Thursday, February 20, 2020

I Forget How Radical Our Ideas Are

I sometimes forget how radical our ideas are about young children. I forget that not everyone trusts children even if most people say they do. I forget that most adults are convinced that children must be guided, coerced, tricked or otherwise manipulated to do "right" things, even as they genuinely profess a belief in their innate goodness. I forget that out there, outside our bubble, grown-ups might proudly say they want "kids to be kids," yet their behavior demonstrates that they can't imagine them thriving absent a background of near constant correction, "good jobs," and unsolicited advice. Most people think that we agree with one another about children, but once we get talking, they start to realize that what we're saying is radical.

It's the radical idea that children are fully formed people, due the rights and respect due to all the other people. When we treat adults as untrustworthy, when we seek to guide, coerce, trick or otherwise manipulate them, when we correct or offer false praise or unsolicited advice, we are generally considered to be jerks of the highest order. Yet somehow, many of us, maybe most of us, live in a world in which it's considered normal to treat children this way.

Do they need us when they're young? Of course they do, in the way that seeds need gardeners to make sure the soil is well-tended, that it is protected, and that it gets enough water, but the growing, the sprouting, the leafing, the budding, the blooming, and the fruiting is up to the plant.

I am spending more time these days outside of our bubble, interacting with adults who seem to genuinely want to do the right thing by children, to do better by children, but who are stuck with outmoded ideas of what children are. They have no notion that, from an historical perspective, what they think is normal is not: for children to spend their days doing what the grown-ups tell them to do, to sit still, to spend all those hours indoors, to move from place to place driven by a schedule rather than curiosity. Recently, I was in a meeting with a pair of partners interested in investing in educational matters. Their own children had both been in cooperative preschools like the one in which I taught for nearly 20 years. One of them said, "On my first day working in the classroom I was down on my knees helping the kids build with blocks. Teacher Sandi tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'This is the children's project, not yours.' That was a real eye-opener for me."

I know Teacher Sandi. I know exactly how she said it. I've done it myself, often to highly accomplished professional people "slumming" for a day in the classroom. This kind of thing, as simple and as obvious as it sounds to those of us who have dedicated our lives to progressive play-based education, is for most people still a radical idea. Sometimes the thought of making the changes that need to happen seems overwhelming. It makes me want to crawl back into the bubble and stay there, focusing on the children of the parents who get it. But then I'm encouraged by how readily this radical idea can also become an "eye-opener," just as it was for me as I set out on the same journey two decades ago, and just as it continues to be.

Most of what I've learned from and about young children over the past two decades comes down to un-learning the modern lessons of "parenting," schooling, and the capabilities of children. I've discovered that if I am to do right by children I must release control, shut up and listen, get out of their way, and love them. And whenever I'm challenged, whenever things are not going well, I've discovered that the answer always lies in returning to the radical idea of treating children like people.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

If Adults Could Re-Learn To Trust Children

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 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 or 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, February 18, 2020

We Are The Cooperative Animal

Two-year-olds might come to school for the toys or for Teacher Tom, but by the time they're four or five, most kids come to school to play with the other kids.

Humans are the most cooperative of all animals even if it sometimes doesn't seem like it. We're in awe of a bee hive, for instance, as we observe these mere insects managing their bee society, but humans are so adept at cooperating that we don't have to see, know, or even like one another in order to, say, send an overnight package from Seattle to Saigon, a process that involves thousands of humans working together to make it happen. While other animals certainly cooperate with one another, humans cooperate on a massive, even global scale.

As Yuval Noah Harari illustrates in his book Sapiens, our species has managed to leap frog normal evolutionary timelines through our development of language and the capacity to engage in counterfactual thinking (the ability to imagine something that doesn't exist) both individually and collectively. By all rights, we should be middle-of-the-food-chain apes, but by working together, creating a world in which we are instead apex predators, we have surpassed lions and sharks in a shockingly short time in evolutionary terms. As a result, we find ourselves at the top of the food chain, but without the bold fearlessness of animals that got that way via old fashioned biological evolution. There's a part of us that remains a nervous, always on the look out, eat or be eaten ape.

All mammals, at least to a degree, are social animals, of course. Dogs and cats for instance are so skilled that their abilities cross species lines as they become members of our otherwise human families. Birds do it too. People who have reptiles as pets report the same thing. The need for social skills is so common across the animal kingdom that it's tempting to think it comes naturally, but anyone who has tried to foster a dog that has been abused or kept in isolation without the opportunity to interact normally with other beings understands that they will be deficient in the social skills necessary to connect and cooperate, and will therefore struggle to become a member of any "pack."

Scientists tell us that we are born with our potential to cooperate, but that potential must be activated, and it is activated through play. "The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain," says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. These changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood allow humans to develop their executive functions, which are essential to regulating emotions, planning ahead, and problem solving, the building blocks of those all-important social skills. Washington State University researcher Jaak Panksepp says, "The function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways."

Time and time again, we find that those who succeed in life -- and by that I mean real success as measured by things like enjoying good relationships with family and friends, having engaging, meaningful work to do in the world, and feeling overall satisfaction in life -- are those who possess the strongest social skills: the ability to connect with others, to work well with them, to negotiate and agree, and to cooperate. This kind of success has never been connected with having the highest grades, doing the most homework, or passing all the tests. Indeed, even if success is defined simply by the ability to make a lot of money, the social abilities that are activated by play are essential because, after all, our entire economic system is based upon our incredible human ability to cooperate.

As I watch children play, as they wrestle, bicker, and agree, they are doing the work of humanity. For better or worse, we are the cooperative animal. It is this ability to cooperate that has brought us all that is good about humans and all that is bad. For every instance of coming together to feed the hungry, for instance, there is a counter instance of humans cooperating to commit genocide. We have worked together to end deadly diseases only to turn around and work together to massively pollute the planet. This instinctive capacity to cooperate is where both the light and dark in us reside: our demise and our salvation.

Children instinctively come together to play with one another, to activate the connections between their neurons, to develop the skills that will allow them to be full participants in the journey of humanity. As important adults in the lives of children, our job is to create a free, safe enough, and lovely environment in which they can develop these essential skills. But it is all for nought if we don't also strive, every day, to role model the change we want to see in the world, because that's the way we "teach" them how to use these incredible cooperative super powers to create light instead of darkness.

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Monday, February 17, 2020

Making Hulda's Vision A Reality

Hulda Hreidarsdottir first contacted me in early 2012. She was writing from Iceland where she was the founder of a company called Fafu Toys, makers of toys disguised as costumes, unlike anything I'd ever seen (the company is now called Fafunia). We exchanged emails, she commented on my blog posts, and over the next couple months we discovered that we were fellow travelers. I didn't know at the time that she was only 29-years-old. I only knew that she had the kind of energy that inspires others to do better, to do best, to do. She was a woman who spent most of her childhood talking to herself and who found children more interesting than adults. She took play seriously and used her creativity to offer better play opportunities. She had great plans to change the world. One of those plans was to hold an international play conference in Reykjavik and she wondered if I would be a part of it. Of course, I agreed. 

The weeklong event was scheduled for October, then tragically, Hulda, at 32, died in her sleep in June, four months before we were to have met in person. It was a devastating loss. Her family along with her International Play Iceland co-founder, a man who was destined to become my dear friend, Tom Shea, decided that we would keep alive her unique vision of a better world for children. This October 4-9, will mark our 8th trip to Iceland to learn, to study, to connect, and to celebrate. Play Iceland has become more than a conference: it's a life-changing and life-transforming experience unlike any other I've found in the ECE world.

Last year, filmmaker David Hughes, partner of the wonderful Marghanita Hughes, joined us in Iceland, and from that produced this beautiful short documentary about how we continue to try to make Hulda's vision a reality. I can't tell you how proud I am to be a part of not just this film, but the entire Play Iceland experience. Thank you David. Thank you Tom Shea. Thank you Hreidarsdottir family. And especially thank you Hulda.

Played from Lastwood Media on Vimeo.

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Friday, February 14, 2020

Where The Fig Tree Hangs Heavy

Between the ages of nine and 12, I lived with my family in a suburb of Athens, Greece. One summer weekend we got away with some family friends to the coast to spend a sunny day on a favorite sand and shell beach nestled in the curve of a horseshoe of rocky cliffs forming a protected bay. We particularly liked this beach because the waves were gentle and the water was shallow enough that one could wade a good way out without having to reach for the bottom. We had previously discovered that there was good snorkeling along one of the rocky rises, while there was a deep pool up against the other making it an ideal place for diving from the rocks.

But what really made this a favorite beach was that on a previous visit we had discovered a "secret" path leading up through the rocks, one that required a great deal of scrambling and imagination to follow. Even better, it was one that the adults were entirely uninterested in (or perhaps incapable of) pursuing. What made it so magical is that after climbing some ways, we came to a flat area that held a patch of soil. At the end of that was a natural rock archway that we perceived instantly as a small doorway, our size, one that silently invited us, perhaps against our better judgement. We wiggled through to find a single, thriving fig tree, heavy with ripe fruit. It was like the opening chapter of a Hardy Boys novel or the tales of Narnia.

After getting our fill of swimming and diving, the older kids, there were four of us, left our parents on the beach to mind the younger children, intending to re-discover the magic path, the magic doorway, the magic tree. We struggled up the rocks as before, then through the opening in the rocks, where we found the tree. It was later in the season, however, and the fruit was on the ground which was abuzz with flies. This scene did nothing to decrease the feeling that I was in a story, even as the other kids expressed their disgust. We decided to see if this path held any more secrets when one of us discovered that it seemed to continue beyond the tree. Looking back, I'm not sure we were following a path at all, but at the time we could see it clearly.

After some light bouldering, we realized that we had emerged on the other side of the cliff. Above, we could hear the sound of cars passing on the roadway. Below, far below, was the churn of waves as they crashed against the rocks. We stopped to consider. Our imaginary path had dwindled out. Should we climb up to the road and walk back that way or just turn around to return the way we'd come? After several minutes, we decided that we could, in fact, see a path forward, albeit just barely. Indeed, the path was a very narrow ledge, not much wider than our feet. We could see that it opened up to more easy clambering a short way beyond, but first we would have to manage the ledge. Holding on to the rock face with my fingertips I edged my way toward the other side. About halfway across, I made the mistake of looking down into the devil's punchbowl of waves and rocks that would certainly be the end of me were I to fall. I saw my own death in that moment.

I honestly don't recall making our way back to the beach, but obviously we did. I think we failed to get up to the road, then returned the way we had come, although via an alternative to the narrow ledge. Upon our return, we chattered to the adults about the climb, the doorway, and the tree. We told them of our failure to make it to the road and our return, but none of us mentioned the ledge. I don't know if my brother or our friends had the experience I did. In fact, I tend to think that they simply didn't look down at that moment the way I had done and had therefore remained blissfully ignorant of how close to death they had been. Whatever the case, none of us mentioned how high we had climbed or how close to the edge we had been.

Stupid? The person I am now might judge it that way, just as we knew at the time that had the adults known, they would have scolded us. The person I was then, however, held no judgement. It was simply something I had done, something I'd experienced as part of pursuing something. What? Adventure, curiosity, magic? Yes to all of that. Importantly, this experience brought me close to death in a way that has stuck with me to this day. I didn't need scolding or fear-mongering or cautions to tell me what that moment meant. I had looked death in the face, as a boy, calmly, a chapter in the saga of my life, and emerged unscathed. To this day, I find myself returning to this memory in critical moments. It helps me with perspective. It reminds that if one is to pursue adventure, curiosity and magic, one must accept death as a companion, not a friend exactly, but perhaps sometimes as an ally, seeing him, knowing him, then continue forward nevertheless to where the fig tree hangs heavy with fruit.

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Thursday, February 13, 2020

Seeking Truth

Around the middle part of the 16th century European scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton ignited what has come to be called the "Scientific Revolution." For the next two hundred years, the scientific method brought about massive changes in our understanding of the universe by asserting that truth could be found by applying the scientific method of hypotheses, observation, measurement, and experiment, all conducted against a backdrop of rigorous skepticism. Famously, Galileo was found by the Catholic Church to be "vehemently suspect of heresy" and placed under a life sentence of house arrest for defending the Copernican notion that the Earth moves around the Sun.

Galileo wasn't the only scientist to be considered an enemy of truth, a sentiment that continues to this day with sizable segments of our population denying, at least in part, such scientific "truths" as man-caused climate change, the efficacy and safety of vaccines, and many of the foundational principles of how young children learn. Not long ago, I wrote about a man I met who is convinced that the Earth is flat, a man who is apparently not alone in this surprising belief. I'm not here today to argue about any of these specific matters, only to point out that for all of us, there are truths other than those derived from scientific.

Truth is a difficult thing to talk about. Science is only one of the ways we seek truth. Science is, at bottom, a quest to establish facts about reality that hold true no matter who is making the observation. It is a way of understanding realty from the outside. Pope Urban VIII, however, derived truth from his spirituality, which one could say is a way of understanding reality by looking within oneself, and relying upon not experiment, but faith. Artists seek truth by trying to understand reality from the inside out, assuming that reality is inherently subjective and only comprehensible through the filter of self. And then there is the most ancient quest for truth of all, the collective truths we create through our mythologies, those stories we tell again and again until they become reality.

I confess to a prejudice in favor of science because it is the only path that requires truth to change as new evidence emerges, but when I'm honest with myself, I can see that an equal share of my own "truth" is shaped by spirituality, art, and myth. And, frankly, these various kinds of truth live quite comfortably within me, complimenting one another by filling in the gaps left by the inadequacies of each. For instance, for me it's true that love is the shortcut word we use for that Holy Grail of science, the Grand Unifying Theory. I don't have evidence for that: it's a truth that I've arrived through my soul, art, and our mythologies.

Education can be defined in many ways, but most of us would agree that at some level it is a search for truth, and I would assert that any searcher who ignores the paths of science, spirituality, art, or mythology, will ultimately fall short in that quest, finding themselves unfulfilled. Truth is out there. Truth is subjective. Truth is individual. And truth is collective. It comes from without and within, and it is never complete. As humans, whatever our age, we are driven to seek truth, whatever it is, and by whatever path. Of course, we argue over it, but we just as often agree, even if we've come to it via different routes. The children in our care are truth-seekers as well. At any given moment they are engaged in science, in soul searching, in creating art, or in wrestling with the stories that define us.

Humans are the truth-seeking animal, whatever that means, and the truth we discover is the clay from which we shape the purpose of our lives.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

I've Never Been More Happy To Have Been Wrong

Last night my wife and I were taking the bus home from dinner with Mom and Dad. A couple boarded with a child in a stroller. The father lifted some of the seats near the front to make a space for the stroller, set the brakes, then, oddly I thought, took a seat across the the aisle from the child. Equally strange to me was that the mother also passed on the seat beside her child, instead sitting one row behind. I observed the family, not talking, the mother staring out the window while the father seemed to contemplate his navel. Not only where they not paying attention to their child who was young enough for a stroller, but they had placed themselves apart from him in a public place. I found myself pitying that child who I could not see from where I sat, but who most certainly would prefer his parents to be closer.

But then I caught myself in mid-judgement. Maybe, I thought, the child's asleep, maybe they're all tired, maybe they've been in close proximity all day, maybe they all just need a little space. 

Then the child spoke. The words were unintelligible, but loud enough because I could hear them from a few rows back. Neither parent responded, however, and again I found myself entertaining speculative judgement. As I looked at the father, I imagined I saw a stern figure, a man with a temper. I could not see the mother's face as she was sitting directly in front of me, but I found myself thinking of her as long-suffering, a woman who was perhaps browbeaten. That poor child, I thought. Poor all children I thought as I recognized that this challenging marital dynamic is all too common.

The child spoke again, this time even more loudly although the words still weren't clear to me. Again, the parents ignored him, seemingly lost in their own worlds. I thought there was something about the father that looked Russian. Perhaps an immigrant. I wondered about his own childhood, envisioning a stern father and passive mother in his own past, something he was unconsciously recreating for his child who seemed to have been "left alone" and ignored on the bus. The child spoke again, this time even more insistently, a shout even. This time I understood: "Let me out!"

Oh no. That poor child.

"Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!" The child's voice was rising. The mother leaned forward a bit. I thought she was finally going to sit up front now in order to comfort her child, but she remained like that as the child shouted, "Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!" At first, the father seemed to be ignoring the shouts, but finally he raised his eyes to look across the aisle. Slowly he crossed over, standing in front of the stroller. I was holding my breath. By now the child was wild, his head rising up above the hood of the stroller, apparently struggling against his restraints. I was tempted to step in. I'm an early childhood professional. I knew what that child needed. Perhaps I could role model for these parents a loving way to help their child sooth himself.

The father leaned over the boy in a way that struck me as menacing. What was going to happen? Would I have the courage to intervene? Of course I would if I saw any violence, but what about if he stops short of that, but still scolds or threatens or raises his own voice the way I imagined such a stern father would? I'm a mandatory reporter after all, someone the state expects to report suspicions of abuse or neglect. I wondered if I was about to witness something like that. I read the mother's unchanged position as a sign that she was tense with fear for what was to come.

The mother remained poised, but immobile, the parents not having exchanged as much as a glance. The child continued to rant, "Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!" At first I couldn't see the father's expression, but when I did, I was relieved to see that he was smiling, his face close to his son's who was evidently kicking and tossing about in the stroller. He was saying something softly to the boy, his hands touching him in a way that made me think he was tickling him. Was that what he was doing? How incredibly misguided. Tickling a child into submission? I suppose it's better than yelling or hitting, but just barely . . .

I was in full-on judgement mode when the boy began to settle, still chanting his demands, but ever more quietly. Whatever the father was doing, whoever that man is, wherever he is from, he was supporting that boy to sooth, smiling, touching, speaking words so softly that I couldn't hear his voice. The mother remained poised in her position that I now understood as full attention, as she watched this man work with the boy, and in that moment it landed on me that this couple knew what they were doing and that this boy was loved beyond measure, as all children deserve to be loved.

Soon the boy was quiet again. The father remained standing near the stroller for the rest of the trip. I only now realized that there had not been a seat beside the largish stroller: they had been forced to raise it as well to make room for the stroller. That's why they had all sat apart rather than together. The mother leaned back into her seat again, no longer looking out the window, but at the man who had soothed the boy and even though I could not see her face, I knew that there was love in her expression.

I'm sharing this story not because I'm proud of my own part in it. I might not have done anything, but my thoughts were harsh, full of the prejudice, based upon ignorance, and, thankfully, wrong, wrong, wrong. I watched the father for several stops, full of admiration for him, for what I'd seen him do, for how calmly he had done it, not once looking around to see what know-it-all jerks like me were thinking. A few stops later they got off. I regret not having told this couple how much I admire them. So I'm sharing this story today out of respect for these parents and for all parents who have been unfairly judged by friend and stranger alike; parents who are loving their children the way they know they should despite what we ignorant bystanders may be thinking. I've never been more happy to have been wrong. I'm looking forward to having my judgements thrown into my face again today.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Maybe It's Time

You can hardly throw a rock at your computer screen (although I would recommend using the search phrase "parent involvement in schools") without hitting an academic study that finds that parent involvement in a child's education is the number one predictor of educational success, however it's measured. More than teachers, more than pedagogy, more than curricula, more than textbooks, homework, or tests, in fact probably more than all those things combined, we know that when parents are meaningfully engaged in their children's schools, things go much better for both the schools and the children.

Teachers already know this, of course. In fact, most parents do too. According to a survey of research conducted by the Michigan Department of Education, 86 percent of the general public believe that support from parents is the most important way to improve schools. And just so there is no doubt, here are a few other highlights of parent involvement they uncovered:

  • Higher grades, test scores, and graduation rates
  • Increased motivation, better self-esteem
  • Better school attendance
  • Lower rates of suspension
  • Decreased use of drugs and alcohol
  • Fewer instances of violent behavior
  • Family participation in education was twice as predictive of students' academic success as family socioeconomic status. Some of the more intensive programs had effects that were 10 times greater than other factors
  • The more intensely parents are involved, the more beneficial the achievement effects
  • The more parents participate in schooling, in a sustained way, at every level -- in advocacy, decision-making and oversight roles, as fundraisers and boosters, as volunteers and para-professionals, and as home teachers -- the better the student achievement.

There are decades of research supporting parental involvement as the key factor in school success, but if you're reading this, you probably don't need any persuading. In fact, if you're white, hold a university degree, and have a middle class income, there's a better than 80 percent chance that you're deeply invested in your child's academic life. On the other hand, if you are Hispanic or black, dropped out of high school, and live below the poverty line, there's probably a less than 30 percent chance that you attend school events or volunteer time at the school.

In other words, it shouldn't surprise anyone that schools that serve white, middle class families tend to have ample parental involvement. These are the majority of schools in America that are "succeeding." Schools that serve largely poor, uneducated, minority populations struggle to get mom and dad across their thresholds. It also shouldn't surprise anyone that it's the public schools that serve these poor populations that are "failing" according to whatever measure you want to use.

It seems pretty obvious that the best way to improve the performance of these schools is to increase parent participation.

Easier said than done, right? Almost by definition, these are parents who are struggling, who have been failed by schools, who are often single parents, who may not speak English at home, who are, in many cases working 2 or 3 jobs just to get by. These are parents who are are tired, distracted, and beaten down. Even if they want to get involved, they often can't. And many of them, frankly, have simply given up on the whole idea of education to the point that they don't even care. How do you increase parent involvement in the face of that?

I suggest that instead of putting money into things like high stakes testing, educational fads brought to us by policymakers and billionaire dilettantes, or getting teachers competing against one another for bonuses, we might want to consider paying these poor parents to get involved in their kid's school. That's what the research seems to indicate will make the most difference. For anyone thinking of starting a charter school in a poor neighborhood, here's the free idea from Teacher Tom and I bet you won't have to game the system to show improvement.

Well? What's wrong with that idea?

Will parents then just be there for the money? Yes. Some of them. But most of them aren't there at all now, either because they can't afford to or because they just don't care. Money talks, especially when you are very poor. But now we have them at school on a regular basis even if it is just for the money: parent-teacher conferences, open houses, PTA events. We're paying them to learn the basic information and acquire basic skills they need to to help their kids, and of all the things upon which we could spend our education dollars, increasing parent involvement stands to pay the highest dividends. It almost seems like a no-brainer.

Think what this will do for families in which the parents work 16 hour days just to make ends meet. Not only will they not have to sacrifice valuable income to get involved, but they'll also be in a position to help their kids, even if all they do is demonstrate an informed interest. Indeed there will be some who seek to take advantage, to just show up for the cash, but even that, even putting that knowledge about a child's family life into a teacher's hands can make a huge difference for that kid.

And for every family that just shows up for the cash, there will be another family that is actually able to save their at-risk child, perhaps enough to make a "failed" school into a success.

We could even means test, I suppose, but I'd be inclined to make it available to the entire school. I doubt many of the parents who are showing up already will accept the pay because they've already demonstrated a commitment to education and know the school needs the money. And overall, I just can't imagine that this would cost us more than we're spending now, and it would likely improve educational outcomes far more effectively than most the other things on which we're currently trying in the quest to improve test scores.

The focus of our national discussion about improving schools has been on blaming teachers when it's pretty obvious this is really a parent involvement issue. Awhile back, a Florida state legislator introduced a bill that would have created a parent "report card" that would give parents grades for various types of involvement in their kid's school lives. Although I see this as a gimmick -- parents who are already involved don't need it, parents who aren't will just hear scolding -- but at least it puts the school reform emphasis where it ought to be.

This idea of paying parents, even if it's just minimum wage ($15 per hour where I live), addresses two problems at once, without scolding: puts some money in the pockets of people who need it most and gets more parents into their children's schools, even if it's initially for the wrong reasons. I'm convinced that committed teachers who are supported by their schools, will be able to "turn" a good percentage of these parents, getting them coming back for the right reasons.

I'm sure there are aspects of this idea that are not well thought-out and probably many great ways to improve upon it, but it's been on my mind like a brain-fever for quite some time. Maybe it's a bit idyllic, maybe it sounds a little like throwing money at a problem, but hey, when have we ever tried throwing money at education? Maybe it's time.

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Monday, February 10, 2020

Children And Grandparents Belong At The Center Of Every Community

These grandparents had apparently not received a proper preparation for visiting our cooperative classroom. They stood timidly against the wall as if trying to simultaneously blend in and stay out of the way. This was an odd thing in our classroom, adults standing aloof from the action, rather than dropping to their knees and getting busy. I gave them time to get a feel for the place, the way I would children who prefer to enter new situations as observers, then finally sidled over to introduce myself. They were enthusiastic in their praise of what they had seen so far, echoing compliments I've heard from grandparents for decades:

"This is how we played when I was a kid!"

"I remember those dolls from when (insert adult child's name) was little."

"This looks so fun!"

"Look how happy they are!"

"I've heard a lot about you from both my daughter and granddaughter." 

I'm always excited when grandparents visit. Sometimes I've been forewarned: "I just want you to know that my mom is very judgmental," or "My dad might try to convince you that you need to be teaching them how to read," but I take those cautions with a large grain of salt. I have never experienced a visiting grandparent who didn't fall in love with our cooperative school. Indeed, most grandparents, after their brief observation, behave as if they've always been here.

And indeed, from an historical perspective they have. For most of human history, grandparents, and grandmothers in particular, were integral to raising the young. Of course, the birth mother took on a share of the child care responsibilities at first, nursing and what not, but she was a prime of life woman with other important things to do along the hunting and gathering lines, so the lion's share of child raising was taken up by other members of the community: aunts, cousins, friends, older children, and in particular, grandmothers. During my recent visit to New Zealand, a Maori early childhood professional told me that not only was she raised primarily by her grandmother, she was looking forward to raising her own grandchild. She said it was one of the few old Maori traditions that has survived colonialism.

The evolution of grandparents is almost unique to humans, with elephants and whales being the only other species of which I'm aware that the females regularly enjoy a significant post-menopausal period of life. Compared to other animals, the time during which human young need adult care and attention stretches out for an extraordinarily long time, years in fact. The modern idea that this responsibility should be undertaken by birth parents alone, with most of the burden falling on the mother, is, frankly, a crazy one. It takes a village to raise a child, and grandparents (mostly grandmothers in all honesty) have stood at the center of those villages because caring for children is one of the central projects of every society that has ever existed whether we admit it or not.

I today's world, sadly, most American children are being raised thousands of miles away from their grandparents, which has given rise to the child care industry. Parents who want or need to earn incomes are left with little choice but to send their children off to these surrogate villages populated by low paid, low status, even if well-intended and highly-qualified, professional child minders. As one of these child minders myself, I freely confess to being a poor replacement for grandparents. For most, the only alternative is for at least one of these prime of life parents (usually the mother) to drop out of the work force for a time, which means both a sacrifice of income as well as the interruption, if not complete de-railment, of a meaningful and rewarding career. Meanwhile, our grandmas are counting the days until they get to see their precious grandchildren. Few of us are satisfied with this situation.

I chatted with those timid grandparents for several minutes, sharing some of the "it takes a village" theory behind the cooperative model, boasting about our robust parent community, and soaking up their excitement for what was going on around their knees. Then the grandfather shyly asked, "May I play with the children?" The question broke my heart. Of course he could play with the children, but that he had to ask, that he didn't already know that it was in fact his responsibility to be playing with them, struck me as a sad, sad thing. It was a struggle for him to descend to the floor, but he knelt, then sat, joking, "Now that I'm down here, I'll be here for awhile!" then happily set about joining the children who were building with blocks.

This is how childhood should look, everywhere, everyday. Just as we've ghettoized the early years, we've done pretty much the same with our senior citizens, with far too many of them housed together in homes, cared for by low paid, low status, even if well-intended and highly-qualified professionals.

We live in a time of disconnection, where the machines are taking over, where families are increasingly isolated not only from each other, but within families as well, with all of us living our separate lives, in the surrogate villages of work and school that are poor replacements for the kinds of interconnected, interdependent villages from which we've evolved. Nasty "mommy wars" have sprung up pitting stay-at-home moms against working moms. We have a broken child care model that is too expensive, while paying starvation wages. Too many children are growing up in artificial "villages" of children, where they rarely interact with adults other than their teachers and parents. And our grandparents are living apart from the wider community, the gifts they have being wasted as they count the days until they get to see their grandchildren.

Children and grandparents belong in the center of every community. It's encouraging to read about preschools being placed in nursing homes. The cooperative model is thriving in some places as a more natural village, but they are few and far between. There are groups of homeschoolers and unschoolers coming together to create community centers, but not everyone can make that work. There are solutions, but so far it's been ad hoc, piecemeal, and insufficient. Last week, I sketched out one idea for how we could perhaps go about addressing this situation on a wider scale, one that might make this sort of village more accessible, but there's a great distance between here and there. Perhaps we'll never get there, but we definitely won't if we don't take the first step. Or maybe "the journey" is a poor metaphor. A better one might be that of getting down on the floor, kneeling, sitting, and happily joining the people we find there to build something new, together. That way, even if we don't quite finish it ourselves, we'll have left something behind for others to continue building.

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Friday, February 07, 2020

When Our Butterflies Are Ready, They Will Emerge

Did you know that if you are in a hurry for a butterfly to emerge from its chrysalis, you can induce it to emerge by breathing on it? The warmth of your breath will trick it into behaving as if its time has come. Of course, it will be premature, incompletely formed, and unable to survive for more than a few minutes, but you can, if you want, induce it.

It's an apt metaphor, I think, for much of what happens in the world of early childhood education, where the ethic of more and faster regularly captures the imaginations of policy makers, corporate "do-gooders," and even some administrators. I know where it comes from. It's baked into our corporate culture, this idea that everything must be driven by goals, assessed by how quickly it can "scale," measured according to data, and judged by rigid standards. It's a world that is dominated by calendars and watches and "we need it tomorrow." And it's celebrated because, you know, it's the way to build "unicorns" (companies valued at over a billion dollars) and "decacorns" (companies valued at over 10 billion).

Yesterday a friend and former Woodland Park parent who helps stay-at-home-moms re-enter the workforce, told me that one of the biggest challenges these women face is shifting from the habit measuring time like a parent to measuring it like a businessperson. She told me that parents of young children (and their teachers for that matter) tend to think more in terms of seasons rather than days and weeks when it comes to getting things done, which is a much more appropriate approach when it comes to human development. They struggle to adjust to deadlines, for instance, that seem arbitrary, because in the timeline of seasons the butterfly will emerge when it's ready, usually, but not always, within the week to 10 day timeframe typically dictated by the process of metamorphosis, and there is nothing one can do to hurry it along.

This is the world of early childhood, a place where the most important things happen, not according to schedules we make, but rather according to the spaciousness of seasonal processes, developmental stages instead of more and faster deadlines; processes that are as old as humanity. And, in part, this is why so much of the "reform" that comes the corporate world is doomed to fail, and to even damage, the children they seek to help.

You can't hurry the seasons, but you can count on them. There's no place for more and faster when it comes to young children. When our butterflies are ready, they will emerge, and not one moment sooner.

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Thursday, February 06, 2020

What To Do About "The Parents"

For the past couple days I've been writing about the need for a transformation in America education, one that replaces "school" with evidence-based, child-centered learning. You'll find parts one of and two of this series here and here.


If I go into Nordstrom and tell the shoe salesperson that I want high heels, their job is to say, "How high?" because the customer is always right. When I go into my doctor, however, and tell her I want Medicine X, her job is to say, "You might want Medicine X, but what you need is a splint."

In education, too many of us act like shoe salespeople when really need to start being more like doctors.

I've had the opportunity to visit schools in a dozen countries, on four continents. I've been to schools in most of the Canadian provinces and half the US states. I went to each of those places to talk to teachers and administrators about play-based preschool education. And everywhere I've gone, I've been generally well-received. Indeed, most of the time, those education professionals already know most of what I've come to talk about, yet I'm there because despite being knowledgeable, skilled professionals, many of their schools are still struggling to implement play-based education and I'm there to provide a nudge in the right direction. Some schools I visit are already fully play-based. I'm invited to those schools, to inspire educators to keep up their good work. They need the boost because most of us work in bubbles and even as we do the right thing, we find ourselves under constant pressure to introduce "just a little" developmentally inappropriate literacy instruction or add a tad more rigorous grading or homework or whatever. Play-based education, despite the overwhelming evidence to support it, is always under attack, even in the most friendly place.

I often ask my fellow early childhood educators about the barriers they face. Sometimes they blame regulations or their government's standardized curriculum. Sometimes they grumble about this or that administrator who refuses to look at the evidence. Sometimes they even blame corporations who are earning billions on the unmitigated disaster of high stakes standardized testing and various curriculum-in-a-box scams. And invariably, among the challenges these educators say they face are "the parents."

It seems that too many parents have come to see their children's schools as a kind of department store where the customer is always right. They've bought into the fear-mongering about "school readiness." They've heard about the higher reading scores at the school down the street. They've seen movies about the no-nonsense disciplinarian with a heart of gold who whips those kids into shape. They've watched online videos about the importance of "grit" and "a growth mindset" and "accountability," and even if it's all a little mixed up in their heads, they know they want that for their kids. And, of course, they've all been to school, so naturally they know a thing or two about a thing or two. Not all parents, of course, but enough that time and again "parents" show up as barriers. And all too often, it seems, professional educators find ourselves in the role of shoe salesmen, giving them what they want, or at least making them think they're getting what they want, even if we know that the shoe they're insisting upon will eventually cripple them.

Now, I'm not insensitive to the parent's plight. Most of us aren't professional educators. How can we be expected to sort through all the nonsense that's out there, not to mention the societal habit of traditional schooling, one that will likely take a generation or more to kick even with the right motivation. And yes, these are their children, the most precious thing in their lives: of course we must listen to them, consider their views, and accept that they are at least in part driven by fear. At the same time, education professionals are professionals in the way that doctors are. It's not our job to just give our customers what they want, but rather to help them understand what it is that their children deserve.

From a teacher's perspective, perhaps the most important parts of the cooperative model of early childhood education is that parents are not just invited, but required to work in the classroom alongside the professionals as assistant teachers. There is nothing like being on the inside as a kind of apprentice to really understand how much they don't know, but how much they didn't know they didn't know, not just about their own child, but about children in general. Over the past couple decades, I've watched thousands of parents become educated about the kind of evidence-based learning that is characterized by play-based education. They've come to understand not only is their child a genius, so are all the others. They see that their child might be "behind" in some areas, but so are all the others. And they have front row seats to the incredible natural development of young human beings that takes place when we stop doing school to them and instead allow them to ask and answer their own questions in an beautiful, varied, and loving environment.

In our cooperative, parents rarely show up as barriers. In fact, the opposite is true: more often than not they are champions and allies, sometimes poking at sore spots or pointing out challenges, but always knowing that they must also take an active part in the solution.

Sadly, many American children are growing up in preschools and child cares, places to which their parents are connected primarily by email, the occasional phone call, and the quarterly parent-teacher conference. If we are going to truly transform education, this is something that must change. As it now stands, most parents are being educated about education by non-professionals: policymakers, journalists, and corporate hacks who haven't spent a day in the classroom, but who control the message nevertheless. They get elected on rhetoric about how our children are falling behind. They earn money by kindling the fear of missing out. They attract eyeballs with alarmist headlines. And the consensus of these education dilettantes is that some version of habitual schooling must continue, albeit with these extra grindstones added. Is it any wonder that parents show up as barriers to evidence-based education, which is to say play-based education, because they've been very poorly educated about education.

One of the primary projects of every human society is to care for children. For some ninety-nine percent of human existence, we understood this, which is why children always stood at the center of life. Today, in our wisdom, we have farmed this essential human activity to the fringes. Those who care for and educate our children are low-status, low-paid, and scarcely afforded the respect a professional deserves. We wonder what's wrong with modern society, well I'm here to argue that when we removed the care of children from the center of our lives, we removed the heart of community. We will continue to be "sick" as long as we keep insisting on Medicine X when what we really need is to bring children back into the center of our lives.

One of the ways to do this is to bring parents into their children's classrooms in a meaningful way. People will argue that I'm taking a privileged stand here, that too many parents find themselves too burdened with multiple minimum wage jobs to find the time. I can't imagine a better use of our education dollars than to then to simply pay these parents for their time.

People will argue that employers will never give parents the time off to attend preschool. Right now, that might be true, but here in the Pacific Northwest where there are thousands of thriving cooperative schools, many employers do make these allowances, often motivated by their own memories as co-op parents.

People will argue that employers will fight against us, fearing that having children at the center of their employees' lives will be too distracting. It sounds to me like these employers need to be educated, because whether they know it or not, parents are already distracted by being parents, not to mention the extra guilt and anxiety that comes from having their beloved children so far from the center of their lives. I would argue that employers who can be made to see the light will find that this transformation will result in happier, and therefore more productive workers.

For every objection, there is a solution, but the only way to find it is to keep talking about it. Again, I'm not saying that this is a silver bullet, but there is a lot we can learn from the cooperative model and it's commitment to educating not just children, but entire families.

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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