Thursday, November 23, 2017

For Which To Be Thankful




I have many things for which to be thankful. At the top of my list is our daughter (who returned from college yesterday to celebrate) and my wife to whom I've now been married for 31 years, to the day. I'm also thankful for my mother and father who I'll be seeing in few hours, along with my brother and sister and their families and every dog who has ever been my companion. And then there are the children and families that make up, and have always made up, the Woodland Park Cooperative School community, people who, in a very real sense, created the man I am today. I would not trade my life for any other: if I could do it all again, I'd do it exactly the same way, mistakes and all. 

Not long ago, I read about a survey in which it was reported that the average American, no matter our socio-economic station, felt we could be economically satisfied with about 10 percent more money. This was true of both billionaires and paupers. I suspect this is true about most of the good things in our lives. I know I could, for instance, do with about 10 percent more sleep, 10 percent more free time, and 10 percent more sex, in addition to that 10 percent pay increase. So, as we gather today to reflect upon those things for which we are thankful, it's against a background of always wanting, or of thinking we want, more, a phenomenon that we will prove, as a nation, over the course of the month of consumerism that begins with so-called Black Friday.

Among the many other things for which I'm thankful is the fact that the adults in our family chose some two decades ago to step back from the sales and malls and cash registers. We capped our holiday spending at $5 per person and have placed an emphasis on gifts that are handmade. This means that our holiday experience is about arts, crafts, cooking, and baking, rather than just buying crap. I'm thankful that this is not a season of stress and anxiety for me, but rather one during which I take some time to sit down and meditate on my loved ones while manufacturing some little item that I think they might find amusing or tasty. Often, I'm inspired by things we're doing at school. One year, for instance, I made melted crayon sculptures, each one created from an entire 64-count box of crayons.

It's probably an aspect of human nature to want more, whatever the percentage. It reflects our urge to strive, the engine of our progress as a species: to reach higher, dig deeper, run faster, and see farther. So I don't want to sound like I'm sitting in judgement of anyone else's striving. One man's trash is another man's treasure and all that.

This morning, I awoke about an hour later than I normally do, but lay there in bed thinking it must be 3 a.m. We live downtown and on normal days when I awake there are the sounds of traffic, construction, and people laughing on the sidewalk, but today even the city is quiet. Everything is closed. Everyone is getting a little extra sleep. I'm thankful to have a day like this to set aside my striving and just be thankful.

While you're here at the bottom of this post, maybe you can think of someone who would like a copy of my new book for the holidays! Buying books isn't consumerism -- you can never buy too many books!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. 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!
Bookmark and Share
-->

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

This Is Where Those Bedrock Character Traits Come From




Few things have put more wear and tear on my teeth than the entire concept of "teaching" character traits like "grit," "resilience," "optimism," "conscientiousness," and "self-control." It's not that those things aren't important. Indeed, they are vital not just for academic achievement, but for any kind of real, lasting success, be it in school, work, or just being a member of a family or community. No, what sets my teeth grinding is the self-satisfied way in which so-called education reformers, the ones with a product or agenda to sell, insist that they have figured out how to "teach" these things, even going so far as to produce pre-packaged curricula they claim will do this.


It's classic snake oil, based upon the faith-based notion that all these kids need are more lectures, more tests (yes, there are actually standardized tests now that purport to measure these noncognitive traits), and a vigorous system of rewards and punishments. It has been these Skinnerian notions that has lead to such things as zero-tolerance policies, No Child Left Behind, and other anti-child measures, none of which have worked in any way to move the needle on the holy grail of "academic achievement." It hasn't worked because what they are doing is not based upon science, but rather an ideology that comes right out of neoliberal economic theory -- the kind business executives, the very folks who are leading the charge to turn our schools into test score coal mines, tend to favor.


To underline this point, Roland G. Fryer, Jr., an economics professor at Harvard distributed nearly $10 million in cash incentives (e.g., rewards) to students in several US cities over the course of several years, with the idea of improving reading scores. These came in the form of cash, cell phones and other inducements just to read books and spend more time on their math homework. The results: "Students performed the tasks necessary to get paid, but their average math scores at the end of eight months hadn't changed at all . . . their reading scores . . . actually went down."


This quote is from an article by education author Paul Tough that appeared in The Atlantic entitled How Kids Really Succeed (they've changed the title in the online version) in which he contrasts actual brain research with current educational practices. It's a worthwhile read, especially the first half in which he discusses the impact of early childhood "toxic stress" on the ability to learn. What researchers are concluding is that the behaviorists are wrong, at least with regard to children:

". . . (W)e are mostly motivated not by the material consequences of our actions but by the inherent enjoyment and meaning that those actions bring us, a phenomenon called intrinsic motivation."

This brings a resounding, "Well, of course," from those of us who work with young children (emphasis mine).

(Researchers) identified three key human needs -- our need for competence, our need for autonomy, and our need for relatedness, meaning personal connection -- and they posited that intrinsic motivation can be sustained only when we feel the those needs are being satisfied.

Competence, autonomy, and personal connection: these are the building blocks of a play-based education where children are allowed to become competent by having the time and space to autonomously ask and answer their own questions within the context of a loving community. This is where those bedrock character traits come from. And it is why they will never emerge from the reward and punishment model of the neoliberal Skinnerians.


Sadly, when Tough asks the question, "So what do these academic environments look like?" (e.g., those that emphasize competence, autonomy, and personal connection) he answers it by going into traditional schools where teachers are using this research to manipulate kids into "learning" what adults have pre-determined is good for the kids, rather than what the kids themselves are driven to pursue, which means they might produce statistically significant improvements, but ones that are still marginal compared to the sort that would come from the kind of systemic change that brain (and psychological and anthropological and pedagogical) research tells us would transform the lives not just young children, but all of us.


The research tells us that we should set kids free to lead their own learning, but the policy-makers (and in that I include most of us as well) are still fixated on getting those damned orcas to jump just a little higher so that we adults can applaud ourselves.


And while you're here at the bottom of this post, maybe you can think of someone who would like a copy of my new book for the holidays!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. 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!
Bookmark and Share
-->

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Rule That Stands Above The Golden One



They tell me that the Golden Rule is the only one we need, that every major religion has some version of it embedded in its theology, and it's a good one, the most familiar iteration being, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." But it's not the highest rule. In my book, that honor goes to a rule that the kids agreed to among themselves a few years back: "Don't do anything to anybody unless you ask them first."

The Golden Rule doesn't ask for consent, it just asks each individual to look inward and assume that others feel as we do, while the kids' rule caused us to turn our attentions outward and to consider that others might feel differently than we do. We lived with this agreement for the better part of the school year and it was enlightening when considered in view of the recent spat of celebrities and politicians being outed as habitual sexual harassers and worse. These are men, and it's mostly men, who may well have been adhering to the Golden Rule as they saw it, only doing to others what they themselves would want done to them. What's missing from their actions is consent and that's what makes it a crime.

The children's consent rule wasn't easy to enforce. Young children are forever bumping, tickling, hugging, pushing, and otherwise "doing" things to one another just in the natural flow of things. As the adult responsible for helping the children keep their agreements, I didn't feel it was my place to micro-manage these sorts of day-to-day interactions even if they did technically violate the rule of law. To do so would have meant repeatedly interrupting the children's play to remind them of their agreement to the point that there wouldn't have been much time left for the actual playing. Instead, I decided to let the kids self-manage the rule, only getting involved when a child invoked the rule of her own accord.

And they did, "Hey, you didn't ask me before you pushed me!"

"You didn't ask me if you could touch me!"

"You didn't ask me if you could sit beside me!"

"You didn't ask me if you could look at me!"

That's right, we did sometimes head down that road. Most of the time the kids invoked their rule appropriately, but we also sometimes took it too far. As the adult, it was easy to know what to do when it came to pushing. I was less confident about the unwanted touching. I had mixed feelings about children using the rule to control where people sat. And dictating where others cast their gaze was a bridge too far.

Needless to say, our consent rule created a gray area, and the only way to deal with it was through talking, sometimes lots of it, sometimes emotional. So that's what we did.


Lately, some of the older kids have been using the large dog crate on our playground as a kind of prison into which they put one another. They are playing "pets." Those put into the crate are animals that must be confined for their own "safety." The game involves lots of grabbing and wrestling as the pets are usually reluctant to be put in their cage. Watching this game as an adult is difficult. Children are "forcing" one another into a small, dark space, then barring the door with an old safety gate, holding it firmly in place while the children inside pretend to object, ultimately escaping before being chased down and returned to their prison. The game evokes so many nasty things for me, especially when it's boys forcing girls. It's a consensual game, yet the core of the game is pretending they don't consent. Particularly upsetting for me is that the captor will often say, "I have to put you in your cage to keep you safe," while shoving another child into the hole.

As they play, I've been staying nearby, waiting for that moment when I'm certain they will go too far, when someone will get frightened, when it will become too real and they want to withdraw their consent. We don't have the consent rule on the books this year, but we have agreed that if someone says "Stop!" you have to stop, which is a similar things. A couple times I've reminded kids, "Remember, if you don't like what's happening you can say Stop!" but so far they've just ignored me and continued about their game.


The truth is that none of them have asked for my help, either directly or indirectly. They are playing their unsavory-looking game quite happily, managing to keep it going for long stretches despite its intensity and potential for conflict, injury, and hurt feelings. In part, they are doing it by talking and listening, the pet owners continually informing their pets about what is coming next: "I'm going to grab you and put you back in your cage," "If you get away, I'm going to catch you and bring you back," "I can't let you get out, it's not safe." The pets in this game, as is true in real life, can't talk back, so their owners are forever peering into their faces, studying their expressions, looking, I think, for consent. They are forever holding onto their pets, studying their body language, feeling, I think, for consent. At least that's what it looks like they are doing as they play.

Over the course of the week, I gradually became more comfortable with the kids' game. Even as I continue to be bothered by the optics, I now see that it is, at its core, a game about consent, about children continually checking in with one another, not with the formality of asking permission, but by "reading" one another, continually, everyone turned outward, following a rule that stands above the golden one.

And while you're here at the bottom of this post, maybe you can think of someone who would like a copy of my new book for the holidays!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. 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!
Bookmark and Share
-->

Monday, November 20, 2017

All Wise People Change Their Minds


 
"Discovering truth will make me free." ~Mister Rogers


One of my mother's favorite sayings is "All wise people change their minds." One of my father's is "I thought I was wrong once, but I was mistaken."

I'd like to think of myself as a wise man, one who stands willing, should that be where the evidence leads me, to change my mind. Indeed, that is the kind of world I'd choose to live in, where people of goodwill come together in the spirit of democracy, respectfully laying out their arguments in the hues of logos, pathos, and ethos, then going home persuaded or not. Sadly, that's not how it works for me most of the time. More often than not I find myself clinging to my position until the bitter end, more interested in the moment with winning than discovering truth. If I'm going to change my mind, it's typically only later, often days or weeks later, after much hashing and re-hashing of things that I'm able to set my ego aside and accept the new truth.

To be honest, I've become pretty good at letting go when it comes to day-to-day things. I feel like I'm forever admitting my errors around the school because I deploy at least one, if not both, of my parents' proverbs daily. In fact, I tend to make something of a show of it, saying things like, "I was sure wrong about that!" or "You were right, I was wrong" or "You taught me something today!" I want the children to see me being the wise person, deferring to truth, even when it means admitting I was wrong, or perhaps especially when it means that.

The ability to allow oneself to be persuaded isn't one we talk about a lot, but if our grand experiment in self-government is going to work, it's a skill we must develop, even if it's a lot easier said than done. We've not evolved to be easily persuaded, even the youngest child, typically relying heavily upon emotional arguments, digs in her heels when confronted with inconvenient truths. Even the oldest pensioner resists truth that challenges what he already knows. We go through life knowing what we know, seeking out information that supports what we already know, and ignoring evidence to the contrary. It's called "confirmation bias." If democracy is going to work, however, we must learn to allow ourselves to be persuaded, and that involves taking the stance of a scientist: proving our theories about life, about what we "know," by trying to prove ourselves wrong, rather than right.

And when it comes to living in a democratic society, the way we do that is to listen to others, not listening to respond, but listening to understand. It's hard for people like me because I'm so conditioned to the need to "win" that I often can only listen in hindsight, days or weeks later, after much hashing and rehashing. But when I do finally come around, it's my responsibility to say so, to celebrate even, because, after all, all wise people change their minds.


I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. 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!
Bookmark and Share
-->

Friday, November 17, 2017

"It's Safe"




When I first saw the boy sitting on a plastic truck at the top of the concrete slope, I felt the urge to put a stop to it. My knee-jerk risk assessment went something like this:
  1. Plastic trucks not designed to be sat upon, especially by these large 5-year-old bodies
  2. Concrete slope
  3. Short runway with a raised planting bed made of wood at the bottom
  4. Even if these competent kids could manage it, their success might lure less competent friends to try it
  5. Tender flesh and precious heads


I made it to the scene before anyone had put themselves at the mercy of gravity, "That doesn't look safe to me."

He looked from me to the slope. "It's safe."

"There's hard concrete and hard wood and a steep slope."


He gave the scene another once-over, then spoke from the perspective of a five-year-old boy sitting on a plastic digger at the top of a concrete slope, thinking about his own life and limb, "I won't get hurt." 

This is a boy who tends to look before he leaps, usually not the first in line for a risky venture, but rather more typically third or fourth, peering around those in front of him to observe what's going on, learning from their mistakes. In that moment, I tried to imagine what he saw, returning me briefly to my days as a boy who had made similar risk assessments. In the backs of both of our minds, I think, was the much longer, steeper concrete slope in our outdoor classroom, the one we both felt would be too big a risk. Daredevils might try it, but not us.

"Okay, I'll be here to pick you up if you fall."


With that he let himself go down the short ride, stopping so abruptly against the planting bed that the rear wheels were lifted of the ground. There was triumph behind his smile.


When he started dragging his truck back up the slope, I stopped worrying about him, turning my attention to the safety of the planting bed and the second boy who, having witnessed the success, was now steering a truck of his own into place.

I said, "Hang on! I don't want you guys to wreck the garden." The boys waited one behind the other as I dropped a car tire on the ground. "You can run into this."


As the boys took turns in this game of speed, slope, and impact, I began to worry again as other kids stopped by to check things out. I wondered if this was the time for physically less capable children to want their turns, emboldened beyond their reason by the success of these first two. But one after another they watched, then moved on to other things, the monkey-see-monkey-do chain reaction I'd feared not in evidence.

I could have let my fears over-ride the superior risk assessment capabilities of the boys. Instead, I offered my counsel, then trusted their judgement, while being near to pick them up if they fell.


I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. 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!
Bookmark and Share
-->

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Where They Are The Experts



Last week I wrote a piece about what is popularly referred to as "loose parts," or what I prefer to call "junk and debris." One reader referring to a body of research that consistently finds that children engaged in loose parts play use more math language and more elaborate vocabulary than children playing with traditional toys or during structured play and wondered why that would be.


I don't know for sure, of course, but I expect that it has to do with the fact that open-ended, unscripted playthings cause children to engage in more cooperative play, which requires communication, not with adults, but with other kids who are likewise learning math and vocabulary. Whereas "toys" and adult-lead activities tend to be more predictable, with many of their answers built into them, children interacting with loose parts are more likely to run across new concepts and unexpected challenges, situations that require children to stretch themselves in order to communicate with one another.


For instance, children building with familiar unit blocks, with their regular sizes and flat edges are playing in a more predictable environment, one that is less likely to present new concepts or unexpected challenges. Children building with a collection of pinecones, sticks, rocks and leaves, on the other hand, are playing with far less standardized building materials, ones that take children to places where they must find new language to communicate about things like relative density, shape, size, fragility, texture, and other aspects of their materials. The answers are not built into these materials.


Whenever children play together without the interference of adults, they are creating their own world, not just through their physical project, but also through the words and concept they discover and communicate about together. Often the words they use are imprecise at first, leading to disagreements and confusion. Often they misinterpret concepts, leading to faulty theories. As they continue to play, however, as they learn more about the world they are creating, their language tends to become more precise and their theories more refined. I enjoy few things more than when children begin using terminology of their own devising, their own short-cut jargon, to describe phenomena they have discovered together.

This is why giving children the chance to engage in unstructured play with junk and debris is so powerful, it removes most of the "scripts" that are baked into regular toys and structured play, freeing children to create a world of their own, a place where they are the experts.


I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. 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!
Bookmark and Share
-->

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

When Democracy Suffers



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


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


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


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


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


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


Being able to earn a living is important and none of this is to say that children ought not pursue their STEM interests whether they lead to a career or not. But these things cannot stand at the center of education and when they do, democracy suffers.


I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. 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!
Bookmark and Share
-->
Related Posts with Thumbnails
Technorati Profile