Friday, January 17, 2020

"That's What People Want"

I was recently offered some unsolicited advice about blogging by a search engine optimization expert with whom I found myself spending an afternoon. She had spent some time with this blog, she said, and suggested that I try writing shorter sentences with more bulleted lists, but her big tip was that I should focus more on practical tips and ideas "because that's what people want." I understood that she was basing her opinions on the experience of having helped increased the readership of dozens, if not hundreds, of bloggers before me.

I don't know anything about blogging, but I do know a lot about this particular blog where I've been posting almost every day since 2009. I know about myself and I don't tend to read online things that feature a lot of short sentences and bulleted lists, although I confess to having been lured into clicking on my share of jazzy headlines (another of her suggestions) only to be disappointed. Or rather, I might "read" those things in the sense that I gloss over them for the gist, then move on, which gets "measured" as reading whether any reading happened or not. This sort of reading might serve mercantile purposes, but I've always viewed what I do here as an educational service, which is why I've never accepted advertising, nor do I attempt to ding readers in any way beyond offering them the opportunity to buy my book which is a collection of posts that are already offered right here for free.

If you go back and look at some of those posts from a decade ago, you'll see that I was trying to find my way not only as a blogger, but also as a teacher. Some of those posts did feature practical tips and ideas, although I don't believe I ever resorted to bulleted lists. I quickly realized, however, that the world was already full of tips and ideas and there were dozens of outstanding bloggers filling that niche. I know because I regularly visited their sites myself when stumped for inspiration. So I found myself instead, attempting to chronicle my journey, my thinking, my reflection about what it was that I, that we, spend our days doing.

Karntakuringu Jukurrpa

Instead of tips and ideas, I've come to understand that my role, at least for now, is to offer a perspective and by making my reflections public, I'm inviting others to have a look at things the way I look at them, then to engage in their own reflections from their own perspectives. I try to avoid instructing, although I confess to sometimes being preachy. I never want to create the impression that I'm telling anyone what to do or that I'm the authority or that it's my way or the highway. My hope as a blogger is nothing more or less than to spark some train of thought in those who read here. Nothing excites me more than readers who take a thread from one of my posts and expand upon it, making it their own. I enjoy hearing from readers who say that I jarred or surprised them in some way. Few things are more gratifying than when someone tells me that I've put their thoughts into words. And, while I'm as conflict averse as the next person, I do value those who disagree and take the time to push back where our perspectives differ.

I've long taken this same approach when it comes to children, but it's been a more difficult journey to reach this point as an educator of adults. With children, I've made a conscious effort to simply be who I am with them, to avoid the pitfalls of commanding, of telling, of instructing, to never assume that I'm the expert in the room, to listen, to accept, and to know that the time best spent is the time spent just farting around. I confess that I began blogging in part out of ego, but also as a creative and reflective release, which is, I think, the adult definition of farting around. The process has evolved over the years. Today, I awake each morning with the intent to share something that is true for me. I've come to understand that my hope is that I can, in some small way, spark truth in other people. That's at least how I've come to understand my role as a teacher: I don't care what people think nearly as much as that they are thinking.

I don't know if "that's what people want" or not, but it's the unique thing that each of us has to offer.

I've 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!
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Thursday, January 16, 2020

Living Alongside Them, Learning

I've taught precious few things during my decades as a teacher. I taught one child how to replace a roll of toilet paper, another how hold to a hammer in order to increase his accuracy, another how to make a "th" sound with her tongue and teeth rather than an "f" sound with her teeth and lower lip. If I had not taught them these things, I expect they would have learned them anyway. I was just in a position of having information they needed at the moment they were ready for it, so the learning was easy. Indeed, it was so easy that many people may not have identified it as learning at all, just living.

I've taught precious little, yet I've spent my entire professional life surrounded by people who were always in the process of learning. Much of that learning is of the easy variety, the kind that comes naturally to them, the kind for which they are ready, intellectually, socially, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. This is the sort of learning we tend to gloss over as educators because it looks so much like life itself, so seamless that it doesn't catch our eye or raise to a level that would cause us to jot it down in our journals, or photograph it, or send a celebratory note home to parents.

By the same token, much of that learning is not so easy, requiring struggle. A two-year-old getting himself up a flight of stairs on his belly, gripping a ledge for all he's worth, pulling, twisting, is a human engaged in the throes of learning, not just how to conquer those stairs, but about himself, his own capabilities and limitations, and about the necessity for the hard work required to learn, to shout out, "I did it!" We also often fail to identify this sort of learning because in our requirements around keeping to our schedules we habitually "help" them, hurry them along, or perhaps, at best, wait while tapping a foot and watching the clock, because, again, this learning looks so much like living.

Teaching can be hard as well, the hardest thing you'll ever do, even if you have decades of experience, even if you've read all the books, seen all the videos, taken all the classes, and attended all the seminars. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that teaching is quite often impossible, especially if the teacher persists in the approach that he knows what this other person must learn and by when. Oh boy, is that frustrating work. Teaching a three-year-old how to read, for instance, or cipher through a column of math equations, especially when these skills currently have no applicability to their lives and their brains are not ready for it, may not be impossible, but close to it for both the teacher and the one expected to learn this uselessness. Any process it produces will be slow, painful, dull, and driven by compulsion. Motivations will be external, rewards and punishments required, and repetition will stand at the center. The sheer, arbitrary impossibleness of it invariably leads to demoralization for both the child (see, spiking rates of mental illness) and the teachers (see, soaring rates of educator burnout), a demoralization that simply cannot ever lead to the triumph of "I did it!"

 We definitely notice this kind of "learning." We notice it because it looks nothing at all like life.

Education as I've known it, is the most natural thing on earth. Education is simply what happens as we live and my job as a teacher is nothing more or less than to be there, keeping them safe enough, living alongside them, and learning.

I've 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!
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Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Creating A Culture Of Inclusion

When our daughter Josephine was a preschooler, she would complain, "I wanted to play with her, but when I asked to play, she said, No." This wasn't a once or twice complaint, but one she voiced almost daily, and more often than not she was being rejected by her best friends. 

When I asked her teacher (and my mentor) Chris David about it, she replied, "If you want to play with a preschooler, sometimes the worst question to ask is, Can I play with you? The answer is almost always No." And while I've found this characterization to be a bit of an exaggeration, it is true for most kids some of the time and some kids most of the time. These are years during which children experiment with power and there are few things more powerful than telling someone No.

Instead of asking to play, Chris suggested to "just start playing." If it's dollies, then pick up a doll and start playing too. If it's blocks, start building. If it's painting, then paint. And before long you're not just playing beside someone, you're playing with them.

Entering into play with another person can be a very challenging proposition at any age. Some kids are naturals at it, and if you take the time to observe you'll find that most of these "master players" do it just the way Chris suggested I coach Josephine. Perhaps they take a moment to survey the scene, but typically it isn't very long before they've dropped to their knees and gotten busy. They don't try to change the game in progress, they don't try to get their hands on a toy that's already in use, and they definitely don't ask for permission.

When I suggested this approach to Josephine, however, she answered, "But I have to say something!" I've since found this to be true of a lot of children. It might just be temperament or it could be that they've internalized some social conventions, but whatever the case, there are some kids who seem constitutionally incapable of simply dropping into the midst of things. They feel the need to announce themselves or their intentions or to otherwise make themselves heard as they enter into play.

So Josephine and I strategized what kinds of things she could say that didn't present a yes or no option.

"What are you playing?"

"You're playing with blocks."

"My dolly is your dolly's best friend."

Or the line I use to this day when role modeling how to enter into play, the straight-forward assertion of fact, "I'm playing too." 

I don't expect every game to be open to all comers, sometimes you have something going with your buddy and there isn't room for one more, but we strive, as a general rule, to create a culture of inclusion in our classroom. It starts with the adults, of course, and since in our cooperative classrooms about a quarter of the bodies in the room belong to grown-ups, that gives us a running start. As adults, we almost always respond positively to attempts to enter into play with us. After all, that's why we're there, and when we can't, we explain why (e.g., "I'm helping Billy with this puzzle right now"), then let them know when we will be able to accept the invitation (e.g., "I'll play with you as soon as I'm done"), then we follow through.

I tell the adults that it's their job to role model inclusive behavior, to always seek to find a way to add one more child to whatever it is they're doing. If it's a puzzle, invite a second or third child to help. If it's a board game, go ahead and stretch and bend the rules to accommodate one more. If it's playing princesses in a castle, find another throne, make another crown, or suggest another gown.

When a child complains to me, "They're not letting me play," my stock response is to reply, "I'll play with you, come on." We then head right over to the kids who have somehow given the impression they don't want to play, sit down beside them, and say, "We're playing too." I don't want to boss or guilt anyone into playing with anyone else, but if I'm going to understand the dynamic of this particular exclusion, I figure I need to get right in the middle of the play, rather than the middle of a fight about play. Most of the time, this is all it takes, the exclusion was accidental or the result of a misunderstanding, and once I've helped break the ice, the game is on, everyone finds a role, and I can begin extricating myself.

Sometimes, however, by putting myself in the middle of things, I learn a little more about why things aren't working out. Sometimes I discover that the child is being excluded for a valid reason. For instance, "She keeps knocking down our buildings." I then turn to the child and restate their objection, "They don't want you to knock down their buildings. If you want to play with them, you can't knock down the buildings. If you want to knock down buildings, we can play that game over there," setting up a couple of concrete options, giving the child a chance to weigh out what is most important to her.

Sometimes I'll find that there is already an intense game in process, one that doesn't currently have room, for whatever reason, for another participant. I'll say something like, "We want to play with you," and give them an opportunity to explain why their game is a two person operation, to which I'll reply, "Oh, then we'll play with you later. Come on, let's do something else." We then set up shop nearby, often playing the very same game they're playing. Not always, but often then, the two games easily merge into one.

Of course, often I'll see that it is a clear case of exclusion, something done simply as a way to exert power at the expense of another child. This is usually the domain of a group of three or more kids. In this case I might, as a last resort, invoke our rule, You Can't Say You Can't Play, reminding the children that this is something to which they've all agreed. If nothing else, it's a way to start a conversation.

There are times when I find myself coaching children the way I did Josephine, but at least as often, it's about the role modeling, inserting myself into the play again and again, not commanding the other children but just dropping to my knees and getting busy.

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

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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Unreliability Of Memory

I'm currently reading Tara Westover's best selling memoir Educated. Early in the book, she recounts a traumatic scene from when she was a girl, one that would have been emblazoned forever into anyone's memory. Her details are lurid and clear the way one would expect from such a terrifying experience. There were three other family members present during the incident, however, and in a footnote and also in an endnote, Westover tells us that they disagree about what actually happened, not just recalling different details in different ways, which could be accounted for by their varying perspectives, but rather fundamental things like who was actually present and what actually happened. Indeed, precious few aspects of the event appear to be consistent across all of their memories except that it was terrifying. As the author of a memoir, Westover resolves this by telling the story from her own memory, while acknowledging the alternative memories of her family members which, I think, is fair if one's concern is truth.

As disinterested observers, of course, we all know that only one thing could have happened. If the event had been recorded on video, for instance, we would know the truth and the participants, whatever their memories tell them, would be forced to acknowledge that their memories are faulty.

Increasingly, science is coming to grips with the unreliability of memory. For a long time, we assumed that memories worked a lot like that video recorder and that given the right kinds of probing introspection we could find objective truth which must be in there, somewhere. But we are now understanding that while life happens but once, memories tend to happen over and over, especially emotional ones like the one in Westover's book, and each time we conjure up the past our brains in subtle and not so subtle ways, alter those memories making them something new each time. Indeed, the more often we've remembered something the more we've altered it, meaning that our memories are more works of fiction than fact. Of course, they feel true, because they are our memories, and there is a greater truth embedded in there somewhere, but not the sort of objective truth one finds on video recordings.

I imagine this idea is upsetting to some people. It is to me. It means that much of what I believe to have happened in my past may have never happened, or at least not in the way I remember it. But I also know the phenomenon is real. I can't tell you how often I've gone over old times with people, especially people I've not seen in a long time, only to find that our memories are wildly divergent and we either wind up in an unresolvable argument or, more often, desperately seeking for some grain of "truth" upon which we can both agree.

What we call our memories are really just the stories we tell about what happened and those stories are edited each time we retell them.

While we cannot recall actual events with objective accuracy, it does seem that we never forget how those events made us feel. Westover may or may not have described the actual incident accurately, but the feelings the event evoke -- fear, sadness, confusion -- are as real today as they were back then and upon that all of her family members agree. I think of the children in our care, these people who are busy creating memories that they will turn into stories. Most of us remember very little from before we were five years old, at least when it comes to those concrete memories of actual events, but how those events made us feel will be with us forever. This is why our love is more important than any activity or experience or toy. That is the thing that will endure even the unreliability of memory.

I've 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!
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Monday, January 13, 2020

How About If We Focus On That Instead?

As any preschool teacher will tell you, every parent knows their child is a genius. And they're usually not shy about talking about it. Sally, can already recite the alphabet. Raphael can count to 500. At the same time, every parent is concerned, worried that their child is in some way "behind." This, they're usually not as eager to talk about. One of the wonderful aspects of cooperative schools, schools where the parents work in the classroom as assistant teachers, is that they come to see that they're right, their child is a genius . . . But so is that one and that one and that one. At the same time, they see that perhaps their child is "behind" at something or other, but again, so is that one and that one and that one. It's a chance to learn what preschool teachers know: every child is a genius and every child is "behind." Indeed, the range of what can be called normal, especially in the preschool years, is enormous, so  huge that it's hardly worth talking about.

And, frankly, who wants to be normal anyway?

I can't tell you how many parents have spoken to me over the past twenty years about their concerns that their child is developmentally delayed or autistic or has ADHD or something. I give them my best counsel, of course, referring them to their doctors or other professionals only to have them return to me, relieved to find that their child is normal. Of course, I'm happy that they're relieved, but this tendency to spot imperfections in their child often doesn't go away, they just shift their attention to some other concern. I know it's done out of love, but honestly, no one can thrive under the eye of an omnipresent critic, let alone young children.

Too often, our critical eye, our judgements, our urge to improve our children, causes them to believe that they must earn our acceptance, which is for young children indistinguishable from having to earn our love. When we say, or even think, "I'm doing this for your own good," we are not. We are doing it for ourselves, out of our fears, in order to create more normal in a world where normal doesn't exist. Identifying and fixing the problems of our children is actually a very, very small part of our job as parents. Our main role is to simply love them, to accept them, unconditionally. As Mister Rogers would say, "I like you just the way you are." The rest of the world is the place to prove and improve ourselves, but our strength to go out in the world and test ourselves comes from our parents' unconditional love.

Deepak Chopra wrote, "If a child is poor in math, but good at tennis, most people would hire a math tutor. I would rather hire a tennis coach." Every parens, no matter how worried, also knows that their child is a genius. How about we focus on that instead? Imagine our world if instead of parents hiring all those math tutors, we instead hired tennis coaches.

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

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Friday, January 10, 2020

Hard Work And Suffering

Teaching preschool is hard work. It is physically and emotionally demanding. At the end of a day in the classroom I'm done.

This is not a complaint, but rather a statement of fact. In almost any other job there are times, even entire days or weeks, when it's possible to just phone it in, but that's not an option for preschool teachers. The routine physical demands of up and down, of playing, of lifting and carrying, being on your knees all day, day-after-day, take their toll. I don't know any teacher who has been at this for any length of time who doesn't experience back and joint pain. And it's even more taxing emotionally. At any given moments we're listening with our entire selves, consoling, counseling, coaching, or otherwise supporting highly emotional people through what for them is a crisis. We pour ourselves into these children because it is our job, but also because we love them. More often than not, I finish a classroom day buoyed and proud by the work I've done, but I'm also wrung out in a way that nothing else wrings me out.

I love the work. We love our work. It's hard work.

Earlier this week, I wrote about people who worry about the children we teach. They worry that if we leave them to educate themselves by asking and answering their own questions through their play that  they will never learn about hard work. This is BS of the highest order, of course. Indeed, I've never seen a playing child who was not working hard. They show us they are working hard in the intensity of their concentration as they try to add one more block to the top of their tower. They show us their work ethic as they fully engage in the intense back-and-forth of negotiations over who is really going to be the queen. No one works harder than a child who is struggling with a puzzle or with balancing along a curb or trying to summon up the courage to take a leap. They are always working hard to process the confusing world around them through their dramatic play, their storytelling, and the strong emotions they wear on their sleeves.

No, children who play show they know everything they will ever need to know about hard work. What they may not know about it arbitrary suffering. It occurs to me that this is really what people are saying when they "worry" about play-based education. Life is hard, the reasoning goes, it is full of all sorts of things you don't want to do, but you must do them nevertheless so, in the name of teaching this lesson, we must require young children to suffer at least a little by commanding them to do things they don't want to do. What's missing in this argument is that children, just like all humans, are already doing plenty of things they don't want to do. We don't need to go out of our way to create arbitrary, even punitive, suffering, like say (for many of us at least) algebra, in order to "teach" this hard lesson. Our first communications are cries of pain or hunger, of suffering, of experiencing life as suffering. It's such a self-evident lesson that even infants know it. Manufacturing lessons in suffering strike me as unnecessarily cruel. 

As a preschool teacher of a certain age, I don't necessarily want to squat and lift. It hurts my knees, but of course I do it because some amount of suffering is required to do this thing I love to do. Hard work and suffering are built into life no matter what. The answer is not to "get used to it" as the worriers would have it, but rather to play, to spend life doing things you choose, things you love, because that's the only thing that stands against the suffering.

I've 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!
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Thursday, January 09, 2020

Freedom . . . Whatever That Means

Baby, everybody has to fight to be free. ~Tom Petty

We talk a lot about freedom. Everybody wants it for themselves, for their children, for their fellow citizens. We want it for oppressed people around the world. But what does it mean to be free?

It's the nature of freedom to mean different things to different people. I certainly know that my ideas of freedom are starkly different than those with whom I argue politics. Indeed, in many ways, their notions of freedom are my notions of tyranny, and, I've come to understand, vice versa. And no one is ever truly, fully, entirely "free" if the definition is to do what you want, when you want. There is always something that stands between us and that kind of perfect freedom.

Last week, I mentioned the French philosopher Michel Foucault who asserts that our souls are always controlled in some way by societal expectations and standards. It's true, of course. Societal expectations and standards cause me to wait in queues, drive on the proper side of the road, and avoid belting out show tunes on a city bus. I might not want to wait, it might be faster for me to dodge across roadway lines, I might be full of the inspiration of Annie, but because I live with other humans, I engage in certain behaviors, or refrain from others, which is an impingement upon my freedom to do what I want, when I want. That said, most of us accept these kinds of limitations to our freedom. Indeed, not only to we accept them, but play a role in enforcing them, even if it is just with our disapproving glares or covered ears (and believe me, you would cover your ears were I to opt to belt out Tomorrow in an enclosed space). I don't specifically recall learning any of this, but it's there, solidly, a piece of who I am with other people. We internalize different restrictions on our absolute freedom based upon our families, our neighborhoods, and our cultures.

These are among the first lessons children learn. Where are the boundaries? How far can I go? And it is the role of adults to help them figure it out. They can't play in the street. They can't hit or bite or kick their fellow humans. There are limitations we must teach them, gently, confidently, and by role modeling them ourselves. And as we know, they will resist, often going to extremes to assert their freedom to do what they want, when they want. It's a mistake when adults treat this like misbehavior: it's a natural human response to having one's freedom restricted. We are born to rebel against being told what we cannot do. It feels as if we are being imprisoned by these arbitrary expectations and standards and we fight them until we've come to understand them, which can be a long process, especially if the expectations and standards are truly arbitrary such as the one that prevents us, even those with good voices, from singing on a public bus. They need our loving guidance, not our punishments and threats, to help them through this very difficult process of voluntarily sacrificing some piece of their freedom for the sake of their fellow humans.

It's a balance beam that every one of us walks as we go about our lives as "free" humans. Every single day, I'm confronted with an expectation or standard or outright restriction that I experience as an impingement upon my freedom. I want to be free. I will fight for it. I hope all of us feel this way, especially the children I teach. And despite knowing that my freedom will never be "complete," I still find myself fighting, every day, to be free . . . whatever that means.

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch;  
He said to me, "You must not ask for so much."
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door;
She cried to me, "Hey, why not ask for more?"
Oh, like a bird on a wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried in my way to be free.
                                                    ~Leonard Cohen

I've 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!
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