Friday, January 30, 2015

The Weakness Of Direct Instruction

We recently took a field trip to the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture to take in their Washington state geological exhibit, the highlight of which are the dinosaur skeletons. It's always a good experience if only because most of the kids are familiar with it, interested, and like to show off their knowledge.

Our guide was excellent, with a strong pedagogical understanding of how to engage young children, and she created a series of opportunities for the children to construct their own knowledge. The kids did their part as well, keeping their voices and bodies within the expected parameters. In the heart of the exhibit is a "classroom." This is the hands-on portion. It helped that we all knew it was coming.

As the children minded their proverbial P's and Q's, I reflected on the fact that they are rarely expected to mind these particular P's and Q's at school, yet here they were not just stepping up to the challenge, but thriving. I was thinking about writing a post here about how parents and other grown-up people worry that children who have experienced nothing but a play-based curriculum in preschool will not be prepared for the unnatural rigors of following directions or sitting still or listening to lectures when they move on to traditional schools. I was going to use this experience to riff on the notion that if we've fed them well on play, they will naturally be prepared for the famines ahead.

Later, as we were sitting together examining fossils from various extinct animals, our guide held up a rather large one. After soliciting guesses about what it might be, we finally figured out it was the tail bone of a stegosaurus. It was larger than the fossils with which we'd heretofore been entrusted, so she gave us special instructions on how to hold it, directing the kids to put "one hand on top like this and one hand on the bottom like this."

Whereas the other, arguably less exciting, fossils, the ones handed over without direct instruction, had been fully examined with our hands, eyes, noses and whispered conversation, the children treated the stegosaurus tail to none of that deeper inquiry. Instead, as they had been instructed, they passed the fossil amongst themselves, carefully placing their hands where told, putting their entire focus on the "holding technique," few of them even glancing at the rare thing they held in their hand before passing it along.

The stegosaurus tail fossil raced efficiently through our group, winding up back where it started long before we were finished with our examinations of the fossils we had been free to fully explore sans the blinders of direct instruction.

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Thursday, January 29, 2015


Addison arrived in class on the first day of our school year talking about something called "Creativity." Given that last I'd seen him in the Spring he'd been a huge Harry Potter fan (the books, not the movie), I figured it was a new book series he was into or maybe some sort of role-playing video game. 

He worked hard to "sell" the idea, whatever it was, to his friends, once even taking the microphone (we have an old karaoke machine) to lecture us at some length about the mystery and danger and adventure of Creativity, but it was met with blank stares. I was feeling sorry for him, his excitement not getting through to the others, especially once I found out from his mom Jen that Creativity was, in fact, an entire world he had invented on his own, that it had "consumed most of his summer play" and was "very important to him."

That bit of knowledge in mind, I decided that I'd try playing along a little, since it didn't appear the kids were getting it.

I'd heard him talking about "portals" at some point, so as we hung out together in the outdoor classroom, I pointed up into our cedars and said, "I'm pretty sure I saw a portal into Creativity up in that tree."

He took it up, "Are you sure? They move around."

"I'm pretty sure it was a portal into Creativity."

"It looks like a swirling mass. Was it a swirling mass?"

"Yes. That must have been it. Maybe we should get the ladder and climb up there." I figured lecturing alone wasn't going to work to get the masses engaged, but I did know that anything involving moving our homemade ladder always draws a crowd.

I waited for his go-ahead and got it, "Good idea, Teacher Tom!"

Together we put out a call, "We need the ladder! We need the ladder!"

As the kids rallied to the cry, Addison filled them in on the portal we'd spotted in the trees: the portal that leads to Creativity. As the adult, the one ultimately responsible for safety, I wasn't particularly keen on how the ladder wound up positioned against the trees -- it was wobbly, there were a lot of kids jostling around for a turn -- so in the interest of not letting the excitement dissipate, I took responsibility for re-positioning the ladder, finally deciding, with Addison's agreement, that the portal had moved, and that the best place for the ladder would be against the fence.

Addison went first, climbing to the top then peering over the fence at the common, everyday world outside it. He pointed up into the branches of the large cedar that stands near our gate and said, "There it is, the swirling mass. I feel it pulling me in." Since he had been speaking directly to me where I'd positioned my body near the top of the ladder so as to catch anyone who slipped, I amplified his words to the line of children waiting their turn below, "Addison sees the portal in the tree. It looks like a swirling mass. He feels himself being pulled in." He then climbed back down the ground, throwing himself into the wood chips, shouting, "I've been pulled in! I'm in Creativity!"

It took a long time for each of his classmates to climb to the top of the ladder, to peer over the fence, and to "find" the portal. Some saw it in the tree like Addison did. Others, however, spotted the portal disguised as the garage door across the street, others spied it up in the clouds, and some couldn't find it at all, proving Addison's point that the portal into Creativity has a tendency to move around. I repeated each child's comments to the other kids below, then as they prepared to climb back down, I asked, "Do you feel it pulling you in?" Those that answered "yes" then threw themselves down on the ground in imitation of Addison.

Then an interesting thing happened, something with which I've never before had to deal as a preschool teacher. We gathered on our rug for circle time, the kids buzzing about Creativity. Several of the kids let us know that they'd seen the portal, the swirling mass, and had been pulled in, then Cooper, who was sitting directly beside Addison, said, "There's a magical forest in Creativity."

Addison was suddenly ashen, "No there's not!"

Cooper looked at him wide-eyed, "Yes there is. I saw it!"

"There's not a magical forest in Creativity! There are beasts! You have to watch out for the beasts!"

Cooper responded and the boys went a couple rounds of "Yes there is!"/"No there's not!" before I interrupted and managed to get us moved on. Normally, in such a clear, well-mannered debate, I'd have tried to use it as an opportunity to help guide the boys to some sort of resolution, but frankly, I lost my nerve in the moment, knowing that Creativity was a precious thing to Addison and I wanted more information before proceeding to do anything that might damage his own, personal dramatic play creation.

The following day, Friday, Addison stayed home ill, and I figured that was probably the end of it, at least for awhile: a day without him and a weekend would wash things away, but I was wrong. The children arrived at school and immediately launched into playing Creativity, this time without any of the "constraints" placed on us by its creator. Fairies and skeletons and airplanes and super heros and sharks began to appear. The kids positioned the ladder in a new location, organizing themselves to take turns looking for the portal, using the term "swirling mass," but also giving it colors and other characteristics not supported by the "original text."

Still, I thought the weekend would take care of things until we sat down for show-and-tell. Cooper had written and illustrated a five page book about Creativity, filled with an impressive amount of detail. This wasn't going away. Addison had succeeded in attracting other children to play his game, but now they were making it their own. Normal stuff for preschool with an emergent curriculum, but in this case it felt like we were dealing with a kind of "intellectual property." Certainly, he maintained some "rights" to his invention, yet certainly the rest of the kids maintained their rights to go where their own imaginations took them.

I wrote to Jen about how things were developing, suggesting that if all of this bothered Addison, I could work to at least convince the kids to change the name of our school's magical place to something else: reserving Addison's right to the name "Creativity." She had a discussion with him, and while he was excited and impressed that his friends were still interested in Creativity, he wanted to maintain some control. Together they came up with the idea that each of his classmates would have their own "property" within Creativity that they alone could control. She let me know that Addison wanted to make the pitch himself and was prepared to talk about it at circle time on Monday.

When we convened on the blue rug, I goofed around a little, then mentioned Creativity, before turning the floor over Addison. He did a very precise job of describing the plan, saying, "I control Creativity, but everybody has their own property that they control themselves."

Cooper didn't wait to raise his hand, "In my property there's a magical forest and a red airplane that flies the portal around!"

Addison answered, "That's great. But remember, Creativity is huge and everybody's property is miniscule."

There was silence. I was not going to define this word for the kids if I didn't have to, in the interest of avoiding an argument about "property size."

Then he continued, "In Creativity 'miniscule' means 'huge.'"

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Pushing The Pendulum

We often use a pendulum metaphor when talking about political issues, and while it's true that things tend to swing back and forth, sometimes even from one extreme to another, it's a flawed metaphor in that nothing changes unless people get together and push.

Last weekend, a group of committed labor and education activists pushed the Washington State Democratic Party to pass a resolution condemning the tragically flawed Common Core national curriculum. As author and activist Anthony Cody reports on his blog Living in Dialog:

This is the first time a statewide Democratic Party committee has taken a public position against the Common Core, and it happened in the back yard of the Gates Foundation, which has provided the funding that made the national standards project possible. This could signal a sea-change for the beleaguered standards, because up until now, political opposition has been strongest in the Republican party. (Link added by me)

There are not a lot of bi-partisan issues in our nation anymore, but opposition to the take-over of our public schools by the federal government and unaccountable corporations appears to be emerging as one of them, albeit perhaps for different reasons: politics often makes for strange bedfellows.

Speaking in favor of the resolution, state committee member Brian Gunn of the 31st legislative district said:

We have to take into account corporations are looking at our children as commodities. This is a moral issue. We're allowing corporations that produce these materials and sponsor these tests to treat our children as sources of income . . . a source of profit. And that source of profit is our own children . . . We have to see that as a moral issue, and not cede that responsibility away from the place where it belongs, which is hopefully our state schools and our state teachers -- and allow them to make choices about what the standards should be.

This should be happening in every state in the union, but it's not a free-swinging pendulum that will, according to the dictates of gravity, come back to those of us who want our children's education to be in the hands of professional teachers, parents, local communities, and the students themselves. We must get out there and push. It's how democracy is supposed to work.

Some of the activists who lead this effort have published a convenient article entitled "How to Get Your State Democratic Committee to Oppose Common Core."

And here is a link to the flyer they circulated to party delegates, the text of which I'm publishing below. Our children need us to save them from the test score coal mines. The pendulum doesn't swing on it's own.

Common Core Standards: Ten Colossal Errors

Error #1: The process by which the Common Core standards were developed and adopted was undemocratic.

Error #2: The Common Core State Standards violate what we know about how children develop and grow.

Error #3: The Common Core is inspired by a vision of market-driven innovation enabled by standardization of curriculum, tests, and ultimately, our children themselves.

Error #4: The Common Core creates a rigid set of performance expectations for every grade level, and results in tightly controlled instructional timelines and curriculum.

Error #5: The Common Core was designed to be implemented through an expanding regime of high-stakes tests, which will consume an unhealthy amount of time and money.

Error #6: Proficiency rates on the new Common Core tests have been dramatically lower -- by design.

Error #7: Common Core relies on a narrow conception of the purpose of K-12 education as "career and college readiness."

Error #8: The Common Core is associated with an attempts to collect more student and teacher data than ever before.

Error #9: The Common Core is not based on any external evidence, has no research to support it, has never been tested and worst of all, has no mechanism for correction.

Error #10: The biggest problem of American education and American society is the growing number of children living in poverty.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"Bad Guy Boys Only!"

Last summer I wrote about the new playhouse Audrey and Titus' grandfather built for us, one of the cool features of which is that he designed it to allow the kids to create doors and windows pretty much anywhere they choose. Lately, the kids in our 4-5's class have chosen to seal themselves in, leaving only one small window through which they can come and go. Yesterday, a group of guys raced outside ahead of me, and as they barricaded themselves inside, they chanted, "Bad guy boys only! Bad guy boys only!"

I sat on a stump near the one and only window. I said, "It sounds like you're telling the girls they can't play in the playhouse."

There was a pause in the chanting to hear me out. When the chanting resumed, not all of them joined in.

After a bit I asked, "Are you really bad guys?"

In the pause, one of them answered, "No, we're pretending."

And I asked, "Are you pretending to be boys too?"

"No, we're really boys."

"If girls want to play can they pretend to be bad guy boys?"

Their bad guy leader answered fiercely, "No, they have to be real boys." The chanting resumed, but now he chanted alone. The barricade was nearly complete. Only one small window remained.

I said to the air, "We all agreed, you can't say you can't play."

I knew I need say no more when one of the boys replied, "Like Martin Luther King."

As one boy resumed the chant, the others began, one by one, to climb out the window. One of them, in passing, said to me, "I like playing with girls." Soon there was only a single boy in the playhouse, chanting alone, "Bad guy boys only! Bad guy boys only!" He was loud at first, but then petered out. When he resumed, he was chanting, "Bad guys only! Bad guys only!"

Some of his friends returned, even while he was the only one still chanting. Then, without speaking, they started dismantling two of the walls, the ones that faced the art table where a group of girls were engaged. As the walls came down, the chant changed and other voices joined it. They were saying, "Everybody come in! Everybody come in!"

When the girls ignored them, they began to shout, "Free ice cream! Free ice cream!" By now the ad hoc group formerly known as "bad guy boys" had grown far beyond its original core. As some of them began to take forays outside the playhouse to ask people for their ice cream orders, others began to use the wall planks to build ramps and walkways to make it "easier" for people to get inside.

It was the American civil rights story experienced and surpassed in the span of ten minutes.

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Monday, January 26, 2015

This Tribal Celebration

"It was a blast growing up in Oakland. We used to walk to house parties, play doorbell ditch, have rock fights, do front flips and backflips off concrete walls off and into the bushes. Taking the boxing gloves out and box in the middle of the streets . . . Walking atop the monkey bars -- that's how we played tag. We couldn't touch the concrete. That was the only way you could get away -- run atop the monkey bars, on the rails, up and down the slides -- because if you touched the ground you out, and if you out you can't play." ~Marshawn Lynch (Seattle Seahawks running back)

It's neigh impossible to not be a professional football fan in Seattle right now as the Seahawks prepare for the Superbowl. This week, our liveliest circle time discussions involved the children sharing their NFC Championship stories, most of which included descriptions of how their parents behaved, of how they behaved. We've joined together at circle time more than once to chant, "Go Seahawks!" For those of you who are blissfully unaware, the Seattle team came from far behind in the closing minutes to pull victory from the jaws of defeat, which, not surprisingly, resulted in children witnessing the adults in their lives experience a roller coaster of emotion. 

There are sports moments from my childhood that I'll never forget; this will be one of them for many Seattle children.

Downtown building are lit up in team colors

Everywhere you look, there are signs of fan support. There are banners in store windows and hanging from the sides of buildings. Construction cranes sport team colored lights and the whipsaw flapping of giant flags, celebrating the "twelves," the proverbial "twelfth man," the fans. Office workers, baristas, and roadside panhandlers are wearing Seahawks jerseys, scarves, and hats. I even noticed the electronic displays on the Metro buses alternating between showing the route number and flashing "Go Seahawks!" It seems that everyone is talking about the Seahawks, even those who normally refer to all athletics dismissively as "sports ball," glowing in it, warming our hands together around this midwinter blaze as if it were a giant communal bonfire to which everyone is invited.

It's easy to criticize professional sports: grown men making millions playing a game while people starve; schools being boarded up while cities build new stadiums; real humanitarian heroes being ignored in favor of guys in tights or shorts; wealthy owners reaping profits while young men break their bodies in "careers" that only last a few years. The list is long. It's fair to say our societal values are out of whack, and I'm the last to deny any of those criticisms, yet it's also hard to dismiss the positive impact these past few playoff weeks have had on our city.

Men, women, and children of all economic, ethnic, and cultural classes are anticipating together, cheering together, riding this emotional roller coaster together. And for these past few weeks, and likely several more, I've chosen to set aside my "concerns," my cynicism, and instead join my fellow citizens, shoulder to shoulder, in this tribal celebration of a game played by grown men. It's good for us.

That is the beauty of it for me, I guess, we hear the players and coaches talk about their hard work, their sacrifices, their grit and heart and determination, yet at bottom they all know it's a game: it's a celebration of play and we're all in it together, running across those monkey bars. And it's making memories of unity our children will have forever.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Monkeys Jumping On The Bed

A couple days ago, Isaac and Mile's mom Lisa asked me if the school could use an inflatable full-sized mattress with a built-in electric pump. The mattress, she said, had a slow leak and their family had not been able to give it away, having literally left it on the curb in front of their home with a "Free" sign on it for several days. That's almost unheard of in Seattle. It's an article of faith that if you have something with any value left in it at all, you can get rid of it by putting it at the curb with a "Free" sign. I myself have done this many times and nothing has ever sat unclaimed for more than a few hours. Recognizing it as pure garbage, Lisa decided to offer it to us before hauling it off to the dump. And, of course, I said yes.

This is exactly what I'm talking about when I say that one of the functions of preschool in society is not to use stuff, but to finish using it. We run our school on garbage, literally: toilet paper tubes, egg cartons, yoghurt containers, wine corks, bottle caps, and occasionally things like leaky inflatable full-sized mattresses with built-in electric pumps.

Yesterday, we put the un-inflated mattress on the workbench. Lisa was the parent-teacher responsible for that station. 

The first things that she and the kids figured out as they unfolded the mattress was that the workbench was too small. The nearest flat, open area was over by the art station, where kids were making stuff with toilet paper tubes, theater lighting gel, tape, scissors, twine and hole punches.

I was busy coming and going, so I followed the project intermittently. The next time I stuck my nose in,  the pump motor was running and a half dozen kids were sitting on the still flat mattress. A few kids then began working on the theory that the mattress would inflate faster if they all got off it. They began urging their friends to "get off" the mattress, having the experience all teachers have had, the one that makes us feel like we're herding cats: as soon as they had shooed one kid off another would step on, but finally they cleared it and, indeed, the mattress at least appeared to be filling faster.

The next time I turned my attention their way, there was a debate about whether or not they should be jumping. Some of the kids felt it was "too dangerous" and others wanted to use the mattress to "sleep" which the jumping made impossible. Lisa was moderating by more or less repeating what the various children were saying. At some point the classic early years song "Five Little Monkeys Jumping On The Bed" came up. Silas replied, "There are more than five monkeys on this bed!" This seemed to stand for everyone as a final mooting of the "no jumping" argument.

I noticed too that the motor was still running, despite the fact that the mattress appeared full. A few kids were messing around with the controls. Lisa occasionally asked, "Do you think it's time to turn it off?" a question to which the children universally replied, "No." If this hadn't been garbage, we adults would have likely made them turn it off, but since it was garbage we could treat it like garbage.

And that's the point of building a curriculum around garbage. This piece of garbage, not even good enough for the curbside, was the focal point of ongoing, free-form social, physical and scientific experiments, lead by the children themselves. And, perhaps more importantly, since it really was pure garbage, we adults found ourselves in the pedagogically correct position of not having to worry that the kids would "break it." This is the power of garbage: it's already garbage, we're just using it one more time before sending it off to the dump.

Then the inevitable happened. We heard a pop and a whoosh. "It popped! It popped!" Then from the other end of the mattress there was another pop. Both holes were easy to find; the size of quarters.

It was at this moment that the adults who had gathered around to watch began to talk over the kids' heads. This was the end, and we all knew it. We said things like, "It was fun while it lasted," and "I'm glad the kids got one last hurrah," and "I doubt there's any way to patch this thing." Meanwhile, the kids, after experimenting with staunching the flow of air with their hands, continued their sunny community experiments despite the overcast of us naysayers.

Henry shouted, "Tape!"

We adults continued our conversation over the kids' heads, "I wonder if duct tape would work?" "Maybe, but we just used up our last roll yesterday . . ." blah, blah, blah.

Henry went straight to the art table a cut off a nice long piece of the cheap colored masking tape we keep on our "tape machine" and put it over the hole. After putting his cheek down to it, he declared, "It's working" which prompted his friends to add more and more tape to each of the holes. Some kids continued to romp on the mattress while this repair work was underway. Others managed the pump controls, officiously regulating the air flow into the mattress, keeping it fully inflated. The impromptu repair crew used their eyes, ears, and hands to determine the exact location of where air continued to leak out from under their tape, then added more tape in a game of whack-a-mole. When that didn't work to their satisfaction, they tried taping on pieces of the theater lighting gel. Mateo had the idea of filleting a toilet paper tube, showing it to me saying, "I'm going to try to block the air with cardboard."

At the end of the day when the kids came inside for a final story, Lisa remained outdoors deflating and folding the mattress. She reported that the kids' patchwork efforts were "pretty effective" -- it had taken her longer than she had anticipated to get the air out even with the pump running in reverse. 

It may be a long time before this leaky inflatable full-sized mattress with a built-in electric pump becomes garbage again.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Good Parenting

"It's the people we love the most who can make us feel the gladdest . . . and the maddest! 

Love and anger are such a puzzle! It's hard for us, as adults, to understand and manage our angry feelings toward parents, spouses, and children, or to keep their anger toward us in perspective. 

It's a different kind of anger from the kind we may feel toward strangers because it is so deeply intertwined with caring and attachment.

If the day ever came when we were able to accept ourselves and our children exactly as we and they are, then, I believe, we would have come very close to an ultimate understanding of what "good parenting" means. 

It's part of being human to fall short of that total acceptance -- and often far short. But one of the most important gifts a parent can give a child is the gift of accepting that child's uniqueness." ~Mister Rogers

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