Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Return Of The Giant Tube

Oh, we've had fun with our giant tube, thinking with it, assessing risk with it, and just being brave with it. We used it quite a bit when we first acquired it as packaging from our 18-foot sun/rain canopy. Made of thick cardboard and narrow enough to induce claustrophobia in the adults standing outside, it has been a steady mainstay of Woodland Park since January, but when the 15-foot moving van arrived to move us to our new school at the center of the universe, we had to make a decision. Not only would it be an awkward fit in the van, but I also just couldn't imagine how to store such a monstrous thing in the new space. Besides, as fun as it had been, I was really getting sick of working around it and hauling from one place to another.

It was time to cut it up. This week, the shorter, yet still giant, tubes made their debut. Of course, we would be rolling in them.

We started cautiously, on gym mats, on a gentle slope, with adults controlling the speed.

After all, we'd never rolled around inside giant tubes before and we wanted to make sure we knew what we were doing.

After several trail runs, increasing in speed and daring, only one child emerged with a worried look on her face. The rest were beaming. So we took it to our steeper slope, the one down which we've been racing our wagons. We started with adult hands on, fearing that they would go barreling down the hill at break-neck speeds, but as we've discovered with the wagons, the chunky wood chips on the ground do a great job of preventing things from getting out of control.

So I just stood downhill, making sure the path stayed clear, and that they kept their heads inside the tube, and watched them make it their own. I love the way they naturally took turns, holding the tube steady for their friends as they crawled inside, then giving a little push to get them going.

We tried going one-tube-at-a-time.

We tried racing down side-by-side.

At one point a couple of the guys tried going together in one tube, but didn't like the feeling of knocking their heads together as they bumped down. Of course, they tried it a second time, just to make sure they didn't like it.

There was a lot of negotiation and discussion, most of which didn't require adult assistance.

You could see this one coming from a mile off, but they worked it out.

I'm not surprised. This is the way kids play together when given the opportunity to be on their own, to make a few mistakes, and when they know the adults aren't going to leap in to bail them out.

The expensive canopy that came in the tube is still rolled up, lying along the fence, waiting to be installed. The giant tube is back, baby, and better than ever!

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

It Worked For Him Every Time

Little red wagon, little red bike, I ain't no monkey but I know what I like. ~Bob Dylan

The silver wagon, the one that was born red; maybe some day songs will be written about her.

She's lived a quiet life in our preschool up to now (although, on her days off, she's marched in a half dozen summer solstice parades and spent an August at Burning Man).

In the old place, there was really nowhere for her and her little red sister to be of service, so they sat unused, taking up valuable storage space. Regularly, I would think, We really should get rid of them, but I couldn't take that step because what kind of self-respecting preschool doesn't have wagons? 

Wagons live best where there is more space. We have just enough now, space, barely, and a hill that can be cleared to make a track.

The silver wagon is always the first one chosen.

And down we go, rocking our bodies back and forth first to get her going, then following the slope, bumpily . . .

. . . with a meager ability to steer and none to brake . . .

. . . all the way to the bottom.

It's a perfect ride, slow and bumpy to a natural stopping point where the ground levels out, although with just the right amount of challenge.

I love that there are friends on the scene to help; to turn us back to the fun we're having; away from the disappointment of tipping over.

And friends with whom to ride.

Because riding together like children in a Norman Rockwell painting . . .

. . . is among the best things in the world.

We come to a stop where gravity and obstacles will have us, always laughing from the thrill of the ride.

He told me, "If I pull back on the handle, it slows down." That can't be, I know, although it worked for him every time.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Nature Or Nurture

As a new parent, I was convinced that my daughter would grow up to be a sports playing, hammer wielding tomboy. After all, I was playing the role of stay-at-home-parent in our family, and I just assumed that my male influence would make it so. We didn't exactly try to raise her in a non-gender specific way, but mom was the one heading off to the office, while dad handled childcare, cooking and cleaning. Not only that but we both preferred her in short hair and overalls, and for the first couple years of her life, whenever she was out with me, everyone just assumed she was a little boy, a mistake I didn't always correct. If anyone was raising a child outside the cultural expectations for a little girl, it was us.

I was pretty smug when she expressed a fondness for The Who (a band I've always considered particularly masculine), knew the name of certain baseball players, or left the toilet seat up. I'd grown up in an academic and cultural era in which most of us believed in the power of nurture over nature, the idea that things like gender-specific behaviors and preferences were largely conveyed to children by society rather than genes. By the time I was a parent, however, the pendulum was swinging back the other way. There were now studies and articles arguing that gender-linked behaviors are almost entirely a matter of biology, a case that was bolstered, it seemed, by my own daughter, before she was 3, telling me, "You don't know about girls. Girls wear crowns." She then proceeded to wear a crown almost every day until she hit kindergarten, augmenting with pink and purple and tutus and just about every typically girlie thing one can imagine.

Bethe Almeras, the wonderful Grass Stain Guru asked me (and a few other folks) yesterday to comment on an Associated Press article about Egalia, a Stockholm preschool that seeks to teach children in as gender neutral a way as possible. I read the article on my phone while sitting in a restaurant awaiting the rest of our overwhelmingly female summer program board to assemble for dinner and drinks.

My initial reaction was to chuckle about the first sentence:

At the "Egalia" preschool, staff avoid using works like "him" or "her" and address the 33 kids as "friends" rather than girls and boys.

I chuckled not because I don't admire the effort, because I do. I still believe that the truth about nature versus nurture lies somewhere in between, and that my own efforts at gender-neutral parenting have borne fruit as my child enters her teenage years; definitely female, but not always stereotypically so. I chuckled because it struck me as the kind of thing I would have tried when I was a brand new teacher, discovered it was like trying to push water uphill, then abandoned it in the interest of choosing a battle I could actually win.

According to the article, however, breaking down gender roles is a core mission in the national curriculum for Swedish preschools. I also know that in Sweden, schools (like the rest of Scandinavia) are expected to adhere to the goals of their national curriculum, but are given the freedom to seek to achieve those goals in the way the teachers and administrators in that school see fit. And the fact that there is a "long waiting list" to get into the school tells me that there are a lot of parents eager to take part in the experiment.

Do I think that Egalia will succeed in creating a generation of children entirely free from their stereotypical gender roles? No. But do I expect that this approach will in both overt and subtle ways influence individual children in their attitudes about themselves and others when it comes to gender? Quite possibly, especially since the entire learning community, from teachers and administrators to parents, seem to be on board. It's an educational experiment, and if you've read here for long, you'll know that I think that's what education ought to be every day: a collaborative experiment between children and the adults in their lives.

I don't, however, encourage you to click through to this AP story if you want to learn more about Egalia.  The writer has chosen to infuse it with much of her own bias: everything from putting the name "Egalia" in quotes (as if it's not a real proper noun -- you would never see "Bank of America" in quotes), to tossing out charged terms like "liberal," "radical," and "engineering equality." The writer clearly wants readers to find the whole idea ridiculous. Not only that, but there is very little about the rest of Egalia's curriculum beyond the silly-sounding idea of avoiding gender specific pronouns and a long diversion into how they try to create an environment that is tolerant of "gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people" (something that is not unique to Egalia, but rather true of all Swedish schools). At the same time there are lots of quotes from critics, including from a University of a California Davis psychologist who had never heard of Egalia or any school like it before the reporter called him. The writer even goes out of her way to find an unrelated, ridiculous-sounding state-funded postdoctoral study to drop into the story.

I still believe that the Egalia experiment will result in much pushing of water uphill, but I also think it's a worthy experiment. One preschool will in no way undo the influence of biology or the rest of society, but it will be interesting to see what it can do.

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Tilting At Windmills

At this point they caught sight of thirty or forty windmills which were standing on the plain there, and no sooner had Don Quixote laid eyes upon them than he turned to his squire and said, “Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we could have wished; for you see there before you, friend Sancho Panza, some thirty or more lawless giants which whom I mean to do battle. I shall deprive them of their lives, and with the spoils from this encounter we shall begin to enrich ourselves, for this is righteous warfare, and it is a great service to God to remove so accursed a breed from the face of the earth.”

“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.

“Those that you see there,” replied his master, “those with the long arms some of which are as much as two leagues in length.”

“But look, your Grace, those are not giants but windmills, and what appear to be arms are their wings which, when whirled in the breeze, cause the millstone to go.”

“It is plain to be seen,” said Don Quixote, “that you have had little experience in this matter of adventures. If you are afraid, go off to one side and say your prayers while I am engaging them in fierce, unequal combat.”

Saying this, he gave spurs to his steed Rocinante, without paying any heed to Sancho’s warning that these were truly windmills and not giants that he was riding forth to attack. Nor even when he was close upon them did he perceive what they really were, but shouted at the top of his lungs, “Do not seek to flee, cowards and vile creatures that you are, for it is but a single knight with whom you have to deal!”
At that moment a little wind came up and the big wings began turning.

“Though you flourish as many arms as did the giant Briareus,” said Don Quixote when he perceived this, “you still shall have to answer to me.”

He thereupon commended himself with all his heart to his lady Dulcinea, beseeching her to succor him in this peril; and, being well covered with his shield and with his lance at rest, he bore down upon them at a full gallop and fell upon the first mill that stood in his way, giving a thrust at the wing, which was whirling at such a speed that his lance was broken into bits and both horse and horseman went rolling over the plain, very much battered indeed.

Sancho upon his donkey came hurrying to his master’s assistance as fast as he could, but when he reached the spot, the knight was unable to move, so great was the shock with which he and Rocinante had hit the ground.

“God help us!” exclaimed Sancho, “did I not tell your Grace to look well, that those were nothing but windmills, a fact which no one could fail to see unless he had other mills of the same sort in his head?”

“Be quiet, friend Sancho,” said Don Quixote. “Such are the fortunes of war, which more than any other are subject to constant change.

What is more, when I come to think of it, I am sure that this must be the work of that magician Frestón, the one who robbed me of my study and my books, and who has thus changed the giants into windmills in order to deprive me of the glory of overcoming them, so great is the enmity that he bears me; but in the end his evil arts shall not prevail against this trusty sword of mine.”

(Translated by Samuel Putnam, 1949)

Note: We received this windmill as a gift from the now defunct Cirque de Flambe. In its past life it was set afire as part of a bit they did about Don Quixote. Our plan is to turn it into the wall of a play structure in the center of our outdoor classroom, but for now we're just playing with it.

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Motivation, Sociability, And the Ability To Work With Others

Although evidence of standardized testing can be found as early as China’s Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), it didn’t become a part of the Western tradition until the 20th century and the advent of the I.Q. test which purports to measure innate intelligence. 

Every day that we've played in our new outdoor classroom, with its two
level sand pit, a team of engineers has taken on the job of creating a
waterway that carries water from the uppermost part where the cast iron
water pump resides, down to the lower level.

The underlying theory behind these tests is that we are born with a certain amount of intelligence and that largely determines how successful we will be in life. In the late 1950’s an educator in Michigan named David Welkart had the radical idea of improving the academic performance of minority students by essentially inventing preschool as we know it today. 

This is a job that is simply impossible for a single actor to carry off. It's a team project. No
one has taught these children how to work together, no one is urging them to work 
together, but every day they do: debating, discussing, planning, inventing.

You can read the full story here, but the bottomline was that the Perry School Project experiment boosted I.Q. scores dramatically, leading directly to the federal preschool program called Head Start in 1965.

It's nice to have a few adults around when things get heated, when our 
disagreements become greater than our emotional capacity to handle them,
but most of the time they're just playing with us, observing, discussing,
figuring out what needs to happen to allow us to achieve our common goal.

An interesting thing happened, however. These initial I.Q. gains in the Perry School study faded after only a couple years, a result that was later verified by Head Start. While critics of Head Start used this to attack the program as a failure, the Perry School research continued. Even though the intelligence of students who had attended preschool, as measured by the standardized I.Q. test, was no longer greater than that of their non-preschool peers, they continued to show greater academic achievement, were less likely to be assigned to special education classes, and showed fewer behavioral problems.

Someone always needs to be at the top, pumping, while those at the bottom,
via a process known only to them, determine where to place the plastic
rain gutters and where to dig. It's the job of a community.

This phenomenon was tracked through high school, with those who had attended preschool not being “smarter” than their peers, but continuing to do better in school by every measure. Now in their 40's the test subjects are more likely to be employed, make more money, have healthier relationships, be involved in their own kid’s lives, and are less likely to be involved in crime. All of this without any measurable I.Q. advantage; the only identifiable difference between these individuals and the control group being two years of preschool.

When repairs need to be made, and they inevitably do, there is more discussion, more talk,
 more team action geared toward the common goal of getting water to flow to 
the bottom of the hill.

In other words, whatever was being measured by these standardized tests, it didn’t seem to have any bearing on achievement.

The assumption at the heart of a lot of economic theory is that measured intelligence is the key to everything. But with the Perry Preschool children, something else made the difference. It was not IQ. (Nobel Prize laurete economist James) Heckman is now working with psychologists to try to understand how the preschool may have affected the development of what he calls "non-cognitive" skills, things like motivation, sociability and the ability to work with others.

These are critical skills that help people succeed at school, at work - and in life.

Motivation, sociability, and the ability to work with others: it's upon this foundation that "successful lives" are built. We can trot out our "letters of the week" and our exercises in one-to-one correspondence all we want.

No one tells the children how to do this. It's something they noodle through
by freely playing together. They learn the tricks of how to lay the 
gutters to minimize the loss of water, and pass it on to their friends. 
They figure out how to overcome the pull of gravity in one direction or
another,  what it sounds like when the pump's cistern is empty or 
when someone has  jammed things up by putting sand into it. 
Most of them even know  how to prime a reluctant pump by pouring a 
bit of water into the cylinder, something most of the adults in the 
world do not know.

We can try to teach them about phonics and metamorphosis and rhythm and science, read them books by Seuss and Steig and Fox and even Tolstoy, or talk at them until we're blue in the face. But, it's when we give them space to play, together, that we are really doing our jobs, serving the children, serving our society, and serving the world.

Motivation, sociability, and the ability to work with others: these are the ABC's and 1, 2, 3's of a play-based preschool curriculum.

It is the combination of working shoulder-to-shoulder, and talking face-to-face that is the
story of how all great things get done.

(Portions of this post were previously published here.)

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