Thursday, November 26, 2009

Questioning Authority

As I prepared for class on Tuesday morning, Benjamin’s dad Andrew arrived to replace the hinges on the door of our toy oven. That old, wooden oven gets a real workout each morning, cranking out dozens of play dough cookies, muffins and pies. It’s a reliable, often overlooked, piece of furniture, having provided the heat for thousands upon thousands of imaginary meals, and this year, finally, the hinges started to sag, causing the doors to misalign.

As is often the case, this seemingly simple project developed complications that kept him there longer than I suspect he'd anticipated, so we had the chance to chat a bit. The conversation strayed into the days before Andrew was a father. “As an uncle,” he said, “I thought my job was to help refine their BS detectors.”

I’ve written before about the centrality of silliness in my teaching style, but there’s more to it than just making the kids laugh. I’m also trying to make them think. I mean really think.

When I take up a seat at the snack table, look around, and announce, “I don’t like any of this food. It’s all candy,” the kids who’ve known me for a year or more have already played this game many times. They know to smile and say, “You’re wrong, Teacher Tom. It’s not candy, it’s healthy food.”

I’ll respond with a condescending laugh, “Oh, you don’t know. You’re just a kid. I’m a grown-up. Of course, I’m right and you’re wrong.” I then go on to insist that the peas are mints, the banana slices are marshmallows, and the crackers are really tiny cookies. I tell them with a straight face that children only eat sweets and that adults only eat healthy food. No matter what they say, I continue to insist that I’m right by virtue of my status as an adult until I allow them to finally persuade me to taste the food. And even then, even after I’ve confirmed with my own taste buds that the food is indeed healthy food, I don’t let up. I’ll say, “Hey that is healthy food. See, I was right. I told you it was all healthy food.” And the seasoned veterans of our classroom fight back, “No, Teacher Tom. We told you!” Only then do I concede, but with the caveat, “Well, I guess it is healthy food, but at least you have pop to drink.”

That’s right. I’m teaching the children of Woodland Park to question authority and I hope it drives their elementary school teachers crazy.

I start gently, of course, getting children in the habit of not passively accepting everything I say when they are tender 2-year-olds. On the very first day of class, I always have our toy barnyard animals available so I can pick up a cow and say, “The cow says, ‘Oink’.” I love seeing their little eyes narrow and brows furrow as they try to make sense of this strange man who is clearly wrong. Most of them don’t say anything at that early point of the school year, it’s all so new, but there’s always at least one who corrects me, “The cow says, ‘Moo’.” Once I’ve found that child I go through the entire box of animals, getting each of their sounds wrong and being corrected in front of that audience of 2-year-olds.

As they get older, I up the ante. Yesterday, as a group of 3-year-olds hammered golf teas into Styrofoam, I said, “Let me show you how to do this.” I then grabbed the wrong end of the hammer and began poking at my target. These kids have all been with me for over a year, so they know by now that their job is to teach Teacher Tom. “No, go like this,” they said, wielding their hammers in the conventional fashion. Later, while playing with stick ponies outside, I held mine upside down and angrily asked, “Hey, who took the head off my pony! You’re not supposed to break the toys!” A small knot of kids gathered around the investigate my headless stick before saying, in as close to unison as I’ve ever heard preschoolers, “Teacher Tom, you’re holding it upside down!”

Then there are my 4 and 5-year-olds, most of whom have spent over 2 years with me and know to be constantly on guard for Teacher Tom’s mistakes. They love to bust me, even when I’m not actually pulling their legs. By the time they’re in Pre-K, I can’t simply tell these kids things, I need to prove it to them. A perfect example came a few weeks ago when I told them we were going to melt metal. We’d melted ice and wax already, but when I said we were going to melt a piece of lead over a candle, they laughed at me, saying things like, “No, Teacher Tom. You can’t melt metal.” So I had to prove it, a lesson I'm confident they'll remember forever.

I have no interest in a classroom full of children who simply accept everything I say. I want them to doubt, question and challenge, which is the better half of learning, not to mention the proper role of a citizen in a democracy. If I can’t prove or demonstrate the validity of the things I say, then maybe I have no business saying them. And that goes for all the other authority figures out there. It’s a high bar sometimes, but the bar should be high.

So be forewarned all you kindergarten teachers, the Woodland Park kids are coming to you equipped with well-tuned BS detectors and they know how to use them.

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Jason, as himself said...

I, too, incorporate a lot of silliness into my teaching. However, I'm not nearly as methodical as you, who have a method to your "madness". I just act silly because it's fun and it helps to keep their interest.

As usual, I bow down to your wisdom.

Have a great Thanksgiving.

MOM #1 said...

OMG, Teacher Tom, I have a totally new and improved respect for you today. That is simply brilliant and thank you so much for doing it. I'm glad to hear no "sheeple" will be coming from your classroom; or mine either. Good for your kiddos!

Domestic CEO said...

Wow, what an interesting debate you have inspired between my husband (who teaches middle schoolers) and myself (a fellow preschool teacher). I was reading this post to him and telling him how much I agree with the philosophy of having the kids question what you say so they can learn to think for themselves. My husband was shocked at what he was hearing, thinking only of his teenagers and what would happen if they questioned his authority on everything he taught. He says he agrees with the philosophy but thinks teaching children so young and so impressionable to do this will cause problems later on.

Teacher Tom said...

Well Me, it will be interesting if any of my kids wind up in his high school!

Unknown said...

I think questioning is brilliant. It leads to lifelong growth and discovery.

Unknown said...

I couldn't love this post more. It's funny, I've always used that "silly-confused-adult" routine with the kids I know (I host a craft time at a local library and am also a Mom) but it never occurred to me the bigger implications of the skit. I've always been one to buck authority....maybe that's why I've been so comfortable playing that character. :-) Thanks for such an inspiring piece.

Shereen said...

This is a great, great post! Thanks for sharing.

Michaela said...

In high school I was voted "Teacher's Worst Nightmare" my senior year presumably for my annoying habit of questioning my teachers when they said things I wasn't sure I agreed with. Rather than feeling put down or hurt by my classmates disapproval, I was known to shout at anyone who would listen: "No! If they're good teachers, they should think I'm the best student in the class. Who wants a bunch of sponges mindlessly nodding at everything they say?" Though I was never able to convince many people, I never stopped arguing. Keep it up Teacher Tom!

Colleen said...

I love this-- I was one of those kids that drove teachers crazy with my questioning and then became a high school teacher who tried to get kids to question too.
I struggle with my 4 year old and this topic. I want him to question, yes...but not be defiant, just to be defiant. How do I show him the difference?

Anonymous said...

What do you say to an ignorant colleague who sees this as "instigating?" What about someone who says: "Kids can't think abstractly, you're going to confuse them when they try to take a test?"

As a kindergarten teacher, I appreciate your principles; however, there are some of my colleagues that aren't "on the same page."

As a veteran teacher, do you find that these "unorthodox" (I use that term with sarcasm) make other teachers around you better, or bitter? Or is it a situation where you just kind of stay to yourself and "do your thing?"

I consider myself a new teacher (5 years), so I wonder what the long-term "battle" will be like. I know it's worth it...I'm really just trying to fill my mind with ways of "defending my position."