Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"No, Teacher Tom"

Our toilets and sinks are down the hall from our main classroom. The older kids come and go as they see fit, but for safety reasons, we limit access to this hallway for our youngest students, usually by closing doors. Many of them are still in diapers, those who aren't either want or need adult assistance, and some still struggle with operating the sinks, so we would need to be escorting children in any event.

Part way into our morning, parents take over for about a half hour as I slip out to prepare for the outdoor portion of our day. As a signal to let the parent-teachers know that I'm ready, I open all those doors (there are, in fact, five of them between the classroom and outdoors) and wait sitting on a bench in the hallway. The spot I wait was chosen so I will spot any kids who might make an unauthorized break for it, and be in position to steer them back to where they belong. At some point, adults then bring children to the sinks to wash-up before their snack is served.

They come up this hallway, spy me at the end, and head toward me. As they approach, I say, "I smell some stinky hands coming my way."

They then, one by one, of their own volition, come hold their hands under my nose. I sniff, then say something like, "Those hands are stinky!" or "Oh gross, your hands smell like play dough!" then say, trying to sound a bit like the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland ordering beheadings, "Wash your hands!" It's a silly little ritual that has sprung up this year, one that has become a collaboration between the children and me. Many will not move on until I've told them the exact "flavor" of their stinky hands, one boy requires that I acknowledge everything he touched that morning, filling me in when I don't know. Even the adults sometimes hold out their hands for me to smell.

Then, when their hands are clean, they pass me again, holding their hands up to my nose once more. This time I always say, "Clean and fresh," usually followed by an echo from our previous encounter, "Go eat your food!" but sometimes I mix it up, saying silly things like, "Go eat your hair!" or "Go eat your pants!"

The children then correct me, "No, go eat your food!" Those who are less verbal might stand there shaking their heads until I finally say "food." It takes some several seconds to realize what I've said, stopping in realization halfway down the stairs to turn and set me right.

This is all part of my curriculum to teach the children in my care to question authority, to really listen to the words I say, and if they don't match up to what they already know to be true, to call me on it. By this time in the school year it's all become a joke, but only a few months ago, they were earnestly correcting me, challenging me, lowering their eyebrows to tell me, "No, Teacher Tom, I don't eat pants." 

I sometimes hear adults complain about children sassing them or talking back. I don't get much of that at all as a teacher. In fact, I can't recall it ever happening. Of course, everyday, several times a day, children will tell me I'm wrong, but it doesn't bother me because that's what I want them to do. It's what all citizens should do when things don't seem right. If I can't defend it, if I can't explain it, if I I can't demonstrate it, then, as a figure of authority, I don't have any business saying it, and I deserve to be told, "No, Teacher Tom."

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Monday, March 30, 2015

How Children Make The World Meaningful

"Help! I've fallen!"

"Don't worry, dear, I'll help you!"

"I can't reach, dear!"

"Oh dear, let me reach farther!"

"Thank you, dear, you've saved me!"

"Are you okay, dear?"

"Yes, dear, I'm not hurt."

It was a cyclical game of turn taking with each of them "falling" to the bottom by running pell mell down the concrete slide, then the other two performing as rescuers, reaching out to take a hand and pull.

It was a game of relationships. Sometimes they were sisters and sometimes mothers and daughters.

It was a game of helpfulness, manners, and concern.

And it was a game of heroism.

They were so deeply engrossed in their game that they didn't even notice when I climbed up to stand with them.

Dramatic play is the thread that is woven through everything we do in our preschool. Our paintings, block buildings, and sensory play are vehicles for telling stories. When we're younger we play our stories alone, but as we reach four and five we tell our stories to and with our friends, building upon one another's imaginations, negotiating, insisting, compromising, dreaming.

This dramatic play is surrounded then by science, literacy, math, physical education, the arts and humanities, tools we take from the shelf as we need them, learning to use them at the level at which we comprehend them in the context of the story we are telling together. These "subjects" don't stand at the center of what we do at school, but rather exist to support us as we explore worlds of our own creation, practicing the relationships, manners, and courage that we need to live a fulfilling life.

When we turn that on its head, when we place the "subjects" at the center and push the stories to the side, we render that knowledge and those skills meaningless. Dramatic play is how children make the rest of the world meaningful and it's from there that the rest flows.

"I'll save you, dear!"

"You can do it, dear!"

"Oh dears, we did it!"

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Friday, March 27, 2015

The Process Of Risk

When those of us in the play-based world think of "risky play" we too often think only of the muscle, bones and blood of the playground, sometimes glamorizing the daredevils we've taught. I know I've often made the mistake of noticing the child who is climbing a little "too high," while ignoring the day-to-day risk taking going on all around me. It's not the degree of risk that's important to education, but rather, like everything else we do, it's the process that matters.

For instance, for the past couple weeks this boy has been calling me over to look at him climb this tree.  I perceive no danger in him being less than a foot in the air, but that's unimportant because he does. He's worked his way up from having not climbed the tree at all. And while I may not be "inspired" by his efforts, someone else was, using both his example and body to support herself.

Perhaps, tomorrow they will climb higher, but for today, they have found their "just right" level of risk.

Our pallet swing is a perfect example of risk as process. Many children, especially our two-year-olds, start by simply pushing it, their own two feet on the ground. It doesn't occur to them to want to climb aboard. Others chose to sit, then stand, then share the space with others. It's a process that some children work through in a matter of minutes while others may take years.

With my own daughter, I often couldn't resist the call of my parenting ego to urge or cajole her into riskier play, but I learned to respect her risk assessment process. It's when we compel or help children into situations not of their own making that we most often place them in the greatest danger.

Parents sometimes push their children on our swings, higher and higher. I don't tell them to stop, but I do point out that the only children who have ever been injured on our swings are the ones being pushed by a parent or those knocked over by a child being swung to heights they could never achieve under their own power.

The process of risk is, in fact, risk assessment. Too often, adults have attempted to usurp the role of risk assessment with meaningless warnings of "be careful." A better way to support our children as they explore their physical capabilities, as they challenge themselves, is to move a little closer and wait for them to request assistance. And even then, my response is often along the lines of, "I won't help you, but I won't let you get hurt."

This boy wanted to reach the trapeze bar. Instead of asking me to lift him up, he wrangled a table into position, climbed on it, then stood there for a long time holding the bar. I think it could have gone either way. Twice he released the bar as if to climb back down, but finally, after much thought, he let himself go, swinging wildly for a moment, then letting himself drop to the ground in triumph.

Feeling full of himself, I guess, he then made his way to the edge of the sandpit where someone had abandoned a broken plank of wood.

When he stepped on the raised end of the plank, his weight caused the lower end to rise from the ground. He spent several minutes experimenting with this, understanding it, figuring out with both his mind and body how it felt. Finally, slowly, he edged his way down, until his weight caused the raised end to dip suddenly downward. When it did, he ran the few steps to the bottom, where he turned around and, after testing the board a few more times, went back up.

I had witnessed the exact same process a few days earlier with an older boy who had found our homemade ladder suspended over the sandpit boat.

Children do take risks, but when left to their own devices, when allowed to freely explore their world, they also perform their own risk assessment along the way and it's more than just an individual process. Often risk assessment takes a village, going "viral" as one child is inspired by and learns from another.

Just the other day, a two-year-old, after many careful experiments that did not involve any adults warning that he was going to hurt himself, discovered that he could clip a clothespin to his finger. Moments later, his friends were trying it, too. He said, "I thought it would hurt but it only hurts a little."

Yesterday, we witnessed this sort of community risk assessment at its highest level.

I had placed a plank of wood across two tires as a sort of prompt. The younger children more or less ignored it, but when the older kids arrived in the afternoon, their first order of business was to raise one end by adding a tire.

There was much caution at first. The first few children to attempt it dropped to their knees and even their bellies. The ones who stayed on their feet edged their way slowly, often choosing to jump off before getting to the end.

When the third tire was added, some of the children moved on to other things. Two had been enough for this day.

The process here was similar, with children learning from one another, advising one another, and supporting one another.

They figured out that if you went to the very top, your weight would cause the lower end to kick up making it "scary," so they began to hold the lower end down for one another.

There was quite a bit of discussion about what might happen if you did fall from the top. They figured they didn't want to fall into the tires.

As time when on the play evolved, becoming objectively more risky, yet the process remained the same.

There were onlookers, many of whom took on the role of kibitzing, sometimes helpful, sometimes not. At one point a boy said, "The first one to the top gets this flag." The children heard him, paused for a moment, then continued their play as before. External motivation is irrelevant. The process of risk is it's own reward.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

We Won't Get There Through The Coal Mine

Have you ever wondered why public schools are the way they are? As Peter Gray shows in his book Free To Learn, it's mostly just pure habit. There's been a ton of investigation into how children learn best (the answer is always some version of play), but no one has ever taken a systematic look at what and how our schools attempt to teach. Nor has anyone ever even attempted to draw a correlation between the specific trivia found in a typical pre-packaged curriculum or textbook or worksheet or standardized test and a child's future prospects. The research that has been done indicates that "successful" lives are the result of some combination of being sociable, working well with others, and motivation: the trivia has never been shown to matter, while the skills learned through playing with others is everything.

No, our entire school system is simply based upon what's been done in the past, with adults telling children what and how to learn and play being increasingly, and even intentionally, eliminated. What meaningful learning that does take place seems to primarily be the result of talented teachers who know how to work with children between the cracks, and the children themselves, who are born as highly tuned learning machines and are pretty much capable of making at least a minimal level of education happen whatever we do to them.

Oh sure, there are changes around the edges, "innovations" that come down the pike, like the famous "new math" from my youth that required schools to toss out all their old text books and purchase new ones, or, more recently, Common Core State Standards, a completely untested set of mandates that require billions of dollars in spending for new "compliant" materials. Maybe this year's kids memorize more of their trivia, or learn it a little more efficiently than last year's kids, but the question that is never asked is: Why have we decided that we must subject all of our children to this specific material in this specific manner? And because we don't ask that question, I don't think it's an accident that Americans have, as Diane Ravitch details in her book Reign of Error, fretted that our schools are failing since the inception of public schools. We just don't know, and not knowing is the medium in which fear best grows.

According to the Education Industry Association, education is on the verge of becoming a $1 trillion a year "market," representing 10 percent of our nation's GNP, second only to the health care industry in size. "Education companies" are currently enjoying annual revenues of over $80 billion and growing. I don't think anyone can deny that this explosive growth has been driven largely by corporations seeking to cash-in: this is the engine of the corporate education "reform" movement. Teachers are not driving this, parents are not driving this, children are not driving this, and the only "data" involved are numbers found on the bottom line of corporate P&L statements. Pure and simple, Wall Street types, entrepreneurs, and opportunistic politicians have taken advantage of our not knowing and ramped up the hand-wringing over our public schools, disguised themselves as Supermen, and rushed their untested, over-priced products to market, chasing after those No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top dollars, and Common Core.

Left out in this equation are the children and what is best for them, and frankly, what's best for our society, which relies upon well-educated citizens in order to function. 

This isn't to say that these education corporations aren't able to point to numbers that have the scent of research-iness about them, collected like scientists studying orcas at Seaworld then trying to claim they understand orcas. They can show you how the software and textbooks and worksheets they manufacture and sell, if used according to their directions, will lead to higher scores on the tests they also manufacture, sell, and grade. It's a perfect little self-sustaining system designed to produce steady, predictable profits. But, of course, like any manufacturer worth his salt, "new and improved" models are always in development, which, if purchased, are "guaranteed" to raise those test scores (and profits) even higher . . . At least until we have another generation of "new and improved" tests, which will lead to a new round of hand wringing, Superman disguises, and slapping another "new and improved" label on yet another untested, over-priced product

And, of course, they are always working on new and improved tests because they are essential to maintaining the vicious cycle, which is something a class of 6th grade students in Ipswich, Massachusetts discovered when they were required to take a full week out of their lives to "help" the manufacturer trail-run a standardized test. The kids had no choice, so when a teacher joked they ought to be paid, the kids took her up on it. They petitioned to get paid for their labor.

Of course, it was treated as a sort of joke, but it's no joke. Until we start asking and answering the big questions about our educational system, until children and their parents can be assured that what is happening in schools is based upon the actual research and not just habit, as long as the only measures we use are those produced by these vicious cycles designed for profit, not education, then the kids have a valid a point. As education works today, it's big business generating billions in profits off the unpaid labor of children. Teachers are at least getting a paycheck, but the real work is being done by the kids who did not volunteer for this any more than the kids "volunteered" to work in Victorian era coal mines. 

And like with those juvenile coal miners, the work is unnecessarily hard and the meager "pay" comes in the form of a scrip that can only be used in the company store to purchase test scores. Our schools can be so much better, but we won't get there through the coal mine.

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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