Friday, June 09, 2023

Creatures Of Excess

Midden (or kitchen midden) is the archeological term for a heap of garbage. One millennia's trash is another's anthropological gold. Studies of middens reveal a great deal about how our ancient ancestors lived.

No other species leaves middens for scientists to study. This is because humans are the only species that produces excess. "We are creatures of excess" write the Davids Graeber and Wengrow in their book The Dawn of Everything, "and this is what makes us simultaneously the most creative, and the most destructive, of all species."

Excess is the glamorous cousin of waste. Excess is what makes us wealthy. It's also what makes us obese. Excess allows us to provide for others. It's also what we hoard. The principle project of every civilization may be to care for the children, but the principle question every generation of humans seems to be asking itself is what to do with the excess. 

In the sense that our excess takes the form of pollution of all kinds -- air, water, ground -- we are today witnessing our species' destructive capacity in the form of climate change. 

We produce so much excess artificial light that nearly all of us live perpetually under light-polluted skies; maybe not so bad for us, but for plants and animals that need the dark, it's literally killing them. Same goes for sound pollution; most of the planet's species live their entire lives against the background of human-created noise. As science writer Ed Young writes in his book An Immense World, "Sensory pollution is the pollution of disconnection. It detaches us from the cosmos. It drowns out the stimuli that link animals to their surroundings and to each other. In making the planet brighter and . . . (louder), we have also endangered sensory environments."

We produce too much food, too much clothing, and too much shelter, yet we don't use that excess to feed, clothe and shelter -- according to World Vision, about 10 percent of the human population go to bed hungry each night. Instead, that excess becomes toxic waste.

I imagine that some our drive to produce excess comes from having evolved our unique human consciousness. We are capable of imagining potential future needs and simultaneously a future that does not supply those needs, so we produce excess as protection. We save for a rainy day. An adaptive instinct, to a point, creative in the way the squirrels bury nuts "for the winter." But a destructive instinct as well because when excess is not eventually used, when it is left to rot, when it is hoarded, it becomes pollution. And even when our accumulated waste doesn't directly harm the climate or biome, it still, I would assert, damages our minds and souls. The natural emotional state of a hoarder -- whether its old magazines or money -- is misery. The difference between us and the squirrels is that if they don't get around to digging up a buried walnut it either winds up feeding another squirrel, enriching the soil, or growing into a tree.

Many cultures, like those of Native Americans, aboriginal Australians, and Māori, have traditions that acknowledge our tendency toward creating excess. Indeed, the middens we study were almost all accumulated by indigenous peoples. In Robin Wall Kimmerer's book Braiding Sweetgrass, she writes of her people's tradition of only taking from nature what is needed, only harvesting what you will eat. They hedge against a less plentiful future not by producing and hoarding excess, but by caring for their plant and animal relatives, for their environment, so that it will continue to provide enough in a cycle of nurturing with the goal of mutual thriving.

I know that comedian Louis CK is a problematic figure, but I find myself regularly coming back to a riff he once did about saving money. "I spend the money," he says, "I don't save it. I think it's arrogant. It's like holding a breath. I'm not letting it out. I worked hard for this . . . Raising your kids rich is the worst thing you can do for them, but more for the people that they're going to impact later in life. Because there's no way somebody who's raised rich is not going to be a piece of s**t human being."

I stipulate to the existence of people who are "good" despite having inherited wealth, and I'm not saying to cash in your 401K, but it's something to think about. I mean, that excess, that hoard, might make us feel secure, but that's only because we've created a world in which we all sit on our individual, competitive hoards, large or small, spending our short and precious lives growing and protecting it, only to one day leave behind middens of accounts and storage lockers for our loved ones to sift through. Very few of us will create middens that materially improve the lives of our inheritors, yet we spend our so much of our lives creating the excess to accumulate them.

But this drive to produce excess is, as the Davids point out, also a creative and wonderful thing. Over my decades working with young children, for instance, I've been surrounded by excess. Physical and emotional energy, curiosity, enthusiasm, and unfiltered love spills from them like water from an overfull bucket, yet none of it, none of it, turns into waste. They don't save anything for the future, but instead give with both hands, with open hearts, and with their emotions on their sleeves. They are perfectly happy with the midden that surrounds them: the sticks and leaves, the rocks and soil, the boxes and tins from our recycling bins. Plastic fantastic toys are, in the end, pure waste: joys for a season, then abandoned. But grass and trees and fresh air and open sky, insects and toads and worms, friends and family and pets, these are the educational toys with which these unspoiled humans most easily and readily connect.

We are creatures of excess, for worse or better. What we do with our excess is easily as vital and important as what we produce. Indeed it is the same thing. What to do with it is the question.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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Thursday, June 08, 2023

They Simply Did What We Were Doing Until It Was Done

As clean up time approached, I began to survey the two-year-olds, "Is it clean-up time?" Some said, "Yes," while others informed me that they wanted to wait "three minutes" or "five minutes." They all know by now that after we tidy up we go outside. I had never instructed the children to participate in cleaning up, but I had instructed the parent-teachers in this cooperative class to practice stepping back, to leave space for the children who choose to participate to do so in a meaningful way.

After three or five minutes, I retrieved the hand drum we use as a transition signal. Children were engaged in their play all around the room, although a couple of them stopped what they were doing to notice me. I said, "I'm getting the clean-up time banjo," and proceeded to "play" it like a banjo.

A few more kids noticed me. "It's not a banjo," I said, "It's a flute," and I played the drumstick like a flute.

"It's not a flute, it's a trumpet," and I played the stick like a trumpet. Now several more children were watching me. One of them laughed, saying, "It's a drum!"

"It's not a trumpet," I continued, "It's a trombone," and I pantomimed playing the stick as a trombone.

"It's not a trombone, Teacher Tom! It's a drum!" By now about half the kids had dropped what they were doing to watch me.

"It's not a trombone, it's a tuba." I used the drumstick for the mouthpiece and held the drum over my head to represent the large, flared tuba bell.

By now, most of the kids were paying attention, and most of them had come over to where I stood on our checker board rug to stand amidst the Duplos that were scattered there. Several of them shouted at me, "It's a drum!" and "It's not a tuba!"

I said, "It's not a tuba, it's a harp."

"It's not a harp!" they shouted. "It's a drum!" Some were so full of anticipation that they demanded, "Bang it!"

"It's not a harp, it's a piano."

"It's a drum!" "Bang it!"

"It's not a piano, it's a drum and I'm going to bang it so loud that your brains are going to shoot out of your ears and splat on the wall."

By now everyone was focused on my silly little show and they were demanding that I bang the drum. They were demanding the transition. It's not the first time I've done this, indeed, it's part of my regular teacher repertoire. After a couple of goofs where I pretended to miss the drum, I finally made contact, playing it gently with three soft beats because they were all so focused with anticipation that that was all I needed.

As I said, I never suggested that these two-year-olds participate in clean-up, although they had by now been coming to class for months and many of them had been pitching in of their own accord for some time. On this day, however, the sound of Duplos being dropped into boxes was almost deafening, as they all, as one, leapt to the task. There were a couple visitors in the room, mothers touring the school with an eye toward enrolling for next year. The response was so dramatic, so instantaneous, so opposite of the stereotype we have of young children, that I couldn't help making eye-contact with one of the prospective parents boastfully, as if to non-verbally say, Surely, you want your kid to be a part of this!

I then continued to make informational statements like, "That box needs to go over here," and "Phillip is putting away lots of blocks," and "We need help at the red table," until everything was packed away. None of them complained. None of them hid. None of them sought to avoid the "work." They simply did what we were doing until it was done, then we put on our coats and went outside.


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"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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Wednesday, June 07, 2023

"So, What Have You Been Up To All Day? Indoctrinating Kids?"

Not long ago, my wife an I were introduced to a new couple. They were from Toronto and mentioned that they really didn't know anyone around here, so in the spirit of neighborliness, we invited them to join us for happy hour with some other friends of ours the following evening.

When they arrived all the chairs at our table were full, but we managed to squeeze in a couple more seats, with the man's right next to mine. The only thing I knew about him was that he was a real estate attorney of some sort and the only thing he knew about me was that I was a preschool teacher, which is the shortcut way I often introduce myself when I don't want to take the time going into the details. As he sat down, he asked, "So, what have you been up to all day? Indoctrinating kids?" In hindsight, I expect he meant it as jocularity, but it hit me as fighting words.

I paused for a moment to let it sink in. Had he really said that? His smile looked like a sneer to me.

Recently, a Florida teacher was investigated and her job threatened because she showed her class a Disney film that includes, as a side plot, a gay character. She was accused of "indoctrinating" the kids. This was hardly an outlier. Every day, right across the country, educators are being charged with nefarious indoctrination of children for simply having books about race or gender or sexual orientation on their shelves. We are accused of sexually "grooming" the children, or of teaching them to hate their own race, or of trying to infect them with our "woke mind virus." In Miami, a single parent who admittedly had not even read the book, successfully petitioned to have our first National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman's book The Hill We Climb, removed from the school library simply because the forward was written by Oprah Winfrey. This parent apparently feels that Winfrey indoctrinates people into hating one another and themselves, which is the exact opposite of my take on her. It's not an accident that an overwhelming number of the books being banned are written by people of color or that feature non-traditional families.

Florida is ground zero, but teachers and librarians right across the country are finding themselves labelled as "indoctrinators," and their careers threatened, for having a rainbow flag in their classroom during Pride Week, or for mentioning racism, or even for acknowledging that someone might have two mommies or two daddies. Even classic and award-winning children's picture books are being challenged and banned, and teachers are being called to the carpet, if they make any reference at all to our history of racism or the reality of anything to do with the existence of LGBTQIA+.  Needless to say, this paranoia (it's either that or outright bigotry) over "porn and indoctrination" is leading to teachers receiving death threats and otherwise making their difficult jobs more difficult. Our profession is already struggling to recruit and retain teachers and this is only making it worse.

I finally replied to my new acquaintance, smiling firmly, "I resent you accusing me of indoctrinating children." I went on to tell him that I was proud of the work I do supporting children and their families to learn. And I finished by saying, "When people accuse me of indoctrinating children, it makes me want to punch them in the nose." Still smiling firmly.

Delightfully, people are pushing back. In Utah, the Bible was recently banned in schools based on a parent complaint due to its vulgarity and violence. People are counter-accusing families of indoctrinating their children to become gun fetishists and mass murderers because of their embrace of guns and the 2nd Amendment. Others are saying that they resent their children being indoctrinated into heterosexuality or Christianity or bigotry. In other words, the blade cuts in both directions.

We have not yet developed a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. ~Doris Lessing

I'm outraged by the current push to ban discussions of historic and systemic racism or gender identity or sexual orientation, but Lessing is not wrong. Although, I would expand her remark in saying that we have not yet developed a system of civilization that is not a system of indoctrination. Personally, I hate and fear guns, but when we ban gun-play in the classroom, for instance, I can't ignore the fact that this is anti-gun indoctrination, or anti-gun grooming if you will. I know many families who are raising their children in the best traditions of their faith and culture, but it's still religious indoctrination. When we expect children to obey rules, to walk in lines, to take turns, to share, to be polite; isn't that also a kind of indoctrination? The current book-banners say they are worried about their children being exposed to pornography, a legitimate concern, even if I disagree with their definition of what that is. I decry the easy access young children today have, through the internet, to the most degrading, dehumanizing, objectifying, and violent forms of porn. Isn't that, ultimately, no different than a pedophile grooming young children?

In other words, one person's indoctrination is another person's teaching. And maybe, looked at that way, teaching and indoctrination are the same thing.

For most of human existence individual civilizations tended to be fairly homogeneous. Everyone in a particular village, for instance, worshipped the same gods, agreed to the same values, and raised their children with the same expectations. Sure there were exceptions, but the historical record shows that heretics were generally treated quite severely and if one was to survive as an alien in those societies, one had to at least adopt the local customs, to at least appear indoctrinated in the name of survival. 

Today, however, those of us in Westernized nations live in multi-cultural societies that include, and attempt to embrace, competing and contradictory ideas about pretty much everything. Scholar and author Charles Taylor writes in his book A Secular Age that for the first time in history "a purely self-sufficient humanism" has become a widely available option. Our experiment in democratic governance of a multi-cultural society is truly an experiment. We've been at it for centuries, but it's still a recent and unproven theory about how humans can live together in freedom and equality. The jury is still clearly still out on whether or not we can make it work. We remain far from a perfect union.

I've spent my "teaching" career as a play-based educator. What that has always meant to me is that I don't have the right to actually teach anything to anyone. I've always seen my role as a facilitator of environments in which children and their parents are free to explore, create, think, and discover, which is to say, to learn. I've always tried to leave my agenda at the door, all the while knowing the impossibility of fully doing that. My opinions and views will inevitably leak into the classroom even if it's just through the simple act of living my own truth. The same could be said of the children's families and the wider community in which we all live. Of course, I will always answer children's specific questions, but I also strive to make sure I state the answers as honestly as possible, which typically involves some version of: "This is what I think, but others think differently."

A boy once asked me about the planet Pluto. In my response, I mentioned that some people don't think it's an actual planet, to which he responded, "Some picky scientists don't think it's a planet, but I do." The specific words he used told me that someone in his life (actually I knew it was his grandfather) had taught him, or rather indoctrinated him, into this opinion. 

Many of us are justifiably outraged by the attacks on our profession, on us personally, around this whole idea of indoctrination, but like with Lessing, they are not entirely wrong: it is, looked at one way, all indoctrination. So is teaching that 1 + 1 = 2. So is saying "please" and "thank you." So is the whole concept of race or gender. We temper it with the word "teaching," we excuse ourselves with the idea that "it's for their own good" or because we know, in our hearts, it is the right thing to teach them. But at the end of the day, we are all attempting to indoctrinate one another all the time. It is, in fact, one of the things that makes us human.

I have little doubt that this current indoctrination craze will finally fall apart of its own absurdity, but in the meantime, blood will boil, including my own. We will never awaken to a day in which we all agree -- on anything -- yet we still must seek to live together. As an educator, I don't see my role as overtly teaching any specific code or creed, but at the same time I know that even the choices I make as to what toys I'll provide will in some way be an indoctrination, even if I wish it wasn't so.

All this said, the vast majority of our attempts to indoctrinate fail, just as most of what traditional teachers try to teach is forgotten after the test. If indoctrination worked, we would have a world of children, and adults, who were uncompromisingly polite, physically fit, industrious, and agreeable. If indoctrination worked, the words of our gods, governments, and parents would be strictly followed. If indoctrination actually worked, we would be living in someone's version of paradise.

Our imperfect system, our grand experiment, seems to be successful in creating a society in which there is always an alternative when the one being presented doesn't serve us. That is, I think, the legacy of Taylor's "self-sufficient humanism." For better or worse, there will always be someone, intentionally or not, who will show you that there may be another way to look at things, and ultimately that is the antidote to indocrination.

Of course, that's just my opinion today. You likely feel differently. Let's talk. Let's listen. Let's agree. Let's disagree.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Do We Want Children To Fall In Love With Reading? If So, We're Failing

In 1974, I was a 12-year-old living with my family in the suburbs of Athens, Greece. My father was working on a project for the Greek government, which was at the time on the brink of falling apart. There was a war in Cyprus against the Turks, student protests, and even tanks going down our streets. I'm ashamed to admit that I wasn't really up to speed on what was going on, but I was aware of a rising anti-American sentiment. It must have been pretty bad because all "unnecessary" US military personnel and their families were evacuated. My parents decided to stick it out for a little longer, but we did give up the longterm lease on our house in order to give us flexibility in case we had to flee. So, for a time, we lived in a series of fully furnished homes of friends who had already returned to the states.

There was a sense of tension in the air, but to be honest, it was mostly an adventure for my siblings and me, moving every month, getting new bedrooms and new stuff with which to play. In one of those houses, my bedroom was a basement room accessible through a secret stairway built into a closet and the room was lined with more English language paperbacks than I'd ever seen in one place that wasn't a library or book store. I never was what you would call a bookish child, but I definitely enjoyed reading.

I owned and had read, for instance, nearly every one of the Hardy Boys mystery series, and I was always on the lookout for the few titles we didn't own, either in the American or British versions. Mom had put no limits on what or how much we could order from the Scholastic Book Club so once a quarter, I'd receive a tall stack of books, which I would consume like candy. That's how I was introduced to Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles) and The Who (I'd read this cheap fan biography before I'd ever heard their music). I was particularly attracted to books about real-life mysteries, like UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle. For a time, I was a convinced that Swiss author Erich von Daniken was onto something with his books Chariots of the Gods? and Return of the Gods, in which he laid out a pseudo-scientific argument "proving" that space aliens had visited our planet, building all the pyramids around the world and perhaps even giving Homo sapiens the artificial boost we needed to evolve from apes to modern humans, thus explaining the so-called "missing link." I was also an avid consumer of superhero comic books.

The thing I remember most about that cool secret entrance bedroom was that it contained George Orwell's Animal Farm and all 14 of L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz books. We were only in that house for a little more than a month, and in that time I managed to read all of them. It was summer, so no school, but still that's a lot of reading!

My point is that I don't think I was a particularly voracious reader for the time, but I did read, mostly for pleasure. I suppose I read for school as well, but I have scant memories of any of the assigned books I was compelled to read during my elementary and middle school years. It was the books I chose to read that stuck with me.

Today's complaint is that kids don't read books for pleasure any more. I'm not sure if that's entirely true. I mean young adult novels still sell quite well, but over all, children just aren't falling in love with reading the way past generations did. A pre-pandemic survey commissioned by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that the percentage of 9- and 13-year-olds who said the read daily for fun has dropped by double digits since 1984. As Katherine March writes in her recent The Atlantic essay entitled Why Kids Aren't Falling in Love With Reading:

What I remember most about about reading in childhood was falling in love with characters and stories; I adored Judy Blume's Margaret and Beverly Cleary's Ralph S. Mouse. In New York, where I was in public elementary school in the early '80s, we did have state assessments that tested reading level and comprehension, but the focus was on reading as many books as possible and engaging emotionally with them as a way to develop the requisite skills. Now the focus on reading analytically seems to be squashing that organic enjoyment. Critical reading is an important skill, especially for a generation bombarded with information, much of it unreliable or deceptive. But this hyperfocus on analysis comes at a steep price: The love of books and storytelling is being lost.

Today, children are being introduced to books and stories one paragraph at a time. They might be reading something as wonderful as Peggy Parish's Amelia Bedelia, but when you have to stop and answer questions, in detail, often word-for-word, about random paragraphs, there's no way you can learn to care about the characters or the stories. Marsh writes about a class in which the kids were reading Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, but they were told by the teacher that they would be doing it over the course of months, and probably wouldn't have time to finish it. What the hell? How can you read any book, and that book in particular, without reading it to the end? And months? It's a novel, not a sitcom.

No wonder children aren't growing up to love reading. 

Yesterday, I was feeling ill, so I spent the day reading a Doris Lessing novel, falling in love with Martha Quest and her emotional story of growing into adulthood in colonial Africa during the 1920s and '30s. I fell asleep last night with one chapter to go and am relishing the thought of sinking back into her story today. Will she leave her husband and kids to pursue an independent life of writing and fighting for social justice? I can't wait to find out. Have I understood every single thing in the book? No. Lessing uses regional words with which I'm unfamiliar. She discusses politics about which I know little. She writes of plants and animals I've never seen before. I probably missed some of her metaphors and symbolism. But none of that changes my love for the story I'm reading or the characters I'm reading about.

I'm not going to wade into the reading wars or the so-called "science of reading" here because, as a preschool teacher, I don't have anything to do with "teaching" children to read. My only job, as I see it, is to allow children to continue to fall in love with stories and characters. To read to them. To listen to their own stories. To create an environment in which the children "play" their stories together, taking on roles and saying to one another "Let's pretend . . ." 

"A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies," writes George RR Martin, "and the one who doesn't read, lives just one."

I haven't seen any convincing evidence that our current methods of teaching literacy have done anything to improve overall literacy rates. They seem to have stayed pretty steady since I was learning to read. But we do seem to have made it more difficult for children to fall in love with books. Love of reading must precede analysis. From where I sit, if we want our children to fall in love with reading the best thing we could do is just get them all library cards and let them get lost in the stacks, choosing where to stick their noses, and leaving them to fall in love with the giddy freedom that comes from living a thousand lives.


"This inspiring book is essential reading for every family choosing a preschool, every teacher working with young children, and every citizen who wonders how we can raise children who will make the world a better place." ~Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids
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Monday, June 05, 2023

Reading Faulkner With Five-Year-Olds

Our school was collecting new and gently used books to donate for a fundraiser. Someone brought in a couple of bags of books the day after the deadline and so they've been stashed in our mud room for a few weeks. Recently, a friend of our school asked if we could help her collect children's books that emphasized diversity, so I thought I'd go through those leftover bags with the kids to see if there were any there that fit the criteria. I thought we might be able to re-visit some of the conversations we'd had about skin color from earlier in the year.

It became quickly apparent, however, once we got beneath the surface layer of board books, that the bulk of what we had was adult literary fiction. A handful of 4-5 year olds had gathered around to help, so I began reading the titles to them, and if I was familiar with the book, told them a little bit about it. When I came to William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, I said, "Oh, this is a good one. It's really the same story told four times by four different people. One of the characters is a guy named Benjy. He has a grown-up body, but his brain is still three-years-old. You'll probably read this in high school."

Silas said, "I think we should read it now."

"It's a grown-up book. It's pretty complicated."

Calvin said, "We should read it."

Assuming they'd get quickly bored and confused, I read: "Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting." I stopped there and looked around at the kids.

"Who is hitting?"

"I don't know."

"Read more."

"They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree." 

I stopped and said, "Benjy's the guy telling the story, but I wonder who Luster is."

"I think he's a dog."

"Maybe so. Dog's like to hunt in the grass." 

I went back to reading, "They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit." 

I paused again, "There sure is a lot of hitting in this book."

"I think they're having a fight."

Back to the text: "Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass." 

I tried to summarize, "So somebody is hitting and there's a dog named Luster and there's a fence and a flower tree and a flag they took out and put back in."

No one responded. We were outdoors. I didn't want to keep them from their play. I said, "How about I put a book mark at this place and we read a little more later?"

"No, keep reading."

So I did. ""Here caddie." He hit. They went away across the pasture. I held to the fence and watched them going away . . . "Listen at you, now," Luster said." 

I stopped to point out, "Luster can talk. Maybe he's not a dog."

"I think Luster's his friend."

"Hey, I know! A caddy is in golf. Maybe they're golfing! They're not fighting, they're hitting golf balls!"

"Yeah, and there's a flag they take in and out like mini-golf!"

I nodded, "That makes sense." 

I went back to reading, ""Ain't you something, thirty-three years old, going on that way. After I done went all the way to town to buy you that cake. Hush up that moaning. Ain't you going to help me find that quarter so I can go to the show tonight." 

I said, "He wants to go to a show."

"I think it's a music show."

"Or maybe he just wants to go to a movie."

"Those are both shows," I confirmed. "Luster wants a quarter so he can go to a music show or a movie." 

I went back to reading, "They were hitting little, across the pasture. I went back along the fence to where the flag was. It flapped on the bright grass and trees."

"Definitely golfing." There were four of us still listening and we all nodded our agreement.

I tried again to set the children free, but they wanted to keep reading. When we came to the "the N-word" I said I read it as "N-word." They interrupted me to ask what that meant. Having grown up in the deep south in the 1960's I've known what that word meant my whole life. I guess that's at least proof of a little progress. I said it was an old fashioned bad word that we don't use any more which satisfied them.

We talked about what it meant when Faulkner wrote about birds "slanting and tilting." We discussed the propriety of telling someone to "Shut up!" and the silliness of Luster threatening to eat Benjy's cake and candles. When Benjy noted that his shadow was bigger than Luster's we figured out that it meant Benjy was bigger than Luster. I thought they would get completely lost, as I did as a teenager, when the narrative begins to jump around in time, but it didn't seem to faze them. We just stopped and tried to figure out who the new characters were. We weren't always "correct" in our surmises: we determined, for instance, that "toddy" refers to the hot beef inside a burrito, but that's fine. We aren't the first to make mistakes about this book. I didn't correct them, but rather let them correct themselves as they had when figuring out all that hitting was just golf, not fighting.

We thought some of the grown-ups were kind of mean to Benjy, but some of them were nice. 

We agreed with Benjy when he thought the pigs were "sorry because one of them got killed today."

We had been reading The Sound and the Fury for a good 20 minutes, just the four of us, and it was time to go inside. The boys weren't ready to be finished, so I marked the page and promised we would get back to it. Later, as we wrapped up for the day, they begged me to read it to the whole class instead of the usual picture book.

The following day, we took the novel outdoors again, but this time we were a larger group of 8-10, all choosing to listen to me read Faulkner instead of digging in the sand or swinging on the swings. We had a long discussion about the smell of trees, when Benjy described someone as "smelling like trees." We even smelt leaves, some of which did have a fragrance. We talked about words like "rasped" and "stooped" and "jouncing" and "snagged." Calvin showed us a few places where his coat was torn from having snagged on things.

I kept trying to stop, telling them I could just mark the page where we left off so they could play, but they were not having it. They wanted to keep reading The Sound and the Fury, so we did.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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Friday, June 02, 2023

The General Theory Of The Second Best


It is well known that the attainment of a Paretian optimum requires the simultaneous fulfillment of all the optimum conditions. The general theorem for the second best optimum states that if there is introduced into a general equilibrium system a constraint which prevents the attainment of one of the Paretian conditions, the other Paretian conditions, although still attainable, are, in general, no longer desirable. In other words, given that one of the Paretian optimum conditions cannot be fulfilled, then an optimum situation can be achieved only by departing from all the other Paretian conditions. The optimum situation finally attained may be termed a second best optimum because it is achieved subject to a constraint which, by definition, prevents the attainment of a Paretian optimum.  ~General Theory of the Second Best (R.G. Lipsey and Kelvin Lancaster)

There is an artist who hangs-out in the Center of the Universe named Fawzi "Benny" Benhariz. This guy's artform is to balance rocks. Some of his pieces are staggering in their apparent impossibility, large stones, perched atop one another on points no larger than the tip of your pinky, balanced there where even the slightest breeze could topple them over. I swear it looks like a magic trick, surreal and beautiful and as close to perfection as a human being can get. 

But sooner or later the rocks always fall. Or at least I assume they do because of what I know about the world: perfection will not be abided. Something always happens to even the most wonderfully balanced of systems, and when rocks fall, especially big rocks balanced precariously between a well-traversed city sidewalk and a well-traveled city street, they can result in damaging or injurious consequences, which is why the city wants Benny to get a street use permit that would require carrying liability insurance, something beyond the reach of a man who is unhoused and mentally ill. So he's become a sort of outlaw artist, loved and hated, and not only because he points out by his very existence there on the streets of Fremont, that the rocks will always come tumbling down.

In 1956, a pair of economists, one Canadian, the other Australian, published a paper in which they detailed their General Theory of the Second Best. Essentially, they proved that in any theoretical economic system, if even one of the "optimal conditions" cannot be fully met for whatever reason, then it makes moot all the other conditions required to balance the system. In other words, when it comes to making economic theories work in the real world, it's all or nothing. Close enough doesn't count, and according to the theory, if one persists in still trying attain those other conditions, one can in fact create disastrous consequences. Indeed, the second best option probably requires none of the conditions that would have been required to fulfill the first option, sending everyone, in a rational world, back to the drawing board.

I'm not an economist, and I have no doubt that there's a lot more to this idea given that the authors expanded it into an entire book (which I've not read), but I see the basic principle at work every day even in areas apparently unrelated to economics, so I'm inclined to accept its essential truth. It's why fundamentalist dogma of any sort (economic, religious, educational) always becomes dangerous when it comes into contact with reality and why, when faced with the real world, advocates, unwilling to give up on their other optimal conditions, have to instead resort to increasingly draconian measures to keep the faithful in line, usually with the excuse that this is just a phase through which we must pass in order to get to their utopic promised land.

And that brings me to the systems-based education reform types (e.g., education dilettante Bill Gates) who believe that if they can only inject public education with the kind of systematic rigor, carrot-and-stick accountability, and bottom-line focus of their neoliberal "Paretian optimum," then, by the magic of the "invisible hand," our schools will invariably tend toward perfection. They are undaunted by the fact that the real world keeps right on toppling their rocks, crushing toes and denting cars, because, they tell us, "this is just a necessary phase." We'll see they were right when we finally get to the other side. In the meantime, we're going broke paying doctors and mechanics, with no real hope of meaningful reform.

From the moment a child is born into our bright, cold, noisy world, she knows it is an imperfect place. I know it. You know it. And Bill Gates knows it. And all of us, given that sure knowledge, seek the next best thing, which is to get as close as we can to our ideals, even while knowing that perfection is impossible. The perfectionists among us bang their heads against the wall, but the rest of us scramble and scheme and shrug our way toward a "good enough" or "as good as it gets." And we know to append that with "for now," because we also know that everything important requires constant re-balancing, re-organizing, re-assessing: that the ever-changing world and fallible humans will always upset our best laid plans, unsettle what we thought was settled, and break what we've recently mended. We get up each morning and wrestle life back into shape, knowing we'll have to do it again the next day and the next. We have all always known this.

Yet there are those who persist in devising "general equilibrium systems," which are often fascinating, even inspirational, but that are mere thought experiments designed for the two-dimensional world of paper. In the proving ground of the 3D world, however, they fall apart the moment it becomes clear that  the "optimal conditions" cannot be met. Their tendency is to persist in balancing those rocks, striving to come as close as possible to the ideal, but they do so at inevitable peril because the General Theory of the Second Best always comes around to bite everyone in the ass.

When Benny, in the moments when he isn't drunk or throwing rocks at people in fits of rage, talks about his art he says he is "playing with rocks." I've seen him playing with them, a true tinkerer: gently, carefully, focused, a man who is fully present. There is no system or dogma that can balance a rock. Only a human at play can do that. 

I do appreciate that there is right now such a focus on education in America, and indeed much of the rest of the world. The talk is of reform, of progress, of improvement. This is the conversation to be having, but not because our current system is a bad one, but rather that it's been neglected for too long, and from what we all know about systems, no matter how beautiful they look on paper, someone needs to be constantly messing with them, playing with them, tinkering with them, or the whole rock pile comes toppling down. All that the so-called reformers are trying to do is replace one ultimately fallible human system with another, their version made particularly dangerous by "invisible hand" fundamentalism.

Education reform is something that should be happening every day, in every classroom, as teachers, parents, administrators, and students play together, wrestling their world into a newly, temporarily balanced system. Then we do it again tomorrow. That's how we make the best schools possible, not with an invisible hand moved by pretty formulas that live only in the fantasy world of thought experiment, but with our own hands, our many hands, the only ones capable of balancing those damn rocks.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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Thursday, June 01, 2023

Summer Break: To Know What It Means To Have The Luxury Of Choosing

My wife Jennifer and I spent a chunk of the the 90's living and working in Germany. We were there because Jennifer was an executive with Volkswagen. Every August, the factory closed, giving workers a long, paid, summer holiday, which was common practice throughout the country. This was on top of another month of paid vacation that employees could take during other months of the year. Since the kids were out of school for their own summer break, many families would opt for two full months off, together, traveling and sharing other experiences.

We didn't have children at the time, but what an incredible thing for German families. As summer break approaches here in the states, however, I'm saddened by how many preschool-aged children (and teachers) just continue to trudge on. It seems that if we had our priorities right, if we really valued and supported families -- or human beings for that matter -- everyone would have a summer break.

The argument against it, of course, is that employers, or the economy, couldn't afford it, but it's not like Germany doesn't have plenty of giant, bureaucratic, profitable corporations. I'm sure shutting down the factories for a month means leaving money on the table, but it's not like Volkwagen, Bosch, and Adidas are going broke. At one point during our time in Germany, management needed to cut costs. They gave employees the choice: a cut in pay or a four day workweek. They overwhelmingly chose the four day workweek. In other words, they chose time off over money.

I wonder if American workers would make that choice. I mean, compared to Germany, we in the US obviously place a relatively higher value on work than we do on families. At least that's what our policymakers have decided. Germans do have higher taxes, but that pays for healthcare, child care, retirement, and a social safety net that lets relatively few fall through. Yes, there seems to be more cheating, both on taxes and the collection of social welfare benefits, but they don't let the cheaters ruin it for everyone else.

One thing we do know is that the suicide rate for young people who get a summer break will drop during the summer months, just as they drop over weekends during the school year, and rise again in the fall. And we know that as fewer and fewer children get their summer breaks over the course of this century, the overall suicide rate has climbed. All of this, of course, is just correlation. It's certainly more complicated than that. And I'm also aware that for children with dysfunctional family lives, school can be a refuge. But the evidence before us indicates that being in school is more stressful for most children than staying at home, and getting a regular break from stress, knowing how to destress and what that feels like, is a vital life skill.

My data can be picked apart, of course. People far smarter than me are trying to figure out our nation's disturbing youth suicide trends. And perhaps suicide rates are not a good indicator to compare mental well-being, but I hope we can all agree that it is something to take seriously.

But my point is not to quibble over data, but rather to engage in pure, amber-ized nostalgia for the summer breaks of my own youth: eating popsicles in the shade; feet so dirty they never really got clean; riding bikes up and down the block; sneaking into neighbors' garages; climbing fences; gangs of kids ebbing and flowing throughout the neighborhood; idly watching the shadows cast by leaves as they dance on the walls; swimming and running through lawn sprinklers; pick up games of all kinds.

Of course, being nostalgia, I'm sure the lived experience wasn't as beautiful as I remember it, but from where I sit today, what actually happened is a moot point: the way it exists in the present, which is to say, in my memory, is of days during which I awoke each morning and chose how to spend my time. I chose what to think about, what to create, who to play with, and whether or not I was "successful," however I chose to define it. That's why the loss of a proper three-month summer break is so awful. These poor kids are being robbed of the opportunity, for at least a small part of their lives, to know what it means to have the luxury of choosing.

I know, I know, the curmudgeons argue, But that's not real life. In real life you don't get to play and choose. Or perhaps they say, But all that playing and choosing is a waste of time. We must get them ready for real life.  Or they argue, perhaps with a sigh, But the parents need their kids to be in school because they have to get to work. That's just real life.

What if real life included two months of "summer break" every year, and even four day work weeks, not to mention regular weekends and holidays? I don't know what's going on in Germany today, but that was actual real life for working families during the 90's. That's quite a bit of free time, time during which to choose to eat popsicles and run through sprinklers. What if summer breaks didn't end when we graduate?

Of course, the mountain is beautiful in the distance, but steep when you're on it. The collective and contentious effort required to drag our nation to anything like this would be a long, difficult slog. But as preschool teachers and parents preschoolers, we have the small, but mighty power to not let the promise of summer fade away. We can, at least for the next three months, let up, even if just a little. We have it in our power to grant the children in our lives the freedom to experience real life as a place of choosing what it is we will do and think about with the short and precious time we have. And if we do this, they will grow up to be adults who know, in their hearts, minds, and bodies, no matter what real life looks like, that summer break is possible.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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