Friday, March 29, 2013

Teaching Motivation

I receive quite a bit of communication from businesses that want to sell us educational products, the key part of their pitch being a long lists of what children will learn. I know that school districts, like the Seattle School district, purchase math, literacy, and other curricula from businesses that sell such things, and I'm quite certain that the sales people are very specific about what it is the children will learn, probably on a month by month, chapter by chapter, step by step basis.

I'm kind of baffled by this. How do they know what the kids will learn? And if they really somehow can know what another person will learn, how do they know that this specific knowledge-product is what they really ought to have in their heads and on that particular schedule? What about all the other stuff they could be learning instead? It seems like such a gamble to me; a huge opportunity cost. I mean, what if they're wrong? How can anyone know what specific knowledge will be important in a future that none of us can predict 5 years down the road, let alone 20 or 30 when these kids are out there in the middle of the world?

I'm not exaggerating when I say that I think this piece of art is a work of genius.

There seems to be a kind of hubris in this way of approaching education, the idea that the grown-ups get to decide what children will learn. Adults have never been particularly good at predicting the future, especially those of us over 40. And while there is something to be said for the wisdom that comes from experience, if that experience has taught me anything at all, it's that I better be prepared to keep right on learning because the specific set of things I need to know changes year by year, month by month and even day by day. What I needed to know yesterday is obsolete today.

As a teacher, I never (or rarely) pretend to know what the kids will learn, but I do know that they are learning. I know this because what we are about within our four walls is building a community, and in that process, every day, children bump up against their limits, find that there is something they do not know, something they need to know, want to know, and so set about learning it. A progressive, play-based curriculum never needs to be updated, we never need to download a version 2.1 or 2.2. It's always cutting edge because the children are always learning exactly what they need to know to answer the questions they have, to fulfill their self-selected role in our community, to scaffold their way to the next step in their ongoing inquiry about themselves and how to work with the other people.

Our role as experienced adults is not to package up and spoon feed them whatever it is that we, in our own unique process of living for decades in this world, have found useful, but rather to observe carefully and then to make our best guesses about not what they ought to learn, but what they are learning right nowthen to be there with vocabulary, a hand, an observation, or, if we are very careful, perhaps a question that will support their inquiry.

When I do something as simple as putting pinking shears, scissors, construction paper, and glue sticks on a table, I don't need a list of what the children will learn. In fact, what arrogance it would take to assume I could make such a list before they have even begun their exploration of these materials.

The object of education is not to fill heads with our predictions about what we think they will need to know, but rather to create a clear field in which children can practice the lifelong habit of learning.

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Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Greatness Of Children

It's about this time in the school year, just before Spring break, that I typically begin to hit a kind of doldrums, a spell during which I fear we've already done everything there is to be done, that I've already trotted out all my best material. Oh sure, there's always Spring itself with its flowers, seed planting, the return of insects and the like, and yes, I always have the kids upon whose interests and passions any self-respecting teacher in a play-based curriculum relies to lead him. And I know it's a personal problem, one of being a man who's been circling the sun for over a half century. I mean, it's not a problem for the kids to be building with the unit blocks yet again. They're perfectly contented, even excited, by the prospect of making another painting at an easel. Playing with water still holds the same fascination for these 3-year-olds as it did for the 3-year-olds last year and the year before.

It's not that I'm bored, it's rather that I somehow worry, because I'm not a child, that the children will be bored, that they'll arrive in the classroom and sigh in unconscious judgement of me, "Not this again!" But you know what? It's never happened.  Not once has a child arrived at school to express the kind of world weariness that all too often plagues adulthood. This is the greatness of children.

It's this that drives me to rail like I do against the rising tide of rote and routine that so-called education reformers seek to foist upon childhood. This is why I stand against the testers and standardizers, the prophets of rote, the businessmen who want to make a business of growing up. We spend most of our lives, frankly, fighting against the the deadness of routine, against the tedium of commutes and meetings and schedules and doing things we really hate doing. Children are not made for this. Hell, none of us are made for this, yet "for their own good," these fun-stealers are committing their time and treasure to robbing all of us of springtime.

I don't know how other teachers are doing it, administering those tests created in meeting rooms by people who spend their days in front of computers, teaching from textbooks published according to the mandates of the hidebound Texas board of education, being helpless as another half hour of recess is being cut from their day. The kids may not be bored with it yet, of course, because of their greatness, but mark my words, we'll make cynical old farts of them by middle school. Middle schoolers do sigh, "Not this again!" the cry of those who once knew what it meant to be great.

I will not be party to squashing greatness. On the contrary, I'm here to bask in it, to be inspired by it. To learn again how to play, for instance, with some pieces of cardboard that one of our parents couldn't bring herself to throw away. Thank god for her and for the children who know how to be alive. It's here that creativity, indeed our humanity, comes into full bloom. It's from this soil that greatness sprouts.

I proudly and selfishly count on the children each Spring to show me how to live again.

(Sorry, I didn't have time to insert links into this post this morning, but I'll come back this evening and add them.)

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Wednesday, March 27, 2013


I guess I've been taking the kids down my own memory lane lately, first with Battling Tops, and now with Skittle Bowl, which is a pendulum bowling game. It was playing this game that I learned to keep score, which we did just the way one keeps score in actual bowling. I actually rather enjoyed writing those numbers into tiny boxes, making slashes and "X's" to mark the spares and strikes if for no other reason than that it gave me something to do while it was someone else's turn.

Sadly, I can't recall the last time I was actually charged with keeping my own score at a bowling alley since they all seem to have gone with automated scoring systems. Now, I reckon that most avid bowlers not only can keep score themselves, having learned it through osmosis, and are grateful to be spared (if you'll excuse the pun) the tedious task of doing it by hand, but for us occasional bowlers, and especially children, it robs the sport of some of it's educational value.

Over the years, I've come into possession of several small table top bowling sets to go along with my old Skittle Bowl game, which means that every now and then we set up a sort of bowl-o-rama in one corner of the room. It's never as popular as I hope or expect and yesterday I was working on the theory that it's because of the second automated aspect of real bowling: re-setting the pins. Frankly, that's what you spend most of your time doing, so it really doesn't surprise me when enthusiasm wanes after a couple frames.

Now, on the one hand, I'm all for kids doing for themselves and there's a lot to be learned about patience and being careful and one-to-one correspondence in the act of re-setting pins, but after having your handiwork immediately knocked down by a classmate or your own clumsiness as often as by your own ball, and even when all goes according to plan one must do it all over again, I understand that the reward just may not ultimately be worth the effort. Even in super old-school bowling allies, they wound pay people to reset pins -- the sport would have gone nowhere without that innovation. In other words, this set-up, although filled with potential, has rarely been a smashing success.

Still, I trotted the bowling set up out for the Pre-K class yesterday, not with a solution to the pin-setting issue in mind, but with an idea for how the kids could keep their own score. I suggested that they could use our little chalk boards to make "tally marks," demonstrating the idea at circle time before turning them loose, also suggesting that they might want to attempt to achieve a score of 10.

The idea of tally marks, keeping track of how many pins you knock down by simply making a small mark, is more challenging than our adult minds at first conceive, I think. It's a kind of abstraction of the one-to-one correspondence skills required to reset the pins on dots, and since we were attempting to keep track progressively, meaning adding more tally marks to our running total with each ball thrown, it became a hands-on demonstration of not just counting, but addition. The kids, at least, found it absorbing. I was thrilled to check in to find that most of them were concentrating on keeping score up to 10, counting, erasing, checking and re-checking, some actually doing it, while others pretended, coming up with their own methods. In fact, so popular was the activity that I had to run to the storage room to break out more chalk boards and chalk.

What was truly an innovation over our former Woodland Park table top bowling attempts, however, was that Connor's mom Tricia, the parent-teacher responsible for the station, was quietly and quickly serving as an automatic pin re-setter.  While the kids labored over their tally marks, she made it so that when they returned to their starting point, the pins were ready to go. Strike!

I should have come to this realization years ago, but I couldn't see the solution for my pedagogy of kids doing for themselves. Silly teacher. 

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Battling Tops

I grew up in a family that enjoyed board games. To this day, Mom's birthday request is always that the family get together for a few rounds of Yahtzee or some other game that everyone can play, from grandkids to grandfathers. For her, it's largely about the social aspect of sitting around a table together over something other than food, but as a former teacher I'm sure the educational aspects of game play aren't lost on her: taking turns, sequencing, counting, strategizing, calculating, estimating, reading. Depending on the games, I suppose one could cobble together a pretty passable education from board games alone.

I enjoyed them all, from Battle Ship to Monopoly, but the ones the childhood games that hold a special place in my heart are those that involved real-world physics like Mouse Trap, Rebound, or Skittle Bowl. The king among these games was one called Battling Tops. This game could absorb me alone, or my brother and me together, for hours on end. 

The basic idea is to send your top into the concave arena to do battle with up to 3 other spinning dervishes with names like Hurricane Hank, Tricky Nicky, Twirling Tim, Super Sam, Smarty Smity, and Dizzy Dan in a last-man-standing competition. If that was all it was, I suppose, it would have lost its play value quickly, but the real gamesmanship came in the preparation. The tops were operated by a kind of "rip cord" made from a loop of plastic attached to a string that had to be wound around the top's stem just so. That simple act, and the subsequent energetic-but-not-too-energetic pulling motion required to get the top spinning, was where the open-endedness came in. 

The battle itself was mere gravy. We spent those hours, not merely cheering for our tops, but rather carefully winding them, trying out new techniques, making it loose, then tight, then upside down, keeping track of how this method worked versus that. We spent those hours perfecting the right amount of umph to apply to the pull, figuring out whether or not and when to twist our wrists, working on our follow-through, wondering if maybe one top had some sort of ever-so-subtle advantage over another. That's what made this such a great game: the constant refining and fiddling.

I've had my old battered and beaten Battling Tops set in the storage room at school for a number of years. We've used the arena for finger tops, but the actual battling tops, the preparation and the sudden pulling of the rip cords, was just enough beyond the capability of the kids that it just lead to frustration. So there it sat, taking up space until last week when I came across it and realized that it might make just the right challenge for our 5's class. And it did.

Not all of them were able to perfect the winding, although by the end of the game's three-day run several of them had, but most, after a few failed attempts, were at least able to get their champion into the ring with a quick pull of the rip cord. This was one of those rare games that the kids begged for day-after-day. We would likely still be playing it had the weekend not intervened. Rarely have I heard, "I did it!" or "Look what I figured out!" more often, and expressed more enthusiastically, than I did last week. Several of the kids, and remember these are kids growing up in the digital age, told me it was the "best game ever." Take that Minecraft Survivor!

Best of all was the game play dynamics around the table: kids taking turns, chatting, describing, sharing tips, giving compliments, laughing. Mom would have found it a happy birthday indeed.

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Monday, March 25, 2013

Love Is Worth Any Risk

(I've changed some of the names because, in love, we are all innocent.)

And I see losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you're blown apart.
Everybody sees the wind blow     ~Paul Simon

A broken heart hurts like nothing else. No matter how gently she does it, no matter how much your head tells you it's for the best, no matter how many friends you have around you telling you she isn't good enough for you, only time has any capacity to sooth. And even then, even decades later, if you don't guard against it, a sound, a scent, a certain play of light at the end of the day can bring the heart sickness back, tinged now with the melancholy of what might have been. Other kinds of rejection can heal without a mark, but this leaves a scar.

A part of teaching a 5's class that I'd not anticipated was the advent of what I'm thinking of as "romantic" play, especially since, like most fives classes of which I'm aware, our enrollment tends to be boy heavy. It first came to my attention around Valentine's Day. By a fluke of the way illness spreads, we celebrated this year with all of the girls (and some of the boys as well, of course) out sick. At circle time, we were talking about love, and I asked the question, "Who do you love?" It started off as usual, with the boys answering, "I love mommy," "I love my daddy," "I love my whole family," that sort of thing, but then Grey raised his hand and said, "I love Elena," a classmate with whom he often carpools. This barrier broken, we went another round, with each of the boys, perhaps emboldened by their absence, declaring love for one or another of the girls. It was a wonderfully sweet circle time.

It was around this time that Jeff and Mary decided to get married. They spent a lot of time holding hands, looking, frankly, flushed with the excitement of playing together. This went on for several weeks, going to the point of the two having play dates together outside of school. It was even the topic of discussion at a parent meeting, during which we all chuckled and basked in the innocent warmth of what people used to call "puppy love."

Last week, however, we were making tissue paper flowers at the art table. Jeff, Mary, and a few other kids were taking turns riding a scooter when Henry ran up to give Mary the flower he had made. One thing led to another and minutes later the two were holding hands declaring that they were going to be married. Jeff's eyes widened, then he made a beeline for the art table. He returned with a flower-gift of his own, Mary accepted it, but continued to hold Henry's hand. Jeff went back to the art table.

The kids moved on to other things in the meantime, but it wasn't long before Jeff found me again. He threw himself up against the wall in dejection, his face twisted with the effort to hold back his tears. I said, knowing the answer because we've all been there, "You look upset." The words and tears flowed together, "She's going to marry Henry. He only gave her one flower and I gave her five!" With that he raced across the room and crawled under a table. I tried to console him, rubbing his back, telling him I understood. I couldn't use the "she's not good enough for you line," of course, and without that and the other things guys tell each other I was at a total loss. I didn't feel at all like a teacher in that moment or even an adult. I was just a buddy helping a buddy because no one's a greater expert than anyone else when it comes to heartbreak. It hurts as bad at 5 as it does at 50.

He burst out from under the table and ran. I followed to find him balled up under where we hang our coats. By then, I'd stopped saying anything, just being with him, gently chasing the other kids away who were, naturally, wondering what had happened. Time passed and he pulled himself together. We decided to play with the Lincoln Logs. He lashed out again by knocking down the constructions of a couple classmates. They said, "Hey!" but I let it go without comment. He and I made a series of cannons and blasted stuff for awhile.

When we chuckled in our parent meeting, I doubt any of us were thinking about the heartbreak. I sure wasn't, although, we should have all known it was coming. But even if we did, even if we'd allowed ourselves to consider it, it would have been wrong to have done anything other than to let love run its course.

Given how much it hurts, it's amazing we ever allow ourselves to love again, but we do, some of us over and over. That's because love is worth any risk, even the risk of heartbreak.

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Friday, March 22, 2013

What We Do

I've written volumes about how education in a democracy is not undertaken for purposes of creating great workers; it's for creating great citizens. As far as I'm concerned everything else is incidental, but I've just gotta say . . .

I think the thing that frustrates me the most about these businessman education reformers is that they really don't seem to understand what type of education produces people with the workplace skills they need the most. I mean, take Bill Gates and Microsoft. This is a company in my own backyard. I remember when it was an exciting mid-sized company on the rise. I've known hundreds, if not thousands of people who have, and continue to, work there. I was in the room one time when some of Gate's dad's friends hammered him as a 30-something about not giving enough back to the community (a circumstance he's more than corrected these days). I know a lot about that company by osmosis if nothing else, and one of the things I've always admired is how effectively they work projects: teams of people coming together to make something happen. Have you ever seen a video of current CEO Steve Ballmer speaking to the gathered employees? It's like the greatest, most motivational locker-room speech ever given. The bottom line is that Microsoft's success is based not on technology, marketing, or innovation, but rather on the teamwork it takes to make each of those things great.

But I guess that's not unique to Microsoft. That's how all the successful companies do it. Most of us who work in offices, spend our time working with other people on projects. It's the way things get done in business. In fact, if you really think about it, it's the way things get done in nearly every area of life, from raising a family to saving the planet. We spend our lives working on projects with the other people and we know that there are certain skills we need to possess to make that work, all of which are things that can only be acquired through practice: sociability, teamwork, communication, empathy. These are the talents necessary to satisfying the goals of any project.

And these are precisely the skills at which progressive play-based education (as the kids get older we often switch to the terms "project-based" or "inquiry-based," but it's the same thing) is so good at teaching. In fact, most of what we do during our school days is to work on projects together, large and small, for a few minutes, a day, a week, or an entire school year, practicing the actual skills we'll be using for the rest of our lives. We are finding out how we best work with the other people, what roles we most like to play, learning from one another, learning about one another, indeed, even learning how to get the most from one another. Through this process we learn such vital business skills as tact and persuasion, listening and speaking, how to encourage others and the ability to take advice. We learn to divide up labor amongst ourselves. We use sentences with one another that begin with the words "What if . . ." and "Let's . . ." the seed stock of creativity.

Instead, in their reformer's zeal to re-make schools in the image of their automated factories instead of their human-operated offices, with an ever narrowing focus on such easily tested, go-it-alone skills as math and literacy, they are marginalizing more than just art, science, history, music, dance, physical education, and drama. They are leaving to chance the most vital skills necessary to their business success. Not very button-down of them, is it?

I live near the Cornish College of the Arts campus and students and teachers are often on the lawns of the park across the street, sitting and standing in circles, facing one another, playing a variety of team-building games. That pretty much what we do in preschool, not in quite as formalized a way, but engaging in activities designed to begin to create a sense of "we," of team, of community, because it's from this core idea that progressive education springs. And I happen to know that Microsoft uses team-building exercises as well because they too understand the power of teams.

In spite of that, in the educational vision of these modern-day "reformers," there is no place for team-building. In fact, in their focus on "streamlining" and "focusing like a laser" on data-drive matrices, these activities on the lawn would be an utter waste of time, on par with such things as recess, another thing that's being phased out across the country in favor of test-prep. Instead, they see school as a place to fill up these empty vessels, these incomplete adults, with information that they can later download onto a test page with a #2 pencil, information that for the rest of their lives will be a mere Google search (or since we're talking about Microsoft, a Bing search) away.

What do I know about business? Very little, I'll confess, but I do know something about education, about life beyond school, and about coaching, and all I've ever found out there are teams of people working on projects, succeeding or failing based upon their collective teamwork skills.

I teach children about teamwork because self-governance requires an educated population that can work together. That the very skills that progressive play-based education is best at teaching happen to be those most needed to be successful in business might be incidental, but it's not immaterial.

I know this is just preaching to the choir, that the reformers have already committed themselves to their misguided mission, and the school and teacher-bashing will continue apace. I take comfort from Diane Ravitch's (Bill Gates "enemy") assertion that they're already failing. But it saddens me that they are putting all that energy and all that wherewithal into improving education when we really all should be on the same team.

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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Sometimes It Goes That Way

I tell our parent-teachers that I consider clean-up time to be the core of our curriculum. This is the most concrete way that the children begin to make the school their own in the only way that anyone ever truly takes ownership of anything: by assuming responsibility for it. The problem for many of us is that they don't always do so with the kind of speed and efficiency that we would like to see. That's why I also tell the parent-teachers that I don't care how long clean-up time takes, even if it stretches out to 20 minutes or more, something that never actually happens, but it's an exaggeration I use to illustrate my point.

While I know that most parents fully support the idea in theory, I can see that in practice this really grates on some parents, who simply can't help quietly speeding things along with their larger hands, stronger arms, and greater sense of urgency. Finn and Grey's mom Jenny, however, is a seasoned veteran of our school, a woman who knows the power of not lifting an extra finger when she knows the kids can, however eventually, handle it for themselves.

Yesterday she was the parent-teacher in charge of our sensory table. We've been playing with wine corks, containers, and tongs this week. I thought I'd create a little variety and challenge yesterday by adding water. I imagined the kids having fun in the way bobbing for apples is fun, trying to capture those corks with their tongs, then transferring them to containers. I didn't imagine it would engage 5-year-olds for a long time, but I figured it would be a relatively entertaining "drive-by" station. As it turned out, it wasn't even that. I'm sure a few kids played there, but Jenny was left pretty much all alone for the hour. I tried several times to lure the kids to the table, but most dismissed it with their hands in their pockets, not even humoring me. Oh well, sometimes it goes that way.

When I banged the drum that signals clean-up time, I wanted the kids to move the wet things to a towel where they could drip dry. We made quick work of the rest of the classroom, all except for the sensory table. That's because the kids had decided, finally, to put those tongs to work, using them to painstakingly transport a couple hundred corks to the towel one at a time. It was a slow, slow process, one Jenny courageously fought the urge to hurry, instead sticking to making those informational statements about what she saw happening in front of her. 

Twenty minutes later we were finally done. Yes, sometimes it goes that way.

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