Sunday, December 30, 2012

Please Don't Be Mad At Me

Your own happiness doesn't necessarily teach you what you want to know.  ~The Who

I pissed one of our parents off at the school recently when I wasn't particularly fast in responding to some unsavory behavior by a group of kids. They weren't actually hurting anyone, but the optics, and the fact that the behavior is certain to emotionally hurt someone in the future if allowed to continue, made it troublesome. Her own child, although currently unaware of it, was the "victim" in this game and I wasn't immediately acting to stop it, which, understandably, made her mad. 

This is a hard part about being a cooperative preschool. I wasn't thinking about the fact that this was her child, but rather standing back until I was sure I understood what was going on. I would have been mad at me too, I reckon, but I needed a few minutes to process what I was observing, to make sure my response was appropriate. I do it wrong more often when I don't take a moment to think.

She asked me, urgently, "Why don't you teach them how to act?" by which I think she meant for me to step in and make it stop, then to, perhaps find a way to explain to the kids what was so wrong about what they were doing. The problem is that none of the kids thought anything was wrong -- they were all just having fun, including her child. I know what to do when someone is upset, when someone wants the game to stop, but this . . .

It reminded me of a time when I was a cooperative parent. Another father and I were watching some kids play when one of our fellow parent-teachers stepped in and "fixed" the problem. It was like a sitcom moment when she then left the scene, leaving us momentarily speechless as we looked from the kids to one another, before bursting out in laughter.

He asked, "What just happened?"

I now understand that this other parent saw, or thought she saw, something coming; a conflict or rudeness or whatever that would, if allowed to continue, have emotionally hurt someone, and stepped in to prevent it.

If a child is about to run into traffic, we step in to prevent it. If a child is going to jump off the roof of the garage, we step in to prevent it. If a child raises a long stick with the apparent intention of bringing it down on someone else's head, we step in to prevent it. But what about when we believe we see hurt feelings in the future, do we automatically step in to prevent it? Or do we let the feelings get hurt before stepping in, the way we might with a minor physical injuries, as a way for children to learn through natural consequences?

I know how the pissed off mother felt about it: this was her child, currently distracted by other things, and totally unaware of the potential heartbreak in his future. Of course she wanted me to help her protect him. I get that. At the same time, there were all these other kids, who were completely unaware that they were on verge of breaking someone's heart. Indeed, they thought they were having a ton of fun pretending to menace a "victim" who did not know he was a victim. If I stepped in to "fix" the problem, wouldn't they be left like the two of us cooperative fathers: "What just happened?"

This was an outdoor "game" that involved lots of running. I wanted to be physically close so that I was in position to act the moment someone showed any sign of being upset. Then I would know what to do: interrupt them by saying, "You look scared," or "He said 'stop'," or "He's crying" or whatever informative statement I could make that would cause all the children to pause and think. I tracked the game like this for several minutes, waiting for my opening, my heart sick from seeing a "victim" who did not know he was a victim, his mother, justifiably worried, following me. This was hard for me and harder for her.

Finally, I broke, and asked her son a question, "Are you having fun playing this game?"

Everyone stopped for a moment. He answered, "Yes, I'm hunting for diamonds," a response that let me know for sure that he had no idea what the other kids were doing. He thought they were all running with him, following him, when in fact they were chasing him.

I turned to the other children and said, "Is that the game you're playing?"

One of them answered, "No, we're on one team and he's on the other team."

"Oh, he's not on any team. He's playing the diamond hunting game. You could play diamond hunting with him."

One child stayed to hunt for diamonds while the rest ran off and it was over, at least for that day, no one really having learned anything, probably asking themselves, "What just happened?" Still, I think I did the right thing, asking questions that provided everyone involved with more complete information. But still, I see heartbreak for all of those kids in the future and I'm helpless to prevent it. Please don't be mad at me.

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Saturday, December 29, 2012

When People Stop Telling You What To Do

At one point during his 5-year-old year at Woodland Park, Isak started thinking about construction paper. "Why is it called construction paper? We never construct anything with it. We just use it like regular paper." He then proceeded to experiment at home, arriving in class with a crude construction paper cube or pyramid or other shape manufactured with scissors and tape. He made his point with me, although not necessarily with his friends, who admired his handiwork and even watched patiently as he demonstrated his techniques, but afterwords went right back to using construction paper to make 2-dimensional objects.

One of the bedrock principles of how I work in the classroom is that I strive to not boss kids around, "strive" being one of the key operative words here, because it's a really hard thing to do. And when I say "boss around," I mean that I try very hard, every day, to avoid directional statements like, "Do this" or "Don't do that." And, yes, I still consider it a personal and professional failure when I desperately tack a sweet "please" on the end of it, as if the command isn't already out of my mouth.

I've written quite a bit on why this is important, but at bottom, I suppose, is that I've found that children, even very young children, especially while attending a school with a play-based curriculum, don't need to be told what to do. Practicing the skills of independent exploration, thinking for oneself, making one's own decisions, and operating autonomously in the world is what we're here to do. Commands from adults prevent that from happening by highjacking the kids' thought process, replacing their agenda with ours. No, the only way to practice these independent thinking skills is through free play, and as a 5-year-old child once succinctly put it, "Play is what you do when people stop telling you what to do."

Okay then, so how about when I come across a really cool idea like this one from Roopa over on the delightful Putti's World blog? Could this be a way to achieve Isak's dream of a classroom of preschoolers using construction paper to make 3-dimensional objects? 

Her basic idea is for kids to roll strips of paper around pencils, then make a colorful collage from the resulting coils. When her daughter did it, it made an attractive finished piece of art, but right away I knew that while I might be able to inspire a child or two to do it the "right way" without directional statements, there was no way I'd be getting an entire classroom full of independent explorers, thinkers, decision-makers, and players to do it any way other than their way.

This is how I try to approach all of our activities, thinking first about how it will go without someone there to boss the kids around. In this case, I imagined what might happen if we provided strips of colored construction paper, pencils, a large piece of mat board, and some sort of adhesive. Even if an art parent was there role modeling the coiling technique, I knew that this would be only one of a million different ways the kids would find to use the materials, and while it would still be an art exploration, I was interested in the children experiencing something different than the usual flat glue collage project. If nothing else, I was hoping to provide them with some experience with the 3-dimensional constructive properties of this kind of paper we call "construction paper," but rarely, as Isak noted, use in that way.

I started with the idea of a community art project, because if we weren't going to tell kids what to do, we'd want to try to inspire them, and no one is more inspiring to a young child than another young child. I figured that if only a couple kids got into the coiling technique, that might lead to others giving it a try, which could snowball into something exciting.

Secondly, I ruled out pencils and glue: they are such open-ended tools that I knew they would likely take kids off into all kinds of tangents.

Finally, I settled on a single piece of gold mat board in honor of the holidays, on which I made a grid of double-sided transparent tape (a technique inspired by this project). Instead of pencils, I provided chopsticks. And, of course, I cut lots of strips of construction paper. I then finished the set up by making one coil which I stuck to the center of the mat board and another bent paper shape. When the art parent arrived, I showed her how I'd made the coil, encouraging her to role model it. I told her I was hoping the kids would get some experience in constructing 3-diminsionally, although it was their project to do with as they saw fit. And, because there always needs to be a back up plan, I pointed out that the scissors were available should the whole thing be a flop, another open-ended tool, just in case, that can pretty much save any day.

I know it sounds like a lot of detailed planning on my part for what could have been, in a different kind of school, a straight-forward craft project, but that's one of the consequences of the teacher having an agenda in a classroom where it really ought always to be about the children exploring on their own, thinking for themselves, making their own decisions, and operating autonomously in the world. It was an agenda I was curious about, but one I knew I had to be ready to give up if it got in the way of the kids.

The kids, as their project snowballed, started referring to it as a water park: a little mid-winter anticipation of the warmer months to come, which explains all the swoops, loops, and curls. The sharply bent parts, I was told, are the stairs.

Did we make a rolled paper collage like the one on Roopa's blog? Not exactly. Did we achieve Isak's goal of using construction paper to actually construct? Not exactly. Did we achieve the ideal of not bossing kids around while still inviting them to experiment with 3-dimensions? You know, I think maybe we did.

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Friday, December 28, 2012

Come Play With Me Down Under!

I'm coming to Australia! I thought my Aussie readers might like to know that I'm heading your way to join the great Marc Armitage and the inspirational Niki Buchan as keynoters at the 2013 annual Inspired EC conference at the Shoal Bay Resort & Spa in New South Wales, August 3-4. I'm then planning on a couple weeks touring the eastern part of the continent, speaking and leading workshops, with stops in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Adelaide, with a pop over to New Zealand for good measure (details pending). The folks at Inspired EC have told me it's already booking up and they don't want Teacher Tom readers to find themselves on the outside looking in, so get cracking! 

I can't tell you how excited I am to get to meet you! And what a strange thing it is to meet readers.

In the dark days before I became a father, I worked for nearly 15 years as a freelance writer. It wasn't so long ago that I didn't work on a computer or communicate a bit by email, but all that was still in such an infantile stage that most of my clients still needed me to print things out so they could read and edit it, by hand, then return it to me. And as for meeting my readers, forget about it. In fact, I once wrote some 80 biographies for the staff and consulting doctors at a Detroit area hospital without meeting a single one of them. It's bizarre to think about. I don't look back on those days fondly, these days are better ones, but I did miss the thrill of seeing my writing "in print" and the prospects that someone might actually be reading it.

This is, in large measure, what drove me to start this blog 3-1/2 years ago. I'd written a half dozen early childhood oriented articles for magazines and newsletters, pieces I thought were pretty good, and from what I knew about blogs at the time, it seemed like this would be a good way to give them life beyond the traditional printed page. I had never even read a blog before starting mine, but once I realized that I was going to be posting new material as often as I do, I began to reach out in search of . . . Well, I don't know what. Contact?

Among the very first friends I made via the blog were two of the giants of Australian ECE blogging: Jenny from Let The Children Play and Donna from Irresistible Ideas For Play Based Learning, both of whom had more or less launched their blogs at the same time I did, although I didn't know that at the time. What I did know was that I had a pair of professional sisters Down Under, women who were as passionate as I was about spreading the "gospel" of play-based education. Through Jenny and Donna I feel like I've already met thousands of my readers. Today, I have by far more readers in Australia than any other country outside the US, and 4 of my top ten readership cities are in Oz. Now I get the chance to meet everyone face-to-face.

And the best part is that we will get to play together! I may have started with the idea that play is the best way for young children to learn, but if I've learned anything on this 3-1/2 year journey, it's that everyone learns best through play. So, playmates, that's what I'm coming to do: to laugh and hug and get dirty; to sing and dance and take risks. I plan to bring some ideas to you from the former rain forest that is my home of Seattle, and I expect my Australian friends to show me around such mysterious things as gumnuts, bush walking, and this unidentified flying object I heard is called "the sun."

Come play with me Down Under!

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Joy Found Through Pain

For me, the most challenging part of being a parent of a young child was when her friendships aren't going the way she wanted them to go. Especially heartbreaking were those teary car rides home from school when someone had rebuffed, insulted, or otherwise treated my baby badly. I suspect every parent knows the anguish of helpless pity and impotent rage; that objectless casting about for someone to blame or punish or at least be the deserving recipient of the whipsaw of karma, all of it made worse by the knowledge that no one deserves any of that; that these are just children with parents just like you who are all trying to figure it out as well.

We all have a vast pool of experience when it comes to being rejected. Research finds that even the most popular kids in elementary school are rejected 30 percent of the time when they seek to enter into play with others. Knowing this, of course, does nothing to reduce the sting, and in particular the special pain we suffer when it is experienced by proxy as it is when it's your child.

I still have these feelings as the parent of a teenager, but they're now tempered by 16 years of what I'll call wisdom; the experience by proxy of having my child repeatedly come through on the other side where there really is friendship. We still, quite regularly, remind ourselves of the great genius of her classmate Katrina who I once overheard successfully comforting my then 6-year-old by saying, "She's mean to me too. When she's nice to me, I play with her. When she's mean, I don't play with her."

As a teacher in a cooperative, I am right there with parents as they see their child struggling with friendships, being rejected, but also, perhaps even more painful, rejecting. I know how it's impossible to not drop to your knees and plead with your child to behave or feel differently, to accept, if only just this once, your advice and counsel. Or to tell them they must apologize or make amends or buck up or take it philosophically. I'm there as all of these efforts fail because you, as a parent, really are helpless and impotent if you try to do anything other than hold them, and listen to them, and feel with them.

Learning about friendship, learning about how we make friends, is, in fact, a lonely road. Learning to populate that road with fellow travelers is something we have to do for ourselves, through the experience that comes from trial and error. "You just don't understand!" is a great truth our children shout at us when we try to do more than just let them finish their cry. We don't understand, even while we have a vast experience.

Friendship is a joy found quite often through pain, sometimes great pain. That's why it feels so damn good when we get there.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Still Whispering In The Dark

We often think of the traditions in our lives as ritual repetitions, these touchstones that recur each year or month or week, usually shared with others, filled with significance beyond the motions through which we go, made so by their repetition.

Like most children, I arose early on Christmas morning. My brother and I were allowed to look, but not touch before the rest of the family awoke, and we would meet there in the living room, in the dark, whispering about the things we saw poking from our stockings. Obviously, we don't do that any more. I don't remember when we stopped, although I know why: we outgrew Santa. But though that was the reason, I know we didn't stop these Christmas morning meetings all at once, continuing to whisper in the dark, I think, until we were almost teenagers, easing ourselves gently toward our new roles as the makers of the magic.

This morning, my family will travel across Lake Washington to spend the day with my parents, with whom I've celebrated all but two of my 51 Christmases. My brother and his family will be there. We'll likely remind each other, probably only in a few words, of the miraculous appearance of our electric train set. We'd been down there, in the dark, whispering for at least an hour, but hadn't seen it right there on the floor, fully assembled, plugged in, and ready to go, invisible until the lights came on. Santa was real! Santa was magic! We still can't explain it. It's not the samenesses from year to year we remember, after all, but the differences.

We'll remind ourselves of those Christmases from when we lived in Greece, when the stuff in our stockings took on a decidedly Hellenic cast.

Someone will tease me about the year I showed up with my girlfriend, the woman who is now my wife, dressed up by her in holiday cummerbund and matching bow tie when everyone else, including my brother and sister, had changed into the pajamas they'd received as gifts. Maybe it sounds silly that up until that year, we all, a family of adults and near adults had continued to wear jammies as part of the present unwrapping tradition. But I broke with it that year, remaining fully clothed in solidarity with Jennifer, knowing that she would be uncomfortable wearing nightwear around my family. Today, no one will wear pajamas, although, I think, we all still consider it part of the tradition.

We also don't meet up early in the morning, although for years we did, getting over there by no later than 9 a.m. When our daughter Josephine was born, it shifted to 10, then as more babies were added to the mix, the start time slid to noon. This year, we're not getting together until 1 p.m.

Yet still, it's all a part of the same family tradition.

I will, this morning, unpack my 50th stocking (yes, mom saved my stocking for me from the one year I missed, although not from the year she and dad spent in Saudi Arabia), the same one made for me by my grandmother in honor of my first Christmas. The same one my brother and I whispered over in the dark. There will be nuts in there, an orange, an apple, a four-piece Whitman's sampler, all part of the unbroken tradition that remains unbroken even during years when we were together in places or under circumstances in which these specific items were not obtainable.

We're still whispering together in the dark, even as we come together in the brightness of a Christmas afternoon and amidst the boisterousness of all those babies who've not yet outgrown Santa.

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Monday, December 24, 2012

How To Remain An Artist

It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child. ~Pablo Picasso

This is Picasso's money quote about children's art, and while I fully appreciate what he was expressing, as I've written before, I believe, at the most fundamental level, that he failed, at least, to make art like a two-year-old.

In the week before the holiday break we made construction paper snowmen. I know, I know, but I do it as kind of a "gift" for the families, many of whom do enjoy having a few cute things around during the holidays to use as decorations or to show-off to the relatives who are expecting things like this from the hands of their preschool aged niece or grandson. It's certainly easier than having to explain the pedagogy behind all those preschool gray paintings hanging on the fridge door, an outcome that might lead many of the uninitiated into thinking junior's a little slow.

I precut some tag board circles and a few other shapes, broke out the googly eyes, provided the glue sticks, scissors, and extra paper, and then, at least somewhat egregiously, made a sample:

Then, as I usually do when I turn things over to our art parent, I said, "This is what I made, but the kids should use the materials anyway they want." In other words, I did as much as I am comfortable doing insofar as setting kids on a course, but the rest had to be up to them. 

The older kids, our 4 and 5-year-olds more or less adhered to the finished product I'd modeled, stacking circles, making a face, and popping a hat on top.

Of course, none of them were slaves to the pattern, but expressed themselves creatively within the box I'd created. I suppose I could assert that they used my model as inspiration rather than limitation, but the superficial uniformity of the "product" right across the 3-5's and 5's classes, made me feel like many of them were simply making what they were "supposed" to be making.

And that's okay, as far as that goes. Imitating the art of others is foundational, instructional, edifying. Even Picasso tried to imitate Raphael. This is where the eureka moment comes in the form of, Ah hah, so that's how he did it! It's something to build upon, like learning to use a hammer or understanding the results of mixing colors: not making a piece of art exactly, but rather practicing with tools or techniques that will aid our explorations down the road: not art, but artiness.

Still, it's hard not to reflect on another Picasso comment about children as artists:

All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artists once he grows up.

You see, our Pre-3 class didn't just make snowmen: they created art.

Where the older kid's art, using the same material, had a cookie cutter aspect to it, the variety in what the 2-year-olds created was nothing short of breathtaking, at least in contrast.

The problem, always, is how to remain an artist.

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Sunday, December 23, 2012

"The Best Star Wars Book Of Them All"

One of the regular features of both our Pre-K class and our new 5's class is what we call "journals," although I suppose it would be more accurately called "creative writing." The idea is for these older kids to expand upon the more rudimentary storytelling process we introduced when they were younger by giving them more time and space to expand their ideas, perhaps even over the course of several days, and to create an opportunity to add illustrations.

A "journal," as arbitrarily defined by me at the beginning of the school year, is a stack of ten blank pages sandwiched between a cover made from construction paper which stays at school until a child has filled it up. The idea is to create these stories in a less hurried and hopefully more thoughtful environment, to give the children a chance to pick their words and to go more deeply into their ideas.

Some of the kids use this opportunity to tell the same story over and over, session after session, introducing the same characters, the same scenarios, and the same ideas, each time altering or expanding it slightly, improving it, testing it, until they're finally done. Others like to do their thinking as they go through it the first time. Whatever the case, once they're finished, I read it aloud to the class.

I don't take this dictation, but rather turn it over to parent-teachers with the basic instruction to write word-for-word what the kids say. I very much enjoyed picking up this one to read to the assembled class a couple weeks ago:

Anyone who writes a lot knows what happened here. I love that William corrected himself, for whatever reason, opting for the word "best" over "greatest." It's a subtle, but important edit, if only because he felt the need to edit. As someone who writes every day, let me tell you, spelling and grammar are secondary to this. The more I write the more I confront the limitation of language to convey my precise meaning. In every post, every day, I find myself wrestling over just this type of apparent minutiae, but honestly, if there is any hope at all, it comes from this: struggling to find the words that come the closest to saying what I really want to say. 

This is not the "greatest" Star Wars book of them all, but rather the "best." That's something precise that William wants his readers to know about this story. And what it tells me about William is that he's a writer.

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Five Little Fishies Swimming In The Ocean

I can't remember where I learned this game, but it is by far, over the course of a decade, the most popular table top game our four and five-year-olds play. The beauty part is that you can pretty much play it any time, any where, with a minimum of preparation other than to make sure you have some sort of snack food around, something that shouldn't be much of a problem here during the holidays.

The "classic" snack food for this is, of course, gold fish crackers, but things like raisins, satsuma sections, and carrot coins make acceptable substitutes. 

It's a pretty straight forward math game, one that helps children practice basic concepts of addition and subtraction, make discoveries about the constancy of numbers, and work on listening carefully and following instructions.

We start with a pile of gold fish in the middle of the table. I've learned that some little hands will immediately attempt to snatch a snack out of turn, so I set things up by telling them that, yes indeed, they will be eating crackers, but only if they listen. If someone isn't happy with this condition of play, there are always other things going on in the classroom, including a regular snack, so they can chose to either "play by the rules" or play somewhere else. This is usually not a problem, but it's an important part of the game, this idea that everyone is there by choice, and the conditions of participation are the same for everyone.

I say, "Everyone take five gold fish."

Most kids count out their five fish one-by-one, although there are a few, especially among our older kids, who can identify 5 "by sight." And there are always a few who will scoop up too many, then return the excess to the pile. However they arrive at their five fish, we then go around the table, checking our math by re-counting. 

Of course, I'm playing along. Once we're sure everyone has five, I say something like, "I'm going to arrange mine in a row," or "I have three on top and two on the bottom," or "Four of mine are swimming together and one is tagging along behind." The kids then take a moment to arrange their crackers, some imitating me, some finding their own way to organize their five fish. This too is an important part of the game; the children figuring out on their own some of the interesting math facts about the number five. I do not, however, use the term "math facts." We're just playing and the math facts emerge all on their own.

Once we've all settled on our arrangement, I chant, "Five little fishies swimming in the ocean. Along comes a great big whale and eats two of them!"

Everyone eats their two fishies, then I ask, "How many fishies are left?"

It's a vital discovery that everyone seems to have three fishies left! Then we go again, "Three little fishies . . ." When we're down to zero, we all count out five more crackers and start over.

As the kids get in a rhythm we might start off with more than five crackers or I might not let their supply get all the way down to zero before saying something like, "Everyone take two more fishies." This is a challenging concept at first for some kids: the idea of already having, say, three crackers, then adding two more. Obviously, this game can work with numbers of any size, although purely from a gastronomic perspective we tend to work with numbers under 10. (I was playing this game recently with our 5's class and when we moved from five to eight, Diego said, "This is the advanced version.")

As simple as it sounds, this game never fails to suck up most of the kids in the room. In part, it's the cracker eating. In part, it's the organized socializing that attends all good table top games. But I really do think the core of its undying popularity with preschoolers is that there is great pleasure to be derived from sorting, counting, and organizing. 

The joy humans derive from playing with mathematical concepts somehow gets lost as we progress through school, until by the time we're teens many of us have lost all interest, even to the point developing phobias about how "hard" math is. I don't have an answer, myself being one of those people who find the abstraction of formulas on paper to be mind numbing. The problem clearly doesn't lie in math itself, but in how we try to teach it. Certainly there are better ways.

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