Thursday, July 31, 2014

"Joy And Enthusiasm Are Absolutely Essential"

For the past couple of years, I've been hearing from parents of former students about the stress their children have experienced due to developmentally inappropriate and educationally suspect high stakes standardized testing and curriculum expectations. This is a new phenomenon so I attribute it to the fact that the Dickensian corporate education "reform" movement has finally come to Seattle. We're talking about children I knew as happy, engaged, enthusiastic learners in preschool who have been reduced to tears and anxiety about not measuring up in kindergarten and first grade. For years, I've been hearing this from teachers and parents from other parts of the US, but now it's hitting home.

These for-profit guys are elbowing their way into public education under banners of "rigor" and "accountability." These are hollow marketing words designed to convince the electorate to let Bill Gates and the rest of his Randian followers to, as he says, "unleash powerful market forces" on our children. These are the same powerful market forces that have left millions of Americans without health care, encouraged bankers to behave as criminals, decimated the environment, and created a very wealthy few, while wrecking havoc on our once thriving middle class. Powerful market forces, at least the sort worshiped at the alter of neoliberalism, always create more losers than winners. 

This is what they promised to bring to our schools and, indeed, they are succeeding, albeit against a growing background of protest from parents, teachers, and students.

At the forefront of their sales pitch is this idea that they are hard-headed businessmen who will undo the namby-pamby feel good emotionalism of us well-intended, but misguided teachers. Apparently, we are  just a little too soft-headed and soft-hearted to really comprehend what it takes to make children winners in this Darwinian world, so they didn't bother consulting with us and now they're dismissing our concerns, often by throwing up their hands and saying, Not our fault: you're just doing it wrong.

They shout "Rigor!" at every turn -- they must have really market-tested that word because both the politicians and business guys use it whenever they speak on education. And we need to hold teachers "accountable" for holding those little noses to the grindstone, another well-worn buzzword. Rigor and accountability, that's how powerful market forces work, after all.

But it's not how learning works.

Of course, teachers know that this a horrible way to teach children anything. Anxious, crying children can learn little other than that the world is, by turns, cruel and tedious. We know that no child can learn under the kind of drill-and-kill rote-based assembly line these market-based ideologues envision for our children. And scientists know this too:

The realities of standardized tests and increasingly structured . . . curriculum continue to build classroom stress levels. Neuroimaging research reveals the disturbances in the brain's learning circuits and neurotransmitters that accompany stressful learning environments. The neuroscientific research about learning has revealed the negative impact of stress and anxiety and the qualitative improvement of the brain circuitry involved in memory and executive function that accompanies positive motivation and engagement . . . superior learning takes place when classroom experiences are relevant to students' lives, interest and experiences.

That superior learning environment is exactly what a play-based curriculum provides: classroom experiences that are relevant to student's lives, interest and experiences. Whereas the product the corporate guys are selling does the opposite:

This is the actual neuroimaging visualization of what has been called the affective filter . . . This term describes an emotional state of stress in students during which they are not responsive to learning and storing new information. What is now evident on brain scans during times of stress is objective physical evidence of this affective filter. With such evidence-based research, the affective filter theories cannot be disparaged as "feel-good education" or an "excuse to coddle students" -- if students are stressed out, the information cannot get in. This is a matter of science.

I, and others, have repeatedly challenged US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and the rest of these self-proclaimed reformers to present any evidence at all to support their assertions, but they haven't taken it up because such data or research or science simply does not exist.

The science is clearly on the side of classrooms designed around the sort of self-directed learning found in play-based and inquiry-based classrooms.

Joy and enthusiasm are absolutely essential for learning to happen -- literally, scientifically, as a matter of fact and research. Shouldn't it be our challenge and opportunity to design learning that embraces these ingredients?

(Personal note: I will be traveling for the next couple of days, so if it goes quiet around here it's because I've not had the opportunity to post. If this happens, please know I'll be back in short order.) 

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

And We Always Will Be

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

Earlier this summer, our 17-year-old daughter climbed into a VW van with three friends and drove down to Oregon to attend one of our area's seminal hippy-dippy, peace and love, arts and camping happenings called Oregon Country Fair. I kissed her goodbye and missed her, but it was with the ease I've come feel about her being away from us overnight, even for nights at a time, be it sleepovers, summer camps, or music festivals. A few years back, when she was 15, we put her on a plane bound for Europe with a friend, and while the thought of my child making her way through airport transfers halfway around the globe was nerve-wracking, I was also able to relax knowing that there was a trusted adult, my wife's girlhood best friend, waiting for her at the end of her journey, almost as if she'd never left home.

A few days ago, we put our daughter on a plane that carried her away to her future. Oh, she'll be back before the end of summer from this intensive Shakespeare performance seminar in Ashland, Oregon, home of the renowned Shakespearean festival, but her plan, as it has been since before middle school, is to graduate at the end of the coming school year, then enroll in a university or conservatory with a BFA program that will prepare her for her chosen career as a Shakespearean actress. It feels different this time, her going away for professional training at a university, even if it really isn't too much farther away than Eugene where she was with her friends only a few weeks ago. There's been a melancholy here in our apartment with just my wife and me, but also a sense of familial joy in knowing that our girl is, by her own reports, so far thrilled with this adventure.

As a baby, I used to look at her and tell myself that she will grow up, that she, in fact, was already grown up. As I played with her, I tried to stay in the moment, but to also never be too far from the certain knowledge that here was a baby, then toddler, then a bigger girl, then a teen, then a young woman, then a woman of the world. I've tried to see not only all the ages she had ever been, but also all the ages she was going to be. I didn't make plans for her, exactly, but rather tried to pre-accept those  things that would make her life like that of all humans: ups and downs, love and loss, joy and pain. I'm not one of those fathers who is particularly freaked out, for instance, by her sexuality because I've tried to always know that it was there, knowing that my girl would experience crushes, romance, sex, and love like women do. Maybe that's why I've always liked the boys she's liked.

I suppose that her being away this time is different because she herself is aware that it is sort of a practice run for what will be coming two Septembers from now, after which, if she's anything like me, we'll enter a phase during which we'll only live together for a few months out of the year, then, perhaps only for the holidays. I've always known this was true, but it does help me better empathize with my own parents who didn't always "let go" as easily as I'd wished. I have on a few occasions selfishly dropped the idea of taking a "gap year" where she could keep living with us and get a job, but she's having none of it, as I knew she wouldn't. I'm quite proud that my baby is also a young woman who knows what she wants from life and is ready, nerves and all, to go out and try to make it happen.

Going in, we all know that the job isn't to raise a child, but rather to raise an adult, and that job is one of those blessing-curses like "May you live in interesting times" or "May all your dreams come true." She has always been this 17-year-old who packs her bags and heads off in to the world just as she will always be that baby, that toddler, that little girl, and that teen. As I sit here this morning, mooning back over things, I recognize the hubris in believing that any of us "raise" children any more than they raise us. I see now that we're fellow travelers, my daughter and I, and we always have been. And we always will be.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Flock Of Birds Or A Swarm Of Bees

We originally set out to build our ladder as the first step in a bigger idea to build a tree house, and although the rest of the tree house never happened, the ladder has proven quite useful on and around our concrete slide. The fact that it takes us up into the laurels, one could argue, makes it a ladder into a kind of tree house, but so far I'm the only one who's made the connection and writing it here is the first time I've "said" it aloud.

Whatever the case, a couple of the guys decided it was in their way and pushed it down into the sand pit. When I told them I thought it was in a hazardous spot, they dragged it to the side where it wound up being used as more of a ramp than a ladder for ascending the "easy" way up to the top.

Last week someone had the idea of moving the ladder back onto the concrete slide. There was an immediate cry for, "Ropes! Ropes!" as children scattered to round up the half dozen 6-ft. lengths we have around the outdoor classroom.

At first they attempted to drag it up the "easy" way, which I could see from my perspective was never going to happen. The gap between the laurels and the fence was too tight. It wasn't long before they, without much discussion, came to the same conclusion. I figured this was when most of the kids would move on to other things, but as they wrestled it back down to the bottom and across to the foot of the concrete slide, more kids joined the cause.

This might have been an easier thing to accomplish if not for all those ropes and all those kids "tying" and re-tying. This might have been easier had there not, at any given moment, been a child or two who appeared to be working at cross purposes. This might have been easier had they talked to one another, but instead they all just worked, each doing what he thought ought to be done at any given moment, with a bare minimum of verbal communication. No one appeared to be concerned about making things easy.

An important decision that was apparently made simply by the purely democratic process version of "might makes right" was which end of the ladder was going to be the top and which the bottom. It could have gone either way for awhile, but eventually, more kids were pushing and pulling one end more than the other, making it the top, while the end the minority was pushing and pulling became the bottom.

At some point it became clear to everyone which end was the top, the tipping point seeming to not come until the ladder lay across the slope at a 45 degree angle. Things had been painstakingly slow up to that point, but once it was clear which way the wind was blowing, the rest of the process happened fast. (I did step in at this point, without speaking, as invisibly as possible, and made sure then bottom was secured in the sand.)

These kinds of impromptu projects spring up almost daily at Woodland Park. Usually, I know where they come from. Usually, there's more bickering and bossing, which is a natural part of any challenging process no matter what our ages. Usually, when a project takes more than about 5 minutes, the number of participants drops off as kids find other things they'd rather be doing. And often, I or another adult is evident at key points, offering ideas, encouragement, and a steadying hand. 

But this project had very little of those things: in fact, as I watched it, I felt it was a kind of magical occurrence, one that I could see happening before my very eyes, but even though I was right there bearing witness, I'm still not quite sure how it happened. "We" decided to move the ladder, everyone was their own boss. Decisions were made, not through a deliberative or negotiated process, but the way a flock of flying birds or a swarm of bees decides to turn this way or that. The longer it took, the more kids joined in bringing ropes, turning shovels into levers, pushing, pulling, bracing as they saw fit. It was a "hive mind" project.

And when they were done, there was no celebration, no cheering, no "good jobs." The project was simply complete, most moved on, while a handful stuck around to use the ladder to climb into what only I call the "tree house."

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Monday, July 28, 2014

"A Model Of What A Good School Can And Should Be"

Three years ago, I wrote a post here called "The Path of Punishment" in which I used the revelations of a massive high stakes test cheating scandal in Atlanta's public schools as a jumping off point. In that post I riffed on the inevitability of cheating in the sort of competitive reward-punishment environment created by such education initiatives like the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration's Race to the Top, both of which tie federal funding and teacher pay and promotions to the narrow range of data produced by these tests of dubious value, unless your goal is simply to identify the socio-economic class of the child being tested. 

Since that time, similar cheating scandals have been uncovered across the US, including Philadelphia, Toledo, El Paso, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston, St. Louis, and Washington, DC and dozens of other cities. For the most part, the cheating has happened in districts with high levels of poverty, by far the number one driver of low standardized test scores. I'd assumed that the cheaters had been primarily motivated by the fear of losing their jobs if they didn't achieve the impossibly idealistic goals mandated by federal law. I didn't really think teachers and even principals had cheated for the relatively meager bonuses they stood to receive for "success," although the half million dollars in bonus pay awarded to Atlanta's superintendent causes me to suspect her motivations, because, well, it's half a million dollars.

Last week, I read with fascination and regret, Rachel Aviv's recent piece about the Atlanta scandal that appeared The New Yorker. Three years down the road, legal justice has been meted out, teachers and principals have been fired, the middle school at the center of the controversy is now an abandoned building, and the trials of those at the "top" are winding their way toward convictions. Oh, and the entire state of Georgia, not taking the lesson, is now embracing the same sort of competitive reward-punishment environment that lead to the scandal in it's largest city.

Aviv takes us back to the days before the scandal when Parks Middle School was one of the few community anchors, a "jewel," in the midst of a troubled neighborhood, serving a mostly poor and black student population. This was one of those school districts the corporate education "reformers" point to when they assert that American schools are failing: with 2/3 of its population in poverty, only about 40 percent graduated from high school, a fate that obviously isn't shared by children from more middle class school districts. In 2001, a new "father figure" principal named Michael Sims took the helm:

Sims focused nearly as much on building a sense of community as he did on academics: he renovated the school, hired guidance counsellors, and replaced the "P" that had fallen off the sign at Park's entryway. He told students that they were representing their school even when they were off campus. If they got into a fight over the weekend, they would be suspended on Monday. The school provided computer classes to parents, who had been so removed from their children's academic lives that it was a struggle to get them to sign progress reports. "We had to trick the parents and give away this, that, and the third in order to get them in the building . . . Some of them looked like they were on drugs -- not the fun drugs but the ruin-your-life drugs."

Inspired by Sims, teacher Damany Lewis, a man who stands at the center of the cheating scandal stepped up his game not only as a teacher, but by acting a father figure himself:

Parks started to feel like a place where both teachers and students, nearly all of them black, could expose their vulnerabilities. "All our little problems that we grew up hiding from the rest of the world -- it became our line of communication," Lewis said. He told students to dump their laundry into the back of his pickup truck, so that he could wash it for them, and encouraged them to sleep at his house when their mothers were absent or high. (Few had fathers in their lives.) He became football coach, and if practice ran late he dropped students off at their homes. Several ended up calling him Dad. He told them, "I don't know how you feel about me, but I, at least, feel like I made it. If you want to know if you can make it, look at me." . . . Parks set up after-school programs and hired tutors. A 2004 documentary called "Expect the Best" explained that Parks, which had previously functioned like "day care," had become a "model of what a good school can and should be." The video shows Lewis on his porch, playing chess with a student who had moved in with him. The narrator of the video explains that the student, Antonio, was living with his math teacher "because his mother is in no shape to support or care for him."

In other words, Parks was functioning as public schools in troubled neighborhoods should: as a stabilizing force, a place where kids could feel safe, respected, and loved. Not only that, but their standardized test scores were improving, but not fast enough to meet the "utopian" standards of No Child Left Behind. So, of course, the principle Sims was fired. The message was clear: test scores above all else. The story Aviv tells after that is one of teachers cheating not for their own survival, but for the survival of this school that was serving its community in ways far beyond merely teaching the rudimentary skills of reading and ciphering. It's easy to stand on a pillar of judgement and to condemn these educators for erasing their student's wrong answers and replacing them with correct ones, but after reading this piece, I can't honestly say that I wouldn't have done the same thing were I in their shoes.

I'm not a public school teacher, but I know a lot of them, and our conversations often turn to the various aspects of a corporate education "reform" movement that's rapidly making public education into the sort of competitive reward-punishment factory that leads inevitably to these sorts of scandals. Most of these teachers do not work in schools with extraordinarily high poverty rates, but all of them still talk proudly about the things they do "between the cracks" to help their students, to help their student's families, and to provide a well-rounded, personalized education despite the make-work "rigor" and tough-love "accountability" being peddled by these education hucksters. None of them are manufacturing artificially high test scores, but all of them are, at some level, "cheating." Maybe it's giving their kids extra outdoor time. Maybe it's letting a child with personal challenges off the hook for homework. Maybe it's engaging in discussions with students on topics of interest to them, rather than what the official curricula demands. And often it's taking care of the social and emotional needs of students at the expense of time that is "supposed" to be used for test prep.

From reading Ms. Aviv's article, it's clear that many, if not most, of Atlanta's cheating teachers were doing it, not for personal gain, but for reasons similar to the subversive what's-best-for-the-child motives of the teachers I know in middle class schools. Of course they went too far, but as one of the key participants suggests, he came to view it as an act of civil disobedience, despite his reservations, with the idea of keeping this school, this "jewel" in the heart of a troubled neighborhood, alive and serving the children who needed it even if they couldn't produce test scores high enough, fast enough for the corporate rat race that had been foisted upon it.

It didn't work. Parks Middle School has been shuttered and the students scattered to other schools in other neighborhoods where they are still being judged failures according to arbitrary standards. I imagine the building now sits empty and abandoned, no longer a "jewel," but rather another graffiti covered eyesore that the children pass every day on their way to someplace else.

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Criminalizing Parenthood

This is how I understand this story: a single South Carolina mom named Debra Harrell with a nine-year-old daughter, trying to make ends meet with a $8 an hour job at McDonald's, had been bringing her child to work with her, where the girl spent her summer vacation days playing on her laptop until someone broke into their apartment and stole, among other things, that laptop. Deciding that staying home alone might not be the safest situation for her child, what with burglars and all, and now with no laptop, this mother of meager means, at her daughter's behest, dropped her girl off at a well-populated playground located adjacent to her place of work, with a mobile phone, to play outdoors with other children as she worked. She was arrested and, presumedly because of the arrest, fired from her job. (Due, I'm sure, to the publicity this case has generated, McDonald's has since rehired her, citing a "misunderstanding about her job.")

There is so much wrong here, it's hard to know where to start, although the first thing I'll point out is that $8 an hour is simply not a livable wage. I understand that "minimum wage" jobs are "supposed to be for teenagers," but in our current economy families like this one are having to live on those wages. I'm genuinely excited that I live in a city that has recently approved a $15 per hour minimum wage, nearly doubling the former wage floor, and it's scheduled to adjust upward as the cost of living increases. There are many, including many small business owners, some of whom are members of our Woodland Park community, who worry that this will force them out of business, and they might be right. I get that, but I'm still excited because we, as a community, are trying the one, most obvious thing one can imagine to fight poverty, the solution the children always suggest when discussing the plight of poor people: give them more money. But that's not what I want to write about in this post.

I also don't want to write about the vicious Catch-22 in which this and millions of other parents find themselves. On the one hand, society tells her, through both public policy and popular culture, that she must work because otherwise she is a parasite, so she gets a job, albeit a low paying one. On the other hand, she has a nine-year-old child who is out of school for the summer. Child care is beyond her means, her home is not safe, and while she may well have many friends who would be willing to babysit, they too have jobs during the day. Honestly, what's a parent to do? If we're really going to be a nation that cares about families, as every politician in America asserts, it's clear that we need either subsidized child care for low-income families or, even better in my book, an expanded social safety net that doesn't force parents to chose between their jobs and their children.

And I really don't want to write about the cold corporate cruelty of an employer like McDonald's which apparently fired this poor mother for a decision, good or bad, that she made as a parent. I also don't want to write about the issues of race and gender that are the roots of this story, but it's there and raw and real.

No, I want to write about another aspect of this story that, like all the others, is just the tip of the American iceberg: a mother was arrested for letting her nine-year-old play alone at a playground.

I know this will sound a bit curmudgeonly, but when I was growing up in that very same South Carolina, all the nine-year-olds played alone in the playgrounds, and this was in an era with a much higher crime rate, and we had already been doing it for years. In fact, as a six-year-old, I walked to and from school, which was a half mile in each direction, and I didn't have a mobile phone. Even as four-year-olds, our parents would shoo us out the front door and not expect to see us again for hours, and by the time we were seven, we were riding bikes which took us miles away from home. As a nine-year-old living in Greece, my seven-year-old brother and I would spend entire days on our own roaming wherever our interests took us in a foreign country where we didn't even speak the language, and sometimes we would take our three-year-old sister with us. It never occurred to us to tell our parents where we were going because, more often than not, we didn't know ourselves.

Today, all of the mothers in our neighborhood would have been arrested: every last one of them. We have criminalized parenthood and our children are the victims of this crime wave. I was discussing this with a Woodland Park parent this week. She works at one of our local elementary schools where she sends her own kids outside to play unsupervised on the playground each afternoon as she finishes up her work day. She's not the only one; many of the school's employees do the same thing. Apparently, every one of them is risking arrest.

Objectively, at least when it comes to crime, our world is a much safer place today than it was during the 70's, yet we expect parents, under the threat of legal consequence, to keep their children under a watchful eye 24/7, and it's not just crime we worry about. We also don't trust children with their own safety, with some "experts" asserting that children shouldn't be left alone in a car until they are old enough to drive. You can't leave a 15-year-old alone in a car?

We live in a world in which a nine-year-old playing with a laptop inside a McDonald's for hours on end is favored over playing outdoors with friends -- and our entire society is suffering from this.

We are raising our children to be incompetent.

We are raising our children without real freedom.

We are raising our children to be unreasonably afraid.

We are raising our children without the benefits of outdoors, exercise, and friends.

We are raising our children without the skills, confidence, or wisdom to be functioning adults, infantilizing them until they're suddenly grown up and expected to make their way in the world.

And most of us don't even realize it; we take this as the normal state of affairs. If you were born after about 1980, you likely have no idea what I'm talking about because it's all you've known. As a younger parent, as my child approached the age of this poor woman's daughter, I began to worry about her. Not about her safety, but rather about her lack of freedom. I'll never forget how nervous I was the first time I left her, as an eight-year-old, home alone as I drove to the grocery store to pick up some milk. I made sure she knew what to do in case of fire, flood, doorbell, or injury. I raced to the store, I raced back, and she survived. We did this not out of necessity, but rather as an act of parenting, forced upon me in part because she was literally begging for the opportunity be "be alone," a cry for freedom that touched my heart.

This was the beginning of our program, probably illegal, of increasingly ramping up her experiences of being on her own in the world because, after all, that's what we're ultimately raising our children to do, and experience is the only teacher. With her enthusiastic agreement, she was home alone for longer and longer periods of time. I would sometimes come home to find that she was proud to have prepared her own snack or bathed or practiced some other self-help skill. I began to send her into stores to run errands for the family. One day, when she was about 11, as we awaited the train, we chatted up a cop about safety tips for young women traveling on mass transit alone, then implemented it the following day, starting with solo a trip downtown and back. By the time she was 14 she was regularly getting herself around Seattle on her own, yet "experts" would have her incapable of even being left alone in a car. Not only did she survive, but she thrived, often saying, proudly, "No body else's parents let them do this."

Lest you think I wasn't sufficiently "worried" about my child, let me assure you that the reason I was doing these things was because I was worried about her. I didn't want her first experiences at being alone in the world to coincide with, say, an adolescent surge of hormones or the advent of a driver's license. Being a newly sexual being or a new driver is challenging enough without also being overwhelmed with the thrill and chill of being out from under a parent's watchful eye for the first time. That, to me, seemed like a set up for disaster. I didn't want her to head off to college without sufficient experience in the basic life skills required to be safe and healthy in the world.

One of our experiments came when she was 12. We were at the Westlake Center mall in the heart of downtown Seattle and she wanted to shop "on her own." This is not a criticism of this particular mall, but its location means that at any given moment there were more than a few nefarious types milling about. Nevertheless, we agreed that I would sit over a cup of coffee while she browsed for an hour. As it turned out, I remembered something I needed to pick up, so decided to quickly run my errand in the meantime. It's not a large mall, so it didn't surprise me when I spied her riding up an escalator. I thought she saw me, but then she turned and fled up the next escalator toward the third floor. I chuckled to myself, assuming that she had pretended not to see me, not yet ready for her hour of freedom to end, so I went about my business. Later, she told me about a "creepy guy" who had said "Hi" and who she thought might be following her. When I'd seen her on the escalator she had been in the process of putting distance between herself and him. She had then ducked into a shop, taking safety, as the transit cop has suggested, in the company of others. My heart was in my throat as she told the story, even as I knew that this was both a life lesson for her as well as proof that I was, as a parent, doing the right thing.

If I were a poor, black woman I wonder if I could even confess all of this without being arrested. Maybe I'll get a knock on my door this afternoon. I am a criminal parent, apparently. That said, my daughter will be 18-years-old in October, legally an adult, and I am more confident than most of the parents of her peers that my child will be as ready as possible for the attendant rights and responsibilities.

I don't know any more than you do about the details of this South Carolina mother's story. What I do know is that unless things change, at best, her nine-year-old will now go back to spending her summer sitting in a McDonald's after learning the lesson that her mother is a criminal for trusting her with a little freedom. Maybe she's "safer" today, but I assure you, she will not be safer in the future. I don't know what to do about the rest of us, but in this case you can help Debra Harrell and her daughter by making a donation through this funding site.

Over the last few months, one of the internet memes among us progressive parents and educators has been about giving our children a "70's summer," one like we had in the golden age of childhood, full of play and free of academic stress. This is a good thing, but for the most part I see it continue to happen under the ever-present watchfulness of hovering parents. It's a step in the right direction, but without the freedom, it's not the same thing.

Of course, in advocating this I'm walking into a Catch-22 of my own: all it will take is for one parent to take my advice and have it all go horribly wrong. There is always that chance. This is the dark side of freedom for all of us, no matter what our age. Of course, each time we put our child in our car we are engaged in what is statistically the single most dangerous thing we can do with children, yet most of us think nothing about it. Gever Tully calls it "dangerism," this phenomenon by which societies come to both formally and informally accept the various risks of freedom. We each have to make these decisions for ourselves: that is perhaps the ultimate freedom.

I honestly can't tell you if Debra Harrell made a good or bad decision about her nine-year-old daughter. There are so many factors involved ranging from the neighborhood itself to the maturity of the child, but I think we can all agree that in this case, the authorities went over the top. We have to trust one another as parents, even if we disagree, and our laws need to allow more room for common sense. Ultimately, we have to trust love, and nothing in what Ms. Harrell did leads me to think she is anything but a loving mother doing the best she can. Perhaps she made a mistake. Perhaps she should be role model for us all. But whatever the case, she is not a criminal for letting her child play alone at a playground.

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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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Because It's Hard

Play is the highest form of research. ~Albert Einstein

There are easier ways of getting from here to there, but all day long children choose to cross this narrow, springy plank they've set between a pair of stumps.

Why do they do this? It requires more focus than merely walking across the ground. There is a heightened risk of injury, something even the 2-year-olds know going in: you can tell by the caution with which they approach it. There are easier, safer ways, so why do they consistently choose the way that is hard?

One of the arguments used against a play-based curriculum is that it doesn't teach children rigor, that there is no incentive to tackle things that are difficult, but every day, all day long I see evidence to the contrary. In fact, it's often hard to find a child who is not applying herself, rigorously, to her play.

In every corner of the classroom, at any given moment, we find children striving in their play to do things that are hard: making the scissors cut the paper, shaping the play dough into a sphere, negotiating over a toy with a classmate, balancing across a narrow plank. When we think of play we usually think of smiles and laughter, but look around and you'll find brows wrinkled in concentration, jaws clenched in effort, bodies tense in anger, and eyes filled with the tears of frustration. This is also true of a rote-based curriculum, the difference being the smiles and laughter.

If it were true that children are inherently lazy, that without the firm hand of teachers executing standardized lesson plans filled with things a committee has determined they ought to know, and by when they ought to know it, that they will only play and never learn to apply themselves -- if this were true then there is no explaining this plank between two stumps. No, what those who doubt play fail to realize is that what they see as laziness is really boredom. If a child appears lazy, it's because you're doing it wrong.

When we understand that play is, indeed, research, then it all makes sense. They see the smiles and laughter as evidence of sloth and distraction, whereas in a play-based curriculum we know it as evidence of Eureka! 

Children are not lazy. They are also not empty vessels that now need to be tediously crammed full of things that others believe they ought to know. No, more often than not, when left to their own devices, children chose what is hard over what is easy. Why? Because humans are flames to be ignited: we are born to research, born to explore, born to cross that plank even when it is the way that is hard. 

A child loves his play, not because it's easy, but because it's hard. ~Dr. Benjamin Spock

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Turning My Project Into Their Project

A couple weeks ago, a reader sent me photos of her class' version of "paint skiing." I'm glad she did because I'd forgotten about that particular project. Maybe that's because in my mind it wasn't paint skiing at all, but rather "super-dooper sized marble painting." You see, the whole idea evolved from a game of intercontinental one-upsmanship between the children of Woodland Park and Jenny's (of Let the Children Play fame) kids Down Under. It had gone back and forth from "marble painting" to "giant marble painting" to "super sized marble painting" and this, what became "paint skiing," was my idea for taking it one step beyond: we were going to make a painting by kicking balls through paint on a tarp. The kids gave it a go, but then dispensed with the balls in short order, turning my project into their project which was to make it a sort of paint wallow.

So, grateful for the inspiration, last week we broke out the tarp and paint again, although this time, instead of attempting to paint with balls, we used brooms, my assumption being that it really didn't matter because it would just turn into "paint skiing" or "paint wallowing" anyway. I was wrong again, of course. This group of kids really enjoyed pushing black and purple paint around with brooms. I even removed my own shoes to demonstrate proper paint skiing. They watched politely, moving out of my way as I skated past, then returned to sweeping. Lukas even said, somewhat humiliatingly, "Good job, Teacher Tom!"

I've tried labeling what I do when I set up activities like this as "invitations" and "provocations," and they are, by turns, both of those things, but neither term really fits for me. They're really just things that seem like they'll be fun, so we break out the materials, perhaps make a suggestion or two, then try to keep up with the kids as they make it their own. It was a challenge as a new teacher to watch my best laid plans run away from me, but I've now come to see the beauty in the unexpected ways the collective creativity of the children will take materials when presented in the context of free play. It's all part of setting my agenda aside in favor of the children's better one. Sometimes I think that's the most important, and most difficult to learn, teaching skill of all.

Now there are some activities, like the balloon cage, that always work exactly as I envision. Of course, we've been doing it for a lot of year with a lot of kids, so we've figured some things out, but I knew I wanted to try it from the day I was hired at Woodland Park. It had been one of my childhood fantasies to get to play in a padded room with hundreds of balloons, so one of my first acts as teacher was to install hooks in our ceiling to hang the cage.

Of course, it's exceptional when my agenda meshes so perfectly with that of the kids. More often than not, like with the "grid table," the kids never find my idea as fun as it seems in my head. In fact, for the first time in several years, I didn't even bother setting up a grid table at all after years of trotting it out in the hope that this year, this time, this group of kids will make it their own. And, in a way, I guess they always do, by ignoring it altogether. And that's always one of the options in a play-based school: the freedom to shrug your shoulders and find something better to do.

Although, I've found, it's important that I not give up on things too quickly. Sometimes it takes years of "failure" before one kid, perhaps only one time, sees the beauty that I see in my mind's eye, making it all worthwhile. I'm thinking in particular of a collection of dolls that I purchased for the school because I preferred them over Barbies. You see, I was working on the mistaken assumption that the fun part of Barbies was dressing and undressing them and these dolls had great wardrobes without being so stereotypically sexualized. They lay largely abandoned for years until Sasha made them her own, which is why those damned dolls come out year-after-year in the anticipation of one more kid like her. Maybe I should do the same with the grid table.

As I watched the kids joyfully sweep the paint last week, I wondered how things would have been different had we offered balls instead of brooms. Would it have turned into paint skiing again or would this particular group of kids have brought in the brooms all on their own? A few of them imitated me by removing their shoes, but most kept their feet covered, not wanting to get paint on their toes. In fact, after a time, I began to hear the children's conversation turn increasingly on the idea of "cleaning" the tarp, as if the project, in their minds, was to sweep the paint off the tarp. Taking on that challenge, one of the boys had the idea of using gutters and pipes to direct water from the nearby cast iron water pump onto the tarp, based upon the theory that running water could do in this case what brooms could not.

This is the dance we perform every day at Woodland Park between the teachers and the children. The adults invite or provoke with things that seem like they might be fun, be they ideas from Australia, childhood dreams, or the children themselves, then, when we're doing it right, we get out of the way as the children make it their own, or not, as the case may be.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Wanted: Kindergarten Teacher

I've mentioned here before that Woodland Park is working toward creating a kindergarten for the 2015-2016 school year. We feel confident that we have a space, the enthusiasm, and a vibrant community ready and able to support a play-base kindergarten. So now we're looking for a teacher and we've decided to cast a wide net. I've posted our job description below. If you or someone you know is interested in working with us, please send a resume and any questions to Beth at with "Kindergarten teacher resume" in the subject line.

We're hoping to have a commitment from the right teacher by November 1, 2014, although the actual job won't start until September, 2015. That's because we need to start enrolling this coming Fall and it will make a huge difference to have our teacher in place to help us "sell" the program. We will be collecting resumes through the end of August and intend to begin contacting candidates sometime during September.

I will be traveling for the month of August, but will try to get to any questions as promptly as I can. I'd love to build our school with you!

Here are the details:

Job title: Kindergarten Teacher

Compensation: Depending upon experience

Hours: Approximately 30 hours per week

The school: The Woodland Park Cooperative is adding a kindergarten class to its current four-year preschool program beginning in the Fall of the 2015-16 school year. A thriving early childhood learning community since 1977, the school is currently housed in (although no affiliated with) the Fremont Baptist Church, a facility that is home to utilitarian indoor spaces and a state-of-the-art outdoor classroom in the heart of the funky, progressive Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. The preschool currently enrolls approximately 65 students, aged 2-5. The kindergarten is a result of a widespread parent desire for children to continue the sort of cooperative, play-based education for which Woodland Park has become known under its teacher Tom Hobson who has been with the school for the past 13 years. We are planning an enrollment of 15-18 students for this first year, and if all goes well hope to add a first grade class for the following year.

The job/The teacher: We are looking for an experienced teacher who either has a background in cooperative schools, progressive play-based education and/or who has worked in a more traditional setting and has come to recognize that there has to be a better way. We are a cooperative school, which means Woodland Park is owned and operated by the parents who enroll their children. Our kindergarten teacher will be working on a day-to-day basis with parents both inside and outside the classroom. We are looking for a self-starter, and by that we mean we will be counting on the person we hire to work with Teacher Tom and the parent community to develop and implement a play-based curriculum that fits her or his unique teaching style and our community's expectations. In addition to preparation and classroom time, the teacher will attend monthly parent and board meetings in the evenings.

If this sounds like you, or someone you know, we'd love to hear from you!

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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