Friday, September 30, 2011

Soon It Was Someone Else's Turn

I told a story here last year about how 5-year-old Isak played with our hamster wheel in our 3-5's class, intensely experimenting over and over with centrifugal force, then having mastered it, spontaneously turning to a younger classmate and taught her what he'd learned. It was one of those shining moments, one in which the power of a play-based curriculum was so clear, when then positives of a multi-aged classroom so manifest, that the wheel has earned a permanent place in the Woodland Park repertoire even if no other child ever plays with it.

Although when I broke the hamster wheel out yesterday, I suspected I'd have at least one taker. Connor is now in our 3-5's class, but last year in our Pre-3 class he had sort of claimed the hamster wheel as his own, latching onto it, carrying it around the classroom, spinning it, rolling it on every surface, bouncing it off things, sticking it into things, incorporating it into his sensory table play, block play, play dough, and everything else he did. I never really had the chance to demonstrate to any of those kids what it could do because for the week it lived in the room, it was his, and he put it through it's paces like only a 2-year-old scientist can. 

Yesterday, other children discovered the wheel first, one of whom began experimenting with a car, similar to the way Isak had last year. With a little coaching they set up a system of turn-taking making it possible for 3 children to explore it at once, surprising themselves when "the car stuck to the top." It wasn't until this group had winnowed itself down to a final scientist that Connor noticed it. He's still a young 3, and as is natural for many children his age, the connection between seeing and grabbing is almost instantaneous.

"Nooooooo! I'm using it!"

I helped Connor release his grip, saying, "Gray is using it now." Then to Gray, "Connor wants to use the wheel. When you're finished, can he use it?"

Gray, clutching the wheel tightly, answered, "Yes."

I said to Connor, "Gray said you can use it when he's finished."

Gray said, "I won't be finished for a long time," and went back to spinning the car. Connor, as if holding his place in line, put his fingertips on the countertop several inches away from the hamster wheel.

What a change from a few months ago when that hamster wheel was his, his alone, and I doubt if anything could have persuaded him otherwise. I don't know if he remembered it, of course, but some part of him must have recalled the feeling of ownership, of possession. His hand, with each spin, moved closer without actually touching. Gray was well aware of this procedure, and kept his own fairly firm grip on the wheel, even to the point that he hampered its ability to spin freely. He even kept his own hand on it when the car fell on the floor and he had to bend down to pick it up. He has a brother and knows how these things sometimes work.

I'm particularly pleased with how the boys were not relying on me at this point, although I suppose my presence was helping them concentrate on making it work. 

One of the challenges of the hamster wheel is that in order to spin it fast enough to create sufficient centrifugal force for the car to "stick," one must hold the base down with one hand while imparting motion with the other. Gray was struggling with this, which is why the car often wound up on the floor. Soon Connor had moved his hand, inch-by-inch, close enough to touch it with his fingertips. This was taking a great deal of concentration and self-control on Connor's part, I know. And Gray, by allowing those fingers to remain where they were, demonstrated amazing patience, perhaps even empathy. Both boys were fighting urges in the name of civility. 

It was a fairly tense moment for all of us as we waited for what would happen next. Eyes still on Connor's hand, Gray finally gave the wheel a hard spin while Connor, accidentally or not, held the base in place.

I said, "Connor helped Gray by holding the base so it wouldn't fall over."

Gray spun the wheel two more times with Connor's hand there before they both gave in to their urges slightly, Connor's hand creeping into a stronger position of control, causing Gray to grab the wheel in two hands and yank it away, saying, "I'm using it!"

I said, "When Gray is finished, Connor gets a turn." 

As Gray's turn took longer than a 3-year-old's patience could bear, especially in a classroom full of other things to do, Connor headed off to the far corner of the room, and I left Gray to his own devices for a time. Quite some time later, I found myself near Connor and noticed that the hamster wheel, on the far side of the room, was unoccupied. I said, "Look Connor, it's your turn to play with the hamster wheel." He glanced that way, took a few minutes to finish with what he was doing, then headed over there, not in a hurry, not with possessiveness, but just in the course of his business. He horsed around with it for a few minutes, then left it where he'd found it.

Soon it was someone else's turn.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Elastic Yardsticks Redux, Part 3

(This is a repost of the third of a three part series entitled "Using Elastic Yardsticks," which I wrote back in the early days of this blog, and feel should once more see the light of day. Here is a link to part one. And here is a link to part two. It comes from a time when I didn't use photos on the blog at all, so I've added a third and final sneak peek, bonus, extra special, subscribers only preview photo of "the talking box" -- which I may or may not blog about in the future -- at the top as a way of luring you in.)

Thomas Jefferson was the first American leader to propose public education in the U.S., right around the time the first phase of the Industrial Revolution was getting underway. His concept, an idea that was shared by most of the founding fathers, was that democracy required a well-educated citizenry in order to thrive.

This was the beginning of the historical era we now call the Age of Enlightenment, a time when reason came to be understood as the only legitimate source of authority rather than traditional and more arbitrary things like birth, religion, or military might. The American Revolution was a direct result of the Enlightenment as was the Industrial Revolution. These two progressive and revolutionary tracks evolved in tandem, ushering in an explosive era of intellectual and economic growth not seen in Western society since the Renaissance.

As mass production grew as a share of the economy, more and more trained workers were needed on the factory floors and industrialists came to look at public schools as a convenient institution for quickly and effectively converting the largely agricultural population into the type of labor needed to work on their assembly lines.

This tension between the competing needs of democracy (which requires well-educated citizens) and industry (which needs well-trained workers) continues to be an underlying dynamic in public education in the US and, indeed, much of the rest of the world.

In case there is any question, I believe that the economy is here to serve “we the people,” not the other way around, yet increasingly we see our public educational system, which is vital to the continued survival of our democracy, being shaped to serve the needs of business, a process that has accelerated over the past three decades.

I’ve already written (herehere, and here) about how our schools increasingly emphasize math and science at the behest of economic interests, leaving humanities education (the basis for educating properly functioning citizens) to founder. And in my writing about multi-age classrooms I've pointed out that the single-age model of education is based upon assembly line manufacturing techniques imported to the US by way of Prussia. Indeed, the very structure of public education, with its hierarchical, top-down organization, concentrating power in the hands of politicians, superintendents and school boards, is a direct reflection of how business organizes itself.

And standardized testing, with its false promise of producing relevant data, is exactly the kind of solution one would expect from number crunchers.

Schools are not businesses. Education cannot be measured in terms of balance sheets. The purpose of business is to earn a profit. The purpose of public schools is to produce well-educated citizens. The business model cannot succeed in education any more than my preschool’s model can produce an economic profit: that is, both can to a degree, but only as an accidental by product.

Yesterday I wrote about the Perry School study which is finding that the most important thing for schools to teach in order to produce successful citizens are attributes like motivation, sociability, and an ability to work with others. These are not things that can be measured by standardized tests, nor are they skills that can be produced on assembly lines like widgets. To an economist, anything in a business that does not contribute to earning a profit can be considered waste. To an educator, anything that does not contribute to developing these skills (like high-stakes testing) can be considered a waste.

One of the most distressing side-effects of this “businessification” of schools is that instead of students, teachers, parents and administrators coming together as a community of learners, we find the kinds of competitive adversarial relationships characteristic of the business world. I’m going to stick to my area of knowledge here, leaving the goodness of competition to the business-types, and the application of these principles beyond elementary school to those who work with older kids. But every model of early childhood education I’ve ever studied holds at its core the idea that children learn best in nurturing environments where teachers, parents and facilities (a category under which I include "management") function as a kind of three-legged stool. It’s a cooperative endeavor, not a competitive one.

Advocates of standardized testing are generally standing on the ground of “accountability.” They have the idea that these "slothful," unionized teachers are somehow trying to get away with something and they must be compelled to do their jobs. Administrators, even in the best of times, are in a financial pinch and are forced to choose between math/science and the humanities, saddle their teachers with ever larger classes, and resort to imposing assembly line educational methods. Parents are stuck in the middle, not really knowing what’s going on their child’s classroom, seeing the flaws in our system, yet feel helpless to do anything about it.

So what can we do?

But it seems clear that there are four fundamental things we must strive for if we are going return public education to its proper function of educating citizens:

1) Put real educators in charge of curriculum, measurement, and accountability, while reducing the influence of business interests.

2) Provide administrators adequate funding to have smaller classes and offer a complete education that includes humanities, arts, and physical education.

3) Give parents a more influential voice in how our public school systems operate by bringing them into the center of their children’s educational lives, and

4) Empower our teachers to teach.

How we get there is up to all of us and nothing less than our democracy is at stake.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Elastic Yardsticks Redux, Part 2

(This is a repost of the second of a three part series entitled "Using Elastic Yardsticks," which I wrote back in the early days of this blog, and feel should once more see the light of day. Here is a link to part one. It comes from a time when I didn't use photos on the blog at all, so I've added a second sneak peek, bonus, extra special, subscribers only preview photo of "the talking box" -- which I may or may not blog about in the future -- at the top as a way of luring you in.)

As a preschool teacher, I’ve never been involved in testing my students, although I’m constantly observing and evaluating skills and progress. I do have a long check list of social, cognitive, expressive and motor “objectives” (developed by Tom Drummond of Descriptive Cue Sequence fame) that I use when a parent requests a written evaluation of her child, but this can’t be considered “testing” in the sense I’m discussing here because the child has no idea he’s doing anything other than the kinds of things he normally does at school. Mostly, I’m just collecting data to make sure I’m on track as a teacher.

As a student who had highly developed test-taking skills and an eye on the prize (i.e., good grades) my academic life mostly took the form of cramming, testing, then blissfully forgetting. I’m sure some of the information stuck in there somewhere, but it’s an all too familiar pattern designed to reward those of us with the ability to quickly store tons of information in our short term memories. I guess it’s a form of learning, and I’m not exactly disappointed with the education I received in school, but wonder what’s lost when we emphasize test scores and grades to the extent we do.

And we continue to up the ante, especially when it comes to standardized testing. In 1965, the federal government, concerned we were falling behind the Soviets, mandated standardized testing in public schools. The 2001 “No Child Left Behind” act tied school funding to these tests, making it a virtual life-or-death matter for already struggling school districts. Public school administrators have had no choice but to pressure teachers to “teach to the test,” compelling them in many cases to set aside what they know is best for their students in favor of what is best for the financial well-being of the school. (The current administration has recently announced it will grant states waivers from this policy, but only if they agree to abide by "Race To The Top," their own, only slightly less onerous, high stakes testing plan.) This might be a good model for the perpetuation of the institution, but deeply flawed when it comes to education, as almost any teacher will tell you.

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. The underlying theory behind these tests is that we are born with a certain amount of intelligence and that, in turn, 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. 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.

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. Critics of Head Start used this to attack the program as a failure, but the Perry School research continued. While 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. 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.

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.

Every teacher, in her heart of hearts, already knows this. These are the skills we're here to teach. And these are skills that will never be measured by a standardized test.

(Please stop by tomorrow for part three. Thomas Jefferson plays a key role!)

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Elastic Yardsticks Redux, Part 1

(This is a repost of the first of a three part series entitled "Using Elastic Yardsticks," which I wrote back in the early days of this blog, and feel should once more see the light of day. It comes from a time when I didn't use photos on the blog at all, so I've added a sneak peek, bonus, extra special, subscribers only preview photo of "the talking box" -- which I may or may not blog about in the future -- at the top as a way of luring you in.)

Last night I was talking to a woman named Lucy whose son is a good student, but struggles when it came to taking tests, especially the multiple-choice parts.

As a student, the opposite was true for me. My grades were decent, but my scores on the standardized tests were always higher, sometimes significantly higher, than one would expect based on my classroom work. I especially loved taking multiple-choice tests. It was like a strategy game to me. By the time I was a sophomore in college I had boasted about my skills so much that a friend challenged me to take his biology test, a subject I’d never studied at the college level. It was one of those anonymous 200-person survey courses so an extra body wouldn’t be noticed, and since the results were being tied to social security numbers and run through a computerized grading system we figured we could get away with it. I didn’t beat my friend as I’d threatened, but my 81 put me in the upper fifth of that class of students who had presumably attended the lectures, read the books, and studied.

When I offered to teach Lucy’s son some test taking techniques, she laughed and said that they had already hired a “testing tutor” to learn some strategy.

As a guy who enjoys games, puzzles and sports, I’ll never find fault with learning to think strategically, but obviously there’s something wrong here. As I understand it, the fundamental purpose of academic testing is to assess and benchmark the acquisition of knowledge. Clearly the multiple-choice test is, at best, a flawed measuring tool if some bonehead journalism major can ace a biology test and there are people making careers out of coaching kids to pass them, regardless of subject. They're like using elastic yardsticks.

But to be honest, I didn’t just game the system on my college multiple-choice tests. I also figured out that when a professor is faced with grading a stack of essay tests, she places a high priority on things like organization because a well-ordered piece of writing, whatever the content, is simply quicker to grade. I found that I could almost always raise my grades by as much as a full letter, simply by writing what appeared to be a tiny outline in the upper right-hand corner of the first page. It would look something like this:

I.     Intro.
II.   (Buzzword lifted directly from the question)
III.  (Buzzword lifted directly from the question)
IV.  (Buzzword lifted directly from the question)
V.   Conclusion

This gave my teachers the impression of an orderly, well-considered answer right off the bat. I also made a point of not just regurgitating the key words, phrases and concepts I remembered from lectures verbatim, but also underlining them to make it easy for the grader to find them. I’m pretty sure there were some professors who never even read my essays, but instead just put checkmarks by these convenient highlights and scrawled, “Well organized!” across the top of the page.

My test-taking strategizing was all-inclusive. For instance, I rarely participated in my classes unless it was explicitly required. As I saw it, every time I raised my hand to answer a question, I was giving something away to my competition. After all, we were being graded on a curve and it could only hurt my grade to share knowledge with my classmates. If I had a question, I always saved it for office hours so that the professor’s answer only benefited me, and not the rest of those yahoos against whom I was being judged.

None of this had anything to do with education, of course, but rather about running up the score. Since the lion’s share of my grades were based on testing, my college grade point average went up sharply over what I’d done in high school, where more of my grades had been calculated by a teacher’s far more meaningful and accurate personal evaluation of what I’d actually learned.

Fortunately, during my junior and senior years I was in smaller classes that didn’t rely so much on testing and actually learned something.

I continue to be a skeptic about testing of all kinds and especially the standardized, high-stakes academic testing being used in our public schools. I know they’re probably out there, but I’ve yet to meet a teacher who doesn’t resent these tests, especially when the scores play such an disproportionate role in the academic lives of their students, as well as their own careers. If the people I talk to are representative, the phenomenon of “teaching to the test” is a real one, causing great teachers to forego what they know is best for their students in favor of becoming glorified “testing tutors.” Teachers know that doing well on tests is to a large degree a kind of trick that can be taught, but doesn’t really have much, if anything, to do with actual education.

I’ve never met a teacher who got into education for the fame or fortune. Every single one of us chose the profession because we genuinely believe we have something to offer to children. Our political and governmental leaders keep telling us that public education is broken, but more testing, incentive pay, charter schools, and the rest of those business-style solutions are not the answers.

(Tune in tomorrow for part two of the story and another, even better, picture of the "talking box.")

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, September 26, 2011

That's What Makes Civilization Work

The educator with a democratic vision or posture cannot avoid in his teaching praxis insisting on the critical capacity, curiosity, and autonomy of the learner. ~Paulo Freire
(D)emocracy cannot exist without enlightenment. ~Thomas Jefferson

If you've been reading here for long at all, you'll know I have strong opinions about democracy. Indeed, I have strong opinions about specific policies as well, but it's democracy itself that interests me most as a teacher.

I might as well tell you, however, that among the many things I find imperfect in our imperfect world is how Wall Street seems to be getting off scot free (interestingly the source of that idiom comes from the Old English for "tax free") for its part in the tanking of our economy. I've been following the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City and when I learned there was an Occupy Seattle rally yesterday a few blocks from my home, I thought I'd walk over and show myself, physically, as being frustrated by policies that seem to favor the wealthiest and ignore the rest.

As I approached the Paramount Theater where the rally was to take place, I saw the usual clutch of lefty signs of all sorts, none, strangely, mentioning Wall Street, although many said, "Tax the Rich." It was a smallish group, which is kind of what I expected. When I got to the corner of 8th and Pine, however, I was surprised to find that the entire block was cordoned off up to the theater. That seemed a bit extreme for the handful of mostly gray-haired protesters, but Seattle does have a little history with protests getting out of hand, so I figured they were being overly cautious, although I did feel that my democratic rights were being infringed in a way, being forced by the police to stand in a designated spot with the others a great distance from where we apparently wanted to be. 

Not much was happening, so I wandered down Pine Street. It seemed odd to me that there was a large, well-dressed, orderly crowd lined up along the south side of the street. In fact, the farther I walked, the odder it seemed. At first I thought that maybe there was some sort of popular show playing at the Paramount and due to the protest, this is how they were having the people line up so they could get inside in an orderly manner, but four blocks later that began to seem unlikely.

That's when I asked a bicycle cop, "Why are these people in line?"

"The President is coming."


This information in my pocket I returned to the intersection, this time to take a look at the democracy taking place back there. I don't mean the campaign speech/fundraiser going on up at the Paramount, but rather the parties who had turned out on a blustery, damp day to raise their voices in favor or against pet causes, hoping their small voice could make a difference in moving our democracy this way or that, even if the President was going to be a block away and not at all likely to see or hear them.

Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruit in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between (people), and their beliefs -- in religion, literature, collages and schools -- democracy in all public and private life. ~Walt Whitman
Democracy is not something that happens, you know, just at election time, and it's not something that happens just with one event. It's an ongoing building process. But it also ought to be a part of our culture, a part of our lives. ~Jim Hightower

There were people from the big unions here, environmental activists, conspiracy theorists, Tea Partiers, Larouchies, and healthcare activists. There were American flags and Gadsden flags and Flags of the Earth. Several different individuals had megaphones, with which they lead chants of various sorts. There was a group of immigration reform activists, quite young and energetic, who arrived with chants and simple choreography that showed the rest of us old farts how democracy in the streets should be done: with passion and joy, not this undercurrent of rancor that poisons so much of our political discourse. I teared up seeing them there, speaking their minds. Later, I saw them walking together and they could have been any other group of young people just hanging out downtown on a Sunday afternoon.

This is what it means to be a good citizen. I don't necessarily mean standing on a street corner chanting, although that can be part of it, but making democracy "a part of our culture, a part of our lives," something these young people were doing without any sense of irony or shame or defensiveness, before heading out for some burgers and fries.

We don't talk enough about citizenship and we should because at the end of the day, citizenship is the purpose of education -- at least public education -- in a democracy.

In a true democracy every man and woman is taught to think for himself or herself. ~Gandhi
Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world. ~Paulo Freire
The only freedom that is of enduring importance is the freedom of intelligence, that is to say, freedom of observation and of judgement, exercised in behalf of purposes that are intrinsically worth while. ~John Dewey 

Learning to think for ourselves, to deal critically and creatively with reality, to discover how to participate in the transformation of our world: this is what stands at the heart of a play-based curriculum, and it is what is necessary in order for us to act as full citizens in our democracy. Every time I hear a politician or Wall Street type speak of education as if it's mere vocational training, as if it has some important role to play in "beating" or "keeping up with" some other nation, each time they trot out this or that new technological gewgaw that will allow us to more efficiently cram information into children, I hear people interested in indoctrinating our children in the "logic of the present system." These are people who have lost faith in the ability of people to govern themselves or who are terrified lest the people come to doubt the status quo.

Skepticism: the mark and even the pose of the educated mind. ~John Dewey 
Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril. ~John Dewey 

When I pick up a toy pig and say, "Moo," or claim that up is down, I am overtly attempting to create a skeptical mind, a mind that thinks for itself, a mind that listens, then doubts if what he hears doesn't jibe with what he already knows of the world. One of my proudest moments as a teacher was the time my Pre-K class forced me to prove to them that one could melt metal. They simply would not take my word for it, and a thinking person shouldn't, so I found a piece of lead and held it on a spoon over a candle flame until it melted. 

When the children make their own rules, learn to resolve their own disagreements, assess their own risks, think through their own creative process, decide for themselves where they will play and what they will do, they are learning the skills and habits of democracy.

Civilization is the process in which one gradually increases the number of people included in the term "we" or "us" and at the same time decreases those labeled "you" or "them" until that category has no one left in it. ~Howard Winters

Our classroom becomes a democratic experiment in its own right, a place in which each individual has an equal share in the entire community. It's why you can't say you can't play, not in here, because there are no private country clubs in this place, there are no places where girls aren't allowed, there is no apartheid. Democracies are a society of "we," and we can only learn about that through the experience of living in a community of "we."

The essence of democracy is its assurance that every human being should so respect himself and should be so respected in his own personality that he should have opportunity equal to that of every other human being to show what he was meant to become.  ~Anna Garlin Spencer 
Individual commitment to a group effort -- that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work. ~Vince Lombardi

Perhaps the greatest challenge of every society is finding where we will balance the needs and rights of the individual and the needs and rights of the community. The idea of democracy is that when we give each of us the equal opportunity to be what he is "meant to become" it will ultimately serve us all. At the same time the individual also stands in a position of responsibility to his community. In preschool that means things like taking part in clean-up, engaging in circle time discussions, participating in governance, and honoring the rules that we've all agreed upon.

Democracy cannot flourish where the chief influences in selecting subject matter of instruction are utilitarian ends narrowly conceived for the masses, and, for the higher education of the few, the traditions of a specialized cultivated class. The notion that the "essentials" of elementary education are the three R's mechanically treated, is based upon ignorance of the essential needed for realization of democratic ideals. Unconsciously it assumes that these ideals are unrealizable; it assumes that in the future, as in the past, getting a livelihood, "making a living," must dignify for most men and women doing things which are not significant, freely chosen, and ennobling to those who do them; doing things which serve ends unrecognized by those engaged in them, carried on under the direction of others for the sake of pecuniary reward. ~John Dewey

A play-based curriculum is not one that descends as edicts from the top of a pyramid, but rather rises from the children themselves as they undertake significant, freely chosen, and ennobling activity and thought. This is what leads to the kind of critical, creative mind that can truly said to be educated; one that thinks for itself as opposed to being confined to the mere "essentials" selected by men and women with utilitarian aims who then seek to have it proven to them on tests. This is no way to teach children the skills needed for self governance, but rather the nose-to-the-grindstone conformity that serves the monied elites.

I have written here and here that when it comes to measures used by the corporate education reformers, America's public schools are at least on par, if not outperforming the rest of the world, and that I believe their "reformer's" agenda is not in fact one of improving schools, but of improving our economic competitiveness by creating workers for their utilitarian, economic ends. This is not what I would wish for my child or the children I teach. Of course, I want them to learn such utilitarian things as reading, writing and arithmetic, but they need not be artificially placed at the core of the curriculum, because, being utilitarian they will emerge as a matter of course as children seek to pursue their freely chosen ends. This is what is at the core of education, just as it is at the core of democracy.

The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment. ~Robert M. Hutchins
The citizen can bring our political and governmental institutions back to life, make them responsive and accountable, and keep them honest. No one else can. ~John Gardner

It's easy to be cynical about the state of our democracy, especially when you look at party politics. Barack Obama was in Seattle to raise a small portion of the billion plus he'll need to get re-elected, just as George Bush did a few years ago. It has become increasingly true in my lifetime that money talks in Washington, not just in elections, but all the time, every day, through PR campaigns, paid lobbyists, and outright bribery. It's easy to feel helpless, to feel voiceless, to feel trapped behind a barricade a block or more away from the person who needs to hear what I have to say. What good does it do for me to give up a couple hours of a Sunday afternoon to stand on a street corner or call my representatives' offices or even vote for that matter? I'm a drop in the bucket while my opponents have millions to spend on full time advocacy for their positions, be it "education reform" or war and peace.

On my way to the corner of 8th and Pike I passed a young man walking briskly, a protest sign under his arm. His face was flushed and he smiled at me as he passed, a look of giddy excitement on his features. I know that look. I've felt that way while heading out to political rallies. Later I saw him standing on the curb at the southwest corner of the intersection where the Tea Party Patriots had their banner. He was standing in front, raising his sign over his head, punching it into the air. His words were being drown out by the immigration reform youths, but he too was smiling, his face still flush with passion and joy.

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

I'm enough of a student of US history to know that every generation has felt that his was the era when democracy would die, that liberty was gasping its final breath and it is exactly this feeling, when it becomes pervasive enough, that finally turns our attention away from our lives of football games and shopping, family and friends, or just hanging out downtown on a Sunday afternoon. And that is all we have on our side to combat the small minority who can afford to hire full time advocates for their cause, who have the deep pockets to buy, influence and bribe: we have, we are, citizens with an hour here or an hour there to think for ourselves and speak out. When enough of us take that time to engage in democracy, we can overwhelm them.

Here's a citizen putting her "utilitarian" preschool skills to work.

But first we must be able to think for ourselves, and that is what seems to be under assault these days. Are you red? Are you blue? Or are you a loon?  A true citizen, one who can think for himself, is always a loon, at least until he has that first follower, then another, then another . . .

We naturally associate democracy, to be sure, with freedom of action, but freedom of action without freed capacity of thought behind it is only chaos. ~John Dewey

For any political leader trying to hold onto power by any means other than serving citizens, nothing is more terrifying than people who know how to think.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

We're Here To Build A Community

Yesterday, I wrote about how our 3-5's class has started the year spread out over three rooms to start the school year, a great departure for me as a teacher. In contrast, the Pre-3 class is starting off all in one room, the Yellow Room, which is familiar ground for me. I'm sure as the year progresses, we'll be busting out into the Cloud Room as well, but for this introductory period I want to keep them all together, because, after all, we're here to be together. We have some social conventions to learn, routines, even a language of being together and it's going to happen more efficiently if we're in this one room together.

We think of 2's as being suns around whom the universe revolves, just on the threshold of being able to play with, rather than parallel to, a peer. Those with siblings tend to be a little farther along, often quite skilled at navigating play with other children. But all of them already know how to play with the predictable, patient adults in their lives, so the seeds are planted and school is where we nurture them along as we now learn how to play with the unpredictable, impatient children we find there.

Right now, most of them, most of the time, are interacting through adults. When a toy is snatched from a hand, they look to the nearest grown-up with their tears and sense of violation. And the child who now holds the toy is likely entirely unaware that those tears have any connection to her, not understanding yet the societal difference between a toy in the hand of another and a toy on a table top. Each time we adults help return the toy to its rightful place, pointing out the emotion and how it's connected to the behavior, we help not just the children involved, but those who are close by, in this one room, observing, getting a lesson in empathy and an understanding of justice.

And making connections is a big part of what we're all about right now. I've written about 2's as scatterers, but that's a judgement from my adult perspective. What I'm really describing is the aftermath of children attempting to make connections in their world.

For instance, there was water in our sensory table last week. This won't be true by the mid-point in the year, but I know from experience that 2-year-olds will want to test that water with just about every portable thing in the room. (I tell our parent-teachers that the only thing that I'd really like to keep out of the water is the play dough, everything else is fair game.) I started it off with some plastic containers, funnels, and a couple devil duckies

Within the first 10 minutes of class, Dylan had found the tub containing the rest of the duckies tucked away under the loft, made the connection, and immediately dumped them in the water. Rhys then began our second day of class by looking into the sensory table, saying, "No duckies," then making the same connection for himself. Plastic farm animals from the block area made the connection; pegs from the peg boards took a swim, paint brushes, cookie cutters, stuffed animals and just about everything that wasn't nailed down was connected to the water at some point. In the end it looks like a mess, but that's just after effect of the preschool scientific process, which really isn't a whole lot different that the official scientific process my daughter learned in middle school, only no one is taking notes.

Already, after two weeks I've begun to develop my skirt of children, those that swirl around my legs as I move from place to place, often holding onto my pant pockets (which is why I don't wear sweat pants to class anymore: too easy to get pants-ed). Already, after two weeks I've begun teaching them to question authority, holding up toy pigs, for instance, and saying "Moo," then being corrected by children wearing expressions that say, I need to keep this guy in line. And that's what I want right now, a focus on me as a ringmaster, a guy to keep an eye on. As they follow me around the room, it's a form of playing together even if it is through me. Later I'll begin walking my skirt through the room, gently brushing a couple off here at the art table, or there amongst the blocks, but for now I understand that I need to be the gravitational center of who we are together.

As we grow together through coming to recognize our friends, through naming them, through our classroom language, through our growing sense of empathy and justice, through our freedom to try out connections, and through Teacher Tom and the other loving adults in the room, we begin to make our own community, something that has never existed in this world before now, and yet the thing that makes us like all the humans who have ever walked the earth. We're here to build a community.

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Best Of All Possible Worlds

Pangloss deceived me cruelly when he said all is for the best in the world. ~Candide (Voltaire)

I tend, when left to my own devices, to take a sort of Panglossian view of things, "All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds." I try to make the most of the hand I'm dealt, then develop a philosophy of optimism around those realities. As the parents of Woodland Park will tell you, I've spent the past nine years being an advocate of small children in small spaces, building up theories about the social and educational advantages of our former cramped quarters in our old facility on up on Phinney Ridge. Both our indoor and outdoor spaces were quite confined. We did have our "gym" into which we could spread out, but for most of the time we were there it's extreme acoustical challenges rendered it essentially useless for most practical purposes (it was so echoey, we couldn't even hold adult meetings in there). And even once we lay down carpet a couple years ago, which helped a lot, so entrenched had these theories become that we still used that extra space in a limited way.

He got the 10 foot length of gutter balanced on the box in such a
way that he could turn it on a pivot, allowing him to take aim
before releasing his balls.

Our new "third teacher" here at the Center of the Universe is showing me a new possible world, and I'm starting to see that it's for the best.

Here you can see he is taking aim at an unsuspecting adult who is innocently watching
the impromptu performance that is taking place on the stage.

In the past, what we called our "block area," being the largest continuous area in the classroom, was often used for activities other than building. We used it for box play, for gutters, tubes and balls, for giant pendulums, and mat mazes, all activities that for a day or a week would move our constructive play to table tops elsewhere in the room. But even when we were sticking with the blocks, being the only real open space in the room, it always attracted those kids who needed to be making large motions with their bodies, who learned best through full-body activities, the kind of things that requires space, rendering the block area a challenging place for building. No matter how much adult help you had in "protecting" your structure, it was only a matter of time before someone inadvertently knocked it down.

Then he spies the length of giant tube just lying there and turns his
apparatus into position. All the while the performers continue
their show, undisturbed by the big science going on in the same

Our new main classroom, the Yellow Room, is about 100 square feet smaller than the old space, which was just barely large enough as it was, making it imperative that the 3-5 class, with it's larger bodies and more active kids, bust out into the Cloud Room. We could see this almost from the start and I spent my summer coming to terms with the demise of my carefully constructed theories about small children in small spaces. We have a new world and I'm coming around to my usual conclusion that this, in fact, is the best of all possible worlds.

Now this looks interesting.

Let's see what happens.

We spent last week, for instance with our gutters, tubes and balls, as well as the last of our moving boxes, spreading ourselves out. It's incredible to be able to use 10 foot lengths of gutters in there, all of our tennis balls, and still have plenty of room for intense, full-body dramatic play simultaneously. It has been a wonderful eye-opener to watch some of the guys who bounced off the walls last year, calm down in this place and finally get down to the business of concentration and study, using as is their nature, their full bodies to do so.

The old third teacher never would have allowed this to happen.

I love that we can now run without endangering out friends indoors! I love that we can throw balls indoors! I love that we have a place where the kids can scream and yell and make loud music without disturbing the children who crave a more quiet experience indoors! I know that outdoors is where this kind of play usually happens in schools, but for the first time we can accommodate this learning style all day long. We, of course, are still trying to spend at least half of our days outside, but what a boon this is for us.

But perhaps even more incredible is when I turn my gaze to our new block area and see what we are making in there, free from the concern than an errant ball or tube or foot will decimate it. Last week, Violet was making an elaborate building, carefully balancing blocks. I looked away and heard a familiar crash. Instinctively, I was prepared for the whine or the shout of outrage or the sulk, but when I looked I saw Violet, sitting amidst a pile of block rubble, smiling sheepishly. "I accidentally knocked it down," she said, "but that's okay, I know how to build it again." And she did.

This wouldn't have lasted 5 minutes in the old space.

This is the best of all possible worlds. 

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