Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Second 15 Minutes

One of the things Seattle's teachers won in their recent strike was a commitment from the school district that elementary school students would receive a minimum of 30 minutes of recess per day. In fairness, some schools were already providing more than that, but there were several, apparently, that were limiting their youngest students to a meager 15 minutes, but even so, it's actually disheartening to this play-based educator to learn that a half hour is considered a victory.

The ostensible reason for such pathetically restricted recess is that longer recesses cut into that all-important "classroom time," but I also heard from some quarters that some administrators favor limited or non-existant recesses because the longer children freely play, the more likely it is that they will wind up in conflicts.

Let me be the first to say, "Duh."

As a teacher in a school that engages in no direct instruction, but rather bases its curriculum on the evidence of how children learn best, which is through their own self-selected free play, I'm here to tell you that conflict stands at the center of how learning happens. Our entire school day, is, for all intents and purposes, recess, and yes, much of what the children are doing while playing both indoors and out is bicker.

For adults interested in eliminating bickering, I would say that 15 minutes is about right: it usually takes the children at least that long just to figure out what they're going to do, which, in a robust classroom like ours, with lots of kids with lots of agendas engaging with shared and limited resources, is typically followed by a period of often intense negotiation, which often shows up as conflict.

Yesterday, for instance, a group of four and five-year-olds, mostly boys, found themselves playing together with a collection of cardboard tubes and tennis balls. For the first 15 minutes or so, they engaged like independent agents, each arranging tubes, and collecting balls for their own personal use. That time passed relatively quietly, with each of them exploring and experimenting. 

The next 15 minutes was characterized by physical and emotional chaos, as they began to bump up against limitations of space and resources, but the real impetus for the conflicts were their divergent ideas for how they were going to play. Most of the kids were setting their tubes up at angles down which they were rolling balls, but at least one guy was more interested in using the tubes as a way to practice balance, rolling them the way a lumberjack might. The resulting spills and his lurching body, of course, tended to upend his classmates' carefully constructed efforts and there were a lot of things said about it, like, "Hey! You're knocking over my tube!" which was followed by a round or two of argument, sometimes even accompanied by shoving and other physical attempts to solve their impasse. 

Others began to collect balls, "all the balls," which lead to complaints like, "Hey! You have all the balls!"

Some objected when friends would block up the end of the tube so their balls couldn't pass through, robbing them of the satisfaction of witnessing the end result of their experiment.

By the end of this 15 minutes, there was one boy crying, several flush with frustration, and a couple who found themselves wound up into a slightly hysterical state by the hubbub. This is where I did my work for the day. I stepped in several times to help cool tempers and encourage conversation, which I did by reminding the children of the rules they had made together the previous week, the agreements we had made about how we wanted to treat one another. Among those rules were such classics as "No taking things from other people," "No hitting," "No pushing," and "No knocking down other people's buildings," along with an agreement that if someone tells you to "Stop!" you must stop and listen to what the other person has to say.

Most of the conflicts I let run their course as the kids were talking, sometimes loudly, sometimes heatedly. As long as they were heading toward resolution I stayed on the sidelines, but when things became physical or the emotions turned intense, I dropped to my knees in the midst of it and said things like, "I saw you take that tube from him. We all agreed, 'No taking things from other people,'" and "He's crying because he worked really hard building that and you knocked it down." But mostly what I did, was encourage the children to listen to one another by simply saying things like, "I want you to listen to what he has to say."

This is the period of recess play that those administrators want to avoid. I know that many schools consider recess to be a time for the classroom teachers to catch a little break, leaving the school yard in the hands of a few "monitors." One kindergarten teacher told me that they often have 40 or more children per adult on their playground. I know I wouldn't want to face that second 15 minutes without all hands on deck.

So why do we put up with that second 15 minutes? To get to the third 15 minutes. That's when all that bickering begins to pay off. That's when all the conflict and talking and listening start to bring all those ideas and agendas together. 

For the next half hour, I more or less sat on a bench and watched the children play, together, saying sentences to one another that began with the invitation word, "Let's . . ." 

"Let's connect all the big tubes!"

"Let's put all the balls in this bucket!"

"Let's move it over here!"

There was still a bit of bickering, but it was of the productive variety, with children actually listening to their friends' thoughts and ideas, sometimes disagreeing, but mostly finding ways to incorporate it within their own agenda. This is the gold standard of a play-based curriculum: creative, cooperative play, and the only way to get there is through that second 15 minutes.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

All I Can Do Is To Choose, Today, To Be Unafraid

Last week in a post about zero tolerance policies, I mentioned that Seattle's city council was set to vote in favor of a resolution that would call for an end to the practice of incarcerating children and replace the practice with policies that focus on prevention and "restorative justice," with a goal of zero youth incarceration. Yesterday, the resolution passed unanimously, as it should have.

"Shackling humiliates young people, recalls past trauma and limits their access to justice," Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe said. "All of this is antithetical to the rehabilitative mission of the juvenile court. This reform will make it easier for the court to do what it's designed to do: Help kids get on the right track."

I don't know whether to be happy or depressed by the news. Of course, it's a good thing that we appear, at least in some corners of the country, to be taking these sane and reasonable steps toward rehabilitating rather than merely punishing our children, and especially those of color who are disproportionately represented here, but they are such pathetic, baby steps that it's hard to feel good about it. 

How did we get to a place where we fear children so much that we must jail and shackle them? This is not a problem of children, but a problem with all of us. Maybe it's just an offshoot of the general culture of fear in which we live, this place where fear-mongering racists like Donald Trump can become one of  the leading candidates for President; where our government was guided for years by the "Cheney Doctrine," the delusional concept that if there is even a one percent chance of something bad being true, we have to respond as if it's a certainty; where we have more prisons than colleges and universities; where elementary school aged children are routinely restrained and confined to isolation rooms in schools; where our courts shackle and jail our children.

The US incarcerates a greater percentage of our population than any major nation on earth, by far, including such places as China. Our cops kill more citizens per day than most nations do per year. Are we really such an evil, violent, irredeemable people?

I don't think so, but we have certainly fallen under the sway of fear, and while we're all victims, our brothers and sisters of color are bearing the brunt of our fearful hysteria. It's a fear fed by racism and profits.

I'm not writing this today because I think I have a solution, because I don't. I often have to take a break from the current events because the news is essentially a list of symptoms that prove our nation's mass delusional paranoia. I often have to take a break from television programs and movies and popular books because they all seem to show me false machismo masking deep fear or simple yuck-yucks designed to distract me from it. I often have to bury myself in my work, in my preschool, in my family, where trust and hope and love are the norm, because otherwise I become filled with an impotent outrage.

In Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first inaugural address he said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." It has never been more true than it is today.

All I can do is to choose, today, to be unafraid.

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Monday, September 28, 2015

The Only Way To Get There Is To Follow

When our daughter Josephine was a four and five-year-old, she and her friends played chase; usually boys chasing girls, but sometimes switched up. The girls she ran with were often in conflict with one another, experimenting with one another's feelings, sometimes even intentionally hurting one another, but they were always allied when they played chase, a collective power with which to be reckoned.

Sometimes the girls would decide they didn't want to be chased and turned on the boys, shoulder-to-shoulder, telling them to "Stop!" And the boys would stop, although sometimes they would show their regret for the end of the game by not stopping right away, so the girls learned they must insist that no means no. It's not hard to see how games like this prepare the children for our world; not some kind of ideal world, but the real world in which we live where males still tend to pursue the females. The children were preparing themselves for the world as they perceived it, not some utopic future of radical, genderless individualism.

Peter Gray, in his book Free to Learn, explains that children, when left to their own devices, invariably prepare themselves for the real world. He writes of Jewish children in concentration camps playing games of despair and survival, because, indeed, this is the real future for which they knew they must prepare themselves:

Even in the extermination camps, the children who were still healthy enough to move around played. In one camp they played a game called "tickling the corpse." At Auschwitz-Birkenau they dared one another to touch the electric fence. They played "gas chamber," a game in which they threw rocks into a pit and screamed the sounds of people dying. One game of their own devising was modeled after the camp's daily roll call and was called klepsi-klepsi, a common term for stealing. One playmate was blindfolded; then one of the others would step forward and hit him hard on the face; and then, with the blindfold removed, the one who had been hit had to guess, from facial expressions or other evidence, who hat hit him. To survive at Auschwitz, one had to be an expert at bluffing . . . Klepsi-klepsi may have been practice for that skill.

Thankfully, our children don't have such grim prospects, but politicians and corporate data miners will tell you that we must take control of childhood in order to prepare our children for their mythological "jobs of tomorrow," as if they can somehow know the future better than the children themselves who, when given the opportunity, are always brutally honest about what that means. When my daughter and her classmates playacted heterosexual gender relations as a crude metaphor, they were so much more clear sighted about their world, and what awaited them, than any of us adult social engineering do-gooders, including myself, who tried to force Josephine into overalls and ball caps before she, as a two-year-old, yelled at me, "Papa, you don't know about girls!"

When we watch children freely play, we see the future. Those girls playing "princess" beauty games are preparing for the future they know is before them. They perceive, like all women in our culture, that they must somehow come to terms with the notion of "beauty." You may accept it, reject it, or make it your own, but our preschool girls know without a doubt that they must deal with it and it's so important they must start practicing right now. When boys play at "hero," they are playing with our culture's messages about masculinity. Just think how it must feel to know that you must grow up be an unsmiling tough guy, expected to rescue others -- you sure as hell better get to work on that. When children play games of cooperation and conflict, debate and agreement, exclusion and inclusion, they are preparing themselves for their real future, the real jobs of tomorrow.

From time to time, well-meaning folks will initiate some program or other designed to "break down" gender or race or cultural stereotypes by somehow changing the children. Among those nobel experiments were forced busing in the name of desegregation or the Swedish effort to replace gender specific pronouns with a gender neutral one. I'll leave you to decide if busing lead to a more racially egalitarian society and I seriously doubt the language experiment will impact gender inequality one way or another. Among those ignoble experiments are the Mercer Island school district's recent decision to ban the playground game of "tag" in the name of ensuring the "physical and emotional safety of all students." (Thankfully, the backlash to this initiative was such that the district quickly reversed itself.) And while I favor the goals of these initiatives, they've got it backwards: if we want to change the games children play, we must first change the society in which they live.

When we over-regulate and micro-manage childhood, robbing our kids of their free play, we prevent them from preparing themselves for the real world in favor of our fantasy world. When we get out of the way, they prepare for the future that they, themselves, will create. We have very little chance of improving civilization if we keep stubbornly seeking to train our children for those mythical "jobs of tomorrow." The only hope we have is to turn the kids free to practice for the real future that they see much more clearly than we do. And the only way for us to get there is to follow them.

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Friday, September 25, 2015

Sharing The Swings

Yesterday's post ended with the suggestion that we had a little democratic action brewing around some challenges we are having with our swing set. Specifically, we only have two swings and a pair of children who have recently learned to pump themselves have been more or less occupying those two seats before and after school and for the entirety of our outdoor time.

Our official adult-administered policy about "sharing" is that we don't insist upon it. When a child is using something, be it a broom, shovel or swing, it's that child's right and privilege to use it until she is finished. When another child wants a turn, we encourage him to make his desire clear by saying something like, "When you're finished, I want a turn," or, more efficiently, just declaring, "Next!"

Most of the time, it's a highly functional technique and the children who employ it find themselves in possession of the object of their desire within a few minutes of declaring it. Indeed, it's far more effective than the typical preschool "sharing" process in which an adult manages turn-taking according to the clock, which usually leaves the usurped feeling reluctant, compelled, and short-changed. Even in those rare cases when a child continues to monopolize a prized object for the remainder of the day, we've found that he relinquishes it the following day in deference to his classmates. My theory is that it's much easier to resist and resent adult pressure than the knowledge that a peer, a friend even, is waiting for you to be finished.

In this case, however, the two swingers, a boy and a girl, best friends, have become unified in their joyful pursuit of self-propelled heights, and here we were, approaching the two week mark of our new school year and they were still not relinquishing their seats despite a growing discontent among their classmates. Yesterday, as I predicted, while we were sitting together at circle time, our daily community meeting, one girl raised her hand and proposed a new rule: "You can't swing on the swings for the whole time."

My standard approach to opening discussions about new rule proposals is to turn it over the group by asking, "Does anyone like to get hit? No? Then we all agree, that 'no hitting' is a rule." In this case, I asked, "You can't swing on the swings for the whole time: does everyone agree?" There was a chorus of "Yes," but I saw the mouths of the joyful swingers saying, "No."

I said, "So, it sounds like most of us think it's a good rule, but some of us don't agree." We make all of our rules by consensus, so I added, "That means we can't make it a rule." Then I tried a method that has worked in the past when we've failed to achieve consensus. I said, "I want everyone who thinks it would be a good rule to sit on this side of the rug and everyone who doesn't like that rule to sit on the other side." It was clear there was some confusion among the kids about what I was asking, but through a process of repetition and clarification, we eventually sorted ourselves out. It surprised me that we seemed to have a fairly even split, but then again, I'm not sure all the kids understood what we were doing. Not all of them, after all, even cared.

I then said, "I want the people who don't like the rule 'You can't swing on the swings for the whole time' to look at your friends who like the rule. These are people who don't feel like they ever get to swing on the swings." I left some silence for the looking to take place. Then I said, "And I want the people over here who like the rule to look at the people on the other side who don't like the rule." There was no discussion. The whole process took about three minutes, then we moved on to something else.

Later, on the playground, our swingers were right back in action. I was a little crestfallen, but also knew that eventually, be it days or weeks, they would move beyond it, so I decided my best course of action was to let it go. Fifteen minutes later, however, I noticed both of the swings hanging empty and the swingers standing off to the side. No other children were around, so I grabbed one of the swings for myself, thinking I would at least "hold" it for someone who wanted a turn.

The girl swinger said to me, "We got out of the swings so other people could have a turn." The two then ran together to the art table. I spent the next five minutes pointing out the empty swings to the children who had complained the loudest, but they were too busy doing other things, so the swings more or less hung still for the rest of the day.

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Messy Beautiful Gray

Some children are rule-breakers by nature, it seems, testers, kids who are genuinely curious to learn what will happen when they do a thing that they perceive to be against some code or other. Two-year-old Esme, for instance, used to pick up a basket of dolls or blocks or whatever, look me pointedly in the eye, smile slightly, dump it out, then just stand waiting for my response. Others break rules in an attempt to connect with their classmates. Three-year-old Ken, for instance, would spontaneously shout "Poop!" or other "forbidden" words, then look around for friends to laugh along with him. I suppose there are as many reasons for breaking rules as there are humans, but around our preschool I'd say the number one reason for rule-breaking is simply that they exist in a complex world of gray, the opposite of the black-or-white world in which fear-based zero tolerance policies exist.

When rules are based instead upon agreements among peers rather than obedience, they tend to serve simply as starting points for ongoing negotiation.

The children have been working on establishing their rules for the new school year. Our four- and five-year-olds have already made a nice long list of agreements about how they intend to treat one another, while our three-year-olds only began yesterday, agreeing to a handful of basic principles. Along with this, we discuss what to do if someone is, say, hitting you or taking your things (perennially among the first two rules to which the children agree), which is to say things like, "Stop!" or "I don't like that!" or "You're breaking the rule!" And we discuss what to do if someone says, "Stop!" or "I don't like that!" or "You're breaking the rule!" to you, which is to listen.

It sounds so cut and dried, but of course, it's far more complicated that this. Just yesterday, I stepped into a scene in which two children were angrily shouting, "Stop!" at one another. I got involved because the impasse was getting physical.

"I had this rope and he's trying to take it from me!"

"But she has to share!"

And I said, "We all agreed we couldn't take things from each other. I don't think we agreed that we have to share, did we?"

They both agreed.  The boy released the rope, conceding, but I wanted to make sure he was doing it because he understood the justice rather than because I was the big, strong never wrong adult. I said, "We all agreed we couldn't take things from other people, but you can always ask her for the rope."

He turned to her and asked, "Can I have the rope?"

Naturally, she replied, "No," then added, "But you can have it when I'm finished."

And he answered, "Then I'm going to find a different rope."

The kids have already come up with their own version of the rule "You can't say you can't play," phrasing it this year as, "You can't tell people they can't play." They have already started discovering, however, that there are, in fact, times you can say you can't play. I expect we will have dozens of corollaries by the end of next month both written and tacitly agreed to.

This is what democracy is, this ongoing discussion, talking, arguing, then coming out on the other side only to find there is still more talking and arguing to do. If we were just individuals, heatedly in conflict over our personal wants and needs, we might expect to live in a constant state of war, but fortunately, we are more than individuals, we are a community. When there is conflict, we all get involved, because the resolution impacts all of us. Two emotional individuals may never find common ground, but the collective level-headedness of "we" guarantees we'll find it. Self-governing rules are not the end, but rather the beginning of a never-ending negotiation with how to live together in this world.

Two of our classmates discovered how to pump themselves on the swings this summer and, in their joy, have been monopolizing our only two swings, so much so that a handful of classmates are starting to grumble and moan, "But they're always on the swings!" One girl let me know of her intent to suggest a rule, "You can't swing on the swings the whole time." It was so important to her that she cried when we didn't have time for her proposal at the end of the day yesterday. I expect she will suggest it today, however, and we will be off again into the messy, messy beautiful gray of democracy.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Godlike Works Of A Creator

We were messing around with pipe cleaners and tissue paper circles. It's a craft-ish project in that most of the kids know, because I showed them. You can make nifty little flowers by sliding the thin disks of paper onto their bendy stems one at a time, giving each one a gentle "crush" as you go. I don't have any pictures of them, but it's a common enough preschool activity that I'm sure most of my readers know what I'm talking about. (But if you want a look, here's a version from my friend Deborah of Teach Preschool fame using squares instead of circles.)

Some of the kids do their own thing with the materials available, creating "space ships" and "spiders" and "decorations," but there are always a handful who really, really want to master the flowers. "Sarah," I thought, was one of those kids. She plunked herself down at the art table and got to work, brow furrowed, her authoritative chatter letting us know she was on top of things. Since I'd already demonstrated my own technique, I moved on to other things, leaving the art station in the capable hands of a parent-teacher.

Later, while outdoors, I chatted with the parent-teacher, saying something like, "That art project was pretty popular today. Sarah seemed to really like it."

She answered, "It was, but you know, she didn't make a single flower. She couldn't figure out how to get the tissue paper on the stem without tearing it." A huge bouquet of flowers had been created at that table and Sarah had sat there, hands busy for a good half hour. How could it be possible that she hadn't produced a single flower?

"Nope, not one," was the answer, "But she worked really hard. Every time she tried to crush the tissue like you showed them, the paper came off."

I'd not been watching Sarah's production, but only, occasionally, her face and body language. Not once had I seen a sign of frustration or failure. No, the girl I'd seen was hard at work, concentrating, narrating her activities, deeply involved in what I assumed was a manufacturing process like that of the other kids around the table who were making one for "mom," one for "dad," one for "grandma," one for "my pet cat Simon . . ."

"I tried to help her, but she didn't want help. She told me she was already an expert flower maker."

I said, "I guess that means we'd better keep making flowers tomorrow."


The following day, I made the same materials available, not on the art table this time, but on another table, a place where there would be no dedicated parent-teacher. Sarah didn't go there right away, instead choosing a housekeeping game, but before long she was drawn in, taking up a spot, alone with the materials. I sat with her, taking up my own stem, not saying anything. I watched her slide a tissue paper circle onto her pipe cleaner, tearing a huge hole in it during the process. And as had happened the day before, when she crushed it, it came off the stem. This didn't seem to bother her at all as she tossed the wad of paper aside and reached for another. This time she worked more slowly, nudging it along carefully, still ripping the paper too much, but when she crushed it, it stayed, almost balanced in place. Gingerly, she added a second disk of paper, halfway up the stem, then a third. 

From an artistic perspective it was a pretty pathetic looking flower. She held it up, no extra pride in her expression, no sign that there was anything amiss, "That's just so beautiful," then stuck in in the glass vase where we were displaying our finished pieces. She then got to work on another.

I put a piece of tissue paper on my stem and in my best imitation of the way she had done it, tore the hole a little too big, then crushing it to keep it precariously fixed in place. Sarah watched me from the corner of her eyes. "No, that's not the way," she said. "You have to do it more gently. Like this," then she showed me on her own flower.

I tried imitating her as best I could. "Good," she said, "You're getting it. Now, do another one." I followed her instructions.

She made a second flower as pathetic as the first and called it good. Before starting on a third, she watched me for a moment, growing frustrated with my attempts, although I was doing my best to imitate her. She snatched it from me, her voice infused with a false cheerfulness, "Here, let me just do that for you." In her rush, she caused all the tentatively fixed tissue to drop from my stem. "See?" she said, "That's what's supposed to happen. Now you can start over."

I did not like the feeling of failure the exchange gave me, even as I knew I'd not failed. I knew because I'm an adult and I had practically invented this damn process, yet here I was with the tables turned. This is why I'm not a big fan of crafts in preschool: I worry that we put too many children in this situation. I said, reflexively, "I don't want to start over."

She sighed, "Okay, but you'll never figure it out if you give up."

"That's true." I got back to work, this time making a flower the way I'd initially shown the kids two days before, quickly pulling together a nice, tidy white carnation. Sarah watched me work without comment, then got back to her own stem. When she was finished with yet another pathetic flower, she said, "I think we should plant these in the garden."

I answered, "They would be pretty," then joking, "But, you know, they're not real flowers."

"I know that."

"I think the wind and rain would destroy them."

"Yes, but real flowers always fall off, too," and even as she said it, one of her tissue paper wads fell from the stem she held. "Like that."

It was then that I understood Sarah's flowers. She was not making the perfect little imitation flowers the rest of us were making, but "real" flowers, the kind that bloom, live, then fall away when the spring winds blow. And in that flash, I was no longer in the presence of the pathetic attempts of a child, but rather what I saw before me were the godlike works of a creator.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Getting What We Want While Also Getting Along

A clutch of three-year-olds were standing around our blue table. They were attracted there by a pair of toys that always attract a crowd, both of which were designed with solitary play in mind. We play with these toys in our full, robust classroom, in part, exactly because only one person at a time can really use them as intended.

There are dozens of others things to be doing around the classroom, but there is always a handful of kids who freely chose to go shoulder-to-shoulder with their friends around the blue table, finding ways to cooperate. Yes, sometimes conflicts erupt, but yesterday, if there were any, they didn't rise to a level of intensity that drew my attention. Sometimes they played with multiple hands on the toys, each in a solitary exploration. Sometimes they took turns. Sometimes they found ways to play together.

This is why we're here, of course, to work on exactly the cooperative skills that playing with these attractive toys make necessary. The only way it's any fun for anyone is if we are all in a constant state of working things out. We practice both making our own needs and desires clear while also listening to the needs and desires of others. Is this a battle worth fighting? Is there an agreement we can make that avoids a battle? It's an ongoing negotiation that changes from person-to-person and moment-to-moment.

It's a lot of work, but there are always a half dozen kids choosing it, nevertheless. This, I think, reflects our instincts at work. We often think of human instincts in terms of the baser variety, especially when it comes to school, but these are among our highest instincts, the ones that drive us to engage in the hard work of getting what we want while also getting along.

As I sat at the blue table watching the many hands manipulating doors and keys and switches and knobs, listening to the children chat and bicker and agree and, yes, sometimes even give up, at least for now, Jack said to me, "I want the keys." 

I said, "Miles has them."

He turned to his friend and said, "Miles, I want the keys."

Miles seemed to ignore him as he tried inserting a plastic key into a plastic lock, then another. Jack watched over his shoulder. Then, after about 15 seconds, Miles said, "Here you go, Jack," and handed him the keys. They then started opening and closing the doors together.

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Monday, September 21, 2015

Zero Tolerance

By now I'm sure you've heard about the Texas school boy, Ahmed Mohamed, who was arrested when his teacher thought the homemade clock he brought to school looked like a bomb. From the start, it was obvious that they didn't really think it was a bomb. If they had really been thought that, they would have evacuated the school and called in a bomb squad, which they didn't. Instead, they sent the boy to the police station in a squad car with the suspected "bomb." The legal charges have been dropped, but the boy remains suspended from school on the grounds that he brought a fake bomb to school in accordance with their "zero tolerance" policy.

We also now all know that it hasn't turned out badly for Ahmed. His cause became both a social and regular media sensation, and he has now been invited to the White House, along with receiving dozens of other trips, honors, and gifts from people and institutions by way, I guess, of a societal apology. 

Most victims of these zero tolerance policies, however, aren't so lucky. We've all heard stories of children who were sent home from school or otherwise disciplined for bringing toy weapons to school, even when said "weapon" was clearly a toy, just as Ahmed's clock was clearly not a bomb. One poor child even got in trouble for chewing his Pop Tart into a pistol shape. 

And it's not just around guns and bombs that we have these abusive zero tolerance policies. Not long ago an 11-year-old was suspended for a full year for bringing a maple leaf to school in his backpack that his teachers mistook for a marijuana leaf. Even now, after they know it wasn't contraband, the boy remains suspended, due to a policy that treats even "imitation" drugs as drugs. According to reports, he has become withdrawn, anxious and depressed during his suspension, which, I would think, is a child's natural response to this sort of abuse.

Did Ahmed at some point joke that his clock was a bomb? Some are asserting that. Did the 11-year-old boast to a friend that his maple leaf was really marijuana? Those sure sounds like things a cocky kid might do. Do kids with plastic toy guns point them at friends and say, "Bang!"? No doubt. But in every one of these examples, the authorities knew, or at least should have known, that there was no real danger. 

Zero tolerance policies, especially when applied to children, lead to these sorts of Kafkaesque scenarios, most of which never make it to the news. They remove judgement from the mix and replace it with a sort of institutionalized fear which leads to this sort of abusive overreaction. The proper response in each of these cases should be, at worst, a scolding along the lines of, "Guns/bombs/drugs are nothing to joke about," not suspension or arrest. Better, of course, is to simply laugh at these attempts to imitate mature humor, pat them on the head and let them know they are loved.

It's time to end zero tolerance policies both in schools and in society as a whole. Children need the space to make mistakes without being subjected to these sorts of irrational punishments. Of course, this holds true for adults as well, but certainly we can find it in our hearts and in our heads to have at least some "tolerance" for children who are, by definition, going to make mistakes as they try to make sense of our society that both loves and hates violence, drugs and sex (I'm thinking here of the boy who was arrested for child pornography for taking nude photos of himself).

Part and parcel with this is the crazy notion that children can be tried "as adults" in a court of law or even incarcerated for the stupid crimes of their youth. The evidence is that this type of punitive approach to childhood is more likely to lead to a distrust of society and a hardening of criminal behavior, rather than the proverbial turning over of a new leaf, yet we continue to treat children intolerantly.

Last week, the Seattle City Council agreed to vote on a policy that will ban the practice of incarcerating children. It will likely pass unanimously. It saddens me that this is a cause for celebration.

It's time to set fear aside and replace it with common sense.

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Friday, September 18, 2015

My Best Friends Are Five-Year-Olds

Tuesday was the first day of school for our class of two-year-olds. Some children didn't find a need to speak aloud to me, nor will they for several weeks. I mean, they don't know me: at best they're just taking their parents' word for it that I'm an okay guy. I don't blame them for wanting to wait to make their own decisions.

This is even true for kids like this one who has been coming to our school for longer than her lifetime, dropping off her older sister, all the way back to the womb. A year ago, she would flirt with me from her mother's arms, and now our school is her own.

Last Friday, I substitute taught our new kindergarten class for a couple hours when Teacher Rachel had to be away. Many of her kids are children I met as two-year-olds as well, and who I've been teaching for the past three years. I found myself delighting in the easy familiarity we all have together. It occurred to me as we sat around cracking jokes (many of the inside variety), sharing ideas and making plans, that these people are, in a very real sense, my best friends. It was an odd thought at first, a grown man with five-year-old best friends, but the truth is that I've spent more time with these children over the past three years than anyone besides my own family. I know them, they know me, and we love one another without reservation. We've been through tears and joy together, conflict and cooperation, failure and success. If that's not the stuff from which best friends are made, I don't know what is.

As I watched this younger sister, striving to reach the trapeze bar, then to summon up the courage to let herself swing freely, I found myself missing her sister, another best friend, who is this year beginning her kindergarten journey at another school. And not just her, but all of them, all of the children who have blessed me with their love and friendship, then moved on with their lives. Years from now, when I run into them around the neighborhood, many will act shyly toward me; understandable, but a bit heartbreaking nevertheless.

I made eye contact with this little sister, who smiled at me before launching herself on the trapeze bar, swinging back and forth before landing her feet on the stool she had used to reach the bar in the first place. She smiled at me again, speaking without words, Did you see what I just did?

I gave her a thumb's up.

She swung again. I gave her another thumb's up, this time adding, "You did that."

She swung again and again and again. I replied again and again and again until it was a game we were playing or maybe a joke we were telling. Some day, I'll miss her too, but for now we'll be best friends.

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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Download This App Today!

Let me state right up front, it wasn't my idea to download this latest app for the preschool. It was Luca's mom Megan who thought the school just had to have it. Her own kids had really enjoyed it, it was sooo educational, you know, the usual blah, blah, blah.

I guess I should quit fighting it. After all our kids are growing up in this world, and huge sheets of cardboard are going to be part of it, but I worry about what it's doing to their brains. Still, for better or worse, there we were, taking part in this grand social and developmental experiment.

It didn't surprise me, of course, that the kids took to it right away. I mean, it's cardboard, right? They all seem to be drawn to it.

Honestly, it's amazing how they somehow intuitively knew how to turn it on and start using it.

It only took a few seconds for them to figure out how to get to the napping function where they all cozied in together and made me turn off the lights. I have to say, that doesn't happen often without the app!

But what really impressed was when they discovered the fort building function. How they did it, I'll never know, but, I mean, there they were, 3, 4, and 5-year-olds already learning their forts! And I don't think they even knew they were learning anything. I mean the cardboard app can't be all bad if they're doing forts as young as three years old -- that's a lifelong skill there, people!

They started with the upright, roofless kind of fort. Like I said -- three years old. If you could see my face right now, I'd be raising my eyebrows at you in a knowing way.

Then, get this, they figured out another kind of fort that involved getting low and adding roofs! I mean, I'm an educated guy, but these preschoolers took to the technology as if they were born with it in their genes.

And I have to say, they didn't seem to be turning into cardboard zombies the way I'd feared. Only time will tell, of course, but for now they seemed quite actively engaged: not only with the cardboard, but with each other, and it really looked like it was involving their whole minds and bodies. 

I asked Megan if she'd found any need to set limits or anything, but other than "not in the living room," she hadn't so far. And she guiltily mentioned another feature that I'd secretly been enjoying myself: it really kept the kids occupied when she needed to get something done. I mean, let's be honest, that isn't always a bad thing.

Then they figured out the slide, human sandwich, pig-pile function, which made them squeal. Anything that can make children laugh like that can't be all bad. Still, I had some questions.

I decided to ask a few experts about their thoughts on young children and cardboard, starting with a psychologist who sighed, and said, "Well, it's cardboard. What can you do? You can't ban it. That will only turn it into forbidden fruit." The neuro-scientist perked up when I asked him for his thoughts, saying, "There's actually some very compelling evidence that early exposure to large sheets of cardboard stimulates not only the part of the brain that makes you feel good to be alive, but also seems to have some effect on the every other region of the brain worth developing."

This information in my pocket, but still not entirely convinced, I returned to school determined to try my own experiments. Of course I didn't tell any of my fellow teachers about this in advance for fear of being ostracized, but I took the cardboard outside.

That's right. I was nervous about it, but the kids knew just what to do, discovering the paints and painter's tools function and transforming the cardboard into everything from a bus stop to a castle to a maze to a work of art.

They engaged as if they were born to do it, creatively, scientifically, and socially. 

It's a brave new world folks. I'm a convert. Download this app today! You won't regret it.

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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