Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Experiment Of Living

How could youth better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? ~Henry David Thoreau

I grew up during a time in which "good parenting" meant opening the front door, sending your child outdoors, even as young as 3 and 4, and not expecting to see him for hours at a time. I knew my address was 134 Wembley Street and that when mom rang her bell I was expected to come home.

We lived in a suburban neighborhood in Columbia, South Carolina, in a house on a cul-de-sac. The day we moved in, I was standing beside the driveway watching the burly men carry our family's belongings into our new home, when I noticed another boy who appeared to be about my age standing at the end of the driveway. After studying one another for awhile, I walked out to him and did something that I would find extraordinary if it happened at Woodland Park today or any other preschool I've ever encountered: I introduced myself.

"Hi, I'm Tom."

And he replied, "I'm John."

Of course, most four-year-olds today are fully capable of introducing themselves, they have the confidence and language skills, but they've not had the practice because they've not had the opportunities. Most of their social introductions occur through adults, via parents at arranged playdates and teachers in school. For children growing up in the 60's, however, playing unsupervised in yards, streets, and vacant lots, engaged in the experiment of living, we made our own introductions because that's what we were left to do.

As our school year starts, early years teachers will sing songs, make photo collages, and engineer all manner of other ways to help their children learn one another's names. Perhaps we would be better to leave them to their own devices, so that they can at once begin to try the experiment of living.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

A Pattern As Old As Human Beings

I don't spend a lot of time with babies these days other than when they are briefly in our classroom with their mothers as they drop their older siblings off at school.

Yesterday, as I waited for a flight at the Melbourne airport, a young mother traveling with an infant set up shop in a nearby collection of seats. She appeared to be otherwise traveling alone. The baby had pulled a striped sock off her foot and was sticking it in her toothless mouth, chomping down, then pulling it out repeatedly, a routine interrupted occasionally when her bare toes caught her attention. Her eyes followed the motion around her, sometimes seeming to focus on things nearby, then far away.

The mother was calm. Maybe she looked a bit tired, but not exhausted. If I had to characterize her demeanor I would say she appeared meditative, although, at the same time instinctively alert, her eyes checking on the baby in a pattern of once every 15 seconds or so between staring blankly into the distance. In this swirling place of actual jet-setters, the two of them occupied a serene bubble, one formed of the love and trust that characterizes this universal mother-child relationship.

After a time, the mother picked up her baby, unconcernedly leaving her bags behind. They returned with food for mom. As she slowly, peacefully ate, carefully chewing, she went back to the rhythm of before, sitting quietly with her baby, her eyes moving from her food to her baby in a pattern as old as human beings.

Later, I boarded my plane to find myself surrounded by babies traveling on their mother's laps: one across the aisle, one directly behind, and another a row back. They were all crying, two of them fiercely. The girl behind me kicked my seat in a fury. The girl across the aisle from me wanted to stand, not tethered to her mother's lap by the special infant seatbelt the airline had provided, shout-crying in bursts of rage. The boy an aisle back whined, apparently about something he could see out the window.

The middle-aged woman beside me traveling with her girlfriend grumbled to me, "This is going to be a long flight." I pretended that I thought she was addressing her friend, focusing pointedly at my crossword puzzle. She added, nudging me, "Crying babies."

I said, hoping to confuse her, "They are expressing my feelings by proxy." Whatever the case, she gave up on me and turned her attention back to her friend, but what I'd said was true. If there was any way to get away with it, I would have kicked the seat in front of me, stood up, and whined out the window: this is how modern air travel makes all people feel. The babies were just telling it like it is.

None of the parents of these babies made more than a token effort to quiet their children -- it was impossible anyway. Soon the engines were roaring, we were being pressed back into our seats, their little ears were feeling the effects of air pressure changes, and hell yes, they cried, all three of them, almost raging. I felt the fury of those little feet in my lower back.

As we reached our proverbial cruising altitude, they quieted, slipping into their mommy bubbles, nursing, studying the safety procedure cards, and tearing tissue into tiny bits then dropping them on the floor while their mothers sat meditatively, their eyes alternating between their babies and staring blankly into the seat backs in front of them.

There was more unified and unifying crying as we landed. When we stood to retrieve our carry on bags and wait to be released from the cruelty of this flying tin can, I made eye contact with the mother who sat behind me. I said, "Thank you for letting your baby express what I was feeling."

She laughed. She did not say "sorry." Then her little girl smiled at me before burying her face shyly in her mother's shoulder in a pattern as old as human beings.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Where Stories Come From

It seems like only yesterday that I awoke on a Thursday morning, then cycled into school where I taught the final session of our summer program. I went straight from there to the airport where I flew first to LA, then connected to Sydney, Australia. I was then driven to Newcastle, a 2-3 hour drive, where I changed my shirt, then continued 3 more hours north to the town of Kempsey where I delivered a full-day (6 hour) teacher training, before being driven back to Newcastle where I finally lay down to bed.

I've heard nothing but good things about the event in Kempsey, although I can't honestly say I remember much about the final couple hours. I know I maintained my feet and ended about a half hour early. I suspect I skipped a couple pages of my notes. It's not something I'll seek to do again, but the story has served as a kind of social currency these past four weeks as I've jetted, trained, and driven the continent.

I've collected other stories on this trip, including a stay in an old Fawlty Towers-esque hotel in which the door of my bedroom opened up into the busy restaurant, getting booted from a flight for no apparent reason, several exotic animal sightings, and making new friends. 

This is one of the reasons we travel, of course, to collect stories. In fact, as far as I can tell it's primary reason we're compelled to at least occasionally break-up the comfortable routine of our lives. Indeed I wonder sometimes if that's the reason we are here at all, not just to fart around, but to collect stories with which to regale our friends and families long into our declining years.

As I've lived them, these past 30 days have been exciting, wearying, edifying, and often stressful, full of people, events, travel, meals, and obstacles, time whizzing, each day ending with a thankful fall into whatever bed was made for me that night. Yet looking back from the perspective of this end, the days seem to have been impossibly long, rich and full. 

That's how time works, of course, for all of us: when we live days of action and variety, we experience them as short in the living, yet long in the memory, while our days of routine, peace, and familiarity may pass slowly, but appear in hindsight as having disappeared without a trace. The great German author Thomas Mann referred to this phenomenon as living life, by turns, vertically and horizontally, the goal, of course, being to find a balance.

Our stories only come from the times during which we've lived vertically, uprooting and challenging ourselves, doing things we've not only never done before, but that we may have doubted that we could even do. And when we've done them, we then tell them: tragedy or comedy or both, and it seems like only yesterday because it was.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014


He was having a prickly day. Things were not going his way. He'd been in tears or enraged several times already, the toys with which he wanted to play were already being used, the other kids weren't doing what he wanted them to do, and the adults were failing in their attempts to make it all better.

He sulked up to the swings where he could be alone, hanging limply in one of them, using his feet to get a little momentum going, but without vigor.

I'd made various forays in pursuit of bucking him up: a hand on his back; chit-chat about the makes and models of cars, his hobby; an inside joke. I'd managed to get him to smile a couple times, to lean into me, to take me up on my offers of friendship, but we already like each other so it might have just been out of politeness. Right now, as he swung, I was keeping my distance, watching him deal with his prickly day in his own way.

After a few minutes of just hanging there, he tossed back his head and without volume or urgency, to no one at all, called, "Help."

I didn't move, nor did anyone else, and he didn't look around for a response either, lolling his head back to look up into the trees, tugging a little with his arms as if trying to get the swing going like that. Then louder, "Help!"

Still, I was the only one who heard him. The other adults were busy in other parts of the outdoor classroom. His closest friends were engaged in canal building in the lower half of our sand pit, an activity that for them usually involves lots of shouting out to one another, which makes it hard to hear cries of help from all the way at the top of the hill.

"Help! Help! Help!"

As his cry became more insistent I moved closer. I said, "You're calling for help."

"I want someone to push me." He wasn't asking me to do it. All the kids know I don't push kids in swings.

I nodded, "Like those kids over there?"

Sourly, "I don't care. I just want someone to push." Then, "Help!"

"I think you'll have to be louder."


That's when someone other than me finally heard him. 

"Oh no, someone needs a rescue!"

"Who is it?"

"To the swings!"

Most of the kids dropped their shovels as they swarmed in pursuit of his cries, "Help!"

Once there, they didn't need to be told what he needed. They got to work, helpers in a crisis, pushing their classmate who was now grinning ear-to-ear, still saying "Help," but with a laugh, the first I'd heard from him all day.

After awhile of being twisted, turned, pushed and pulled, all of which delighted him, he said, "Okay, okay, that's enough." When the kids ran back to their canal digging project, he ran with them.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I Love Nature

I love nature, I do, although I usually just call it outdoors. 

I sometimes envy teachers who work in forest schools or those who teach in places adjacent to bush or farm land or even just large wooded parks. I'd enjoy spending my time with children in those places, splashing in streams, hanging from branches, and learning to avoid the poison ivy.

But I don't. When we walk outside our gates the "nature" we find is the city and I wouldn't have it any other way.

I don't know when I became a city boy, but I am, right through to the tips of my toes. 

The children I teach didn't chose, but their parents did, opting not for suburbia or a rural life, landing like I have in the concrete jungle, a natural habitat for humans, a place where we have come together, packing ourselves ever more tightly, side-by-side and one atop another, sharing, growing upward instead of outward in the environment-killing habit of the urban sprawl that rings us. 

For me, cities are about hope, about loving and trusting our fellow man, places of cooperation and agreements and engaging with our differences.

This is where we have chosen to raise our children. And it's from this environment, these uniquely human communities, that our curricula must arise. 

"Nature" for us is air perfumed with restaurant food and exhaust, a terrain of pavement, stairs and curbs, and an underbrush hiding bottle caps, broken glass, and cigarette butts. It's cars, trains, buses, trams, bikes, and the two shoes upon our feet.

Nature is squirrels, crows, and the occasional raccoon, along with the rats we rarely see, but know are there. Nature is hum and rush and honks and grit.

And there are people, lots of people; people of every size, shape, background and color, sometimes thronging, sometimes misbehaving, sometimes loving, but always agreeing to somehow live together, close together, which is the true beauty of our outdoors.

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Obedience Is Not The Goal

(Note: This is a re-post. I wrote it back in 2011. It's one of my favorite posts of all time.)

I've been thinking a lot lately about obedience, prompted by being reminded recently of the Daron Quinlan quote:

Disobedience is not an issue if obedience is not the goal. 

And it made me ask myself again: is there ever a time when obedience should be the goal? So knee-jerk is our concept of the obedient child, I think, that it's difficult to imagine that the answer is "never."

Is there ever a time in your life as an adult when you are obedient? What do you think of obedient adults? If you're like me, the answers are, no and not much. And I assume that most Americans would answer the same.

We might quibble over special circumstances (e.g., my wife suggested, "What if you're in a concentration camp and they'll kill your child if you don't obey?", although I might put that more in the category of being forced). And I will stipulate to the necessity for military obedience (but since we have an all-volunteer military, I might put that more in the category of an agreement). Yes, I will usually do what the police officer says, but it's not from obedience, but rather from the understanding that we've hired him to do the job of keeping us safe and I trust he is acting in that capacity, but I will not obey if what he is asking is illegal or immoral. And sure we follow our laws, the agreements we've made about how we ought to live together; that is until we come across one to which our conscience says, "I will not obey."

No, the option of disobedience, and choosing instead to take the consequences, is necessary if we are going to live up to the promise of self-governance, and I suspect that if any of us found ourselves in a circumstance in which we are simply expected to obey without question, we would (to use the medical term) freak out.

So if we don't want, or even expect, obedient adults, why do we go out of our way to teach our children obedience? I'm more interested in children behaving in certain ways because they understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. People with the capacity for blind obedience are both dangerous and in danger, easy victims for those who would manipulate them. I want my child to know that she always has a choice; that choice is the space that's there to contain her conscience. 

And yes, there are consequences, natural consequences, for every choice. I want her to understand those too.

But what about the child who is too young to understand? Certainly we should expect that child to obey. If the child is too young to understand, say, something as manifestly dangerous as running out into traffic, that child is also too young to be expected to consistently obey your commands which have no such obvious consequence attached to them, but rather the abstract idea of punishment, which they are also too young to understand. And by the time we've finally taught them to understand punishment, they've long ago already understood the danger of running into traffic. It is not our role to insist on their obedience, but rather to protect them until they are able to protect themselves. As their parents, as an adult responsible for a child, that is our job. If children are too young to not know about running into traffic, then it's our job to keep them back from busy streets. We say, "I can't let you do that," and then we follow that up by not letting them do it.

No, obedience is an idea for people who would have control over you because they know otherwise you will not do it. When people call for obedience it's because they know that they are demanding that someone act in a way contrary to their own best interest or against their own judgment. Obedience demands that you either doubt or ignore what you know is right, which is how atrocities both great and small occur.

I'm afraid for children who have been taught obedience because we know that things learned in childhood last a lifetime.

I do not want a child who obeys. I want a child who understands. And when she must, I want her to say, "I will not obey."

I Will Not Obey
By Utah Phillips

The new ruling party is holding the aces;
The rest of the cards are all missing faces.
I'm sorry, I can't know you today.
What can one say?
I will not obey.

Give us your sons and give us your daughters;
No one is safe or immune from the slaughter.
How indifference makes them rage.
What can one say?
I will not obey.

National Guard or freedom fighters,
All houses belong to cigarette lighters.
But who hides in the smoke?
What can one say?
I will not obey.

Better perhaps to perish outside
Of the bunkers where our generals hide.
I turn away and spit.
What can one say?
I will not obey.

Give us the minds of your children to learn
The substance of books we have not yet burned.
But can they read the sky for rain?
What can one say?
I will not obey.

Soon all tyrants will feel our impatience;
We choose to create our own combinations.
I was always willing to agree.
What can one say?
I will not obey.

The essence of contract is agreement,
Not coercion or obedience.
And agreement is sacred.
What can one say?
I will not obey.

There are so few wars of people's liberation,
for the people have so seldom risen,
Only the armed faction. Listen:
The armed faction lies.
They recreate the state through their action.
When the people rise
It is not they
But the state
Which dies.

I sing this song for the prisoners' release,
Most of all now for the new state police.
You see, the guns have changed hands, again.
What can one say?
I will not obey.

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Reason To Celebrate: Motivation To Work Harder

It's impossible not to be encouraged. In the shadow of polls showing that the Obama Administration is losing public support for his anti-child, corporate-style, drill-and-kill education policies, education secretary Arne Duncan has announced that states will be granted the option of a one-year delay in the use of students' standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, saying, "(T)esting issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room . . ."

This comes on the heels of calls by the Gates Foundation -- financial backers and lead authors of many of the administration's education "reforms" -- for a two year moratorium on using these tests to make high-stakes decisions about teachers or students.

Think about this: we the people are succeeding in pushing back against a largely unified federal government and a cabal of many of the wealthiest people on earth. There is no way that this isn't good news, although it can by no means be considered a "win," but rather an encouraging sign that teachers, parents, and students united can make a difference. I have no illusion that this move means they are actually listening to critics or that they are giving up. I'm quite confident that they hope this delay will act as a sort of pacifier to calm us down before they redouble their efforts: a strategic retreat if you will, but not a capitulation. Anthony Cody has done a masterful job of dissecting Duncan's announcement.

These are photos from our Seattle march on the Gates Foundation from earlier this summer.

In fact, despite Duncan's apparently anti-testing rhetoric, none of the administration's policies have changed and the introduction of the federal Common Core curriculum along with it's tests will continue apace, albeit with the "high stakes" aspect put on hold for a year. Still, it's encouraging if only because we've caused Goliath to reel a bit. 

Instead of relaxing, this signals a moment to redouble our own efforts. Now is the time to take the little ground they've ceded and start pushing for a second year, then a third. Congressional hearings into the anti-democratic development of Common Core still needs to happen and Arne Duncan must resign. If you were planning to opt your child out of these tests, continue to do so. If you were planning a walk-out on testing days, still do it. If you intended to testify before your school board or picket it or run for it, now's the best time.

Children are still going to be in tears due to the undue stress and developmentally inappropriate expectations. The joy will continue to be sucked out of learning. Parents will still be panicked that junior is "falling behind." Teachers will still be expected to set aside their professional knowledge and experience in favor of the cruel experiments being performed by mad-scientist dilettantes. Children will still be laboring in the "rigor" and "accountability" mines for the purpose of lining the pockets of for-profit "education" corporations.

Anthony Cody

Still, this is reason to celebrate. There remains a long road ahead of us, but this morning it appears a little less long and together we can get there.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

How To Play With Rain

Several weeks ago I introduced the world to our inventive new playhouse, following that up with a report on how the children began to make it their own. I've been traveling ever since, so I've not seen her for some time, but just before I winged away to the land Down Under, we had a terrific opportunity to put her through her paces when the heavens opened and we enjoyed the rainiest single July day on record, most of which fell during the time we played outdoors.

The new playhouse provided excellent refuge as you might expect, but, you know, staying dry is not serious business for Seattle children, so it wasn't long before they were back out under the sky ignoring the liquid sunshine dumping down upon them. 

It's a game, you see, this seeking of shelter, one that mimics the behavior of adults they see in the world, but without the urgency of protecting hair styles or suede.

Case in point, the game moved on from our spacious new shelter to the place where a pair of large wooden crates have come to call home. These are special crates, one was built to transport a sculpture by the late Alexander Calder, while the smaller one was created to move a bronze by the even later Edgar Degas. 

Now they are cubbies or tables or trains for the kids. Today, they served as much more cramped and inconvenient shelters from the storm.

As the grand new playhouse stood empty the children crammed themselves inside, feigning fear of the fat drops that fell from the sky as if the angels spat upon us, twisting and tangling their bodies together, mashing one more in, making room, accommodating, negotiating, and breathing their steamy breaths, mingling them together in a happy, germ-y sauna. This is how to play with rain.

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