Monday, October 31, 2011

Loving Them Just As They Are

I have spent my adult life trying to figure out why parents and society put themselves into a race -- what's the hurry? I keep trying to convey the pleasure every parent and teacher could feel while observing, appreciating and enjoying what the infant is doing. This attitude would change our educational climate from worry to joy. ~Magda Gerber

It seems to me that the greatest gift we can give to other people is to let them know we love them just as they are. That we've all heard this before in some version or other makes it no less profound and no less precious.

I think that's what we do when we simply let ourselves be with young children, without that sense of possession or protectiveness or responsibility that too often attends our interactions. It's in those moments of two humans simply being together that we convey this vital knowledge of unwavering love to even the youngest children, who themselves are then permitted to be, without the obligations that come with being possessed, protected, or a responsibility.

I've been educating myself lately about the ideas of Magda Gerber, with the help of such incredible blog-o-sphere guides as Janet Lansbury and Lisa Sunbury and it's this idea of sincerely and carefully observing (what I think I have previously understood incompletely as "waiting") that resonates the most with me. But this observation is an essentially academic act, I think, without our own appreciation and joy in what the infant is doing or what we are doing together. Not only do we ourselves come to a deeper understanding of the child, but it's only through this heartfelt appreciation and joy that we actually convey to children the unconditional love that is our gift.

It may seem strange, I suppose, for many of us to understand that we, at best, stand on the planet as equals with all the other people, including young children. We are each fully formed, fully valid, fully functional human beings no matter our age. Naturally, we have different lots in life, different blessings and challenges, and are on our way to different places, but we always remain, most of all, worthy of being loved for being exactly who we are.

Parents and teachers traditionally see our role as helpers, instructors or guides; agents for moving young children through the world from point A to point B along their developmental track, ticking off milestones in baby books or report cards like we might a shopping list, taking pride in each "accomplishment." We can't help but look ahead, to anticipating the next destination, worrying about the next bumpy patch, feeling guilty about our failings when we lose our way or fall behind schedule. It makes us impatient, lead-footed, prone to live outside the present moment as we move relentlessly toward a future. We forget to just be with our children as they are right now. That future child does not exist: this is the real child, the one before you right now, and she is perfect.

We are, in fact, at our best when we manage to successfully override those instincts to help, instruct, or otherwise guide a young person and instead give him the space and time to struggle, to practice, to come to his own conclusions. This, not our superior experience or intellect, is the great gift we have to give to children: to stop, to really see who they are right now, and be with them in appreciation and joy, loving them just as they are.

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Sunday, October 30, 2011

And Indeed, He Was

By now it's common knowledge here in the U.S. that of all our holidays only Christmas surpasses Halloween in terms of retail sales. I'm glad it's become so popular. I love the ancient "pagan" holidays (e.g., winter and summer solstice, the equinoxes, May Day, etc.) because they’re secular, fun for both kids and adults, and based on observable scientific fact. People sometimes try to attach Halloween to Christianity, but it predates the birth of Christ by thousands of years. Several years ago I went to a fantastic Pacific Science Center Planetarium show in which they detailed the astrological phenomenon that likely prompted ancient peoples across Europe to celebrate what we now call Halloween. Like all pagan celebrations it was a pre-scientific attempt to make sense of the physical world that ancient people observed around them. It was a magnificent exercise in imagination, one so powerful we still enjoy it today.

Our school’s “high holidays" come during the January-February run of Martin Luther King’s Birthday, Chinese New Year, and Valentine’s Day. It’s a feverish rush from one celebration to the next culminating in a classroom decorated with rainbow people, dragons, and pink hearts.

In contrast, the build-up to Halloween is a long, steady march that begins somewhere around October 1 and culminates in an evening costume party to which the children bring their families.

I know it's time to get started on our Halloween curriculum when the kids start waylaying me with detailed descriptions of their Halloween costumes. When this starts happening, I get out my clipboard at circle time and ask the children to raise their hands and tell us what they were going to be, then compile a comprehensive list.

I love this exercise. We run down this list at almost every circle time during the month of October. It's a great way to get everyone participating. I’ll read their names and their proposed costumes. Some children stick doggedly to their original designs, while others treat it as a creative exercise, changing their minds right up to the big day itself.

I often see parents rolling their eyes at their child’s latest iteration, especially when it switches to “alligator” two days before Halloween after a month of wanting to be a "ghost." Some parents scramble to help their child fulfill his preschool wish, but I like to remind them that our school discussion about costumes is a separate discussion from the one they have at home.

This process can lead to some imaginative solutions. For instance, during my first year teaching, a boy named Jace announced day-after-day that he was going to be a "Power Puff Girl." He always pronounced it boldly with his fist held over his head. When he arrived at our party, however, he was dressed in what was clearly a lion costume.

I said, "I thought you were going to be a Power Puff Girl." Behind him his mother Rena was frantically making gestures telling me to shut up. Evidently, there had been some creative negotiations at home.

Jace didn’t miss a beat. He threw both arms over his head and answered, "I am a Powerpuff Girl!" And, indeed, he was.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Don't Be Afraid. Let Your Children Play.

My friend who writes under the name Floor Pie on her brilliant namesake blog took exception to one of the premises in a recent post about the dangers of lectures, flash-cards, testing, and other hardcore "academic" practices in preschool, for which I laid blame on corporate-style education reformers. She is more inclined to see the fault in parents:

(T)eaching them tricks to impress their parents . . ." Yep. I don't know that ed reform is to blame at the preschool level for this. The consumers practically demand it. Ever worked at our co-op table at a Seattle preschool fair? Parents are asking for flash cards and academics and getting baby ready for crushing all the other babies academically. And the rat race attitude is infectious.

I'm lucky in that by the time parents get to me, they've already at least partially bought into the whole progressive, play-based thing. It doesn't, however, surprise me to learn that there are still parents out there who haven't heard the good word, although we're doing our best here. Every single bit of genuine research supports the primacy of free play in how young children learn best, including every media report that digs deeper than a press release, including the Scientific American article I referenced in that post, which reveals that the lectures/flash-card/testing regime can actually cause brain damage. That's right -- brain damage. Anyone who makes a conscientious effort to explore what is best for their young child will easily discover this, yet some sizable portion of parents apparently still go to preschool fairs looking for the kind of education that corporate reformers are selling. Why is that? I think it's manufactured fear.

In fairness, the Scientific American article focused on parents as well, framing their story with a father wearing a seersucker suit who was hugely impressed that his 4-year-old daughter knew about the species of whales she saw on TV, the implication being that these aren't working class parents we're talking about, if only because of the tuitions they're paying for the privilege. These are people with college degrees, upper middle class even, people who should know better. And the only thing I know that can make grown-up people act against their best interests like this, short of coercion, is good marketing.

My college degree is in journalism with an emphasis in advertising. I was planning to start my career as an advertising copywriter, with a goal of working my way up to creative director, and worked for several years in public relations, both with an agency and later for the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. I don't claim to be a marketing expert (gladly, I managed to escape the profession relatively young) but I have made enough of a study of it to know that among the strongest "persuasive" messages are those that evoke fear. 

And this is where the corporate-reformers come in, if nothing else, these folks who are well versed in the tactics of business, including, of course marketing. This is how it works. They aren't so ham-fisted as to run flashy television ads. Instead they are funding "research" through a network of organizations with earnest-sounding names like Center for American Progress, Brookings Institute, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Foundation for Excellence in Education, Progressive Policy Institute, National Council on Teacher Quality, and the notorious Americans for Prosperity. These think-tanks go through the motions of pretending to do actual research, often by cherry-picking data from legitimate studies, then issuing reports to much fanfare that include conclusions pre-determined by the policies favored by those who fund them (like Bill Gates or the Koch brothers). 

Public relations professionals then go to work "selling" stories to the media, using hooks designed to invoke fear about the "dire state" of education or the fact that we're falling behind the Chinese or that lazy unionized teachers are standing in the way of progress. Pretty much anything to cause parents (or as Floor Pie calls them "consumers") to feel a sense of panic about their own children. The press runs with these sensationalistic story lines which come complete with nice tidy "solutions" like more high-stakes standardized testing, more flash cards, more lectures, more homework, larger classes, charter schools and de-professionalized teachers: not coincidentally the exact menu of policies favored by their paymasters.

Their lobbyists, then, reports in hand and reams of press clippings to "support" them, head into the offices of our elected officials and "sell" them on their pre-determined policies, the very ones that can cause brain damage. They, in turn, come up with schemes like No Child Left Behind (Bush administration) and Race To The Top (Obama administration) designed around these think-tank propaganda pieces, feeding another round of the-sky-is-falling publicity.

And it goes beyond this. As a person who blogs about early childhood education, I'm a regular recipient of serious sounding missives, offering me the "opportunity" to inform my readers about this or that latest think-tank report. When I write back asking for documentation or if it is peer reviewed, I don't get a response. Frequently, I'm even rejecting comments from unknown readers who start by praising my work, then drop in such unsupported, yet authoritative claims like, "of course, the latest neuroscientific research indicates that children are born ready to read," and other such nonsense. Again, when I challenge them to support their claims, they can't because there is no evidence whatsoever to support what the corporate reformers are after. (It's my blog and I'm not interested in spreading disinformation, so I delete them.)

Movie makers (Waiting For Superman) and book publishers (Class Warfare: The Fight To Fix America's Schools) and others then jump on the bandwagon based on this pseudo-research, further feeding the cycle of fear. Alarmed parent-consumers, in turn, start hammering their local school boards. These parents then, naturally wanting their own child to get the "best education possible," based on the "research," show up a preschool fairs demanding lectures, flash-cards, and tests that will get their "baby ready to crush the other babies academically."

Lest you think I'm conjuring a conspiracy theory here, I want to be clear that I don't believe there is a cabal of billionaires meeting in secret to plot all of this. No, I think this is just how corporate types have learned to get their way when it comes to public policy. Tragically, it's how most legislation gets made in our country and it's the primary reason I support the Occupy Wall Street movement

This is how businesses have learned to create consumer demand for products we don't otherwise need or want. It's supply-side economics at work. This is how they sell things, even if those things cause brain damage.

Those of us on the side of actual research and experience, those who are wary of causing brain damage, those of us in the classrooms teaching the children, don't have think tanks, publicists, and other marketing machinery at our disposal. And I'm glad we don't. Instead we're doing it one parent at a time, delivering our simple, true message: Don't be afraid. Let your children play. 

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Friday, October 28, 2011

The Walking Man

One of my favorite recreations is what I call urban hiking. I love few things more than to put on a good pair of shoes and take off from my own driveway to walk my city. The best days are the ones during which I walk all day, 8-9 hours, non-stop, covering 15-20 miles.

I think of it as a kind of walk-about. I sometimes start off with my iPod playing, but usually turn it off after the first hour. I'm seeking the experience of solitude, I suppose, and the ordeal of trudging for hours on end is the way I get there. To say I "enjoy" it would be inaccurate, because I don't always like what I'm doing. I often curse myself for biting off more than I can chew, I worry about the blister I feel forming on my heel, I carry on aggravating, often argumentative imaginary conversations with the people in my life. But, after a time, if I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, my entire world becomes about simply putting one foot in front of the other, step over step, step over step, moving forward until I achieve a kind of meditative state in which even my internal chatter disappears and all I'm left with is the putting of one foot in front of the other.

I'm usually underway without a destination in mind until the final hour or two. That's when I start homing in on a location with two important features: good food and easy access to mass transit. I'm particularly fond of bellying up to the noisy bar in a place with a well-reputed kitchen, sweaty, dusty, and tired, starting with water, then a beer, then an appetizer, then a salad, then a massive gut-busting entree. I gradually re-enter the society of other humans by exchanging words with the bartender or the strangers sitting beside me, connecting with them in snippets. By the time I've finished a second beer and dessert, I'm ready to totter off to the bus stop and head home to my family.

These are special times for me because most of my life as a husband, father, and teacher is about being deeply engaged with the other people, responding to them, listening, steering, persuading, being persuaded, the stuff of which a good life is made.

I'm not the only one out there walking. There's another guy, in particular, who I often encounter on my walks. He appears to be one of the many homeless men who wander anonymously about our city.  He wears several layers of dirty clothing, including a parka, even on the hottest days. He carries a duffle bag, which he occasionally shifts from one shoulder to the other. He walks, as I do once I've achieved my meditative state, with his eyes on the ground a few feet in front of him, the bill of his dusty LA Dodgers cap keeping his face in shadow, although I've peeked under there to see a handsome, bearded face with pale blue eyes. He could be a man aged anywhere from 40 to 70. In my mind, I've named him "The Walking Man."

I don't only see him when I'm on my urban hikes. I often come across him in the my own Pandora (Seward Park) as I exercise the dogs. And I've passed him in the car as far away as Madison Park, 10 miles north of there. As near as I can tell, he spends his days, every day, slow-marching his way up and down the shores of Lake Washington, not looking left or right, just walking. I've tried saying, "Hi," but since it seems to make him wince, I've tempered my friendliness to just nodding and smiling. He does respond a bit to the dogs, moving to the edge of the wooded paths when we encounter him in what I can only see as a touching act of self-preservation. Was he bitten by a dog as a child? Was he born with a fear of dogs?

I ask myself these kinds of questions about him. I wonder about him as a child. Did he play with the other children or was he isolated even then? Were there great tragedies in his life that shut him down or is he the victim of untreated mental illness exacerbated by simple neglect? If there ever were people who cared about him, have they died or abandoned him? Or are there people, even now, who love him, worry about him, people who are seeking him out?

In one sense, of course, we are all alone in this world, and while we each must discover our own way to deal with that great and terrifying truth, most of us, most of the time, find that connecting with one another in love and common cause is the only healthy way to go. As much as I want to find a spiritual or philosophical rationale for why The Walking Man is engaged in a valid response to the great and terrifying truth, he is not. Somewhere along the way he was betrayed by the rest of us humans. Either we shut him down through abuse or neglect, or we never gave him the opportunity to learn the social and interpersonal skills we all need in order to not be alone. Without that, I can understand why he just keeps moving, putting one foot in front of the other, fixing his eyes on the ground before him and nothing else. To look up, even for a moment, is to contemplate an abyss, something none of us can do for very long without going insane.

Motivation, sociability, the ability to work with others: these are, after all, the most important things to teach young children. Friendliness, courtesy, appropriately processing emotions, gentleness, laughter, eye contact, smiling, curiosity: these are the skills that we all need in order to connect with the other people.

Of course, we all need to be alone as well, to recharge, reassess, renew, but without the prospect of a humans at the other end, we become The Walking Man.

We sing a song at school called "When Sammy Put The Paper On The Wall." Near the end we all come together in one of those hot-breathed, germ-sharing group hugs singing, "We're all stuck together." I slow the song down at that point, sometimes even repeating the line again, holding the note, giving us a chance to experience all of our bodies clutched together like that, vibrating with the only answer to the meaning of life that makes any sense, large and small, boys and girls, introverts and extroverts.

We then separate to the line, "Like birds of a feather," flapping our wings, and then finish big, "Since Sammy put the paper on the waaaaaaaalllllll!"

One of the children once said, "Let's do a caterpillar hug!" I'd never heard that expression before, although it immediately conjured an image in my mind. Apparently, I wasn't the only one. We adults did our usual adult thing of trying to help organize them, but we were really superfluous. The children lined themselves up, one behind the other, wrapping their arms around the waist of the child in front while also being embraced from behind, all stuck together, a giggling, squirming chain of humans.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Mixing Metaphors

A drinking glass holds water, but only if you hold it the right way. Tip it too much one way or another and you lose control of it as it spills onto the floor. A bucket also holds water in much the same way, but if I take it by the handle and swing it with enough velocity, the centrifugal force created will hold the water in place. I know that a sponge can hold water too, at least until I squeeze it. Same goes for paper towels. If I put water in a bottle and screw the lid on tightly I can make the water swirl and wave without losing a drop. I can direct the flow of water, at least for a time, by building channels and understanding that it moves according to gravity. I don't even try any more to make it flow up hill. I can't hold water in my hand for long unless I freeze it, and even then it eventually leaks through my fingers. I can turn it into steam with heat and use its energy to drive machinery. I can add salt to it so that things float more buoyantly on its surface.

Every adult human knows these things about controlling water. It's the stuff of universal knowledge. Water behaves the same everywhere, throughout history, without variance. We can make reliable predictions about water, including that water will always ultimately defy our efforts to control it, leaking out, evaporating, or changing course as it follows the much larger arc of mother nature's purposes. But as far as human time is concerned, we can "own" water and make it do our bidding.

From the wider perspective, of course, it's water that controls us. We've evolved as animals, at least in part, according to its demands. It does this by being utterly unchangeable; a condition of life that we must accept. Water has nothing more to learn. Water has always existed in its final, perfected state.

We living beings, however, have always been and always will be in progress, our perfected state anticipated by religion perhaps, but it always takes death to achieve it. Philosophers and poets often compare this progressive feature of humanity to the flow of a river, and while that metaphor may reveal important things about ourselves, we are really nothing at all like water. For one thing we're nearly impossible to predict and control. That's because it's in our nature to learn, and to do that we must play, a process that is defined in part by its unpredictability.

My female "clone" Janet Lansbury (she said it first, and I agree, especially now that I'm a famous cover model too) yesterday pointed out a recent article from Scientific American that discusses how, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, preschools are increasingly trying to control children's learning through more lectures, flash cards, and tests, teaching them tricks to impress their parents, and putting these same children at much higher risk for long-term mental health problems:

Perhaps most disturbing is the potential for the early exposure to academics to physiologically damage developing brains. Although the brain continues to change throughout life in response to learning, young children undergo a number of sensitive periods critical to healthy development; learning to speak a language and responding to social cues are two such domains. Appropriate experiences can hone neural pathways that will help the child during life; by the same token, stressful experiences can change the brain's architecture to make children significantly more susceptible to problems later in life, including depression, anxiety disorders -- even cardiovascular disease and diabetes . . . asking children to handle material that their brain is not yet equipped for can cause frustration. Perceiving a lack of control is a major trigger of toxic stress, which can damage the hippocampus, a brain area crucial to learning and memory.

Despite this, preschools are increasingly ditching their play-based curriculums in favor of this kind of toxic direct instruction.

"Scientists are baffled," says Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley. "The more serious science we do, the more it comes out that very young children are not designed to do focused, goal-directed behavior . . . but are to a phenomenal degree very sophisticated about learning from the things and the people around them."

I'm not particularly baffled. The more I read about these corporate education "reform" efforts, the more I come to understand that this is about inexperienced people and their craving for control. Lurking in there is the crazy idea that if we treat education like a predicable, mechanistic system of some sort, we'll be able to manufacture brilliant little minds, all filled up with the names of the countries in Asia or the various species of whales. That if we just put them in the right containers, direct them into the proper channels, or boil them at just the right temperature, we'll have a generation of little knowledge machines ready to set loose on the world. In this vision, teachers need only be technicians, or perhaps mere factory workers, trained to adjust the dials and read the gauges.

This, of course, is like trying to make water flow uphill, with the added sickening bonus that you risk damaging their brains. I think it's because these otherwise intelligent people have so little experience with the process of education that they don't understand the basic principles of how young children actually learn. They don't have the experience to know that the method and the order in which children learn things, the process of learning, is far more important than any trivia you try to cram into their heads. They are trying to push this water up hill because they've not played with it enough to understand that it's simply not in water's nature to flow up hill. In this way, they are showing themselves to be very poorly educated, at least on the topic of education.

It's as if these people are working from the perfected template of a theoretical child, one that they can predict and control the way they might water, a concept they've developed after spending a few hours observing children through one-way glass. Classroom teachers, those of us who have spent years and decades immersed in children's learning, know that they come to us ready to learn everything they need to know, in fact learning it already, usually in spite of us. Experienced teachers know that they spend most of their days racing to just keep up with their charge's natural inclinations and curiosities that carry them in directions often entirely unpredictable and uncontrollable. Much of what I do after making sure they don't kill themselves or one another is to get out of the way. That's much of what teaching is.

Yesterday, I turned a table upside down, put a giant spider in the center, then tied the ends of several balls of string to the legs. I got lucky, actually. I made a prediction about how they would play with this, having set up similar things before. I predicted that the round table combined with the toy spider, especially right here with Halloween approaching, would make them think of an orb spider's web. In the past, this kind of play has gone places I'd not predicted, once consuming our entire outdoor classroom. It was a ton of fun, but ultimately turned our space into one big tripping hazard. When it was circle time, adults had to literally untangle some of the kids who had become inextricably stuck in our web. That in mind, our only instruction this time was to keep the string within the circumference of the table.

So there you have it, education "reformers," free of charge, a genuine predictable outcome that took me ten years to finally learn to anticipate. It didn't teach them anything about the nations of Asia or the species of whales in the ocean, but the children did spend a lot of time talking, sharing space, strategizing, taking turns, and generally "just playing," learning from the things and people around them as they are "designed" to do. 

These results are valid until the next time we set up this toy with an entirely different set of children, who may or may not take it where this group did. And guess what? No risk of brain damage.

Update: In the comments, my friend Floor Pie correctly "blames" certain parents for the demand for lectures, flash cards and testing, which, in fairness, is where the Scientific American article places it as well. I'm the one who brought the education "reformers" into this, seeing it as all part of the same phenomenon.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Right Way

You have your way. I have my way. As far as the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist. ~Friedrich Nietsche

We've been using pre-cut pumpkin shapes, pre-cut yellow shapes, sheets of orange and yellow construction paper, scissors, and glue sticks at the art table for the past couple days. Classic preschool stuff: construction paper jack-o-lanterns. I sold the whole thing as making decorations for our upcoming Halloween party, which, in fact, is how I intend to use them.

We guide them at first, of course, especially the youngest ones with very little experience with things like scissors and glue. We owe it to them to provide an example of what these tools can do, and the best way to do that is to just make something of your own with the materials, narrating what you're doing. If possible, I like the kids to have the tools in their hands at the same time. I figure our best bet for learning what we need to know about a new tool is to try to marry our narrating and demonstrating with a child's own hands-on experimentation. I've made enough art in my life to know that it's helpful to get some initial guidance from someone with more knowledge, but experience is the only way to become proficient with a tool. And it's only through proficiency that one can finally fully express oneself.

So there is, at least at some level, a "right way" to use a tool, at least if you want to get it to do what it was intended to do. If you want more glue stick, for instance, you'll probably need to learn about turning the little knob at the bottom of the tube. If you're using scissors, you'll probably need to know that the business part is where the blades intersect (you don't need to know that that intersection moves at the speed of light, but it's interesting). I'll help you figure out how to ride a bike, but where you go with it is up to you.

What you do with that tool, where you go with it: there's no correct answer to that question. At bottom that's what we're talking about when we say, "open-ended art," or "play-based curriculum." It's a place where there is no right way or wrong way, but rather tools, materials, consideration for the other people, and time to explore.

I understand that we live in a kind of bubble here at Woodland Park. So immersed are we in what we do that it's easy to forget that we're still considered rather radical. I overhear us described as "that crunchy granola school," or "hippie school," or "a place where the kids run wild." I forget that there's is a big, wide world out there full of children being taught the right way and the wrong way by well-intended adults, hoping I guess to inoculate them against mistakes, but instead, I fear, infecting them with the disease of perfectionism.

When we manage to teach children that there is a right way and a wrong way, they are learning something about black and white. They are learning something about their own judgement. They are learning something about rote and obedience. And I think none of it good, at least if the idea is to have them ultimately emerge from school as people who form their own ideas and have the courage to express them.

Each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility, must speak. And it is a solemn and weighty responsibility, and not lightly to be flung aside at the bullying of the pulpit, press, government, or the empty catchphrases of politicians. Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn't. You cannot shirk this and be a man. To decide against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let man label you as they may. If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country -- hold up your head! You have nothing to be ashamed of.  ~Mark Twain
The "right way" teaches that those with more power know best. The "wrong way" teaches shame. If the right way doesn't come from within, it's just another rule to obey, but as Twain points out there's one step more that we must consider, it's not enough to simply form your own convictions, but one must have the courage to express them as well. And the thing that stops too many of us, the block, I think, is fear of the wrong way.

Moral cowardice that keeps us from speaking minds is as dangerous to this country as irresponsible talk. The right way is not always the popular and easy way. Standing for right when it is unpopular is a true test of moral character. ~Senator Margaret Chase Smith
I recall in kindergarten being not only instructed to color inside of the lines, but to only employ horizontal strokes with the crayon. I don't know how much this kind of education shaped me: I feel I've always formed my own opinions. But I'm definitely late to the game when it comes to expressing them out loud, overcoming my fear of being unpopular, of being a trouble-maker, of being a laughing stock, of being wrong. Mockery was always the best way to make me cringe and doubt and pull my head back into my shell. But the more I've worked with children and their parents, the bolder I've become, the more I've sought to role model the habits of free thought and action that I want to see in both myself and the rest of the world.

That's why I don't think it's out of place to occasionally use this blog space to express, as clearly as I can, my own political thoughts, my support for things that may not be popular. I keep hearing people complain that Americans don't care enough, that we're too absorbed in our reality television or something to engage. And that may be true, but as I see it, the greatest crisis we face in our democracy today is not apathy, but fear of the wrong answer, of making a mistake, of being mocked or shouted down. I hope that my example, not my opinions themselves, but the example of speaking out, will motivate you to engage more fully with the tools of self-governance, which in turn you will pass on to the children in your life.

As I look at these pumpkin faces the children have made, each according to her or his own internal vision, according to his or her capability with the tools, I think I see the habit of fearlessness I hope they are learning here at Woodland Park. 

I love how boldly they've signed their names to them, saying clearly and proudly, This is what I made. One of the "pumpkins" not pictured here is one made by River, which looked to me like a piece of yellow paper he had simply torn in half. He showed it to me, saying, "I'm putting this in my cubby to show my mom and my brother."

I would like to be open with the public. I would like to not keep secrets or be careful when I talk. I don't want to have to plan things . . . I want to be outspoken. I want to say my opinions and hope they're taken in the right way. I don't want to stop being free. And I won't. ~Angelina Jolie
I know that there are teachers out there, parents, and other adults who would have insisted that River's torn paper was the wrong way, who would have shoved some scissors in his hand and "taught" him the right way, when perhaps what he's expressing with this "pumpkin face" is something that says, I don't need your tools or pre-cut shapes to say what I have inside. And in letting him know he's wrong, in correcting him, in judging his expression unpopular, we teach him to doubt himself, which is a way of making him a little less free. 

I'm probably making too much of these pumpkin faces. Every preschooler makes them. But seeing them here like this, these decorations we made for our school, I can't help but hope that no one ever tells them that they did it the wrong way; or perhaps even worse, I think, show them the right way.

Just remember, there's a right way and a wrong way to do everything and the wrong way is to keep trying to make everybody else do it the right way. ~Colonel Potter (MASH)

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