Thursday, February 28, 2013

Under The Loft

Yesterday morning as I prepared for class, I found a rather large stash of items hidden under our loft: a toy pony, a car made from Legos, a disabled flip phone we use as a toy, and several other small items, some of which I'd been missing. It's a tiny space, with room for maybe 3 kids to lie down even under the best of circumstances, although I use half the space to store a set of awkward blocks, so there's precious little space under there. Still, there are a couple of guys who spend at least part of their classroom days jammed in there together. 

Over the years, the space under our loft has been where the kids in our 3-5's class go when they seek to be off the adults' radar which is a very, very hard thing to find in a cooperative, where we tend to have adults aplenty. If someone's going to hide instead of clean up, that's where we'll find them. If someone complains about being pinched or being called a "bad name," it will invariably have happened under the loft. And if someone is going to experiment with the awesome power of arbitrarily excluding others, the area under our loft is the place from which they'll seek to exclude.

The loft at times has gained such a negative reputation among the adults that it is periodically suggested that we remove it altogether, or at least limit access. The fact that those blocks are stored under there is at least, in part, as a response to one of these past waves of concern over the loft and the nefarious activities it apparently causes.

When I find a stash like I did yesterday, however, it makes me feel a little sorry for the kids, or at least some of them, the ones who feel they really need a place where they can hide their exploration of certain desires or ideas from the grown-ups. It's dark under there, or at least darker than the rest of our well-lit place, and that's exactly what they kids seek to explore when they're under there: the darkness; the things away from which we adults, whether intentionally or not, steer them. One year there was a pair of boys who got in the habit of setting up shop under there to tell stories so scary that they sometimes reduced the younger children to tears. There was one little girl who would use the darkness to cover for her urge to pinch her classmates so hard they screamed, then deepen the darkness by, no matter what, denying anything at all had happened displaying a wide-eyed innocence that would have made Meryl Streep proud. I identified yesterday's stash as toys as part of one pair of boys' ongoing attempt to avoid clean-up time.

Not all the kids are drawn to this dark place. In fact, most are not, but there are always a few who seem to really need to escape to where adults have no voice, where adult eyes cannot see. They have things they want to know, things they want to explore, and an adult presence, quite obviously, stands in the way. It's a place, of course, where all of us have been: a place of secrets and camaraderie, blood oaths and lies. It's the dark place implied in our fairy tales, where bad guys and villains and evil witches live. And it's such an important place for some children that even if they ran from there in panicked tears one day, they still return, often again and again and again.

What adults know is that it's a place, ultimately, of pain and ugliness, where the only truth, really, is the truth of the darkness. That's why they need to get away from us if they're going to explore it: we can't help but attempt to shine light in there. But they will explore the dark, they must, if not under the loft, then somewhere else. Is school the right place for this exploration? I don't know. At one level, I want it to be, but then again it's impossible for me to not constantly be shining my light into that dark because I am an adult and that's simply what adults do, merely by our presence, as those boys who made this stash know all too well.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Wind Monster Painting

As I've written before, our 5's class is the first Woodland Park class to not place an outright ban on weapon play. Of course, we have a lot of rules about weapon play like, "No real weapons," and "No swinging weapons" (created when enough kids got fed up with being accidentally hit by stick-swords) and "No shooting at people unless they're playing the game," but the running around and shooting business has been a huge part of our outdoor play this year, at least for a core group of kids, and all of them have been involved at one point or another.

Personally, I'm beyond the disturbing visuals that this kind of play sometimes brings before our eyes; each day I make a little more peace with it as a normal part of childhood, but I doubt I'll ever become enthusiastic about it because, you know, I'm a grown up and I guess I'm addicted to variety.

You see, I have non-weapons based activities planned each day for the workbench and our art area, I bring out non-shooting large motor and science and sensory and dramatic activities, and while some of them are more appealing than others, there are always a few of the guys who even while hammering a nail or painting with a toilet plunger, never lay down their weapons. The most popular activities are those that involve projectiles or, even better, that can possibly result in a weapon-like final product to replace the sticks.

Last Friday, the weather forecast was for rain and high winds. And the day started that way. I'd been waiting for this: I had a cool idea for our 5's class outdoor art project, one that would take advantage of heavy rain. As the parents in our morning Pre-3 session commented on the severity of the weather, I joked that they could count on the sun for the afternoon since I was planning on heavy rain then. They laughed, but sure enough by the time 3 p.m. rolled round the clouds were gone and the sun was laying it on us.

Setting my heavy rain reliant activity aside (I will write about it when we finally do it) I scrambled for a back up plan. The storm had left behind some pretty impressive gusty wind, so I thought maybe we could at least take advantage of that. I hung an old bed sheet from a line where the wind could whip it around dramatically. We then handed the kids squirt bottles full of diluted liquid watercolor, saying, "That sheet's not a sheet. It's a flying monster! The only way to subdue it is to make it completely wet."

As one of the parent-teachers said to me, "They're shooting, but at least now they're not shooting each other."

As the wind blew the monster towards the kids they retreated, not pausing in their watercolor onslaught. When the monster itself retreated the children charged in, only to then be suddenly, and wetly, engulfed when it suddenly changed directions.

As the monster dove and whipped and raged, the children ducked and dodged and strove to cover every dry part with paint.

There was a lot of collateral damage insofar as clothing, faces, hair and hands. This was, I'm certain, one of those projects that would have earned me a stern reprimand, or perhaps even my walking papers had it happened in a different kind of school. But since this is Woodland Park, a group of we adults stood around the kids in a semi-circle, out of range, cheering them on, and occasionally helping them to re-fill their bottles.

It was truly an epic battle between the kids and the monster. In the end, the sheet was entirely wet, but so were the kids, so I'm calling it a draw. Maybe it'll rain tomorrow.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Looking For More

It was her grandparents who gave us our new boat, the one that now perpetually fights its way up the wall of the wave of sand that separates the upper and lower parts of our two-level sand pit.

It rides high these days, although its destiny is to ultimately sink into the sand the way it's predecessor is doing, but, of course, it will take much, much longer to decompose into sand itself being made from steel rather than wood. So high it stands above the ground, that it's a challenge for the two-year-olds to clamber in and out.

She boarded the vessel under her own power, although having not been a witness, I don't know how she managed it, but now she stood, peering over the side. She grabbed ahold and started to raise a leg before stopping herself, unsure, it seemed of her ability to safely navigate the height.

I couldn't help myself, stepping closer, even saying, "Do you want me to help you?" Fortunately, I realized my mistake even as the words were leaving my lips, allowing me to swallow the end of the sentence. If she heard, she didn't give an indication, instead studying her predicament without looking up, then moving across the boat from port to starboard where she repeated her process of grabbing the side, then raising a leg before changing her mind.

Her face wore a look of ernest study as she then made her way from stem to stern, stopping at various points to check the circumstances, to evaluate her risk, her chances, her confidence in her own ability. Had she, as many children do, looked for my eyes then thrown her hands up over her head saying, "Help me," or "Uppies," I might have given in, although I was telling myself that the "proper" answer is, "I won't help you, but I won't let you get hurt," even though she is only two.

She went around the entire boat twice, before finally settling on the very spot where she'd begun. This time when she raised her leg, she threw it complete over the side, hanging there momentarily as she found her balance, then in one clumsy movement she tipped her weight toward the outside of the boat, dropping several inches, landing on first one, then the other foot, stumbling, but not falling.

Then, without even a moment of celebration, this achievement merely one of the hundreds she would have on this day, she went off looking for more.

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Monday, February 25, 2013

Balloon Volleyball

Last week was my birthday week which means we played in the balloon cage (yes, please click through to see what I'm talking about, I'll wait) . . . which means we have a lot of balloons floating around the place. We did a little balloon surfing (I'll wait again) . . . and then, for the 11th time in my 11 years we tried balloon volleyball.

Balloon volleyball seems like an automatic winner. We stretch a strip of caution fencing between a couple of pylons, divide up into teams, then tap a balloon back and forth over the net. That's the theory. 

The problem is that this simple idea isn't so simple, I guess, when applied to the way we do school at Woodland Park. There are always enough kids who fail to understand the whole idea of "team" and staying on their own side of the net, or who forget in the heat of the moment, meaning that volleyball typically almost instantly devolves into a free-for-all with everyone just racing around in an effort to keep the balloon in the air, which is a perfectly fun game unto itself.

Since I'm not a fan of bossing kids around and figure there is never any reason to interrupt fun in order to have fun, volleyball at Woodland Park has normally meant playing with a balloon, together, with a homemade net in the same room.

The other challenge is that there are always one or two children who really can't resist catching the balloon when it comes to them instead of attempting to tap it back in the air, sometimes even running off with it, I suppose, in an effort to get the others to chase them. This behavior is a bit more of an aggravation because the others aren't always as enamored of this attempt to grab-and-run, which usually means I spend a lot of my referee time in hostage negotiation mode.

Still, I keep trotting the volleyball idea out each year, expecting that this will be the time it works the way I envision it. And this was my year! I love looking at these pictures, seeing all those heads up, just like a real volleyball team. I like seeing how many of them intuitively have their knees bent and hands up. They look to me a lot like real volleyball players.

This is my once in a decade team. Sweet!

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Sunday, February 24, 2013

How To Make Better Teachers

Recent research simply confirms what most people know: talented teachers help their students tremendously. They also help realize democratic society's highest potential by educating students to ask how to live and what to live for, not just how to make a living. In the words of educational analyst and former teacher Pasi Sahlberg, they make and protect the place where children are encouraged "to know, to create, and to sustain natural curiosity." In this capacity, teachers are models of a commitment to values that extend beyond expediency, narrow self-interest, and the present moment. ~from the report, A  Life of Consequence, a Profession of Status: Enhancing Respect, Recognition, and Retention of Talented Teachers

I've done some college level education coursework, but most of my "training" as a teacher came via what I consider to be my period of cooperative preschool apprenticeship combined with my experiences coaching both youth and adult baseball.

I'd previously thought off and on in about teaching, but it was more in the vein of a process of elimination as I approached the end of my high school career and was looking forward at what was next for me. I saw some appeal in the profession, but since nothing was really exciting to me at the time, I chose to major in journalism because the degree pretty much let you pursue your intellectual interests for two years as a "pre-journalism" student before having to commit. That's why I found myself sitting in courses like "The Byzantine Empire," "Mann, Kafka, and Hess In Translation," and "The Sociology of Leisure," classes that were emphatically not vocational; that opened for me new ways of thinking, new paradigms for how to see myself in the world, and lead me to pursue interests about which I'd previously had absolutely no inkling. I was not at all excited about the prospects of a job, but rather by the idea of spending my life just learning about interesting things, hanging out with smart people, and holing up in libraries like a kind of academic monk.

Seriously, had that been a realistic option I'd probably still be there today, the opportunity cost of course being the life I have today. So, you know, no regrets, but that's what was going on with me, really, even as I cobbled together a career that included being a junior business executive, a PR flack, a baseball coach, and a freelance writer, before landing in the apprenticeship that taught me where I belonged.

I intend to teach at Woodland Park until they wheel me out on a gurney, and even so I hope that by then someone has invented a Teacher Tom robot that I can operate in the classroom from my hospice bed. You see, this is where I get to spend my life learning about interesting things and hanging out with smart people, without all that monkish austerity. 

I understand that this is not the path most of my fellow teachers have taken. Most of them were far more decisive and idealistic than I. A recent study conducted for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which works to recruit and prepare teachers found:

Many new teachers in the United States are committed to values that extend beyond expediency, narrow self-interest, and the present moment. These are precisely the kind of people who can help young people learn, not just how to make a living, but how to live and what to live for.

That's certainly the kind of teacher I strive to be, as well as the kind of teacher I wish for my own child and the children of Woodland Park as they move out into the academic world beyond our walls. And, indeed, the teachers I know fit this description. Sadly, as the report points out:

(T)he system almost forces these new teachers toward other occupations.

Even while we as a society look at teaching as "a profession whose influence on individual lives is more significant than that of nearly any other occupation, whose role in society is universally acknowledged to be among the most critical to the future, and whose practitioners are often described as "heroic," "beloved," and "admired," we "cannot recruit and retain the best people because (the profession) is seen by many as a dead end, neither financially remunerative, nor socially and creatively fulfilling."

The perceived low status of teaching is . . . a serious obstacle to keeping teachers in classrooms. So, of course, are compensation issues and questions of how teachers' effectiveness is evaluated, the subject of frequent and corrosive headlines that often reduce teaching to test scores . . . many new teachers reported a phase where they felt disillusioned, defeated, and a deep sense of having failed. Teachers who have been academic high-achievers often cannot deal with this sense of failure; they have been hard-working, motivated, and successful in virtually everything they have done. They blame themselves for not better overcoming the shortcomings of the system and soon begin to believe they they are not good teachers.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, therefore, that a third to one-half of all teachers, despite entering the profession with the most noble of intentions, wind up leaving the profession within the first five years. In any other profession, especially one considered as vital as teaching, this would be considered a national emergency, yet it appears to me that many of those who hold the purse strings and are in positions of the most power over our educational system, view this not as a problem, but as a feature of the system.

It started with the Bush administration's primary education initiative No Child Left Behind and has continued with the Obama administration's identical twin Race To The Top, programs heavily supported by corporate lobbyists. As Lois Weiner, professor of eduction at New Jersey City University puts it:

(These initiatives are) part of this global project to deprofessionalize teaching as an occupation . . . the thinking is that the biggest expenditure in education is teacher salaries. And they want to cut costs . . . that means they have to lower teacher costs. And in order to do that, they have to deprofessionalize teaching. They have to make it a revolving door, in which we're not going to pay teachers very much. They're not going to stay very long. We're going to credential them really fast . . . We're going burn them up. They're going to leave in three, four, five years. And that's the model they want. So who is the biggest impediment to that occurring? Teachers' unions. And that is what explains this massive propaganda effort to say that teacher's unions are an impediment to reform. And in fact, they are an impediment to the deprofessionalization of teaching . . . It's a disaster for public education.

This, in fact, is the whole idea that underpins such corporatist initiatives like Teach for America, a program that recruits young college graduates, and in exchange for a mere two-year commitment, with the promise that it will be a stepping-stone to a more lucrative career in some other profession, gives them five weeks of summer training, then for rock-bottom prices, sends them into schools with just enough knowledge to coach kids up to do well on standardized test. 

It's a model that treats teaching, this profession that most consider vital to both our democracy and economy, as a kind low level turn-key operation, something like a stint in the Peace Corp with burger-flipper pay and no room for advancement. In fact, these Teach for America grads aren't even encouraged to consider teaching as a longterm profession -- it's about putting in the time, then moving on to greener pastures, like a kind of educational mercenary.

That's certainly not the kind of teacher I strive to be, nor the kind of teacher I wish for my child or the children who pass through Woodland Park.

And that's not the only way corporate education reformers are attempting to dismantle the teaching profession. Union busting (both overt and through the advocacy of low paying non-union charters) is another of their attack fronts, as is the bizarre idea to pit teachers against one another for promotions and raises by using their student's standardized test results as a kind of scoreboard that determines who gets to keep their jobs and who gets fired. Quality teaching has always been about collaboration, sharing ideas, and supporting one another. It's about an ongoing quest, over years and even decades, to improve and perfect our skills. I would not be here today without those three years of apprenticeships in cooperative preschool classrooms. And let me tell you, I'm a much better teacher today than I was a decade ago.

There are many good young teachers, don't get me wrong, but as in any profession, what we learn in school is only a starting point. It's experience that makes for great teachers, those who not only teach the children, but also mentor and support their less experienced colleagues so they don't burn out and leave after only a few years. I would assert that the greatest challenge facing American education is this high teacher turnover.

Teachers are the single most important part of our educational system. The answer can't be to further devalue what we do. The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation report's authors recommend going in the opposite direction, calling for a teacher education model that institutionalizes mentoring and apprenticeship, that emphasizes creating a culture of achievement and support (as opposed to competition) within schools, and that heightens the status (and thus the appeal) of the teaching profession by creating opportunities for growth and distinction. I urge you to read the report for yourself.

I got lucky, I think, to land in a place where I, whether by accident or design, received, and continue to receive, the kind of support, training and education I needed to continue to grow and achieve as a teacher, where I feel respected and challenged every day. It's why I've not burned out despite being exhausted at the end of each day. I'm proud that today several of the parents who have come through our school are now working as teachers themselves. I think that means they've felt supported and encouraged as well. We're all in this together. If we are serious about improving education, this is what what we need to do.

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Saturday, February 23, 2013

"I'm Sorry, Finn V."

A few years ago, we had two Finn's in class: Finn V. and Finn P. The adults only used the initial when there was cause for ambiguity, but the children, even the Finns themselves, usually included the initials.

We were outside and I was watching Finn V. carefully using chalk to color bricks on our wall.

He had done two in the center of the wall and had moved over to work on one near the edge. Isak took a paint brush from the water bucket and unknowingly started painting over the two bricks Finn had previously colored.

Finn shouted, "Hey!" threw down his chalk and began to stomp off. I was on the verge of intervening but luckily I waited an extra beat. Isak turned from his painting and said, "I'm sorry. Finn V."

Finn paused in mid-stomp, looking at Isak from the corners of his eyes.

Isak said, "Finn V., I'm sorry."

Finn pivoted, and instead of storming off, sat heavily on a bench, wearing a glowering face. Isak walked over to him, still carrying his paint brush, got right in his face, and said, "I'm SO sorry, Finn V."

Finn, still wearing his sour face, grumbled, "That's okay."

Again, "I'm SO sorry, Finn V."

"That's okay."

Isak went back to painting, carefully choosing a spot where the bricks had not been colored. Finn sulked for a minute longer, then went off on his way.

Human beings simply cannot have a more mature emotional exchange than that. Isak's honest mistake and sincere apology could only be matched by Finn's ability to forgive even while in a fit of justified anger.

I have no fear for our future.

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Friday, February 22, 2013

Kid President

I don't give a lot of pep talks any more, the kind I did during my years as a baseball coach. I suppose it's because most of the proper pep talks to which I've been subject were delivered by my own sports coaches, but I think of the pep talk as a mature man's game, so it still strikes me as humorous when I reflect on my 15-year-old self pacing back and forth in front of my 8-year-old charges, getting them fired up for the game.

Naturally, I still give a pep talk every now and then, but rarely of the "Go team!" flavor. Today, as a teacher in a cooperative preschool, these talks are more of the one-on-one variety, and tend to be in the line of a two-way dialog in which I'm assuring someone, child or adult, who already knows what they need to do, that I have faith in their ability to actually do it.

Of course, we all know the weakness of the pep talk, that it's effects are usually short lived and that those who rely too much on pep talks must constantly seek out the next one and the next one. In other words, pep talks are not the long term solution.

Still, sometimes you just need to get over that hump, to be reminded that attitude is everything, to hear about the power of boldness and awesome. Sometimes it just feels good to get "pep talked."

That said, I give you Kid President to put a little song in your heart and dance in your feet as you sail into the weekend:

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Komodo Claws And Clothespins

"Clothespins are machines for clipping onto things." That's what the Komodo Dragon told me. "These are my Komodo Dragon claws," referring either to his pinching fingers or the clothespins themselves as he attached them one by one, side-by-side on the box. 

As he went into more detail about what it means to be a Komodo Dragon it appeared that the sheet fort, the one that had once been held up on one end by those very clothespins, started to slip down. I absent-mindedly used one of the Komodo Dragon's pins to prevent that from happening.

The Komodo (as we were now calling him) watched me do it while maintaining this narrative about himself. The moment I'd completed my project, he said, matter-of-factly, "These are my Komodo claws," and used his pinching fingers to return the pin back to the row where he had previously clipped it, finishing by telling me, "Clothespins are machines for clipping onto things." I held the fort with my hand as we finished our conversation about being a Komodo.

Later, when I said, "We need to clean up these clothespins," I had a shoe box into which I figured they would go. Naturally, I was wrong about that, because by now we all knew these were machines for clipping onto things. There was no discussion. The clips clearly were to be put away on the lines of the rack we usually use for hang-drying wet artwork.

Clothespins don't go into a box, they're for clipping onto things, so that's where we'll be keeping them. The jury is still out on whether or not they're Komodo claws or just something those claws can do.

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