Friday, September 18, 2020

It's the Difference Between Freedom and Captivity

People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some fine, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.  ~Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

A group of us kids once broke away from our families while on a beach outing and began scrambling on the some rocks above the waves until our parents were mere dots below. We began challenging one another to climb higher and higher where we discovered a small cave and, miraculously, growing from an unlikely patch of soil, was a fig tree heavy with fruit. It was an isolated perch with a sweeping view of the Aegean Sea. We were, however, not the first to have found this idyllic place. Someone had built a small fire just outside the cave. We wondered, our hearts racing, if that person lived there. Had we invaded their home? Would they return to scold us or worse? This led to the group of us, four boys and a girl, to imagine that maybe we would live there. We each picked out where we would sleep, argued about how we could restart the fire, discussed the possibility of learning to fish, made crude furniture from rocks, and ate a feast of figs. There was the challenge of figuring out where we would defecate, finally deciding that we would have to climb back down and poop in the sea, where the water would wash us clean. We figured we needed weapons to protect ourselves from potential intruders and antagonists, so we fashioned spears and swords from the fig tree's cast offs. 

We stayed there, planning our utopia for an hour or more, creating a new civilization, until we finally grew restless and climbed higher. We balanced on ledges no wider than our hands, the waves churning against the cliff face far below. A slip would have killed us, a fact that we only discussed amongst ourselves having achieved a paved roadway that ran along the bluff. We guessed correctly that the road would lead back to our beach, where we discovered we hadn't been missed.

Education involves learning and learning involves, as far as we can tell given the state of the art of neuroscience, a change in the strength of synapses in small circuits of neurons. In short-term memory, that change involves the enhanced release of a neurotransmitter. Long-term memory, which is what educators should be more interested in, requires the release of a neurotransmitter accompanied by the growth of new synaptic connections between two cells. This is certainly not all that is involved in learning, despite what some scientists assert, because if we've learned anything by studying the brain, it's that there is always something fundamental we still don't understand.

For instance, the current orthodoxy holds that long-term memory is induced by repeated association of stimuli, which causes many to believe in rote learning, but that doesn't account for brains that shut down out of tedium or those memories preserved from childhood, which are, as Dostoyevsky writes, "the best education." Those were one-off events so profound that they permanently changed who we are. Of course, we have these experiences throughout our lives, but the ones from childhood, because they happen early in life, are the ones that most shape and inform who we are and who we become.

I'm not the only one who has discovered that when you invite adults to share their fine, sacred childhood memories, they almost invariably talk about being outdoors, with friends, unsupervised by adults, and without a schedule. That this is the ideal learning environment for young children seems obvious, even as most schools are bereft of all of these features, although, admittedly children sometimes wind up befriending their fellow prisoners. It's not surprising that few of us have fine, sacred memories that were formed in school.

It's the difference between freedom and captivity. 


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, September 17, 2020

What Are We Going to Do?

A couple days ago, I had a conversation with the father of a six-year-old, a first grader who is gamely trying to engage in online first grade for two hours a day. He told me she is struggling: restless and distracted. She is zoned out much of the time. When those two hours are over, she is irritable and exhausted, taking herself to bed for a long nap. He is in despair because her school has just let them know that starting this week online school will become "full time." He said, "I don't know what we're going to do."

A mother of one of my former preschool students says she is "in grief" about the school year. He is bored, frustrated, and moody. "He is in a vacuum, no classmates, teachers, movement, or human-being-ness to take in and give off." As a corrective, she's started trying to do her own work in the room with him, where he asks her questions, shows off, and generally reaches out to her for the human connection he needs. She's a single mother and a small business owner, who has to get her work done, so even as she can't blame him, she can't help but get annoyed at the constant distractions. This is the most loving, devoted mother I know. This is a bright, enthusiastic, kid who always loved school. 

She writes, "The teacher's speakered-sounding, too-loud voice is reading math problems while you are supposed to follow along, and she's moving on to the next one too fast, not noticing that you have your hand up. And then there are the kids who aren't muted when they're supposed to be. Or have lots of questions and don't raise their hand, just jump in and start asking her everything about else that's going on. And the teacher doesn't know who's doing the asking, so everyone goes down that path for a bit, then the teacher tries to haul everyone back on track, barreling on to #4 when you're still on #2 . . . It's zero wonder to me that (my son) either gets upset and breaks pencils or just tunes out and does his own thing. I'm almost proud of him for that. Damn strait, it's upsetting. And then I hear myself telling him to pay attention, raise his hand for the teacher, keep going, focus. This is school. Pretend I'm not here. What would you do if you were actually in a classroom? F**k you, Mom."

These are not isolated examples. I could fill up this blog day-after-day, with stories like these. I'm not blaming teachers and neither are the parents who've reached out to me. In fact, they are in awe of their patience and their unflagging efforts to make the most of a horrible situation. The argument is that there is a learning curve, that the teachers will "figure it out," that things will begin to go more smoothly, that the children will "adapt," all of which is certainly true, but it will remain a crappy, crappy thing we are doing to children and their families. As I listen to these stories, I'm convinced that this is not "better than nothing." 

We are damaging children right now and for what? So they won't fall behind? That's pure BS. "Behind" is a noxious concept based on some some data-monger's benchmarks. Is it really so important that we deliver this top-down, adult-directed curriculum according to an arbitrary schedule? It's BS in the best of times, and downright cruelty right now.

Are we doing it to help families? I don't know any family being "helped" by this. In fact, judging from the stories I'm hearing, we are laying extra stress and strain on families during what is already a time of extra stress and strain.

Are we doing it to keep teachers employed? Is it simply an effort to create "structure" for the kids? 

None of the reasons hold water. The minimal amount of good being done is far outweighed by the harm. I don't need any more evidence: we need to stop doing this to young children (probably all children) right now.

Children and families do not need curriculum forced upon them. They need help coping during these incredibly trying times. This is where our focus needs to be. We need to spend more time listening, we need to unmute the children, we need to unmute their parents. Let's take this opportunity, and use this technology, to talk about feelings, to create human connection, and to play with one another. Do we really need to recreate the classroom with 20+ kids and one teacher, a problematic scenario under the best of times? Would it really be so bad if we allowed children to congregate in small online groups where they are free to goof around with one another? Would it really be so bad if we allowed children to wear what they wanted to wear, to use the toilet when they wanted to use the toilet, to talk when they wanted to talk, to laugh, to cry, to show off, and to play? Would it really be so awful if we allowed the children to take the lead in their own learning?

This sort of communications technology (e.g., Zoom) will never be able to replace face-to-face, but it can provide windows through which we can reach out to one another as humans during this pandemic. This is what children need right now. This is what we all need. And maybe when we can finally return to "normal," we won't want to.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Most Rigorous Curriculum

The opposite of play is not work, it's rote. ~Dr. Edward Hallowell

Our outdoor classroom is one big slope and within that slope there are many ups and downs, reflecting our city which is built on hills. We're forever experimenting with gravity out there, rolling and flowing things downhill or dragging and pushing things up. There are parts of the space that are so steep one needs a running start to get to the top and there is very little flat upon which to rest one's legs.

We have a pair of wagons, which are regularly used on the hills. Once, we made an airplane. 

From my photos, it's easy to see the physics and engineering learning, but those were minor aspects, side-effects, of the bigger, more important project, which was figuring out how to get along with the other people.

There are those who question the "rigor" of a play-based curriculum when, in fact, we're engaged in the most rigorous curriculum known to mankind. There is simply no greater or more important challenge than the one of balancing our own individual desires and needs with those of the other humans with whom we find ourselves. 

A play-based curriculum is rigorous because of it's subject matter, which is the all-important one of getting along with the one another, something children are passionate about. Traditional schools, on the other hand, are rigorous simply because they attempt to teach less interesting things by rote, lecture, and text book, the most difficult way to learn new things because most children find them tedious and frustrating. It's an artificial rigor designed, I guess, to make the adults feel important.

Many people confuse hating school with rigor, saying things like, "It prepares them for life," but those of us who work in a play-based environment spend our days amongst children who love school, who arrive each day eager to tackle the challenges of community, and I would assert that there is no better preparation for life. Make no mistake, it's not pure joy, it's not all laughter. There are tears. There is conflict. There is negotiating and compromise. Children might complain, but they return each day eager to engage, to figure out the things they are most driven to figure out: the most important things of all.

There was so much to learn about flying our airplane together. Would it be safe? Where would everyone sit? How many of us can go at a time? Who gets to steer? Who rides and who "launches?" How do we get it back to the top of the hill? How do we make sure everyone gets a turn?

For the most part, we adults stood back, taking a few pictures, letting the kids work it out. Sure, the first few times they launched themselves down the hill, I jogged just ahead of them, prepared to intervene in the name of safety, but as it turned out on this day, I was unnecessary, even when the airplane crashed and burned.

I'll take the real rigor of play over the artificial rigor of rote any day. And so would the kids.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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, September 15, 2020

Clouds Must Be Free

I like the idea of being "free," whatever that means, and I like the idea of empowering others to be free. It is, one could say, the driving force behind both my personal and professional life. I don't know if I've ever achieved it, but I've always, to the best of my ability strived toward it. 

I will not obey is one of my mantras, commandeered from Utah Phillips and made my own. It is, at the same time, the attitude of a dictator unless I also strive to also make the possibilities embodied in that stance a reality for others. "I'll be the boss of me. You be the boss of you." It's another mantra, one I've tried to live for most of my adult life, especially when engaged with young children. To me it means that my relationships must be based upon agreement rather than command. 

Of course, that is only the tip of the freedom iceberg. Even if we can achieve perfect interpersonal freedom, and we likely cannot, there are still the worldly shackles of society, culture, environment, biology, and wealth that make our freedom incomplete. Philosophers and theologians tell us that nothing short of death, the return of consciousness back into the universe or heaven, can make us free; that bodies are our ultimate earthly prisons. Others, however, tell us that freedom is possible on this earth, but only through a constant process of escape, of letting go, of being water. Even if this freedom is only experienced in sips, they say, it is real freedom nevertheless. 

The philosopher Karl Popper said that life is not a clock, it is a cloud. The mistake we make is to believe that if we can find the right tool to dissect it, we will finally figure it out, the way one would a clock. This is the approach we've taken since science has usurped mythology, yet time and again, whenever we think we are approaching an understanding of the universe, or the human mind, we find that the deterministic order turns out to be a mirage, a cloud that is, in Popper's words, "highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable." 

Hopefully by now we've all heard the word that science has discovered that our brains, arguably the source of our minds, our consciousness, is, like a cloud, an ever-changing and evolving thing, never the same from moment to moment, always emerging as our neurons adapt to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Neuroscientists have labelled this constant cellular upheaval as "plasticity," and it means that life is a dialectic between the self and the world. Not too long ago neuroscientists were telling us that we are born with a fixed set of neurons at birth, a clock, but now we see that we we have more in common with clouds.

This is where our freedom can be found -- in our mind's ability to continually renew itself. Each day, we are given new cortical cells and it is up to us to decide what we will become. That is freedom. The freedom to find what we want in the highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable cloud and to chose from moment to moment who we will be.

We miseducate our children when we teach them to obey, when we show them that escape is impossible, when we confine them in classrooms (or, as we are doing now, in front of screens), when we limit their input to only that which we've detailed in curricula and their output to right answers only. This is, at best, a preparation for a non-existent clockwork universe, a neo-Calvinist place of predestination, where freedom is only an illusion. 

But life is not a clock, it's a cloud and clouds must be free.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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, September 14, 2020

Beyond Our Words

When our daughter Josephine was little, we tried out a new dentist based upon the recommendation of a friend. She was nervous and began to cry. The dentist awkwardly tried to soothe her, then turned to me to say, "She thinks that if she cries she can get out of it." This made Josephine cry harder.

I was stunned (rage at the dentist would come later) and began trying to calm her, which I knew, even as a young parent, meant not dismissing her tears, but rather acknowledging them and the fear behind them. I held her hand, ignored the dentist who continued voicing her chirpy bromides of dismissal and shame, and assured Josephine that I was there and that I wouldn't let her get hurt. 

At the time of that miserable visit to the dentist I was not experienced enough as a parent to have the confidence to just walk out, which is what I would today recommend to anyone who finds themself in a similar situation. Yes, tears can be used manipulatively, but a person who is cynical enough to attribute such ulterior motives, not to mention acting skills, to a preschooler, has no business working with them.

Anyone who has spent a lot of time around young children has spent a lot of time around a lot of crying. Indeed, at any given moment in preschool, it's likely that someone is in tears over something. Crying is our first "word" so to speak, one that is used to communicate everything from hunger to discomfort to exhaustion. It's a call to the adults to do their job, their primary job, which is to care for them. Sometimes it's simple to console them -- we return a dropped blankie to their hands, we remove the pine needle that is poking their tender flesh, we sing to them to assure them they are not alone -- but as any parent knows, sometimes children are, at least given our ability to figure it out, inconsolable. If that makes us feel helpless, imagine how they must feel.

As we get older and begin to learn more words, we become increasingly adept at communicating exactly what it is that makes us cry, but there are still times when words are inadequate, when the feeling we are experiencing is beyond the inadequacies of the simple words we know, like "sad" or "mad" or "hurt." The feeling is too immediate, too intense, too surprising, or too new, and like the outrage I felt after-the-fact toward that dentist, it is beyond our experience to know what to do or say. Words, at least the words at our disposal at the moment, are simply inadequate for the situation. 

We say to children, "Use your words," a command that young children in the throes of experiencing their wordless feeling, are often incapable of obeying. As we get older, as we gain experience, we tend to cry less often, but our tears still must suffice when words fail us. As adults, our tears are often a source of shame. We apologize for them. We show them only to our loved ones if even then, which is too bad, especially now in this time of disease, poverty, fire, and social unrest, when we are all having feelings that are beyond our words and the only consolation is one another.


 If you like my blog, you'll love my books! Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe, as well as the US and Canada. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Friday, September 11, 2020

Full of Meaning Rather Than Absence

I couldn't find my wallet, which was particularly worrisome because I always keep it in one of three places: my pocket, a narrow counter in the bathroom, or on the table beside where I sit and write blog posts. After looking in all of those places, I looked in those places again. Only then could I consider the possibility that I had slipped up and placed my wallet, or, heaven forbid, left it somewhere else. It would be another 15 minutes of fruitless hunting before I would begin to wonder, accusingly, if someone else had had a hand in its disappearance.

I hate hunting for lost items. It's one of those things, like cleaning out my email inbox or folding laundry, that gives me the miserable feeling that I'm wasting a chunk of my precious life. I don't care to look for lost people either, but at least those moments tend to be accompanied by the heart-in-your-throat anxiousness that lets you know you're alive. Hunting for lost items, especially run-of-the-mill things like wallets, keys, and phones, is just pure frustration for me, which is why I like to have designated places to keep them and also why, when they are lost, I tend to be at a loss. 

I know not everyone feels like this. In fact, I have one friend who insists that she actually "likes" looking for lost things. The hunt, for her, is a quest and she anticipates the feeling of accomplishment when she finally finds what she's been seeking. Whatever the case, there's no denying that trying to find something does a peculiar thing to your perception. In a flash, the world is turned into a place defined by an absence. Existence is suddenly reorganized on the basis of what is sought, giving it the quality of a ghost, glimpsed in the similar color of something else entirely, in the heft of something else in a jacket pocket or in the shape of that evocative bulge under a bedsheet. The lost thing lives in your mind, more real sometimes than when it was last in your hand. A world defined by absence is a narrower one, bereft of roses to sniff, less traveled detours to explore, and those quirks of randomness that often enrich our thoughts, words, and deeds. All that exists is what is not there.

I like my friend's idea to frame it as a quest, but I struggle to find satisfaction in it because, frankly, once I find the things I've misplaced, I know that I won't celebrate as much as feel stupid for the time I've wasted in hunting when I could have been doing pretty much anything else. Of course, I'm relieved when I find the lost object, not so much because it's no longer lost, but because I'm now, finally, free to go back to a fuller perception of the world, one that is no longer defined by absence.

Absence is as real as presence, I suppose. Indeed, it's how we too often define the world for school children, who are generally viewed as lacking. They are empty vessels that need to be filled with whatever the curriculum dictates, making their world one of things they do not know whether they want to know those things or not. Educators are to instruct and then pose questions with the intent of broadening the child's world, but instead they narrow it down to what must be found. Detours are discouraged. Discoveries not permitted by the curriculum are dismissed. Answers other than the approved ones are labelled as wrong. When children flag in their search, we try to trick them by "gamifying" it, reframing it, like my friend does, as a quest. It might work for a day or a week, but the treasure found is generally uninspiring and the only reward is another quest after an absence.

I finally found my wallet. I'd stupidly tucked it in the pocket of my bathrobe while carrying it that morning from the table beside where I write these blog posts and the bathroom counter. Freed from this mundane onus that had made my world one of mundane ghosts, I was now rid of the essentially meaningless make-work "quest" that had consumed a chunk of my precious life. I could now return to a quest of my own choosing, one full of meaning rather than absence.


 If you like my blog, you'll love my books! Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe, as well as the US and Canada. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, September 10, 2020

A World Without Vertical

Back in the late 1970's a psychologist by the name of Colin Blakemore conducted experiments in which he raised cats in an environment composed solely of horizontal stripes. The result was that as adult cats they could not see vertical stripes. The cells in their brains that would have under normal circumstances fired when presented with things like table legs and standing lamps did not fire, which meant that this part of the world was invisible to them, even as they would bump into them as they explored. Their brains had not received the stimulation, they had not had the practice, and were therefore unable to see vertical features.

As bizarre and unhappy as that sounds, a similar phenomenon has been noted in humans who have been cured of blindness: it takes time for them to learn to see faces and other shapes. This is because brains don't just passively record our world. They actively construct it based on the raw input from our senses. It makes one wonder what we are missing because we are incapable or unpracticed in the art of seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, or smelling. Our ancient ancestors did not see the color blue. We've all experienced developing an "acquired taste" for something that initially made us gag. The same goes for music, from Igor Stravinsky whose The Rite of Spring initially caused audiences to riot to the seminal Seattle grunge band Nirvana whose Smells Like Teen Spirit once sounded to a lot of us like "just a bunch of noise." Now we can hear both as background music while shopping at Nordstrom because we have constructed how to hear them.

From the moment we are born, our brains go to work constructing the world around us, making sense of what we perceive via our senses. Even such manifestly obvious things like vertical stripes must be actively constructed, yet, generally speaking, our schools are built around a decidedly passive approach to learning, with children in the role of recording devices who will be judged according to how accurately they can play it back upon demand.

I wonder how many children have seen colors beyond blue only to be told they are wrong. I wonder how many flavors or sounds or textures or scents we're missing out on because adults have decided they must construct learning for children rather than allowing them to do it for themselves. I wonder if all these invisible table legs and standing lamps into which we keep bumping would become clear to us if we could just get out of the way and let our children, as they are meant to, construct the world for themselves.


 If you like my blog, you'll love my books! Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe, as well as the US and Canada. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Perhaps, Parents, That Future is Closer Than We Think

Parents should know that what is happening right now via Zoom meetings is being called "school," but please don't judge your children's teachers by what is happening right now. Or rather, please remember that just as this is an all new world for you and your children, it is likewise an all new world for the teachers who are tasked with inventing this way of delivering curricula via a schedule that has been imposed upon them by administrators and school boards.

I'm guessing that most young children, despite the upheaval, are excited and enthusiastic about the start of the new school year, diving in, adopting the can-do spirit of their teachers. Parents are proudly posting those first day of school pictures on social media, one of the traditional highlights of fall for me as it's a chance to sort of "catch up" with children I know who are no longer preschoolers. There will be even more challenges ahead, we're going to have to maintain our collective sense of humor, and of course we're all hoping for an end to the pandemic, but getting off to a good start is no small thing.

That said, I know it's already been hard for a lot of kids, especially those who thrive on moving their bodies or socializing or who simply don't have an affinity for the technology being used. I know because parents have been writing to me, asking for advice or simply using my shoulder to cry on. One mother told me that her bright, curious child has become increasingly sullen and irritable since the advent of online lessons last year. Another wrote me to tell about the day long battles she is having just getting her daughter to sit in front of the screen. Every day, I'm being told tales like these of tears and tantrums.

Of course, my inbox isn't a proper survey by any stretch of the imagination, and even if it was, one must allow for a period of adjustment during what is certainly a very steep learning curve for everyone involved. So that's mostly what I'm saying to these parents. No one sees online school as ideal, of course, but for many families, this is the only option and we have no choice but to make the best of it.

What parents should also know is that what is happening right now is very much what "school" is all about. The sitting, the schedules, the worksheets, the tests, the muting, and the instruction are all a part of school whether it's in-person or virtual. That hard work the teachers are doing to deliver the curriculum they've been handed from above hasn't changed either: the endless coaxing, cajoling, as well as the punishing and rewarding. If you've spent any time watching over your child's shoulder, you can see how difficult it is to figure out how to deliver that curriculum to children who may or may not be motivated to learn it, not to mention those who are simply not developmentally capable of comprehending. Even without the added stress of it all being online, I'm sure that one byproduct of this era will be a generation of parents with a new appreciation of just how hard teachers work.

And one more thing that parents should  know is that young humans, whatever their age or ability, are designed for learning. From the moment we're born, even before we are born, we are learning. Indeed, we can't help learning. It is a condition of being alive, like breathing and growing, so you might ask yourself, Why must this be so difficult? Why must teachers wear themselves out and why must children struggle? If learning is such a natural process, why does it seem so unnatural? 

The answer can be found in that curriculum teachers are required to deliver. You see, the human brain is not just designed to learn, but also to decide what it will learn. In our hubris, over the course of the last century or so, we adults have decided that we, and only we, without any consultation with children and ignoring most of the research, must decide what is important for all children to learn. Not only that, but we've even determined a schedule of when they must learn these things in order to avoid being labeled as "behind." And there was a time when teachers were looked upon as the professionals tasked with deciding how this curriculum would be delivered, but that has in many ways fallen by the wayside as well, as non-teachers are now increasingly even dictating the how, which leaves your child's teacher with little more than the coaxing, cajoling, punishing, and rewards. For the most part, virtual school hasn't changed any of that. Adults who have never met your child have pre-determined what, when, and how your child will learn and your child's brain is designed to resist that. This is why it is all such a struggle for everyone, whether it's being delivered online or face-to-face.

If there are to be future generations of humans, they may well look back on us as the heroic generation that overcame pandemic, fire, flood, and fighting in the streets, but they will shake their heads over the craziness of our idea of schools. They will wonder why we took the most natural thing in the world and made it unnecessarily difficult by robbing our children of their right to chose what, when, and how they will learn. Self-directed education (what we in the preschool world call play-based learning) will undoubtedly be the norm for more enlightened future generations, because we will understand that it's not our job to indoctrinate children in a certain set of trivia based on little more than guesswork about what they might need to know, but rather to set them free to learn according to their own curiosity, which is the appetite of learning. We will understand that a child's play reveals what their brain has decided it needs or wants to learn, and they will teach themselves according to a perfectly individualized timeline, by methods of their own devising.

What if we used this time to begin to radically reimagine our schools? What if we set children free to learn as they are clearly made to learn? Perhaps, parents, with what you are now learning about school, that future is closer than we think.


 If you like my blog, you'll love my books! Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe, as well as the US and Canada. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Pretty Good Parenting

When you hear someone use the term "adulting," it's usually used as the punchline to a sarcastic joke about having tackled a responsibility that is associated with being a grown-up, like changing a tire, folding laundry, or paying the monthly bills. It's sometimes used to refer to the day-to-day grind, such as having conscientiously undertaken irritating, but necessary tasks, but just as often, it's a kind of self-effacing boast about having accomplished some relatively petty thing that we perceive of as uniquely adult. We didn't use the term back then, but "adulting" is how I felt the first time I belly crawled through the dust under our first house to change the furnace filter. It's how I felt when I grew my first edible tomato. And it's how I felt almost every day as a new parent.

How much better "adulting" is than "parenting." Both refer to the assumption of responsibilities, but the first, at least the way it is most commonly used, has a sort of light-heartedness to it, a wink that says that you can feel proud of having at least done your best even if it falls short of perfection. Whereas the second word, parenting, refers to a weighty business. There are so many tragic ways one can fail, and those failures will "shape" your child, "damage" them, causing them to grow into adults who are incapable of adulting. Adulting might still be stressful and challenging, but it's nothing compared to dead seriousness of parenting, which carries with it the connotation that you are responsible for manufacturing a whole human being and falling short is not an option. 

I've often noted here on these pages that we have seen a disturbing and steady rise in the incidence of childhood mental disorders over the past 50 to 70 years, a timeframe during which "parenting" has grown into multi-billion dollar business. In the US alone, we purchase something like 675 million parenting books each year. That's around nine parenting books for every child. Every year. And this doesn't include all those podcasts, blogs, websites, e-courses, and other types of parent education out there. It's all well-intended, but come on! This isn't, of course, the only reason for it, but with being the target of all that "parenting," no wonder children are depressed and anxious.

As an educator in a cooperative school for the better part of the past two decades, I've had a front row seat to a lot of parenting. I've seen good parents make every "mistake" possible, from coddling to commanding. I've witnessed parents shaming their children, bribing them with food, and expecting both too much of them as well as not enough. And just as often, I've seen examples of mastery, parents treating their children with respect, while providing appropriate guide rails. But most days, most of the time, I have borne witness to pretty good parenting, mothers and fathers who love their children enough to treat perfect parenting as the trap that it is, and take pride in simply getting it right a lot of the time.

The joke of "adulting" is one about acknowledging that mistakes will be made and good enough is good enough. It's time we started telling that joke about parenting as well. And then maybe we can feel better about just letting our children play, which is, after all, what a pretty good parent does.


 If you like my blog, you'll love my books! Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe, as well as the US and Canada. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, September 07, 2020

I'm Waving My Flag on Labor Day

It's odd celebrating Labor Day in this country given the war being waged against labor by many of the most powerful members of our society, and the outright vitriol coming from elected representatives who malign working men and women as nothing more than selfish, lazy, union thugs. Even now, in the midst of a pandemic. At the beginning of summer, on Memorial Day, you will find no shortage of people stepping to the front to wave their flags in honor of soldiers who gave their lives. But at the end of summer, on Labor Day, these very people actually become the "selfish, lazy, thugs" they condemn, enjoying a three-day weekend of picnics and family time, ignoring the thousands who gave their lives so that they can enjoy a middle-class privilege, brought to them by unions.

Indeed the middle class exists because of the Labor Movement, although it's not surprising that so many Americans are unaware of this fact, and can be so easily manipulated by politicians with anti-union agendas, because most public schools have relegated this vital piece of our civic history to a few paragraphs in text books, if it's taught at all.

And just because you don't belong to a union, don't think that your life is not better because of the long fight in which labor has been engaged on your behalf.

The very weekend you are currently enjoying has indeed been brought to you by people who fought and even died because of the radical notion that families should have time to be together, that children should not burn up their tragically short lives in sweat shops and coal mines, that mothers and fathers should expect workplaces where they won't be maimed and killed, that they should not be beaten, have their wages arbitrarily withheld, or be forced to work 61 hour weeks (the average in 1870, meaning many worked far more hours than that) with no hope of a day off. Oh, these were great times for business owners, but they were hell for everyone else.

You can thank labor for your employer-based health care coverage, your living wage, your paid sick leave, vacations, and holidays. Without a Labor Movement you would not have workers compensation for on the job injuries, unemployment insurance, pensions, anti-discrimination laws, or family medical leave. You would have no "due process," living at the mercy of your employer, who may well be a good guy, but just as likely is not.

Wages and the standard of living, even for non-union workers, in states with laws that support unions are higher; states with union-busting laws have lower wages and lower standards of living. That is simple math.

I've heard people argue that unions are somehow anti-capitalism. Of course, I see how a strong union might cut into corporate profits, but from where I sit unions are pure capitalism. Why can't individuals with a service to sell, be it teaching or steel working, ally themselves together to negotiate the best deal possible? I mean, it's certainly democratic. And isn't that what corporations do all the time with their mergers, acquisitions and strategic partnerships? If capitalism is just for those with capital, then it's clearly and fundamentally anti-democratic and should have no place in our society.

I've heard people argue that unions are somehow selfish. I find that a singularly silly assertion. Really? Selfish? People getting together for the common good, sticking together, sticking up for one another, acting in the best interests of "we" instead of "me." That's selfish? Yet somehow a corporation seeking to squeeze every nickel out of the hide of it's most lowly worker isn't selfish? Please.

I've heard people use anecdotal arguments that union workers are somehow lazy. I have no doubt that there are actually lazy union workers, just like there is laziness in every aspect of life. But you've got to do better than anecdotes to convince me. The actual research shows that unionized businesses are made more productive through reduced worker turnover which leads to lower training costs and more seasoned workers, which results in not only higher productivity, but better quality. Actual research shows that higher paid workers forces managers to actually do their jobs of more effective and efficient planning.  Actual research shows that employers who involve union workers in their decision-making process see an almost 10 percent increase in productivity. Companies like Costco with a high percentage of its workforce unionized enjoy 20 percent higher profits per worker hour than anti-union employers like Sam's Club. Productivity statistics put the lie to the claim of laziness.

And as for the argument that union workers are thugs. Look at the history of the Labor Movement and tell me who the real thugs are.

I'm writing about this on my education blog because of the hits teacher's unions have been taking across the country over the past few decades. In fact, more than just hits, they are under full-on assault, and not just from politicians, but by the corporate "education reformers," who seem to find, without any evidence, that those rotten union teachers are the cause of our "educational crisis" (which in itself is a myth made up solely to serve their agenda of high-stakes testing, privatization and the de-professionalization of the teaching profession).

I am not a union member, nor have I ever been, but I'm waving my flag today not only for hard working teachers, but for all of my brothers and sisters who work for a living, who continue to fight for their fair share of this democracy, and who envision a better more egalitarian and democratic future for our children.


 If you like my blog, you'll love my books! Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe, as well as the US and Canada. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Friday, September 04, 2020

And They Are Perfect

I have spent my adult life trying to figure out why parents and society put themselves into a race -- what's the hurry? I keep trying to convey the pleasure every parent and teacher could feel while observing, appreciating and enjoying what the infant is doing. This attitude would change our educational climate from worry to joy. ~Magda Gerber

It seems to me that the greatest gift we can give to other people is to let them know we love them just as they are. That we've all heard this before in some version or other makes it no less profound and no less precious.

I think that's what we do when we simply let ourselves be with young children, without that sense of possession or protectiveness or responsibility that too often attends our interactions. It's in those moments of two humans simply being together that we convey this vital knowledge of unwavering love to even the youngest children, who themselves are then permitted to be, without the obligations that come with being possessed, protected, or a responsibility.

I was introduced to the ideas of Magda Gerber by parent educator Janet Lansbury, and it's this idea of sincerely and carefully observing that stands at the center of her work. But this practice of observation is an essentially academic act, I think, without our own appreciation and joy in what the infant is doing or what we are doing together. Not only do we ourselves come to a deeper understanding of the child, but it's only through this heartfelt appreciation and joy that we actually convey to children the unconditional love that is our gift.

It may seem strange, I suppose, for many of us to understand that we, at best, stand on the planet as equals with all the other people, including young children. We are each fully formed, fully valid, fully functional human beings no matter our age. Naturally, we have different lots in life, different blessings and challenges, and are on our way to different places, but we always remain, most of all, worthy of being loved for being exactly who we are.

Parents and teachers traditionally see our role as helpers, instructors or guides; agents for moving young children through the world from point A to point B along their developmental track, ticking off milestones in baby books or report cards like we might a shopping list, taking pride in each "accomplishment." We can't help but look ahead, to anticipating the next destination, worrying about the next bumpy patch, feeling guilty about our failings when we lose our way or fall behind schedule. It makes us impatient, lead-footed, prone to live outside the present moment as we move relentlessly toward a future. We forget to just be with our children as they are right now. Those future children do not exist: these are the real children, the ones before us right now, and they are perfect.

We are, in fact, at our best when we manage to successfully override those urges to help, instruct, or otherwise guide a young person and instead give them the space and time to struggle, to practice, to come to their own conclusions. This, not our superior experience or intellect, is the great gift we have to give to children: to stop, to really see who they are right now, and be with them in appreciation and joy, loving them just as they are.


 If you like my blog, you'll love my books! Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe, as well as the US and Canada. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. Thank you!

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