Friday, May 29, 2020

This Process of Godlike Creation



"Teacher Tom, that tree is peeking out from behind those other trees."

He made this comment as we sat together at the top of the playground. He enjoyed making observations, usually about the most mundane things, usually rendered poetic by his use of metaphor. Indeed, most of what he said about the world around him seemed to be expressed as metaphor.

"Those clouds are folding each other."

"The lights are looking at me."

"My yellow shirt is happy on my skin."

They came so often and were so inventive I started writing them down.

"It's a day with pink music in it."

"Those kids are sideways rockets."

"Bye bye, Teacher Tom, tomorrow is where I'm going."

His habit of inventing the world anew with almost every sentence often made it difficult for him to communicate with the other children. Many stared at him blankly, making neither head nor tales of his words. Some laughed, understanding them as jokes. But every now and then a child would be struck dumb by something he said, cast, apparently into an unexpected current of thought so powerful that it interrupted whatever it was they had already been doing: the work of a poet.

Humans can hardly communicate, or even think for that matter, without the use of metaphor. It's part of how we construct our collective reality. Trees don't really peek out from behind one another, yet, in a moment of inspiration, they do for all of us. 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. Yet at the same time, it shares a lot in common with the instinctive way children play in the physical world. When left without adult interference, children tend to quickly abandon using things the "right way" in favor of the exploration of objects by combining them with others, creating something entirely new, which is one of the foundational ideas of loose parts play. The creation of metaphor is the same phenomenon except with words and ideas instead of physical objects.

"The rain is laying a blanket on the ground."

"These pinecones are angry today."

"My shoes thought my feet were carrots."

One of the greatest joys of working with young children is to be present as they use words and ideas the "wrong" way, employing 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 this process of godlike creation.

******

My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Book is back from the printers! I'm incredibly proud of it. And if you missed it, you can also pick up a copy of Teacher Tom's First Book as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.

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!
Bookmark and Share
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Thursday, May 28, 2020

He Was Left Face-to-Face with His Remorse




He would sometimes forget himself in the midst of his play and occasionally, like many kids, go so far as to hit or push when things didn't go his way. There had been a time when he might have intended to hurt the other people, but by now he had learned to pull his punches, so to speak, as if regretting his actions even as he's engaged in them. In other words, he wasn't usually hurting the other children physically, even as his actions might suggest otherwise. Still, his playmates felt violated when he punched them, as well they should.

We adults did our best to stay on top of things, to sufficiently intervene, but increasingly, since actual physical injury was off the table, my focus was on turning the initial responsibility of discussing these behaviors over to the children themselves. When a dry-eyed child informs me that they have been hit, for instance, by this boy or anyone, I inquire after specifics. Then instead of marching over to correct things by scolding or "reminding," I coach up the offended party by offering ideas of what they can do or say:

"If I were you, I'd tell him that I didn't like it when he hit me."

"If I were you, I'd tell him that I'm not a poopy head and it hurt my feelings when he said it."

"If I were you, I'd tell him that I'm mad at him for taking my shovel."

The idea is to get the kids in the habit of talking to one another first; to practice resolving their own conflicts, and to try to rely upon the adults only as a last resort. I'm always there if necessary, but learning to stand up for oneself is vital and the only way one learns that is through doing it. Not only that, but for many children, especially older preschoolers with a strong social bent, hearing these things from peers is much more impactful than from an adult.

One day, a girl with whom this boy regularly played shouted at him, "You hit me. I'm not going to play with you anymore!" Then she marched off. I was not too far away, but neither of them so much as looked my direction. As he watched her walk off, I saw him fighting back tears. After a few minutes he chased after her. They were too far from me to hear what he said, but I did hear her response, "You hit me! I don't want to play with you anymore!" He dropped to the ground right there, overwhelmed with remorse in a way that never happens when we adults are involved. Sometimes we must step in, but when we do, one of the risks is that we shift attention away from where it ought to be, the hitting and its consequences, and turn it on ourselves, the authority figure stepping in to insist upon compliance. In this case, he was left face-to-face with his remorse.

I don't know if he ever apologized, but by the end of the day she had forgiven him. I know this because I saw them once more playing intimately with one another, friends again.

The metaphor that comes to mind is the one of the parent teaching her child to ride a bike. At first we help them balance, then as they start to get the feel of it, we start letting go. Sometimes they fall, but over time, with practice, they begin to ride all on their own.

******

My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Book is back from the printers! I'm incredibly proud of it. And if you missed it, you can also pick up a copy of Teacher Tom's First Book as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.


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!
Bookmark and Share
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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Why Does Children's Play Enrage So Many Adults?



Back in the olden days we used to fly on jet airplanes that took us to new and exciting places to meet new and exciting people. Some of us remember the airports, places where people dashed and dawdled from jet airplane to jet airplane. What they don't tell you in your history books, however, is that most of what we did in airports during those more innocent times was wait. Can you imagine?

At least that's how it feels in these days of plague, as if air travel is something from a bygone era. Yesterday I mentioned to my sister that I needed to get my passport renewed and she asked me pointedly "Why?" And, of course, as I've noted repeatedly right here, I've very much enjoyed breathing crystal clean air that has resulted, in part, from the grounding of all those jet airplanes. Still, I'm eager for it to return, if only for the waiting.

I know it sounds strange. The waiting is the bane of the existence of most travelers, but I have come to embrace it. From the time I was a boy, I've experienced airports as places apart. Sure, the buildings might physically exist in Seoul or Frankfurt, but in another sense they are no place at all. Hailing simply from planet Earth, there are no permanent residents, we are all visitors, in transit, just passing through. I think this is what makes airports such an incredible habitat for people watching.

I consider myself a researcher. I read, of course, but most of my research is done by observing. Here on the blog, I tend to write about things I've thought and noticed in the classroom, but it nags at me that the fact of my presence, that I'm a known entity, that I'm a part of it, tends to taint my data. Young children might behave similarly wherever they are, but I'm certain that my presence impacts the behavior of adults. I suspect they are sweeter, more patient, and more attentive when they think Teacher Tom might see them, for instance, which is great for the kids, but perhaps not so much for research. In contrast, waiting around in airports creates excellent conditions for quietly observing children and adults interacting "in the wild."

One thing I've been shocked by, an observation that I've made consistently over the years everywhere I wait, is how often the sight and sound of children at play makes adults angry. I get it when a parent finally looses it and scolds their own kids, but most of the anger I've noticed is that of strangers. When children try to walk the wrong way on a moving sidewalk, the adults around them glare. When children clamber over and under waiting area seating, the adults around them glare. When children run or sing or talk excitedly, the adults around them glare. I suppose if I asked them about their glares they would complain about the noise or express their disapproval of those rotten parents who are raising such poorly behaved children, but I don't buy it. Psychologists tell us that anger is actually a secondary emotion, one that typically masks a more primal emotion like sadness or fear. So I ask myself, what it is about children playing that makes these adults experience flashes of sadness or fear?

I'm not the first to notice this phenomenon. John Holt, in his book Escape from Childhood, notes that play worker literature often recommends building high fences around places set aside for children's play specifically because the sights and sounds of it enrages so many adults. Apparently there are adults who resent the fact that children get to play while their own lives are so hard. I imagine that it's a sad feeling to think that your own days of play, of freely chosen activities, of playing Pooh Sticks with bits of paper on the luggage carousel, are long gone. I suppose that recognizing that kind of loss would make me sad as well.

And I detect fear underneath that anger as well. What if these children cannot be controlled even by the best of parents? Every generation fears that the next will somehow destroy the social order and these playing children are certainly not orderly. How dare they duck under the barriers instead of following them like mice in a maze? This is how it all begins, the end of civilization! Those kids have their parents wrapped around their little fingers. Those kids need some tough love. Control them, control them, we can't have them trying to fit their bodies into the carry-on luggage sizer!

Obviously, I'm just speculating here: we would need to perform proper psychoanalysis on these glaring adults to know for sure, but I feel confident that there is truth here. The sadness and fear is real. When children play around people who have no children in their lives, it often makes them sad, angry, and, I imagine, way deep down, a little envious. This is what comes, I think, from a world in which most adults and most children spend so much of their lives apart, separated by the modern world's hard barriers between work and school. We think it's because the adults need the children stashed away so that they can fully focus on their work, and maximizing productivity is certainly a part of it, but I suspect we also need those high fences because if most adults spent their days in the company of playing children they would soon grow aware that they too could be playing, and that would be bad for business.

******

My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Book is back from the printers! I'm incredibly proud of it. And if you missed it, you can also pick up a copy of Teacher Tom's First Book as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.


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!
Bookmark and Share
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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Children are Not Fine: None of Us are Fine



We've all seen recordings of children playing in refugee camps and in war zones. In Peter Gray's book Free to Learn, he tells about the games Jewish children played even in concentration camps. They were games of survival, for the most part, like challenging one another to touch an electrified fence, but they were games and it was play. Children play with or without toys. They play with or without freedom. They play alone and together. They play when afraid. They play when they're sad. They play when they're confused.

We point to the irrepressibility of childhood play as evidence of the resilience of children, and they certainly are resilient, but we make a mistake when we point to their play as evidence that the are "fine."

Children don't play because they are fine: they play because play is how children instinctively process the world around them. I watched children who could only have been frightened and confused (because we were all frightened and confused) fly their toy airplanes into block towers over and over in the weeks after 9/11. My daughter was part of a classroom of three-year-olds who spent days playing "earthquake," yelling and ducking under tables as they had been compelled to do during a real one. Play is not evidence of joy and happiness. Play is not evidence of being fine. Their play, even under the best of circumstances, is how children attempt to answer their own questions and explore their own emotions about what is going on in their world. The only conditions under which children don't play is when they are very sick or when they are in isolation.

A child psychiatrist friend once told me that he keeps a doll house in his office because he learns far more from troubled children by playing with them than he ever can through talking alone. So yes, when young children play, they are demonstrating resilience, but they are not necessarily showing us they are fine.

Several friends have told me stories of their children's play during this time of isolation. One mother told of her five-year-old whose babies are constantly falling sick and being taken away from their mommy to the hospital. Some get better, but some die. Another tells of her sons who are chasing one another around the house pretending to have poisonous breath. Yet another has been wearing his superhero costume to violently punch throw pillows that he's named "Coronas."

Under normal circumstances, when everyone is busy facing their own personal, private, and familial travails, figuring out exactly what any individual child is processing can be a next to impossible thing to puzzle out, even for professionals. But during times like these, times when the questions, the anger, the fear, and the confusion are virtually universal, the way children use play to process their experiences becomes far more clear to us. So yes, our children are resilient. They are processing strange times, they are doing exactly what they ought to be doing, and I have no reason to believe that most of them won't one day be fine, but right now they are sad, frightened, and confused. Their play is not evidence that they are fine, it is evidence that they are doing their part in the hard work we all have to do right now.

******

My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Book is back from the printers! I'm incredibly proud of it. And if you missed it, you can also pick up a copy of Teacher Tom's First Book as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.


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!
Bookmark and Share
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Monday, May 25, 2020

Throwing Myself Into It



I've been blogging here for over a decade now. If anyone wants to make a study of my growth as a teacher and writer (and I can't imagine why anyone would) the journey is all right here in the archives. I've only ever once deleted a post and that was because it was of a political nature and I realized after 24 hours that I disagreed with myself and didn't want to campaign for a bad idea. Of course, by those standards, there are dozens, if not hundreds of posts I ought to delete, especially from 2009 and 2010 when I was a less experienced preschool teacher. Looking back at those posts, I see shadows of the teacher I am today, but there was a great deal of ignorance there as well. I'm embarrassed by my hubris. I didn't understand young children, and therefore didn't always show them the respect they deserve. And as for the writing . . . Well, I'll let others be the judge, but there are some cringe-worthy moments.

I don't delete those posts (although I have published updated versions of some of them) because I want them to stand as a public record of my journey. They remind me that everyone is on a journey, their own individual journey. Those old posts are reminders to be patient with others who are, like me, finding their way. I can't hurry them along. All I can ever do is try my best to explain what I think I've discovered and hope others find it helpful.

I also value those old, awkward posts because they are a record of my having been bad and wrong. They are, for me, a living reminder of how the teacher I am today, the writer I am today, the man I am today is built upon a foundation of mistakes. And those old posts are likewise a caution that I continue to be wrong. I just don't have the perspective and experience to know it yet. The most important thing, however, is that I threw myself into blogging, a practice I've continued to this day. I do my best thinking and try to express it as clearly as I can, knowing that there will be typos, blind spots, and embarrassments.

One thing I got right at the very beginning, however, was my tag line: "Teaching and learning from preschoolers." The practice of "throwing myself" into things is one of the many things I've learned from young children.

I wrote last week about the how traditional schooling is based upon an obsession with "right" answers, usually at the expense of thinking. A corollary is that "wrong" answers, or mistakes, are to be avoided at all costs: that's the way one winds up failing, after all, the greatest of all school house sins. Whenever I find myself reluctant to throw myself into something, I always discover that it's this fear of failure that's stopping me, yet my whole life, as evidenced by this blog, is a testament to the power of being bad and wrong. The more I've studied young children at play, the more I see that right and wrong are far less important than the habit of throwing oneself into things. If you're going to be Batman, then be Batman. If you're going to explore the possibilities of paint, then don't stop until you've painted your arms up to the elbow, your forehead, and your hair. If you're going to play with a friend, then dive fully into friendship, which means throwing yourself into ugliness of conflict and bickering, as well as the joy of connection.

Of course, not all young children make a habit of throwing themselves into things. Some are inclined to hang back, to be observers before they act. I've learned from these children that it's important to take your time, to make certain that what you're doing is what you really want to do, a risk you want to take, the kind of fun you want to have. But what I've found is that most of the time these children might take longer to commit themselves, but once they have, they then throw themselves into it, giving it their all, which is the greatest hedge against failure, even if mistakes are inevitable.

I have few regrets, but those I have are all about those times when I allowed my fear of being wrong, of mistakes, of failure, to prevent me from throwing myself into it. It's almost impossible to throw yourself into anything under those conditions. I suppose I'm thinking about this right now because we've all had our lives turned upside down, and now it feels like the whole world is standing back, leaving a kind of vacuum into which almost anything could be sucked. We have a worldwide moment in which no one really knows what to do which makes it a time both of great opportunity and great peril. We can't wait for leaders to tell us what to do. I worry about much of what I hear these "leaders" proposing, especially when it comes to young children.

I've spent the last couple weeks reaching out to early childhood practitioners and thought leaders from around the world, asking questions, listening, and bickering. It's clear that we are currently in a worldwide teachable moment. I think we're ready to come together to advocate for a better future for children, not merely as a transition back to the old normal, but rather as the beginning of a true transformation. I think we're ready to step into the vacuum and make our voices heard. There is always more that is unknown than known when we look into the future and there are many failures ahead, but I'm ready now, we're ready now, I think, to throw ourselves into it. I know this call to action is vague, and I intend it as a kind of tease. But more to the point, writing this post is an exercise in summoning my own courage because I'm throwing myself into it. And I'm not alone. Stay tuned.

******

My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Bookwill be back from the printers any moment now! I'm incredibly proud of it. And if you missed it, you can also pick up a copy of Teacher Tom's First Book as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.


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!
Bookmark and Share
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Friday, May 22, 2020

"What is She Thinking?"



We have a gas fireplace in our apartment that ignites with the flick of a switch. We thought we would use it a lot when we first moved here over a decade ago, but it really wasn't until this winter that I got in the habit of cozy-fying the place each morning with a blaze as I post here on the blog. I've got one going right now.

During the colder months, it may have made sense, but with spring in full swing here in the Pacific Northwest, it's a bit silly and wasteful, but I'm no longer doing it for me. I turn it on for our dog Stella. She has made a habit of taking her place directly in front of it every morning, often for as long as half an hour, just gazing into the dancing flames, as if in a kind of primal trance. Our daughter and her friends ask one another, "What is she thinking?"

I've joked that she's finally found a screen that holds some interest for her because the screens we people gaze into make no sense at all. Every now and then she'll adjust her feet, turn her head slowly to one side or the other, or lower her eye lids so she is seeing the fire through mere slits. Yesterday, she at one point tapped the mantel with her left forepaw, then looked to the left. She then tapped it with her right forepaw before looking to the right. It was the only significant movement she otherwise made for a good twenty minutes. Was she tapping a "keyboard?" I'm serious, maybe she was changing the channel or something. Most days, after sitting so close for so long that the heat must hurt, she backs away a step, then lies so as to warm her belly, her eyes never once breaking contact with the flames.

"What is she thinking?" It's a question teachers ask themselves all day long. When it comes to Stella, I know it's a question to which I'll never have the answer. I can muse, speculate, guess, and assert, but the answer is always, "I don't know," and we have to accept that when it comes to dogs. It should be the same when we wonder about the thinking of children. What is that child thinking? I don't know. The sad part is that far too many of us prod and pry after an answer nevertheless. That's what testing is all about, of course, crude attempts at discovering what another person is thinking. We ask them questions like "What color is that?" or "How many do I have in my hand?", questions to which we already know the answers. We write learning assessments which are, at best, creative writing exercises. The answer is "I don't know," but we take a thousand words to say it. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Thinking about thinking stands at the core of our profession, but let's not pretend the answer isn't, at bottom, "I don't know."

Sometimes we ask children what they are thinking and sometimes they answer us, but even then we don't know. We only know their answer to our question. No matter what they say, there is more thinking in there than can be said with words. Or maybe not. Maybe their minds are as empty as a dog's meditating before a fire and we've intruded upon their sacred not thinking to insist upon an answer that is, even for the thinker herself in most cases, "I don't know." In fact, young children will quite often answer "I don't know" when confronted with questions about what they are thinking. That might be because there are two kinds of thinking: thinking for public consumption, which is what we try to communicate with our words, and then there is pure thinking, which goes beyond words, existing only for the flames into which we stare. The vital thing, however, is not the answer, but the thinking, because thinking is learning.

What is she thinking? It's a question of utmost importance. Seeking the answer requires us to observe closely, to think deeply, to draw upon all of our experience. It is one of the highest uses of our intellectual energy. The root of the word question is quest, and it is indeed a quest, a journey, even if the destination is always "I don't know." It's a struggle for some of us to live with that answer, but the beauty of it is that when we know our destination is predestined, we can be fully present for the journey, which is what young children need from us, their travel companions, as they engage their world and think about it.

******

My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Bookwill be back from the printers any moment now! I'm incredibly proud of it. And if you missed it, you can also pick up a copy of Teacher Tom's First Book as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.


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!
Bookmark and Share
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Thursday, May 21, 2020

"I Try to Experience This Strange New World Through Her Eyes"



When my wife Jennifer gave birth to our daughter Josephine our lives were transformed. This is the experience of every new parent. Prior to that moment, you've listened to other people's stories, read books, and made plans, but until the advent of your actual child, it is all theory based upon the person you were before. But now you are irrevocably a different person with your own stories that are infinitely more meaningful than those you've heard or read, and, of course, all your best laid plans must be re-laid and re-laid again as you begin to live your way into your new and irrevocably transformed life.

In my two decades as a teacher in a cooperative preschool most of the new parents I've met were well into the throes of figuring it out. Perhaps for some parents it's as easy as dropping their baby off at child care in order to return to what's left of their old life, but from my experience that's rare indeed. Parents who've chosen a cooperative, with the time commitment to serve as assistant teachers as well as being actively engaged in the day-to-day operations of the school, are typically parents who have either made the decision to stay home to raise their child, at least during the early years, or who are seeking some sort of balance. Most parents, however, either don't have the cooperative option available to them or are compelled by economic necessity or choice to spend their days apart from their young child.

I don't judge anyone for their decision and feel compassion toward those who would otherwise choose to stay home with their children if they could afford it. I likewise don't judge those who don't want to jeopardize a meaningful career, especially since I know they have nevertheless been transformed and no matter how rewarding the work, there is always a shadow of guilt hanging over their decision.

Over the course of the last few months, and especially these past few weeks, I've become increasingly aware that this disruptive moment in time has give many parents an opportunity to reconsider their decisions. We have tended to focus on the challenges of working from home while caring for young children, but I'm beginning to see that there are many parents, perhaps not the majority, but a significant number, who are taking this time to reconsider their priorities. I've received an uptick in messages from young parents who are experiencing a kind of joy right now that they hadn't expected. Left alone all day with their child is taxing, of course, but they are also getting to know their children in ways they didn't before. This beautiful Mother's Day photo essay from Vogue encapsulates much of what mothers and fathers are experiencing right now. As a teacher, I see in these pictures every child I've ever taught and I'm filled with joy in knowing that this parent, that thousands, if not millions of parents, are in these tragic times having the opportunity to fall in love all over again, and to see what their children's care takers see:

I was also terrified for us, and my heart was breaking for those who suffered. I woke up every morning filled with dread. We started making pictures as a way to pass the hours. These are the only times I am completely in the moment, not worried or anxious. I look for magic and escape. The in-between times, the tender grasp of her hand, a wet curl on her perfect skin: All of this I want to hold in my heart. I think of the love I want to remember, and I try to experience this strange new world through her eyes.

A survey of Seattle area working families performed last month found that more than half do not currently have child care. Twenty percent report that either they or their partner are considering not returning to the work force post Covid. Nearly forty percent are considering having family (e.g., grandparents) move in with them. From an historical perspective, our current system of segregating parents, children, and grandparents, is an anomaly. These numbers seem to suggest that in this time of crisis, many are seeking to draw their families closer together in ways that more closely reflect our "ancestral normal," the one that we lived for most of human existence.

I imagine that most will simply return to "normal" as soon as that's possible, but if even a small percentage of parents follow through on their intentions, it could be transformative, not just for them, but for our entire society. And if nothing changes, something will have nevertheless changed, even if it's only that there will now be a generation of parents who, for a magical time, got to experience this strange new world through the eyes of their children. That's not a small thing.

******

My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Bookwill be back from the printers any moment now! I'm incredibly proud of it. I just checked the sales page and noticed that the publisher has forgotten to end the pre-publication discount, so if you hurry you should still be able to get a price break not just on the new book, but also on Teacher Tom's First Book! Heh, heh . . .

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.

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!
Bookmark and Share
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Wednesday, May 20, 2020

"Circle, Star, Rectangle, Pyramid, Square, Cube, Oval"





Calder said, "Teacher Tom, I want to show you. Come with me." 

I was in the middle of something, so answered, "I can't come right now. I'll come when I'm finished."

He went away, but came back to remind me of my promise. "I want to show you. Come with me."

Children were talking to me. I said, "Oh yeah, Calder wants to show me something." When I went with him, other children followed.


He dropped to his knees near the outdoor drum set that graced our playground until the children played it into the dumpster. He showed me what he had collected from the loose parts that populate our outdoor classroom. "Look what I have!" Then he pointed, "Circle, star, rectangle, pyramid, square, cube, oval."

I said, "You found a circle, a star, a rectangle, a pyramid, a square, a cube, and an oval."

He repeated it for me, for all of us, several times. When he was done, he got up and walked away.

Henry asked, "What did he say?"

"Calder told us what he found: circle, star, rectangle, pyramid, square, cube, oval."


Henry dropped to his knees, pointing, "Circle, star, rectangle, pyramid, square, cube, oval."

"You said those shapes."

Now it was a game. Several kids followed suit, some struggling with the names of the three-dimensional shapes. Then Elana took her place, feeling silly, "Wood, basket, lego, block, box, block, ring."

"Hey, you found different names for everything!"

By then, Calder had returned, "No! Circle, star, rectangle, pyramid, square, cube, oval!" He said it fast, almost too fast to be understood. He wasn't happy that we'd re-labeled his collection. Or maybe he thought we were telling him that his things weren't what he knew they were.

I said, "Circle, star, rectangle, pyramid, square, cube, oval." He said, "Yes," again repeating the list, this time even faster than before, "Circlestarrectanglepyramidsquarecubeoval!"

"And Elana said, 'Wood, basket, lego, block, box, block, ring.'"


Calder cocked his head. He sat quietly by his collection, picking up some of the pieces, then putting them back. Most of the other children had moved on, but Violet was still there beside me. She said, "Wood, metal, plastic, plastic, plastic, wood, plastic."

Calder whipped around to look at her. His expression was fierce for a moment, but then he smiled. Pointing, he said, "Wood, metal, plastic, plastic, plastic, wood, plastic."


A few minutes later, I was standing alone by the collection, trying to take a picture that would help me tell this story. Luella had not been part of the group of children who had been investigating Calder's collection. She looked at my camera, then followed its aim to the objects. As I slipped the camera into my pocket, and turned to focus on her, she dropped to her knees, pointing, "One, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7!"

******

My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Bookwill be back from the printers any moment now! I'm incredibly proud of it. I just checked the sales page and noticed that the publisher has forgotten to end the pre-publication discount, so if you hurry you should still be able to get a price break not just on the new book, but also on Teacher Tom's First Book! Heh, heh . . .

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Children Have Few of the Rights of Citizenship, Yet They are Citizens




I'm worried about children. No one is asking them what they want. Of course this is nothing new. Oh sure, we make a show of listening to individual children, but since they possess precious few of the rights of citizenship, there is no reason, beyond compassion of course, to heed them.

I wonder what they are thinking right now, children in the aggregate. We poll adults, we offer them forums, we have elections in which the adults express their collective voice, but we have nothing like that for children. We know what the white middle class is thinking. We know what the seniors in the South are thinking. We know what urban black women are thinking. We know what Republicans and Democrats are thinking. But we don't know what children are thinking about what is going on the in the world today.

I imagine that many of them are simply bored with it all. I know that at least some of them simply tune out the moment the adults with whom they are quarantined start, for the forty millionth time, to belabor the fine details of what this politician has said or that doctor has warned or that study has found. Who cares?!?

I imagine others are frightened, their imaginations ablaze with the scary news that never seems to end.

I imagine some are interested, asking lots of questions about viruses, ventilators, and vaccines.

I imagine most children, like most adults, are at some level sad.

What do they think about returning to their schools and child cares? There are, of course, many who are chomping at the bit, but I'm certain there are others who would really rather not, either for fear of their own safety or because they're really rather enjoying this time in the bosom of their families. And then there are those who want to be anywhere but home because their home life is broken. We might know what the children in our own homes feel, but because they have no voice in this, we have no way of knowing what children as citizens are thinking about what is happening or what should be done about it.

I suppose there are some who feel I'm wasting my time with this sort of wondering. After all, in the end the kids will just have to fall into line with whatever the adults decide, but that is exactly my point. There is no "normal" or "new normal" or any way forward at all until we figure out what we are going to do with the children. Many of the plans I've seen for early years "re-opening" are appalling. No child would voluntarily agree to subject themselves to those rigors and rules. Much of what I've read strikes me as almost cruel, knowing what I know about the physical and psychological needs of children. If the economy did not require that their schools and child cares re-open, I expect there would be no question of waiting at least a few more months, but as it is, in some places at least, we are choosing money over the rights of children.

If we are re-opening the economy on the backs of children, shouldn't we at least acknowledge that their contribution is essential? Shouldn't we at least acknowledge that they are sacrificing their rights for ours?

Children have few of the rights of citizenship, yet they are citizens. In lieu of these rights the promise is that we adults will advocate for them. But how can we advocate for children if there is no way for us to know what they, collectively, feel, want, and need? Or maybe we don't think that what they feel, want, and need is important. Maybe we feel that we know what's best for them and their opinions have little to do with it. That's not how I feel, but, again collectively, it seems to be what we the adults believe. At least it seems so as we march forward into an immediate future in which schools are turned into sanitation factories, places where touch is forbidden, smiles are hidden, and movement is limited.

This is, of course, to a certain extent, the immediate future for us all. None of us like it, but we are not toddlers. We at least have a voice as citizens and can make choices about which bridges are too far. Our children do not and because of that we have a sacred responsibility to represent them, both individually and collectively. There is a special responsibility placed upon us to not just listen, but heed.

In considering the rights of children, I believe that we are moving too fast in re-opening our preschools and child cares. Our governments should continue financially supporting families who need it until we can do it right, even if that means raising taxes on the corporations that are currently profiteering from this crisis. I understand that this will be economically painful, but keeping young children in their homes and with their families is the right decision until we have the testing capacity to ensure the wherever they are, children are allowed to be children. That is my opinion, informed by decades of listening to young children.

******

My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Book, will be back from the printers any moment now! I'm incredibly proud of it. 

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, May 18, 2020

"The Having of Wonderful Ideas"



A group of boys had organized themselves into a game of superheroes, including Batman, Ironman, the Hulk, Captain America, and Spiderman. A girl wanted to join them. They told her she could be Wonder Woman, but she didn't want to be Wonder Woman. "I don't like her. I want to be a different superhero."

"You have to be Wonder Woman. You're a girl."

"I know I'm a girl, but I don't want to be Wonder Woman."

"There aren't any other girl superheroes."

The boys seemed sympathetic. They seemed willing to include her in their game, but she wasn't accepting their superhero orthodoxy, so they stood around shrugging. The girl sat on the ground, head in hands, in a pose reminiscent of Rodin's statue The Thinker.

Learning is indistinguishable from thinking. I suppose that sounds trite, but it seems that many adults involved in education don't know this. In fact, much of what passes for curriculum in our schools seems designed to discourage thinking, focusing instead on prayer at the alter of "right answers." Coming up with right answers is not the product of thinking, but rather one of remembering, which isn't in itself a bad thing, but how can anyone ever remember anything new into the world? If right answers are the goal, then thinking just gets in the way. Or rather, it tends to lead one astray, toward answers that by definition are "wrong answers."

Many, if not most, of today's right answers were once wrong answers, discovered by poor students who chose thinking over passing the test.

I've been reflecting lately on educator Eleanor Duckworth's definition of learning as "the having of wonderful ideas." And one of the key characteristics of wonderful ideas is that they are neither right nor wrong, but rather simply wonderful in the mind's eye of the one doing the thinking. Wonderful ideas may turn out, in the end, to be poppycock, but that's beside the point. It's the wonderfulness that matters. It's the wonderfulness that spurs inquiry and experimentation. It's the wonderfulness that excites the imagination. And it's having the time, space, and encouragement to pursue that wonderfulness, wherever it takes us, that forms the crux of what learning is really all about. It's the thinking that matters.

Indeed, the onus to simply remember and recite right answers has more in common with the skills of a trained animal. "Good doggie!" we enthuse in much the same way we respond to a child's right answers with "Well done!" A thinking person requires no extrinsic reward, be it a pat on the back or a passing grade. A thinking person is too immersed in their wonderful ideas for such manipulative nonsense.

The cult of right answers leads to classrooms in which authority figures guide their students through material toward a predetermined destination. Some teachers rely upon a light and clever hand while others turn to the cudgel, but they are all, from classroom to classroom, from school to school, moving the children from right answer to right answer, thinking and curiosity be damned. Children who have wonderful ideas along the way may be indulged for a time, but the goal is always to guide them back onto the only pathway that leads to right answers.

The having of wonderful ideas doesn't lead to right or wrong answers, but rather toward new ideas. They aren't necessarily ideas that have never before been had by other thinkers, but they are new to this thinker and more importantly, they are motivating. When one has a wonderful idea, it compels pursuit, which leads to more new ideas, and more. The most wonderful ideas are those that in turn inspire wonderful ideas in others.

The girl thought for a time before the lightbulb went on. "I know," she announced, "I'll be Cat Girl because I love cats."

"There's no Cat Girl," objected one of the boys, pointing out her wrong answer.

"Well, there is now!" she declared bravely, which is another hallmark of the having of wonderful ideas: their very wonderfulness can give us courage we don't always have when the only options are right or wrong.

Her idea to be Cat Girl was such a wonderful idea that she was soon joined by Falcon, Crabby, T-Rex Man, and even the entry of more girls into the game under monikers like Dog Girl and Baby Snow Leopard. It was such a wonderful idea that it changed the world.

******

My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Bookis at the printers! We're offering a pre-publication discount through today, May 18. I'm incredibly proud of it. And while you're on the site, you can also find my first book, Teacher Tom's First Book, at a discount as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Friday, May 15, 2020

"I Changed My Own Mind"



It was cold out, but Maya didn't want to put on her coat. An adult tried to compel her, bringing her the puffy pink parka she had worn to school that morning, holding it out to her coaxingly, urging her, "You'll be too cold outside."

Our policy was that the kids got to make their own decisions about wearing their coats, the theory being that it wouldn't be the end of the world if they discovered, on their own, the natural consequence of being underdressed. When it was particularly cold, I might say something like, "It's cold out there. I'm wearing my warm coat," but otherwise the decision was theirs to make.

It was early in the school year and this parent-teacher either hadn't got the message or was heeding a care-taker's urge that was more persistent than our policy. "Just put it on, please. If you get too hot you can take it off."

Maya responded by running out the door onto the playground, unburdened by her coat. As the adult followed her, still carrying the parka, I said, "Why don't you leave the coat on a hook? Then if she gets cold she'll know where it is."

"But she will get cold."

"I know."

Reluctantly, she returned the coat to its hook and we went outside together. Moments later another parent-teacher raced past us, headed back inside. As she passed us she said, "I'm just getting Maya's coat."

I asked, "Did she ask for it?"

"No, but it's so cold," and before I could say anything else she dashed away, returning moments later with the pink parka. I watched her chase down Maya who didn't seem to be feeling any negative effects from the weather. From a distance, I watched the attempt to persuade, the refusal, and then after a few rounds of it, Maya ran off to join her friends, leaving the adult standing there, coat in hand.

Moments later another adult approached Maya. "Oh, you forgot your coat. Do you want me to get it for you?" Having been witness to the first two attempts, I didn't feel that it was an overreaction when Maya stamped her foot and shouted, "No! I don't want my coat! I'm not even cold ever!"

I felt sorry for her, but also proud. It was hard for me to imagine that she wasn't feeling the cold, but I admired how she stood up for herself, not letting the adults wear her down. That's when I saw the adult who was still holding the pink parka, her attention drawn by the shouting, headed Maya's way. I intercepted her, saying, "I'll talk to her," taking the coat.

I went to Maya who was still engaged in her battle of wills. I held her coat up and called to her, "I'm going to put your coat inside. If you want it, it will be on a hook."

Maya shouted, "I don't want it!" then ran off again to join her friends.

By now, it was clear to me that the mistake in all this was mine. I'd obviously not made myself clear to the adult community about our school's coat policy. Some time later, Maya rushed up to me with exciting news of some kind and I noticed she was now wearing her parka. Worried that yet another adult had badgered her into it, I said, "You're wearing your coat."

She replied fiercely, "Yes. I changed my own mind," then went back to her play. And indeed, that's the only way any mind has ever been changed.

******

My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Bookis at the printers! We're offering a pre-publication discount through May 18 (only three more days). I'm incredibly proud of it. And while you're on the site, you can also find my first book, Teacher Tom's First Book, at a discount as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.


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!
Bookmark and Share
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