Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A New Year's Resolution

I wonder what he's building in there.  ~Tom Waits

Yesterday as I waited to get my haircut, I overheard a customer, a man about my age, making small talk with the young hairdresser. After responding to her question about where he lived, he turned the question back on her, "And where do you live?"


"Downtown. That must get hairy sometimes."

"I like it."

"I mean, it's dangerous. Aren't you worried?"


"But you don't go out at night, do you?"

She laughed, "It's not that bad."

"It is that bad." He then went off on a description of Seattle's downtown that sounded like it came straight out of a TV crime show. I've lived in Seattle most of my life and downtown, with my family, for the past four years. There are certain dangers, most involving bad drivers, but come on, crime is far from a front-of-mind concern and the benefits of living in the center of things far outweigh the dangers, which is true of every place I've ever been in my life, and that includes downtown Detroit.

I then cycled home from my haircut to learn of a two-year-old who pulled a gun from his mom's purse in a northern Idaho Walmart and shot her dead. I am not a gun person. I have never held a gun in my hands. When I see a gun, even on a cop's hip, I give a wide berth. Guns frighten me. Downtown does not. Cycling in the city does not. Shopping in a Walmart is not something I've ever done, but it's not because I'm afraid. And nothing makes me so fearful that I feel the need to carry a gun.

I'm tempted to go on another tear about gun control, which I've done a couple of times on this blog. If the past is a predictor of the future, most of my readers would support me. Many would want to take it even farther than I. And a few would write to tell me I'm a namby-pamby fear monger, that I'm ignorant, that guns are useful tools, that if we outlaw guns only criminals will have guns, and that I'm un-American to boot. In other words I'll stir things up, then we'll all hunker back down behind our personally constructed walls of fear and nothing will happen.

This morning, I'm going to let others wade into the gun debate. What I want to write about is fear. 

Maybe it's always been this way, but it seems that too much of modern life is driven by fear. We're afraid of people who are different than us, we're afraid of falling behind, we're afraid of getting hurt or that our children will get hurt, or sick; we're afraid of eating this or being vaccinated with that, we're afraid of villains halfway around the world and those who might be living right next door building lord knows what in their garages. They tell us we live in the information age. It's supposed to make us free, but instead, it seems it makes us more afraid. Is it simply that we, as a society, are finding that the more we know the more we discover we don't know, and the vastness of that unknown is what frightens us? Maybe.

Certainly, there are those who cynically use fear to drive their agenda. That's clearly a part of the corporate education "Shock Doctrine" reform schemes, with their hysterical cries of "The Chinese are beating us!" and "Our schools are failing!" Much of our politics are fueled by this fear-mongering. There are those who want us to be afraid of everything from gays and Muslims to autism, homelessness and, yes, even guns, all by way of driving a political, religious, or economic agenda. Or, often, by way of distracting us from bigger, largely unaddressed issues like the unbridled criminality of Wall Street or the slow motion disaster of global climate change. Indeed, this perpetual miasma of fear is quite useful to those truly bad actors who hide within it and scoff that any criticism is mere fear-mongering as they go about their monstrous activities.

Fear blinds us. Fear makes us idiots. We simply can't be afraid and clear-eyed at the same time. Fear makes us hunker down; it's the hunkering down that's killing us. At least that's the theory I'm working on.

I'm hunkered down here in downtown Seattle, the most liberal part of one of the most liberal cities in America. We voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and it wasn't even close. We elect socialists to our city council. I regularly find myself being the most conservative person in the room. I'm not alone in this. The longterm national trend is for like-minded Americans of all stripes to increasingly flock together, insulating us from hearing things we don't want to hear, isolating ourselves from those with whom we disagree, making them "the other," people to ridicule and, yes, fear. This phenomenon is carried out online as well as most of us steer clear of places where we know we'll find things with which we disagree. When I read that over half of Idaho residents own guns and that seven percent have concealed weapons permits, my first instinct is to say, "Well, that's one place where they'll never see this aging hippie." And I'm sure that there are many in Idaho who would respond, "Good."

But it's not good. In the Washington Post article to which I linked above, the dead mother, Veronica Rutledge, is described as a person I would have liked to know: kind, smart, outdoorsy, and motivated. Maybe her two-year-old would have been one of my students. It would have made me nervous to know she carried a gun in her purse, but maybe we could have talked about it. Maybe I could have said something, in friendship, from a posture of not hunkering down, that would have caused her to change her behavior in some small way that would have meant her son woke up this morning with a mother. Maybe she could have said something to me to make me less afraid.

I've lately made a point of reaching out to people with whom I disagree. For instance, I recently drank beer with a high school classmate who has come back into my life over the past couple years as a guy with whom I exchange angry political barbs on social media. Honestly, I've treated him as just another faceless troll and the did the same with me. Of course, sitting together, we figured out that we agree about almost everything and we laughed as we argued over those things about which we disagree. We've continued to debate on Facebook, but the tenor is now one of friendship rather than fear. I'm not saying that we don't have real disagreements. I'm not saying that we even found middle ground. What I am saying is that we've removed at least one layer of unreasonable fear from the dialog. We're both a little less blind, a little less idiotic, and it's because we both decided to stop hunkering down. It's progress.

I guess what I'm saying is what the poet Virgil wrote in the 3rd century AD, probably echoing poets who came before him, "Love conquers all." My resolution for the new year is to conquer fear by approaching others, especially those with whom I disagree, with an open heart. I don't want to be hunkered down. I don't want to be blinded or made an idiot by fear. I no longer want to sit in my hairdresser's chair telling her that downtown is dangerous. 

I already strive to do this with the children I teach. I know how to do it. 

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bill Gates Is Ignorant

Bill Gates is ignorant. The alternative is that he's a cold-hearted money-grubber, but I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

He knows a lot about tipping the economy so as to fill his own pockets and I reckon he's not entirely ignorant about computer technology (although if you judge by the inferior software his company Microsoft produces, one wonders). Gates is clearly not ignorant about business, in fact, he's a business genius, but when it comes to education he's demonstrably ignorant. He's probably also ignorant about most of the other fields in which he's involved via his foundation, but I can't comment on those areas because I too am ignorant. I am not, however, ignorant about education. I live and work education, it is my profession, I study it, I do it, and when a cocksure dilettante starts knocking over the tables and chairs, making the kids cry, and bossing the professionals around by virtue of having been told he's a business genius, I'll call him out.

Bill Gates is ignorant.

The federal Common Core K-12 curriculum, a product more or less bought and paid for by Bill Gates, is a disaster for public education. Built around scripted lessons and high stakes standardized tests that focus almost exclusively on math and literacy to the exclusion of everything else that makes for an educated human, Common Core is designed not to educate, but, according to Gates himself, to "unleash powerful market forces" that will somehow magically fix public education. 

Bill Gates is ignorant. Public education, like all human institutions including Microsoft, is imperfect, and there is plenty of room for improvement, but it's hardly broken. What is broken is our economy, one in which nearly one in four children live in poverty. In fact, when comparing developed nations, only Romania has a higher rate of childhood poverty than the US. The average developed nation's poverty rate is around 10 percent: when comparing apples with apples, our public schools are the best performing in the world, ahead of even the vaunted Finns who, incidentally have a childhood poverty rate below 5 percent. The Gates mindset, one based upon ideology rather than knowledge, is that poverty can be fixed by education. What professional educators know, what researchers know, is that this places the cart before the horse. When we fix poverty, we will "fix" education. Of course, doing that would require us to question the virtue of those powerful market forces, something Gates and his fellow ideologues, in their ignorance, don't seem eager to do.

Bill Gates is ignorant. Scripted lessons and high stakes standardized tests, have been shown time and again to be inferior models for teaching and assessment. What professional teachers know is that we are not teaching "classes" of name-less, face-less children; this is not an assembly line. We are responsible for the education of individual human beings, each one uniquely capable of learning, each requiring a non-standardized education. What professional educators know is that a well-round, well-educated citizen is someone who has had the opportunity to explore, on his own terms, science, history, art, dance, economics, psychology, languages, dance, social skills, athletics and all the other things that make up our world. Indeed, we know that math and literacy should not stand at the center or the top, but are mere tools for our greater explorations. The Gates mindset, is one based upon creating, using his own metaphor, standardized "electrical outlets" so that business people can more easily sell plug-in products to to schools, again, I reckon, unleashing those market forces upon our children.

Bill Gates is ignorant. I've not said he's a cold-hearted money grubber because I genuinely believe he thinks he's involved in philanthropy, but powerful market forces are the domain of cold-hearted money grubbers. Gates is not evil, but those he's pulling along on his coattails are. He is ignorant in his belief that these cold-hearted money grubbers, these Wall Street hedge fund managers, these venture capitalists, have anything but money grubbing as a goal. He is ignorant because he seems to believe, bizarrely, that the very people who have created an economy in which one in four children live in poverty, will, when given the opportunity, do anything other than treat them as free labor in their test score coal mines.

Bill Gates is ignorant, but I expect he's capable of learning because as a professional educator I know this is true of everyone. I know that he's heard all of this criticism before, from people with more substantial soap boxes than mine, although in last spring's interview with the Washington Post, he seemed genuinely surprised and upset that anyone could suggest his motives were anything other than pure. Certainly he knows that Microsoft itself is poised to make millions off Common Core. This sort of cognitive dissonance is a well-known psychological phenomenon. The more committed a person is to a particular opinion, the more tenaciously he clings to it, even when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It's hard for any of us to admit when we are wrong, but it must be near impossible for a man who has, since boyhood, been told he was a genius to find himself exposed as ignorant.

As professional teachers, we deal with cognitive dissonance all the time. No matter how much I pick and prod, for instance, at the children's belief in Santa Claus, they cling to their beliefs, even in the face of contradictory evidence, adjusting their views to defend their old opinion. I'm content, in this case, to leave them in their ignorance because it's of the blissful sort and doing no one any harm. But when the wealthiest man in the world decides to foist his ignorance upon the rest of us, it's a re-telling of the story of Dr. Frankenstein's monster.

Gates once had a reputation as a man who admired those who would stand up to him, who would challenge him. I've not heard this in many years. Although I don't expect him to pick up the mantel, nor even to hear of it, today I challenge him to a debate on education, in public or in private, at a place and time of his choosing. I am ignorant about many things, but not education: I don't think I'm naive in hoping I can change his mind. I'd sure like to have him on the side of education. Just think what we could do.

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Monday, December 29, 2014

The Lie Of Slickness

My goal has always been to make this blog seem as homemade as possible. I use a basic off-the-shelf template and the cheapest, most utilitarian platform available. I rarely engage in marketing, promotions or give-aways, I don't accept advertising, and generally speaking I steer clear of bells and whistles. I don't know if anyone else appreciates it, and well-intended people quite regularly give me advice on how I could make the blog snappier or boost my readership, and I'm happy for the free advice, but the amateur hour vibe is more or less intentional.

When I'm invited to speak at conferences, I strive for a similar thing: no Power Point presentations or videos or music. It's just me, in my jeans and hokey red cape, with a stack of notes, most of which are handwritten, some of which are in spiral notebooks. 

I suppose one could call it a "gimmick" or "style," this homemade-ness, but I tend to think of it more as an ethic, one that is full-blown at the place called Woodland Park, where parents come together to cooperatively make a school for their own children in the basement of a church. 

It's a place where we rarely buy new stuff, but rather finish using stuff others have cast-off, and where the playground shares much in common with a junkyard. When we do purchase something nice and new, like the fantastic Flor brand carpet, I worry that we're getting too fancy. 

I feel the same way about all those clean, crisp, purpose-built preschool facilities I've been in over the past several years: they're nice, and I even envy them, but I still have the urge to splash paint on the walls and tromp mud on the floors.

It's not that I particularly favor messiness or clutter or disorder (my apartment, for instance, tends to be a tidy, with everything in it's place) but rather that I am suspicious of slickness. 

Slickness is a trick, a way to hide the warts. It's the thing that separates the rest of us from Martha Stewart. At it's best, slickness represents a sort of unattainable ideal, but it also covers the cracks and dust bunnies that we all know are there -- that need to be there.

Like many of you, I spend a good deal of time on blogs and websites that deal in our preschool world, some of which you will find over there in the right-hand column under the heading "Teacher Tom's blog list." A big part of this is sharing "art projects," and all too often, we're lured in by slick pictures of slick activities with slick end-results and slick learning goals. 

For instance, I recently came across a particularly appealing article that employed one of my favorite art activities to "teach literacy." The idea, according to this writer, is for an adult to carefully write each child's name in white glue on a piece of paper. The child is to then carefully sprinkle salt onto the glue letters, shake off the excess, then use eye droppers to place dots of liquid watercolor on the salty-glue to create a sort of rainbow of their name.

These art materials -- glue, salt, and paint -- lend themselves to wonderful art explorations with the salt absorbing the paint while the glue holds it in place, and I reckon I could micromanage a child through this slick little process, correcting and coaxing along the way, but why? 

Even if I do hound the children like this, none will ever turn out as slick as the ones in the pictures that accompany this article, even the most obedient, careful child will dribble paint, smear glue and get salt stuck to her fingers. An experienced teacher, of course, already knows this, but that deceptive slickness is an intimidating lie, one that I fear leads many teachers and parents and even kids to frustration when the real world cannot match the pretty pictures of product-based art and dutiful children.

When we use these materials, I typically demonstrate the "right way" once, to the parent-teacher responsible for the project, not because I want them to teach it to the kids, but only because I want the adult to see what I think is really cool about using these materials in this proscribed way. I then always say, "The children will want to make it their own." 

Most of the kids do, at some point in their process, create the opportunity to explore the absorbency of the salt, the stickiness of the glue, and blending of colors, but they also must explore the properties of the glue bottle, the techniques of using a pipette, and effects of fists full of salt. 

They need to try using the pipettes as paint brushes, to empty bottle after bottle of glue, and to get glue and salt and paint all over their hands. The only limits we set are those of supply, but since we have glue by the gallon, salt by the pound, and paint by the case, we're prepared.

This is how process-based art works, this is how preschool works. It's a messy, free-form exploration of the universe, and there is nothing slick about it. The slickness is only a well-meant lie with no connection to reality that makes us feel as if we're doing it wrong. It's what I mean when I say that "homemade" is not a style, but an ethic.

Of course, I find our art "products" beautiful as well, those pages of tag board that take a week to fully cure, crinkling and curling and dripping on the floor. When I finally pull them out to send them home, mountains of salt crumble off, even as I try to balance it on there by way of honoring the child's intent, leaving much of it for the car ride home where it likely winds up all over the backseat. 

These aren't product at all, but rather homemade masterpieces, the kind of thing one simply can't do the wrong way.

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Friday, December 26, 2014

Six Things

I long ago lost interest in pouncing on those famous "teaching moments." Far more important are "learning moments." Rarely are those the same moments.

I used to worry what other people thought about me. Then, for a long time, I tried to stop caring. Now my main concern is what I think about the other people; from there my struggle is to love them.

As a boy, I thought the excitement of Christmas morning came from the presents. As I got older, I understood that more than presents, it is about the magic, something I could only understand after I stopped believing in it. The way to get the magic back is to create it for others.

The difference between my neurosis and yours is that mine makes sense.

Everyone, all the time, is doing the best they can.

The main distinction between adults and children is wisdom. I cannot pass mine on to you, nor can you pass yours on to me. Wisdom is made of things that can only be acquired through living for yourself, playing, and the wisest among us are those who have fallen down the most.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Last Minute Gift Ideas

I've been hearing radio commercials urgently shouting about "last minute gift ideas" since at least mid-November. Pfft. But now, finally, the last minute is truly upon us, so as a public service I offer Teacher Tom's last minute gift ideas for children, most of which won't even require a trip to a mall.

Mesh produce bags.

Things that rot.

A place to leave things to rot . . .

. . . and worms to live there.


An old typewriter.








Boxes and balls.

Nuts, bolts, wrenches and screwdrivers . . .

. . . rubber bands . . .

. . . and put them all together.

Glue guns.


Dolls . . .

. . . who need bandages.



Water, gutters, tubes and shovels.



Step ladders . . .

. . . and homemade ladders.

Tree parts.




Junk . . .

 . . . and jewels.

Merry Christmas!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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