Monday, June 29, 2009

Our Community Of Teachers

A friend who is helping me think through the outline for a book I may or may not write, recently asked me, "What moves you, inspires you?"

My knee-jerk response is, "Teaching young children, of course," but as I've thought about her admonishment, I occurs to me that my passion extends to our entire Woodland Park community. Our cooperative school is more than just a collection of kids. We're a community of children, yes, but also of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, alumni, and neighbors. It's one of the great strengths of the coop model that we all daily benefit from this amazing pool of talents and temperaments.

In the bigger world, we're so much more than our role in child care: we're homemakers and executives, contractors and artists, musicians and scientists, retailers and writers, senior citizens and twenty-somethings. Were we a traditional school, we would largely depend upon our adults to fill the cookie-cutter roles of chauffeurs and chaperones. As a coop in which our adults serve as assistant teachers, this wide world of skills and experiences arrive in the classroom every day, ready to be of service to the education of both the children and their families alike.

I'm so happy that our kids aren't stuck with the pedagogical views of a single teacher. It's this panorama of perspectives that makes cooperative education so powerful.

I'm thinking specifically today about the perspectives of a pair of fellow bloggers from our Woodland Park community.

Our friend Maya has just posted a new entry 5 Random Summer Things That I Like on her terrific blog The Familiar Home. It's a fun, breezy blog about art, crafts, decorating, family and food, with lots of photos. I'm definitely going to try out her sauteed spinach dish.

Floor Pie (which I've written about before) is a thoughtful, very well-written collection of essays on a wide range of topics from our new friend Toby. Her most recent piece, There's Something About Bella, is one of the most thought-provoking book reviews I've read in a long time.

Give them a read. Isn't it exciting to think that these are just a couple of the people who teach your kids?

Where The Wild Things Are

I'm still transcribing the children's stories and poems . . .

As everyone knows, one of the modern classics of preschool literature is Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. Published in 1963, its wonderful illustrations are coupled with a story of only few hundred words. The plot is by no means original. In fact, it’s an ancient construct that can be traced back through Homer and beyond: the hero leaves home, has fantastic adventures, then returns home. Simple and universal.

But as simple as it is, it’s clearly an important story about fear, courage, power and familial love that continues to be told over and over again. A more recent retelling of this basic plot that I like to read in class is Paul Owen Lewis’ Storm Boy. This version casts a Native American boy as a hero who is washed into the sea where he has adventures among the strange giant “people” he meets there.

But it’s not only professional authors who tell this story. Our own children tell and retell it.

Here’s Katherine’s (3) version:
Once there was a ghost. And then it scared all of the people away. And then what happened, the ghost went home to sleep in his bed, but actually it was someone else’s bed! He poked his self in his tummy, but it was pretend. But actually he just poked his finger in his tummy. And then he just really goes silly all over the place and knocked down stuff. And then he really scared more people away. He goes home, where his mom and dad were, to sleep in his bed.

And Jane’s (4):
It’s about a Barbie princess fairy. And she danced the Nutcracker. And then she made a rainbow. And then she met her friend the unicorn. She has rainbow wings and a horn. And then the Pegasus flew up in the air and met her friends the fairies. And then she went back on the ground and went home. She was a baby Pegasus. She got lost. And then she saw something flying towards her. It was her mom and dad. And then they went home and ate marshmallows.

And Nia’s (5):
Once upon a time there was a little unicorn named Tinkerbell. And she was a flying pony. And she was lost in a dark and gloomy forest. And she found her mother and daddy. And then she wanted to go home. And they saw their way home.

It’s more than a fictional plot for our children. In many ways, it’s the story of their lives. They leave their homes and come to school. They have adventures among the people they find there. And then they return home to their hot supper. It’s a story that gets repeated throughout their lives.

It’s a story most of us will live today.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Mister Rogers Was Driving A Yellow Cabriolet

I once owned a yellow VW Cabriolet. I’d never seen one before I got mine, but once I started driving it, there was one at every intersection.

Today’s yellow convertible pulled up beside me in the form of a quote I stumbled across from my idol Mister Rogers. It shines an entirely different light – or at least the same light from a different angle -- on children and “the world of living metaphor” discussed in this morning’s post:

In order to express our sense of reality, we must use some kind of symbol: words or notes or shades of paint or television pictures or sculpted forms. None of those symbols or images can ever completely satisfy us because they can never be any more than what they are – a fragment of a reflection of what we feel reality to be.

That’s why it’s so difficult to communicate honestly, I suppose, and why we find such great truth in the pronouncements of children, who lack the experience to rely on metaphorical conventions. They just put the symbols together as they occur to them, ungrammatically, of course, but often shocking, hilarious, and insightful nonetheless.

Do Kids Come From a Place We've Forgotten?

The recent posts about our child storytellers and poets continue to inspire thought provoking commentary.

My friend Susan shared a story from her then 4-year-old son Reid:

When I was a baby I had these minds in my head and they confused me, but now I’m grown up. I know what they are.

She goes on to ask:

Do kids come to us slowly, from another place we’ve forgotten?

I was hanging out that question when I received a message from Sharon, a fellow teacher and new friend, who commented on the post about Jarin’s poem:

What a wonderful mother to truly listen and respect the wisdom of her child who lives in a world of living metaphor (as children do at that age).

Perhaps this “world of living metaphor” is that forgotten place from which our children slowly emerge. And I think it’s a place that many of us do forget unless we have children around to remind us. This is our lost Eden, in a sense, and while we’ll never return, at least we can occasionally smell those heady flowers and see those miraculous sights through the senses of our kids.

And when we turn the metaphorical keys over to our very young tour guides, we stand to be improved by the experience. Sharon went on to comment about Jarin’s switching beds because “there was a bad dream in my bed”:

His solution reminds me of the technique I learned for myself in the '80's, which so many people know. If one is troubled by a thought one can put it in a balloon and watch it sail away. Or one can rise above the part of the self that is experiencing this thought and look down on her and say, "Interesting." When I know I can separate myself from the thought/image, I liberate myself. Next time I have a troubling thought I'm going to sleep on the couch.

The tagline at the top of this blog is: “Reflections on teaching and learning from preschoolers.” I suspect this is true for every teacher, no matter the age of his students, but teaching preschoolers is definitely a system in which the education flows in both directions.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Wake up, Charlie!

A few days ago I posted one of Mikey’s preschool stories. His mother Julie wrote to me:

Mikey is very excited that he has been published. You should have seen the look on his face when I read your blog aloud to him. His mouth and eyes were wide open in amazement! He made me print it so he could keep it . . . When I printed it, it printed in two pages. He stapled down the side of the pages so it made a book and then woke up his dad to show him. He was so proud.

I’m happy that I was a part of this experience for Mikey. Any day that we empower one of the other people, especially a child, is a good one.

(And I love that he woke up Charlie!)

Blogging about preschool is so much fun.

Friday, June 26, 2009

There Was A Bad Dream In My Bed

The children tell us so much in their stories. We just need to know how to listen.

In my last post I shared Jarin's poem:

There was a bad dream in my bed.
I slept in my bed.
I slept in my bed for a long time.
I got up out of my bed.
Then I thought it was day time.

I've been Jarin's teacher for the past three years, and one of the things I've learned about him is that he tends to be a pretty concrete guy. He didn't tell a lot of stories and when he did it tended to be nonfiction, usually autobiographical.

After reading the poem/story, Jarin's mom Leslie responded by email: (For the sake of clarity, Jarin has a younger brother.)

This story sheds some light on why he would spontaneously change beds. We’ve packed 3 beds in the boy’s room (including bunk beds). Over the past year, they have played “musical beds”. Often, they would start in one bed, and when I checked on them later, they were cuddled together in a different bed. At one point, a few months ago, Jarin refused to sleep in one of the beds. He said there were bad dreams in it. I just rolled with his explanation – seemed reasonable. He has not slept in that bed alone for some time. Funny!

I'm compelled by the image of his bad dream living outside himself. It's a wonderful literary device. His is an epic poem about the attempt to sleep in a bed with a bad dream. He tried to sleep with it for "a long time" -- until it was "day time". And even if "a long time" meant 5 minutes and even if day time was 9:28 p.m., it felt like a long time and he sure "thought" it was time to get up. This is a small story of great courage. I don't think I could have lasted even that long in bed with a bad dream.

And what a brilliant solution! Just get into the other bed! Listen up people!

And Now The Children Tell Their Stories: Part 2

As promised, here's a follow-up to yesterday's post about the children's stories.

Each one is truly a gem. Some are already as finely cut as a Jane Austen novel, while others need a bit of handling before we can see that they're diamonds in the rough.

This story by Lukas (3) is a perfect example of this realization:

A person got a box and threw it over a head. And then a talking peach came. And then a talking book came. And then a door came and smashed the window. And then a ghost came and it got a hammer and smushed the mud. And then talking car came. And then a tack. Chair came. And then a hammer smashed a door into little pieces. Okay, the wood came and smashed the door into cats.

The End

At first it read like a story of just one damn thing after another, then it dawned on me that this isn’t prose at all. It's much better read as poetry:

A person got a box and threw it over a head.
And then a talking peach came.
And then a talking book came.
And then a door came
and smushed the mud.

And then talking car came.
And then a tack.
Chair came.

And then a hammer
smashed a door
into little

the wood came
And smashed the door into cats.

Lukas tends to sprawl out beside me as he tells a story, his eyes casting aimlessly over the ceiling. He knows to pause while I write and I think that’s why I only noticed the rhythm of his storytelling as I’m transcribing it.

On the other hand, I never miss Thomas’ (3) rhythm. He sings his stories to me:

The builder broke a bottle
Builder Builder.
Broke the ceiling; the peeling
And then talking; walking
A talking tool comed.

Here’s another one:

Not pushing on my chimney chin chinny.
Ghost said, “Broke that chimney.”
The ghost broke it.
The little pig broke his whole house.

And another:

Fork lift.
Hork lift.
Gork lift.
Nork lift.
Lork lift.
Tork lift.
Six mighty machines.

(Holy cow! I didn’t even notice him counting along.)

Or how about this one from Annabelle (3):

“Ga Ga Goo Goo Ga Ga Goo Goo,”
that’s what a little girl said.
“Goo Goo Ga Ga,” said no one – only a banana said that.
“Ga Ga Goo Goo,” a monkey said that.
“Ga Ga Goo Goo,” no one said that.

And Anjali (3)

A bird fly on your head.
A bird fly on your head again.
A bird fly on a paint go and a tree.
And a bird fly on the top of the school.
A bird eat a leaf.
And they all
The leaf fall down on the ground
so the bird can eat.

And I think this one by Jarin (4) is sublime:

There was a bad dream in my bed.
I slept in my bed.
I slept in my bed for a long time.
I got up out of my bed.
Then I thought it was day time.

More to come . . .

Thursday, June 25, 2009

And Now The Children Tell Their Stories

Yesterday, I wrote about the stories I tell to the kids. Today's post is about the stories the children tell for the entertainment and improvement of their friends.

During the Woodland Park 3-5's free play time (what we call "Discovery Time") I periodically break out a clipboard stacked with blank paper and invite the children, one-by-one, to tell a story, which I rigorously transcribe, word-for-word, and read aloud at Circle Time. Most years, there is a hardcore group of storytellers who are responsible for the vast majority of our stories, but during this most recent school year storytelling took on a life of its own. Every child told at least one story and many told dozens.

As I write this I'm sitting beside a thick stack of pages covered in my improvised shorthand, chicken scrawl. I'm hoping to get at least some of these stories typed up during the next few days.

Here are a few I’ve finished so far.

This story is by our friend Mikey. Even as a two-year-old he had a well-developed sense of humor and enjoyed making adults laugh. This year, as one of our oldest kids, he delighted in telling stories that made his buddies laugh as well. I’ll bet you can pick out the biggest laugh lines:

Once upon a time there was a backhoe digging in a pile of leaves. Then it ate a hot dog. And then a burrito came along and then a avocado came and he washed himself off and then he jumped into the garbage can.

And then a walking banana came along and said, “If you eat me I’ll go to Safeway in your tummy.”

And then he went and said, “Oh man, I have to go to the potty.” And it went through a hole and got some glasses on. And then a hair came along and a little clip board. They went to preschool and got a nametag on.

The End

You’ll note the deft use of toilet humor. This is a story from early in the school year, prior to the official banishment of “potty talk” to the bathroom. (I should mention that we did have a boy a few years back who was so determined to include potty talk in his stories that he insisted that we take the entire Circle Time into the bathroom so that we could read his stories.)

Here’s another story from early in the year by one of our youngest friends, Ella:

This story is about Nordy! Nordy just wobbles. He just wobbles.

The End

Nordy is her special stuffed animal. You’ll note the brevity of the piece, which was one of Ella’s hallmarks throughout the first few months of the school year. Now check out this Ella story from closer to the end of the year:

My story is about Cat in the Hat. And then he goes crazy loco on his hat.

And then a Nordy came by. And then Nordy helped the Cat in the Hat go crazy loco. And then they fell down like they are crazy loco. And then they goed in a circle. Then they fell on the floor. And then they fell on their legs. And then they tied a knot in their feet. They dropped themselves on the floor.

And then Flower walked by. It smelled some soup and it ate some soup in the bowl.

The End

There are always a few kids who anticipate the excitement of getting up in front of the audience at Circle Time, but who don’t want to take the time to actually tell a story. These children often plop themselves on my lap, spout off a series of nonsense words, then go about their business. During the first few weeks of school I usually just transcribe the nonsense, but soon start responding to the gibberish by offering them the choice of either using real words or defining their made-up words. Here’s a story by Esme in which she took the definitional approach:

Whoop. (It means “hello”.)

And then Toop. (It means, “Hey, what is your name?”)

And then once upon a time and it eats the lights. Then the vite (a thing that kills lights) came into the light. And then a digger exploded. And then the dodem (a thing that eats people) goes in the halloma (lava in a volcano). And then it takes apart our whole school. And then it tears out all the hairs except my friends.

The End

It used to bug me when kids based their stories on movies or TV programs. I’d write them down, but tended to dismiss them as evidence of how the popular culture is diluting creativity, but I don’t feel that way any longer. I’ve now come to understand these stories as an attempt to share a powerful/exciting/moving experience with the rest of us through fiction. Every storyteller has his influences, but that doesn’t mean we get cookie cutter results. Here are three very different stories, each inspired by the movie Bolt:

From Jack (3):

There’s a dog named Bolt. And then he find the Green Eye. And then he got it.

The End.

And from Sarah (3):

About Bolt. One time he first he was a little kid. And then Penny was going on a trip with her dog. And then some motorcycles got up to them. And then Penny pushed a big red button. And then a rope came out and Bolt had it in his mouth. And then she hurted her. And then she said, “You saved my life.”

The End

And, finally, from Jane (4)

Tinkerbell flied with her friend Lily and they played fairy tag. Then they picked flowers and made flower crowns. They met a dog named Bolt and then they found a cat named Mittens. And then they fighted the Green Eyed Man. And then they tied his feet with a rope.

The End

More stories to come . . .

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Our Silly Stories

We read stories in school every day, but that’s not the same as telling a story. The Woodland Park oral tradition is largely built upon about a dozen stories, most of which are creations of the master storyteller Robert Munsch, from whom I steal shamelessly.

The main observable difference between telling and reading is where the children’s eyes go. With a picture book, they’re examining the illustrations. With a storyteller, they’re part of a performance. And where the eyes go, so go the brains. In the contest between ink on paper versus a human being, the human always wins. Children sometimes goof off when I read to them, but never when I tell them Stephanie’s Ponytail or Murmel Murmel Murmel. They may interrupt when I forget a part of the story or to interject their own contributions, but it’s always about the narrative at hand, which hardly counts as goofing off.

And like all good preschool stories, ours improve with each re-telling. It’s not the first time through Lizard’s Song that gets us all singing:

Solley Solley Solley
Solley Solley Solley
Rock is my home.

It’s the fifth, sixth and seventh times that stick it like a map pin into the core of our collective being.

I can’t help thinking of our school each Passover as I listen to those ancient Judeo-Christian stories told yet again, connecting us through the ages to Abraham, who is clearly one of the greatest storytellers of all time. (I wonder from whom he shamelessly stole?) And while I’m not Jewish, I have come to understand this religion’s conception of eternal life as literary and rationale: Life is a story. You are a character in that story. Your afterlife is entirely dependent upon the role you play in that story, which will be told and re-told through the ages. (For the novel readers among you, I’m indebted to Thomas Mann’s tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers for these insights.)

I’ve written recently about children wanting to be superheroes and princesses. Even as 3, 4 and 5-year-olds, they demonstrate their desire to create their own magnificent part in the great story of life. It’s as the Kinks sang:

Everyone wants to be big and strong.
Everyone wants to be King Kong.

And while we may want to be King Kong, we daily create our own part in the story by the simple acts of going to work, returning home and eating dinner. We can’t all be Joseph or David or even Herod; at least not all the time. And like it our not, four thousand years from now, most of us will live our eternal life as one of “the multitudes”. You don’t have to accept that, of course, you can still strive to be one of the characters with lines and a name, but the odds are overwhelmingly against you.

So unless you’re determined to be Solomon, it’s probably more reasonable to consider a smaller part in the story: one built upon the less dramatic, but far more satisfying daily joys of contentment, love, and silliness.

The foundational stories of Woodland Park’s oeuvre have that one thing in common: silliness. To me silliness is, at bottom, a state of endless possibilities. There are no rules to silliness, no right and wrong, no official conventions whatsoever. Silliness is freedom. Silliness is joy. Silliness is the state of mind most conducive to learning life’s greatest truth: we’re making up this story as we go along. Let’s have a little fun with it. Some days we’re a hero, a princess, or King Kong. Other days we’re mommy’s sweet patootie.

Just as those ancient stories about Moses and Rebecca are told and retold, we tell our preschool stories, embedding that silliness deeply into our communal soul. And as happens with those old stories, our newer ones evolve with each generational retelling. Our version of Epossumondas, for instance, bears only a passing resemblance to the original because of our editing over the years -- our ongoing attempt to make this old story relevant to our generation.

Woodland Park’s oral tradition of silly stories invites us to open our minds with laughter and delight. As each new generation of families come through our doors we can’t help but make these stories our own. And those changes are passed on through an imperfect institutional memory, like a practical joke, to the next person who takes part in the telling and retelling.

And that’s at least one of the secrets to eternal life.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Woodland Park in the Parade (With Pictures)

I wanted to share some of our Fremont Solstice Parade fun visually.

I think this picture taken by Christopher Nelson really captures the energy of our Superhugger ensemble.

This is a group shot at the end of the parade. It's a game: Can you find me? If you want to be part of this photo next year, let me know.

And here's a little video of the parade. The second half is mostly Superhuggers in action.

This is former Woodland Park parent Peter on his stilts leading the parade.

Bradley is also a Woodland Park alumnus. We've been Superhuggers together for the past 3 years. That's his daughter Aurora wearing the pink hat on the float.

This is Teacher Aaron with his daughter Kaye, both former WPers. They were part of the Hooverville Optimism ensemble.

And here's Aaron's other daughter Lila.

And last, but not least, is our friend Jay Dotson and his 25 foot beach ball. This may well have been the most popular part of the parade. People spontaneously came out of the crowd to be run over. That's Jay in the rainbow wig who looks like he's taking a bite out of the ball.

There were dozens of other members of our community both watching and participating in the parade (Zsa Zsa, Jasper and Laura to name a few). I'll post more photos as I come across them. This is how we celebrate around here.


Here are Jasper and Laura!


And this is our friend Zsa Zsa with her bro. (Thanks to Teacher Aaron!)

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Solstice!

Participating in the Fremont Summer Solstice Parade has become an annual tradition for my family.

Our school being located, as it is, in the heart of Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, many of our Woodland Park families are regular attendees, if not fellow participants, in this one-of-a-kind, homemade procession of music, dancing, oddities, titillation, and unbridled joy. It’s a pure artistic expression by a community, which is what appeals to us most. There are no commercial sponsorships (although local businesses chip in to help with the $30,000 cost of producing the parade), the floats must be human powered, and the audience is encouraged to leap out into the street to participate in the festivities.

For those who’ve never experienced this quintessential Seattle event, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. The parade is kicked off by a sea of naked cyclists – over 500 this year -- their bodies transformed into beautifully painted canvases. This year featured a larger than life puppet of Pope Clementine VII and a macabre band of undertakers, a 25-foot beach ball that was rolled over audience members who lay down in the street, a cadre of “Ice Queens” wearing 10-foot wide regal courtesan dresses, a life-sized elephant puppet, stilt-walking crows, “sustainable” bull fighters, hundreds of musicians and dancers, and countless other strange and beautiful things.

I was one of about 60 Superhuggers. Clad in tights and capes, our mission is to simply hug as many people as we can. I’d say I got in a good 200 hugs throughout the parade, so if everyone else did the same, that’s a good 12,000 hugs. Not a bad day’s work.

My favorite hugs, of course, came from the dozens of current and former students who lined the route. What fun it was to hear the cry of, “Teacher Tom! Teacher Tom!” There were 50,000+ people out there yesterday, so I know I missed some of my friends and I’m sorry about that.

And while I love finding friends in the crowd, it was the strangers – who for a brief moment ceased being strangers – that are ultimately the most meaningful. Hugging that many strangers is an act of subversion, I think, one that pushes through our tendency to erect barriers between ourselves and those terrifying, unknown “others”. When I talk to people about Superhugging, they warn me that I’ll catch cold, contract lice, get punched out, or worse. This is our third parade hugging those thousands of strangers and none of those things have ever happened. Sure there were a handful of rejections, but each time I waded into the crowd it was into a flurry open arms. I hugged men, women and children. I was part of large and small group hugs. I saw strangers in the crowd hugging one another.

I tried to make eye contact with each person I hugged, saying things like, “I’m so happy you’re here!” “Happy solstice!” and “I love you!” And every word I spoke in those intimate moments in the middle of a parade was echoed back to me, “I’m happy you’re here, too!” “Happy solstice to you, too!” and “I love you, too!” Amazing.

I’ll never forget the developmentally disabled girl who struggled to get her arms around me as I knelt in front of her wheelchair. When she finally succeeded in getting her hands on my shoulders, the crowd around us roared. Or the little boy who remembered me from a prior parade, “Last year you hugged my dad!” That I’d made a memory for a stranger that had lasted that long touches me to the core.

After last year’s parade there was a photo in the Seattle Times of a man, his hands thrown up over his head as he was surrounded by red-caped huggers. In his open mouth you could see the gaps from missing teeth. He had the look of someone who has had a hard time of things. The paper quoted him as saying, “This is the greatest day of my life!” Holy cow! And sure enough, there he was again along the parade route this year, reveling in hugs once more.

Today, some of my fellow huggers have shared their experiences with our group via our email list. They speak of feeling exhausted, yet “full” and “exhilarated”.

One of them wrote: “I’ve been teary all day. I have many snapshots in my mind of people who “lit up” when asked if they wanted a hug, especially the people who looked so closed.”

What I’ve learned from being a Superhugger is that we’re not as afraid of each other as the news of the world sometimes leads us to believe. We are born to love. We are all in this together.

Here are some photos of the Woodland Park community in the parade.

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Why We Wrestle

The last time I participated in tackle football I was no more than 14-years-old, yet at least once a week, I still play through in my mind the gratifying sensation of a solid collision with another human body. It’s always the same collision, in which I’ve lowered my shoulder into the “belt buckle” of an oncoming rusher; initial impact, followed by driving him to the ground. I don’t know if this "memory" is a specific event from the past or an amalgamation of similar events, but the memory of the sensation is powerful.

I play more basketball these days and even now, some three decades later, one of the best parts is the banging about of bodies in an un-refereed game.

It’s definitely not about anger. And while there’s no denying the violent and aggressive aspects of competitive body contact, it’s not about hurting another person. It’s about the sensation itself, the thrill of impact, leverage, and brute competition. In my more philosophical moments, I tell myself it’s about a transfer of energy between two bodies, a sudden exchange of momentum, an imparting of energy from one human being to another. And in my academic moments I contemplate the studies that show that roughhousing has long term developmental and social benefits.

A number of years ago my 3-5’s class was populated with several high energy boys who had either no siblings or whose sibs were too young for roughhousing. The result was spontaneous eruptions of wrestling throughout our mornings. I found myself repeating over and over, “Now is not the time for wrestling,” until one day it occurred to me that there was never a time for wrestling for most of the kids.

Since then, wrestling has been a part of the Woodland Park 3-5 curriculum. We lay mats on the floor and duct tape others to the walls, creating a sort of wrestling room like one might find in a high school. I explain that wrestling is not fighting, but rather a sport, then run down the rules:

- No hitting or kicking
- No hands on people’s faces, heads, or necks
- No throwing another person down unless you fall with them (a rule made necessary by a child with Aikido skills)
- No jumping or falling on people
- No wrestling off the mats
- Stop the moment someone says, “Stop!”

The result, frankly, is that we reduce wrestling to little more than tight hugging and rolling around on the floor, but it still fills the need.

The first time we tried it, the predictable gang of boys took to the mats in a frenzy. Within seconds our resident "The Hulk" found himself on his back, a boy whose fierce and powerful role-playing typically dominated our mornings. Our eyes locked for a moment and in his I read a small panic that said, This isn’t what I bargained for! The reality didn’t live up to the fantasy: that boy never set foot on the wrestling mats again. His imaginative play was still full of tough guy characters, but that’s where it stayed from then on.

That the more assertive boys were drawn to wrestling was not a surprise. What I hadn’t anticipated was the number of our girls who enthusiastically leapt into the fray.

Parent educator and teacher Chris David once explained differences between boys and girls by asking me to think of their brains as architectural structures. Boys tend to have brains comprised of many little rooms. If a boy is playing in one “room” and the subject of rules comes up, adults need to understand that the typical boy must leave the room in which he’s playing and go down the hall to find the room that houses the rules. Girls, on the other hand, tend to have brains made up of one large room. The rules and their play are in the same room so it’s far easier (and quicker) for them to apply the former to the latter.

Applying this metaphor to wrestling, it’s no wonder that girls rarely engage in wrestling during times that are “not the time for wrestling,” while the boys sometimes forget. When wrestling is officially sanctioned however -- at least in the little laboratory of our preschool -- the girls are as game as the boys.

Wrestling days are demanding for me in that I take it upon myself to serve as referee, constantly reminding wrestlers of the rules. We’ve had a few minor injuries, but nothing a little rubbing didn’t cure. Our hyper-vigilance, in fact, probably makes wrestling one of the safest large motor activities we do. And there is surprisingly little rule breaking. Maybe wrestling and its rules are so intimately entwined that they can be kept together in the same room.

Competitive physical contact is a human urge that has little to do with gender, anger, violence or aggression. It’s a way to measure oneself and to learn about one’s own body and the bodies of others. It’s a way to learn about strength, quickness, and leverage.

At the same time it bears within it the seeds of violence and aggression, if coupled with simple rules, it becomes a powerful, visceral way to learn about self-control, gentleness and empathy.

That’s why we wrestle.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Messy Summer Art

Our school is in a building that doesn’t appear to have undergone any significant improvements since it was built in the 1950’s. We’ve painted the walls, of course, and keep it relatively clean, but the shine is off the doorknobs and there are more than a few things repaired with duct tape and zip ties.

Several years ago, a parent wanted to take on the project of replacing our dull, cracked linoleum floor. It’s a bit of an eyesore, I’ll admit, but the thought of a brand, spankin’ new floor worries me. I don’t want to be responsible for it. I can see myself swooping in with a sponge with every drop of paint. I don't want to spend our precious classroom time keeping things clean. It’s bad enough having nicely painted walls and ceilings because we tend to get paint on those surfaces as well. No, we ultimately decided, the money would be much better spent on toys, art materials, and other curriculum supplies. The floor is just a floor.

As far as I’m concerned, preschool should be messy and the ideal preschool should be as much like a garage as possible. The only real improvement I can imagine to our current floor, for instance, would be a large drain in the center of the room so that it can just be hosed down at the end of the day.

Parents regularly tell me that one of the reasons they’re enrolled in our school is because their children get to have art and sensory experiences that would never be permitted at home.

Be that as it may, it’s now summertime and a comment to my post Art As Process by EvaC got me thinking that patios, backyards and garages are perfect places to get messy while school is not in session. For those of you (like Eva) with kids who delight in being up to their elbows in something gooey or who tend to involve their entire bodies in the creative process, here are a few messy painting ideas for the summer:

Bubble Printing
Mix water and a little liquid dish washing detergent in small bowls then add a few drops of food coloring to each bowl. Give the kids drinking straws and let them blow until they’ve created a frothy mound of bubbles. Make a print of their creation by showing them how to gently lay a piece of white paper on top. Use that same piece of paper to collect prints from the other bowls.
Note: The younger your child, the more likely she’ll be to suck instead of blow. The solution won’t hurt anyone, but it’ll taste pretty yucky. Also, if you can find liquid water color, it makes for more vibrant prints and easier clean-up than food coloring.

Bubble Painting
For older kids, try mixing the same solution as for Bubble Printing (you might want to make the colors a bit more intense) but instead of drinking straws, break out the bubble wands and let your kids try to blow bubbles that then “pop” on a piece of paper hung from an easel or taped to a fence. Another technique is to let the kids chase the colored bubbles around the yard with blank notebooks or pre-folded paper and try to catch them between the pages.
Note: Blowing bubbles can be very challenging for young children, so be prepared to change the game if your child starts to get frustrated.

Body Part Painting
This is a good one to try when the wading pool is already out in the yard. Pour tempera paint into a shallow container (like a pie pan) spread out some newspaper, butcher paper, or even an old sheet or towels. Let the kids use their feet, hands, arms, legs and bottoms to paint, then wash themselves off in the pool.
Note: Tempera paint can get very slippery. Also, it could be fun to break out some paint brushes and paint each other! What a great way to learn about respecting other people’s body space and treating them gently while still having fun.

Splat Painting
Put the tempera paint in large-ish containers. Get out a small step stool (or chair) for the kids to stand on. Let them saturate an old balled up sock in the paint, climb onto the ladder and let it drop. You can use newspaper or butcher paper on the ground, but you don’t have to: tempera paint should hose right off most concrete or asphalt surfaces.
Note: Try putting the balled up sock into the toe of another sock or, even better, the toe of cut-off panty hose before dipping it into paint. This will give your child a "handle" should he be squeamish about getting his fingers “painty”. Of course, this also gives your child the ability to swing your paint “bombs”, which, in turn, makes them easier to launch off in all directions!

Fly Swatter Painting
This is one of our most popular classroom art projects (and one that always results in paint on the floors, walls and ceiling). Hang some paper on an easel, wall or fence, then swat it with paint covered swatters. I like to draw little flies on the paper as targets.
Note: The younger the swatter, the more likely he’ll be to want to try his swatting technique out on things other than the paper – like other people – so this is one you’ll really want to monitor closely.

Spray Bottles
Fill a spray bottle with food coloring tinted water (or diluted liquid water color) hang paper on an easel, wall or fence and squirt away. A long piece of butcher paper along a fence makes a very fun group art project.
Note: Like with fly swatter painting, there will be a tendency to want to see what happens when one squirts something other than the paper, so stay alert.

Cardboard Boxes
There is nothing more fun for young children than a large cardboard box. Appliance boxes are the best, but anything they can get inside is fun. You can even connect a series of smaller boxes. Painting them is a messy way to have fun with them. This is another fun group art project.

Mud Painting
Hey, they’re already making mud, right? How about cutting some pieces of heavy cardboard, help them mix a batch of thick mud, then give them putty knives, small shovels, forks and other spreading tools to work their canvasses. If you mix some white glue into the mud you might even get to keep the result when it’s dry.
Note: You can make this project an extra crispy bucket of educational by helping your kids mix up several batches of mud with various consistencies. Talk about “thick” and “thin”. Notice the way the different batches feel and move. Make paintings with the various types of mud, then follow the results as they dry.

These are just a few messy things we do normally do inside that you might want to try outside. If you have other ideas, share them in the comments.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Star Belly Schools

Floor Pie is a terrific blog from one of our new Woodland Park Pre-3 moms.

Star Belly Schools is an insightful look at her experience in getting her older son -- The Boy -- through the complications of the Seattle Public School kindergarden selection system. If you've gone through this, intend to go through this, or if you just like good writing, you should check it out.

Seattle is home to an embarrassment of great elementary schools. North Seattle parents, in particular, find themselves in a potato chip aisle of sizes, styles and flavors. The public schools are almost uniformly solid and include a growing list of “niche” schools (e.g., AE2, Salmon Bay, John Stanford, Summit). We are also home to one of the nation’s most varied and competent collection of private schools.

In my family’s case, we felt the need to sample them all, and so dragged ourselves through at least 40 different school open houses over two years. It was a grueling and eye-opening experience.

We started from the perspective that we were capable of teaching Josephine anything she needed to know through about 5th grade, so our focus was on the social, rather than academic, environment. Some of our friends thought we were playing fast and loose with our daughter’s future with our “cavalier” attitude toward the three R’s. When they raised their hands at open houses, they asked questions about test scores and computer-to-child ratios. (I’m not making this up.) We were more focused on recess quantity and adult-to-child ratios. Naturally, they, in the end, chose different schools than we did.

My point being that we all bring our own values to the process and that’s what must guide us.

Several families have told me of their commitment to public schools, for instance, and that’s their starting point.

Others are looking to continue the kind of involvement they’ve learned in cooperative preschool, and that’s their starting point.

A few are excited by “alternative” approaches.

We’ve had several families come through Woodland Park who were eager to try homeschooling.

Most of the literature out there urges you to identify your child’s learning style, then match it to a teacher or learning environment. That’s probably good advice if your child has clearly identified special needs, but for most of us it’s just confusing if not outright misleading. I’ve looked at a lot of studies that attempt to identify the criteria that contribute to a child’s prospects in elementary school. In every one of them, the key determinant for success is parental support.

As a co-op teacher I tend to forget that most parents drop their kids off in the morning, pick them up in the afternoon (or evening if their school offers extended day programs), and remind them to do their homework. As coop families, we’re accustomed to a more active approach. Even if we -- as most do -- choose traditional drop-off schools, we are the parents who will continue to stick our noses into classrooms, attend parent meetings, and volunteer whenever possible. We will continue to show our children that education is a high priority for us. We won’t just be emotionally “present” for our children. We will be there physically, which is just as important for young children.

And that’s how to make your child’s kindergarten into a great school.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Up, Up and Away!

Every year our classroom is invaded by superheroes, the most memorable of whom is The Hulk, who also did business has The Snow Hulk, The Cardboard Block Hulk, The Hay Hulk, and the Quiet Hulk, depending on the day. This fantastically enormous and powerful being, operating through the body of one of our most diminutive friends, is only one of a veritable legion of impossibly gifted personas to have burst through Woodland Park’s doors.

We’ve spent time with Batman, Spiderman, Superman, Thor (the Norse god of thunder), and Wonder Woman – all characters from my own childhood. I myself have actually been each of these powerful characters at one time or another. (If The Hulk can wear a pink satin slip, I can pretend to be Wonder Woman.)

These, however, are not the only “superheroes” that regularly grace our classroom. I don’t think it’s stretching the term unreasonably to include the whole glittering spectacle of princesses who walk among us, Disney and otherwise, with their own magical powers. And then there are such stalwarts as Harry Potter, Barbie, and an endless parade of fire fighters, construction workers, dinosaurs and other animals with sharp teeth.

At some point all of us need to try on a powerful persona. Everyone needs to experience what it means to fly, to triumph, to be a big deal in the big world.

To paraphrase Desmond Tutu: it’s not the darkness within ourselves that we fear; it’s the light. I think that’s what we’re dealing with here, at least at some level. Young children haven’t yet learned to be afraid of that incredible, limitless potential that each of us possesses – the 90 percent of our brains that goes unused. That is what they are engaging when they play with superhuman power. (And sadly, I think, it's our adult fear of this light that ultimately causes many of us to give up playing at superhero.)

At the same time, our children haven’t yet learned to fear the darkness either. The violence is exciting. The romance of it is thrilling. As adults, our broader experience teaches us that the horror of violence must be reserved as a last resort; that the pursuit of impossible beauty standards can lead to diseased behavior; that none of us will ever actually possess the super powers in question.

Like it or not, this is our society. These are the models of power that the larger world presents to our children. I don’t know if they are any better or worse than the models of power presented to children in other eras (Did ancient Greek children play Apollo or Aphrodite?) but I do know they are more insistently pounded into our children than ever before. Marketers target children with these superhero messages because they know your children need to imagine what it means to fly.

As parents we’re caught in between. Of course we want our children to engage in robust and imaginative power play. On the other hand we want them to understand that there are other ways to be powerful than through violence and societal standards of beauty. You can try to block it out, but it still gets in, it’s everywhere; you can slow it down, but you can’t stop it.

The society our children see through the lens of the mass media is incredibly warped and it’s our job to provide the rest of the story. Understanding this, most of us try to limit our children’s exposure to these powerful media images, but that can’t be the only thing we do. One of our jobs as parents is to equip our children with tools for dealing with the parts of our culture that emerge from the darkness. It’s our job to make sure our own opinions are understood. We need to make sure our children know where we stand on issues of violence and beauty. If we don’t do this we are letting marketers decide what our children learn about being powerful . . . And we need to do it without browbeating or anger, trusting our own honestly held beliefs, expressed clearly and calmly, to guide our children to make the right choices.

And as we gently point out the flaws in the myth of superheroes and princesses, we also must provide other, more realistic ways to exert power in the world. We need to make sure they also experience some of the thousands of other ways to shine our powerful light in the world.

For instance, one of the most popular circle time activities at Woodland Park is giving compliments. I ask, “Who wants to make someone else feel good?” and one at a time the children are called on to demonstrate their “superpower” of saying something kind to a friend. More often than not, it’s an actual compliment (e.g., “I like your shoes,” “I like your hair.”) but we’re not sticklers. Sometimes it’s a statement of affection (e.g., “I like you.”) or a wish (“I want you to come play at my house.”). Sometimes it’s whispered into a friend’s ear and the only way we know it worked is by the resulting smile. In any event, all on their own, the children have added the convention of following up their “compliment” with a hug. Throughout the exercise I repeat the mantra, “Sally (or Billy or Johnny) is being powerful by making someone feel good.”

We keep track of each compliment by adding a “link” to a plastic chain that is hung from the ceiling. The goal is to encircle ourselves with compliments by the end of the year. Our plastic chain link set came with 500 pieces. That’s a lot of power play! I love the mighty cheer each year as we add the final link. I see in their faces and hear in their applause how (super)powerful they feel. Look what we’ve done!

Some teachers ban superhero play, but I’ve made peace with it and try my best to use the power these impossible heroes embody to help children develop their own powers. At school we try to point out that the real mission of superheroes is to help people, not to scare them or fight them. We find traits beyond mere beauty to praise in each of the Disney princesses (e.g., Ariel is adventurous, we know Belle is smart because she loves to read, Cinderella is kind to animals.) Those are the real world superpowers. And I think that’s the opportunity here. If we can, even in small measure, help our children experience their own light, to find their own real world super powers – that potential represented by the other 90 percent of their beautiful brains – then we help them actually become the superheroes they imagine themselves to be.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Cooperative Manifesto

One of my college courses included learning about various models of early childhood education. My classmates were mostly public school teachers earning continuing education credits. For several classes running we listened as guest speakers detailed the theory and practice of such approaches as Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Hi/Scope. When it came time to learn about the cooperative model we heard from our own Val Donato (director of the North Seattle Community College Parent Education Department).

Val explained how the parents in a co-op own and operate the school at every level from the executive to the janitorial, with the teacher being the sole paid employee. We learned that every parent spends one day a week serving as an assistant teacher, bringing the adult to child ratio up to the incredible 1:2 or 1:3 category. She taught us about the benefits of teachers and parents working so closely together, both inside and outside the classroom, to create a unique learning experience for each child.

There was the usual polite applause when Val wrapped up, but the moment she left the classroom, there was an audible gasp.

“I could never do that!” said one teacher.

“It would be like having 20 bosses!” said another.

There was general agreement that the whole idea was crazy.

At this point, I’d only experienced co-op as a parent, although I’d already signed my contract to teach at Woodland Park the following year. Needless to say, I was cowed into a doubtful silence. Twenty bosses did kind of sound like a nightmare.

Twenty Bosses
I’ve now spent the last decade in cooperative preschool classrooms, both as a parent and teacher. I’ve never once felt like I had 20 bosses. Instead, I’ve always felt like I had 20 colleagues in the form of dedicated assistant teachers. And these are not just any teachers; these are teachers bringing mountains of love into the classroom.

Of course, at one level it’s true that I have 20 bosses. It’s the entire parent community that hires and fires. It’s the entire parent community that judges, evaluates, and compensates. And it’s the entire parent community that observes and participates in every activity that takes place within the four walls of the school. (And while I hope it’s not true, it’s just possible that I’m a better teacher because of all those parent eyes on me all the time!)

On a day-to-day basis, however, these same “bosses” work in the classroom under my supervision. They are in the trenches with me, so to speak, sharing the work, rewards and challenges. These are not just the parents of my students; they are my colleagues, allies and friends.

It’s the kind of dynamic that can only be found in organizations that operate on cooperative principles.

The Cooperative Model vs. Capitalism
When I look at my own relationships with institutions, the best ones are with cooperatives. I’m a Puget Consumer Cooperative grocery shopper. I buy my outdoor gear at the REI cooperative. I received the best health care of my life as a member of the Group Health Cooperative (where my daughter was born). I love my credit union. These are all variations on the co-op theme, but none are so pure as our cooperative preschool.

As we’re now witnessing the ugly downside brought on by 30 years of increasingly unfettered capitalism and its almost religious quest for profit, it’s hard not to imagine how the cooperative model could be advantageously applied to other institutions.

For instance, when the “customers” own the business, it stands to reason that they will focus like a laser on fulfilling their own wants and needs. When stockholders are the owners, the focus is on the customers only as far as it feeds profits. When applied to healthcare the capitalist model places profit over healthcare. In education it places profit over education. In government it places profit over governing.

When the “employees” hire, fire and pay their own “bosses”, the actual performance of management isn’t hidden in the puffy language of annual reports or stockholder meetings. Performance is totally transparent, found right there in the daily reality of how the institution functions. Capitalist owners tend to primarily consult this quarter’s bottom line when evaluating their managers, while cooperative owners (incentivized by the desire to continue to have their jobs well into the future) tend to focus the long-term health of the institution.

When capitalist bosses hire, fire and pay employees, we ultimately wind up with an adversarial relationship in which labor becomes just another expense to cut because management is incentivized to look to the next dividend checks. When compensation is a matter of cooperative negotiation, “labor” becomes an asset or even (dare I suggest it?) human beings. And, of course, there is no better way to rein-in exorbitant “executive” pay.

I’m not saying I’m against capitalism, but I do believe that the dangers of unregulated capitalism are manifest and that not every institution benefits from the capitalist model. What I am saying is that when we take the imperatives of profit and obscene executive pay off the table, the cooperative model can in many cases be a far more efficient and effective means for satisfying “demand”.

But enough of “radical” economics
The best thing about a cooperative is what it does to our relationship to institutions and the people we find there. Traditional institutions are about people doing things to and for other people. Cooperative institutions are about people doing things with each other.

I understand the reaction of those public school teachers. They are providing education to children and for parents. In their lives a parent’s request to “talk” is all too often a cause for dread. Who doesn’t feel anxious about being called into their boss’s office? As a co-op teacher, on the other hand, I talk with my colleague-bosses every day, work with them, supervise them, and get supervised by them. But it’s much more than that. I also goof around with them. I share joys and sorrows with them. We’re friends and colleagues. We’re a real community in a way that other ECE models make nearly impossible.

I love our Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool and I know I’m not the only one. Families return year-after-year, child-after-child, choosing time and again to be part of what I only half-jokingly refer to as our little communist society.

I probably don’t want a cooperative making my televisions or washing machines and I’m not deaf to the argument that competition and the prospects of great wealth can lead a certain type of high-achiever to innovation and economic growth. On the other hand, I’ve seen how cooperation within the context of a committed, loving preschool community consistently “turns a profit” in the coin of confident, well-prepared kindergarteners. That’s what we come together to do.

And there’s nothing crazy about that.

(Note: If you want to read more about our cooperative and the cooperative model in general, you might want to read my Cooperative Nuts and Bolts series. There are five posts, you'll want to read from the bottom up.)

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Only Love Is Appropriate

My friend and fellow blogger Maya Dammand (The Familiar Home) responded by email to my most recent post with a touching story about talking to her own children about death.

She's a brave woman raising two strong, intelligent girls. Her story reminded me of a quote from a Thai meditation master I found in Stephen and Ondrea Levine's book Who Dies?

You see this goblet? For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it. I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on a shelf and the wind knocks it over, or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, 'Of course.' When I understand that this glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious. Every moment is just what it is, and nothing need be otherwise."

Almost every time I drink from a glass now, it occurs to me that it's already broken. It's my reminder that the only thing I really have is this moment. It's a reminder that the only thing I have to do is to love the people I am with by listening to them and helping them. I've found that young children are naturally much better at staying in the moment than adults and it's one of the most important things I learn and re-learn from them.

The Levine's go on to write:

If we lived our life as though we were already dead, as though our children were already dead . . . Only love would be appropriate . . .


Monday, June 08, 2009

Waiting For Me In Peace and Joy

Vincent, our Chow, was my most constant companion for 13 years. Early one Christmas Eve morning he passed away.

During his last year his eyesight had grown dimmer (he had one prosthetic eye and glaucoma in the other), his hearing had dwindled, and his vet even suspected that he had become hard of smelling. Of course we knew it was coming – he was approaching 100 in human years – but it was sad nonetheless.

As we discussed Vincent’s last day, each member of my family confessed to having thought about the possibility of his death within the preceding 24 hours. Our then 7-year-old daughter Josephine said, “I’m sorry I thought this was going to happen,” and, “I’m sorry I was ever mean to him.”

Naturally, we assured her that her thoughts had nothing to with his death; that the long, gentle strokes she gave him as he panted through the pain, and the water she carried to him for his very last drink, comforted him and made those final few hours a little more bearable.

Intellectually I know that none of us had anything to do with his dying, but when I look inside myself I find an echo of Josephine’s sentiment in my own heart. What could I have done to give us one more day together? I could have chosen the more expensive dog food. I could have taken him for more walks. Maybe we should have tried the surgery that the doctor offered, with its exceedingly slim hope for success – at least that included hope. I shoved Vincent aside with my shin that last week when he stood in my way: I could have been more loving. Maybe that’s all he needed to go on for another day – a little more love from me.

We know that children tend to assume culpability for the bad things that happen in their lives. We’ve heard the stories of children feeling responsible for their parents’ divorce. When we’re angry they almost always wonder if they’re the cause. And even my Josephine, a big first grader, thought that she was somehow responsible for Vincent’s death and felt regret for not having been perfect in her love for him.

It’s not just children, of course; it’s all of us. Death is one of the areas of life in which I don’t think we ever attain any kind of superior knowledge or wisdom over children. When it comes to death, we are always children. Maybe you’re one of the lucky few who feel “sure” about death, but for most of us, whatever our dogma or professed beliefs, there remains an enormous, unanswerable question.

For better or worse, we chose to provide Josephine with an answer to this unanswerable question. When she was just a two-year-old her Uncle Chris was stricken with cancer -- non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. We visited him in the hospital almost daily. She watched him get rapidly sicker and she knew it when he died. Up until that point it was not in me to discuss the eventuality of his death. I’m by nature hopeful, and until there was no longer hope, I hoped. On the day of his death, I told Josephine about heaven. Like generations of parents before me I painted a picture of a perfect existence where Chris could play his guitar, shoot baskets and drink coffee all day long; a place where he was waiting for the rest of us in peace and joy.

My own belief is that there is ultimately peace and joy in death, but it doesn’t match the picture of heaven that I’ve provided my daughter. It’s a lie I’ve told her. I know that the concept of heaven gave me comfort as a young child and I grasp for it as a parent. Some day she will be old enough to doubt, but, I hope (always hoping) she will by then be emotionally ready to explore the unanswerable question. And I hope she will forgive me for lying.

Death is the most universal aspect of life and, at the same time, it’s the most individual. It comes to us all and, at bottom, we must all deal with it alone. In talking to children about death, it seems to me, we must each find our own way. Some of us can rely on our own hearts, others will need to consult books and authorities, while others turn to their religion. Some of us tell lies.

We are all children in this. Perhaps the most important thing we can do in talking to our children about death is to listen. As Mister Rogers said, "(L)istening is the most powerful way to show love."

Love and hope. That’s all we have. If we speak and listen from that place, we’re doing the best we can.

Strangely enough, even as I write this, I don’t really feel like I’ve lied to Josephine. I know I’ve lied to her, but don’t feel it. Maybe that’s because that child in me also knows to a certainty that Vincent is with Uncle Chris, eating meat and cheese, sniffing butts, and waiting for me in peace and joy.

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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Art As Process

Students at the Woodland Cooperative Preschool probably take home fewer pieces of art than from any other preschool on the planet. And when they do it’s very often little more than a gray or brown smudge.

That’s because art, as we make it, is a process rather than a finished product.

Most preschoolers couldn’t care less about their artwork once they walked away from the easel, unless an adult is making it valuable by gushing over it. Without that, what draws children to the art table, and keeps them there, is the process. That’s where the learning takes place.

Take the simple act of applying tempera paint to paper. There are thousands of ways to do it: we use fly swatters and smack it onto the paper; we put it on balls and roll it across the paper; we put it into squirt bottles and spray in on. Observing this process as an adult, we watch them apply their paint until we see something beautiful or dramatic or unique appear on the paper. That’s where the professional artist stops, for instance, because the finished product is how he makes a living. And where we find ourselves, as adults, hoping they’ll stop, because we tend to think of art as something to hang on the wall.

When art is about the process, however, that unique moment of beauty or drama is just one of many phases between blank paper and a brown smudge. And even that isn’t the final product as many of our artists keep going until the paper itself disintegrates.

Early this year a mother was working the art table on the day we were using drinking straws to blow paint across paper. Before long, however, it had devolved into finger painting. She asked, “Is that okay?” There were 3-4 girls, up to their elbows in paint, swirling it around the paper, smiling at each other, talking.

Heck yes, that’s okay!

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