Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"I Have This"

Tom Drummond, recently retired instructor at North Seattle Community College, has a video of himself interacting with preschoolers by putting a can of house paint on the center of a table and saying something like, "I have this."

One of the children identifies it as paint.

Tom answers that it looks like a can to him. We then watch the kids over about 15 minutes guide Tom through to the point that he uses a screw driver to pry the can open where, sure enough, they find not just paint, but the color and type they predicted. Throughout this, Tom more or less plays dumb (or maybe he's playing innocent), sticking to simple, informative statements, and I'll never forget how right near the end of the video, at just the perfect moment, he introduced the word "pry" into the conversation, which really expedited things.

Viewing this had a big impact on me as a cooperative parent-teacher and continues to influence me to this day. It gave me an opening into a new understanding of what it meant to be a teacher, having up to then essentially understood the profession as one in which the teacher conveys knowledge to children by telling or showing them things and then expecting them to remember it. Here I saw a teacher guiding a group of children toward understanding, using language to prompt exploration and conversation, letting them construct meaning and purpose from their own experiences, collaborating with their peers, arriving at the point where a traditional teacher would have started, prying the can open.

I find myself taking this approach daily in the classroom, be it putting on bandages, building with blocks, or making art; playing innocent, not taking the role of authority or the possessor of superior knowledge. When the Easter Bunny comes up, for instance, my response is to simply wonder if that's their pet bunny and we're off. It's fascinating to facilitate a discussion like that, as they share what they "know," adding new parts to the story, deciding if EB is a boy or girl, debating if he's big or regular sized, wondering amongst themselves if she lays eggs or just brings them, and speculating on how he gets into their houses. I've found that as long as the adults refrain from attaching a right or wrong label to their responses, the discussions might get heated, but at the end of the day, everyone gets to go home with their own story intact, but enriched with new things to think about.

There is a debate raging in the US right now about how teachers ought to teach, with one side, the one at the podium right now, insisting upon a "direct instruction" approach, one in which the teacher shows or tells students the answers, while the other side, the one generally advocated on these pages, favoring an exploratory approach in which the teacher encourages students to find the answers on their own.

Teaching is a notoriously hard thing to measure, of course, because so many things play into it both inside and outside the classroom. Direct teaching may well be a superior approach if the goal is simply to teach specific facts or skills, the kinds of things that can be measured on standardized tests, but doesn't really do much for curiosity and creativity, attributes far more important to becoming lifelong learners.

In an article over at Slate by developmental scientist Alison Gopnick, she discusses the findings of two studies:

. . . (w)hile learning from a teacher may help children get to a specific answer more quickly, it also makes the less likely to discover new information about a problem and to create a new and unexpected solution."

(The studies) provide scientific support for the intuitions many teachers have had all along: Direct instruction really can limit young children's learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific . . . But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions.

I urge you to click over there and read about how the studies were conducted. I don't think anyone who has spent any amount of time in a preschool classroom will find the results surprising.

The thing that struck me the most, however, was that in both studies, the researcher playing the role of teacher in the exploratory approach essentially played "dumb," much in the way Tom did in his video, and the way many of us naturally do in the classroom.

Also fascinating is where Gopnick takes us at the end of her article, looking at scientists who work on designing "computers that learn about the world as effectively as young children do." Which, as it turns out, was the real motivation for engaging in these studies in the first place.

These experts in machine learning argue that learning from teachers first requires you to learn about teachers. For example, if you know how teachers work, you tend to assume that they are trying to be informative . . . (T)he learner unconsciously thinks: "She's a teacher. If there were something interesting in there, she would have showed it to me." These assumptions lead children to narrow in, and to consider just the specific information a teacher provides. Without a teacher present, children look for a much wider range of information and consider a greater range of options.

This is a little mind blowing for me. Of course it's true that an authoritative adult can narrow the world for young minds, but it never occurred to me that the very definition of "teacher" comes into play in how children learn. The kids who come to Woodland Park arrive as 2-year-olds and as such, for most of them, I am the only teacher they've ever known. And for many of them, three years later as they head off to kindergarden, the "playing innocent" approach forms the basis of their understanding of what a teacher does.

Nearly all of them then head off into a world of schools in which teachers are mandated to teach them a certain core curriculum of specific, standardized knowledge and skills organized grade-by-grade, year-by-year, much of which is conveyed by direct instruction. I assume, this changes their definition of "teacher." I know that most teachers in the early years strive to create a balance between direct instruction and exploratory learning, so I hope this new experience simply adds to the definition the children already have, making teaching a bigger idea. But I also worry that this new definition comes to completely overshadow the old one by the time they've made their way through high school, where the amount and specificity of knowledge they are mandated to learned leaves little room for exploration.

Personally, I'd like to see more of a focus on exploratory learning in our schools, especially in our upper grades, even if that's difficult to measure, because curiosity and creativity are the only traits we know our children will need as they come of age in our rapidly changing world. This is a position I've largely come to through experience and intuition, one I'm now pleased to see supported by scientists through well constructed experiments. While the education debate rages, it's interesting to note that no one -- from parents and teachers to politicians and business people -- disagrees that the future belongs to the curious and creative.

I have this. I don't know what to do.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What Lies At The Heart Of Every Great Community

In yesterday's post I mentioned that the kids in our summer program spent last week assembling our new outdoor furniture. We could have afforded to purchase the "velvet glove" service which would have meant the stuff arrived fully assembled, but where's the education in that?

Adults often have to hold things in place as the kids tighten the screws. It's a real collaborative process.

I've found that assemble-yourself furniture, such as the stuff you get from places like Ikea, is a sort of "just right" project for our cooperative preschool. Naturally, we can't just turn it over to the kids, but with an adult or two leading these Allen wrench (hex key) assemblies, kids as young as two are capable of making meaningful contributions to these real life projects.

Concentration, cooperation, and fine motor skills are challenged.

It never seems like it's going to work at first. We open the boxes and always seem to find more parts than you think you'll need, and the instructions look daunting, especially since there is often a crowd of kids trying to get there hands on things. 

The first step, however, is a classic preschool sorting project, checking the instructions to make sure you have all the parts, arranging everything by type and shape, comparing the thing you're holding your hand with the graphic on paper, counting out the various screws. These are skills and habits we acquire when we're young that we use throughout our lives.

Once this is accomplished, we know the names of the parts, and naming things always makes projects seem a little more do-able. For instance, the kids and parent-teachers started using the term "lozenges" to label one of the basic pieces required to assemble these chairs, stools, and tables. I don't know if that came from the instructions or their own innovative use of language, but it stuck. "I need a lozenge!" "I found a spot for a lozenge!"

We then find Step 1 in the instructions. It's really remarkable how often it's the kids who figure it out first. Then on to Step 2 and Step 3 and Step 4. This isn't for every child, but for some it comes naturally, this kind of real world puzzling.

Here we are fitting a "lozenge" into its proper place.

There's usually an ebb and flow at the workbench as kids take and lose interest. There are always a few who want to see at least one project through from beginning to end, however, puffing their chests in pride when the finished piece is on the ground.

The first piece we finished was this step stool, which we'll also use to replace our old, wobbly benches.

And, of course, once we finish building a piece, we have to take turns putting it through its paces.

Assembling furniture like this is different than much of what we do in our preschool in that it is a project with a predetermined beginning, middle, and end, much like working on puzzles. Over the course of our three days working on this project, at least six different parent-teachers took turns, and I suspect that at one time or another, every child lent a hand. One of the most challenging parts for the adults, however, was in not becoming too product-oriented, too focused on "getting it done." I kept reminding everyone: "It's not a race. If we only get one piece done today, that's fine."

One of the concerns, especially with our wood chip bestrewn outdoor play surface is that with all those little hands, and all those little agendas, we would wind up losing some of the small, but all-important screws. And it was a real concern given that, like with most of these kinds of products, we weren't provided any extras. I was impressed with how seriously the children, even the very youngest, took this responsibility, often clenching them in their fists so securely that their palms were sweating when we finally pried them open.

Real world projects like helping with preparing dinner or working on the car, in which children can make a meaningful (rather than a manufactured) contribution are great for building skills and confidence, of course, but most importantly, I think, it fosters that sense of pride and responsibility, that sense of true belonging that lies at the heart of every great community.

Note: I will be traveling to and around Australia and New Zealand for the next three weeks or so. I'm hoping to continue posting, but don't be alarmed if I miss a day here or there.

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Monday, July 29, 2013

How We Run Our Stations

I often say both to myself as well as aloud, "I don't know how they do it." I'm referring, of course, to all those teachers out there who don't work in cooperative preschools, and especially those with a play-based classroom that operates around the idea of "stations" or "centers."

For those who don't know what I'm talking about, be assured that I had no idea either until the first time I actually set foot in such a school. The set-up made such immediate sense to me, however, that I promptly enrolled my daughter for the following year. I don't know what I expected school to look like for two-year-olds, but the moment I saw how the Latona Pre-3's Cooperative Preschool classroom worked, a room featuring a half dozen stations -- blocks, sensory table, art, table toys, dramatic play, library -- with which the children were able to freely interact, or not, I knew we'd found our home.

Back in April, I wrote more philosophically about this classroom approach, but a reader asked me recently for tips of the "nuts and bolts" variety, especially when it comes to being the adult responsible for guiding or facilitating the "free play" without taking it over and, well, rendering it not so free. I should mention that I'm writing primarily about our indoor stations here, but all the same principles apply to our outdoor stations as well.

Since we're a cooperative, I have the benefit of anywhere from 5-12 assistant teachers, parent-teachers, in the classroom with me on any given day, depending on the age of the kids and the status of maternity leaves. Each of these assistant teachers, then, are assigned specific roles within the classroom on a rotating basis, most of which involve facilitating one of our stations, which I've prepared in advance. As our parent-teachers arrive, I try to give each one a quick briefing about how I imagine the children will choose to engage with the activities, a head's up about any typical behaviors for which to be on the lookout, and a tip or two about how they might want to extend the play should things either get extra exciting or lose momentum. I then try to always finish my instructions with a reminder to, above all else, "Let the kids make it their own."

For many parent-teachers, that's the hardest part: getting out of the way, dropping an adult agenda or fixed idea about how things ought to go. For instance, we all think we know what's going on when we find easels, paper, paint, brushes, and a bowl of fruit on the table. Of course, we're working on "still life" paintings, and that invitation is indeed implied in this particular collection of materials, although it is by no means the only invitation there. This is also an invitation to paint the fruit itself, to use the fruit to apply the paint to paper, to finger paint, to mix colors; it is an invitation to make art, but also to engage in a sensory exploration, scientific experiments, storytelling, or socializing. When we make the mistake of saying, "Oh look! Today we're painting pictures of fruit!" we are, in effect, withdrawing all those other invitations. No, instead I encourage our parent-teachers, if they must say something, to simply list the materials they see before them, giving them names, but not necessarily purposes, and just so long as the children do not endanger, molest, or otherwise inflict themselves on others, they are free to accept any and all invitations that appeal to their curiosity.

This doesn't mean that the teachers role, then, ought to be limited to merely standing back, keeping things tidy, the children safe, and the materials handy, although some of our parent-teachers chose to do it like that, and it's a perfectly fine way to facilitate the play. Some of us, however, are there to play with the kids. Naturally, we need to guard against taking over the play, but there is often a lot to be gained from a teacher who role models active, creative engagement. I like to narrate my own thought process as I perform my own experiments: "I wonder what will happen when I put this block here," "The rice is flowing through the top part of the funnel and coming out of this little hole -- if I put my finger here, it stops," "I'm putting all the red ones together." Usually, my goal is to get things going before stepping away, although many parent-teachers are quite skilled at continuing to play with the children, almost in the role of a slightly older, wiser playmate, not commanding the action, not yanking them out of their flow with questions, but rather being one of the features of the activity.

Others of us approach the task in a more hand's off, yet still fully engaged manner, carefully observing the children, then finding ways to assist or support them in accomplishing or discovering what they seem to be striving to accomplish or discover, often simply by engaging in what's sometimes referred to as "sportscasting" or narrating what you see unfolding before you: "Sally is making holes in the play dough with her thumb," "You are turning that puzzle piece around and around to see if it fits," "I see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 bears in your box." I often find these parents cheek-to-cheek with children, wondering and puzzling together.

Sometimes a parent-teacher finds herself all alone at her station either due to the natural ebb and flow of free play or because the invitation is simply not enticing enough on this particular day. The temptation, often, is to seek to liven things up, perhaps by adding bells and whistles or by becoming more overt in re-issuing said invitation, and that's all well and good. Others, however, recognize that they are now the proprietors of a calm, quiet oasis, a place for a child or two to take a break from the action, a valuable thing sometimes in a bustling place like ours.

There are times, however, when this ebb and flow are anticipated parts of an activity. For example, when we play with ice in the sensory table, there is usually an initial surge, then as fingers grow numb, so does the enthusiasm. That's the moment when the parent-teacher will introduce our box of gloves. As the interest in that dies down, we break out the rock salt to sprinkle on the ice, an activity that accelerates the melting process. As the salt burrows holes in the ice we bring out the pipettes and liquid water color that can then inject into the holes, filling the ice with ribbons of color. As our play time grows short, our sensory table has become a pool of colored liquid, rainbow icebergs, and undissolved rock salt, having passed through, along with the kids, a wide variety of stages and phases.

Most of our stations are of the open-ended variety, although every now and then we'll take on a project with a goal. For instance, last week our workbench station was engaged all week in assembling our new outdoor furniture, which involved following instructions, puzzling things together, and using Allen wrenches to tighten lots of screws. In that case, my instruction to the parent-teacher was, "Just start building the stuff and as kids drop by to see what's going on, include them." I often think of these kinds of stations the way I think of parents including their children in preparing dinner or working on the car out in the garage: real participation in real projects.

I suppose the way non-cooperative teachers handle all this is to either offer fewer stations at any given time or to let some of them sort of "run" themselves, and I'm sure that works out just fine, but I find I've become really quite reliant upon having all those extra adults in the room with me, working to make their station the best it can be. Most of all, I think, I enjoy how these stations, these invitations to play, so often take on part of the personality of the parent-teacher involved. We often leave many of our stations the same for more than a single day. For instance I'll set up the same collection of blocks and toys from one day to the next, or the sensory table will contain coffee beans all week, or we'll continue working on the same glue collage day-after-day. But that hardly means they are the same activities. For one thing, the children have the opportunity to continue building upon what they learned the day before, but an inevitable part of the difference comes from what the parent-teacher brings to their role as facilitator and guide, because there are as many ways to do that as there are teachers.

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Friday, July 26, 2013

It Was As Simple And As Challenging As That

I'm not a doctor, I'm not a psychologist, I'm not an occupational therapist (OT). I'm a teacher, which brings with it a perspective that makes largely moot some of what those other professionals struggle with. For instance, I don't care so much whether or not "sensory processing disorder" (SPD) or ADHD or autism are included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which is the book to which these folks turn when forming a diagnosis. For instance, there is currently a debate within the overlapping worlds of various clinicians about whether or not SPD ought to be a stand-alone diagnosis or if the symptoms are simply a sign of some other underlying, officially diagnosable, disorder. It's interesting, I suppose, to read about, but it's not particularly helpful to me as a teacher in a preschool classroom, a place in which every child exhibits odd, quirky, and even outright bizarre behavior at one time or another. What I do care about is when I have a child in my care who is behaving in ways that are hurtful to himself or others.

Several years ago, we had a boy in our summer program who had already been identified as "gifted." Within the the first 5 minutes of playing with him, I thought, and he's on the autism spectrum. When he was later diagnosed with Aspergers, I told his mom, "I thought so." 

She asked in disbelief, "Why didn't you tell me?"

I replied by saying that it was just a gut thing, that after such limited exposure I couldn't have possibly known, that I'm not qualified to make a diagnosis, and, that I wasn't about to bring up such emotionally charged words as "autism" willy nilly. But the main part of my answer was, "It didn't matter." He was fully engaged and not hurting anyone. You see, being "disruptive" isn't really much of an issue at Woodland Park. We sometimes have to help kids practice keeping their voices down during the indoor portions of our day, and we do have our circle times which can be disrupted by a loud or unruly kid, but since we're a cooperative there is never a lack of laps on which these kids can sit, which, in almost every case, is the best way to sooth a child, and is never a bad thing no matter what the underlying cause.

The rest of our days are designed around the children creating their own learning, moving how they choose, where they choose, when they choose, engaging for as long or as short as they want. Kids can go deep, they can go broad; they can do it loudly or softly; they can do it alone or in a big group. The only time behavior is an issue is when it comes to hurting or frightening themselves or others.

Last year, we had a boy in class who had been previously working with an OT on what was being called SPD. One of the ways in which it manifested was that he had the impulse to roughly and frequently engage his classmates, often by biting, tackling, pinching, twisting their fingers or otherwise hurting them. Making matters worse, he was physically bigger than most of his classmates. He had already become quite adept at saying, "I'm sorry," although it seemed that it was without meaning to him, almost as if he were saying it as a social nicety like "please," "thank you," or "you're welcome." It seemed to me like what we were witnessing were misguided attempts at friendship, at connection, especially since the kids to whom he seemed most attracted where most often the "victims."

Of course, it wasn't long before his classmates began to notice his patterns, sometimes talking of him as a "bad kid." I remember one such discussion around our snack table in which a group of four boys argued about whether or not he hurt other people on purpose: "He hurts me!" "Well, he never hurts me!" that kind of thing. The most distressing point came one day when we were playing with a tent outdoors. A large group of kids had declared it their fort and were making forays into the wider space to "hunt." At one point, the adults were shocked to realize that they were hunting this poor boy. Thankfully, he was oblivious, thinking he was just part of a fun running game: in fact, I'm pretty sure he thought he was the leader because everywhere he went, the other kids were running after him.

We weren't going to stay so lucky forever. The adults in our community, prompted both by conversations they'd had at home with their own children, and by what they had seen with their own eyes, were understandably concerned, both about everyone's physical safety, but also about the stigmatization of this boy, who clearly wasn't fully capable of controlling his behavior. There were several meetings at which this was discussed. His parents shared extensively and honestly about what they knew and didn't know, offering tips and techniques that they had found effective.

One of my points of confidence/arrogance, is that I'm convinced that given enough time and space, I can get any kid on my bandwagon, and this boy, while a unique challenge, was no different. That was not my concern. I was also not concerned about the parents of this boy, who were as engaged, involved and pro-active as any family I've ever known. I was more worried about the rest of our community: both kids and adults.

What happened next, I think, was one of the most powerful things I've ever seen happen in our school. The parents, as a unified body, with the help of our parent educator, rose up to embrace this boy. There was no talk of removing him or drugging him or any of the other "solutions" that come up in other institutional settings. Instead, parents had conversations at home with their kids, helping them strategize ways that they could constructively stand up for themselves; how this boy sometimes didn't understand that he was hurting people, that we couldn't assume he knew what we were feeling unless we told him. Many families organized playdates outside of school, one-on-one opportunities to create different kinds of bonds than those forged in school. We came up with a community plan of action, one to which we all signed on, and implemented on a day-to-day basis in school.

And you know what? Things started getting better. Yes, he still sometimes hurt his friends, but instead of squealing or crying as they had before, his classmates started saying, forcefully, "Hey, I don't like that! You're hurting me!" When he then said, "I'm sorry," it no longer sounded like an attempt to easily erase a mistake, but rather as if he really felt it. One day he asked, "Can I sit here?" and his classmate answered, "Sure, if you don't hurt me," to which he replied quite happily, "I won't!" and he didn't. After missing several days of class due to illness, he found himself in the center of a spontaneous group hug upon his return, something that simply could not have happened earlier in the year, both because the other kids were afraid of him and because it would have likely over-stimulated him.

I won't exaggerate: there were several tense months in there, and lots of ebb and flow. He would still get wound up at times, but most of the kids either figured out to just steer clear or, amazingly, join him, jumping or "banging" or shouting along with him. He continued to have "bad days," but we were no longer over-reacting, making things worse, calmly dealing with the situation, and slowly those days became fewer until they really were rather rare. The OTs and others who were working with his family would occasionally attend class to observe him: they rarely saw much to concern them.

Teachers, schools, children, and families don't have the time to wait for the clinical community to decide whether or not something can be diagnosed, an aspect of which being that there is some sort of treatment protocol. This boy's family provided us with reading material they had found useful, and I did quite a bit of reading on my own, much of which to little avail, other than to make me feel that helping him was beyond our little cooperative school's capabilities. I finally, settled on a metaphor that worked for me: it was like he was a helium filled balloon that sometimes became untethered and felt as if he were floating away, a sensation that must feel both exhilarating and frightening. Our job was to help anchor him back to earth and to understand that there was a part of him that didn't want to be brought back down.

As emotionally hard as it was at times, looking back I realize that this was our school's real project for the year. I am so grateful that we are a cooperative, that we are a true community of families, that it didn't matter what his diagnosis, or even if there was a diagnosis, but rather that we found our course of treatment. We acted like a community. It was as simple and as challenging as all that.

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

"I Could Be Wrong"

I've said it before and I know I'll say it again: every young child is a genius. I don't say this gratuitously or with the idea of somehow flattering children or their parents, but rather because I spend a lot of time with them, and I've yet to discover one who wasn't. That is why the subtitle of this blog is "Teaching and learning from preschoolers." That's why I rarely write about this pedagogy or that pedagogy, why I don't describe this teaching philosophy or that teaching philosophy. Most of what I've learned about teaching, indeed about life itself, comes from the kids, and I've yet to find a method or system that can encompass all of that genius. And any time I try to place children's learning into some sort of system, I find out I'm wrong.

Earlier this year, this video of a nine-year-old boy made the rounds. Dubbed "The Philosopher" by many, this boy stunned and delighted millions of people with his understanding of cosmology and the meaning of life. He is very articulate, a fact that his parents ascribe to their having always used their adult vocabulary with him, and has a grasp of a body of facts that he learned on his own, out of his own passions/curiosity/play, the way every genius does. And instead of being given "right" answers or "learning objectives," or being judged and tested, he is simply playing with those ideas, wondering, forming new ideas, and, to our benefit, he does so aloud.

This boy is no doubt a bright kid, but when I've talked to other teachers about this video, we all agree, he is not so extraordinarily unusual, except perhaps in his ability and willingness to articulate his thoughts. Over my years in the classroom, working with children half his age, I've heard thousands of things I've never heard before, been thrilled and stunned by the intellectual and artistic connections children make, how poetically they express themselves, how wondrously they move their bodies or mimic a voice or find humor or sing a song or tell a story or express complex ideas or great beauty through paint or glue or play dough.

This is what we discover about young children when they are allowed to play, not that our discovery of their genius really matters other than to the degree that we ourselves continue to be curious about the world and can learn from it.

What I'm most struck by about this video are two things. One is how he moves his body as he speaks, squirreling around on chairs, on the ground, on his knees, on his bottom, wiggling and shifting in a way made impossible by the traditional idea of what school is like for third graders, with everyone sitting at desks. I don't know what sort of school he's in, but I'm confident that if his teacher needs him to sit still, she's missing out on a big chunk of his genius because of all the energy she spends reminding him to stay in his seat.

But my biggest take-away from this video, the thing I find most impressive, is how often he uses the phrase, "I could be wrong." This is not learning that comes from being told one is wrong, as happens with testing and grades, where being wrong is a judgement to be avoided, a source of shame. No, this is the deepest understanding of all: the sure knowledge that there is always an infinite amount we don't know and to be both curious and excited about that. The real hallmark of genius isn't knowing things, but rather continuing to have an open mind, because, after all, "I could be wrong."

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Learning About The Ground

I am learning how to be a teacher, a process that has taken 51 years, and will likely take 51 more, but one that I've only consciously been pursuing for the past decade or so.

Much of what I've learned has come from observing and imitating others. 

Every day, the children who come to play with me, who come to be observed and imitated, show me how to interact with the world. One of the lessons I am finally learning is how to properly interact with the ground. 

As an adult, I tend to think of it as a thing upon which to walk, or perhaps to kneel as I get down to be eye-to-eye with them, but I'm learning from the children that this is really only a superficial understanding of the ground.

I've been sitting on our dusty ground a lot this summer, just as I sat on our damp or muddy ground during the school year, feeling the moisture soak through to my skin. Last week I sat cross-legged with a boy who was just hanging over the seat of a swing, what I call "tummy swinging," dangling his fingers in the wood chips below, studying, studying, studying the ground. Sometimes he merely hung, barely moving, using his toes to steer himself a little closer to this mote or that. Sometimes he used his feet to launch his body forward, letting gravity pull him back, then forth, and back in ever smaller arcs until he was just hanging again, all the while keeping his eyes on the ground, meditating upon it, breathing in the dust he was kicking up, occasionally picking up handfuls and tossing them in front of him as he swung.

A ways off I noticed two other children lying on the ground, on their bellies in the dust, almost wallowing in it. I joined them as well, imitating the voice-less way they wiggled their bodies on the ground, just breathing and smiling and studying things so up-close that I had to remove my glasses to really see what I was looking at.

There is a lot I still need to learn about the ground. My teachers are much deeper than I, but they're gentle and loving and are letting me learn at my own pace.

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Role Modeling

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. ~James Baldwin

Of all the educational and parenting tools at our disposal, the most effective is role modeling, and this is especially true when it comes to teaching values:

Whatever we publicly proclaim, our actual values (as opposed to the values to which we aspire) are always, always, always most accurately and honestly revealed by our behaviors. When we eat junk food, we demonstrate that we value convenience or flavor over eating healthily. When we don't get enough sleep, we demonstrate that we value our jobs or our hobbies or our TV programs more than rest. When we let our homes become cluttered and dirty, we demonstrate that we value something else over a well-ordered household.

We sometimes get so wrapped up in scolding or instructing or otherwise trying to get kids to believe or behave as we think they should that we forget that they have already learned the real lesson by simply watching us:

No, the better course, I've found, when it comes to teaching values is to simply give up trying to make another person do something that you want them to do. If you value healthy food, then eat it. If you value being well rested, then sleep. If you value a tidy bedroom, then keep yours tidy. And ultimately, with time, sometimes lots of time, it will be your role-modeling of these behaviors that your child will come to imitate, not on your schedule, but one of his own, which is all we can expect of our fellow humans.

I posted this video on my Facebook page a couple of days ago and thought I ought to share it with the blog readers as well. I'm not sure why the original poster says this public service announcement was banned. Several people have commented that it is, in fact, simply an older ad that ran for awhile and is now off the air. In any event, it is a real gut punch and includes scenes that could be triggers for some folks, but man does it make its point.

We worry about the influence of TV or movies or video games or peers, but those things will never be more powerful than we are. And, of course, remember that when a child does the right thing, when a child is empathetic, when a child is kind, that too has been role modeled by the important adults in their lives.

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Monday, July 22, 2013

The Buck Has To Stop With Us

Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried . . . ~Winston Churchill

My wife is a businesswoman, a lifelong entrepreneur. When I met her she was president of her own small business. She is currently a CEO. Over our more than quarter century of married life, working for companies both large and small, she has never held a title less lofty than senior vice president. In other words, as long as we've been together, she has always been at or near the top of whatever corporate pyramid in which she finds herself operating, which means that the buck most often stops with her. When decisions need to be made, she makes them. Indeed she tends to consult with others, asking for input, taking advice, looking for some sort of consensus, and soliciting buy-in, because she's actually good at what she does, but the point is that she doesn't have to. As the chief executive, once she's convinced it's a good idea or the right direction, that's the end of discussion, now it's time to get busy.

I'm not a businessperson, but I understand why they place such a high value on this kind of efficiency. The free market is a face-paced, eat-or-be-eaten, shark-infested place. Opportunity only knocks once. There isn't always time for careful deliberation, let alone a democratic process. This is why good CEOs make the big bucks when their gambles pay off, and, in theory at least, why theirs are the heads that roll should those decisions turn out to not lead toward greater profit. 

And believe me, it works like this with a sort of beautiful brutality in the small business world where there is no place to hide. That executives in larger corporations are able to survive their bad decisions by skillfully shoving blame downward toward their innocent underlings, who then pay with their jobs, is one of the gross injustices and profit-sucking inefficiencies of gigantic hierarchies. It's why I'm such an admirer of successful entrepreneurs and doubter of those who have simply shown a talent for the politics of climbing a corporate ladder. I'm not a businessperson, but I've lived it long enough to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the corporate model: it's good for some things, not for others, and the bigger it gets, the less of a meritocracy it becomes, at least on the human level.

I am a teacher in a cooperative preschool, a model that is democratic to its very core. Every family who enrolls a child in our school is an equal owner of the school. If you have two kids enrolled, you get two votes. We all vote on our budget and even if opportunity later knocks or disaster strikes, our board can only authorize extra-budetary expenses up to $50: everything else has to be put up to a vote of the entire community, and I'm proud to say that some 90 percent of our votes, on matters financial or otherwise, are decided by full consensus, but usually only after sometimes extensive and exhaustive discussion. This makes people like my wife want to pull her hair out, and sometimes it makes me want to pull my hair out, but at the end of the day, I'll hold our "business model" up against any other model out there.  It may take us longer, and the process lacks the decisive clarity of a corporate dictatorship, but democracy is not nearly as prone to error, and blame, like credit, is always shared equally. No one ever said democracy would be fast or easy, but it's the best thing we have going.

Of course, our objective is not profit, but rather education, and contrary to such corporatizing initiatives as Common Core Standards and standardized testing, education is not a destination, but rather a journey, which is why our "process," as opposed to "product," is so vitally important, even if it sometimes makes us want to pull our hair out. When it comes to educating our children, a project essential to a functioning democracy, a journey in which every citizen, whether you have children or not, has a stake, we would be fools to turn it over to the dictatorial model of for-profit business.

Yet that is exactly what the corporate education reformers would have us do.

The Center for Media and Democracy has recently published a special report on the American Legislative and Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that veteran journalist Bill Moyers calls, "the most influential corporate-funded political force most of America has never heard of," one with a goal to "increase corporate profits at the public expense without public knowledge." ALEC is funded by a veritable who's who of US and international corporations, and has recently come to the public's attention as lead backers of the controversial "stand your ground" laws that came into tragic focus during the recent George Zimmerman trial in Florida. What ALEC has been doing since 1983 as been quietly writing "model legislation," always with the goal of channeling public funds into private pockets, on a wide range of fronts, including education.

If your state provides vouchers to private, for-profit, and religious schools, that's the result of ALEC sponsored legislation.

If your state has recently lowered teacher certification standards and is engaged in overt teacher's union busting, that's ALEC.

If your state provides private school tuition tax credits, that's ALEC.

If your state mandates that teachers "teach the controversy," rather than the science about things like evolution and global warming, that's ALEC.

If your state has a "parent trigger," whereby a 50 percent plus one vote of a school's parent community can convert the entire school, irrevocably, into a charter, that's ALEC.

If your state has protected charter schools from democratic accountability, wresting control from the hands of elected school boards, that's ALEC.

If your state is using tax payer dollars on unaccountable online "schools" in which a single teacher instructs hundreds of stay-at-home kids via the internet, that's ALEC.

This is just a partial list. ALEC has been responsible for hundreds of education-related laws right across the US over the past three decades. You may well have supported some of them. They are very good at marketing, coming up with fuzzy-sounding names for their initiatives, but make no mistake, like any good corporate entity, they are focused like a laser on the ultimate goal of a full privatization of public education, which turns education into a commodity, students into human resources, defines "good schools" as a profitable ones, and views any kind of democratic input from citizens as cause for pulling out one's hair.

Listen, I obviously have my opinion about ALEC and I'm not alone. There is a good reason why they strive to operate in the dark: most citizens, even those who tend to support conservative and pro-business policies, don't like this sort of lack of transparency. And the truth is that whenever ALEC's involvement in legislation comes to light, it almost always turns the public's attention against it. For instance, dozens of corporations have been forced to disassociate themselves from ALEC recently due to customer protests over their support for "stand your ground" laws, citizens exercising their democratic and economic rights, something that is impossible to do without transparency.

So this post is my attempt to create some transparency about this shadowy corporate lobbying group's involvement in public education. Here is a complete list of ALEC's 2013 education bills. You may still support some or all of their initiatives, but at least now you'll be doing so with fuller knowledge, which is what an educated populace is all about.

But before I leave you to your day, I want to quote the conclusion from the special report:

When the ALEC's cash-for-kids model is put before voters, it is resoundingly rejected. In 27 statewide referenda on the topic, voters rejected vouchers on average 2-1. But as long as ALEC "models" continue to garner bipartisan support facilitated by corporate campaign contributions or are slipped into state budgets in the dead of night -- ALEC will have continued success with the "transformation" of the American educational system into a profit-driven enterprise . . . The ALEC Education agenda not only "converts a public good into something private," says (Chair of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin Julie) Mead, but private schools "don't have the same responsibility (as public schools) to serve everybody, which diminishes public access, oversight and accountability." . . . "There is a saying, 'democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.' The public school system is the same way," Mead says. "It has problems, and can be better, but has served us pretty well for 150 years."

I'm not against business or corporations, but I do understand their limitations, and they are fundamentally anti-democratic. As a model, it's a good one for making money, but it's a lousy one for something as important as education in a democracy, because in a democracy, the buck has to stop with us.

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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