Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Way We Learn In The Real World

(Note: A few weeks ago, a parent asked me about my thoughts on the advantages of multi-aged preschool education, specifically wanting to know why she should enroll her daughter in our 3-5’s class next year. She encouraged me to put it in the form of a blog post. In the interest of heeding those regular Teacher Tom readers who have complained about not being able to keep up with all the words I’ve spilled here over the past few months, I’ve broken my response into more bite-sized posts. This is the third and shortest one; the first is here, and the second here.)

Nearly all of the research and discussion around multi-age education revolves around the benefits of combining children of various ages in a single classroom. I’ve never seen anything academic on the topic of including adults of various ages into the mix as well, but that’s what we do in a cooperative preschool.  On any given day, the age span of the teachers in our classroom ranges from 20 to 70, and every age in between. And if it’s a “special guest” day (e.g., a day when the public schools are not in session and we are) we’ll also see an influx of elementary school aged kids, meaning that the only age demographic we’re routinely missing are teenagers.

This is the real world. It’s not manufactured, it’s not artificial. The young nanny may not always handle conflict in the “proper” pedagogical manner, but she more than makes up for it in this case with the energy and charm of youth, something 20 years in my past. A grandfather may not guide his charge through the intricacies of a puzzle the way I would, but his patience and life-experience, something 20 years in my future, brings a quality to the interaction that in this instance outweighs the textbook approach.

I often compare our school to the neighborhood of my youth, a place where the kids of all ages spent their days playing in whichever backyard or bedroom was most convenient. We might not have always been on our parents’ radars, but there was always an adult or older kid we could call on if we needed help. It was a good thing that they didn’t always do things the way our mothers did. When stern Mrs. Cozart, for instance, spread my ham sandwich with mayo, there was something about her that caused me to choke it down without my usual fuss, giving me a solid lesson in trying new things. Playing tackle football with John Sain, who was 2 years older and not interested in coddling us, taught us that we needed to work together if we were going to pull him down. We learned the words we shouldn’t say from the young and beautiful Mrs. Broom.

A well-rounded education is about exposing children to the whole world. A 20-year-old woman sees a different world than a 47-year-old teacher, and neither of us have the perspective of a 70-year-old grandpa. Each of us have our own way of conveying what we know. That’s the way we learn in the real world.

Happy New Year!

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Student Has Become The Master

(Note: A few weeks ago, a parent asked me about my thoughts on the advantages of multi-aged preschool education, specifically wanting to know why she should enroll her daughter in our 3-5’s class next year. She encouraged me to put it in the form of a blog post. In the interest of heeding those regular Teacher Tom readers who have complained about not being able to keep up with all the words I’ve spilled here over the past few months, I’ve broken my response into more bite-sized posts. This is the second one; the first is here.)

It was early in our school year, probably the first day, and one of our very young 3-year-olds shouted out an answer at circle time, oblivious to the fact that many of his classmates were raising their hands. Willie, a 4-year-old who was beginning his second year in our 3-5’s class, a veteran of how things work at Woodland Park, leaned into his new friend and in a very clear stage whisper explained, “If you sit quietly on your bottom and raise your hand, Teacher Tom will call on you.”

This is how our classroom’s communal memory is passed on from year-to-year, be it raising hands, making rules, giving compliments, dealing with someone who is hurting or scaring you, or understanding our daily routines. The older children pass their knowledge on to their younger classmates who in turn do the same the following year.

When I plan our weeks, it starts with our Tuesday afternoon Pre-K class, which is a 2½ hour session each week set aside specifically for the children preparing for kindergarten. I sometimes think of this as a kind of staff meeting where I am training my student teachers for the week ahead.

I often “preview” more challenging projects in the Pre-K class, giving the older kids a chance to master skills or acquire knowledge which they can pass on to their younger friends. I typically don’t make this expectation explicit – it just happens.

The classic example of this is cutting paper “snowflakes.” We pre-fold dozens of pieces of square origami paper (we like a rainbow of snowflakes at Woodland Park) into shapes conducive to producing an approximation of a “snowflake” if cut just so with scissors. I demonstrate the “magic trick” of making a few simple cuts then unfolding the paper to reveal the lacy, symmetrical result. We then turn the kids loose with the scissors, allowing them to experiment, including discovering what happens when they fold their own paper. There are always 3-4 kids who can’t get enough of this, which is perfect given that they will have plenty of opportunities to extend their exploration during the rest of the week.

The following day, the younger children arrive to find the art table set up with the strangely folded origami paper, scissors, and no other indication of what’s going on. If the Pre-K kids don’t descend upon the table right away, all it usually takes is for me to say something like, “Ariya needs someone to show him what we’re doing at the art table,” and he will be instantly joined by his older classmates, eager to show off what they know. After a day as an “official” art project, the scissors and origami paper – some pre-folded, some not – will appear on our do-it-yourself table where it’s not unusual for an older child or two to set up shop for the morning, assisting any and all in their efforts. The paper and scissors continue to make their appearance until the fad burns itself out.

This dynamic isn’t limited to art projects. Our Pre-K science activities often wind up in the sensory table or garden. Certain mathematical concepts we learn in Pre-K are conveyed to our younger classmates, child-to-child, via puzzles or other manipulatives. New toys and games usually make their debut with the older kids, allowing them the opportunity to gain expertise that they can pass on to their friends.

When we are confronting community-wide problems or challenges, such as the rat that appeared in our garden earlier this year, these veteran students are often consulted. And while we can’t always act upon their ideas (e.g., converting the rat into a classroom pet) we often can, such as the time we used tape, glue and splints to repair our broken play dough cutter.

For their part, the 3-year-olds are blissfully unaware of this dynamic, knowing only that they are going to school with these sophisticated, glamorous friends who demonstrate the upper reaches of what a mere kid can do. Anyone with older children can attest to the fact that the second child’s learning is often accelerated in her effort to “keep up” with big brother, and in many ways, it’s this phenomenon that drives our curriculum. It’s not uncommon for younger children to develop “crushes” on certain of the Pre-K kids, tailing them around the room, imitating them, bringing them pictures from home.

Even more common is the “adoption” of a younger buddy by an older child, especially in the spring as the younger child is preparing to step up, while the older is ready to move on. For a couple months, they almost operate like developmental equals, which tells me that the Pre-K kids have pretty much wrung everything they can out of our little rag of a preschool. After 3 years with the same teacher, the same facility, and the same basic routines, they know everything there is to know. It’s not uncommon for these kids to start pushing at the boundaries, breaking rules, testing the limits. This is as it should be.

And at the same time it’s also not uncommon for their younger classmates, next year’s Pre-K kids, to remind their older friends to raise their hands, remember the rules, and stick to the routines. The student has become the master.

(Tomorrow I will try to put a bow on the multi-aged classroom theme.)

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Place They Are Confident They Belong

(Note: A few weeks ago, a parent asked me about my thoughts on the advantages of multi-aged preschool education, specifically wanting to know why she should enroll her daughter in our 3-5’s class next year. She encouraged me to put it in the form of a blog post. In the interest of heeding those regular Teacher Tom readers who have complained about not being able to keep up with all the words I’ve spilled here over the past few months, I’m going to break my response into more bite-sized posts over the next 2-3 days.)

During the past couple weeks I’ve been called upon to provide a holiday party thumbnail sketch of our preschool. This is the one I’ve been using:

“We’re a 3-year program. They come to me when they’re 2 and stay until they’re ready for kindergarten.”

This is technically inaccurate on a number of points, and while there are many things about Woodland Park that make it distinctive, I’ve discovered that the multi-age aspect of our school lends itself best to cocktail party banter. Most people respond with some version of, “That sounds wonderful,” but a number seem shocked, or even slightly offended by the idea of 3-year-olds going to school with 5-year-olds.

I’ll admit to living in a bubble when it comes to “alternative” education, so it surprises me when someone questions me about something so obviously good as a multi-age classroom.

You can hardly throw a rock at your computer monitor (although I’d recommend instead typing “multi-age education” into the Google search box) without hitting a study touting the academic and social benefits of age-blended classrooms. It’s one of the hot topics these days, not just for early childhood education, but beyond. One could almost call it trendy, except for the fact that most children, throughout most of the history of schooling, have been educated in multi-aged classrooms.

Multi-aged education was the standard from the ancient Jews and Greeks, through the medieval trade guilds and 16th century monastic schools, and right up through the rural American one-room schools of the 19th (and even 20th) century. Single grade education is, in fact, a relatively recently innovation, brought to the US from Prussia in the mid-1800’s as an extension of the assembly-line manufacturing techniques that were being developed in business at the time. (This wouldn’t be the last time that well-meaning business types would try to introduce economic “efficiencies” into education without knowing the first thing about teaching children, but that’s a subject for another post.)

If anything, it’s the single-age model of education that is the fad, an enduring one to be sure, but one destined to ultimately recede if only because of its manifest artificiality. The world is a multi-age place. Families are multi-aged. Churches, restaurants, playgrounds, holiday parties, you name it – schools are the only place in our society in which we are routinely segregated by age. There is the inherent assumption in the single-age idea that children of the same chronological age are all on the same developmental page, which anyone who knows anything about brains will tell you is simply false, especially in early childhood. Business people who stick their unqualified noses into education are forever touting the practical advantages of applying “data-based business practices” to education, yet this whole single-aged concept is based on absolutely no hard evidence at all. Like neo-liberal economic theory, it’s something that might sound good on paper, and it might even work if the only measurement of success is profit or the scores on standardized tests (although students in multi-aged classrooms routinely outperform their peers on these tests). But there has never been data demonstrating the superiority of single-aged classrooms over other models, other than their dubious ability to move chunks of kids through an educational assembly line, with more than a few winding up on the factory floor.

The multi-age concept isn’t new, but rather an effort to return to a more natural, holistic, and less alienating approach to education. Not to mention, more effective. At its most basic level, multi-age classrooms become educational communities, as opposed to mere institutions, in which learning is a collective activity where everyone takes turns being both student and teacher. They are places where younger children have the opportunity to learn from their slightly more advanced classmates, who in turn develop the real self-assurance that only comes from mastery (as opposed to artificial efforts to boost “self-esteem”). They are places where younger children who are ready for greater challenges can take their place beside more mature classmates, while those who need more time to explore concepts can do so without the stigma of being “behind.”

As a teacher, I value the opportunity to get to know my students over the course of three years, to observe their progress over a meaningful sweep of time, and come to a real understanding of how each child learns. Three years with the same teacher in the same facility with essentially the same classmates means not having to start over each fall by learning new faces, expectations, and routines. We can pick up right where we left off without repeatedly passing through the “getting to know you” phase.

From the child’s perspective, they return each year to a familiar community, a place where they’re already comfortable, a place where they’ll find their friends, a place where they already have some mastery. In short, it’s a place where they are confident they belong.

(Tune in tomorrow for my thoughts on how the multi-aged model works in our Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool classroom. And on Thursday, I'll wrap it up.)

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Monday, December 28, 2009

There Is No Bad Weather, Just Bad Clothing

There is no bad weather, just bad clothing. –Norwegian proverb

Among the handful of things commonly known about the coastal Pacific Northwest, is that it rains a lot. Not necessarily in terms of inches (there are many places that get more total rainfall) but in terms of days, weeks and months of overcast skies and misty precipitation, turning to drizzle, then back again. We usually get a couple cold snaps each year, but don’t count on snow, except in the mountains, because the nearby Pacific Ocean keeps our winters mild. No, from September through May we’re all about cool and moist, with occasional wind thrown in for good measure.

And in spite of that, we love to hike, camp, boat, ski, fish and generally do pretty much anything one can do in nature. If you’ve lived in the Northwest for any length of time, you’ll identify with this TV commercial, which just might be my favorite of all time:

At Woodland Park playing outside is an option during our large motor time no matter what the weather, but I’ve recently been thinking that this isn’t enough. Why shouldn’t we, for instance, be making our art outside? Why shouldn’t we be building with blocks outside? And is there any better place than outdoors for sensory experiences, fine motor development, and dramatic play?

Last week, Australian preschool teacher Mamabare wrote a piece on her terrific blog, Let The Children Play, about the "forest school" movement in Europe and linked to this inspiring video about an outdoor preschool in Norway. As Mamabare warns, it’s a little long (especially if you check out the second half for which the link is provided below) so you might want to “grab a cuppa” before hitting play:

(Here's the link to the second half of this film.)

It looks like my daughter’s beloved summer camp, except it goes all year long! We’re an urban preschool, so we don’t have the direct access to the forests, mountains and ponds that these kids do, but we still have the outside. I’m definitely going to be planning some all-outdoor days for the New Year.

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

We Can Do Better

I’ve written here before about my concern that traditional schools do a poor job of accommodating perfectly normal children whose brains process information in ways that are not conducive to learning in the educational model of sitting quietly at desks facing forward. It frustrates me that we feel a need to hang labels on them like “ADD/ADHD,” “OCD,” or “autism spectrum disorder” as a way to blame the child for his struggle to learn, rather than take critical look at how we are trying to teach these children.

Experts estimate that some 20 percent of professional athletes could be diagnosed as ADD or ADHD, which is four times the rate of the general population. All of us are genetically programmed to learn, and because these kids learn best by using their whole bodies they are often drawn to sports. The theory is that the focus required to develop physical skills has a calming influence on their minds allowing them to learn some remarkable things.

I have no way of knowing this, but I suspect that there were more than a few adults who tried to hang a label on Drew Brees as a boy. Not only has his body learned to do things that seem superhuman, he has also come to a practical understanding of physics that is far superior to anything the rest of us ever learned from textbooks:

The same could also be said of Sasha Vujacic , who can do blindfolded what most of us could never dream of doing period:

I wanted to share these videos with you as examples of the extraordinary things that can be learned by not sitting at a desk facing forward. And this is just athletics. Artists, dancers, circus performers, and musicians have also learned remarkable things by using their whole bodies instead of just their eyes and ears. 

Preschools are full of children who think best on their feet. I spend my days surrounded by kids who use their whole bodies to learn.

We live in an era when school districts are choosing to cut physical education, sports, art and music budgets in favor of yet more sitting at desks facing forward. Sadly, we are instead increasingly segregating or drugging children who need this kind of education; treating them as if their struggle to learn is their fault rather than ours.

As I’ve suggested before, I believe that we do a good job of accommodating a full spectrum of learning styles at Woodland Park, but each year we send children off to kindergarten who I know are going to struggle with the status quo. The advantage these kids have is that their parents are aware, engaged, and able to advocate for their child’s educational needs.

Not all children are so lucky and only a tiny number will become professional athletes. So we label them. We can do better.

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Friday, December 25, 2009

I Knew This Day Would Come

When our daughter was 7-years-old, she really, really wanted piano lessons. What parent wouldn't be thrilled, right? We got her signed up for lessons, bought a keyboard and then spent the next 6 months nagging her to practice. I finally got fed up, let her quit, and took the piano into the preschool where the kids have a good time banging on it.

Thus, when she began to insist a year or so ago that she wanted guitar lessons I answered, although perhaps in gentler words, "No way kid, I've been burned on that one before." We had an old classical guitar in the basement which I pulled out, saying, "All the best guitarists are self-taught."

She kept that guitar in her room for almost a year, virtually untouched, until about two months ago when I heard strumming. And it didn't sound bad. She'd discovered that there are free instructional videos on the internet and was teaching herself the chords she needed to play her favorite songs from the radio. Since Thanksgiving, the first thing she does each evening is pick up the guitar. She has now written a half dozen songs of her own. Josephine has always had a beautiful singing voice (both of her maternal grandparents were opera singers) and it feels these days like we're living with Joni Mitchell. She already has herself "booked" for her middle school's next "open mic" performance.

Last night, her grandmother gave her a steel-stringed acoustic guitar. It's Christmas morning and Josephine is up in her room playing and singing a Taylor Swift song. I'm not particularly musical myself, nor have I ever managed to learn an instrument. What she is doing up there is magic to me.

Every parent wishes for his child to surpass him. I knew this day would come, but never guessed it would come so soon.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009


I've posted something here almost every day since the beginning of June. Sitting down and writing for an hour each morning has become such a part of my daily routine that I don't know if I'll be able to avoid posting at least a little something on Christmas morning.

That said, a number of folks with whom I have real world, face-to-face contact have been apologizing for not being able to keep up. I can't blame them. I know I wouldn't be able to keep up with all the words I've published here either.

So the only thing new today is the video and invitation at the end.

Why We Wrestle
There are several of our 3-year-old boys who have started spontaneously wrestling this past month or so. January will be our time for putting a socially acceptable sheen on this activity by breaking out the wrestling mats. Are we the world's only preschool that offers wrestling as part of its curriculum?

Thinking Inside The Box
This is a story about my friend Page and how he demonstrated that real genius comes from "thinking inside the box."

One Thing At A Time
Today, as an almost 5-year-old, Josephine is one of our classroom leaders, but this hasn't always been true. This is the story of how she has taken things at her own pace, using many baby steps instead of the proverbial huge leaps.

A Muddy Puddle Of Morality
This is the story of how my friend Alex spent a year using storytelling as a way to understand complicated moral issues.

Being A Man
People often ask me about being a man working in a predominately female profession. I have no real organized thoughts on the topic, but this is my attempt to put some of those thoughts into words and video.

No Pants Subway Ride
I'm planning to take part in this piece of performance art on January 10. There are already 123 people signed up on the Seattle Facebook event page. If you live in Seattle I'd love to see you on the train without pants! There are events taking place on the same day in dozens of other cities as well.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

We Didn’t Miss A Thing

When our daughter was 8-years-old, my wife was going to be spending a big chunk of July in New York on business, so instead of staying home in Seattle without her, and to save her all those cross-country flights, we decided to rent an apartment in SoHo for the month.

Each morning after sending Jennifer off to work, Josephine and I would head down into the subways and spend our days getting to know the city. We swam at Coney Island surrounded by jellyfish and plastic bags. We rowed ourselves around the lake in Central Park. We ate frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity 3. We caught an American Ballet Theater performance. We accidentally spent an emotional afternoon at the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We stuck our heads into hundreds of shops, saw Broadway shows, and generally roamed the streets looking for adventure.

I was keenly aware of her digging in of heels, however, whenever the idea of something overtly educational, like a museum, was proffered. We argued about it and I finally bribed her into hitting the Museum of Natural History, but it was so unpleasant dragging a sulking kid around that I just gave up on forcing her into places she was reluctant to go. After all it was summer vacation and this trip was going to be a broadening no matter what, right?

One of the highlights of the trip was heading up to the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, where our friend Terry O’Brien is the artistic director, to see his production of Macbeth. This was Josephine’s first exposure to Shakespeare. Maybe one of the comedies would have been a gentler introduction, but she thoroughly enjoyed it, blood bath and all. It helped immensely, I’m sure, that Terry’s daughter Jenne (then 12) played a small role and that one of the actors was recognizable via his a semi-regular role on a Nickelodeon television program Josephine enjoyed. I felt pretty good about sneaking in some education without her realizing it.

One afternoon shortly after returning to the city, we were caught in a torrential downpour and ducked into the lobby of a movie theater to stay dry. Since it didn’t look like it was going to let up any time soon I suggested we pick a movie. A quick scan of the posters, however, revealed nothing but ones tagged with never before broached “PG-13” or “R” ratings, one of which was King Arthur.

Josephine asked, “Why can’t we see that one?”

“It’s too violent. You’ll have bad dreams.”

“But Papa, I’ve seen Macbeth.”

How could I argue with that? And to this day Josephine lists this movie as one of her all-time favorites, in spite of the violence and my using it as an opportunity to “educate” her about the Sir Thomas Malory version (Le Morte d’Athur) of the Arthurian legends from which this surprisingly clever movie was derived.

Since then Josephine has become a Shakespearean actress in her own right, enthusiastically performing with a troupe of teenaged, self-described “Shakespeare freaks,” through the education department of the Seattle Shakespeare Company. Her career aspiration is to perform with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

As we’ve entered our middle school years, Shakespeare has been our starting point for discussing just about every delicate topic under the sun. Josephine generally turns me off when I get onto a political rant, unless, of course I take the time to apply it to Julius Caesar. Every conversation about racism or anti-Semitism revolves around The Merchant of Venice. The Taming of the Shrew is our touchstone for sexism. All discussions of the dangers of manipulation lead back to All’s Well That Ends Well. And sex, well it’s hard to find one of Shakespeare’s plays that doesn’t deal in some aspect of sex, from adolescent passion (Romeo and Juliet), to playfulness (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), to perversities (Pericles).

We didn’t do anything educational in New York. We didn’t see the Rembrandts. We didn’t walk in the footsteps of great statesmen. We didn’t even make it into the Dinosaur Hall.

But the whole world was opened to us anyway. We didn’t miss a thing.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Boy, Was It Fun

Yesterday’s post was inspired by the experience I had the night before at the Fremont Arts Council’s annual Winter Solstice Feast. Just as we’ve taken part in the Summer Solstice Parade, my family has in recent years added this event to our traditions. Up until the last minute I hadn’t expected to be able to attend, not because I wasn’t free that evening, but because I didn’t think I could find the time to help with “the build.”

Almost everything the FAC does involves a “build” requiring an all-hands-on-deck effort to pull off. We never have any money, so we count on the arms, legs and talents of our members to make it happen. Most of what people see in the parade, for instance, is the result of the community descending upon the Powerhouse (our headquarters) for a frenzied month of working together to make the floats, costumes, and giant puppets that will fill the streets of Fremont on the year’s longest day. The Feast works the same way, with everyone pitching in to prepare whatever large, abandoned space the FAC’s founder, artist, and former Woodland Park parent Peter Toms can secure for us. This year our 500-person potluck was in the former Ballard Library, which is a bit smaller than some of our past venues, but in many ways all the better for it. If you want an invitation, you have to show up and help. When I unexpectedly found myself with a free Saturday afternoon, I beat it to the space to arrange and decorate the first aid room, among other things, thus earning my invitation.

I was particularly excited to be there because a committed contingent of Superhuggers had installed a “hugging wall” adjacent to the coat area. This idea was inspired by artist Keetra Dean Dixon (who I previously linked to here) whose idea was expanded to include three sets of hugging arms protruding from a pink fabric wall.

My friend Barbara was eager to demonstrate how it worked when I arrived on the scene, jumping behind the screen to animate a pair of sleeves. We should have anticipated this, but when you can’t see the person you’re hugging it’s very easy to accidentally place hands in thrilling places. It wasn’t difficult to imagine our innocent, lovely hugging wall, in the wrong hands, becoming an opportunity for anonymous groping, a potential that quite frankly made it an ideal Feast installation. (In a beautiful turn of the tables, our installation was early on taken over by a gang of kids ranging from 5-14 who filled the arms all night long, giving it a brightly innocent aspect throughout the evening.)

There were several other installations, including a fir bough enclosed entry path, Peter’s sculpture of a large rectangular prism of ice being slowly filleted as it melted by a pair of 7-foot tall iron scimitars, gigantic chandeliers, a trippy tea room, cozy cuddle spaces, and walls of strange and magical headdresses hanging from fir and pine branches for the guests to wear.

One of the things that tires me out about the holidays is that it often feels like it’s all about just going to different places to have conversations, which is fine as far as that goes, but sometimes I want to do things with the other people. That’s why I like to spend my Feast either dancing or “working.” This year I chose to staff the door for the bulk of the evening, which I quickly turned into a quest to touch every single person who came or went by establishing the precedent that the toll for crossing the threshold was a hug. And not just some shoulder-tapping, air-kissing hug, but a real one involving full body contact and time to feel it. I spent nearly 4 hours hugging every single person who passed through the door. Oh boy, that was fun!

I was wearing my owl costume, which covers my torso in silk feathers and gives me an impressive wingspan via a complicated fan of armpit stitchery. It’s already a touchy-feely community and my little piece of impromptu performance art met with responses ranging from indulgence to enthusiasm. After awhile, I started insisting that everyone “hug to the left,” so as to place our hearts together, then vibrating deep, transcendental “oms” into one another’s chests. This is a particularly powerful thing to do with other men, as it’s easier to get ribcage-to-ribcage, and our lower tones harmonize into a remarkably resonate vibration, not that I didn’t get there with women as well. I imagined our souls were connecting for those brief moments. I was often pulled in by the peaceful power of what felt like ancient souls, while in others I sensed an adolescent restlessness at their core.

Many of the hugs were bawdy or subtly sexual. I liked those a lot. Others were heavy with sadness and need. I gave those people as much time as they wanted. Many took it on perfunctorily, an approach I worked hard to shake by making them stand there with me, forcing eye contact, not letting go until we had a real moment. There were a few who enthusiastically shared my “duties” for a time, partnering me in the effort, giving and receiving hugs from friends and strangers, spreading a little love.

The best hugs, of course, were the ones returned to me with equal energy. Pow! We both wanted to be there. We understood. We were pure love.

This is the experience I have every morning at school as the children arrive. We're so happy to see each other. And there is nothing more magnificent than the hugs I get from the 2-year-olds when they crowd around my stool at the end of the day. We are so grateful for the time we’ve been together. I’m proud when I get to share that kind of unqualified acceptance with adults. We forget how easy and how wonderful it is.

This probably sounds a little crazy to some of you, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

The hugging walls photos were taken by Hank Graham. Here’s a link to the rest of his photos from the Feast. 

Happy Solstice!

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Monday, December 21, 2009

The Sun Stands Still

A couple weekends ago I got a late start on some yard work and wound up raking leaves in the dark at 4 p.m. I’d have to say that the short winter days are one of the most challenging aspects of life in the northern tier, but things are turning around. The Winter Solstice took place today at 12:47 p.m. EST, marking the end of our ever-longer nights and the return of light.

Not to lessen the significance of Christmas or any of the other festivals of lights, but this astrological event is the original reason for the season. The Earth is tilted on its axis at, on average, a 23.5-degree angle and today is when the North Pole is farthest from the sun, causing it to appear to rise and set in the same place. We call it the first day of winter, and while the days will now grow longer by increments until the Summer Solstice in June, the average temperature of the “top” part of the globe will continue to drop as the oceans slowly lose the heat they still store from the warm summer months.

Humans can hardly think without resorting to metaphor and there is none more profound than this. It’s not an accident that this is a time for reflection as well as celebrating new beginnings. It’s not an accident that we seek out the people who mean the most to us, family and friends, those we love and without whom we live in perpetual winter. It’s not an accident that Christians retell the story of the birth of a child, the son of God, the light of hope in a darkened world. It’s not an accident that we give one another gifts and wish each other merriness, happiness and cheer – the darkness is passing, buck up, light is returning, have hope.

Winter is often used as a metaphor for death, but the comparison is superficial. The trees may not have leaves, the forests may have been temporarily emptied by hibernation and migration, there may be fewer children on the play grounds and at the beaches, and it may stay that way for some months to come, but we shouldn't mistake stillness for death.

The word “Solstice” comes from the Latin phrase for “sun stands still.” We spend the rest of the year in motion, moving forward, making progress. But if we can hold still long enough to listen, we hear winter whispering to slow down, take stock, cut back, rest, tend to the core of what makes life worthy of its name. All is calm. All is bright.

Even the sun stands still today.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Inspirations And Influences

Every writer has his influences and inspirations. Some are more apparent than others.

As I’ve posted before, our preschool student storytellers have the option of doing other things while awaiting a turn to tell their story, or they can hang out and listen to their friends tell stories. Not surprisingly, those who stay to listen are often influenced by those that come immediately before them.

Finn V. has been a prolific storyteller this year, badgering me to get out my storytelling clipboard almost every day. He favors graphic action stories, but has lately been inserting silliness:

About a army soldier who throwed a grenade. And then a truck ran over the soldier. And then some jets shot missles at each other. And then one of the tanks shot at the army guy. And then bleed came out of the army guy’s mouth. He was hurt. And then a whole army of duckies came and battled the army soldiers. And then the ducky tank shot up one on the army soldiers. And then the grenade threw on one of the duckies. And then the ducky had blood coming out of its mouth.

This is a dramatic, grisly and goofy tale. It’s no wonder it influenced Thomas, who had been lurking nearby waiting for his turn. I like how he interwove Finn’s influence with his favorite themes of forklifts and energetic rhyming:

Then the fighter jet. And then the noodle builded. And the fighter jet hit the noodle. And then the noodle got killed by a bomb. And then the forklift killed the ducky and the ducky killed the forklift. And the forklift pumped themselves out and went into a hot air balloon. And the ice and the mice had a fight with the forklift.

Jack was waiting in the wings and took up Thomas’ silly tone and fork lift theme:

There was a silly forklift. And then he bonked on his head on the roof. And then he just found another forklift and one just carried up and put him in hot lava. And then the other forklift put the other forklift inside of hot lava.

Sometimes literary influences work as grease on the skids, unleashing a torrent of passion and creativity. Max overheard Dennis tell this short story:

Grasshopper and panda crashed into a tree.

I’ve been trying to get more of Max’s stories written down. He spins yarns all day long, but so far this year hasn’t normally been in the mood when I’ve had the clipboard out. It took Dennis to get him going:

Once upon a time there was a panda bear. This is the scary part. One dark night there was a ghost. Then a skeleton. Then a grim reaper. Then a creature from the black lagoon. Then a cow. Then a glowing arm. Then a creature.

The next day, however, he was in rare form, leaping off from Dennis’ influence into his own interpretation of a story inspired by a movie:

It’s about the Iron Giant. He’s made of iron. And he was standing right there next to the boy. Then he kneeled down. Then he liked to eat metal, ‘cause he was an iron giant. And then he saw some metal stuff and he didn’t know it was electric stuff. And then he tried to grab it and broke his electric circuits. Then he fell down and broke his pieces. And then his pieces came back to him and he was signaling the pieces. And then they came back together. And then he came from outer space in a tiny spaceship. It was a robot that came from outer space, bigger than you can reach. Then he saw the army and he turned all crazy – springs coming out of his head. Then he had to defeat the big bomb and then he disappeared up in the sky to defeat the big bomb. And he disappeared. He could fly. And then there was a statue of it in the park. And then it was signaling its pieces and then the pieces went to the Iceland and they found the head in the Iceland. He came back to the boy and he had to stay in the barn because he was too big.

As much as I love how the children influence one another, the advantage of being influenced by movies or other “professional” narratives is that the kids are exposed to conventions like story arcs that have a beginning, middle and end. It was pretty nifty how Max holds it together – in spite of the great length of his tale – by bringing the boy from the first line back into the conclusion.

Here is a fantastic, very tight example of this writing convention as employed by Ella:

The princess and the pea. Once upon a time there was a lovely girl named Princess And The Pea. She wanted to take her test, but it was just too hard and she couldn’t sleep with the tiny pea. And solved the problem. She ate it, but she didn’t say anything. And that’s the end of the story.

If you’re interested in reading more of the children’s stories, here are the links:

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

If Evil Exists

(Note: Awhile back, my blogger friend and fellow teacher, Pumpkin Delight, posted her answers to a questionnaire that had once been a popular party game around the turn-of-the-century. The writer Marcel Proust completed this questionnaire, twice, and his answers were published in Andre Maurois’ book, Proust: Portrait of a Genius.  To this day, Vanity Fair magazine uses this set of questions in a regular feature.

The lure of thoughtfully participating in a game played by Proust is really too much for me to resist. My intent is to create intermittent posts out of my answers as I complete them. This post is my answer to the second question. My answer to the first one is here. )

What is your greatest fear?

Pain pays the income of each precious thing. –William Shakespeare

Somewhere I read that Americans’ greatest fears are public speaking and death, in that order. I can honestly say that neither of these make my list. I love being in front of an audience and death doesn’t haunt me. My greatest fear is pain and suffering.

I recognize that by confessing this I’m outing myself as a very fortunate man, there are many more horrible things that people have gone through, but one of my most harrowing personal experiences was the day of my appendectomy. I awoke with a slightly unsettled stomach, and as the day wore on it grew worse until I was curled into the backseat of my wife’s car as she drove me to the emergency room. The intensity of the pain continued to grow for what felt like several hours as they ran tests to rule things out. We were told it was probably appendicitis and I would eventually receive pain medication, but they didn’t want to mask any symptoms until they were sure. So in the meantime I suffered.

I’m not talking about fearing your run-of-the-mill kind of pain here. In our preschool, it’s a rare 15-minute increment that goes by without someone collecting an “owie” of some kind. That’s the “good” pain. Pitiable, difficult, but ultimately it’s an essential aspect of learning. Education is often light and joyful, but it’s just as often painful. There are some lessons that can only be learned through pain. For instance, one of our most frequently trotted out preschool mantras is: “The best way to learn about asphalt is to fall on it.”

Comparing bloody owies is perhaps the simplest and most engaging of preschool small group activities. Typically, the kids can’t wait to pull up their pant leg or push up a sleeve to show off their latest abrasion. And every one of them comes complete with a cautionary tale, which we share in as much grisly detail as possible. It’s a chance to talk about the pain, the healing, and a reminder of the lesson learned. I always share Teacher Tom’s patented bloody owie axiom, “If you have more than 2 bloody owies you’re not being careful enough. If you don’t have any bloody owies you’re being too careful. One or 2 bloody owies is the right amount.”

We don’t just learn through physical pain, of course. The emotional pain that comes from being rejected, insulted, or separated from a parent is also part of education. If someone is crying, it’s almost always a sign that someone is learning, as painful as it might be. It’s impossible to always keep it in focus because as adults we naturally want to sooth the crying child, and we should, but at the same time we have to know that some destinations can only be reached through pain.

It’s not just pain, but suffering I fear, for both myself and all of you. Suffering, to me, is the unnecessary prolongation of pain beyond its ability to teach anything worth knowing. Nothing valuable is learned, for instance, by those who are starving in Darfur and other blighted places around the world. Nothing valuable is learned when a prisoner is tortured. Nothing valuable is learned through the nightmare of living with an abusive spouse or parent. Indeed, suffering teaches only one thing: that life is hell and the other humans are its devils. That’s one awful thing to teach.

Of course, what I experienced that day in the emergency room could hardly be called suffering, and in fact the doctors were doing everything they could to assuage it as quickly as possible. Soon enough I was floating on a cloud of Demerol, then into a deep sleep, interrupted by occasional glimpses of my loved ones standing at my bedside.

It’s the unalleviated suffering I fear. If evil exists, this is where it is manifest. If I have any religion at all its fundamental tenant is that I must do what I can to bring an end to suffering. Life is not hell and the other humans are not devils. That is the most important thing we can teach and the only way to do that is to bring an end to suffering wherever it is found.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Order From Chaos

Many years ago, my family frequently socialized with another family.  We liked the mother.  We liked the father.  We liked the children.  We liked the parents together and we liked the children together.  That said we finally came to the conclusion that as much as we liked each of them individually, we needed to limit our exposure to them as a family.
There was something about their family dynamic that caused the children to constantly cry, whine and fight, while the parents took sides, over-reacted, and frequently lost their tempers.  It was high drama chaos that left my family feeling like a live audience for a particularly icky reality TV program.  Of course every families occasionally falls into cycles in which everyone behaves badly. We’re human, after all, but this family was a special case.  It was a spiral in which they are all aware they spun – we had many long conversations about it – but from which they seemed incapable of breaking out.
I find myself reflecting on this family around the holidays.  I know that some years they have a Christmas tree, while other years they’ve celebrated Hanukah.  I think they’ve occasionally done both, while I know that the plan for this year is to kind of ignore the holidays altogether and take a vacation in the sun.
The mother is a brilliant, warm woman with a crackling type of creativity that can leave the unprepared breathless.  As the emotional center of the family, she is a vociferous proponent of chaos.  “I can’t stand doing things on a schedule,” she says.  She is joyfully late for everything, continually forgetting her promises, while at the same time unexpectedly undertaking monumental tasks of compassion and thoughtfulness.  (She thinks of me, incidentally, as a kind of fuddy-duddy who rarely does anything spontaneous.)
One thing I know about children, however, is that as wonderful as chaos theory can be for the right kind of adult, it is generally problematic for kids.  Routines and rituals are the building blocks from which secure, confident children are built.  Regularity of this kind allows our children to anticipate and make predictions, it allows them to prepare themselves for what’s coming, and it provides a template from which to begin developing beliefs about their world.  To a newborn, all is chaos.  Much of what a child does is simply strive to make order. They need the rules, schedules and limitations in order to exercise their own, unique genius.  As Goethe wrote, “In limitations he first shows himself the master.”
The 2-year-olds who arrive at Woodland Park are already happily conversant with the “limitations” of their families.  Our first job in preschool is to create a place in which the children can begin to develop that same kind of trust in the bigger world.  At this point in our school year, I would be surprised if there is a single one who can’t recite our daily routine.  We have a core batch of songs that all the children know better than their parents and through which we will continue to ritualistically cycle for the rest of the year.  The children are becoming increasingly familiar with the rules at preschool and are thriving in the knowledge of what is expected of them.  The best evidence of this is that so many of them are now testing the edges of the rules, working on gaining a more precise understanding of the limits.
Traditions and rituals work in a way similar to rules and limits, creating a rhythmic order out of chaos.
As we engaged in our Woodland Park community tradition of sharing our holiday memories, I wondered what my own daughter, Josephine, will say when she sits in similar meetings as an adult.  She’ll probably talk about Christmas and Hanukah gatherings of family and friends, and presents, traditions she shares with her larger community.  But what are those traditions – those annual rituals – that she shares only with the smaller community of our family?  One of those rituals for me is the annual Hobson family wrapping paper fight, which I shared here a few days ago. 

I discovered what I suspect will be one of Josephine’s future memories by accident several years ago. Each year from the time she was born, we drove somewhere like Issaquah or Carnation to cut our own tree.  We have a 15-foot living room ceiling and we wanted a tree that scrapes the rafters.  After compulsively tying and re-tying our Frasier fir to the roof of the car, the sappy trunk hanging in front of the windshield, the tip jutting some 6 feet behind the car, we would set out for home.  It’s not a trip I looked forward to.  That year, even before we got out of the lot, 5-year-old Josephine reported, “I don't think it's slipping, Papa.”  For the next 10 miles she provided regular reports on the status of the tree, informing me with code words (“If I say ‘slip’ that means the tree is slipping off the back of the car.  If I say ‘fall’ that means it fell off.”).  As we accelerated onto the freeway, she said, “This is the dangerous part.”
“What do you mean, ‘dangerous part’?” I asked.

“This is where you always say that if the tree falls off you’re not going to go back for it, and we have to have a Chubby & Tubby tree.” (This is a now defunct local institution known for it’s inexpensive holiday trees.)
I'm guessing that this will be one of the things she shares in that future parent meeting: the annual “Hobson family white knuckle I-90 dash.”
I love my family’s traditions and I’m tempted to think about those children of chaos with pity; no two holidays alike, disorder reigning, but the truth is that there’s nothing to pity.  They are bright, happy kids for the most part, loving and loved.  Removed from the midst of their fighting, whining and grumbling, I can even see the patterns of their own unintended traditions.  There’s a sort of ritualistic aspect to the fighting, the tears, the soothing, the scolding.  It’s not pleasant to me, but in its own way it’s as predictable and orderly as anything any of us do.  The shape of their love for one another is circumscribed, the limits affirmed, order is created from the chaos.
As adults these kids may very well seek to create quieter, saner, more orderly traditions for their own families, but I suspect they will speak fondly of a holiday-free beach vacation in the middle of winter. 

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pass It On

Last night I was on the Seattle Center campus to see my daughter play Viola and Feste in her Shakespeare company’s production of Twelfth Night. She was outstanding in both parts, of course, bringing down the house, along with the curtain, with her magnificent singing voice. (If anyone local is interested, there are two more performances at the Center House Theater: a Saturday, December 19 matinee at 11 a.m., and a closing night performance at 6:30 p.m., Sunday, December 20. Pay what you will.)
While killing time before the show, I took advantage of a break in the rain to make my way over to the Fisher Pavilion to watch the ice skaters at the temporary Winterfest rink. It was packed with teens who, judging from the guy on the microphone, were teetering on the verge of breaking yet another rule. “No chains,” “No whips,” “No skating backwards.”
The pavilion is a utilitarian space that hosts everything from square dances to craft fairs. The last time I was in there was a few summers ago to experience Amma, the world’s most famous hugger, who was making her annual Seattle appearance. She is widely regarded as a “living saint,” although I’m unclear as to which, if any, official religion bestowed that honor upon her. When asked about it, she answers, “My religion is love and service,” which is good enough for me.
This appearance was a happy coincidence in that it came just as we were planning our very first public foray as Superhuggers, and seeing it as providential, my friend Tiberio and I met there to learn, literally, at the feet of the uncontested hugging master.
We got in a long line at 8:30 a.m. Amma's been known to hug (darshan) as many as 50,000 people in one day, so we’d arrived anticipating a lengthy wait. The guy behind us told us he'd followed Amma for 20 years, ever since stumbling across her while in the military, and said it had changed his life forever. He couldn’t count how many times he’d experienced darshan with her.
When we were finally admitted inside we were thrilled to learn that we, as first timers, were to sit up front. "Amma,” a disciple explained, “wants those who have never had darshan to be as close to her as possible."
Amma herself was a tiny, plump woman who wore the most amazingly transcendant expression. We agreed that we’d never been in the presence of anyone who seemed so absolutely present.
Even being advantaged by having been moved to the “front,” it still wasn't until well after noon that we finally found ourselves shuffling up to her on our knees. As we got slowly closer, one of her disciples whispered a reminder, "You do not hug Amma. She hugs you." Apparently, there was a time when she let people hug her back, but she would come away so bruised she couldn't walk.
When it was my turn, Amma pulled my head into her chest. She smelled good. She said, "Om" and chanted into my ear. It took about a minute.
As I stood waiting for Tiberio I was a torch, lit by love. I'd not been much of a hugger before that day. Now I pretty much hug everyone I meet.
Pass it on.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I Want Webcams

I want to install webcams in our classroom. I’ve sat down not once, but twice in recent days with the intention of writing about this abiding desire, but have gotten lost in the flow of the prose and wound up writing about something else entirely. (That’s one of the great joys and difficulties of no longer writing for hire.)

I want webcams installed around our classroom in such a way that every corner of the room can be observed remotely. And since I’m being wishful here, I’d also like microphones installed over each of our stations so that our conversations can be selectively overheard by those same internet observers.

Of course, re-reading the last paragraph, I can already see the problem I’ve had in writing about this. In my efforts to lead up to it gently, to work up to it in a way that won’t raise everyone’s Big-Brother-surveillance-state-no-privacy warning flag, I’ve wound up writing around it to the point of not writing about it at all.

That said, I would love for the parents and grandparents of Woodland Park students to have the ability, while in the midst of the drudgery of their morning at the office or of housework, or while miles away on business, or simply geographically separated for large chunks of the year by the accident of our mobile society (as many grandparents are), to have this ability to peek into and remotely share their treasured preschoolers’ lives.

There isn’t a teacher’s union out there that would agree to this, I’m sure. And I know there are many teachers who would freak out at the prospect of having remote parent eyes and ears upon them as they go about their work, but as a cooperative teacher, that’s already a condition of my employment. My every move is already observed by the kids’ parents because each of them is right there with me at least one day a week, working as assistant teachers.

I’ve written here before about how the cooperative model’s un-hierarchical nature – whereby the parents are my collective boss outside the classroom, while I’m their “boss” inside – leads to the kind of collaborative environment that is wonderfully conducive to educating young children. I’d like to think I’d still teach with as much energy and focus in a traditional setting, but it certainly doesn’t hurt knowing that the parents will know if I don’t give it my all every day.

But this post is about those webcams.

When my daughter Josephine attended Latona 3-5’s Cooperative Preschool, we moved into the North Seattle Community College laboratory preschool facility for her 4-year-old year. This classroom features a full wall of one-way mirror observation windows, microphones over every table, and a closed-circuit camera for observing the playground. Even before I’d started to think about becoming a teacher, I would grab a cup of coffee each morning that I wasn’t working in the classroom, and set up shop in the observation room. At first it was just to follow the adventures of my own child, but it wasn’t long before I began to follow those of the other children as well. When I’m in a roomful of children, I can’t help but drop to my knees to immerse myself in their world. This observation room gave me the chance to learn about preschoolers from a whole new perspective. It was particularly instructive, for instance, to observe how the presence or absence of an adult affected play, something I could never have learned by staying in the room. This experience made me not only a better teacher, but a better parent.

As I envision it, Woodland Park’s webcams would be installed in such a way that each of our major classroom areas could be observed, giving parents and other loved ones the opportunity to follow their child as he moves around the room. (Terry, one of our 3-5 dads, joked that maybe each of the kids should have tiny cameras embedded in their nametags to provide a first-person perspective of their daily experience.) If we could add the microphones, they could even choose to listen in to the wonderful things they say.

Yes, we would have security/privacy matters to think through and I don’t know how many stay-at-home parents would take advantage of the webcams – after all, preschool is a chance for a break – but I can imagine working parents keeping a window open on their computer screens as a way to stay connected, not to mention the opportunity these webcams would present for parents who travel for business. And I know that there are a lot of grandparents across the country who would schedule their lives around watching their grandchildren in preschool.

So now I’ve finally written the webcam post. Thanks for bearing with me.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

We Couldn’t Be More Different

In the comments to yesterday’s post about my family’s traditional holiday wrapping paper fight, my preschool education blogging colleague Deborah Stewart wrote:

. . .except for our passion for early childhood, sometimes I think you and I couldn’t be more different . . . I throw the gift wrap paper in a big trash bag as soon as the gifts start to open. Perhaps I need to loosen up a bit, you think?

She meant it light-heartedly and I suspect we have much more in common than a commitment to our profession, but I found myself reflecting on the great and wonderful truth wrapped like a gift in Deborah's words during last night’s 3-5 class’ monthly parent meeting.

For as long as I’ve been involved with cooperative preschools, both as a parent and teacher, our December meeting has been short on business and long on socializing. Last night we expeditiously dispensed with the formalities, filled up our plates with goodies, corked the wine (or alternatively, poured out marguerites prepared by our gracious host Karl) and reconvened to share our holiday stories. I look forward to this every year as parents take turns talking about their family’s holiday traditions. Almost everyone in the room has been at Woodland Park for at least two school years now, and many for far longer than that. We already know each other quite well, at least through our children, and this community is a safe, even loving, place to share.

Moving around the circle, literally laughing and crying, often at the same time, it was a genuine celebration of our both our similarities and differences. Some of us celebrate big, while others strive to keep it small. Some told stories of triumph, while others talked of struggle. We heard about traditions that go back for generations, others that are brand new, and some that are still in the aspirational stages. We learned about places as far flung as Belgium and the Phillipines.

Deborah’s words kept coming back to me, “ . . . (we) couldn’t be more different.” And that, I think, is the great gift of our school. It’s demonstrably true that we could not be more different, yet we all wound up in Karl’s living room together sharing food, wine, and the raising of our children. We couldn’t be more different, yet as Amanda said, “I trust everyone in this room with my child.” We couldn’t be more different, yet we come together day-after-day to build community for the sake of our children.

We come from such different places. We have different values, personalities, temperaments, parenting styles, and dreams. Instead of setting those differences aside, we instead bring them into the classroom with us to teach one another’s kids. At its core, it is this that makes our cooperative preschool work: this incredible diversity of caring teachers in the children’s lives.

Far too often we see differences as a point of contention and even conflict, yet right there in Karl’s crowded living room, we convened as living proof that given time for trust to develop, the differences among us become our community's strength.

As Jaimee, a former and perhaps future elementary school teacher, said, “People talk about school readiness. This,” indicating all of us, “is what leads to school readiness.”

We couldn’t be more different. That is our gift to one another.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

It’s On!

Last week Finn V. told a story that was really nothing more than his holiday wish list. By now most of the children have excitedly told me about their trees and stockings. A couple have talked about the “Santa Train” or their plans to go see The Nutcracker.  A few are excited about family trips. But, come on, presents rule the day and every kid knows it.

If memory serves, my own excitement about presents didn’t really begin to fade until well into adulthood, but by the time I’d reached 30 the whole thing had gotten stale. My entire extended family at that time were adults. We found ourselves on the track of buying ever more expensive gifts for one another, most of which were either the wrong color, size or brand. It was tradition, however, and we kept doing it without much thought, launching ourselves into the shopping mall fray each December, exhausting ourselves in pursuit of objects for people who no longer needed more objects. For me, at least, it had become more about the hollow act of buying things for my family members than the fulfilling one of giving them a gift, although at the time it was more a nagging feeling than a conscious thought.

It wasn’t until our daughter Josephine was born 13 years ago, that childhood was introduced back into our family’s holiday traditions. It instantly and unexpectedly changed our attitude about gifts. It’s fun to give presents to children. Their excitement is infectious. Their gratitude is genuine. Within a couple seasons our family’s calcified gift-giving tradition had new life. For the past decade the adults no longer shop for one another. We’ve made a pact to only exchange handmade gifts for which we’ve spent no more than $5. My holiday “shopping” is now comprised of a single trip to Top Ten Toys for the kids, then hours spent in the garage or kitchen creating something designed to delight my family members for a day, fully expecting them to either consume them or pitch them before the new year turns old.

I’ve made marble runs, infused oils, woodblock prints, and candle holders from chunks of wood I found on the forest floor, each time learning a skill. I’ve received pot holders, CD’s of musical performances, fancy storage containers, and batches of spiced nuts or cookies, each a gift of time and love. While the children set about testing the limits of their new store-bought acquisitions, I’m always moved by the care and effort the adults have put into their gifts. This is the real gift the children have given their parents and grandparents.

But the mushy feeling doesn’t last because once the presents are unwrapped and we’re sitting there behind our stash, surrounded by wrapping paper and bows, the most important Hobson family Christmas tradition is upon us, one that goes back for at least two generations. It usually falls to my brother Sam or me to get things going, although sometimes it’s Dad. One of us will ball up some paper and bean someone else upside the head. That’s the signal that the annual Hobson family paper fight is on. When we were younger it could turn into a raucous, ornament-breaking affair. Dad spins yarns of even more pitched battles between himself and his four siblings from back in the day of the dreaded foil wrapping paper, which could be formed into a missile "as hard as a rock."

Today’s skirmishes tend to be more of the ambush variety, involving tissue paper, but that’s destined to change, perhaps this year, as all the cousins are now in the sweet-spot age-range of 4-13. Judging by their rowdiness at Thanksgiving, I’m thinking this might well be the year of all out wrapping paper war that won’t end until someone is in tears.

Last year my immediate family switched to an artificial tree, following my parents' lead, for environmental reasons. The myth of Santa is a thing of the past. We never really got into the annual Nutcracker ballet. Our advent calendar hasn’t made an appearance for some time. The only things, in fact, that have remained constant over the years are the Christmas morning trips across the lake to Mom and Dad’s house and that paper fight. I’m ready to add the “new” tradition of handmade gifts to those other two to make it a trinity of essential traditions. That’s enough. Any more would be a chore.

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