Friday, January 31, 2020

"Are They Pretending?"




A group of three and four-year-olds were playing a game of camping. They had draped a blanket over the backs of some chairs, under which they huddled together, alternating between being asleep and waking up. A pile of building blocks served as their campfire. Suddenly, a pair of bears stomped onto their site, kicking out the fire while roaring menacingly. There were screams as the campers cowered in their tent.

I was sitting off to the side with one of their classmates, a bright boy, an early reader and sophisticated talker who many would have considered "gifted." He was watching the game with a glassy gaze until the arrival of the bears when his eyes widened into alarmed circles before, after a moment, narrowing into a look of suspicion, "Are they pretending?" At the time, I took his question to be referring to the entire scenario, but in hindsight, I realize he may just have been asking about the shrieks of terror, but whatever the case something about it struck him as "real," at least for a moment. I assured him it was pretend, pointing out that everyone was smiling, and no one was really being eaten and he seemed satisfied to have his suspicions confirmed.

Young children spend a lot of time exploring that line between real and pretend, playing with it like a curtain, dancing in and out, examining the world from both sides. We make a mistake when we consider their pretend worlds to be frivolous. Dramatic play is an important part of how children come to understand reality, a safe place where they can explore themes and concepts they want to better comprehend. In this camping game, for instance, which emerged from one of the children having recently experienced her first family camping trip, they were playing with what it means to sleep outdoors, away from home, snuggled together with only a piece of fabric for protection. They were playing with the idea of fear, violence, ferocity, and the ruthlessness of the natural world, where bears might very well eat you. By adopting roles like mommy and daddy and big sister and bear, they were assuming the "costume" of another, trying to imagine how the world looks from the perspective of another person whose station in life is very different from their own. No, these games are far from frivolous: they are essential.

When the boy asked me "Are they pretending?" I assured him that they were, but I could have just as honestly answered "No," because like every game of pretend, reality stands at the heart of it. Quite often, for instance, the emotions are real, even if the characters involved are unicorns and superheroes. The negotiating required to come to the collective agreements required to manufacture pretend worlds is as real, and often as intense, as any international diplomacy. The working together, the cooperation, and the collaboration are valuable currency in the real world as well as their pretend ones.

Yet still, even as reality and fantasy slip back and forth, even as the line is as fine as gossamer, most children, most of the time, know exactly where they are at any given moment, which is why the boy's question has stuck with me. Yes, they sometimes get momentarily lost in their games, sometimes they pretend so well they frighten themselves or actually hit or forget they're not really the queen, but taken all together, it is really quite miraculous how well they keep it all sorted in their individual as well as collective minds. Most of the time, as I was with the camping game, I'm just watching, marveling at their natural ability to walk that line or dance with that curtain, together, weaving a world beyond our hidebound one, a new reality that usually begins with the invitation "Let's pretend . . ." and is propelled by agreement.

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Thursday, January 30, 2020

That's What Children Have Taught Me




One of the most important things I've learned in my life is that no one ever knows what they're doing. We all wake up each morning to find that life isn't as we want it, we spend our day wrestling it into shape as best we can, then we wake up the following day to do it again.

The great advantage that children have over most of us adults is that as long as they know that they are loved, they live their days in full knowledge that they don't know what they are doing, that they are going to have to figure it out, cobble it together, and count on the other people to help get them through. Children spring from bed, anticipating the unknown that lies before them, embracing it, laughing when its good and crying when it's bad. They know that the love is the important thing and the rest is not knowable until we get there and even then mostly in hindsight.

Too many adults, enter our days with a sense of dread. We likewise know, in our hearts, no matter what our age, that we don't know what we're doing, but we fear that we should, that we must, that everyone else does. We worry about judgement, about failure, about being revealed as frauds. We cover it in bravado, with toxic positivity, with brusqueness, or the superficial trappings of success, hoping somehow to convince the others (because we'll never fully convince ourselves) that we know what we're doing. We descend into depression, we struggle with anxiety, and only when we get to a breaking point do we seek the help we've needed all along. And we tend to take the love for granted.

From children I've learned the great joy to be found in admitting to myself and to others that I don't know what I'm doing; the great joy in embracing each day as a way to once more engage in the grand project of figuring it all out and asking for help. I don't always succeed, of course, but whether I anticipate or dread, I fall and fail as much as the next person, as much as any child. I wrestle the day back into shape as best I can and wake up the following day to do it again. I laugh and cry. When I remember what the children have taught me, however, when I put the love first, that's when I most fully live. That's what children have taught me.

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Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Not Teaching




I never pretend to know what kids will learn on any given day and, honestly, any teacher who does is either deluded or blowing smoke. No one can possibly know what another person is going to learn. You can hope. You can plan. You can lecture yourself blue. You can even, if you're especially clever, trick someone into learning something, but the idea that one person can "teach" something to another, except under narrow circumstances, is one of the great educational myths.


There is a quote that is most often attributed to the Buddha, but is more likely of Theosophical origins, that goes: "When the student is ready the master will appear." I like these kinds of quotes that persist because they are true even when they can't be traced back to the utterances of Buddha, Socrates, or Einstein. This one is even so true that there is a corollary: "When the master is ready the student will appear."


Some days I accidentally "teach" something to a kid. For instance, I once improperly used the term "centrifugal force" (when I actually should have use "centripetal force") while a child was experimenting with a hamster wheel and the kid, months later, was still misusing my term while performing his experiments, even as I repeatedly tried to correct him. But most days I teach nothing at all except, perhaps, what I convey to my students by role modeling. I've tried, believe me, to convey specific information to kids, like when I tell them that dirt is primarily made from volcanos, dead stuff, and worm poop, but most of the time the only things that stick are the things about which the kids are already asking questions.


And still, despite my utter lack of "teaching," the kids who come to our school are learning. How do I know? I watch them. I listen to them. I remember when they didn't know and then I hear them saying and see them doing things that demonstrate that now they do. And even though I'm not teaching them, they mostly learn exactly what I want them to know.


What do I want them to know?


The joy of playing with other people.

The frustration and redemption of failure.

Emotions come and go and they are important.

I'm the boss of me and you're the boss of you.

Our agreements are sacred.

It's not only important to love, but also to say it.


It's not my job to "teach" these things. It is my job to love them and to do what I can to create an environment that is stimulating, beautiful, and safe enough: a place where children can ask and answer their own questions about the world and the people they find there. A place not of teaching, but of discovery. We call it play and it's everything.



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Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Urge To Destroy



The nineteenth century anarchist theorist Mikhail Bakunin famously asserted "The urge for destruction is also a creative urge." This concept came to mind recently when I came across a tree trunk that had clearly been vandalized. I suppose it could have been an animal or some other natural phenomenon that created the hole in the trunk, but it sure looked to me like the work of human hands, and it did not strike me as the result of any sort of creative urge.


I live in a densely populated urban area where I am regularly confronted by the human urge to destroy. Graffiti I can understand as the result of a creative urge, but branches ripped from saplings, litter, and over-turned city bikes? Not so much. I imagine that someone could argue that destruction is a precursor to creativity, like slums that must be bulldozed to make way for palaces, but it's a stretch. The most one can say for random human destruction is that it can, maybe sometimes, like in the case of graffiti, be considered in the benevolent light of creativity.

Every day in every preschool classroom, the urge to destroy is nevertheless evident. Even if it isn't part of the creative urge, it is, apparently something deeply human. Paper is torn into tiny bits and scattered on the floor, carefully constructed block towers are joyfully toppled, pages are ripped from books, toys are dismantled in ways that they can never be put back together. Some of it is accidental, of course, but as a boy once replied when I asked him why he had intentionally broken something, "I wanted to see if I could break it."

When I passed around to the other side of the tree with the vandalized trunk, I saw that it was notable in the sense that it's trunk was bizarrely deformed, looking something like one of those candles in a Chiati bottle stereotypically found in an Italian restaurant. It was strikingly different from the trees around it and because of that it roused my curiosity. It occurred to me that perhaps it had been curiosity, the primal scientific urge, that had caused someone to begin picking a hole in the trunk. If the trunk was so different on the outside, one could wonder if the interior was equally deformed.

I think it's safe to say that much of the "destruction" we see around the classroom can be marked up to curiosity, even if misguided, but that still leaves the question of broken bottles, wantonly discarded fast food wrappers, and knocked over bicycles. I suppose some of it could simply be chalked up to laziness, although psychologists tell us that there is no such thing. Feelings of depression, alienation, disenfranchisement, or just plain old anger at the world seem more likely causes of this sort of destructive behavior.

A psychologist friend told me that he was once engaged to treat an eight-year-old who had been referred by his parents for his "destructive behavior." The boy slumped into a chair and started the conversation by declaring, "I'm bad because I'm sad." If only we all could be as insightful as this kid.

Humans destroy to create, we destroy to explore, we destroy to express despair, and perhaps we are sometimes unconsciously driven to join the universe's unstoppable quest for ever-increasing entropy. As teachers and parents, we are too often poised to punish, to scold the child for something that he's broken, but it's never that simple with us human beings.

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Monday, January 27, 2020

A Wander Or A Quest



Last week, I hiked along the Kerikeri River in Northland New Zealand. My destination was Waianijwaniwa, or Rainbow Falls. I'd been warned that it wouldn't be as spectacular as other times of the year due to mid-summer drought conditions, but that wasn't for me the point. I had a free day in this paradise and it was the hike that mattered.


I started out at a saunter. Fellow trail users passed me at a jog or brisk walk, clearly out for the exercise. I was not in it for physical fitness, even as I was aware that I needed to move my body as I was in the midst of a stretch of 11 airplanes over a seven day span. No, I'd undertaken this hike for the pure recreation of it, the forest bathing, the deep breathing, and, of course, the scenery. I had Eric Carle's sloth in mind, "Slowly, slowly," but my mind wandered as it tends to do on solitary walks: I've written before about my walking habit, which it really a wandering habit. This is when I do a substantial amount of my writing, which is to say my reflecting, which is to say my life's work. Plato tells us that Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living," and there is nothing like a good, solitary wander for making that happen.


The signpost told me that my destination was some four kilometers distant and would take approximately an hour. I fully intended for it to take all morning. At intervals, I paused to listen, to the tumbling water, to the cacophony of insects, to the rustle of breezes in the canopy. I took a few photos, but not many: I told myself that I was not going to live this day through a viewfinder. It was a warm day, even as the trail was in shade. I began to sweat. It was an easy path, even as there were ups and downs. I began to breath deeply. Soon I noticed that I was no longer sauntering, but rather chugging along. Slowly, slowly, I said to myself, but soon I was chugging again. I wasn't being driven by the peer pressure of my fellow trail users. It wasn't that I was pressed for time. I wasn't trying to beat bad weather. I came to realize that it was my destination that pulled me.


I wasn't wandering after all, but rather getting somewhere. There was a waterfall ahead and the longer I walked, the more I found myself anticipating it, listening for it, expecting it around the next bend or over the next rise. And it was that that was driving me.


It occurred to me that I've hiked to many waterfalls in my life, on three continents, and in at least a dozen countries. Waterfalls are worthy destinations and before long I simply gave myself over to the quest, to heavy breathing and sweat. I knew to expect smaller falls along the way: I paused to take them in, but soon moved on toward the big one. Then there they were, around a bend and without announcing themselves in the roar I typically associate with such natural phenomena due to the relative trickle of water in the river this time of year. I was here! That was the point. I stood before them for quite some time, but before cooling down, I marched to the top of the falls, which, after all, I told myself, was my real destination. There I sat for a long time. I then hunted for a tea house that I'd read was nearby, but it was closed for the day due to the death of a family pet.


After a time, I decided it was time to return for no other reason than that I'd decided it was time. My limbs were loose and my breathing easy. I'd seen all this before, which is the nature of a return trip. I wasn't headed home, but it was back toward the place I was staying in the Kerikeri Basin. I wasn't hungry, but knew I would be after another hour on the trail. As I descended back down into the forest, everything was different. Now I really could saunter. Now I really could wander. Now I really could reflect. It wasn't the sloth that was on my mind now, but rather Maurice Sendak's Max on the return from his wild rumpus amongst the wild things. I took my time, stopping often, anticipating the lunch that awaited me, but not with the urgency of the waterfall, but rather with the knowledge that I'd acquired a kind of mastery. It was the difference between the familiar and unfamiliar, the old and the new. This trail was now known to me whereas only moments before I had passed through it as unknown on my way to an unknown.


This is the story of learning, of living. It's often told as a circle, always returning to the same place, but it's a coming and going as well. Or perhaps it's a story better told as a kind of spiral, because even as we return to the same place, it's different because the outward journey changes us and we, in turn, upon our return, change the place we call "home," which is the ultimate purpose of any journey, be it a wander or quest: to go somewhere else and bring something back. And our world will never be the same.


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Thursday, January 23, 2020

A Process Of Godlike Creation



"Those clouds are having a race."

"My tummy's full of happy bubbles."

"The thunder growled at me last night."

"I feel love flowing through my whole body."

Humans can hardly communicate, or even think for that matter, without the use of metaphor. It's how we construct our collective reality. Clouds don't actually race, happiness does not come in bubbles, thunder cannot growl, and there is no river of love, yet these things are, nevertheless, real. On one level, the creation of metaphor seems like an incredibly complex thing: the projection of the qualities of one domain onto another, creating an entirely new reality linking both domains. On another level, however, metaphor is a piece of cake, something that even the youngest humans can do.

One of the great joys of working with young children is to be present as they employ metaphor to construct knowledge and understanding. They delight us, not just with their joy, but with the sheer inventiveness, ease, and humor with which they create new meaning from this old, stale world, a place where we adults have long ago settled upon our metaphors. They surprise us out of our humdrum, showing us a new world that has, in a moment of childlike epiphany, come into existence. We take it as evidence of their genius, and it is, but it's more than that: it shows us that humans are, in fact, creators, all of us, and metaphor is a no less important building block than the atom.

There are many reasons for adults to practice listening in the presence of children. We think because we've lived more years that what we have to say is of more vital importance, that we can and should always be teaching. But much of what we do amounts to sucking oxygen from the room as we play an inadvertent demon to a process of godlike creation.

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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Unsolicited Do-Gooding




A friend recently undertook the major project of organizing her aging mother’s photographs, arranging them in physical photo albums chronologically taking great effort to make the collection shine through design and layout. Largely bedridden, her mother increasingly enjoys her trips down memory lane via these images from her past and her daughter, knowing how much her mother disliked modern technology, wanted to surprise her with this beautiful, thoughtful high-touch gift.

Her mother, however, did not see it that way. Indeed, she was dismayed, not seeing it as a gift at all, but rather an unauthorized intrusion upon her personal property. When next my friend saw her mother, the old woman had pulled most of the photos from the albums and once more had them collected around her apartment in messy stacks. My friend was livid. How could Mom be so ungrateful. It’s so typical of her. I worked so hard on it. And so on. I tried to understand, but I was really just nodding along in a show of sympathy because, honestly, I agreed with her mother.

Unsolicited help of this sort is rarely a welcome thing. Just because she is a bed-ridden, slightly senile old woman doesn’t mean that she can’t know what she wants. Indeed, according to my friend, her mother has never been shy about asking for help and that has only increased as she has become more physically and mentally helpless. If she had wanted her photos organized, she would have certainly asked for help, so yes, this was an intrusion, a violation even, but I wasn’t going to point that out to my friend because that would have bordered on unsolicited advice, which is likewise rarely welcome.

It seems to me that much of what adults do to and for our children falls into the category of unsolicited do-gooding. Much of the griping I hear from parents and teachers about their charges “not listening” or being “ungrateful” or simply being stubborn sounds a lot like my friend’s complaints about her mother’s response to her gift. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen adults completely wreck a child’s game by inserting themselves, unsolicited, under the label of “scaffolding.” Education literature is full of advice that begins with “Have the children . . .” or “Encourage the children to . . .” In fact, it seems that much of the pedagogy that springs up around play-based education, despite our foundational ethos of letting children play, is rife with tips and suggestions for “maximizing their learning” and identifying those “teachable moments,” all of which strikes me as a kind of unsolicited intrusions.

Just because they are children, it doesn’t mean that they don’t know what they want. And most children are perfectly capable of asking for help when they want it (as opposed to adults deciding for them that they need it). I’ve found that children with whom I share a relationship of trust typically have no problem asking for my help or advice. In fact, this goes for people of all ages. And when it comes to people, both children or adults, with whom I don’t have this sort of relationship of trust, it is simply good form to ask, “Would you like my help?” before assuming my help is wanted.

We mean well when we offer our unsolicited help or advice, but there is at the same time at least a dab of condescension and hubris in the assumption that we know better than others, even if they are old and bed-ridden; even if they are young children. So until they ask for our help, until they ask for our advice, I’ve found the most respectful course is to simply listen because, like with my friend whose feelings were hurt, even if that means just biting our tongues and nodding along, that is what they need most from us.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Those Mythological "Jobs Of Tomorrow"




I'm weary of hearing about "STEM," the popular acronym for "science, technology, engineering, and math." I'd be shocked if anyone reading here isn't aware of the term. Indeed, many of us have picked it up and held it high, declaring that play-based education is the perfect preparation for a career in STEM. Some of us have gotten clever and begun talking about STEAM education, tossing in "art" by way of expanding the notion, but it's a poor fit because "art" is not a career path the way the others are.


We're right, of course. When children play, they are scientists: exploring, discovering, hypothesizing, experimenting, concluding. When children play they are using the technology at hand, solving engineering problems, and engaging in the sorting, organizing, and categorizing that forms the foundations of mathematics. All of that is true.


My objection is that all this talk about STEM is just the latest way to keep our schools focused exclusively on vocational training, to prepare our children for those mythological "jobs of tomorrow," jobs that may exist today, but are unlikely to exist two decades from now when our preschoolers are seeking to enter the job market. It's a scam as old as public education, an idea that emerged from the Industrial Revolution because back then the "jobs of tomorrow" were stations along an assembly-line, where rote and repetition were king, so we made schools to prepare the next generation for that grim life. Today, those "jobs of tomorrow" are in cubicles, pushing buttons on computers, vocations that are equally prone to rote and repetition and equally likely to not exist in the future.


Most of the jobs recent college graduates are applying for didn't exist when they were in preschool. If I'd pursued the careers my guidance counselors recommended in high school, I'd be unemployed today. Anyone who claims to know the specific skills required for the jobs of tomorrow is just blowing smoke. They are wrong and they have always been wrong. Those jobs of tomorrow, as is true in every generation, will instead be largely invented by the generation that fills them.


I did not enter the teaching game to prepare young children for their role in the economy and if vocational training is the primary function of schools, then I'd say we ought to just shut them all down and let the corporations train their own damn workers. No, the purpose of education in a democracy ought to be to prepare children for their role as citizens and that means that they learn to think for themselves, that they ask a lot of questions, that they question authority, that they stand up for what they believe in, and that they understand that their contribution to the world cannot be measured in money. The project of self-governance requires educated citizens, people who are self-motivated, who are sociable, and who work well with others. That is why I teach.


I'm married to the CEO of a technology company. She didn't study STEM in school. In fact, she admits to having steered clear of those classes, opting instead for a broad liberal arts education, one in which she pursued her passion for learning languages. Today, people invite her, as a one of those rare unicorns, "a woman in STEM," to speak with young people about her career. She is rarely invited back because she doesn't tell the kids what their teachers want them to hear. Instead, she tells them the truth, which is that her success is based on being self-motivated, being sociable, and working well with others.


Being able to earn a living is important and children should be free to pursue their STEM interests whether they lead to a career or not. But vocational training ought not stand at the center of education because when it does, democracy suffers.

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

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