Friday, November 28, 2014

And So Are We

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.   ~The Bible (King James version), Matthew 25:40

I have more things for which to be thankful than can be innumerated, not the least of which being our school community, the children, their families, and their extended families; our incredibly supportive "landlords," the Fremont Baptist Church, and especially Pastor Gay; our dedicated partners at North Seattle College, and our parent educators in particular; and the Fremont neighborhood, the center of the universe, an inspiring, artful place into which we've fit like a hand in a glove. 

On this day after Thanksgiving, however, I want to write about a part of our community that I've not written about too often, but for which I'm likewise thankful.

We're an urban school, serving a population of families who have chosen to raise their children in the city, and part of that choice is living among people who have fallen through the cracks. They're everywhere, of course, those for whom modern society, for whatever reason, is too many and too much, but in the city they are more visible, forming a shadow society of street people. Whether it's a cause or effect of their situation, many are clearly mentally ill. Many are addicts. Most of the ones we see around Fremont are men.

Pastor Gay calls them "my men." Our outdoor classroom is on a slope and there is a raised walkway that passes overhead, accessing the church offices. On a typical day a half dozen of these guys pass that way as they seek the pastor: to ask her for money, to ask her for work, to ask her for help, to ask her for prayers. As they pass that way, some of them stop to watch us play, leaning over the railing, usually smiling. In the summer, when we have circle time outdoors, some of them sing along. I can't tell you how many times, after the children have left, that one of Pastor Gay's men has approached me as I'm tidying up to pat me on the shoulder and say something like, "You're doing good work." It's a complement that means more to me than most. It touches me so deeply that these men, who have a right to anger and despair, take the time to express gratitude for the work I do.

When we first moved into this place, it made some parents nervous, these new members of our community, so much more prominent than they had been in the past, less in the shadows. We had issues with street people up on Phinney Ridge as well, but they didn't tend to be around during the day when we were there, so mainly we just dealt with their refuse, but here they exist as fully formed humans with names, faces, personalities and histories.

I come across them in the morning sometimes, occasionally having to serve as an alarm for someone who has taken shelter there for the night. I try to be kind, but firm, upon advice from the pastor, telling them, speaking informatively as I would to a child, "You can't sleep here," then asking them to take their garbage with them, pointing out that there is a dumpster in the parking lot. Usually, they aren't there the next day and they always take their garbage. I discovered a guy one morning dozing amidst malt liquor cans and cigarette butts. I said, "I don't want to clean up your garbage." Not only did he take care of his mess, but he also hauled away garbage the kids had left behind from the day before. In fact, for a week or so thereafter, I could find no evidence of anyone having slept there, but definite signs that someone had been there after hours to tidy up, caring for our place.

Others have come indoors, to take part in the early morning AA group that meets in the church before school starts. Some of them actually sit in the meeting and share, but most are there for the coffee and the restrooms. We nod at one another when we meet in the hallways. Some of them have learned my name and I've learn some of theirs. Other than their scruffy attire, it reminds me of my early mornings as an office worker, groggily greeting the other early risers.

Willie, a man who, among other challenges, appears to be on the extreme end of the autism spectrum, comes around sometimes, always muttering to himself, seeming preoccupied. The last time we spoke, he was obsessed with his watch and what time it was. He kept tapping the face of his watch, repeating, "It's time for the meeting. It's time for the meeting." I said, "Willie, it's daylight savings time. You need to re-set your watch." We repeated the dialog several times before he finally held his watch in my face, stating firmly, "It's time for the meeting! You have to keep the doors unlocked. It's the fire code!"

I said, "The meeting's over, Willie." He let me reset his watch for him, then he repeated, "You have to keep the doors unlocked. It's the fire code." I thanked him for thinking of my safety and he said, "You're welcome," while studying the face of his watch. Pastor Gay recently informed me that Willie is related to the new Pope . . . according to Willie.

Recently, the public elementary school just up the hill went into a brief lock-down for fear of a "homeless looking man" hanging around the campus. From the description, I'm pretty sure it was Willie. Poor guy, he was probably just there to remind them about the fire code.

In most cases, people, even wicked people, are far more naive and simple-hearted than one generally assumes. And so are we.  ~Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I reckon some of you reading this are thinking something along the lines of, "But how can you let these people near the kids? Aren't they dangerous?" After all, among them are scofflaws and thieves, addicts and desperadoes. And it's true, there is always an element of danger in living among other people: even clean-cut middle class people. It's also true that Pastor Gay's men steer a wide birth around the children themselves, rarely seeking to interact with them. Indeed, most avoid eye contact with any of us, hanging their heads, shuffling past, hoping, or perhaps expecting, to be invisible. But the greatest truth is that we simply cannot avoid them: we've chosen to live here in the city. They are members of our community whether we like it or not. Learning to live together is not optional; living in fear is not a life-affirming choice.

We're cautious, of course, but by now most of us know which of these guys "belong" to us and which are strangers who need to be watched, to be engaged, to be understood, to be treated with kind firmness. What I am discovering by embracing these men as members of my community is that they are as sweet and worthy as anyone. And perhaps a few of them pose a danger, just as some of those men in pressed shirts and ties are dangerous: indeed, I assert, the "bad guys" live among us in equal measure, whatever our station.

I'm thankful for these people, Pastor Gay's men, our men. Their presence is a blessing even if their lives seem to us to be cursed. I worry sometimes about what we teach our children when we bow are heads and hurry past the panhandlers, when we call the cops because someone is mumbling to themselves too close to a school, when we look the other way when we see feet protruding from under a cardboard blanket. I'm not sure that making donations to our churches or food banks or other charities, while useful in the big picture, do much to counter the lessons we teach when we ignore these members of our community.

The families of Woodland Park, whether we want to or not, are having regular discussions with their children about our men: about both caution and compassion. A couple of our families keep care packages of food and toiletries in their cars to give to our men. Others try to always giving something, even if it's only a few pennies, when our panhandlers ask. And most make a point of at least nodding in greeting, making eye contact, acknowledging their belonging in our family of man.

I'm thankful for what we learn from every member of our community: and this morning I'm particularly thankful for Pastor Gay's men.

There but for the grace of God, go I.  ~John Bradford

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Thursday, November 27, 2014


The boys were playing together as they often do, running, debating, forming and re-forming "teams," which is the trend of the moment. Being the day before Thanksgiving, about half the kids were not at school, off on their travels or entertaining out of town guests. It was nearing the end of the day and the adults were mostly chatting among themselves, already shifting into long weekend mode, a great time to be a kid.

I watched one of the guys scoop up water in the blade of his shovel, then toss it toward a friend. I say toward rather than at because although it may have looked as if he was attempting to douse his buddy, I could tell that he short-armed the effort, causing the spray of water to land on the ground near the feet of his ostensible target, who replied with a good natured, "Hey!"

Periodically, what looked like sword fighting erupted, everyone swinging their shovels and stick ponies and broom handles at one another in ways that typically cause adults to step in with cautions, if not outright commands to "stop!" Sure, it would have hurt had someone been hit, but the reality was that those sticks were rarely coming within a foot of making actual contact with a person, and if you really studied what the kids were doing, you would find that they, again, were short-arming their efforts, not swinging full force, targeting one another's sticks, rather than their bodies. Accidents could happen, of course, but they were all striving to make sure they didn't, in what was a complex ballet of battle.

Occasionally, the girls would get involved with the game, seeming to enjoy themselves until someone took it one step too far and "captured" them, which meant wrapping them up in a bear hug. Then they would yell, "Stop!" and "I don't like that!" The boys rarely released them on the first voiced objection, usually not responding until the third "Stop!" or "I don't like that!" The rule of thumb for adults is that one needs to wait a minimum of 12 to 15 seconds for young children to respond to a question: I reckon the same goes for commands. And, indeed, although it may have seemed at first glance that the boys were refusing to acknowledge the girls right away, as I counted I found they all released their hold in under 6 seconds. This tells me they were so finely tuned into their playmates' feelings that they were able to cut their typical response time in half. Again, a sort of short-arming.

That's what this sort of play is all about. It's why it's best when adults don't jump in so often and so promptly, at least when we're talking about four and five year olds. When children are younger, say two, they aren't ready yet, from a developmental and experiential perspective, to short-arm, which is why they sometimes wail on their classmates, physically and emotionally, often without any apparent provocation. They aren't trying to hurt their friends, but rather are experimenting with the limitations of friendship itself, figuring out how far one can go: only then can they begin to calculate how to short-arm themselves. This is when adults most effectively intervene, protecting children, while offering informative statements like, "When you hit people it hurts them," and "When I knock over someone's building, I help them build it again." We say these things not because we necessarily expect these very young children to spontaneously apologize (although they often do, in their own way) or to drop to their knees and help re-create whatever tower has been demolished (although they often do, in their own way), but rather to plant seeds that will, if consistently and lovingly tended, result in the kind of self-control that leads to short-arming.

At one point, a boy, with a smile on his face, shoved his friend to the ground. It was a hard shove, too hard, not at all short-armed, and it happened right in front of a group of chatting, Thanksgiving-ready adults. Had this happened when I was the only adult present, I'd have likely stood back for a moment to see how things played out, but in this case I knew that if I didn't make an effort to respond, someone else would, so I stepped toward the boys. As I did, I could see a face of anguish, we all could. Before I could take two steps, the boy who had done the pushing, dropped to his knees beside his friend saying, "Are you okay?"

Through his tears, "No."

"I'm sorry." When he received no response other than more tears, he again said, "I'm sorry." When he still received no response he asked, "What can I do to make it better?" These were not my words coming out of him, but I've heard his mother suggest them many times.

This time he received a response, "I want you to apologize."

Without hesitation, he said, "I'm sorry . . . I've said it three times!"

The boys lay there together on the ground for a couple minutes, then the drive to play again took the upper hand. Learning to play with the other people is the work of a lifetime. Next time, or the time after that, or the time after that, he'll short-arm that shove and a good natured, "Hey!" will be all that remains of the tears.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Within Limitations

It can be very frightening for a child not to have limits. Not only can the world outside be frightening, but the world inside, the world of feelings, can also be scary when you're not sure you can manage those feelings by yourself. ~Mister Rogers 

Some time ago, I wrote a post about a boy who regularly peeks at a collection of cars that we keep on a shelf behind a piece of fabric. Each time he did so, I reminded him, "That's closed," before gently leading him away. He's not the first two-year-old to peek longingly behind the curtains and want to learn about what he sees there.

That particular post was about the challenge he faced, and how we dealt with it, when the cars were finally "open." A few commenters chided me for not just letting the boy play with those cars when he first showed an interest, one writing, "You stood in the way of his curiosity."

Like most preschool classrooms, much of our storage is inside the classroom, and we have a lot of stuff crammed onto those shelves: for better or worse, this is a reality of our environment. I've been doing this for a long time. I know, from experience, what happens when everything is "open." I'll never forget finding a neophyte parent-teacher who I'd apparently not properly briefed on the concept of "open" and "closed," sitting on the floor surrounded by a dozen board game boxes, puzzle boxes, and other storage containers, the contents of which were strewn about her. Two-year-olds were struggling to walk, stumbling, kicking, and breaking things underfoot; a couple kids were crying, while others were manically pulling more things off the "closed" shelves.

The parent was aware that something had gone wrong. "I thought I was just letting them play the way you always talk about," she said to me as we stayed together after class to tackle the gargantuan sorting process. And it's true, I do talk an awful lot about the importance of children playing freely.

Not long ago, I wrote another post about how I planned an art project by, essentially, choosing what things to which the children would have access and pre-programming others in the hopes that it would lead to the children discovering a new way to use common materials. I don't always think through projects in such detail like this, which is why I wrote about this one, although I usually have at least some idea about how I expect the children will engage with the materials I've provided. In this case, amazingly, it worked the way I'd envisioned. A reader detected hypocrisy (my word, not his) in the juxtaposition of this kind of environmental management on the teacher's part and my bedrock assertion that children learn best when they play freely.

Underpinning both of those posts, and in fact just about every post I write here, is the idea of "environmental management," which is, after all, one of the primary roles of a teacher in a play-based curriculum. In fact, I often say that my main responsibility is to set things up; to prepare the space. Once the kids arrive, the work of learning is up to them. My job, in other words, is to set the limits within which the children, for that day at least, will play freely: to coordinate with what the Reggio Emilia educational approach refers to as "the third teacher." This is true for everything we do at Woodland Park. We, in effect, "open" some materials/spaces and "close" others. Sometimes we have ideas about where our set up might guide the children, although truthfully, more often than not it doesn't go the way we expect, as the children, within the additional limits of the rules we have democratically established together, experiment with the materials/spaces as best serves their individual and collective curiosities. And this is as it should be. The goal is not to satisfy the teacher's expectations (although it's pretty cool when that happens), but rather their own curiosity.

It is within these environmental and social limits that free play happens. It is within these limits that we strive to avoid the "language of command," which means that there is no one there telling kids things like, "Do it like this," or "Today we're making flowers." Instead, we we make informative statements like, "We have scissors, tape, construction paper . . ." or "This is what Suzy made," then leave them to do their own thinking. This is what I mean when I talk about playing freely.

In working with our "third teacher" (the first and second being parents and classroom teachers) I am not working all on my own even if I am the one responsible for setting things up. Every classroom set up is, in reality a collaboration between me, both the changeable and fixed aspects of our environment, parents, and, the children themselves. It is my job to interpret the feedback I receive on a daily basis from my educational partners then to manage the environment in such a way that we are, together, pursuing our collective and individual interests, questions, and passions.

That is largely what I'm doing as the children play-learn: collecting this feedback by listening and observing, then responding to it. When it seems that the children are "bouncing off the walls," for instance, it often means I've set the limits too narrowly for this particular group of kids on this particular day. When the children seem aimless, stumbling, kicking things, breaking things, and crying, it tells me that I may have set the limits too broadly for this particular group of kids on this particular day. When children completely ignore one of our classroom invitations, it's a sign I need to rethink the materials/space because it clearly is not serving their pursuit of knowledge. When children fall on something en masse it tells me that I should consider finding ways to expand the limits.

In a broader sense, we know that limits are vital to young children. As Dr. Laura Markham writes in her new book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids:

. . . kids who never need to "manage" themselves to accommodate limits and rise to expectations have a harder time developing self-discipline . . . Limits keep our children safe and healthy and support them in learning social norms so that they can function happily in society. And if we set limits empathically, kids are more likely to internalize the ability to set limits for themselves, which is otherwise known as self-discipline.

Dr. Markham is talking about parenting and behavior here, but the principle of limits is also, obviously, applicable to all teaching and learning.

When I've listened and observed well, our environment fully engages most of the kids, inviting them to play freely, but there are always a few who peek behind the curtains, children curious about the limits we've set for them, and what lies just beyond. That too is as it should be.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Cheering Together

A few days ago, I was over in our block area, goofing around with some kids, when a cheer went up from across the room. Cheers are often going up around our place. Our "engineering team" tends to send up regular collective shouts when they've achieved one of their goals, like getting the water to flood the playhouse, and we hear them upon the completion of a large floor puzzle, which we almost always assemble in groups. In this case, the kids were cheering about a board game.

I don't often connect these sort of team cheers to board games. More often it's about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, with one child emerging the winner while the others are cajoled with bromides like "It's just a game" and "Better luck next time." We play all sorts of board games, including classics like Candyland, Hi-Ho Cherrio, and Chutes & Ladders, but easily the most popular board games at Woodland Park are a pair of games by a Canadian company, Family Pastimes, called Max and Round-Up. 

Upon opening the boxes, they're both unimpressive: a small board game, a few cardboard pieces. I think one of them may have a die, but the game play is outstanding. Of course, I've never played the games myself. I purchased Round-Up as a new teacher upon the recommendation of a parent whose daughter brought hers to school, engaging a large group of kids, without tears, for over an hour. I was skeptical at first, largely because these games promote themselves as "cooperative" games, which, as a man who is an avid board game player, I suspected was merely a gimmick to move merchandise to "losers." I fully anticipated that once in the classroom mix, the traditionally competitive games would win out against these "feel good" games.

I was wrong. The reason I've never learned to play the games is that there is usually such a crush of kids around the game table that there isn't room for me. These are games designed around children working together to accomplish common goals, which is why they cheer together at the end of the game. And after cheering, someone always says, "Let's play again!" In the case of Max, they are working together to help "little creatures," like birds and mice, make their way home before they are eaten by the cat. In Round-Up, they are working together to round up the horses running wild on the range, not competing, but cooperating.

Included in our version of Max, along with the instructions, is this:

In case you can't read it:


Alfie Kohn, NO CONTEST:
The Case Against Competition

MYTH 1: Competition is Inevitable
Competition is more a matter of social training and culture and not "human nature."

MYTH 2: Competition Keeps Productivity High & is Necessary for Excellence
Trying to do well and trying to beat others are two different things. Success is being confused with competition.

MYTH 3: Recreation Requires Competition
All games require overcoming some obstacle, but nowhere is it written that the obstacle must be other people.

MYTH 4: Competition Builds Character
Studies of 15,000 athletes found no support for the belief that sport builds character, but instead that cooperativeness is linked to emotional maturity and strong personal identity.

J. Krishnamarti, Think on These Things
What matters is to awaken in ourselves this spirit of co-operation, this feeling of joy in being and doing together, without any thought of reward or punishment. Most young people have it spontaneously, freely, if it is not corrupted by their elders

I grew up believing these myths of competition, carrying them well into my adulthood, but my years working with young children has lead me to see that what biologists are increasingly coming to understand about the nature human beings: it is not about "survival of the fittest," but rather "survival of the most cooperative." 

When we compete, we cheer alone: when we cooperate we cheer together.

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Monday, November 24, 2014

A Community Project

Thirteen years ago, a class of four and five year old decided we needed a birthday throne. We used a small chair and built a frame of wood, wire mesh and duct tape, then we spent a couple weeks adding layer after layer of paper mache. We agreed to paint it yellow, then agreed to add glitter, then agreed that Teacher Tom would take it outside apply a couple coats of polyurethane. For the next decade, every child who came through our doors took a turn sitting in it while we celebrated their "special day."

A couple ago, we noticed the throne was starting to deteriorate. Each time I set it on our checker board rug, it would leave behind a little pile of white dust. The edges were starting to fray. Cracks were appearing in the seat. It's what eventually happens to paper mache items, at least those made from an uncooked paste of white flour and water. We decided to try to save the throne by adding a couple of new layers over the top of what was left. This time we agreed to paint it with vertical rainbow stripes, with side-by-side gold and silver stripes running up the center.

It looked good, but did nothing to stop the slow deterioration from the inside, and so, after doing service at a few birthday celebrations to start the year, this year's group of four and five year olds decided to not just repair the old throne, but to build a whole new one. So last week we removed the old skin, taking it right down to the original frame and began the process of adding layer after layer of paper mache. It was hard not feeling like it was the end of an era at Woodland Park, but the kids who made it are high schoolers now: it's time for change.

We typically do at least one major paper mache project each year and while they are child-initiated projects, they would most often never get finished without adult participation, so I tend to think of them as "community projects." I've had a couple classes of kids who really got into the process, but a typical class of 4-5 year olds, I've found, is usually good for one layer of paper mache, when we really need a minimum of four or five. In the case of a throne, we may find we need even more.

They way community projects work is that once the kids have initiated them, then burned through their first flurry of work, I ask the adults to just keep the momentum going, honoring the children's intentions as much as possible, in this case, continuing to apply paper mache in the midst of where the kids are playing whether the kids participate or not. In this case, we worked on it every day for a week. Kids stop by to check out the progress, often chatting with the adults, sometimes about the future of the project, occasionally participating for a few minutes at a time. 

There's something to be said for children playing around adults at work, be it paper mache, home repairs, cooking, or gardening. Indeed, much of what happens in our school's garden can be classified as a community project. The children water, plant and harvest, but many of the things needed to sustain a garden on a day-to-day basis falls to the larger community, real work that takes place amongst the children. Clean up time works that way too: while the children take on many of the tasks of tidying up, there are some aspects that require an adult hand, such as sanitizing and scrubbing. It's useful for children to see adults engaged in their own work, concentrating, taking pride, sticking to it, role modeling, rather than always just being there to support the children in their work. I think it gives kids something to which to aspire.

The new throne has been drying all weekend. We're hoping it will feel sturdy enough for us today that we can get busy with decorating. There will be a class discussion about it that will likely involve testing it and an involved discussion about how it will be decorated. The idea of covering it in jewels has already been suggested. In any event, it will be the beginning of a new era.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

In That Direction Lies Success

I think most of us, if asked to define "success," would think deeply enough to consider more than the capacity to acquire great wealth. Certainly, we would cite things like having "enough" money and a holding personally satisfying job, but we would also include things like mental and physical health, good personal relationships with friends and family, and a general sense of well-being about how life is going.

There has never been a study that links early literacy or early numeracy to any of these aspects of "success," even the superficial one of wealth. None. Never. 

The research that's been done on successful people tends to find, rather, that their success comes from being motivated, sociable, and having the ability to work well with others. These are the skills and attributes children work on when they have ample opportunity to play, especially outdoors, with other children, with few toys and lots of time, and with a minimum of adult intervention. Our job as adults to prepare an environment in which free play is possible, to keep an eye out for hazards (as opposed to risks children choose to take on their own), and where children have the opportunity to do things for themselves, even if it means failing, and failing often.

As a teacher in a cooperative and a parent myself, I understand the pressures parents are under. On the one hand there are those who insist we must drill and grill our youngest citizens lest they "fall behind," while on the other, there are those who are in the business of selling us on the idea that children are constantly at risk of abduction or injury or other dangers. These twin manufactured fears, and they are largely manufactured, have caused a generation of parents to behave as what is popularly called "helicopter parents," always hovering nearby, always ready to step in, always urging and cajoling and warning, teaching helplessness instead of independence. All this leaves precious little time for the children to actually play in the way that will allow them to grow into successful adults.

I reckon by writing this, I'm now, at one level, joining the fear-mongers, providing parents who are already pulled this way and that by fear, one more thing about which to worry: is my child getting enough free play? For that I'm sorry, but the answer is, if you're a typical American parent, probably not.

We are a cooperative preschool, which means that I work more closely with parents than most teachers. I write here often about teaching children, but one of the most important things we do is to also teach their parents, which is done formally through our parent educators, and informally by our larger community of families who are, collectively, striving to offer children the opportunity to acquire the skills and attributes of success through play. It's a learning process I've witnessed time and again, one that I experienced myself as a parent. I know that for some it is a painful one of "letting go," of coming to trust the world enough to know that those inevitable bumps and bruises our children experience, both physical and emotional, those "failures," are the true building blocks of success. It's hard because we live in a culture that tells us our job as parents is to fix things for our kids, to make things easy, to soften the blows. We have to consciously push back against the culture of fear that has come to surround parenting if we are to raise truly successful adults.

Most of our three-year-olds are out of diapers. When they tell me they need to go to the potty, I point to the bathroom and say, "The toilet is in there." If you ask their parents, many will insist their child still needs their presence, if not assistance, in the bathroom, but it's really no longer true. Sure, children may want mommy with them, after all it can be an intimate, private moment, but when mommy isn't at school, they've shown they are more than capable. Yes, some struggle to get their pants back up, others miss the toilet, and I'm sure few do as thorough job of wiping as mom, but they all come out of there, mission accomplished, then hop up on the stool near the sink to wash their hands. 

It's likewise difficult for parents to step back and allow their children to engage in, say, conflict or risk, but it must be done if our goal is successful children. Yes, they will fail, and those failures form the foundation of success. Indeed, when looked at from the wider perspective they aren't failures at all, but rather steps along a pathway. As Thomas Edison famously said about the invention of the light bulb when asked by a journalist how if felt to have "failed a thousand times":

I did not fail a thousand times. Inventing the light bulb was a process of one thousand steps.

In that direction lies success. 

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Don't Do Anything To Anybody Before You Ask Them"

Well, it's finally started, our 4-5's class has discovered dramatic play games involving guns. For the past couple weeks a girl v. boy game has been brewing. It started with one of the girls agreeing to be chased and "trapped" by a couple of boys and has now spread until yesterday we had a stand-off in the sand pit with everyone pointing weapons at one another. 

It's not a lot different than the games I played as a boy. It's mostly a game of chase and bravado. In kindergarten the boys chased the girls, sometimes with guns. In first grade the tables were turned when the girls chased us, with the threat of a kiss should they catch us. Last year, the girls discovered the kiss defense and I reckon they will again this year.

Making things especially interesting is that this class, in the process of making their own rules, came up with this one:

Don't do anything to anybody before you ask them.

Holy cow, what an agreement to make with one another! Yesterday, as the game ramped up, I found myself much more involved with the play than I usually do, as kids, mostly girls, found themselves in uncomfortable positions. It started when I found myself in a group of the boys who were discussing their plans to trap "the girls." I asked, "Do they want to be trapped?"

They agreed the girls probably didn't even know, so I reminded of the rule to which they had all agreed. "Oh yeah." There were four of them and as they moved around the playground together asking individual girls if they wanted to be trapped, they met with universal refusal: none of the girls wanted to be chased and trapped. This was disappointing to the boys, who upon finding that their efforts had managed to unify a group of girls who took over the new playhouse, declaring it a "girl's club," retreated to the concrete slide where they consulted amongst themselves.

I always have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, you hate to see girls v. boys, especially when it involves exclusion, even if, as in this case, it may have been justified. On the other hand, there is a certain kind of unifying power found in identifying with classmates through gender. 

I asked the guys how it felt to be told "no boys allowed," and they answered "Bad." I said, that's probably how the girls feel when you say you're going to trap them without asking first. I don't know if it was this discussion that prompted it or not, but after a few minutes, one of the boys, the "idea guy," lead his crew to the playhouse, saying, "Do you want to be on our team? If you're on our team we won't trap you."

Surprisingly, a couple of the girls accepted this invitation, leaving the playhouse to join the trappers, which was no longer a team of boys. Still, with no one to trap, the game eddied into a swirl around the sandpit boat. 

I checked in with the three girls who remained in the playhouse. They asked if I would help them board up the doors and windows "for protection." Our new playhouse is designed for this possibility and soon all the windows were covered, although there weren't enough boards left to satisfactorily cover the door, which was a good thing because it allowed a couple of the boys to come in, announcing, "We're on the girl's team." 

We now had two mixed-gender "teams," one that wanted to trap and one that didn't want to be trapped.

It was around this time that other duties called me away. When I returned, I found everyone armed to the teeth, brooms, stick ponies, and shovels being used as weapons, one group in the boat and the other aligned outside the boat, all aiming at one another, about a dozen kids altogether. Not all the girls participated, nor did all the boys, and the teams I saw were gender-mixed. I was tempted to once more remind them of their brilliant rule, the one that takes the Golden Rule up a notch by requiring everyone to think not only of themselves, but others. Upon surveying their faces, however, it was clear to me that everyone agreed to be part of this game, which is the way we usually determine "consent" in the larger world.

In years past, we have always discussed asking "permission" or "consent" before involving others in our games, especially those that involve more violent themes like shooting or trapping, but this is the first time the kids have pre-emptively created a rule about it without any coaching from adults. It's an easily forgotten rule in the rush and crush of active play, but at least once a day I hear a child's voice saying something like, "Hey, you have to ask me first!" which tells me it's becoming part of our play culture.

"Don't do anything to anybody without asking them first." It's an encumbering rule, for sure, one that requires more talking, especially right up front. But it is a democratic rule, one designed to protect the rights of a minority against the tyranny of the majority. I'll be interested in how this one plays out over the course of our year together.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Removing The Impediment Of Profit


I'm often asked about my "teaching philosophy." Now understand, on a day-to-day basis I don't really see myself as having a philosophy per se, at least not in the sense of a cohesive, comprehensive approach to early childhood education. I do attempt to adhere to certain principles, like being genuine with children, treating them like fully formed individual human beings, taking time each day for reflection, and then getting out of the way, which, increasingly, is how I attempt to interact with the grown-up people as well.

Awhile back, I attempted to flesh-out some of my thinking in a long post that took several days to write entitled Why I Teach the Way I Do, but I've recently coming to realize that I neglected to recognize just how fundamental the cooperative model is to how I live my day-to-day life. I guess maybe that's because it's so much the water in which I swim, the air I breathe, that it's hard for me to step back and fully appreciate this truly remarkable, democratic, and even revolutionary way we've chose to organize ourselves to deliver the "product" of early childhood education.

I often joke that we're "a little communist society," one in which all the members are there voluntarily, one that works as smoothly as any enterprise with which I have personal knowledge, one where, indeed, at any given moment, those with "ability" do, and those with "needs" receive. But I realize I do the cooperative model a disservice when I speak of this way, causing many people who would otherwise be enthusiasts to dismiss us as some sort of out-of-the-mainstream, hippy-dippy, crunchy granola school. 

Today, I want to try to correct that impression. 

Cooperatives exist in almost every sector of our economy. If you've ever purchased products from, say, Sunkist, Ocean Spray, Sun-maid, or Sunsweet, you've done business with a cooperative. In fact, cooperatives drive a significant proportion of our nation's agricultural and food marketing economic activity. True Value and Ace Hardware are cooperatives. Credit unions are cooperatives. Cooperatives provide healthcare, transportation, insurance, financial services, food, clothing, recreational equipment, housing, energy, telephone service, and, of course, child care and education. According to a study by University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, US cooperatives in all their various forms "operate at 72,993 places of business (establishments), collectively accounting for nearly $652B in revenue, $154B in income, (more than) $74B in wages, and (more than) 2M jobs." Cooperatives hold over $3 trillion in assets. That's real business.

The Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool is a type of cooperative that is defined as "customer owned," in that the families that enroll their children become equal owner-operators, which is how the vast majority of cooperatives are organized, although there are also producer-owned and worker-owned cooperatives, as well as purchasing cooperatives. Whatever the organization, however, it is the underlying principles of cooperatives that are the most intriguing, and inspiring, to me:

Traditionally, the defining characteristics of a cooperative business are that the interests of the capital investor are subordinate to those of the business user, or patron, and returns on capital are limited. Cooperative control is in the hands of its member-patrons, who democratically elect the board of directors. Member-patrons are the primary source of equity capital, and net earnings are allocated on the basis of patronage instead of investment . . . The USDA summarized these characteristics in its definition of a cooperative as a "user-owned, user-controlled business that distributes benefits on the basis of use." A broader definition of cooperative by The International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) employs broader terms in its definition of a cooperative as "an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise." The ICA has adopted the Rochdale principles (based on a consumer cooperative in England dating to 1844), seven world-wide, generally acknowledged principles that guide the cooperative enterprise: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training, and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community . . .

There are those, many of whom in powerful positions in our government and economy, who insist that the future, and specifically the future of education, belongs to the principles that underpin for-profit corporations, that the competitive drive for profit will somehow lead to the best educational results. I can't see that from where I sit. I understand, I suppose, how level playing field competition (and that's a mighty important condition, one that is rarely met) might lead to innovation and lower costs when it comes to consumer products like televisions, but my experience with cooperatives, both as an employee and member, has taught me that this is not the only way to achieve high quality, low cost results. In fact, what most cooperatives do is remove the impediment of profit, allowing customer-owners to directly focus on our common needs and aspirations without having to consider the pressures of producing return-on-investment to stockholders.

This is the water in which I swim as a teacher and it is, in a very real sense, why equality, democracy, independence, cooperation, and community stand at the center of everything we do.

(If you want to read more about how a preschool cooperative like ours operates, you might want to read my 5-part series entitled Cooperative Nuts & Bolts. Click on the link over there under "Teacher Tom's Topics" and read from the bottom up.)

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Standardization Is Always The Enemy Of Learning

I went to kindergarten back in the 1960's. We played outdoors, built with blocks, pretended, and made some art. I don't think there was any particular curriculum or ideology behind the program offered by Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Ruiz. We mostly played, much like the kids do at Woodland Park, although I remember one classroom project in which we sat around tables, each responsible for coloring in a part of a train -- box cars, coal cars, passenger cars. I got the engine. Mrs. Jennings gave very specific instructions about how to color our pictures. We were to strive to color side-to-side, using only horizontal motions, and to stay within the lines.

It was the kind of project I always enjoyed. To this day I love the challenge of creating artwork that requires fine motor deftness and precision. I chose to make my engine mostly red and was quite impressed with how wonderful the finished product looked. I'd already learned to take aesthetic pleasure in staying within the lines, but the whole horizontal coloring concept was an epiphany to me, a concept I employed in coloring projects throughout the rest of my youth.

The following day we arrived at school to find that Mrs. Jennings had taped our individual pictures to the wall to create a train, my red engine at the front. I was proud of that engine, but man was I appalled at my classmates' work. Most of them had failed to stay within the lines, and from what I could tell only I had adhered to the horizontal coloring method. Yet there was Mrs. Jennings, not scolding anyone, not correcting anyone, not making anyone do it over, but rather enthusing about the beautiful train we had made together.

Of course, today I can see that the problem was not with the other kids, but rather with my own expectations. You see, I was apparently a coloring within the lines prodigy, much in the way some four-year-olds prodigiously teach themselves to read in preschool, while most of their classmates are still years away from being developmentally ready for it. Mrs. Jennings instructions had hit the five-year-old me right where I lived, while it went right over the heads of most of my classmates: she knew this, which is why she didn't scold or correct. It's why she saw beauty.

The development of human beings, especially in the early years, is notoriously spiky. My own daughter began to speak at three months, but didn't crawl until her first birthday, and wasn't walking until she was closer to two. Some kids are capable of reading at an early age, some are genius climbers, others have advanced social or artistic or musical skills. Every parent knows their own child is a genius: every preschool teacher knows that every child is a genius. And we all know that every child is also "behind" in some areas. This is all normal.

Indeed, the range of "normal" is enormous. This is one of the most powerful aspects of a cooperative preschool. As parents work with me in the classroom as my assistant teachers, they come to appreciate this, and even, as Mrs. Jennings did, find it beautiful. And this is why a play-based curriculum is ideal for young children, it allows each child to focus like a laser her own personalized educational objectives in a way that meshes perfectly with her developmental stage.

Sadly, kindergarten, at least he public school variety, no longer accommodates this wide range of "normal." Over the past decade or so, kindergarten has transformed dramatically, and not for the better:

A new University of Virginia study found that kindergarten changed in disturbing ways from 1999-2006. There was a marked decline in exposure to social studies, science, music, art and physical education and an increased emphasis on reading instruction. Teachers reported spending as much time on reading as all other subjects combined . . . The time spent in child-selected activity dropped by more than one-third. Direct instruction and testing increased. Moreover, more teachers reported holding all children to the same standard.

The whole idea of standardization runs counter to what we know about how young children learn and develop, yet that has been the focus of the corporate education "reform" movement, which spawned this era of the federally mandated Common Core State Standards and high stakes standardized testing. The cabal that created this pedagogically indefensible mess, lead by Bill Gates through his foundation, have ignored what professionals know about how children actually learn:

To make matters worse, the drafters of the Common Core ignored the research on child development. In 2010, 500 child development experts warned the drafters that the standards called for exactly the kind of damaging practices that inhibit learning: direct instruction, inappropriate content and testing . . . These warnings went unheeded . . . Consequently, the Common Core exacerbates the developmentally inappropriate practices on the rise since NCLB (No Child Left Behind).

No, the goal of these "reformers" was never to meet the children where they were developmentally, nor to shape a curriculum around the way children learn, but rather, as Bill Gates famously said in an interview with the Washington Post: "(T)o unleash powerful market forces on education." You see, standardization makes it easier for businesspeople to develop products to sell to schools. The dehumanizing metaphor Gates used was to compare it to standardizing electrical outlets.

Mrs. Jennings understood, as all professional early childhood educators do, that children cannot be standardized like computers or washing machines or electrical outlets. Some of us can stay within the lines, but most of us can't, and that's what makes us beautiful.

Standardization is always the enemy of learning.

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