Tuesday, September 17, 2019

"The Earth Is Flat"



Awhile back, I was in Alberta, Canada to speak at a conference. Arriving at my hotel late and hungry I stopped into the restaurant for a bite. There were a couple of other single gentlemen travelers dining at the bar so, in the interest of a little light conversation, I joined them. One of them turned out to be a truck driver, a regular, who offered recommendations from the menu. He was a good humored, talkative fellow. We started with sports: I know little about hockey, so I allowed him to educate me for awhile, but then the conversation began to stray as conversations do.

At one point, in response to something I said, I thought I heard him respond, "Well, you know the earth is flat."

Thinking I'd misheard, I said, "Excuse me?"

"The earth is flat." He was smiling so I interpreted it as a joke. I laughed.

He laughed along with me while saying, "I'm serious."

I've heard there are people who believe the earth is flat. I know they exist. There is even a Flat Earth Society, but I never thought I'd meet anyone who would admit their belief in public. "Really?"

"That's right, the earth is flat."

I started laughing. Thankfully, he laughed along with me. I asked, "How can you believe that? What about the astronauts who've looked down on the earth?"

"Every picture I've seen looks flat."

"How do you explain that an airplane can take off from an airport, fly in a straight line, and wind up landing at the same airport?"

"The earth is disk shaped. They just fly around the edge."

"So all the scientists are lying?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"That's what I'd like to know."

I was full on laughing by now. He must have been familiar with this response because he took it well. We went back and forth for several minutes as I gamely tried to poke holes in his belief, but he was firm. We parted ways on friendly terms, his only concession being that he knew he was in the minority.

As a preschool teacher, I often find myself in conversations with people who believe things that are simply not true, who are convinced that there are Tooth Fairies and Easter Bunnies, who assert that Star Wars is real because "I've seen it," who have invisible baby sisters. And it's not just children. I know adults who believe in things that cannot be true, even if their ideas don't usually sound quite as ludicrous as a flat earth or a man who comes down your chimney bearing presents. Indeed, I often find it charming. I once read a poll that found that 80 percent of Icelanders believe in the "hidden people," trolls and fairies and whatnot. And, I suppose, at one level, I found this man's belief in a flat earth to be charming, he left me chuckling after all. But then one begins to wonder what other crackpot things he believes and to then realize, with a shudder, that he has the right to vote.

I was seven-years-old when I watched Neil Armstrong become the first human to walk on the moon. By then, I must have been familiar with the earth as a globe, but it was this event that cemented the idea for me, making it real. I spent days wondering about it, considering gravity, blowing my own mind with thoughts of people on the other side of the earth experiencing night as I was experiencing day. Today, I don't know any five-year-olds who do not know that the earth is a sphere. Yet I also know that there are adult people, probably many of the same people who believe the earth is flat, who contend that the moon landing was a hoax.

From John Holt's book Escape from Childhood:

No amount of ignorance, misinformation, or outright delusion will bar an adult from voting . . . (There are) people who believe all manner of absurd, fantastic, and even dangerous things. None of them are barred from voting. Why should young people be?

As I daily consider the intelligence, wisdom, and compassion of young children, I wonder the same thing.


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Monday, September 16, 2019

What They, And We, Ought To Be Doing




He found the cart at the bottom of the hill, checking it first by squatting to get a closer look at the wheels as if to confirm, Yes, it has wheels.


Grabbing the cart with his fist, lacing his fingers through the basket because the handle broke off long ago, he pulled it behind him with one hand. From time to time he stopped to look at his cart as if confirming it was still there before continuing up the hill. He pulled then stopped then pulled then stopped until he was at the top of the hill where he turned around and pulled that cart back down the hill.

As he descended, he tried turning to look at the cart without stopping his momentum. It was challenging. He stumbled several times on the uneven ground without falling, concentrating on the act of keeping track of what was before him while simultaneously keeping track of what was behind him, all while moving back down the hill.


At the bottom he once more turned around and started back up the hill. By now he was quite competent, walking several stumble-free steps at a time while looking backwards, moving forwards. By now he seemed convinced that the cart was always still there: now it was the wheels that drew his interest, those wheels that had drawn him to this project in the first place.

I imagine he was thinking about how they turned, perhaps comparing the four wheels, finding them the same or maybe different. The cart is light enough that he sometimes lifted some of the wheels off the ground. When he looked back at those raised wheels, they were weren't turning at all. It's possible he took that in as well, but I don't know in the same way I don't really know what anyone is thinking or learning or feeling until they tell me, and even then I may not know. 


It's not my job to know. It's my job to be here, watching, thinking. It was my job to provide the hill and the cart and the freedom to pull it up and down the hill.

Not long ago, a grandmother who had been working alongside me in the classroom for a couple weeks said to me, "I figured it out. It's like in therapy. Our job is to just to listen to what they say and repeat it back to them." I'm proud that our school is a place where adults have that kind of epiphany.

And when they are not saying anything, when they are pulling a cart up and down the hill, teaching themselves how to do it, asking and answering their own questions, then it's our job to reflect that as well, to say nothing at all, not "Well done" or "Good job" or "Look at you!" but rather to simply watch and wonder and to know that they are doing exactly what they ought to be doing.




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Friday, September 13, 2019

Thank You, Jasper, For Teaching Me And For Being My Friend



Last night I attended the memorial for Jasper "Jazzy" Echo Toms. It would have been his 17th birthday. 

My friend Peter, his father, said, "This was not part of the plan." I cannot imagine the pain his family must be suffering. Parents are not meant to outlive their children. My friend Laura, his mother, asked us to keep him alive by telling our stories of him.

I first met Japer when I was his sister Zsa Zsa's teacher. He was a bump in Laura's belly. His family came to Woodland Park to change my life, introducing me to the intentional practice of creating community through art. That picture at the top of this blog is of me playing with Jasper's family on a summer solstice when he was still my student.

I don't usually use the word "cute" to describe children, but that two-year-old Jasper, with his chubby cheeks on top of a 100 watt smile was the definition of cute. He was a boy who tried everything, but seemed mostly interested in people, both his fellow classmates and their parents. He loved to talk, to ask questions, to explain. Even in the midst of classroom chaos, I would find him engaged in conversation, looking people in the eye, his eyebrows lowered in concentration as if really trying to understand.

As he grew to be three and four-years-old, he was everyone's friend, playing with girls and boys alike, never isolating himself in one group or game for too long. It was as if he knew there was always something or someone else amazing for him to experience. At any given moment you could find him, never alone, always talking, building with blocks, pretending in a costume, squishing the play dough, or holding court at the snack table.

There was one type of play that seemed to genuinely concern him, however. He didn't care for play that involved weaponry or fighting. It didn't frighten him as much as confuse him. Should a sword fight break out he would stand off to the side, watching, clearly trying to comprehend what he was seeing. He may have gamely tried to join in once or twice, like a scientist trying to figure something out, but always stepped away after a minute or two, not sure how to take part in this energy without engaging in what he evidently viewed as unsavory behavior. These were his friends, he wanted to play with them, but not that game.

He always had a silly sense of humor and by the time he was five, he had figured out that this was how he could enter into the rowdy play, not as a combatant, but as a mirth-maker, the person who caused the others to lay down their weapons to join him by rolling on the floor (sometimes literally) laughing. The "joke" I remember most is the one-liner of simply saying the nonsense word, "Dodo!" In a way it was beneath him, this play for cheap laughs: he was an articulate, thoughtful boy and I recall almost feeling sorry for him, but he had discovered the power of lowest-common-denominator humor. Before long "Dodo" was the punchline to every classroom joke, a guaranteed laugh line, one that got funnier and funnier as the year went on. When the five-year-olds decided to write and perform an original play, Jasper chose to be a character called "Dodo," a silly jester type who was in every scene.

I learned last night from his high school classmates that he was a boy who would not be defined by social status or type, that he was a "social butterfly," a boy at home in every "friend group," be it the popular kids, the band geeks, or the debate team. I couldn't help but reflect on him as a preschooler, even then a part of every group, and when he came across one he didn't understand, he studied, then found his way into the rowdy play group without compromising one bit on his innate sense of right and wrong.

I often saw Jasper outside of school as well. One evening, we were both at a fundraiser for the Fremont Arts Council. Various artists had created art from umbrellas and it was being auctioned off. I had made a donation at the door and so hadn't intended to bid. Jasper crawled into my lap and told me he thought we should get the "dog umbrella for the school," a piece made my the artist Sarah Lovett. It was a dog fashioned from plastic mesh atop a Whinny the Pooh umbrella and filled with battery powered LED lights. It was a perfect addition to our classroom where it hung from our ceiling for years.

I saw Jasper less and less as he got older, the typical pattern of relationships preschool teachers have with their students, although we did periodically cross paths. One summer day, I found myself alone with 12-year-old Zsa Zsa and 9-year-old Jasper. Zsa Zsa had just entered middle school and had discovered one of the great truths about modern education. She went on a rant about the "total irrelevancy" of what she was expected to be learning. She would "never use it in real life." And there was Jasper, years ahead of his time, backing his sister up, providing examples from elementary school to prove the point. When I shared this memory with Zsa Zsa a couple days ago as we were sitting shiva she told me with a laugh, "We always shared a lot of joint outrage at the world."

It's not right that parents should outlive their children. As Peter said, the world is now dimmer. Jasper had grown into a fine young man, a man who had, even as a 16-year-old, already touched so many lives. But Laura is right, he will never truly be gone so long as the rest of us keep him alive through our stories, our memories, and the deeds we do on his behalf. Thank you, Jasper Echo Toms, for teaching me and for being my friend.

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Thursday, September 12, 2019

I Hadn't Expected That


A while back, I met a well-known architect who designed a building for children that has received international acclaim. I've not seen the building in person, but judging from the videos and photos, it appears to be a beautiful, well thought out, special place for children. At one point, in private conversation, I praised the building, then asked what I thought was an interesting question, "What was your biggest surprise once children and teachers actually started using the space?" He replied, "Nothing. There were no surprises. The people used the building exactly as I expected."

I didn't believe him for a second. English isn't his native language, so I have to allow for something to have been lost in translation, but I've been around young children long enough to know that nothing ever goes exactly according to plan. I'm quite certain that there are aspects of his building that children have commandeered for their own purposes, that other aspects are entirely ignored, that things have already had to be changed or altered to allow for the advent of real children in a real space. And I also know that these unknown unknowns change from year to year as the mix of children change, and month to month as the children grow and develop, and week to week as the kids invent and collaborate. The only way for things to go even close to "exactly" as expected is for the adults to act as dictators, and even then, the kids will find a way to make it their own.

I've been writing on this blog almost every day for a decade now, sharing my best thinking on whatever it is that's on my mind. Occasionally, I go back and look at some of the things my younger, less wizened self thought to be true, but not too often because it can be painful. A great deal of it is cringe worthy, especially when it came to my expectations. A prime example is what I called "Little World." If you want to take a journey though this aspect of my personal journey, you can find those posts under the tag "Little World" located on over there on the right-hand column under the heading "Teacher Tom's Topics."

At the time, we had just begun our community's our attempt to transform outdoor space to better serve children, a process that has ultimately lead, a decade later, to our current state-of-the-art junkyard playground. Little World emerged from my nascent understanding to the theory of loose parts. My idea, which seemed somehow brave at the time, was to set aside a small patch of our playground for the building of fairy houses. For this purpose, I curated a collection of bits of bark, moss, pinecones, rocks and other natural items, along with figurines of trolls, unicorns, fairies and other such magical creatures. The idea was to have this place set aside for Little World play. At first, the children played with it exactly as I expected, but very soon began to transport my precious items outside of the Little World area, taking the figurines to the sandpit and the pinecones to the garden. I found myself constantly scolding, "No, that belongs in Little World." It took me a good month, to finally realize that this would never go exactly as I expected. Looking back it was the beginning of my understanding of the true nature and value of loose parts: they must be loose and the children must be permitted to make it their own.

A couple days ago, one of those original little fairies turned up on the playground. Not much bigger than a dime, it has somehow managed to move with us from our old building on the top of Phinney Ridge, to our current place in Fremont. It has remained missing for years at a time, but keeps turning up at the tips of little fingers. When I saw it, I enthused about it like one might upon bumping into a long lost friend. Children gathered around to look at it, taking turns handling it, treating it like something special because of my reaction. And then, as suddenly as she had re-appeared, she was lost again, amidst the debris of our junkyard playground. I've been thinking since then about my journey, one that has been paved with disappointed expectations.

When I got home from school, I was emptying my pockets, and there she was again, this fairy from the past. One of the children had apparently slipped it in there without my knowing. I hadn't expected that.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Emotion Called "The First Days Of School"



First days of a new school year can be exciting, but also intimidating. This goes for children, parents, and teachers. It's about stepping into the unknown and it has an effect on us all, even if you, like me, have been doing it for decades.

I've always started the year with easel painting, a kind of personal tradition, one, I suppose, that brings me a bit of comfort and control. Before applying paint to paper, one four-year-old, a veteran of our school, combined red and blue to mix up a proprietary hue, then took a brush in each first and began to paint energetically, swirling her paint into a massive storm of purple. She painted like this for a good twenty minutes. Adults commented on her work, but she barely looked up. Other children suggested adding other colors, offering yellow, red, and blue as suggestions, but she didn't take them up on it. A few people asked her, "What is it?" but she didn't answer.


Last year, I'd not thought of her as a child with particularly strong focus, but here she was, only three months later, pouring every ounce of herself into a self-selected project, indistractable. I stood beside her, for a time, more in admiration than anything else. Occasionally, I thought I saw her entire body quiver, betraying some strong emotion. At one point she began to paint with her hands near her mouth, as if speaking the paint onto the paper. And then I understood: she was painting the emotion that can only be called "the first days of school," a purple storm made with intensity.

As I watched, she spoke, not looking at me, but at the paper that was beginning to wrinkle under the force and wetness, "I can make anything I want." She said it again, "I can make anything I want." She was speaking to herself, to her painting, to me, and to the school. "I can make anything I want." She painted for several more minutes, stopped, decided to add a few dots of orange and green, then declared to the room, "I'm finished. It's time to get it dry."

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Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Our Neighborhood, Our Small Town, Our Extended Family



When we bemoan the loss of childhood freedom, we tend to calculate the price in terms of today's children spending little time outdoors, under constant adult supervision, and with far too many toys and other gadgets that serve as poor substitutes for other children.

I recently read Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury's nostalgic novel of a childhood summer in small town America during the 1920's. It features children roaming their village, barefoot and free, learning about life first hand by following their curiosity, getting into trouble, making mistakes, and engaging in the kinds of philosophical conversations that you can only have when adults aren't always listening. Although I grew up many decades later, the story sparked memories from my own childhood growing up on a quiet suburban cul-de-sac. It struck me that one of the most "dated" aspects of the novel was how many actual adult friends the young Douglas and Tom had. Sure, they spent much of their time with other children, but they might just as often be hanging out with adults of all ages. 

Our fear of adult "strangers" and the loss of the extended family is really a great tragedy for childhood. As I read Dandelion Wine, I found myself recalling the many adult friends I had as a boy, people my parents might not have even known, or certainly not known as well as I did. As John Holt writes in is book Escape from Childhood:


Children need many more adult friends, people with whom they may have more easy relationships that they can easily move out of or away from whenever they need to or feel like it. Perhaps they found many of those in extended families among various grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, and so on. Perhaps they found them living in smaller communities, villages, or towns, or neighborhoods in larger cities. But these communities, in which people have a sense of place and mutual concern, are more rare all the time, disappearing from country as well as city. The extended family has been scattered by the automobile and the airplane. There is no way to bring it together so that children may live close to numbers of older people who will in some degree have an interest in them and care about them . . . What we need is to recreate the extended family.

I was thinking about this last night as our cooperative parent community came together for our fall orientation meeting. The thing that first drew me to cooperative schools when our own daughter was young was that I was going to be in the classroom as an assistant teacher. As I looked around at all of those adults last night, I realized that these people were going to become the extended family for the children of Woodland Park. Children typically form bonds with their teachers, but the cooperative model provides children with dozen of adults who have an interest in them and care about them. It's not uncommon for children in our school to form strong attachments to adults other than their parent, finding in them those sorts of easy relationships that Bradbury remembers and the loss of which Holt bemoans.

This, more than anything else, is what makes our cooperative model special: it’s much more than a school. It is our neighborhood, our small town, and our extended family.

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Monday, September 09, 2019

"I Was Always Kidding You, Teacher Tom"





A few years back I inherited a box of costume jewelry, mostly earrings and broaches. A group of our older kids were working on their costumes for an end-of-year play, so I thought I'd give them first crack at them. I thought they would be excited, but instead  they were mostly interested in declaring various pieces "too dangerous." I understood the pins on the backs of the broaches -- no one likes to be pricked -- but earring posts? 

"These are dangerous?" I asked, trying to sound incredulous.

"Yeah," answered Jody, "Somebody could poke it through their skin." The others nodded.


"Really?" I was genuinely irritated by this development. This wasn't supposed to take up much time. I just wanted to let the kids take what they wanted, then we would add the rest to the outdoor classroom. I thought they'd make cool loose parts, but the kids were finding danger in my plan. I made a show of poking my finger with an earring post. "It doesn't even hurt. See?"

Several of the kids offered up their own fingers. "Did it poke through anyone's skin?" No, it hadn't. I figured we were now ready to move on. I'd leave the broaches at the workbench with a pair of pliers with which the kids could break off the pins, but at least we wouldn't have to do anything with the earrings.

Jody said, "They didn't poke through our skin because we're big kids. But the little kids might poke themselves . . . because they're little." His friends agreed and since we didn't have any little kids around on which to test Jody's thoughtful theory. I was thwarted.

So we divided everything into two piles: a very small "safe" pile and a very large "dangerous" pile. We believe at Woodland Park in involving children in their own risk assessments, but just as they sometimes create draconian rules when left to make their own rules, they sometimes find danger behind every tree when left to assess their own risks. It's part of the pendulum process of figuring out how to be responsible for oneself, I know, so I took a deep breath and went along with them, knowing full well that it wouldn't be long before one of them careened from being hyper-cautious into trying something that caused my heart to leap into my throat.


As it turns out, the children were either not capable or not interested in removing the dangerous bits on their own, and so it was that I found myself the following morning sitting in the outdoor classroom, using a pair of pliers to render the costume jewelry "safe." We were later going to visit our neighborhood fire station, but in the meantime we were waiting, and Jody was one of the first kids there.

"What're you doing, Teacher Tom?"

"Breaking off the dangerous parts."

"Those are sooooo dangerous."

"Not any more," I said, tossing a post-less earring into the sand pit. I was long over my irritation. I babbled, "Oh, I shouldn't have done that. It's already so messy out here. Maybe we should make a rule: no making things messy."

Jody thought about it for a moment. "No, that's not a good rule. Making things messy is how kids have fun."

"Really? Then I guess that would be a bad rule."

"Yeah, it would be a bad rule."

I tossed a pin-less broach into the sand pit. "What happens when everything is just totally messy?"

"Then we'll have to build it all back up, then mess it up again."

"And that's how to have fun?"

"Yeah."

"Do you want to help me mess this jewelry around the playground?"

"That's not fun."

"Okay, I'll do it myself."

"It's soooo dangerous."

"Are you kidding me?"

"I was always kidding you, Teacher Tom."

Kids don't always know what they're saying, but as I painstakingly broke yet another tiny post off an earring I kind of suspected that Jody knew exactly what he was saying.

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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