Friday, February 28, 2014

Hopefully, They'll Listen

Yesterday I wrote about Chicago teachers, parents, and students opting out of a low-stakes standardized test. But what about high stakes tests, like the new ones mandated by Common Core State Standards? After all, that's really what those of us who opposes corporate-style education "reform" object to.

Well, it appears that Seattle teachers, emboldened by the success of last year's boycott of standardized MAP tests at Garfield High School as well as other schools, are threatening to do just that: refuse to administer the standardized tests that are the centerpiece of the Obama administration's standardization and testing regimen. Last year, the teachers enjoyed widespread support among both parents and students and they're counting on the same this go around.

"People are completely fighting back," says Seattle Schools watchdog-blogger Melissa Westbrook, who says she's heard from parents across the district alarmed by Common Core. The district is wholly unprepared for Common Core . . . Westbrook says: Teachers don't fully understand the standards, the district's computers aren't ready for the new tests, and parents won't understand how to interpret sudden drops in their kid's test scores."

Local support for a boycott is strong, and it's growing nationally as well.

This could be the first-ever teacher boycott of Obama's new standards and testing regimen, with the potential to set a precedent for the rest of the country. Critics say corporate education reform titans like the Gates Foundation developed Common Core without input from teachers. Last week, Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, the country's largest teacher's union, issued a statement calling implementation of Common Core across the country "completely botched." He cited a new poll of the union's teacher-members in which an overwhelming 70 percent said implementation of Common Core is "going poorly."

The NEA is calling for a three-year moratorium on implementation of Common Core in order to properly field test the program using actual teachers and students in classroom settings. As they now stand, the standards and the tests have no grounding in actual research, anecdotal or otherwise: they are merely the best-guesses of political and corporate dilettantes, forcing schools to use their students a guinea pigs in a massive education experiment.

It appears that my very own Seattle is shaping up as the first major battleground as teachers, parents, and students come together to push back in the name of high quality education. If the past is any indicator, the school district will threaten teachers with punishment, even firing, and it's unknown what the Obama administration will do.  Hopefully, they'll listen. 

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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Chicago Teachers, Parents, Students Opt Out Of Standardized Test

In a principled move early last year, and with widespread support from parents and students, the teachers at Seattle's Garfield High School unanimously refused to administer a state mandated standardized test, saying the test wastes time, money, and school resources. 

In encouraging news this week, the teachers at Chicago's Saucedo Elementary Scholastic Academy, inspired by the 320 families who have already opted their children out of the state-mandated Illinois Standards Achievement Tests (ISAT), voted unanimously to refuse to administer the tests. Families at 38 other Chicago schools have also opted out of the tests, leading to hopes that the bold move will spread to other schools.

This is how it is going to happen, one school at a time, one school district at a time, one state at a time: a revolution of teachers taking a stand on behalf of education, supported by students and parents fed up with the insanity of the testing regimen that is increasingly coming to dominate our schools, a trend that is only going to ramp up in coming years as the US Department of Education strong-arms Common Core State Standard implementation, complete with a number of high stakes tests.

In this case, as in the case of Garfield High School, a low-stakes standardized test has been targeted, rendered so by the district's decision to drop the ISAT after this year, which is not aligned to any Chicago school curriculum and will not be used to measure student progress, school performance, promotion, or for any other purpose. Essentially, this is a test that steals eight classroom days from students and teachers, not to mention prep time. And while the test serves no purpose, educational or otherwise, the school district is threatening disciplinary action against the teachers. 

This is the level of insanity to which the standardized test crowd has sunk. Despite any data or research or field testing to support their theories about drill-and-kill education, and plenty of evidence that shows their approach is narrowing and weakening our schools, they persist in demanding obedience even when they admit their tests have no value. When you have to resort to bribes (which is essentially how Common Core is being implemented through the Obama administration's Race To The Top), threats, and punishment to get your way, if that's all you've got, then it's highly likely that your way sucks.

It should be interesting to see what happens should the district follow up on its threats, given that the teachers seem to have significant support from the rest of the high school's community as well as the Chicago Teacher's Union (CTU). It could shape up as a classic confrontation between those who believe in local control of schools and those pushing to impose standards from on high. It's an American fight, one I hope to see spread through Chicago, Seattle, and right across the nation.

Here is the text of the press release from the CTU:

CHICAGO – The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) supports teachers and parents at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy who announced today their intent to boycott the Illinois State Achievement Test (ISAT). Teachers have collected more than 300 opt-out letters and the student council voted to encourage all students to opt out of the exam. Should these courageous educators face disciplinary charges by the district, CTU vowed to mount a strong defense of this collective action.
Saucedo’s action stance against the ISAT could spark a teacher and parent-led movement to “opt-out” throughout the Chicago Public Schools system.
“The Saucedo educators have taken a bold step in refusing to administer a test that is of no use to students and will be junked by the district next year,” said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey. “Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has already said the ISAT will not be used for selective enrollment, and therefore this serves no purpose other than to give students another standardized test. We know that parents all over the city are opting their children out of this unnecessary test, and we commend them for doing what is in the best interests of their children.”
The ‘low stakes’ test is expected to be administered over the course of eight days in all elementary schools starting March 3rd. Formerly used to help qualify 7th grade students for selective enrollment high schools. The district recently issued a memorandum to teachers stressing the value of “rigorous, high-quality assessments,” in measuring student progress. The ISAT, however, is not aligned to any CPS curriculum, and in Chicago, it is no longer used to measure student progress, school performance, promotion, or for any other purpose.
For the last decade, since the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the ISAT test has been the primary lever used by CPS for its destructive, destabilizing policies of closures and turnarounds. System-wide, the ISAT has infected the vigor and breadth of curriculum as teachers and students became stymied by the requirements of a narrow test-based approach to learning. NCLB has now been panned as a broad failure, but with the transition into more new tests, CPS threatens to double-down on the failed policy of standardized-test based accountability.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

This Is The Art Of Teaching

The default model for how teaching is supposed to work is that an adult decides what a child needs to learn and by when, then sets about trying to make that happen, using every tool at her disposal: lectures, tests, homework, punishments, rewards. Teaching this way is often very hard, frustrating work for both the child and the teacher, and then, at a certain point, the child gets it. 

I've had the good fortune to have always worked in a place where teaching is defined differently. It starts by disposing with the idea that the adult gets to decide what a child is going to learn. The teacher's role is to create a relationship with each child, to listen to him, to play with him, and to often step back and observe him in his play. The art of teaching in this model comes in figuring out what the child is ready to learn, where he is trying to go, then to step in with the right words, or tools, or ideas, or questions. And in that moment, the child gets it, circumventing all the frustrating work that is necessary when a child is not ready. No two children are ready to learn the same things at the same time. It's why you can't package up education and sell it like a product.

There are a couple children in this year's Pre-K class who have always been fascinated with storytelling, often asking me to "play a story," but as this year as progressed, the entire group has become almost obsessed with the process of creating stories. We convene each Tuesday afternoon to have lunch together and for the past couple months, they've urged me to "tell a story." What they mean, however, is that they want me to start telling a story and they want it to be about them. Yesterday's story started like this:

"Once upon a time the Pre-K superhero team was eating lunch . . ."

I was interrupted, and not for the last time, "I'm not a superhero, I'm a princess."

"I'm a queen."

"Okay . . . Once upon a time the Pre-K superhero and princess and queen team were eating lunch, when they heard a tiny voice saying, 'Help, help, help.' Superhero Isaac, who has super power hearing, said, 'The cries are coming from that bridge over there!'" And I pointed out the window toward the Aurora Bridge. "So everyone climbed on the table and Liam, who is super strong, picked up the table . . ."

"I'm super strong, too."

"Me too!"

And each of the five boys told us that he was super strong as did Audrey, leaving only Maya not claiming that super power.

"Okay . . . So Maya climbed on the table, and the rest of the Pre-K team picked up the table and carried it all the way to the bridge, but when they got there they saw nothing. They could hear the tiny voice saying, 'Help, help, help,' but there was no one there."

Liam said, "They're invisible!"

So I continued, "Liam thought they might be invisible, so everyone put on their invisible-seeing goggles and still couldn't see anyone. But the tiny voice kept calling, 'Help, help, help."

At this point the kids took things over, each proposing more and more outlandish ideas for why we couldn't see the person who needed our help. Finally we decided that he must be very small and was trapped under a leaf. We then created more complications, but finally the Pre-K superhero and princess and queen team rescued our tiny person.

We then immediately launched into another story.

For the past month or so, I've had my copies of the books Where The Wild Things Are, Storm Boy, and Sam, Who Was Swallowed By a Shark in a stack on a shelf near our checkerboard rug. Today was the day.

I first read Sendak's great classic, the story of Max, who is sent to his room, then goes on an adventure to a strange land, where he befriends large, frightening creatures, has a "wild rumpus," grows to miss home, then returns there. In the spirit of our former group story telling, it was not a straight read-through, as there was quite a bit to discuss and notice about this short, dense story. I then read Storm Boy (Paul Owen Lewis), announcing, "This is the same story." For those who don't know this book, it's a more modern classic, the story of a chief's son who is fishing alone, when he suddenly finds himself on an adventure in a strange land, where he befriends large, frightening creatures, has a rumpus reminiscent of Max's, grows to miss home, then returns there. This experience was almost more of a conversation than a read-through, as we discussed and debated the finer points of this short, dense story, identifying reasons why Storm Boy's was "the same story" as Max's.

It was miraculous how the children, working together, often wrestling and writhing, but never losing their focus, "got" this seemingly impromptu lesson in comparative lit. We took these two short (both are less than 500 words) stories apart, investigating and comparing each piece, discussing plot and theme and character. We particularly dug into Storm Boy, a book that I've learned contains mysteries that inquiring minds want to solve: What is meant by "under a strange sky?" Who are these large creatures who have what look like "killer whale" costumes hanging on their walls? Why do they eat fish that are not cut up or cooked?

And then the moment came when Mason literally said, "I get it!" He proposed his theory that Storm Boy had fallen into the water and "drowned down to the bottom" where he met the "big people" and had his adventure. It was a key that opened the rest of the story for everyone. We figured out that these weren't people, but rather orca whales. This is when I introduced a bit of Tlingit mythology, the idea that all animals are people too, they just put on costumes to go out into the world. And Liam said, "That's why they had those killer whale costumes!"

The children were ready for this discussion and it flowed like a beautiful song, epiphanies piling one atop another. This was deep learning and it was easy.

By the time we were finished discussing literature like this, we'd used up the time I'd planned to use for something else, so instead, I continued our session by reading Sam, Who Was Swallowed By a Shark (Phyllis Root). Frankly, this isn't nearly as well written or conceived as the other two books, but that could be said of almost any book when compared to those classics. This is the story of a river rat who dreams of going off to sea. The children immediately saw the connection to the other books, a protagonist who would go on an adventure, and settled in for the story. There was much less discussion of this story as I read, probably because the adventure never really comes. The whole story is about how Sam prepares for his adventure, building his "sea going sailboat" as his neighbors stop by to kibitz and cast mild aspersions on his plans. But Sam clings to his "heart's desire" and finally, in the final pages of the book, sets out. The "adventure" is told through the eyes of those who are left behind, speculating that he was lost in a storm or "swallowed by a shark," before they receive a note from Sam assuring them that "I am happy." The final page is a picture of Sam's boat on the water, sailing toward the horizon.

When I read, "The end," Liam said, "No!" The rest of the children sat silently, staring at the pages that had left them high and dry. I showed them that there was no more to the story, but they weren't going to have it, taking turns speculating on what happened next, working together to construct a story that was "the same" as the other two, demonstrating that they had understood the lesson for which they had been ready and had constructed together.

I've been teaching this collection of books for 12 years now, but I always have to wait until the children are ready. Then, it's magic. This is the art of teaching.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Don't Let Anybody Tell You Different

I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different. ~Kurt Vonnegut

Circle time was a perfect example of its type. We spent a good 10 minutes making up painful, icky, cold, and silly things to sit on, including a discussion of what exactly constitutes potty talk, we sang a song, then we gave each other compliments (which were mostly just invitations to play dates), finishing by counting all of the links in our compliment chain aloud (371, give or take). And then we were done. You know, we just farted around.

The hamster wheel doesn't come apart on it's own. Someone has to work on taking it apart, removing the wheel from its stand.

I'd been wondering why someone would be doing it every day. I now know who's been doing it.

And I also know why: he's just been farting around.

Kids have been asking why we have this giant pencil. I tell them it's for drawing and writing.

They've figured out, however, that it's just for farting around.

Sometimes we fart around by putting cowboys in Wyoming and grandpas in Ohio and Winnie the Pooh in Georgia . . .

. . . or by lining up the "big boys" . . .

. . . or combing the ponies' manes.

We fart around with our whole bodies . . .

. . . inside and out . . .

. . . or up in the trees.

It's why we're here on Earth, man. The people who try to make it about anything else are wrong.

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Monday, February 24, 2014

Everything You Need To Know About Common Core

I've been writing a lot lately about the scourge of high stakes standardized testing in our public schools, and specifically about these tests being used in kindergarten. Standardized testing has been with us for far too long, but the most recent source of these tests has been those attached to the Obama administration's Race To The Top Common Core State Standards (CCSS). I get asked questions about CCSS, but the truth is that I have no direct experience with it: everything I know comes second hand, either directly from teachers or from what I read, so I must rely on others.

Although I did not specifically write about CCSS, over the past week, I received a handful of similarly worded comments of support for the national curricula standards, all of which tried to frame it as merely an "update," nothing to get worked up about. This makes me suspect that there is something of an orchestrated pushback against critics, and it made me want to really write about CCSS. As I did my research over the weekend, I landed on the text of a speech given last month by education historian Diane Ravitch as it appeared in the Washington Post. For those who don't know, Ms. Ravitch is one of the leaders in the fight against corporate-style education "reform," and most recently appeared on these pages as the author of the bestselling Reign of Error, which I discussed in three posts (here, here, and here) when it was first published. In both her book and in this speech, she, in well-documented detail, lays out why CCSS is not a mere "update" as proponents would have it, but rather a poorly designed, poorly executed Trojan horse of a program intended to create wholesale, corporate-sponsored changes to public education in America.

Instead of writing my own post, I urge you to read the speech for yourself. It is a devastating, thoughtful, blood-boiling analysis of what is wrong with CCSS, why it got so wrong, and who is to blame, all from a person who started out not only supporting the idea, but working with the US Department of Education to create it.

After providing a brief history and description of the signature education initiatives, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTT), of our two most recent presidential administrations, Ms. Ravitch catalogs the damage done:

These two federal programs, which both rely heavily on standardized testing, has produced a massive demoralization of educators; an unprecedented exodus of experienced educators, who were replaced in many districts by young, inexperienced, low-wage teachers; the closure of many public schools, especially in poor and minority districts; the opening of thousands of privately managed charters; an increase in low-quality for-profit charter schools and low-quality online charter schools; a widespread attack on teachers' due process rights and collective bargaining rights; the near-collapse of public education in urban districts like Detroit and Philadelphia, as public schools are replaced by privately managed charter schools; a burgeoning educational-industrial complex of testing corporations, charter chains, and technology companies that view public education as an emerging market. Hedge funds, entrepreneurs, and real estate investment corporations invest enthusiastically in this emerging market, encouraged by federal tax credits, lavish fees, and the prospect of huge profits from taxpayer dollars.

This is the context in which CCSS was introduced five years ago, created almost exclusively from funds provided by the Gates Foundation:

The writing group of 27 contained few educators, but a significant number of representatives of the testing industry. From the outset, the Common Core standards were marked by the absence of public participation, transparency, or educator participation. In a democracy, transparency is crucial, because transparency and openness builds trust. Those crucial ingredients were lacking.

Ms. Ravitch admits to having supported the idea of national standards and was consulted by the White House. Her main advice to them was that whatever emerged would need to be rigorously field tested by actual teachers in actual classroom settings. She warned them about this more than once, yet CCSS has never been tested, anywhere, by anyone. It has been introduced, disastrously, wholesale, with no mechanism for change, adjustment, flexibility or teacher input.

Early childhood educators are nearly unanimous in saying that no one who wrote the standards had any expertise in the education of very young children. More than 500 early childhood educators signed a joint statement complaining that the standards were developmentally inappropriate for children in the early grades. The standards, they said, emphasized academic skills and leave inadequate time for imaginative play. They also objected to the likelihood that young children would be subjected to standardized testing. And yet the proponents of the Common Core insist that children as young as 5 or 6 or 7 should be on track to be college-and-career ready, even though children this age are not likely to think about college, and most think of careers as cowboys, astronauts, or firefighters.

Not only that, but the tests, upon which children's and teacher's futures rest were intentionally designed so that a full 70 percent fail. What a crushing, cruel thing to do to young learners, especially those who do not come from the socio-economic classes that tend to do well on standardized tests.

I fear that the Common Core plan of standards and testing will establish a test-based meritocracy that will harm our democracy by parceling out opportunity, by ranking and rating every student in relation to their test scores . . . We cannot have a decent democracy unless we begin with the supposition that every human life is of equal value. Our society already has far too much inequality of wealth and income. We should do nothing to stigmatize those who already get the least of society's advantages. We should bend our efforts to change our society so that each and every one of us has the opportunity to learn, the resources needed to learn, and the chance to have a good and decent life, regardless of one's test scores.

Please take the time to read the full speech. It is worth it. 

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Friday, February 21, 2014

Opting Out

This week, the Washington state legislature put it's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal funding in jeopardy by defeating a bill that would have mandated the use of student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. According to Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, who voted against the bill, "Nationwide we are a leader in the teacher-principal evaluation system. Why would we allow the federal government to break a system that is working?"

Whether or not it is working is a matter I'll leave up to my public school colleagues, but I'm proud of my state for standing in opposition to the growing nightmare of the corporate-style education "reform" being forced upon our nation's children.

On Monday, I wrote a post about the emotional and psychological toll being exacted from kindergartners and their parents by the drill-and-kill testing regimen. In response to the flood of parents asking what they could do to push back, I wrote a follow-up post in which I (inadequately, I think) attempted to provide some advice. After a few days of investigation, conversation, and reflection, I've come to the conclusion that the most powerful thing that parents can do is simply opt out of standardized testing altogether.

Opting out does not damage your child's educational prospects, it's perfectly legal in most states, and it likely won't mean that they get to also opt out of the "test prep" (i.e., teaching to the test) that eats up more and more of the classroom day, but at least it removes you and your child from the stress of the tests themselves. And more importantly, it sends a message to schools, school boards, state legislatures, and ultimately the federal government. The more people who chose to opt out, the stronger the message will become.

You don't need to be alone in this. Here are some organizational and informational resources I found through Fair Test:

Opt Out of the State Test: The National Movement (Facebook page) and this link is to their website.  
"Members of this site are parents, educators, students and social activists who are dedicated to the elimination of high stakes testing in public education. We use this site to collaborate, exchange ideas, support one another, share information and initiate collective local and national actions to end the reign of fear and terror promoted by the high stakes testing agenda."

"This page was created to inform parents, kids, and other interested community members about the overreliance on standardized testing to make high stakes decisions in education. It includes posts and links to information on opting out."

"This site was created to collect and share information on state by state rules and experiences related to opting out of standardized tests. This is an open community for any parent, student, or educator interested in finding or sharing opt out information, irrespective of personal decisions regarding political party, religion, or learning choice."

"The Bartleby Project begins by inviting 60,000,000 American students, one by one, to peacefully refuse to take standardized tests or to participate in any preparation for these tests; it asks them to act because adults chained to institutions and corporations are unable to; because these tests pervert education, are disgracefully inaccurate, impose brutal stresses without reason, and actively encourage a class system which is poisoning the future of this nation."

Parents Across America (website) and this link takes you to their Facebook page
"A non-partisan, non-profit grassroots organization that connects parents and activists from across the U.S. to share ideas and work together on improving our nation’s public schools. PAA is committed to bringing the voice of public school parents – and common sense – to local, state, and national education debates."

Save Our Schools (website) and this link take you to their Facebook page
"A grassroots movement dedicated to restoring educator, parent, student, and community influence over education policy and practice. We are a varied group of people with different perspectives, experiences, and views on education. But we agree that those who know the most about education, our schools, and our communities—the educators, students, families and communities in and around them—should be the ones to have the most influence over education policy and practice."

And, of course, Fair Test itself is a valuable resource, including this fact sheet on the dangers of using these tests to evaluate teachers. Here's the link to their Facebook page.

Of course, if you do chose to opt your child out of testing, there will likely be some pushback from your school. NCLB funding requires 95 percent of students to be tested, so if more than 5 percent of students opt out, that funding is in jeopardy. And, of course, if your child is bright or has shown test taking skills in the past, the administration will not want to "lose those test scores," as a colleague of mine was told when she withdrew her son from his school.

And this brings me to the choice many readers have apparently made or are considering making: opting out of public school altogether. Frankly, I can't blame folks, even though it pains me to see dedicated, involved families turning their backs on public schools. On the one hand, there is so much more than just standardized testing to hate about the corporate agenda that is tightening its grip on our schools, from union-busting and the de-professionalization of teaching, to standardized curricula being promoted through such things as Common Core State Standards, larger class sizes, increased "instructional hours," more homework, and the endgame objective of privatizing the whole thing, turning our children's learning over to for-profit corporations. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine our democracy thriving without public schools and the truth is that for the time being, most families have no choice. So even if you chose to opt out altogether, we are still in this together. I urge you to remain engaged with your public schools. We still need you. We need our local schools to know that they will get you back if they too reject the corporate agenda the way the Washington state legislature recently did.

You see, I still believe in public schools. We need them to work. We need them if we are going to continue our experiment in self-government. But we need schools that focus on the skills, knowledge and habits of citizenship, like critical thinking, creativity, and community-building, rather than the increasingly narrow focus on test taking and those mythical "jobs of tomorrow."

I still believe in public schools, which is why I continue to fight. I urge you to do the same.

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Curse Of The One-Trick Pony

A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to visit several preschools, a couple of which had playgrounds that were quite impressive. They had obviously had healthy budgets with which to work and the spaces were designed with creativity and insight. What caught my eye first in both places were their stainless steel water play installations; shining, elegant, upgrades to the plastic house gutters we use at Woodland Park. The thing is, in my short time there I never saw kids playing with them. Granted, it was winter, but still, it gets to be winter here in Seattle as well and the kids rarely take a break from water play.

It didn't take me long to conclude that the fault lay in their immutable permanence. I'm sure that they were quite popular when they were first installed, all solid and gleaming, stable, reliable waist-high channels through which water flowed. And I suspect that children new to the space are drawn to them for a time during their early days at the school, but like with anything, the newness wears off. It's the curse of the one-trick pony.

Several years ago, a big meme running through these blogs that address matters related to early childhood education was the idea of what we were calling "water walls," vertical installations mounted on fences and walls featuring funnels and troughs and tubes, through which children poured water while conducting their free-form experiments with liquid and gravity. Many of these were adult created on behalf of children, but I was interested, as I always am, in figuring out how children could at least take part in the manufacture of their own water wall. Since then, we've made at least a dozen variations (if you put the words "water wall" in the search box over there on the right you'll find a few more related posts). While ours is not so fancy, it has the benefit, I think, of being very inexpensive and, even more important, temporary.

"Inexpensive and temporary" is the antidote to one-trick ponies because you can easily move them off to pasture when the children's play has run its course, because it doesn't pain you in the pocketbook when they do, and because they can always be made new again simply through the passage of time. Indeed, that has become one of my key criteria when considering new additions to our space, indoors or out: Can we easily get it out of the way when the kids are done with it? If it can be brought back, like our water walls, all the better. Even our cast-iron water pump, a "toy" that never seems to grow old, is installed in such a way that it can be packed up, cistern and all, and put away if necessary.

Last week, one of the kids found the old water wall panels shoved against the fence down by the work bench, pulled them out, dropped them on the ground, and asked, "What is this?" a question that lead to not one, but two water walls being built during the week. They served as the buzzing center of our play for a couple days, then for a day as a place where one or two children experimented in relative solitude. On Friday, they stood, ignored, as the children moved on to other explorations and inventions, some involving water, some not.

I expect to leave them there, leaned there against the fence, for another week or so as invitations. Often the play of young children in groups cycles back to old experiments several times before running its course.  But it will run it's course and then we'll want that space for something else.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

About Not Falling Down

You can hardly be anywhere with young children without finding at least one of them engaged in an experiment with balance, usually of the full-body variety. Every time I turned around there was a child walking atop a wooden plank or carefully navigating the tops of the tree rounds that line our sand pit. Almost every day a child will demonstrate for me how she can stand on one foot or perform the arabesque she learned in ballet class.

Falling down and not falling down are clearly important aspects of a high quality early childhood education, but it's clearly not as simple as that, because the moment they learn to move, children engage, as long as they're given an opportunity, in increasingly challenging feats of balance. Not all of them are daredevils, of course, but all of them work on their balancing skills.

Awhile back I was talking with a new acquaintance who is a fitness trainer. He said that one of the most common phenomena in his business are adults who commit themselves to getting into shape, join a gym, adopt a regimen, work hard at if for awhile, then less hard at it, then stop altogether. "It stops being fun and just becomes work," he said. "I'm trying to get my clients to understand that they could be working out all the time if they'd just stop being embarrassed -- and it would be fun." He then proceeded to describe to me what children do all day long as they go about their days: balancing along curbs, jumping on and off of low walls, swinging from tree branches, running up and down hills. "It won't necessarily result in a chiseled physique, but it is all about developing full body functional strength."

That's what the kids are doing, of course, when they tackle these challenges, developing their full body functional strength. It's not a commitment they make, because it's one of the natural aspects of their urge to simply play and it's an urge that becomes stunted by the addictive lure of screens, by the fear implanted by those who perpetually warn them that they're going to kill themselves, and the knee-jerk idea some adults have that there is such a thing as "bad weather." It's an urge, that as we get older, we come to find embarrassing in ourselves, as somehow not "mature," as a set-up to be accused of not acting our age by both our parents and our peers.

I forget about this all the time in my day to day life and I'm one of the lucky ones for whom it's always okay to be a bit sweaty or dirty. When I pass rockeries I usually fight back the urge to leap up on the first rock, then hop across them. When I see a grassy slope I typically just think about running to the top, then rolling back down. 

Lately, I've been trying to remind myself to not fight the urge, to go ahead and jump up and try to touch that awning or stride along the sidewalk two concrete slabs at a time. So if you see a 52-year-old man with his arms flailing as he balances along the back of a park bench, it might just be me, playing, learning, and as a side benefit, working on my functional strength.

Just this weekend, in fact, I arrived at a speaking engagement in Portland a bit early, so I decided to take advantage of a warm, steamy sun break to go for a walk in the large park across the street from the venue. It was a place of rolling, grassy hills, sports fields and a winding, paved path. It had been raining, hard, all day, so there were puddles and rivulets to dodge and leap along the way. Soon I began to encounter other people, adults, all of whom were trudging straight ahead, getting their heart-rates up, breaking a sweat, working on their fitness. They all nodded back to me when I greeted them, but none mirrored my smile, concentrating on speed and distance. I tried to stay focused on the moment, on the challenge of avoiding soaking my feet in the lava-water that was everywhere, first up on by tip-toes, then stretching it out with a modified grand jete. At some point I calculated that I could get back to my starting point by leaving the paved path and took a detour over a grassy hill, sacrificing dry feet as my Converse high tops soaked through almost instantly. If you're going to play outdoors in the Pacific Northwest, wet socks are a fact of life. 

I noticed almost instantly that the ground was saturated and the grass slippery. It took my full concentration to make it to the top of the ridge from which I could see the parking lot where my car awaited. I enjoyed the panorama for a moment before heading down the other side, carefully at first, keeping my feet as flat so as to put as much rubber to the ground as possible. As I got closer to the bottom of the hill, I felt the urge to jog the rest of the way down, which is when I took my first fall, landing on my backside. I felt the moisture on my seat and saw the muddy stripe on my calf, but I bounced immediately back up and without a moment's hesitation jogged a few more steps before falling again. This time a slid a couple feet. 

When I got to the bottom my lower body and elbows were thoroughly mud smeared, with my presentation coming up in a few minutes. I tried cleaning up a bit, but there was no hiding it, so that's how I showed up to give my spiel. This time it was about falling down. Next time, perhaps, it will be about not falling down. In any event, I will continue to work on my functional strength, even as embarrassment lurks on the downside of every hill.

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