Wednesday, February 29, 2012

So Much Greed

File:The Lorax.jpg

Unless someone like you . . . cares a whole awful lot . . . nothing is going to get better . . . It's not. ~Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Traditionally, I read Dr. Seuss' masterpiece The Lorax to my Pre-K kids on their last day of class. These kids have been with me for 3 years, over half their lives, are now heading away to kindergarten, and I like entrusting them with "the last Truffula seed of them all." I always warn them, "This book makes me cry," and it always does."

I don't recall it as a "new" book, published in 1971. I was nine-years-old, just beyond the core Dr. Seuss years, so I've really only know it as an adult. It carries a powerful message of the environmental dangers of rampant industrialization and the hope that the damage we've already done can be overcome by human stewardship. It's not exactly a happy ending, but rather a plea to children to save us from ourselves.

Whether or not it sticks with the kids, that's the way I like to send them off into the world.

File:The Lorax.jpg

I'm not particularly tuned into the pop culture, so it was only during my recent trip to Southern California that I even became aware that The Lorax had been made into a movie. I pray it's a flop. I noticed it carries a PG rating, so maybe the parents of preschoolers will stay away. Can I hope that? Even if I could, I really can't hope that the kids will somehow avoid the marketing: the plastic crap made in China, the lunch boxes, plushies, fast food promotional items. That's the way rampant "industrialization" works, even when presumedly "selling" a message against itself. Of course, I have absolutely no faith that the movie will deliver anything approximating Dr. Seuss' hard-hitting, yet light-hearted, critique of capitalism gone mad. To really put the knife into this thing, among the 70 or so official corporate "sponsors" of this movie, many with dubious environmental records, is a regular, polluting, fuel-injected SUV. You'd think they could have at least found some sort of electric car or hybrid or bio-diesel or something even vaguely green. But no, they are just too damn greedy for that.

I mean, for crying out loud, they show the Once-Ler's face! They appear to have made this powerful symbol of face-less greed into a happy rube of some sort!

I will be be sobbing this week in class because I'm breaking tradition: this is the last chance I'll ever have of reading this book to children without some of them shouting out, "I saw that movie!" It was bad enough when Hollywood took Shrek! away from us, but this is on a different level.

I won't stop reading The Lorax, of course, and I'll always tell the kids, "This is the real story." If the movie is particularly bad, if it winds up spitting in the face of this great work, I'll do my best to help the children deconstruct its message in the context of what Dr. Seuss was really trying to say. 

I'll still cry when I read it: so much greed. And I'll pass them the last seed and hope.

(If you want to express your own feelings about this, The Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood is collecting signatures on a pledge to boycott the products of sponsors. I've also written to Universal Studios, Mazda, and other sponsors. I don't know what good it will do, but I think it's important to express our opinions.)

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hiding In The Bushes

This is a blog mostly about preschool aged children, but being the parent of a teenager, I'm here to tell you, as unlikely as it might sound to those of you with the younger kids, that's where they're all headed, god willing.

When my daughter Josephine was in sixth grade, she and a friend wanted to go to a dance, at night, in an all-ages venue. This wasn't the usual chaperoned school event, although I'd heard of the organization hosting it and knew nothing bad about it. On the other hand, I'd often walked by the place and been slightly taken aback by the scruffy looking teens hanging out there, although it was purely a reaction to their dress and hair, not behavior. I'd spoken with her friend's father so I knew we were all on board with the plan of us each driving, and our kids meeting up there. As we got close to the venue, Josephine asked, "You're not going to walk me to the door are you?"

"Well, how will I know you've hooked up with your friend?"

"We're meeting right out by the street. You'll see us."


"Thank you. Mama would walk me to the door. She'd probably try to come inside."

"Really? She would do that? I wouldn't do that."

She paused for a moment, then said, "No, you'd just pretend to leave me, then hide in the bushes." And sure enough, she was more or less onto my plan, which was to drop her off, park the car nearby, then spend my evening within a 2-block radius eating dinner and window shopping. It bugged her, but at the same time I think she also felt a little relieved to know that I'd be nearby, just in case. It's not that I distrusted her, I told myself, but rather that I didn't trust those other kids and what they might all do together. I often look back on that as my first real experience as the parent of a teen.

Probably the most common response I get from new acquaintances when I mention my teenager is something along the lines of, "That must be stressful," or "A challenging age," or just, "Good luck." It's a sort of culture-wide joke we tell about teens, one we all have the right to tell because not so long ago (or so it seems), we were all dopey, mopey, distracted teens ourselves. That this characterization doesn't match my experience as a parent so far, however, has started to really make me wonder over what we think about adolescents.

I genuinely love being the parent of a teen. I like her teen friends. I don't mind her messy room, her clothes, her hair, or even the fact that she seems to spend all her free time trying to expand her social world. In fact, I admire her persistence and energy, wishing I had a little more of it myself. Other parents bemoan the fact that all their kids want to do is "hang out," even forbidding it, worried that it's just a set-up for getting into trouble, and it is. But I think I understand it: after 15 years of being relentlessly on her parents' radar, being off it, just hanging out with friends out in the world, is enough of a unique experience all by itself.

And while I'll never come to peace with some of the "stupid" risks she's taken, and will likely take in the future, there's also a piece of me that knows, deep down, that she's going to do whatever it is she wants to do, try whatever it is she's wants to try, and the only say I really have is to give her my best, most honest advice, and love her. Indeed this is the bottom line truth for every parent, so if I'm going to do that job, I need to do everything I can to keep those lines of communication wide open, to not be overly shocked or punitive or despairing, but rather to have conversations about the real risks and rewards. I sometimes feel the pull toward putting the hammer down the way other parents do, to just say, "Because I say so." The world of drinking, drugs, sex, and driving, after all, has laid waste to so many young lives, but authoritarian parenting is far more likely to lead to the chaotic, chronic behaviors we label as delinquent. So while I attempt to walk the middle ground, when I err, it's on the side of permissiveness, starting with a desire to say "yes," if only she gives me time to think about it; time for us to talk about it; time for me to find a good hiding place in the bushes.

Sometimes after our talks, she decides to not take the risk after all. More often she goes ahead then later tells stories of being there with all her friends whose parents put their foot down in righteous opposition and now have no idea where their child was and what she was doing. The kids are all there taking the same "risk," but at least I know where mine is, equipped with my best advice, whether she takes it or not. 

I recently came across a fascinating article in National Geographic entitled Teenage Brains, in which author David Dobbs discusses teenaged brain development (which goes on into our early to mid-20's) in the context of evolution.

The resulting account of the adolescent brain . . . casts the teen less as a rough draft than as an exquisitely sensitive, highly adaptable creature wired almost perfectly for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside.

These are the years when their brains and bodies are making the final preparations to leave the nest, to head out into that thrilling, dangerous world, and whatever we feel about it as parents, it is their destiny. As neuroscientist B.J. Casey puts it:

We're so used to seeing adolescence as a problem. But the more we learn about what really makes this period unique, the more adolescence starts to seem like a highly functional, even adaptive period. It's exactly what you'd need to do the things you have to do then.

I'll let you click over and read the entire article about the biology behind why adolescents take risks, seek novelty, and bond so passionately with their peers. It's all adaptive behavior even if we sometimes view it as quite the opposite. I walked away with a renewed admiration for the teenaged brain, but this is the part that stood out for me:

We parents, of course, often stumble too, as we try to walk the blurry line between helping and hindering our kids as they adapt to adulthood. The United States spends about a billion dollars a year on programs to counsel adolescents on violence, gangs, suicide, sex, substance abuse, and other potential pitfalls. Few of them work.

Yet we can and do help. We can ward off some of the world's worst hazards and nudge adolescents toward appropriate responses to the rest. Studies show that when parents engage and guide their teens with a light but steady hand, staying connected but allowing independence, their kids generally do much better in life. Adolescents want to learn primarily, but not entirely, from their friends. At some level and at some times (and it's the parent's job to spot when), the teen recognizes that the parent can offer certain kernels of wisdom -- knowledge valued not because it comes from parental authority but because it comes from the parent's own struggles to learn how the world turns. The teen rightly perceives that she must understand not just her parents' world but also the one she is entering. Yet if allowed to, she can appreciate that her parents once faced the same problems and may remember a few things worth knowing.

In the meantime, you'll find me hiding in the bushes.

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Why Can't They Just Stay In Books?

Even before a child has spent a second in our classroom, their parents have heard me at least twice warn them, "We do not push letters or numbers at Woodland Park." In fact, I usually emphatically say that I will not intentionally bring letters or numbers into the classroom unless the children themselves compel me to it.

Of course, my point is that we make no overt efforts to teach them to read, or even identify their letters or numbers for that matter, we'll let their kindergarten teachers deal with that, but it's an impossible promise to keep. For one thing, most of the 2-year-olds come in already knowing that ubiquitous A-B-C song and they obsessively count everything, so there's that.

But making it even more difficult to keep my word is our school's commitment to reusing and recycling. Those darn things all have letters and numbers on them and the kids are forever pointing them out, saying things like, "That's my letter! G!" or "That's the number 2!" Arg! What do I look like, your kindergarten teacher?

If you look carefully, and children do, you'll see letters and numbers everywhere. The kids even ask me sometimes what the words mean as if they're somehow driven to figure out the strange symbolic codes of their fellow human beings.

Naturally, I blame society for its obsession with labeling everything, printing Diet Coke . . . or Miracle-Gro . . . 

. . . or Brown Cow . . . 

. . . or whatever on our upcycled "toys."

Heck, the parents even label their kids with words and numbers. To their credit they use all kinds of tricky sizes and typefaces, but the kids still know what they are.

I suppose I could deal with it if the world would limit itself to these external labels, but really, shouldn't the insides of machines be safe havens? You might have to look closely, but they've managed to sneak a 4-9-5 in there, thinking the kids wouldn't notice. Shame on them!

You would think that gardens, at least, would be a place to escape these words and numbers, but no.

They even sneak words onto the garden spades!

I often come across articles about how to make a preschool classroom into a "literacy rich environment." Where are the articles about how to banish literacy? That's what I'd like to know. Every time I turn around, there they are, letters and numbers and words all chock-a-block with meaning.

And kids interacting with them, fiddling around, unlocking their secret abstract meanings in the course of their play.

I want to do it the pedagogically correct way as a preschool teacher, leaving these things out of the classroom until the kids are developmentally ready for them, but it's too many and too much for me. The minimum they could do is avoid putting letters and numbers on things that children find exciting or interesting.

Believe me, the undersides of these vintage Matchbox cars are riddled with
vital information about their makes and models that kids 
are always trying to decipher -- truly aggravating!

Yeah sure, sometimes we need to use a few letters for things like documenting our classroom rules . . .

. . . or recording thoughts for posterity . . .

And, yes, newspaper with all its thousands of tiny words and numbers really is the best, least expensive paper mache material.

And the burlap from discarded coffee bags is useful in all kinds of contexts.

All of these things throw letters and numbers into the faces of the kids, but I'm hoping these types of utilitarian accidents of literacy education are more than compensated for by my rigorous efforts on other fronts, although I despair.

They hide and turn themselves upside down.

They manage to inject themselves onto those fragile brains from every angle and during every moment of the day. Printed, typeset, handwritten, uppercase, lowercase, they're all there all the time.

I do my best to make our school a letter and number-free zone, but it's as if they're lying all over the ground.

Why can't they just stay in books where they belong?

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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Art Therapy

There was nothing "special" on the art table. By that I mean nothing fancy, no elaborate process or exploration I hoped the kids would undertake, no agenda of mine floating around behind it all, which is usually for the best. Let the kids come and find ink pads and stampers and various kinds of paper, including some construction paper blank books left over from something we'd done several weeks ago.

Often I'll try to start things off by giving the art parent some basic instructions, usually in the form of how I would do it if I were responsible for the station, which I'm not, but I think some of them like a little guidance. In this case, I'd started things off with the blank books and some run-of-the-mill stampers. Up on the shelf, to bring out later, were some "add ons" like larger paper, some big "roller" stampers that would allow the kids to use their full bodies to walk off strings of stamped impressions several feet long, and some of those heavy duty work-world stampers like librarians used to use to imprint return dates on library books. Cu-chunk!

The latter are a bit of a challenge for young children to use, requiring a great deal of force to get the self-inking mechanism to perform its 180 degree flip. In fact, I've never seen a kid manage it without both hands and laying into it with at least some of her body weight.

But today one of our friends arrived in class feeling surly. Her mom only had guesses about why she was out of sorts; just one of those days. I tried, but she either didn't want to or couldn't talk about it. I know the feeling: sometimes it just fills you up and the best course of action is for those around you to make themselves scarce. There was a lot of crabbing and on-the-edge of melt-down discontent until these big stampers came out.

Once she got going there was no stopping her. She was banging that thing down, one-handed, just like the librarians used to do. Bam! Bam! Bam! The rest of us left her an end of the table to herself. Bam! Bam! Bam! The sound of her stamping filled the classroom for a good 10 minutes, ink (really liquid water color) spattering her clothes, her face; that bottle of unnamed, sourceless anger venting with each powerful bang of the stamper.

She stamped until the paper was torn right though. She tossed it to the floor. She did it again and again. Then she was done and crabby no more.

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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