Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Why I Teach The Way I Do (A Final Word)

I've been writing for over a week now under the title "Why I Teach The Way I Do." Frankly, I'm exhausted. I think I've made a few good points. I think I've fleshed out some of my ideas. I know I've failed to follow any kind of direct or logical course, and left many things out, but I will nevertheless over the next few days, and upon reflection, especially focusing on the many thoughtful comments and questions from readers, try to pull it all together into a single comprehensive (but shorter) post that I hope will serve in future as my "go to" piece when those from outside our progressive education bubble show up here confused and angry at the things I've written.

Here are the other posts I've written in this series "Why I Teach The Way I Do," in order:

Philosophy and Obedience
Learning To Be Equal And Free
"Enforcing" Rules
What Schools Should Teach
Civil Disobedience

As I've thought about where I've arrived in this process of blogging without a net, I feel that I still haven't really gotten to the most honest core of why I teach the way I do. I started the first post attempting to respond to reader Ryan who was very intensely opposed to some things I'd written in an admittedly breezy post (which has since gone mini-viral) in which I was preaching to the choir. Ryan shared with me his professional (he's a therapist) reading of my "pathology" and "woundedness," connecting it to my own childhood. And while, of course, he knows nothing of my childhood specifically, it is true that my own childhood stands very much at the center of the reason I teach the way I do.

So to finish up this series, I thought I'd simply go there, providing a sketchbook of childhood memories of unsupervised play and let it stand as my final word.

A Final Word

One of the earliest things I recall is standing in the driveway of my family's new home at 134 Wembley Street in Columbia, SC. I believe the moving van was still there, or perhaps had just left. The excitement of what was happening at our house had brought John Azar from where he lived a few doors away to stand in the street at the end of the driveway to watch.

John looked to be about my age: 4 or 5-years-old. I watched him watching us for a time. I was intrigued by the men's dress shirt he had buttoned around his neck, short-sleeved, pale blue, dangling behind him in a fashion I understood to be a cape. I was entirely unaware if I had a reputation for being reserved or not, but it only seemed natural after 10 minutes of looking at each other from a distance to walk out to him and say, "Hi, I'm Tom."

He answered, but not clearly, as if he had something in his mouth, so I asked, "What?" Then more carefully, he replied, "I'm John."

"Are you playing Superman?"

"I'm playing Batman." I'd never heard of this Batman of which he spoke and thought maybe I'd misunderstood, just as I had his name. "What?"

"Batman," he answered more clearly.

"What's Batman?"

"He's on TV at 4 o'clock." I was invited to his house to watch it sometime. Soon I'd begged an old shirt from my dad.

It turned out that John had a sister, Pheobe, a year older than me, while John was a year younger, and my brother Sam was a year younger than John. The four of us with Johnny and Chucky Beale, the Wieble, Broom, and Cozart kids, John Sain, and later Will Jordan from Chistopher Street and Jeff Short from over on the more busy Winston St., came to make up the core of our neighborhood "gang."

I went to school, eventually, a private kindergarten because the public schools didn't start until 1st grade back then, and then I attended the newly constructed Meadowfield Elementary, to which I could ride my bike. I'm sure those experiences laid a solid foundation for my future academic life, but I honestly have precious few memories of anything but the playgrounds and the other kids.

I do, however, have very concrete memories of the things I learned playing with John and Pheobe and the rest of the neighborhood kids, roaming from yard-to-yard, barely conscious of the idea of private property. Every now and then someone would lean from their window to "yell" at us for messing around with their rose bushes (we were fascinated by the thorns) or for jumping in the piles of pine needles they'd just raked up. We'd say we were sorry, then, as time passed, conjure stories about how we'd, in fact, been threatened by a "knife," spinning cautionary tales we told to wide-eyed kids who had not been there.

In the summer, we ran everywhere barefoot, testing our soles on the blistering hot pavement or by trying to cross sections of lawn that were known for harboring blackberry starts, what we called "stickers," or dog poop, stepping in which was a real-life horror that made you pariah until you could find a garden hose with which to wash it off. We made "booby traps" with straight pins we'd found in kitchen junk drawers, sticking them menacingly straight out of the dust, intended for "bad guys," but inevitably embedding them in our own calloused heels.

Pheobe, being oldest, met me each morning one summer in the Sain's front yard, calling me "Tarzan" when I turned up with no shirt or shoes. I can still summon up the sting of disappointment when one day she said nothing. I asked, "Aren't I Tarzan?" And she answered, "Your shorts are too long." I never wore those shorts again.

There were climbing trees and pine cone fights and "dangerous" kids who lived on other streets. We made up games we called soccer and football and hide-and-seek, often playing through the dusk into dark, howling like wolves and barking like dogs and making up songs about the things that interested us the most: underpants, death, poo, and flying faster than the wind.

After thunderstorms we would race outside to play in the streams that formed in the gutters that lined the curbs of our cul-de-sac, floating pine needle boats that we'd guide through rapids we created from pebbles, following the course until it was lost through the iron gratings that lead into the mysterious maw of the storm sewers. There were few things more exciting than when someone's dad would spend a weekend pruning pine branches, then pile them over those gutters where they would often wait for weeks for the irregular curbside pick up. That's where we built forts and hideouts, getting sap and splinters in our hair and under our fingernails. Later, as we got older, and bicycles made us more mobile, we found roadside ditches farther afield in which we discoverd frogs, turtles, and insects: bugs that could walk on water and mosquitoes the size of our palms.

There were still a few undeveloped parcels in our suburban neighborhood that we called "woods" and where we would spend hours creating adventures. One time Jeff Short and I decided to play with matches, lighting small fires, then stomping them out until one nearly spread out of our control. We panicked as we stomped, sweating, crying, images in our heads of the entire neighborhood burning to the ground, the echoed voices of adults with their tut-tut warnings, "Never play with matches," suddenly poignant. I prayed so hard as I stomped that I suffered from a headache that lasted for hours afterwards. It wasn't until I was a teenager than I again had the courage to strike a match. Thirty years later, this is the story I told my own daughter instead of simply commanding her to be careful with fire.

We sometimes rode our bikes into "Hampton's Land," a vaguely menacing wooded place marked off by tattered "No Trespassing" signs, owned by one or another of the vaguely menacing Hamptons who stood for us as the faceless symbol of ultimate power and wealth. In there we found places we named "The Clay Pits" and "The Sand Pits" and "The Dessert," and where we imagined ourselves cowboys and army men, uncovering evidence of other kids who had been there before us, ancients who had left behind bottle cap and candy wrapper relics for us to muse over. Sometimes we'd actually meet those kids in those places, who always seemed rougher than us, cruder. One time, however, there was a boy smaller and younger than us. He played the tough guy, threatening us, standing with his legs apart and hands on his hips. We found him amusing and began to taunt him, mocking his bravdo. Once, twice, then three times I snuck around behind him, then shoved him to the ground, laughing at how I'd sure shown him. Finally, he ran off. Thinking we'd won something, we Wembley Street kids claimed "The Clay Pits" as our own, until we saw him returning through the trees, this time with adults in tow. Not waiting for the consequence, I ran like I'd never run before, leaving my bike in the shrubbery, running over stumps and through brambles that tore my flesh. I ran with fear in my heart, with anguish over the cruelty I'd perpetrated upon the younger boy who had only wanted us to think he was something mightier than he was. Tears tracked through the dust on my cheeks as I ran, faster than ever, farther than ever, all the way back to my house where I slammed the door and spent the afternoon pacing in front of the windows, watching the street, fearing the appearance of that boy and those adults who never came.

This race home was echoed some weeks later when Jeff Short, in a peak of anger and cruelty, put his heel down on a favorite toy of mine, crushing into the mud. I ran all the way home then too, tears for both myself and the boy I'd treated with similar cruelty. Both times mom saw I was in anguish, but didn't pry, instead letting me be with my grief and with her love. I suspect she later learned of both incidents through the neighborhood grapevine, but never said a word because, I guess, she knew I'd already learned hard lessons and it was not part of her love for me to make them harder.

Other times we stuck around our homes, playing in garages, digging through boxes of junk, handling our father's tools, assembling contraptions we called race cars that we mounted on wagons. Ours was a neighborhood of few hills, so the best we could do was find someone to push us around the driveway, but it was exhilarating nevertheless, risking life and limb to our own handiwork.

One summer the city dug a huge trench down the middle of our street, at least three times as deep as we were tall. They were replacing the small concrete storm sewer pipes with much larger concrete storm sewer pipes. After the workmen went home each day, no one told us not to play there, so we did. There was nowhere else we would have rather been than down in that amazing rubble bestrewn hole, climbing over "boulders" and upon the small digger they left parked on its edge, daring one another to go just a little bit farther into the dark tunnel they were constructing. And when it was done, they paved the whole thing over with a strip of new black asphalt on which riding bicycles was the smoothest of pleasures.

There is so much more to tell, so many more memories of endless hours of unsupervised play out in the world with the children and things we found there. Moments that put joy in our hearts and hearts in our throats.

Of course, knowing what I know now, it probably wasn't as unsupervised as I recall through the sepia tones of memory. Naturally, there were mothers in all those kitchen windows, keeping an eye on us, only showing themselves when necessary, making sure we weren't being too mean or too careless, feeding us bologna sandwiches when that time rolled around, keeping the other mothers informed when the Wembley Street kids were playing in their yard. I know that's how it worked, but it sure felt like we were on our own as we conducted our experiments, made up our stories, figured things out, engaged in our debates, pretended in our capes, made our horrible mistakes, and enjoyed our magnificent triumphs.

I don't know if parents can allow their children this kind of freedom to roam any more.  Probably we could, but we don't, if only because there's so much more traffic. So maybe this is why we need schools like Woodland Park.

I've spent many days now writing about why I teach the way I do, but at bottom this is it: because I wish all this for the children who come my way.

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Christi said...

Teacher Tom - I LOVE this! I had this sort of childhood, too (as did my husband) and this is the premise of how we're raising our boys. They're now 9 &11, and have this kind of childhood. They are homeschooled, and while that is fairly structured their time is largely their own. They are allowed to try doing pretty much whatever they wish and find growth and confidence in that.

I truly enjoy your blog, and have particularly enjoyed this series. Even though we're homeschoolers, your reasons for teaching the way you do largely resonate with me as they are so similar to my reasons for teaching my boys at home.

Thank you!

Kerry said...

Oh, yes--and playing "army men" with the little plastic soldiers in the back yard, and using berries for "blood." And "Truth or Dare" in the dusk in the yard, and jumping off the garage roof into the dusty back yard.

Here's to childhood--and I agree--that's what we want to bequeath to our children, some how, some way.