Swinging, Rolling, And Spinning





As an enthusiastic, new parent, I once made myself vomit from rolling down a grassy hill one too many times. It had likely been a couple decades since my last grassy hill and I'd remembered it as joyful, but the actual experience was anything but. The same goes for swinging. I'll sometimes sit on our playground swings, but anything more than a couple back-and-forths and I'm done.


It's part of growing up. Young children crave swinging, rolling, and spinning. That's because they need it. It helps their nervous system to mature and organize. I've written before about how we've never found a need to make rules surrounding out our swing set, a place where there are often as many as a dozen kids engaged in getting their sensory fix, activating the fluid filled cavities of their inner ears, instinctively developing their sense of balance, finding their centers. It's yet another example of how children, when left to their own devices without the constant direction of all-knowing, all-protecting adults, know what is best for themselves.


Of course, they are "just" playing, and no matter how much science there is behind what they do, the play always comes first. Indeed, it is a failure of our modern world that we feel we must prove play's value with science. Play, like love, like wisdom, like life, is a pure good: that it is supported by science should strike us all as a "no duh" revelation.


One girl was working to go "all the way upside down."


One girl had persuaded an adult to wind her up in the tire swing, "Higher . . . higher . . . higher . . ." in anticipation of a wild, out-of-control ride.


One girl was opting to keep matters under own hand, twisting the chains herself, then allowing her body to more slowly spin-drop until her dragging feet brought her to a stop. They played their spinning and swinging games over-and-over, not vomiting, thrilling at their dizziness.

They were playing, following their instincts, joyfully. It was everything to them. If adults could re-learn to trust children, it would be everything to us as well  . . . Although perhaps not for us.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Democracy Amongst The Canada Geese



There was a time when the City of Seattle was trying to rid our waterfront parks of Canada geese, but that effort has clearly fallen by the wayside in recent years. We have nicknamed our neighborhood park at the southern tip of Lake Union "Goose Poop Park" in honor of the non-migratory population that has taken up residence there. Throughout our history, humans are notorious for killing off, driving away, or domesticating other species, but the Canada goose is the exception that proves the rule.

Yesterday, my wife and I were walking the dog when we came upon a large flock of about 40 geese that were moving together toward the water, a course that caused them to cross the sidewalk. Ahead of us, another dog walker passed through the group, dividing it as the geese shied away from the dog. This caused the entire flock to come to a stop. The leaders, a group of a half dozen, remained poised, bodies forward, bills pointed insistently toward the water, seemingly waiting for the others to follow. One even stood with a foot raised, as if about to take the next step. A larger group just behind them, however, seemed to be less certain about which direction to go. Most were pointed toward the water, but without the urgency of the leaders, while others were pointed in other directions. Several looked as if they were concerned about the part of the flock that had remained on the other side of the sidewalk, who were, in turn, facing every which way, some even lying down in the grass.


The leaders stayed frozen for a couple minutes, while the other geese seemed to be making up their collective mind about what to do. Some started grazing. A few more laid down. A couple of smaller, contrarian birds that my wife and I labeled "teenagers" started slowly waddling away from the water. The leaders then, in unison, broke their stillness and took a few steps toward the water. No one followed. They froze again before taking a few more tentative steps, still without persuading those behind them. Indeed, among those standing, more and more of them began to turn away from the water, pointing their bills this way and that as if voting to stay just where they were. Slowly at first, then more decisively, as if giving up on the rest of the flock, the small group of leaders plunged into the water without the rest, but remained right near the shore so as not to lose touch with the flock.

To me, that looked a lot like democracy in action, something that we don't typically ascribe to the "lower" animals, yet here it was as clear as day. Whereas we once interpreted animal societies through the lens of the strong leader "Alpha Male," increasingly, we're coming to see that democracy is more the rule among group-living animals than the exception. Rather than being an "unnatural" invention of humans, it appears that we were born to democracy.

We see it every day on the playground, when adults leave children to play according to their own devices: one child may lead for awhile, even behaving as a kind of dictator, but there is a natural ebb and flow, and over time the others stop following if they find that their voices are silenced and desires thwarted. Most of what children choose to do together follows the patterns of deep democracy with thoughts, ideas, and directions being discussed and debated; where the majority most often rules, but where individuals still retain the option to plunge into the water if they really want to.

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Monday, August 26, 2019

This Is Not Healthy




As a boy, I went to school like almost everyone, then came home and played in the neighborhood, in our yards, our neighbor's yards, in the street, in vacant lots, in construction sites, and, more rarely, in one another's garages or bedrooms. We could do that because school let out in the mid-afternoon, we had stay-at-home parents, no homework to speak of, and we lived in a world in which we didn't fear molesters and kidnappers behind every tree. We did not have organized after school programs or activities, so our mothers didn't have to chauffeur us from place. We had very few toys and most television programming was dull.

What we had was other kids. Even as young as four-years-old, mom would tell me I was driving her crazy, send me outside, and shut the door behind me. If there weren't already other kids out there, I quickly learned to go find them, going from door-to-door knocking, and asking, "Can Johnny play?" "Can Lisa play?" "Can Ralph play?" Then we would play with minimal adult supervision until our parents called us in, which was usually dinner time.


Both school and childhood have changed dramatically over the past 40-50 years. School days are longer, more strictly scheduled, and increasingly academic. School is "important" in a way it wasn't, with parents, teachers, and policy-makers obsessing over such things and test scores, grades, grit, and those mythological "jobs of tomorrow" for which our children must be prepared for the sake of our nation's economic competitiveness. Lucky children might have an hour of "free play" before bedtime or on weekends, but even that tends to be indoors, heavily supervised and often not "free" at all, with adults defining the limits of their play with rules, cautions, and Johnny-on-the-spot interventions should there be any hint of conflict, struggle, or failure.

This is not healthy. Children are human beings and as such, they must be free, free in mind and body, in order to achieve their highest potential. It's hard not to compare today's children to circus tigers, magnificent beings, locked into cages, prodded by ringmasters, and taught to do tricks for the benefit of an audience. Sure, they are safe, well-fed, lauded, and even loved, but when do they get to prowl through the jungle as they are meant to?

The rates of depression and suicide among children is increasing every year. As psychologist Peter Gray points out, children today are more depressed than they were during the Great Depression and more anxious than they were at the height of the Cold War. Suicide, suicide attempts, and thoughts of committing suicide among children and teens have doubled over the past decade. Tellingly, the rate of suicide and suicide attempts both double during the months school is in session versus summer months when it drops. And it's not just these clinically depressed and suicidal children we should be worried about: no child benefits from greater stress and less play.


We have, in a short time, fundamentally changed our view of children. Whereas previous generations saw them as relatively competent and self-reliant, even at early ages, we now tend to pathologize them as incapable and needy, even well into their adolescence and teenaged years. In our efforts to mould them into the shapes of our desires, we've taken charge of their every movement, even their every thought, controlling and shaping them, leaving them precious little time and space to prowl. In our quest to make them into shiny cogs in the economic machine we've robbed them of childhood, of the time during which the human animal develops essential social and emotional abilities, the capacity to play with, to work with, to understand, and befriend our fellow human beings. We've taken from them the essential experiences of knocking on the neighbors' doors, asking "What do you want to do?" and then setting about doing it in the unscripted, unscheduled, unmanaged way of children in their natural habitat, which is while playing with other children, outdoors, unsupervised, and with plenty of time in which to learn how to work through conflict, struggle and failure to something better.

I sometimes find myself despairing over my own part in this tragedy of contemporary childhood. I am, after all, a teacher in a preschool, a thing that barely existed in my own childhood. But, damn it, I'm striving, and I'll continue to strive, with every fiber of my being, to create a place, a culture, in which children are free to prowl, to play with one another without constant adult interference. It is not as good as I had it, but it's better than what's going on in society at large where we have done pretty much everything possible to destroy childhood to the detriment of us all. It begins with me, with us.

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Friday, August 23, 2019

More Thoughts On Helping Children



Yesterday, a girl got stuck. I don't mean literally, but rather metaphorically. When her mother left her in the morning she began to shadow me, which is a common enough thing. I often wear a skirt of a half dozen kids or more during the first few weeks of school; I'm honored they allow me to be their comfort adult. When we got to the area near the cast iron pump, we decided we would sit on the ground together and watch the action. After a bit, I was needed elsewhere so I told her, "I'm going to the snack table. Do you want to come with me?" She replied, "No," she would stay right here, so I went about my business.

I left her in the midst of quite a bit of action, with children pumping water into a large tub, then working together to dump it down the hill in a game they've come to call "major overflow." Later, I spied her in the same spot, although now she was sitting all alone. Some time later she was still there in the same spot, just sitting, not apparently doing anything. She didn't appear upset. When she was still there after another spell had passed, still alone, still not doing anything, I checked in with her. She still seemed okay, but she had been sitting there for a long time, unsmiling and unengaged, so I said, "I'm going to the workbench. Do you want to come with me?" She answered, "Yes," took my hand, smiled in a way that I took as a "thank you" and together we walked down the hill.

In yesterday's post, I cautioned about our adult tendency to offer children, however well-intended, unsolicited advice and help, how this very often impedes or even prevents children from figuring out how to do things on their own. But there is a flip-side, I think, as well. Every one of us at one time or another needs the help of our fellow humans. As Yuval Noah Harari convincingly argues in his book Sapiens, our single greatest adaptive advantage as a species is our ability to act collectively, to cooperate, and helping one another stands at the center of that. It's a fine line we walk, then, between helping and not helping. Likewise, it's an equally fine line between doing it for ourselves and asking for help.

As a society, we value independence, while casting dependence as a sign of immaturity or weakness. It causes people to feel ashamed, for instance, to admit they've sought the help of mental health professionals. We even worry or joke that as parents we're going to be the reason our children will one day need therapy, as if knowing when and how to ask for help is not a sign of wisdom. For many of us, there is a stigma attached, especially as adults, to needing the help or advice of our fellow humans causing us to put on a brave face, to insist everything is perfectly fine, even to the point of self-deception, and all to avoid being thought too needy or incompetent or, again, weak.

I'll never know for certain, but it seemed that the girl needed my help to move on, to become unstuck. I'd given her the time and space to exercise her independence, but, at least on this day, it appeared she was incapable of doing it on her own so I offered my help and she accepted. We want them to be independent, to feel masterful in their lives, competent, but at the same time, we also want them to know when and how to ask for help. Mostly, we do that by role modeling it, by asking for help ourselves, but I hope that yesterday I showed the girl that the world is full of willing helpers and that there is no shame in accepting help when you need it.

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Thursday, August 22, 2019

Helping Children



He had learned to climb to the top of the concrete slide earlier that day. Unable to ascend the face of it directly because it was too steep and slippery with sand, he had discovered a shorter span of concrete off to the side that he could manage, albeit with much effort. After proving himself a handful of times, he had the idea of taking a truck to the top of the concrete slide with him. He had needed both hands and both feet to make the ascent on his previous attempts and the challenge of occupying one of his hands with the truck was a trick one step removed from his capabilities.

I was forming this opinion from a position of about three feet away, perched amongst the lilac roots that stand at the top of the concrete slide. I could have helped him. Indeed, I considered it, either bodily or with unsolicited advice, but fought back the urge. He was repeatedly climbing a few inches, putting every ounce of himself into the effort, only to slide back down, truck and all. Eventually, he gave up, never once even looking in my direction.

It's hard to not help children when they are struggling, either physically, as with this boy, or emotionally. We are, as adults, inclined by both nature and nurture to help the children in our lives, but at the same time, we want them to experience the satisfaction that comes with doing things for themselves. We want them to grow into self-sufficient, independent, confident people, something that only comes through practice and struggle.

I think it's easier to find the line when it comes to physical challenges, like the one this boy set for himself. Even if he had asked for help, I'd have likely said something like, "I won't help you, but I won't let you get hurt," or perhaps remarked on his efforts so far, "You're working very hard right now." Maybe, depending on the circumstances, I might have offered a tip, like, "I'll bet you can do it if you don't take the truck," or pointed out that some kids have found an easier route that involves going the long way around. One thing I avoid, both as a teacher and in life, is to offer unsolicited help or advice.

The line is blurrier when a child his struggling emotionally. The instinct of many people, I've noticed, is to simply swoop in and pick them up, which is, I think quite often a version of offering unsolicited help. I always ask a child if they want me to hold them or take them on my lap, and I've found that I'm rejected more often than not, so I simply tell them "I'll stay close to you while you're sad/angry/frustrated." Adults likewise indulge in the urge to begin suggesting things that we think might "help," like eating a snack or getting involved with some activity or going to a quieter place, all of which might be valid ideas, but also fall into the category of unsolicited advice. It's easy to forget that it's not our job to end their struggle: it's our job to be available to help them through it, and ultimately only the person experiencing the emotion can determine what kind of help, if any, they need. That's the path to self-sufficiency.

Finding these lines is one of the most important things we do we do as adults in the lives of children. We do it most accurately when we allow the children themselves to show us where those lines are. And for any parents reading here, the line will be in a different place with you than with, say, their teacher. I can't tell you how many children need mommy with them as they go to the toilet, for instance, but don't need any adult help at all when mommy isn't there.

John Holt wrote, "We cannot assume, just because we hear someone say, "I am doing this to help you," that what he does will be good." And what good help means can only be determined by the person being helped.


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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

But What Are They Learning?




I was recently asked how I go about explaining to skeptical parents what their child is learning as she plays. It's a common enough question, one I don't need to address very often in my day-to-day life as a teacher, largely because the Woodland Park Cooperative School's reputation as a play-based school precedes it, mostly only attracting families who are seeking what we have to offer -- the opportunity for their children to play with other kids in a safe enough, loving, interesting environment, -- so I don't often have to deal with skeptics. The families of the children I teach tend to view play as a pure good, like love, one that needs no other supporting evidence.

When I see children on the floor, say, building with blocks, I know they are learning, because that's what play is: it's children setting about asking and answering their own questions. Can I stack this block atop that one? Can I make it even higher? Add a roof? Create a room? A zoo? Can I persuade this other person to join me in my vision? Can I join them in theirs? They aren't saying these things aloud or even in their heads, but it's quite clear that when humans play, when we freely choose an activity, that is what we are doing, testing the world, performing experiments, seeking answers to questions we ourselves pose. Play is how our instinct to become educated manifests itself, a concept that is supported by more than a century of research and observation performed by the brightest names in education, from Dewey and Piaget to Montessori and Vygotsky.

But as to the question of "what" children are learning at any given moment, the only one who knows that is person who is playing, and the moment we interrupt them to ask, the moment we test them, we forever change it. It's version of what in physics is called the "observer effect." As humans play, they are unconsciously asking and answering questions as they emerge, pursuing trains of thought, playing with variables, theorizing, making connections between one thing and another. The moment another person steps in with his own questions, that pursuit stops, and when the questioner is in a position of authority, like a teacher or parent, those questions become an imperative. The child must end their learning to explain it, to prove it, to translate it, and to invariably narrow it down to a sentence or two that can only, at best, provide a glimpse of a glimpse of what is actually being learned.

Experienced play-based teachers know this, of course. We tend rather to stand back and instead of testing the children we attempt to closely observe, then make educated guesses about what we imagine that child is learning. When they attempt to stack one block atop another, for instance, we might guess they are learning about balance. When the building falls we might surmise they are learning about gravity. When they invite another child to play with them, we say they are learning important social or emotional skills. But at bottom, it's all just guesswork and imagination, and even if we are correct at one level, we are invariably wrong about much of it, both specifically and through omission.

The great truth is that no one can ever know what another person is learning unless they directly tell us of their own accord: "Guess what I learned? . . ." And this is especially true of young children who likely don't even have the vocabulary or experience to put their insights into words capable of communicating the depth and texture of their moments of Eureka!

I rarely attempt to answer the question of what a child is learning at any given moment, even as I spend much of my day wondering about it. I can say, when asked, "I see her building with blocks," "I see her attempting to balance one atop another," "I see her building falling down," those are the things I know to be true; observable facts. But to suggest that I can know with any precision what she is learning is to ask me to read another person's mind. There is no test capable of answering that and our guesses are simply that, guesses, and they can only, at best, get at a very narrow sliver of truth.

But I do know my fellow humans are learning when they play and that has to be enough.


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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Time To Make Sure He Believed It





One of our newly-minted three-year-olds has recently learned how to "pump" himself on the swing and he has lately been joyfully testing the limit of our swing set. A few days ago, another boy ran into his swing zone and was knocked down. This happens a lot less often than one might guess, but it does happen, especially with children who are new to the place.

The boy who had been knocked down looked about as if wondering what had happened, figured it out, then hopped up and went about his play before I could even take two steps toward him.

Meanwhile, the boy on the swing had brought himself to a complete stop. His eyes followed the other boy as he as he ran off, the event already, for him, in the past. The boy in the swing, however, remained hanging there for a minute. Then he began to bawl. I tried consoling him with the assurance that he had done nothing wrong, that it had been an accident, that the other boy was obviously unhurt and unafraid, but he was inconsolable. I know from experience that he's not inclined to want me to physically comfort him, so I just stayed close as he cried himself out. Then he hung there with his thoughts for a good ten minutes.

He wasn't physically hurt; it was his conscience that was bruised. Or perhaps he was crying in pure empathy, on behalf of the boy he had knocked down. I imagine he was sorting through regrets, perhaps wondering if he could have done something differently, perhaps feeling whistful for the innocent days before he could swing himself so high. I had assured him that he had done nothing wrong, but he needed, I think, the time to make sure he believed it.

He left the swings altogether then, opting for the art table where he joined other children drawing with oil pastels on construction paper, but on the following morning I was relieved to see that he was back in his customary swing. I placed a pair of orange caution cones in front of him and another pair behind in order to divert children away from his swing zone, keeping everyone a little safer. I'll never really know what exactly the boy felt or thought, but I do know the world is a better place with him in it.


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Monday, August 19, 2019

We're All Here To Teach One Another



I like reading and then subsequently owning hard cover books. About a decade ago, my wife and I purged our lives of our excess possessions, emptying cellars, garages, attics, and cupboards before moving into a small apartment where we live amongst only our most beautiful or useful possessions. We count our thousands of hard bound books in both categories. One of my hobbies is to peruse the aisles of the few used bookstores remaining in Seattle, hunting out not just particular titles and authors, but also books with covers that will enhance our shelves.

I was reading one of our newest acquisitions over the weekend when I turned to page 152 and found, to my dismay, that the book's spine had been broken. For those of you who read paperbacks or from e-readers (no judgement), that means that some clumsy, careless, or malevolent reader of the book had handled it in such a way that the pages had become separated from the binding. I felt a surge of disappointment, of loss, followed by an urge to scold and blame. My wife had read the book before me, maybe she needed a reminder. No, she might occasionally dog ear page, but treasures books as much as I do. Maybe I should take it back to the used book seller and demand a refund. No, they're a small business probably barely eking by: this is by all rights a buyer-beware situation. Could it have been my fault somehow? Could it be repaired? Do people repair bindings any longer? Am I going to have to seek out another copy of this book for our shelves?

It was all silliness, of course. There was and is nothing to be done. Every binding of every book ever published is going to, in the course of time, pull away from its binding, not to mention return to dust. Indeed, knowing what we think we now know about the nature of time, the spine has always been broken. It's not mine to bemoan it's loss, but rather to take pleasure in it, to use it now, while it is a book. 

Last week, I was playing with a two-year-old. She was picking up objects one and two at a time, studying them, putting them through their paces, combining this object with that, fiddling, experimenting, using them, filling her hands and brain and heart with them, then dropping them to the ground, not necessarily forgotten, but without regret or remorse. I thought of her as I contemplated the broken spine of my book. Oh, to have the capacity of a two-year-old, the wisdom, to live in the world as it truly is.

We're all here to teach one another.



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

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Friday, August 16, 2019

"Appreciation Is A Holy Thing"



After reading a story, then singing our final song together yesterday, the children came forward to hug me, not one at a time, but all together, and there we were, a massive scrum of bodies, wrapping one another up in our arms.

Since my first year teaching, this is the way the two-year-olds have said goodbye to me at the end of the day, and they have taught it to the older kids attending this session of our summer program. I've never asked for it or encouraged it in any way other than, I suppose, to be open to it. It starts on the first day of class each year because there is always one child who genuinely feels the urge to hug me, to receive a hug from me, then others see it, think that's a good idea, and come for their hug as well. I say the children's names as they approach, "Here's my Sarah hug, my Nora hug, my Alex hug . . ."

Mister Rogers said, "I believe that appreciation is a holy thing." We are saying goodbye to one another, of course, but we're also saying thank you, expressing our gratitude, showing our appreciation, not in payment for any particular favor, but simply for the time we've had together. It starts spontaneously, then, as the year progresses, becomes a sort of ritual, each child making it her or his own. There are some who rush to be first, others who wait for the crowd to thin. Some don't want to let go. Some come back for a second and third and fourth hugs. A few don't want to hug, preferring a high five or simply eye contact. Some are moved to start hugging their classmates.

It's a beautiful way to end our time together, almost as if we're all topping one another up before heading off into our separate lives.

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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