Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Skills Required By Democracy

My post yesterday was essentially a link to Mark Slouka’s Harper’s magazine article entitled “Dehumanized: When Math And Science Rule the School." It’s a thought-provoking, albeit time-consuming read, well worth the effort however for anyone at all interested in the role of education in our democracy. For me, his argument essentially boils down to the question: Does our educational system exist primarily to train workers or educate citizens?

I assume we still want to be a democracy. Yes I know, the US is technically a republic with a democratically elected representative government, but for the sake of simplicity, and because I personally hold democratic values, I’m going to continue to insist that the way forward is always in the direction of more democracy, not less. When I refer to the ongoing experiment of our nation as a democracy then, it’s with the full awareness that I’m speaking as much from my aspirations for us as a nation, as it is from the reality of where we stand today.

Most of us agree that the core democratic value is the essential equality of all citizens. I also assume that most of us agree, at least in principle, that we are at our best when we, as Soulka puts it, “ . . . teach whatever contributes to the development of autonomous human beings; we teach, that is, in order to expand the census of knowledgeable, reasoning, independent-minded individuals both sufficiently familiar with the world outside themselves to lend their judgments compassion and breadth (and thereby contribute to the political life of the nation), and sufficiently skilled to find productive employment.”

What we seem to disagree about is Soulka’s next sentence: “In that order.”

As I’ve already shared here I’ve intuitively bridled at the vocational aspects of education my whole life. This isn’t to say that I don’t understand the necessity of living a part of my life as an economic being, it’s just that when it comes to education, I believe that the overwhelming emphasis on job training is undermining our democracy.

I’ve lived my entire life against the background of the ever-urgent lament that we’re falling behind. First it was the Soviets, now it’s the Chinese. “Falling behind” has always referred to falling behind economically, of course. People rarely pointed out that our “enemies” were falling behind us when it came to “the pursuit of happiness.” The reality is that no matter how far ahead the Chinese get, few of us are packing our bags to move there.

We grew up being taught that democracy and capitalism go hand-in-hand, and with the rise of neo-liberal economic theory (e.g., the Chicago School, Milton Friedmanism, Trickle-Down, Supply-side, Reaganomics, or any of the other economic theories derived from the writings of Ayn Rand) we were assured that the more “pure” our capitalism, the better our democracy would be. What China is teaching us today is that one does not need a democratic government in order for capitalism to thrive. In fact, the Chinese government, which is inaccurately described as “communist,” is much closer to a fascist state. As one of the original fascists, Benito Mussolini famously said, “Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.” This is exactly the state of affairs in China today and indeed they are surging economically. As long as they can prevent the rise of a large, educated middle class to agitate for their rights, they will continue as an economic powerhouse. (Whether they can do this or not remains to be seen.)

There is no way we can compete with China in purely neo-liberal economic terms without giving up on democracy. When corporate interests are merged with those of the state, those interests inevitably come to control the focus and direction of education. When the primary role of the “citizen” is to serve the state’s interest (in this case economic interests) rather than “the pursuit of happiness,” giant corporations get exactly the kind of worker they need to be competitive, which translates into a large pool of individuals (to keep downward pressure on wages) with marketable skills (largely those needed for the rote tasks of mass production) and a low degree of independent mindedness (boat-rockers and whistle-blowers are bad for business). It’s not an accident that our formerly middle class jobs are increasingly being shipped over to the capitalist paradise of China, which is home to exactly the kind of labor force most coveted by corporations.

Every time I hear one of our political or economic leaders call for improving our educational system based upon economic arguments, it sounds to me like a call to merge state and corporate interests to create a labor pool more like China's, which is fundamentally anti-democratic. At a visceral level, I desire government “of, by and for the people,” not government “of, by and for the corporations.”

For the past 30 years in our country we’ve seen a pell-mell rush into neo-liberal economic theory, which has lead directly to increasing consolidation in our major industries very similar to the monopoly capitalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – the era of Oliver Twist and the robber barons. It was a time that essentially destroyed the middle class and lead to an extreme re-distribution of wealth into the hands of a few. During the 40 years of relative prosperity between the Great Depression and 1980, we grew the largest, most prosperous middle class in the history of the world by rigorously regulating business and trade to serve democratic interests. Today, after three decades of neo-liberal economic policy, we are again seeing government “of, by, and for the corporations." It ain't pretty.

Those forty years that followed the end of the depression were the hey-day of humanities in our educational system. Subjects like history, civics, literature, writing, and art were taught on par with math and science. Everyone seemed to understand the importance of a well-rounded education. The difference is palpable whenever I find myself in a discussion with someone educated during that era. It’s striking how much more they know about the world beyond themselves than those educated after 1980. Yes, by the end of this era we were growing obsessed with our competition with the Soviet Union, but it was much more of an ideological, political and cultural struggle than the purely economic one we’re being told we have with China.

I assume we still want a democracy and that’s why I stand so strongly opposed to our educational system being turned primarily into vocational training. A well-rounded education is the foundation upon which democracy is built.

As Thomas Jefferson said:

Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.

When the people are only educated in the skills needed to make money, when even the disciplines of history, civics, literature, writing, and art, are only valued for their capacity to turn a profit, then democracy itself is threatened.

In many ways the interests of big business (I’m not talking about entrepreneurs here) stand diametrically opposed to those of a living, vital democracy. Corporations thrive best in a state of loyalty (the glamorous cousin of laziness), predictability and stability. The larger they become, the more important this is to them. Democracy on the other hand thrives best in a state of debate, change, and even, at times, upheaval.

As Soulka points out, the study of humanities require us to constantly, rigorously, and critically examine ourselves our beliefs and our assumptions and not just in the narrow band of what’s good for the our own or society’s economic well-being. He writes:

. . . upsetting people is arguably the very purpose of the arts and perhaps of the humanities in general.

Upset people are bad for business, but good for democracy.

The work of democracy involves espousing those values that in a less democratic society would get one sent to prison. To maintain its “sustainable edge,” a democracy requires its citizens to actually risk something, to test the limits of the acceptable; the “trajectory of capability-building” they must devote themselves to, above all others, is the one that advances the capability for making trouble. If the value you’re espousing is one that could never get anyone, anywhere, sent to prison, then strictly democratically speaking you’re useless.

Frankly, as a preschool teacher, it’s easy to push all this aside, since after all, the children are so far away from being expected to function fully as either citizens or workers. At the same time, I know that our curriculum of “free play” is an exercise in pure democracy. I know that each time a child is not “corrected” for somehow misusing art supplies, she learns a little bit more about what it means to be free. I know that each time a child raises his hand to make a rule it is an exercise that brings him one step closer to being a citizen who will not sit idly by and suffer injustice to himself or others. I know that once a child learns the power of holding her hands in front of herself and demanding that the person who is hurting or scaring her, “Stop!” she has learned a fundamental lesson of citizenship.

These are not skills sought by business, but they are the skills required by democracy.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Dehumanized: When Math And Science Rule The School

A few days ago I complained, in part, about our tendency to treat education as vocational training.

I think we all know that education should be much more than that. Our economic lives, while important, vital, and often enriching in ways far beyond filthy lucre, are still only a small part of what it means to be a fully realized human being.  This is especially important in a democracy, a political form that requires a well-educated populace in order to function properly. As Epictetus wrote, “Only the educated are free,” and without free people democracy ceases to function.

Over the course of the past 30 years, increasing pressure has been put on our educational system to produce workers rather than citizens. This has short changed our children and, I believe, damaged our democracy.

I was going to make this post be about my reaction to Mark Slouka’s recent article entitled “Dehumanized: When Math And Science Rule The School” that appeared last month in Harper’s Magazine, but it’s really such an incredible article that I would rather just share it with you whole.

It's long but a worthy read for anyone concerned about teaching our children to be more than just workers.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Grid Table

Our Pre-3 class had its Halloween party on Tuesday evening. I’d planned to have our light box set up for the kids to play with.

We’d been using it all last week, so the students had already probably had their fill of it, but there were going to be several older siblings there and I thought they might have fun experimenting with light, shadows and colors. Unfortunately, when I plugged it in, no light. I didn’t have time to monkey with it so as a quick alternative I laid down a masking tape grid on a table top and positioned small orange and “ghost” (white) pumpkins in the squares and forgot about it.

When I arrived the next morning to set up for Wednesday’s 3-5 class, the grid was still on the table. I’ve toyed around with grids before and found they have a certain appeal to the occasional preschooler, most often 4-year-olds, but the interest has typically been short-lived. That said, I knew the adult responsible for this table was going to have her hands full at another table featuring the game Cariboo. This is the single most popular preschool game ever invented. There is always a crush of children wanting to play and it’s a lot of work for the adult. To my point, yesterday’s table toys parent, Gloria, had to trade stations with another adult because she started to lose her voice.

I figured a low demand table would be fine as a companion to Cariboo, so I went with the grid. When the children arrived the table looked like this:

(In case you can't make them out, those are small rubber skeletons and small plastic spiders. I apologize for the photo quality. I was using my phone.)

As children arrived I was kneeling at the table with Charlie B. talking about what we saw. I was pointing out the alternating pattern, when Jack arrived saying, “I want to play.” I again pointed out the pattern. Jack loves games and puzzles of any kind. He likes anything to do with numbers and patterns. As one of our Pre-K children he generally chooses math over art. In other words, he’s exactly the kind of kid who would find the grid table appealing.

Jack said, “I know, let’s do it like this.” When he was finished, this is how our table top grid looked:

We moved on to other things, but over the course of the morning I periodically noted the state of the grid table. Each time it was different. For instance, one time it looked like this:

And another time it looked like this:

Our snack table is adjacent to the grid table, where Max was quietly eating. His back was toward to me, but when he turned my way I saw tears running down his cheeks.

I said, “Max, you look sad.”

He turned all the way around to look at this pile of skeletons and spiders on the grid table and said, “I’m sad because now no body knows where they’re supposed to go.”

I have no idea what preceded this. There’s probably a story there. Perhaps he had created a pattern that another child had come along and destroyed. Maybe the horror of that tangle of spiders and skeletons (he’s been announcing he’s planning to dress as either a skeleton or Grim Reaper for Halloween) got to him. Maybe the juxtaposition of the orderly grid with the disorderly pile disturbed him. Whatever the case, I said, “Oh no, what should we do?”

He answered weepily, “I don’t know.”

I’ve found that more often that not, when strong emotions are involved, we need to rely on our friends to help us find solutions. Ella had been listening to our conversation while finishing her snack. As Max and I contemplated the grid table, Ella disposed of her food remains in our compost can, then handed the snack parent her placemat for washing. Without saying a word, she joined our ad hoc grid table committee. The three of us quietly studied the situation.

I re-stated the dilemma as I understood it, “Max is worried that no body knows where the skeletons and spiders go.”

Ella loves dramatic play of all kinds, enjoys storytelling and will generally choose art over math. In other words, she’s the kind of kid who I’d expect to shrug her shoulders over the grid table. She looked from Max to the pile of skeletons and spiders several times. To me she said, “I think they all need a home.”

When she was finished, the grid table looked like this:

And Max had stopped crying.

I asked him, “Is that okay?”

He answered, “Yes,” and went back to eating his snack.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Rights of the Child

If you’re like me, you receive a half-dozen well-meaning pitches to sign petitions every day. And if you’re like me, you’ve become immune to them, deleting many without even opening them. Call it indignation fatigue, or compassion fatigue, or even outright fatigue. Maybe it’s just the pressure to get on with the meat of the inbox.

But every once in while one is outrageous enough that it cuts through the clutter.

As thousands of children around the world work as slaves and prostitutes, as thousands of children are being abused, neglected and exploited, as thousands of children are being used as soldiers, the entire world has taken a stand by signing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is a document that would simply give children the same civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights as adults. It has the force of international law in the nations that sign it.

This convention was adopted by the UN General Assembly 20 years ago and during that time every nation on earth has signed it with the exception of two: Somalia and the United States. Twenty years? Really? We stand alone with Somalia?

If you need more motivation, here’s the video you’ll find there:

And please pass it on. It may not feel like it sometimes, but these kinds of simple acts really do make a difference. The little button below is an easy way to share it.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Our Student Teacher And Resident Pumpkin Master

When I carve jack-o-lanterns in class I attract a gaggle of children who jostle one another and call out what kind of expression they want on the next pumpkin face. We carry on an informal group discussion as I carve touching on whatever the kids want to talk about, but usually focusing on things like their own jacks at home, stories about trips to pumpkin patches, and plans for what to do with the seeds. We do this as part of their free-play time, so there’s no expectation of hand-raising or taking turns. It tends to be a bit chaotic and noisy, but it works fairly well as preschool discussions go and, I think, teaches some important skills about taking part in a small group activity.

After the first couple jacks yesterday (the first was “happy” and the second “angry”) the crowd dwindled down to a hardcore few, which was great because it made room for the children who would prefer to avoid jostling crowds, letting them have their say in the next few expressions (“sad,” “scared/surprised,” “silly,” and “vampire”). When I first did this exercise 8 years ago, my assumption was that kids would be up to their necks in pulp, but this has never turned out to be the case. Sometimes a child would touch the pulp and maybe even pull out a couple handfuls, but I’ve found that even the kids who tend to get paint up to their elbows and mud in their ears, are averse to the experience of extended tactile exposure to pumpkin guts.

Yesterday was a first. Not only did Annabelle, bandage on her forehead, park herself in front of me for the better part of an hour, she industriously emptied out each of the pumpkins with her bare hands. In fact, I had to stop her on a couple of the larger ones so that I could get to the actual carving. She took charge of the group discussion, organizing the children into taking turns pulling out the various triangles, circles and crescents I was popping out of the faces from the inside of the pumpkin.

“I’ll get the triangle eye, then Dennis gets the other triangle eye, then Finn gets the circle nose. Okay, everybody?”

She was confident, poised, and fully engaged, making sure to include the others in every step of the process. At one point she even persuaded Katherine to plunge her arm into a pumpkin up to the elbow. Once she took charge, the chaos and noise disappeared, and it became a relatively serene and organized activity, unlike any other pumpkin carving session I've ever held.

Annabelle is the middle child in a family of three girls. Middle children have a reputation as peacemakers and master compromisers, and I saw all of that at work yesterday as we carved those pumpkins. What an honor to have worked with her. Annabelle did more teaching yesterday than I’ve done all year.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

I’m An Idiot

Years ago, in college, I overheard one side of an emotional telephone conversation while waiting my turn to use the pay phone in the dormitory:

“I’m not an idiot . . .”

“Okay, I am an idiot, but I’m not a complete idiot . . .”

“Okay, I’m a complete idiot, but I’m not a complete idiot all the time . . .”

“Okay, you’re right, but right now I need you to listen to me . . .”

The dialog has stuck with me all these years, and I feel like I’ve transcribed it here verbatim. I have a photographic memory of the look of mixed anger and anguish on his face. His voice was pinched with the effort to hang on to his composure, while slipping backwards through a desperate conversation. He made eye contact with me and tried to roll his eyes comically. It was a small act of bravado from the lip of a crumbling cliff.  The person on the other end of the line had carved out a smaller and smaller place upon which he could stand, leaving him fully exposed and pleading for help.

It was a moment of tragi-comedy or comedic tragedy, but he was a young man, still a teenager. Everything is tragic in a teenager’s life. The older I get, the more regularly I find myself in a position of having to acknowledge my own complete and utter idiocy, if only to myself, but it becomes a less and less tragic admission with each passing year.

I’m a grown man who walks around with paint in his hair. I’m a grown man who dances the Jump Jim Joe and the Mother Gooney Bird in public. I’m a grown man who presents himself wearing full body lycra spandex and a cape, even when it’s not Halloween.

I would call that being silly, but that would imply that I could at some point reel it back in. Like that teenager on the dorm pay phone, I often feel that I’ve been stripped of any pretense of dignity, exposed to all the world as an idiot. Unlike that teenager, however, I’ve learned a secret that makes it all bearable: I happen to know that you’re an idiot too!

Coming to grips with the idiotic core of our beings is the work of a lifetime. As idiotic as I appear today, there are deeper levels of idiocy to be revealed in years to come.

Young children are not idiots. They pick their noses, cry when they lose, indulge their fetishes, and pretend to be whatever they want to be without caring what the other people think. Idiocy is something we grow into, then learn to disguise in the garb of respectability. Some of us then carry it around like some horrible secret, living in fear that the others might somehow learn about it. Some people shove it so far down inside themselves that it becomes a toxic brew that inevitably erupts in acts of violence and self-hatred.

Preschoolers don’t spend energy worrying about how others will judge them, and on those rare occasions when I come across one who does, I know that an adult has really done a number on him. We’re not born fearing shame: if we did, we’d never attempt our first step or utter our first inarticulate words. Fearing shame is something we learn. It makes us hide those things about ourselves that we fear others will judge harshly, and by the same token it often causes us to judge others harshly for the very things we fear will be revealed about ourselves.

I don’t think it’s original to him, but Dr. Wayne Dyer was the first person I ever heard say, “What other people think about me is none of my business.” As a young adult, the idea sparked an epiphany. I thought it was something I could simply incorporate into my life. I was wrong about that: I’m still working on it.

That overheard telephone conversation has stuck with me over the years largely as a joke; a reminder of how desperately we try to keep from exposing the inner idiot that everyone knows is there, even if we’ve managed to hide the actual nose picking. But recently, when I think of it, I’ve become more interested in his plea: “I need you to listen to me.” He was stuck as long as he insisted that he was “not an idiot.” It was only when he admitted that he was “a complete idiot all the time” that he could ask for help.

I’m an idiot and no one, not even me, knows the full depths of my idiocy.

Actually, that’s not true. The children know, and they love me for it. And they love you for it too.

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Time Is Short

One of the important things I’ve learned about myself, and it took me 40+ years to figure it out, is that I’m not cut out for having a job. Of course, I’ve had jobs, and in every case I’ve eventually grown to resent them. I come to despise the financial hold that jobs have over me, the control they take of my time, and the waste they make of my energy.

It has been a recurring theme that began back in college when I found myself disliking any course that smacked to me of vocational training, while loving my classes with names like “The Sociology of Leisure,” “The Biology of Animal Behavior,” and “Mann, Kafka, Hesse, In Translation.” During my years working for the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, I squirmed around so uncomfortably in the job, that I would arrive at the office at 5 a.m., and leave to go home at 2 p.m., anything apparently to be somehow in charge of my daily life. I grew a beard, wore bow ties and suspenders, and kept a collection of toys in my office, but none of it worked.

I suppose this could simply be written off as immaturity on my part, and maybe it is, but what I’ve come to understand about myself is that I do much, much better in the world when I’m pursuing a “calling” rather than a job.

Most teachers I know, like me, consider their vocation as a calling. The ministers I’ve known feel the same way, as do most of the artists. Indeed there are teachers, preachers, and creative types who’ve managed to make millions, but most of us could easily earn more money elsewhere. We’re not in it for the money, and that’s what makes it a calling rather than a job.

Compulsory public education had its origins in the industrial revolution, and was at its core vocational. As we moved into an age of economic centralization and mass production, commercial interests needed a trained workforce, and for many, maybe most, that’s what education remains today. We go to school ultimately in order to get jobs as doctors, lawyers, accountants or advertising executives. What are you going to be when you grow up? When are you going to declare a major? How are you going to use an English degree? These are all, at bottom, questions about how you’re going to make money.

They are questions about jobs and I've tried, but I find them uninteresting. The question that I’m instead cursed to always return to is: Time is short, how am I spending it? Chasing money seems like the ultimate waste of the only resource we really have.

And I’m not alone:

His art that gets washed away with each tide, and I don’t think this guy is wasting a second of his time.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Experience Education

Yesterday, I left our Pre-3 class in the hands of Teacher Cheryl, Violet’s mother, while I took most of the morning off to attend my own daughter’s parent-teacher conferences.

Cheryl’s parent job in the preschool is to be my Friday Teacher’s Assistant and one of the responsibilities of that job is to serve as my substitute should I be sick or otherwise absent. I’d set-up the classroom in the morning and even met her there briefly to convey last minute instructions, but Cheryl has been coming to Woodland Park for the past 4 years, first with her son Elliott and now with Violet, so I had no worries about how things would go.

It’s only been during the past couple years that I’ve really employed my substitutes. I only missed one day during my first 5 years. On that one day, I awoke with undeniable flu symptoms, but still dragged myself out of bed, got the school ready, then went and sat in a coffee shop until I knew the kids were gone, then went back to the school to shut things down. The big change came when my parent educator at the time, Val Donato, the head of the parent ed department at North Seattle Community College, asked, “If you don’t take more days off, how will the parents learn to lead the class on their own?”

My job is teaching the kids. The parent educator’s job is teaching the parents. Experience is the greatest teacher.

As I arrived at my daughter’s school yesterday, I read the sign that I drive past nearly every day:

The Bush School
Experience Education

This is a K-12 school of about 500 students founded in 1924 by Helen Taylor Bush, a Phi Beta Kappa mathematician. The first classes were held in her home. The founding principle is that children learn best by doing, and grow best by being members of an active community.

When my daughter Josephine was in kindergarten with Teacher Janet, as a former co-op parent and current teacher, I was determined to elbow my way into that classroom. Janet, a former NSCC parent educator herself, made that easy for me, helping me find constructive roles in her classroom. Throughout elementary school, I made my presence felt. I brought in my cast iron water pump and a set of plastic house gutters and got all the kids wet and muddy. I emceed a parent talent show to entertain the children at their “manners meal,” which included an all-hands-on-deck performance of "Mother Gooney Bird." I brought in my own stories to read to the class. I built a set of high-powered tennis ball firing catapults that we used to knock down castle walls made of cardboard blocks. I chaperoned everything I could, including the 4th grade camping trip and the 5th grade trip to Washington, DC. In other words, I took that principle of “an active community” very seriously.

Middle school has been a different experience for me as a parent. These are years when the kids need to push their parents to the side a bit and learn to forge their community in their own image. Not that they don’t need us, but rather that nature tends to steer them toward one another, and nurture has given them the skills to create a community of their own liking. These are the years when peers begin to take precedence over parents in many ways, and that’s how it should be. I like that Josephine is experiencing these years in a place where she has developed long-term relationships with both the adults and children. There is a sense of continuity, stability, and safety that has been built through a history of shared experiences and traditions.

As we talked with Josephine’s teachers (most of whom are men, I’m proud to report), I was reminded that this is not one of those private schools that’s all about straight-A’s and high test scores. In fact, it’s clear that these teachers would consider that, at one level, a failure. The children are expected to stumble and fall, to fail periodically, to not always bring home the best grade. This is how “experience education” works. It’s not about scoring 100% on every test, but rather about coming to a true understanding of the subject matter through doing, which often involves learning from mistakes. It’s been instructive watching Josephine struggle to figure out how to study, how to get her assignment completed on time, how to ask for help, and how to learn from her mistakes.

Her advisor said, “The most important thing kids learn in middle school, is how to learn. That’s the main thing they’ll need to succeed in high school.”

As I drove back to Woodland Park, my thoughts returned to what was going on back at the preschool. When I’d left Cheryl and Violet I’d done so with the intention of returning in time to lead Circle Time. Cheryl had seemed both relieved and disappointed at the prospect. After those parent-teacher meetings I regretted that I’d made that commitment. I really should have let her have the experience.

At the end of the day, after leading the kids through their songs, that feeling of regret only became stronger. As I quickly de-briefed with Cheryl, I could tell that she felt good about the job she’d done and had probably been hoping that I’d wound up stuck in traffic.

I apologized for not letting her lead Circle Time.

She answered, "I'll do it next time." There will be a next time.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Partners In Creation

We’ve been singing our Halloween songs for a couple weeks now. The Pre-3’s are still rocking them, as are the 3-year-olds in our 3-5 class, but the older kids have started to make it clear that they’re ready for some new wrinkles in the routine. On Monday there was a decided lack of participation by our Pre-K kids, so on Wednesday we went with a more “talky” circle, made even more conversational by our celebration of Katherine’s birthday.

This chat fest appealed to our older kids, who usually have a lot to say, but it meant the youngest 3-year-olds needed to find other things to do as we approached the crucial 20-minute mark -- like messing with each other. I’m still working on stretching the younger kids out at Circle Time and we’re a couple months away from getting that accomplished. Last year in the Pre-3 class they grew accustomed to the 20-minute Circle Time, but now they’re going to school with kids who are capable of going a good 40 minutes. The ideal in our multi-aged classroom is 30 minutes: it leaves the 4-year-olds wanting more, while stuffing the 3-year-olds to the gills.

I decided to try mixing things up a little by introducing children’s storytelling for the first time this year. For this inaugural session I concentrated on the older children who have been telling stories in class for over a year now. They know the drill. Teacher Tom gets out his clipboard and they take turns dictating stories to me that will be read aloud at Circle Time. I collected ten stories, many of them only a few sentences long.

As I called the children to our daily community meeting, I knew I had a game-changer in the form of those stories in my back pocket for when I need it. We kicked off with a couple of the Halloween songs, one of which was “If You’re Happy And You Know It” using a felt board jack-o-lantern to show the various emotions. Initially, I directed most of my singing efforts at Charlie L., who I know loves this song, and who as a representative of our youngest classmates I wanted to get hooked right away. Once I saw he was stomping his feet and crying a tear with gusto, I checked in with his age colleagues to make sure they were on the bandwagon as well. By the time we hit the final verse (“If ye be a pirate and ye know it say, Arrr!”) they were all fully engaged.

A couple of the older kids had been shouting out verse/emotion suggestions all along (yes, sometimes the hand raising falls apart) and we’d been sort of going with them. As the song ended, Katherine said, “That was too loud.”

I asked, “Shall we sing it more softly?”

She said, “Whisper,” so we whisper-sang the first verse.

At the end of that Thomas shouted out, “No voices!”

So we mouthed the first verse, using only hand gestures.

Someone else shouted, “Let’s do sad with no voices!”

So we mouthed the second verse, “If you’re sad and you know it cry a tear – boo hoo! . . .”

Several voices shouted, “Angry with no voices!”

And thus we sang angry, surprised, silly, scared, and pirate with no voices. The whole things was a fantastic example of a child-driven Circle Time activity, but by the time we were done we were pushing up against our 20-minute point, and right on cue some of the younger kids were starting to get squirrelly.

That’s when we went to the stories. All the 3-year-olds sat up and took notice as I began calling children up to the front of the room to stand beside me. This was unprecedented Circle Time behavior as far as they were concerned, something that they needed to keep an eye on. Josephine lead things off with her simple one-line story, followed by silly stories from Ella, Jack, and Sarah, and a longer one about forklifts and tools from Thomas. We got a solid princess story from Katherine that began “Once upon a time,” and ended “happily ever after.” Marcus’ entire story was a list of increasingly silly rules.

And three of our 3-year-olds stepped up as well. Isak followed in his older brother Jarin’s footsteps by telling a non-fiction story, this one about what squirrels eat. Lachlan told a sad story about being told "no." But Dennis stole the show with an hilarious story told mostly from the second person point of view (e.g., “An elephant sits on your sunglasses.”) He had his audience rolling in the aisles. They loved that Dennis’ story was about them. (He enjoyed his time in the spotlight so much, I expect he’ll be first in line for our next storytelling session.)

We finished with a recitation of everyone’s expected Halloween costumes and we were at 30 minutes exactly, leaving the 4-year-olds wanting more, while sending the 3-year-olds away stuffed to the gills.

From the outside, I’m sure the whole thing appeared herky-jerky and relatively formless, but that’s how it goes when your partners in creation are preschoolers. It’s a meeting after all, not a performance. We’re there on the blue rug to make a shared experience out of songs, stories, and conversation. Yesterday, we played together quite well, and made something for 30 minutes that will never be seen on this earth again.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Manufacturing Patterns

Several summers ago I spotted a collection of strange red, black and yellow objects arranged artfully on the lawn in front of one of my neighbor’s houses. I’d already pulled over to take a closer look, when I realized they were part of a larger yard sale.

Before even knowing what they were, I wanted them for the preschool. As it turned out, they didn’t belong to the homeowner (who was coincidentally a preschool teacher), but rather to an artist named Scot who had gone dumpster diving under the cover of night behind the Erderer factory in the Sodo district of Seattle. His plan had been to build one-of-a-kind furniture from them, but it hadn’t happened so he was trying to liquidate them. He wasn’t exactly sure what they were called, but he said they were wooden patterns used in making molds for parts to be used in the manufacture of heavy machinery. Cool!

I explained to him that we’re just a wee and pitiful non-profit preschool, while at the same time demonstrating my extreme enthusiasm for the objects. I was obviously hoping to get a deal, because the prices were a bit dear for us. Scot said, “If you want some, I have a whole bunch more at my house.”

So the next day I visited Scot and he took me to a dirt-floored basement that was crammed full of these magnificent things and let me pick out a collection for the school. I didn’t know it at the time, and he might not have either, but this was an amazingly generous gift on his part. I’ve since come across similar items at construction salvage vendors for $200 and up.

They were very dirty, so when I got them home (much to my wife’s chagrin) I washed them, then broke out the Johnson’s wax and buffed them up to a shine.

During one of their first visits to our classroom, one of the fathers lit up, “These are manufacturing patterns. My dad used to bring old ones home from the factory where he worked for us to play with.” Needless to say, he had a great day clambering around on them with his son.

I like that they’re “real” things, first of all, bristling with the potential for splinters and being dropped on toes. And some of them are very heavy. That large circle in the center (below) probably weighs close to 150 lbs.  Even all the kids working together can’t budge it, and yes, they’ve tried. The rest of them can be moved by the children working either solo or in teams. A few of them can be taken apart and fit back together, but they ain’t unit blocks so it takes creativity to actually build with them.

On Monday, the kids, working together, built a boat. The piece at the top of the picture below was used as a tiller. They later built a space ship. On Tuesday, the 2-year-olds used them to work on their climbing and balancing skills.

I never know what they'll do with them. This piece above works as a rocker, but the kids often turn it over and use it for a bridge.

As I "negotiated" with the artist Scot on my neighbor’s lawn, the preschool teacher joined us, listening. She seemed confused by my enthusiasm and asked, “Do you mind me asking what you’re going to do with them?”

“Take them to the preschool.”

“But what are you going to do with them?”


She shook her head, “How will they play with these things?”

I answered, “I don’t know.”

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

As Long As You’re Down On Your Knees

It doesn't matter how you worship, as long as you're down on your knees. --Leonard Cohen

All of my jeans look like this:

Apparently, I spend a lot of time on my knees. Whenever I stand or sit on my bottom in class while wearing my jeans, before I know it, little fingers are caressing my kneecaps or fiddling with the dangling threads.

Children shouldn’t have to crane their necks and shout to talk to the adults, at least not while in school, their school. I stand to move from place to place, but otherwise strive to stay on the childrens’ level, eye-to-eye. I now live with permanent damage to my shoulder from throwing so many baseballs, especially water-logged ones, but that’s okay because now that I can’t throw a lot of baseballs, I don’t need to. I’m now doing the same thing to my knees, I suppose, dropping down on them over and over; crawling around at my age. I’m thinking of borrowing a pair of our daughter Josephine’s volleyball kneepads. Maybe I could get a bunch and color coordinate them with my sneakers.

When Josephine was born 13 years ago, the world below the knees was re-opened to me. I experienced it at first as a distantly familiar place, like in those movies where the adult is suddenly transported back into the imaginary adventure land of his youth. As children, we’re intimate with the view from underneath tables, but as our bodies grow into a world built for adults, we leave it behind only to revisit it with our kids, or if we’re one of the lucky ones like me, with our students.

There was a time when I always played on the floor, read on the floor, slept on the floor, watched TV on the floor. I still remember the odd spring system visible on the underside of the love seats in our family room. The “room” under my bed was as familiar to me as any other room in the house. We played in the crawl space; it was one of our forts.

It’s the special world of young children. We’re only visitors there. And the only way to get there is on our knees.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Taking Teacher Tom By The Hand

A couple Fridays back our Pre-3 class coincided with a public school teacher in-service day so we made it into a special older siblings day since we knew they would be out of school and available for our use.

It was probably a little early in the year to be introducing this kind of "alien element" to our community of 2-year-olds just as it’s starting to gel, but we only have a few times a year to take advantage of their bigger, more sophisticated selves, so we have to take it where we can get it.

Our 3-5 class is a regular multi-age operation and daily I see the benefits of having a few of these “aspirational figures” around to role model behaviors for the younger kids. This is especially important for children who don’t have older siblings. I don’t think it’s an accident, for instance, that nearly all of our 2-year-olds have been pitching in with clean-up this past week, after having witnessed, and in many cases worked side-by-side with, their older friends.

There is a lot of research out there on the benefits of multi-aged learning environments, which I would gladly point you to, but for me the biggest reason for inviting the big kids into the classroom is the same reason I urge everyone to invite grandparents to visit as often as they’d like (and we’ve had some who wind up coming so often I put them to work): it’s the only way to import a true sense of family into the classroom. Families are not just multi-aged, but also multi-generational, and bringing all of those various levels of competency, knowledge and wisdom into the room, even if it’s only a few times a year, gives us the chance to naturally accelerate and enrich our learning experience. This is the way we’re designed to learn.

Our Halloween party next week will be another opportunity to bring our extended community together under one roof. Not only have we invited older siblings and grandparents, but also the babies and -- since it’s an evening party -- parents who are usually stuck at work while class is in session. Many of our 2-year-olds, dressed as witches and lions, will proudly take daddy or grandma by the hand and lead them on a tour of the school, sharing their own competence with someone who needs it.

At last week’s special day, Violet brought her big brother Elliott, who is now a kindergartener. If there has ever been an expert on how Woodland Park works, it’s Elliott who has been in class with us for the past 3 years. Last night at our Pre-3 parent meeting, their mother Cheryl said that Violet was looking forward to the “rolling pumpkin art project.”

I was totally confused, “What do you mean?”

“Elliott’s been telling Violet about the art project where you roll pumpkins down the gutters.”

Oh yeah! I’d forgotten all about that one. Last year, as an extension of rolling tennis balls down gutters and through tubes, we ran adding machine tape down the lengths of our gutters, then dipped those small ornamental pumpkins in orange a black paint and let them roll. I’ve already done it this year using hard rubber balls, but we have a dozen or so small pumpkins, as well as several round-ish gourds hanging around the classroom already. Elliott's right, it would be a shame to let that opportunity go to waste.

“Violet’s really looking forward to it.”

Now I am too.

Thanks, big brother. Sometimes I need the kids to take me by the hand and show me around.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

The Intimacy of Doing

I’m an old-school PCC member, which means I bag my own groceries in my own canvas bags.  I like to make efficiency games of routine activities and bagging groceries is a classic example. As I line up my purchases on the conveyor band, I start with the things I want at the bottom of the bag and end with the eggs and bread. Not only that but I make sure the bar codes are visible so that even the cashier becomes a part of my efficiency game. This isn’t something I’ve ever talked about; I just do it for fun.

For the past year or so, one of the cashiers has caught onto my game and plays with me. She’s the fastest cashier in the store. I’ll get in her line even if it’s the longest. We’ve hardly spoken beyond the standard check out line Q & A of, “Do you want cash back?” I know her name is Joan because she wears a nametag. I’m a smiler, she’s not. I’m a chatter, she’s not. But on the issue of check-out line efficiency, we seem to share a brain.

At one level it’s a race and we both know it. To keep it fair, she always waits, unsmiling, adjusting her wrist braces (yes, she takes her job seriously), until the prior customer clears the counter. But the moment I step into that spot, it’s on. Since the heaviest items tend to be easily scanned things in jars, cans and bottles the opening of the game is a flurry of hands, where I struggle to keep up, but as she gets to the “hard” produce, like melons, root vegetables, and apples, she’s forced to slow down slightly to weigh and type in codes. That gives me just the opportunity I need to swipe my debit card and begin punching buttons. When it’s a multi-bag shopping trip, she gains on me during the change-overs, but I know the “soft” produce, like bananas, peaches, and grapes will give me the breathing room to catch up.

Yesterday, my game with Joan was as good as it gets. We finished simultaneously, in record time. I couldn’t help myself. I broke our unofficial protocol and spoke, “What a team!”

She answered, “That was fun.” And as we looked into one another’s faces I saw the corner of her mouth twitch, which I take as her version of a smile.

On my recent manly weekend in the mountains, I got into a similar, unspoken flow with Dave, who I had just met the day before. We were unloading logs from the pick up truck and tossing them into the cellar of the cabin via the old coal shoot. Dave and I positioned ourselves on either side of the tailgate, taking turns flinging our logs as deeply into the dark hole as we could. We started off joking around, but before long we were in a rapid-fire rhythm, boom-boom-boom-boom, punctuated by grunts and sweat. I entirely lost myself in our game. My whole world for those 20 minutes was firing logs as accurately as I could, while making sure to stay in time with Dave, or we would have otherwise been flinging logs into the backs of one another’s heads. We didn’t speak about the game, but we took up the same positions with each subsequent pick-up load, and found that same cooperative rhythm.

When we were done for the day, Dave said to me, “That was intense.”

And I foreshadowed Joan’s line from yesterday, “That was fun.”

These are the moments I feel most alive; these times when I find myself wholly attuned to another person, and they’re wholly attuned to me. There’s an intimacy in those moments that can never be achieved through words. I’ve often found those moments playing team sports, dancing, doing physical labor, making love, and occasionally while creating communal art. It’s the intimacy of doing.

I teach at a cooperative preschool because of those moments. There is a beautiful, nearly wordless rhythm that emerges among the adults on our good days. The work of running our classroom, teaching our kids, flows like a dance or a song. It happens when we can all manage for a few hours to set aside our stresses and concerns, get down on our knees, and pour everything we are into the children. We don't always get there, but when we do, even if only for a few minutes, it's everything.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Point Of Stone Soup Is We Make It Together

The bulk of our classroom day is taken up with free play, either inside the classroom, outside, or in the gym, and that’s exactly as it should be for preschoolers. There are two parts of the day-to-day curriculum, however, where we expect the children to toss their own desires and interests into the stone soup being cooked up by a larger community: Circle Time and Small Group.

Circle Time is when we all come together around a single big urn. The younger children mostly sing, dance and read books together. It makes for a delicious, predictable broth, which is just the kind of thing 2-year-olds go for. We could sing the same songs over and over throughout the year and they would push away from the table full and satisfied every time.

In our multi-aged 3-5’s class, we still have many younger children who would be satisfied with the good, old familiar potage, but they’re sharing cooking duties with four and five-year-olds who have developed a taste for something with a little more kick. Conversation is an amazing spice, but one that’s unpredictable, and can be easily overused. The resulting soup is sometimes a delight, but just as often it’s a bland mash or an overwhelming, eye-watering gumbo into which each cook has added his own dash of Tabasco without tasting first to see if it’s needed. It often takes several months of experimenting to get it right, but that’s the only way to learn to make Circle Time soup together.

Our Small Group Activities are when we retreat into four separate kitchens with a handful of buddies and cook something up on our own under the guidance of a parent. Our 3-5’s class has been doing this since day one, while it’s a part of the Pre-3 curriculum that we’ll add shortly after the winter break. This can be anything that might be of interest to a group of 5-6 preschoolers: a collection of kitchen tools, a board game, planting seeds, a science experiment. In other words, parents are responsible for the “stone” that will form the basis of the soup the kids are going to make together that day.

My favorite part of the being a parent at the Latona 3-5’s Cooperative Preschool was the days when I was responsible for a small group activity. One of my earliest classroom lessons, however, was that while I might be the one providing the stone, and maybe even the kettle, it was not my job to bring in the recipe.

One time, following up on the tip from Teacher Chris to bring in something of interest to me, I thought I’d lead the kids through an examination of how books are made. I have a huge library of hardback books and had spent time learning about how they’re made, so I brought in a collection of different types of books (paperback, hardback, leather bound, etc.), a junker book, and a box cutter. The idea was to let them look at the books for a couple minutes, then break out the box cutter to perform the sacrilege (little did I know what I would later be doing to books) of cutting the junker apart to examine how the binding is attached, signatures are assembled, and the invisible role sewing plays in traditional bookbinding.

It went smoothly, I was holding the kids’ interests, and they were clearly excited by the prospect of a “super sharp knife” being present in the classroom. It was at this point that Teacher Chris stopped by our table to see what was going on. Her presence reminded me of the guideline to let the children get their hands on things, so I started carefully separating the signatures and handing them out to the children to examine. That’s when it all went horribly wrong. The children, in a joyful frenzy, set about tearing what was left of the book into tiny pieces.

My educational consommé had turned in a moment into a food fight of that consisted, of all things, in ripping a book to shreds. Making it worse, was that it was happening under the nose of Teacher Chris. I’ll never forget her calm smile as she looked me in the eye and said, “The children have made your activity their own.”

As a teacher, I have bad days and good. When I examine what went wrong on the bad days it almost always comes down to the fact that I came into class with my own “recipe” and clung to it even when the children clearly wanted to try a different one. Rather than helping the kids "make it their own," I’ve doggedly tried to control and manipulate them into sticking to the instructions. The best days are the ones when I remember that it’s all about stone soup.

It’s not always possible in our day-to-day lives, to set aside our agendas in favor of those of our children. We have things we must get done, we have schedules to meet, and we need our children to behave in certain ways in order to make it happen. But I'd also like to point out that every conflict we have with our children (or anyone else for that matter) is a conflict over agendas. In the midst of the rush and crush, however, it’s important strive to keep the principles of free play alive, and to remember that our children need the experience of making community or family activities their own, and that can only happen when we agree to put down our recipes and allow them to wear the chef's hat for awhile.

Sometimes the results are revelation, like the time this summer when Amanda helped her son Thomas achieve his vision of bacon cupcakes (at least, I hear, Thomas liked them). And sometimes they're awful, like when she helped him add mint cream cheese frosting.

The point of stone soup isn’t that it’s always delicious. The point of stone soup is that we make it together.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Rain Makes Everything More Fun

After an unprecedented four solid months of warm (sometimes hot) sunny weather, the famous Pacific Northwest rain returned this week. I don’t think we’ve ever gone this far into the school year without opening our gym during “outside time,” and I’ve been holding off as long as I could, but we broke the seal for the 3-5 class on Wednesday and the Pre-3’s on Friday.

As the kids finished up their small group activities and snacks I stood in the hallway separating the gym and our courtyard saying, “You may play inside or outside.” Each of the children, in turn would look first at this (excuse the photo quality – these are telephone snapshots):

Then at this, an option they haven’t had this year:

Novelty and dryness won out in almost every case. This is what one would expect. But I’m a hardcore believer in children playing outside. And if northwest kids don’t learn to play in the rain, they’re going to be cooped up for 9 months of every year. So, naturally, I had a plan . . .

First off I deployed my new pro-rain propaganda mantra, “Rain makes everything more fun,” which I’ve been repeating to the children since Monday, injecting it into any conversation involving weather. I started using it on Monday, especially with the Pre-K kids by way of preparing them for the fact that we were going on a neighborhood fall leaf hunt on Tuesday afternoon, rain or shine. I liked it so much I shared it with my Pre-3 friends on Tuesday morning, then just kept repeating it throughout the week.

The second piece of my plan to counteract the lure of new (to them), colorful, dry plastic things were piles of fall leaves.

The third element of my master strategy were puddles! Our uneven, cracked asphalt courtyard surface is perfect for collecting rainwater into wonderfully stomp-able pools.

I felt that this would be enough, but like any good Machiavellian, I held two things in reserve. The first was the knowledge that our rain barrel was now, finally, full again. The second was a bucket of sidewalk chalk that had been sitting out in the rain all morning.

On Wednesday, after a few minutes of indoor play, I announced to those within ear shot, “It’s time for the leaf party,” threw the bag of leaves over my shoulder and headed out into the deluge. I waited in the rain as a few kids ran to get their coats. The initial leaf party gang was 3 hearty souls – Thomas, Finn V., and Katherine. They arranged themselves in a group as I shook the leaves over their heads. By the time we were done, several other children had discovered the scene and wanted to be apart of it, so we began scooping leaves off the ground and tossing them into the air. Once they were wound up enough to make it their own activity, I rushed inside and made a show of looking out the window, “Hey, I see kids having a leaf party out there!” I was joined at the window by several children. I then announced, “I’m going to be in the leaf party too!”

Within a few minutes a handful of other kids had moved on to the outdoors, which lead to the natural discovery of the puddles. Then I heard the cry, “There’s water!” Someone had figured out that the rain barrel was re-charged and ready for action. Thomas said, “This is a perfect day for mud soup.”

By the end of our outside time there were only 2 children in the gym.

Yesterday, the Pre-3’s were confronted by an even heavier rain. As I set up, however, I realized that it was still relatively warm, so I decided to go without a coat, saying to myself, “Rain makes everything more fun.”

Just as with the older kids, most of the two-year-olds initially chose the shelter and newness of the gym, but more of them dismissed the inside right from the start. Twos are notorious for their love of puddles, so I held the leaves in reserve as Aedan, Jasper, and Ava tried out their rain boots, and Sylvia conducted the experiment of puddle jumping while wearing Crocs with socks. Before long we had a nice gang of rain-players, most of whom, like me, were enjoying the weather sans rain gear.

The first leaf party attendees were Violet, Owen, Aedan, and Jody, all of whom beamed giddily into one another’s faces as the leaves rained down upon their heads. I loved watching them connect with one another through their mutual excitement, jumping up and down, then gathering handfuls of leaves to toss into the air.

That’s all that was needed to get the Pre-3’s going. We never had as many of the kids outside at one time as the 3-5 class, but the ones who did play in the rain wound up doing the same things they would have done in the sun. They shot baskets, dug with shovels, and even got their bottoms soaking wet riding the unicycle merry-go-round and sliding down the big slide.

And I still had wet chalk in reserve. My devious plan had worked. Woo hoo! Rain makes everything more fun.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Someday We’ll All Be Farmers

Like most preschools, it seems, our first field trip of the year was to a “pumpkin patch.” It’s in quotation marks because we’re an urban preschool and actual pumpkin patches are a little out of our reach geographically. For the past couple years, we have made the longer trek to an actual pumpkin patch where we cut the squash from their vines, but given the logistics of hauling 20+ kids into the countryside in a world of economic and environmental considerations we stayed closer to home this year.

Thomas is probably the only kid who missed the slightly more authentic experience – he’d been looking forward to using a pair of “loppers” on a pumpkin vine, a dearth we will more than make up for next week at school when I bring my own loppers in for the kids to try out. The huge cedars in my front yard have dropped lots of twiggy parts lately, so we’ll have plenty of disposable lopping material at hand.

In fact, from a child’s perspective, yesterday’s was a perfect preschool field trip. Our guide, Farmer Adam, understood his age group. The farm animals looked well cared for, and the one-day old piglets were a treat. We got to touch the pygmy goats (Maya posted some cute photos of them over at Crumbs & Quibbles). The entire operation is compact enough that weary legs weren’t a problem. And, at the end, there was a grassy field dotted with child-sized pumpkins to take home.

In other words there was a ton of material to bring back into class, which is one of the main purposes of a good field trip. Next week we’ll try to “extend” this shared experience in more ways than just bringing in my loppers. For one thing, we’ll be visited by Old Bessie, a cow made from a pair of saw horses, a 2 X 4, and a paper mache head. We’ll hang latex glove udders full of water from her belly so the kids can “milk” her through tiny pinprick holes in the finger tips. We’ll also construct a “hay maze” from gym mats stood on end. At Circle Time, we’ll compose our own song about our favorite parts of the field trip, and of course, sing a little “Old McDonald Had A Farm” because it’s fun to make animal noises. And, finally, we’ll continue our exploration of pumpkins, 10 of which have been living with us in the classroom for the past week.

Yesterday I ran into Teacher Matt who, like me, was wearing his safety backpack while chaperoning his 3-5 preschool class on a pumpkin patch field trip. We’re all out there taking our kids out to see the pumpkins. In fact, my informal survey of the children found that more than half have either already been to a pumpkin patch/farm with their families or are planning an excursion. It’s an annual rite that may be more widely shared among this generation than cutting their own Christmas trees, dying eggs, or eating turkey and cranberry sauce sandwiches on the day after Thanksgiving.

Growing up, there are few memories more vivid than those of our family summer vacations to my own aunts’ and uncles’ farms on the Kansas-Nebraska border, where we fed the pigs, collected the eggs, and drove the tractors. Today, they still farm that land, but they are almost a novelty these days as family farms have been consumed by giant agribusinesses that operate more like factories. I would never want to take a group of preschoolers to see a real farm today. I think it would scare them.

For much of the country, places like the Fairbank Animal Farm represent an American ideal that has already more or less faded into the realm of legend and myth.

But there are glimmers of revival, at least here in Seattle. Weekly farmer’s markets have sprung up in nearly every neighborhood, where local produce growers sell to their neighbors. Many of these “farms” are in backyards and pea patches. Most of them seem to be operated by recent immigrants. Several of our preschool families are raising their own chickens and most had robust vegetable gardens this summer. I don’t know if it’s the economy, a reaction against corporate food manufacturing, health concerns, or a combination of all three, but people aren’t ready to leave the soil. It feels like a kind of quiet revolution.

Maybe in the future we’ll all be farmers and the field trip to a pumpkin patch will just be a tour of our own backyard.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Full Body Sensory Experience

When it comes to preschool art, our rule of thumb is that it’s the teacher's job to provide a certain collection of art supplies each day, but how the children choose to use them – as long as they’re not hurting or frightening someone else – is up to them. Last year, for instance, in the 3-5 class we had a group of girls who turned every art project possible into finger painting, which became an excuse to apply paint, glue, paper mache paste, or any other substance from their fingertips to their elbows. They often produced no actual paintings to take home, but rather temporary body art to wash off before moving on to the next station.

A few years back the father of one of our students was a rather notorious artist. Not only did Peter fully understand the theory of the art station, I soon realized that he was applying the same principle to every station in the room. And not only was he encouraging the children to use the materials as they choose, he himself was finding new and startling ways to use what I’d provided. I learned to especially look forward to when it was his turn to be in charge of the block area.

Our block area is the largest open space within the classroom; it doubles as our Circle Time venue. Whenever I saw Peter was to be working that station I started just tossing out a collection of random items to see what would happen. This wasn’t a secret. I told him what I was doing. One day I gave him the challenge of gym mats and several large wooden boxes along with a few other randomly selected items. The area went through several iterations, one of which included using the ability of the mats to be connected to one another by means of Velcro strips to wrap large numbers of children together like meat in a burrito. Ultimately, however, the most successful result was when the boxes wound up under the mats to create an ever-changing soft landscape over which the children leapt, fell, and tumbled.

Needless to say it got wild and sweaty. Kids weren’t always landing on the mats, there were several head-bonking collisions, and more than a few twisted limbs, although surprisingly few tears. I guess it was too much fun to take the time out for crying. There were a lot of kids rubbing it off and jumping right back in.

In the midst of this scene, our parent educator Jean Ward walked in. I gulped, wondering what she would say. She stood watching the kids buffeting themselves and one another for a while. Finally she said, “This is terrific. The children are getting a full body sensory experience.”

This block area set-up is now a staple of Woodland Park’s curriculum. Since not all parents have the ability or desire to perform the ongoing construction and de-construction that Peter did, it has lost its “every-changing” quality. I’ve also taken to using duct tape to hold the wooden boxes together so they don’t slide out from under the mats. And this week, I threw some of our new giant soft blocks into the mix for both extra padding and fun. But it still maintains much of the crazy-time fun of the original.

Both the Pre-3 class and 3-5’s played on the soft landscape set-up this week, and while there were a few bumps and bruises, I don’t believe there were any more injuries than on a usual day – preschoolers can get bumps and bruises doing just about anything. It’s a fantastic place to experience things like body space, being gentle/careful with the bodies of others, taking turns, and being responsible for one’s own safety. A few children always lose themselves a bit and engage in spontaneous wrestling or tackling. I tend to let a little of it go as long as both parties are enjoying it, but that’s not always the case, so I’m constantly reminding the kids, “If someone is doing something to you that you don’t like, you can say, Stop!” A lot of children said “Stop!” this week, especially yesterday in the 3-5 class, and just as many children got the message and stopped doing whatever it was that was infringing upon their friend’s enjoyment of school.

I’m always amazed at how well this set-up works. It’s hard sometimes for the parent in charge of that station to step back and let the kids take a few chances, because it is so manifest to our adult brains how easily they could be hurt. (And sure, sometimes we have to make a safety rule when someone insists on repeatedly attempting some risky maneuver.) If it were us, with our much more fragile adult bodies, we would certainly emerge from this experience with wrenched necks and twisted ankles galore. But children, with their extraordinary flexibility, low center of gravity, and undeveloped knee caps, have bodies designed for the rigors of the soft playscape and it's "full body sensory experience."

At one point yesterday Finn V. found himself buried under a pile of bodies. I was keeping an eye on things as they developed, watching his face for any sign of pain or panic. His face was flushed with excitement. At one point, even though he was smiling from ear-to-ear, I got concerned and asked, "Are you okay?" He answered, "Yes. I'm under a blanket of kids!"

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