Friday, January 31, 2014

The Income Of Education

Pain pays the income of each precious thing. –William Shakespeare

Somewhere I read that Americans’ greatest fears are public speaking and death, in that order. I can honestly say that neither of these make my list. I love being in front of an audience and death doesn’t haunt me. My greatest fear is pain and suffering, both for my loved ones and myself.

I recognize that by confessing this I’m outing myself as a very fortunate man, there are many more horrible things that people have gone through, but one of my most harrowing personal experiences was the day of my appendectomy. I awoke with a slightly unsettled stomach, and as the day wore on it grew worse until I was curled into the backseat of my wife’s car as she drove me to the emergency room. The intensity of the pain continued to grow for what felt like several hours as they ran tests to rule things out. We were told it was probably appendicitis and I would eventually receive pain medication, but they didn’t want to mask any symptoms until they were sure. So in the meantime I suffered.

I’m not talking about fearing your run-of-the-mill kind of pain here. In our preschool, it’s a rare 15-minute increment that goes by without someone collecting an “owie” of some kind. That’s the “good” pain. Pitiable, difficult, but ultimately it’s an essential aspect of learning. Education is often light and joyful, but it’s just as often painful. There are some lessons that can only be learned through pain. For instance, one of our most frequently trotted out preschool mantras is: “The best way to learn about asphalt is to fall on it.”

Comparing bloody owies is perhaps the simplest and most engaging of preschool small group activities. Typically, the kids can’t wait to pull up their pant leg or push up a sleeve to show off their latest abrasion. And every one of them comes complete with a cautionary tale, which we share in as much grisly detail as possible. It’s a chance to talk about the pain, the healing, and a reminder of the lesson learned. I often share my patented bloody owie axiom: “If you have more than 2 bloody owies you’re not being careful enough. If you don’t have any bloody owies you’re being too careful. One or 2 bloody owies is the right amount.” (A few years back, my friend Charlotte disagreed strongly, insisting that 12 was, in fact, the right amount, which happened to also be how many she counted on her own skin that day . . . so it's a sliding scale.)

We don’t just learn through physical pain, of course. The emotional pain that comes from being rejected, insulted, or separated from a parent is also part of education. If someone is crying, it’s almost always a sign that someone is learning, as painful as it might be. It’s impossible to always keep it in focus because as adults we naturally want to sooth the crying child, and we should, but at the same time we have to know that some destinations can only be reached through pain.

It’s not just pain, but suffering I fear, for both myself and all of you. Suffering, to me, is the unnecessary prolongation of pain beyond its ability to teach anything worth knowing. Nothing valuable is learned, for instance, by those who are starving. Nothing valuable is learned when a prisoner is tortured. Nothing valuable is learned through the nightmare of living with an abusive spouse or parent. Indeed, suffering teaches only one thing: that life is hell and the other humans are its devils. That’s one awful thing to teach.

Of course, what I experienced that day in the emergency room could hardly be called suffering, and in fact the doctors were doing everything they could to assuage it as quickly as possible. Soon enough I was floating on a cloud of Demerol, then into a deep sleep, interrupted by occasional glimpses of my loved ones standing at my bedside.

It’s the unalleviated suffering I fear. If evil exists, this is where it is manifest. If I have any religion at all its fundamental tenant is that I must do what I can to bring an end to suffering. Life is not hell and the other humans are not devils. That is the most important thing we can teach and the only way to do that is to do what we can to bring an end to suffering wherever it is found.

The rest is the income of education.

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Thursday, January 30, 2014

"We Should Do That"

Our school day was over and as I stood in the doorway talking to some parents, I saw, over their shoulders, a group of three boys engaged in what I perceived as destructive play. They were enjoying themselves, laughing, while over-turning furniture, throwing objects at the concrete in an apparent attempt to break them, tearing branches from our lilacs, scattering toys that had previously been put away, and generally goading one another to take it one step further. One of the most disappointing things to me was that one of them, in a kind of destructive fury, upended the mailbox that had been so diligently repaired by other children two weeks ago. Up the hill, another group of adults were talking, standing in an inward-facing circle, apparently not noticing.

I gave the boys some time to move beyond it, but they continued to ramp up. When a bystander was nearly brained by a log, I broke things up, saying, "Hey, you almost hit her in the head with that. It would have really hurt. I also saw you knocking things over and breaking things. I don't like it."

This drew the attention of the parents who pitched in to help their kids set things to rights and since it was the end of the day, I left them to it.

Yesterday, when we hit the playground, the same group of boys reassembled with the apparent intent of re-creating their game from the day before. I watched them for a few minutes as they grew rowdy and conspiratorial. I walked over to them. "Yesterday, after school, you guys knocked things over and broke things."

They didn't respond, so I let it hang there. After a good minute during which no one spoke, I added, "Now, no one can play with the broken things. That makes me feel disappointed and even a little bit angry." Then turning to something that had been effective before, I pointed at the mailbox where it lay on the ground, "Someone even knocked over the mailbox. The little kids are going to be sad about that: they play with it every day."

One of the boys answered, "I did that."

"You knocked over the mailbox?"

"Yes, I knocked it over, Teacher Tom. I'm sorry."

I nodded, but otherwise said nothing. Upon the moment's reflection he added, "I'll dig a hole and put it back up." As he ran for a shovel, I called after him, "I'll help you if you bring me a shovel too."

Meanwhile the other two boys hadn't moved. I said, "We're going to fix the playground. I like making things nicer." Over at the garden a parent-teacher was working with a small group to plant a flat of primroses in pots. "Those kids are planting new flowers to make things nicer." I then pointedly turned my attention to the hole to let them know I was done with the conversation, which I knew they were experiencing as a scolding even though I'd tried to calmly stick to the facts as I saw them.

As we began to dig, I heard one boy say to the other, "We should do that."


And they ran off to plant flowers.

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"Little World" Is Still Dead

It really wasn't that long ago, although it seems like a lifetime, when we first consciously introduced "loose parts" to our outdoor classroom. You can check out the posts I wrote about it by clicking on the "Little World" link over there in the right hand column under the heading "Teacher Tom's Topics." I don't think there are any other aspects of my personal journey as a teacher better documented here on the blog than the path from there to here.

A couple days ago, I linked to an article about the Swanson Primary School in Auckland, New Zealand that had achieved a multitude of positive results from "tearing up" their playground rule book. The article mentioned a "loose parts pit" full of "junk such as wood, tyres and an old fire hose." As an adult, I tend to gravitate toward the idea of a "loose parts pit," a place to keep the loose parts, much the way Woodland Park started with "Little World" as a place to keep our smaller, cuter loose parts. I sometimes read about teachers and parents beginning their own experiments with loose parts, using terms like "loose parts box," to describe their intentions. 

In these aspirational terms, I see fellow travelers setting out on the journey I'm on. I think I'm a ways ahead of them, but in all honesty, like with most things involving preschoolers, it's impossible to pinpoint exactly where you are on your journey at any given moment. What I think I've learned about loose parts is that you can't contain them in a pit or box, not if you're really going to let the children play with them. I remember quite clearly the day that I decided to give up on harassing the children with comments like, "That belongs in Little World," urging them to return to the designated area, or at least to return a particular item there when finished. It was a classic case of attempting to push water uphill. I was, once again, scouring our outdoor space, rounding up all our stray loose parts when it struck me that they weren't so loose if they had to stay in one place. I know, it seems to obvious now, but back then it was an epiphany.

And so, from that moment forward I stopped harassing, stopped fretting, stopped worrying that cool things would get lost forever. I stopped worrying and learned to embrace the true nature of loose parts which is, self-evidently, to be loose.

Today, one can hardly take a step without discovering some small figurine or florist marble or part of something that used to be something else, the direct legacy of Little World. The same can be said for the larger loose parts. We have the wood and tires, of course, but also galvanized steel garbage cans, ropes, ladders, planks, traffic cones, and logs, among other things, none of which are confined to a pit, unless, of course, you want to define the entire place as a "pit," which some have, dismissing our school with the epithet "junkyard chic," a term I've come to embrace as a positive.

Lately, the "hot" items have been a roll of plastic fencing, which Gus pulled from a stash of stuff I've always thought of as adult supplies, and a pair of old automobile snow chains that Henry tends to drape over his shoulder an trudge around like a ghost from a Dickens story. At the end of each day, I might find these loose parts anywhere, abandoned at the end of play, perhaps still in a place where I can deduce how they were used, but usually not; usually by the time I come across them they don't look like the creative playthings they are, but rather, to my adult eyes, like "junk."

I'm grateful the parents who send their children to our school understand and support the way loose parts have been incorporated into our day. I still feel a pang of self-consciousness whenever we have prospective new families tour our facilities, however, which they do this time of year. Intellectually, I know that those who are offended by our "junkyard chic" are probably not good fits for our school anyway, but I still have to fight the urge to tidy up beyond our day-to-day efforts in my desire to make a good first impression. And, of course, for every one of those judgmental parents, there are others who enthuse about how much fun her child will have playing there.

What I've learned is that loose parts cannot be contained in a box or even a pit. It is in their nature to be free, to be lost, then found again, to be here then there. It is in the nature of loose parts to be loose and to make that happen I must every day fight my own urge to contain them.

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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What "Good Parenting" Means

"It's the people we love the most who can make us feel the gladdest . . . and the maddest! 

Love and anger are such a puzzle! It's hard for us, as adults, to understand and manage our angry feelings toward parents, spouses, and children, or to keep their anger toward us in perspective. 

It's a different kind of anger from the kind we may feel toward strangers because it is so deeply intertwined with caring and attachment.

If the day ever came when we were able to accept ourselves and our children exactly as we and they are, then, I believe, we would have come very close to an ultimate understanding of what "good parenting" means. 

It's part of being human to fall short of that total acceptance -- and often far short. But one of the most important gifts a parent can give a child is the gift of accepting that child's uniqueness." ~Mister Rogers

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Monday, January 27, 2014

"They Have To Get Out There"

We're currently in the midst of enrolling our Pre-3's, 3's, and 4-5's classes for next year. We're not expensive or exclusive, but we do require that every new parent tour the school. One of the primary reasons for this, especially with the oldest class, is to observe how we play outdoors. We don't have a lot of "safety" rules out there and there are plenty of opportunities for children to get hurt: concrete slopes, swings, rocks, sticks, trees, hammers, saws, drills, lumber.

The truth is that kids don't really get hurt that often at Woodland Park, but it can often look harrowing to adults. Sure we get our share of bumps and bruises like any preschool, but I can't remember the last time I went into the first aid kit for anything other than a bandaid. A couple years ago, I was told that we file the fewest number of what are called "accident reports" than any other school in the North Seattle Community College system of preschools. I like to say this is because we trust young children and hold them competent.

Our experiences at Woodland Park have been confirmed recently in a study conducted at schools in Auckland, New Zealand:

Ripping up the playground rulebook is having incredible effects on children at an Auckland school. Chaos may reign at Swanson Primary School with children climbing trees, riding skateboards and playing bullrush during playtime, but surprisingly the students don't cause bedlam, the principal says. The school is actually seeing a drop in bullying, serious injuries and vandalism, while concentration levels in class are increasing . . . "When you look at our playground it looks chaotic. From an adult's perspective, it looks like kids might get hurt, but they don't."

Those of us working in play-based schools have been saying this all along, but it's nice to have another academic study supporting our observations.

AUT professor of public health Grant Schofield, who worked on the research project, said there are too many rules in modern playgrounds. "The great paradox of cotton-woolling children is it's more dangerous in the long-run." Society's obsession with protecting children ignores the benefits of risk-taking, he said. Children develop the frontal lobe of their brain when taking risks, meaning they work out consequences. "You can't teach them that. They have to learn risk on their own terms. It doesn't develop by watching TV, they have to get out there."

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Friday, January 24, 2014

Creating Great Beauty Together

I can't remember where we got our big bag of syringes, but we've had them for quite some time. My idea was to roll out a big sheet of paper, dilute some liquid water color, hand over the syringes, and see what the kids do. My assumption was that they would fall on it, hose down the paper, then turn to targeting other things, including one another. We adults would then spend our energy helping the kids negotiate the resulting rift in their relationships, before everyone lost interest, cleaned up, and moved on to other things.

I was wrong, as I usually am, when I make assumptions about preschoolers. I was right in that they began to seek out new targets, namely the closed awning that resides over our outdoor art area. It was actually impressive how high those streams of paint could shoot. I have no problem with them "painting" the awning, but it seemed like a good idea to hang a sheet of paper from up there.

After that, however, the adults were largely unnecessary. There were some close calls and at least one of them targeted her own forehead, but otherwise, these five-year-olds managed the project on their own, creating great beauty together.

At one point, a girl hit her target from 10 feet away, sending her stream directly over my head when I blundered through the area without caution. "Almost got ya, Teacher Tom!"

This is what adults ought to be doing in a play-based curriculum: alert and out of the way.

The most impressive part was the conversation among the kids, eager to share their experiments and discoveries with one another.

"I shot it over the paper!"

"Hey, look how beautiful the back of the paper is!"

"Let's go at the same time, okay?"

"Whoa, wait a minute, I don't want you to shoot me."

"I'll show you how to shoot it really high."

"Hey guys, this should be our poster."

"It's dripping down on the table and making another painting!"

Normally, with these large group art projects, the finished product, after a moment to admire it together, winds up in the recycling bin, but this one the kids wanted to save.

I underestimated the children in my original assumption. I realized I still tend to think of them as the four-year-olds who first came together way back in September, when conflict and adult supported resolution was still a central part of what we did together.

When I looked back over yesterday, I was hard pressed to think of any conflicts at all, let alone significant ones. Of course, there were some: humans can hardly come together without stepping on one another's toes. And sure, we adults leapt in too early a few times with our words and warnings, out of habit, mostly, but the kids really didn't need us yesterday. 

They were too busy creating great beauty together.

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Thursday, January 23, 2014

"You Said Those Shapes"

Calder said, "Teacher Tom, I want to show you. Come with me." 

I was in the middle of something, so answered, "I can't come right now. I'll come when I'm finished."

He went away, but came back to remind me of my promise. "I want to show you. Come with me."

Children were talking to me. I said, "Oh yeah, Calder wants to show me something." When I went with him, other children followed.

He dropped to his knees near the outdoor drum set and showed me what he collected from the loose parts that populate our outdoor classroom. "Look what I have!" Then he pointed, "Circle, star, rectangle, pyramid, square, cube, oval."

I said, "You found a circle, a star, a rectangle, a pyramid, a square, a cube, and an oval."

He repeated it for me, for all of us, several times. When he was done, he got up and walked away.

Henry asked, "What did he say?"

"Calder told us what he found: circle, star, rectangle, pyramid, square, cube, oval."

Henry dropped to his knees, pointing, "Circle, star, rectangle, pyramid, square, cube, oval."

"You said those shapes."

Now it was a game. Several kids followed suit, some struggling with the names of the three-dimensional shapes. Then Elana took her place, feeling silly, "Wood, basket, lego, block, box, block, ring."

"Hey, you found different names for everything!"

By then, Calder had returned, "No! Circle, star, rectangle, pyramid, square, cube, oval!" He said it fast, almost too fast to be understood. He wasn't happy that we'd re-labeled his collection. Or maybe he thought we were telling him that his things weren't what he knew they were.

I said, "Circle, star, rectangle, pyramid, square, cube, oval." He said, "Yes," again repeating the list, this time even faster than before, "Circlestarrectanglepyramidsquarecubeoval!"

"And Elana said, 'Wood, basket, lego, block, box, block, ring.'"

Calder cocked his head. He sat quietly by his collection, picking up some of the pieces, then putting them back. Most of the other children had moved on, but Violet was still there beside me. She said, "Wood, metal, plastic, plastic, plastic, wood, plastic."

Calder whipped around to look at her. His expression was fierce for a moment, but then he smiled. Pointing, he said, "Wood, metal, plastic, plastic, plastic, wood, plastic."

A few minutes later, I was standing alone by the collection, trying to take a picture that would help me tell this story. Luella had not been part of the group of children who had been investigating Calder's collection. She looked at my camera, then followed its aim to the objects. As I slipped the camera into my pocket, and turned to focus on her, she dropped to her knees, pointing, "One, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7!"

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Working Together For Others

Shortly after we moved to the Center of the Universe, Parker's family donated a mailbox. It was a basic black box on a basic black pole. We'd just poured the sand into our two-level sand pit, so it was easy to dig a quick post hole, and set the thing up right next to the old dinghy

And there it remained for nearly three years as the sand compacted, eventually making it a fairly sturdy installation in the outdoor classroom. The canal digging project that has involved all three classes since the beginning of the new year changed all of that, undermining its support, causing it to fall where it stood.

I found it lying there last week and said, "Aw, the mailbox fell down."

One of the girls said, "That's okay, Teacher Tom. We never played with it anyway."

I answered, "But the little kids play with it almost every day."

A boy said, "My little brother plays with it."

And another girl said, "So does my little brother."

"I'll bet my little cousin likes it, too," added the first girl. She turned to me, "Does she like it, Teacher Tom?" 

"She does."

We all stood looking at the mailbox.

The boy suggested, "We should put it back up."

I said, "I think the little kids would like that. It used to be right there, but that's where the canal goes now."

He answered, "We'll have to find a different spot."

The children identified a place a few feet away and started digging with our little plastic shovels. It wasn't easy going, even though it is our sand pit -- it's pretty compacted down by the boats and the tools are not terribly efficient. I figured I'd help kickstart things with a grown up shovel, but by the time I'd returned from the storage shed, the kids already had a nice hole going. I took out a couple scoops, but then left off as the three of them worked the soil.

At some point I mentioned that it would be good to dig straight down to "support the post." After some discussion, the kids informed me that they were going to dig a big, deep hole, then they would "fill it in" around the post while I held it in place. Fair enough.

Moments later they informed me the hole was deep enough. I held the mailbox in place. To me it looked like we needed to dig at least 6-inches deeper, ideally more. When I suggested this, there was another discussion and I was informed that they would fill it in first and if it wasn't stable, they would pile up sand around the post. I said, "So, you're going to buttress the post," always eager to introduce appropriate vocabulary words. "Yes, we're going to buttress the post." Each of them said the word buttress.

Once they'd filled the hole enough that I could let go, I did, stepping back, assuming I'd need to re-do the project later.

As they worked, they talked, mostly about their little brothers and cousin, and how they were going to be happy about this. They worked diligently, cooperatively, sociably for a long time, building up the sand around the post, then tamping it down with the backs of their shovels.

The mailbox has remained standing for almost a week now and the little kids have played with it.

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