Friday, October 31, 2014

A Tutorial On Conflict Resolution

I've written before about the planks that are among the loose parts in our outdoor space. Lately, we've added a couple of 10-foot long 2"X2" pieces of lumber that the kids have been shifting around, trying to figure out how they want to use them.

Last week Ce and Cl wrangled one of them over to the new playhouse. They schemed between themselves for some time before finally angling it into a precarious position with one end perched on the edge of the upper level of the playhouse and the other on the ground. I think the plan was to then try to climb up it into the playhouse.

Once in place, it was clearly not a good idea, not just from my perspective, but also from that of the girls, who stood, heads together, discussing their next move. As they consulted, F came upon their construction, surveyed it, then lifted the lower end and began attempting to push the whole thing up into the playhouse.

"Hey! We were using that!"

I'm pretty sure F heard them, but was too engaged in her effort to respond.

A little louder, "We were using that!"

This time F turned to the girls and said, smiling, attempting to diffuse their irritation, "I'm helping you."

The two girls have known one another a long time. They took a moment to look at each other as if for confirmation that they were still in agreement, then Cl said, "We want it on the ground."

F answered, her smile disappearing from her face as she began to gird herself for conflict, "But, I want to put it up there."

Cl was firm, lowering her eyebrows, making her face look angry even though I don't think she was really feeling it, "We want it on the ground. There is another one right over there that you can use." She pointed to the second 2"X2" on the ground some feet away.

F ignored her, still attempting to push the whole thing upstairs.

Cl and Ce stood watching F for a moment, before Ce went over to the second 2"X2", dragged it closer and said, "F, you can use this one."

This caused F to stop her efforts. She examined the wood with a skeptical frown, then said, defiantly, "I don't want that one, it's dirty," referring to a few wet leaves that were stuck to it.

Without a word, Ce picked up a broom and swept the leaves away.

Everyone stood in silence for a minute, deciding upon responses. Finally, F said, "Thank you!" And everyone went back to their projects.

This is how to solve problems.

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Ultimate Weakness Of Punishment

When our daughter Josephine was a young 3-year-old we purchased expensive front row seats to attend a classical music performance. It wasn't a special "family" performance, but she had become a fan of the late Vladimir Horowitz via video and this concert featured, not Horowitz of course, but an up-and-comer that many said had great potential. We were all excited for it, and in Josephine's case, probably too excited: she simply couldn't stop talking, even once the performance began.

When my whispered urges and cajoling didn't have the desired effect, my embarrassment mounting, I turned to threats: "If you don't stop talking, we'll have to leave." When that didn't work, I went the punitive route: "If you don't stop talking, we'll have to leave and you won't get to chew any gum for three days." She was very into chewing gum at the time.

As we eventually packed up and slinked out of the concert hall, I was fuming. In contrast, Josephine seemed, frankly, happy as a lark. I said, "We had to leave that expensive piano concert because you couldn't stop talking. It was ruining the show for everyone." I'd never resorted to punishment before, but in the moment, to this inexperienced and agitated parent, that seemed like the proper course. I wasn't even sure she knew what the word "punishment" meant. I said, "You are going to get a punishment. I told you if you kept talking you wouldn't get any gum for three days. We had to leave, so no gum for three days."

This got her attention, "Why?"

"Because you were talking in the concert."

"Three days is too long."

"I told you that if you didn't stop talking you would get a punishment of no gum for three days."


"Because you were ruining the concert for the other people."

"But I like chewing gum."

The conversation went on like this all the way home. Me trying to draw the connection between no gum and talking in the concert, while she just wanted to talk about no gum, completely unable, it seemed, to comprehend what one had to do with the other. Yes, she understood that you can't talk in a show and understood why we had left. That's what I wanted our conversation to be about. She, however, was only interested in talking about gum, why it had to be three days, and why her dad was taking it away, apparently completely baffled by this entirely unnatural consequence.

That was our family's first and last foray into the world of punishment. I think we got lucky. The lesson I learned was to not buy expensive concert tickets for a young 3-year-old: being able to sit quietly in the front row isn't necessarily in the skill set of young children.

We stuck with the three day gum punishment because we didn't know what else to do. Every conversation we had during that enforced hiatus would turn to the subject of gum. Not long ago, I reminded my now 17-year-old of this episode. She remembered the punishment, but nothing else, which didn't surprise me at all.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why I'm Voting "No" On Seattle Proposition 1B

This one is for my Seattle readers. If you don't vote in Seattle, you can still help by passing this along to anyone you know who does.

Everyone wants high-quality preschool for all, but the preschools envisioned by Seattle Proposition 1B are emphatically not “high-quality,” at least not if judged by what professional early childhood educators know about what young children need and how they learn.

As a preschool teacher, I can tell you that a high-quality preschool gives children the opportunity to learn in the way humans have evolved to learn: through inquiry, experimentation, and to generally investigate the world through free play in a safe, loving environment. The opportunity to explore our world and the people we find there lays the groundwork for the development of vital academic and social skills. This is what all of the research tells us about how young children learn.

In the fashion of a dilettante, however, City Councilman Tim Burgess, a man with no experience in early childhood education, has teamed up with the cast of characters that brought our public schools misguided corporate-style education “reform” initiatives like No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and their attendant regime of high-stakes standardized testing. If it passes, Proposition 1B will be a serving of Dickensian swill for our city’s four-year-olds. This is a scripted, drill-and-kill factory model of early childhood education of the sort that has been widely maligned by teachers and early childhood experts: not only is it developmentally inappropriate, but it causes young children to hate school at an age when most can’t wait to get into the classroom.

In fact, Proposition 1B pointedly excludes education professionals. Seattle Public Schools have not been consulted and the input of preschool teachers has been ignored (with the exception of the anti-union group Teachers United). The measure will create a new preschool education bureaucracy to be supervised by city hall staffers and run, apparently, by for-profit corporations according to the dictates of billionaires like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and others who are committed to the wholesale privatization of public schools, removing them from democratic control and turning them into supply side vocational training centers paid for by taxpayers.

Perhaps the sickest part of Proposition 1B is that four-year-olds in this corporatized program will be subjected to high stakes standardized tests of the kind that have been widely discredited, especially when used to evaluate our youngest citizens. Time and again, researchers have demonstrated that these tests fail to gauge anything meaningful about what children have learned, while subjecting them to brain-damaging stress. In my years of teaching, I’ve never met a teacher who supports the sort of scripted rote-memorization methods and testing envisioned by 1B. Its supporters are largely education dilettantes and, of course, private for-profit corporations such as Acelero, the KIPP charter school chain, Pearson Education and others that stand to reap millions off the bent backs of preschoolers as they labor in their test score mines.

Proposition 1B is a cruel experiment (and it is purely an experiment since there is no data to support it), the kind that middle class people have too often been eager to foist upon the poor “for their own good.”

Childhood should be a time of play and exploration, which is exactly what the brains of young children are designed for. Childhood should be a time of discovery, a time to embrace the joy of learning in our own way and at our own pace. This is what all the great early childhood pioneers like John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Jean Piget, and Lev Vygotsky knew about “high quality” early childhood education. This is what all the current researchers continue to confirm today. And this is what those of us who teacher preschoolers see every day. Yet Proposition 1B specifically excludes the programs like Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia that are based upon this knowledge.

All children deserve high quality preschool education, but Proposition 1B will deliver nothing like “high quality” because it is not about children, it is about profiting off the sweat of our youngest citizens. Please vote No.

If you would like to read more, the Seattle Education blog has been doing some outstanding reporting on Proposition 1B, here and here.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Engineering And The Quest To Control Nature

I'm certain I can't do this justice, but I have to try.

One of the key attractions of our playground is our cast iron water pump located at the top of our two-level sandpit. The upper level is all about the pump and its attendant gutters, pipes, buckets, and shovels. The mantra for this place is quite simply, "If you play with water you'll probably get wet." We usually say it when someone gets wet. It's part of the natural consequences of even just hanging out in this area.

Between this level and the larger, usually dryer, lower level is a row of cedars lining the top of a short, sloped, concrete drop of about 2-feet, which is usually covered in sand. This lower level is where we keep both of our boats: the new one that Cecelia's grandparents gave us and the old, sinking one. Every year the lower level nurses dozens of "rivers," sourced from the upper level, most of which are created by either a driven solitary pumper or a well-coordinated team effort (and, admittedly, sometimes a dutiful adult). The pump can only generate a certain volume of water and it takes quite a bit of steady work over a long period of time to create a satisfying river, one that gives everyone a chance to actually explore it.

All hands on deck "conferences" are a regular feature of these projects.

This group of four and five year olds, have been experimenting with this process for the better part of the first two months of school, not all of them every day, but most of them at one time or another. At some point they started monkeying around with the large muck bucket that we used to use to store shovels and pails before the advent of our new storage chest. 

Planks are regularly used as bridges, not to keep our feet dry, because most of us are wearing boots, but to protect our channels, dams, and levies from being damaged in by an incautious step.

They figured out that if they filled the bucket to the top with water, essentially emptying our entire cistern, then all worked together to dump the bucket, they could temporarily flood the lower level. It was happening two or three times a week, always to much excitement.

They then took it up a notch. There was still a group in the upper level, filling the muck bucket, but now there was a team in the lower level, digging channels in anticipation of the flood. 

This is the muck bucket the kids have been using to create sufficient and sudden water volume for their engineering experiments.

This has lead to amazing conversation among the children and adults, speculating about where the water was going to go, whether our dams and levies were strong enough, and how we are going to make sure the water doesn't get into the garden.

You see, this is one of the key features of Woodland Park river play. Up until this year, our raised garden beds were not raised high enough and it was possible, indeed likely given the shape of our landscape, that our floods would wash out our plantings. Someone would shout, "It's headed for the garden!" and we had an engineering emergency mission. This summer, our gardening team rebuilt the raised beds, making them higher, removing this possibility, but the cry continues. "It's headed for the garden!" and we all work feverishly, often not to great effect, to prevent sand from getting on our lettuce. This is often the raison d'ĂȘtre of our engineering experiments.

One day a couple weeks ago, I was in a circle of these canal builders who were explaining where they thought the water was going to go. They had dug a deep hole at the end of a channel, all the while discussing whether or not it was better to dig their channels and holes while water was flowing or, like now, when there was no actively flowing water.

"When its flowing it's easier to know where it's going so you know where to dig."

"When it's dry you can get it just the way you want it, then see if it works."

These are four and five year olds having thoughtful discussions about engineering.

This is the pit they've now created to better contain and control the water.

Suddenly there was a whoop from above, following by a manic rush of water that quickly overwhelmed the upper level's ability to hold it, providing a maximum test of our best laid plans. Dams were decimated, others held, the water both followed and overwhelmed our channels, our holes were filled, and the water ran beyond our planning, but in this instance, none went into the garden, a source of pride. Meanwhile the kids were running around in it all, shouting about what they were witnessing, wielding shovels in the attempt to bail or steer or somehow otherwise influence the tsunami we had been anticipating.

This has happened dozens of times now, the kids coming up with new devices, some of which work as anticipated, most do not. But last week, a few of the kids, lead by Henry, came up with the idea of digging a huge hole right where the water tends to cascade from the upper to the lower level, effectively capturing the entire flood. In fact, this reservoir as now constructed can hold at least two muck buckets full.

The water breached the reservoir, sending a torrent of water toward the garden.

It left behind a tongue of sand reaching quite a way into our floodplain.

Henry, as the primary driver of this project has taken to standing in water that must regularly top his boots, continually maintaining the hole, digging, patting, shaping, supported by a rotating group of friends. Then, when the time is right, they decide what they're going to do with the water, knocking down a part of the hole, releasing the water with a plan in mind, even if it's just to get the water to flow into a second hole farther down the hill.

The kids make their collective plans as the water collects in the it, then, when the time is right, they release the water so that it flows in their chosen direction. In this case, the plan was to get the water to flow under the boat.

It took a couple tries, but they finally got it to emerge from beneath the stern.

We once had the idea to get so much water under the boat that it would float. We didn't manage that, but it was no small achievement when we got it to flow under the boat at the bow and emerge from the stern.

We also once had a catastrophic failure that resulted in a flood that battered the walls of the raised garden beds, leaving behind a tongue of sand like one might find in any floodplain. 

The attempt to control nature has historically lead to mankind's highest achievements and greatest follies. It's through these processes that we learn about about abilities and limitations, both as individuals and while working together. Most fascinating is watching how each experiment, each attempt, is built upon discussions about both the successes and failures of the past, with those failures usually inspiring the most creative innovations.

When people doubt the educational power of play, I wish they could see what I see day after day, week after week, projects that build upon themselves. It's so much better than what I've presented here. I didn't do it justice, but I had to try.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Narration and Metaphor

I've been enjoying the meteorological metaphor "atmospheric river" lately, which is being used to describe the flow of moisture that began somewhere around Hawaii and passed over the Pacific Northwest last week, dousing us. It's a weather phenomenon that usually accounts for our heaviest precipitation during the rainy season and is more commonly and colorfully called The Pineapple Express. And while the term atmospheric river may not evoke the romance of the tropics, it does conjure the idea of adventure, which is useful when playing outdoors in a deluge.

"There's a river passing over Seattle right now," I told the kids during the three days that the stuff came down in buckets. "We're right in the middle of a river that's flowing through the sky." There were some blank stares, but others seemed to get it, pretending to row our sandpit boat or swim. 

When the sun finally broke through on the other side, temporarily, of course, a group of three-year-olds were exploring the places that water had collected, finding that our wagons were brimming over. I began to narrate what I was seeing:

"A is trying to pull the wagon, but it's too heavy."

A couple of kids responded by taking holds of the sides of the wagon and pushing. "K and B are helping A move the heavy wagon." 

A couple more children now joined them. "Everyone is pushing and pulling the wagon full of rain up the hill."

I was corrected, "It's river water."

"Everyone is pushing and pulling the wagon full of river water up the hill."

This is the way narration, or what Magda Gerber called "sportscasting," works. When adults simply make statements of fact about what they see without giving into the temptation to prod or "teach" or command, we create space in which children do their own thinking, and more often than not, they chose to help their friends. I didn't know who would start helping to move the wagon, but I was confident that when I chose to narrate this project, shedding light on it, someone would decide to become the first followers, the most essential aspect of any successful project.

By the time they got to the top of the hill with their wagon full of river water, there was a half dozen children engaged in the project. I was no longer near enough to sportscast, opting to simply watch from afar. As they passed the swings A gave up the game, taking advantage of an empty swing. K, however, took up her role as puller and the team moved on, around the swings, then parallel to the row of cedar stumps that define the upper level of our sandpit. 

Now they were heading back downhill and the work was easier. They navigated the sudden drop into the lower level of the sandpit, only spilling a little river water, taking advantage of the floodplain of sand that has recently developed out of a multi-day project of the older kids (more on that later this week), to ease their way up into the sandpit itself.

As they made their way along the top of the stumps, one of the rear wheels slid off, tipping the wagon's bed, resulting in a cascade of river water. By now I'd moved closer to the project again. I'd anticipated that they might find themselves stuck in this area and wanted to be there to make more statements of fact. Most of the children laughed as the water poured out, but K, who had taken a leader's ownership of the project, looked upset.

I said, "It's a waterfall!"

K's face briefly showed something like sadness or anger or frustration, but then joined the others, smiling and saying, "A waterfall!" She had decided to embrace the metaphor.

A couple of the kids wrestled for a moment with the wagon, attempting to get it back up into the sandpit, but it was stuck and besides much of the impetus behind the project had drained away with the river water.

B remained behind, not ready to give it up. He strained to get the wagon back on its wheels. I said, "You're trying to move the wagon by yourself."

"It's empty."

"And it's stuck."

"Yeah." He didn't shrug, but he might as well have.

I said, "Maybe we'll have to wait for more river water."

He looked at me blankly, then went about his business, the metaphor flowing in a river right over his head, but I know it will come our way again and perhaps next time he'll be ready for it.

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Friday, October 24, 2014

"That's What's Cool, Teacher Tom"

The social event of our preschool season is our annual all-school Halloween party, a typically raucous affair attended by most of our 65 or so students, their parents, siblings, and often grandparents. All three classes have been "practicing" our Halloween songs at circle time, which are mostly variations on songs we've been singing together for as long as I've been at Woodland Park.

Easily the most popular, for all ages, are a pair of ditties that involve holding up jack-o-lantern faces to our own, then removing them as a surprise ending.

The first I sell as a song for the "babies," one we sing gently and sweetly while thinking of the "little kids" who will laugh and laugh when we sing it for them:

Someone is hiding, hiding, hiding
Someone is hiding
Who could it be?
Peek-a-boo, I see you!

The second, however, is for the grown-ups and "big kids" who we intend to scare:

Halloween is coming
And this is what I'll do
I'll hide behind this pumpkin face
And then I'll say, "Boo!"

We practice this over and over in all the classes, getting louder and louder (which we all equate with scarier and scarier) with each successive iteration, until we're frightening the aliens in outer space.

I have a small set of 25 practice pumpkin faces that were created years ago, but for the big event, what with all the siblings, we're going to need at least 125, which requires a manufacturing process. We use paper plates for our pumpkin faces, with eyes, noses and mouths precut, and each class takes a turn cranking out as many as they can.

Teachers often complain about the challenge of getting older boys to the "art table." Well let me tell you, I've found that manufacturing processes are a great lure, especially if they involve glue guns, although in this case we were just using tempera paint in the colors we all agreed were "Halloween colors": orange, black and yellow. I've found that one of the key parts of making an art project into a manufacturing project is to say, "We won't have time to put your name on any of them. You're making them for everyone."

As a swarm of boys descended on the table yesterday, I had to wait awhile for a chair to open up for me. When I finally took a seat, the first thing I commented upon were the stenciled pumpkin faces the kids were leaving behind on the table top.

"Hey, there are pumpkin faces on the table."

Wyatt said, "Yeah, you make them like this, Teacher Tom," and he showed me by quickly painting a plate solid black, then lifting it up for the big reveal.

"Thanks for showing me," I said, then got to work painting orange outlines around some triangle eyes.

"No, Teacher Tom," said Yuri, "You have to paint right across the eyes . . . Like this," and he showed me on his own pumpkin face.

I said, "But I just want paint around the eyes."

"That's what's cool, Teacher Tom . . . Look." He picked up his plate and held it into my face, "The paint that's in the eyes stays on the table. Only the paint that's around the eyes stays on the plate."

I thanked the boys for their help, then got to work manufacturing my pumpkin face, employing the scientific magic of the simple stencil, chatting with the guys about making babies laugh and grown-ups quiver.

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