Friday, January 29, 2016

The Only Way Democracy Works Is If We The People Stand Up And Make It Work

On Tuesday, I wrote about the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, and his cronies knowingly poisoning the people of the city of Flint with drinking water that contains 16 times the allowable amount of lead. Most tragically, are the 8,500 or so children who have been drinking and bathing in this crap for two years: lead is known to cause irreversible brain damage.

Over the course of this last week, I've become increasingly angered and appalled at the state of affairs in a place I once called home, each day discovering some new outrage committed by this governor who deserves the title of genocidal sociopath. (I don't use the term "psychopath" only because his crime seems to be the result of selfish disregard for the lives of others rather than an overt attempt to injure them, a distinction without much of a difference in this case I know.) Competing with the urge to march on the governor's mansion with torches and pitchforks, is a desire to do something for the people of Flint.

I'm not the only one. Millions of bottles of water have been sent to Flint by everyone from Pearl Jam to Walmart, but as Flint's most famous native son, filmmaker Michael Moore, writes on his website:

You would have to send 200 bottles a day, per person, to cover what the average American (we are Americans in Flint) need each day. That's 102,000 citizens times 200 bottles of water -- which equals 20.4 million 16 oz. bottles of water per day, every day, for the next year or two until this problem is fixed (oh, and we'll need to find a landfill in Flint big enough for all those hundreds of millions of plastic water bottles, thus degrading the local environment even further). Anybody want to pony up for that? Because THAT is the reality.

He goes on to write:

This is a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. There is not a terrorist organization on Earth that has yet to figure out how to poison 100,000 people every day for two years -- and get away with it. That took a Governor who subscribes to an American political ideology hell-bent on widening the income inequality gap and conducting various versions of voter and electoral suppression against people of color and the poor.

What he doesn't mention is that over half of all of Michigan's black citizens currently live under the financial thumb of the emergency manager dictators who are, via the governor, to blame for the mass poisoning of Flint.

We have now seen the ultimate disastrous consequences of late-20th century, neoconservative, trickle own public policy. That word "trickle," a water-based metaphor, was used to justify this economic theory -- well, it's no longer a metaphor, is it? Because now we're talking about how actual water has been used to institute these twisted economic beliefs in destroying the lives of the black and the poor in Flint, Michigan.

Moore's piece is entitled "Don't Send Bottled Water." Instead, if you really want to help:

(W)hat we need in Flint -- and across the country -- right now, tonight, is a nonviolent army of people who are willing to stand up for this nation, and go to bat for the forgotten of Flint.

The first thing to do is sign this petition that demands the immediate removal and arrest of Governor Rick Snyder. Then click over to Moore's site and read the full piece which includes a list of other things we can do. And none of them are things that you can do, only things that we can do.

Some of you may ask what this has to do with the early childhood education. I'll repeat what I said on Tuesday. This tragedy was caused by the same "American political ideology" that informs the corporate-style education "reform" movement, the one that is destroying our public schools with standardized testing, standardized curricula, school closures, union-busting, and scandal-plagued charter schools, all of which are the educational equivalent of switching our water supply to the Flint River. The only thing that can fix this is democracy and the only way that democracy works is if we the people stand up and make it work.

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Thursday, January 28, 2016

If We Don't Play In The Rain, We Don't Play Outdoors At All

Last winter was a dry one here in Seattle, mild and dry with more sunny days than we're accustomed to seeing here in the Pacific Northwest. It was pleasant, but I for one am glad that we're back to normal this year as the atmospheric rivers have returned to their proper course, alternatively dousing and dribbling on us, filling our water reservoirs to overflowing and building up snow pack in the mountains that provide us with plenty when the dryer summer months return. They say that wars of tomorrow will be fought over water: I reckon I live on a future battle field.

If you've read here for any length of time, you know that I have many bones to pick with how our public schools do business, but in all honesty, the thing that provides the sharpest burr under my saddle is how they deal with rain. I mean, more often than not, when it's rainy, and it's pretty much always been rainy for weeks now, the kids stay indoors for what's called "rainy day recess." And when they do go out in the damp, the kids are commanded to stay out of the puddles. In fact, a couple years back the mother of a former student sent me pictures of a magnificent puddle that had formed at her son's school. She said that the kids spent their recess standing outside of a line of caution tape watching the custodian try to sweep it away.

That is a special kind of crazy.

In contrast, we play with a lot of water at Woodland Park, going through a hundred gallons or so a day, most of which flows through our cast iron water pump and down through the sand of our two level sand pit, even when it's dumping from the sky. I know this sounds decadent to those of you who live in water challenged parts of the world, but, you know, I'm sure you have things aplenty that we would covet. Still, I recognize how lucky we are and have no problem living with the 9-10 months a year of cloud cover that is the price we pay for living in one of the greenest places on earth.

Children never tire of playing in and with water: experimenting with it, studying it, attempting to control it, splashing in it, feeling it soak through their pants or shoes or sweaters. Perhaps the most popular fashion accessories, after rubber boots, are what we call "Muddy Buddies," light-weight, full-body rain suits that cover the kids from head to toe. I see it as one of my special missions as a preschool teacher to spend as much time in the rain as possible. I mean, after all, we all know how important it is for all of us, and especially children, to be outdoors. If we don't play in the rain, we don't play outdoors at all.

I once met an educator from the Reggio Emilia region of Italy who was touring our area. She said to me, "All the preschools here say they are Reggio Emilia. How can they be Reggio Emilia in Seattle? Why can't you be Seattle preschools?" Well, rain and mud are Seattle, which is why they are a central element of what we learn about through our play.

Most of our rain comes in the form of misty drizzle, but last week we played in torrential rain, the kind that feels as if someone is dumping buckets of water on your head. A magnificent puddle formed  at the bottom of the sand pit. There was no caution tape or custodians and when there were breaks in the rain, the kids kept it full with the pump. 

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Walking Man

One of my favorite recreations is what I call urban hiking. I love few things more than to put on a good pair of shoes and take off to walk my city. The best days are the ones during which I walk all day, 8-9 hours, non-stop, covering 15-20 miles.

I think of it as a kind of walk-about. I sometimes start off with my music in my ears, but usually turn it off after the first hour. I'm seeking the experience of solitude, I suppose, and the ordeal of trudging for hours on end is the way I get there. To say I "enjoy" it would be inaccurate, because I don't always like what I'm doing. I often curse myself for biting off more than I can chew, I worry about the blister I feel forming on my heel, I carry on aggravating, often argumentative imaginary conversations with the people in my life. But, after a time, if I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, my entire world becomes about simply putting one foot in front of the other, step over step, step over step, moving forward until I achieve a kind of meditative state in which even my internal chatter disappears and all I'm left with is the putting of one foot in front of the other.

I'm usually underway without a destination in mind until the final hour or two. That's when I start homing in on a location with two important features: good food and easy access to mass transit. I'm particularly fond of bellying up to the noisy bar in a place with a well-reputed kitchen, sweaty, dusty, and tired, starting with water, then a beer, then an appetizer, then a salad, then a massive gut-busting entree. I gradually re-enter the society of other humans by exchanging words with the bartender or the strangers sitting beside me, connecting with them in snippets. By the time I've finished a second beer and dessert, I'm ready to totter off to the bus stop and head home to my family.

These are special times for me because most of my life as a husband, father, and teacher is about being deeply engaged with the other people, responding to them, listening, steering, persuading, being persuaded, the stuff of which a good life is made.

I'm not the only one out there walking. There's another guy, in particular, who I often encounter on my walks. He appears to be one of the many homeless men who wander anonymously about our city.  He wears several layers of dirty clothing, including a parka, even on the hottest days. He carries a duffle bag, which he occasionally shifts from one shoulder to the other. He walks, as I do once I've achieved my meditative state, with his eyes on the ground a few feet in front of him, the bill of his dusty LA Dodgers cap keeping his face in shadow, although I've peeked under there to see a handsome, bearded face with pale blue eyes. He could be a man aged anywhere from 40 to 70. In my mind, I've named him "The Walking Man."

I don't only see him when I'm on my urban hikes. I've often come across him in the my own Pandora (Seward Park) as I exercise the dog. And I've passed him in the car as far away as Madison Park, 10 miles north of there. As near as I can tell, he spends his days, every day, slow-marching his way up and down the shores of Lake Washington, not looking left or right, just walking. I've tried saying, "Hi," but since it seems to make him wince, I've tempered my friendliness to just nodding and smiling. He does respond a bit to the dog, moving to the edge of the wooded paths when we encounter him in what I can only see as a touching act of self-preservation. Was he bitten by a dog as a child? Was he born with a fear of dogs?

I ask myself these kinds of questions about him. I wonder about him as a child. Did he play with the other children or was he isolated even then? Were there great tragedies in his life that shut him down or is he the victim of untreated mental illness exacerbated by simple neglect? If there ever were people who cared about him, have they died or abandoned him? Or are there people, even now, who love him, worry about him, people who are seeking him out?

In one sense, of course, we are all alone in this world, and while we each must discover our own way to deal with that great and terrifying truth, most of us, most of the time, find that connecting with one another in love and common cause is the only healthy way to go. As much as I want to find a spiritual or philosophical rationale for why The Walking Man is engaged in a valid response to the great and terrifying truth, he is not. Somewhere along the way he was betrayed by the rest of us humans. Either we shut him down through abuse or neglect, or we never gave him the opportunity to learn the social and interpersonal skills we all need in order to not be alone. Without that, I can understand why he just keeps moving, putting one foot in front of the other, fixing his eyes on the ground before him and nothing else. To look up, even for a moment, is to contemplate an abyss, something none of us can do for very long without going insane.

Motivation, sociability, the ability to work with others: these are, after all, the only things worth teaching our young children. Friendliness, courtesy, appropriately processing emotions, gentleness, laughter, eye contact, smiling, curiosity: these are the skills that we all need in order to connect with the other people.

Of course, we all need to be alone as well, to recharge, reassess, renew, but without the prospect of a humans at the other end, we become The Walking Man.

We sing a song at school called "When Sammy Put The Paper On The Wall." Near the end we all come together in one of those hot-breathed, germ-sharing group hugs singing, "We're all stuck together." I slow the song down at that point, sometimes even repeating the line again, holding the note, giving us a chance to experience all of our bodies clutched together like that, vibrating with the only answer to the meaning of life that makes any sense, large and small, boys and girls, introverts and extroverts.

We then separate to the line, "Like birds of a feather," flapping our wings, and then finish big, "Since Sammy put the paper on the waaaaaaaalllllll!"

Not long ago, one of the children, said after we finished, "Let's do a caterpillar hug!" I'd never heard that expression before, although it immediately conjured an image in my mind. Apparently, I wasn't the only one. We adults did our usual adult thing of trying to help organize them, but we were really superfluous. The children lined themselves up, one behind the other, wrapping their arms around the waist of the child in front while also being embraced from behind, all stuck together, a giggling, squirming chain of humans.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Why The Poisoning Of Flint Is A Lesson For Us

There are few things that anger me more than those who abuse their power in the name of a greasy buck. For those of you who have not heard, the city of Flint, Michigan has been in the news lately because its entire population of around 100,000 has been poisoned by lead contaminated drinking water, including some 8,500 children. Lead poisoning is known to cause a wide range of health problems including brain damage and even death. The effects are irreversible and are particularly damaging in children.

In 2011, the city's financial management was taken over by the state via Governor Rick Snyder's extremely aggressive use of a law that allows him to appoint a dictator to run the city under the moniker "emergency manager." This emergency manager is installed above the mayor and city council, effectively robbing the citizens of a city of their democratic voice. This emergency manager then, acting as a sort of CEO, in the name of saving a buck, switched the city's water supply away from a safe source to the heavily polluted Flint River, a waterway made that way over decades by the automotive industry. The express purpose was saving money. Even as citizens complained about the smell, taste, and even toxicity of their water, this emergency manager, with the full support of state government, denied the problem for well over a year. Recently released emails, however, prove that they've long known the water was lead-contaminated, yet they've only been forced to admit the tragic truth recently under pressure from citizens who have watched their loved ones suffer and even die because of these criminals who want to "run government like a business."

I've been married to a serial entrepreneur for 30 years, and through that process have learned a little something about how a good business operates. I'm aware that there is far more to it than just cutting costs to the bone, but in Michigan and elsewhere across our country, the phrase "running government like a business" is a mantra that is most often translated politically as cutting costs to the bone. When I worked for the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce in the mid-1980's, "privatizing" governmental functions was one of our initiatives. It was always understood that saving money was the primary thing we were selling. Not at all surprisingly, some of the evidence seems to indicate that the switching of the water supply to the Flint River was the beginnings of a masterplan to privatize the water supply. In other words, they were going to sell a piece of their government to private investors right along with democratic accountability. What a stupid thing: to turn the management of such an essential things as water over to private enterprise, where profit, not citizen health and well-being is the number one concern. It's the kind of thing that invariably and predictably leads to the poisoning of all the children.

And as for saving money, taxpayers will be paying for the health damage this has caused for a generation, just the way taxpayers had to bailout the banks for the damage cause by their crimes that lead to the Great Recession of 2008. Government is government: it cannot be run like a business.

This should be a lesson to those of us who care about public education. The corporate march to privatize our schools has been on for a good decade or more, with some districts (most notably New Orleans) already fully privatized in the most horrifying of ways. Our schools have been overrun by such corporate-inspired measures as high stakes standardized testing, standardized curricula, school closures, union-busting, and scandal-plagued charter schools, all of which are the educational equivalent of switching our water supply to the Flint River. It is toxic and, like in Flint, our children are being forced to drink it.

(Note: Please also read Nancy Flanagan's comment below for important details on what is happening in Michigan.)

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Monday, January 25, 2016

Such A Damned Hard Job

I've been blogging here since March of 2009, posting something almost every day for nearly seven years. I was inspired by one of our school's parents who told me about her blog and the idea appealed to me, but mostly as a place to "stash" a couple articles I'd written for local publications, figuring that someone might stumble across them and find them of value. In those days I was thrilled, and even a little frightened, when a hundred people stopped by the take a look at what I'd done.

I started slowly those first couple months, but by July I was pretty much getting something up every day, including weekends. I've now cut back to five days a week, posting mostly new material, although about once a week I'll dig something out of the archives, dust it off, fluff it up, add new photos and present it again. 

In the beginning I attempted to "market" the blog, hooking up with fellow bloggers, sharing their links so that they would share mine, but for the most part I've done nothing more than post the best thing I can each day. Several times a week, someone approaches me for tips on how to build their audience. All I can do is tell them my story: post the best thing you can each day for a long time.

Today, each of my posts reach thousands of people, often tens of thousands, even the crappy ones, even the ones riddled with typos, and through that I've gained some notoriety, at least within our little world of progressive, play-based early childhood education. I've even three times been recognized on the street by readers: "Hey, aren't you Teacher Tom?" One time it happened while my wife was with me, which opened her eyes to my little blogging hobby. And because of the blog, I've had the opportunity to travel to eight countries on four continents over the last several years, all cool stuff for which I'm incredibly grateful. Yet, at bottom, I'm still just a guy who gets up at 5 a.m. and writes for an hour or so while sitting in my living room in my PJs before heading off to my day job teaching preschool.

The hardest part of doing this isn't coming up with ideas (because there is always something to blog about) or waking up every day (I was a 5 a.m. riser even before the blog) or anything like that. The hardest part is that I've come to realize that at some level I've become a kind of public figure, at least in certain circles, and with that comes the necessity to develop a "thick skin." Over the years, readers have called me, among other things, sexist, racist, passive aggressive, narcissistic, stupid, and arrogant, some or maybe all of it deserved. It doesn't happen often, thankfully, but it hurts each time. I'm not writing this as a ploy to elicit compliments because I receive far more of those than the other, but only to share some of the reality of doing anything in a public way. I don't know how really famous people do it.

Of course, the truth is that every teacher, and every early childhood educator in particular, has to develop a thick skin. Every year, in our 2's class, there is a child or two who can't bear to be near me for any length of time. I know they love me, their parents tell me they talk about me all the time at home, imitate me, sing my songs, and cry when it isn't a school day, but my "celebrity" status overwhelms them when it's undiluted by space or time. This is true for every preschool teacher on the planet: we are all local celebrities who stand very much at the center of the lives of the children we teach and, through them, their families. And that also means that we all stand in a place where we must endure some slings and arrows.

Being the parent is an emotional endeavor and teachers are often convenient punching bags. I'm not saying that some of it isn't deserved. We all make mistakes, we all have "hurt" children we meant to help, and some of us have huge blind spots about our weaknesses, but just as we often receive far too much credit, we also receive far too much blame. I used to allow myself to fight back. Twice during my early years of teaching I literally yelled at parents who I felt were being unfair, and there are times when I still feel like it, but I've learned to bite my tongue, just as I've learned to simply avoid responding to readers who insult me. It's part of the profession: we stand in the midst of an emotional place and, deserved or not, part of the job is to passively absorb at least some of it.

This is the part that people who have never taught don't understand about what we do. It's not all playgrounds and messy art and silly songs. Every morning, no matter how much I love what I do, there is a part of me that worries that this will be the day when something I've done or said or failed to do or say will make me, in someone else's eyes, a jerk of some sort and they'll tell me so with all the heartfelt emotion that comes with the territory. And the truth is that one never really develops a thick skin: it always hurts.

This is why teaching is such a damned hard job.

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Friday, January 22, 2016

Girl Talk

Lately, I've been starting my afternoons hanging out with a few of the four and five-year-old girls on the playground, just engaging in a little girl talk. At least I call it "girl talk," then they tell me I'm not a girl, but I can still talk with them.

Last week we were giving each other friendship fist bumps when one of them had the idea of elbow bumps instead. As we exchanged elbow bumps, I was actually saying "elbow bump" with each connection. No one else was doing this and I suddenly had a small epiphany about why teenagers hate it so much when we old people try to use their slang. We do annoying things like saying "elbow bump" when we're giving elbow bumps. Fortunately, I thought, these were not teens and therefore unlikely to even notice my nerdy-ness.

Well, I was wrong. After saying "elbow bump" a time too many, one of the girls asked, "Did you just say, elbow butt?"

It was a good one, so I laughed.

One of them then wondered, "What if we really did have elbow butts."

"It would be bumpy."

"We could put our butts and our elbows on the table at the same time."

"We could elbow bump with our butts."

I love me some girl talk.

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Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Grand Theory Of Everyday Education Reform

It is well known that the attainment of a Paretian optimum requires the simultaneous fulfillment of all the optimum conditions. The general theorem for the second best optimum states that if there is introduced into a general equilibrium system a constraint which prevents the attainment of one of the Paretian conditions, the other Paretian conditions, although still attainable, are, in general, no longer desirable. In other words, given that one of the Paretian optimum conditions cannot be fulfilled, then an optimum situation can be achieved only by departing from all the other Paretian conditions. The optimum situation finally attained may be termed a second best optimum because it is achieved subject to a constraint which, by definition, prevents the attainment of a Paretian optimum.  ~Grand Theory of the Second Best (R.G. Lipsey and Kelvin Lancaster)

There is a crazy-man artist who hangs-out in the Center of the Universe named Fawzi "Benny" Benhariz. This guy's artform is to balance rocks. Some of his pieces are staggering in their apparent impossibility, large stones, perched atop one another on points no larger than the tip of your pinky, balanced there where even the slightest breeze could topple them over. I swear it looks like a magic trick, surreal and beautiful and as close to perfection as a human being can get. 

But sooner or later the rocks always fall. Or at least I assume they do because of what I know about the world: perfection will not be abided. Something always happens to even the most wonderfully balanced of systems, and when rocks fall, especially big rocks balanced precariously between a well-traversed city sidewalk and a well-traveled city street, they can result in damaging or injurious consequences, which is why the city wants Benny to get a street use permit that would require carrying liability insurance, something beyond the reach of a homeless guy. So he's become a sort of outlaw artist, loved and hated, and not only because he points out by his very existence, there on the streets of Fremont, that the rocks will always come tumbling down.

In 1956, a pair of economists, one Canadian, the other Australian, published a paper in which they detailed their Grand Theory of the Second Best. Essentially, they proved that in any theoretical economic system, if even one of the "optimal conditions" cannot be fully met for whatever reason, then it makes moot all the other conditions required to balance the system. In other words, when it comes to making economic theories work in the real world, it's all or nothing. Close enough doesn't count, and according to the theory, if one persists in still trying attain those other conditions, one can in fact create disastrous consequences. Indeed, the second best option probably requires none of the conditions that would have been required to fulfill the first option, sending everyone, in a rational world, back to the drawing board.

I'm not an economist, of course, and I have no doubt that there's a lot more to this idea given that the authors expanded it into an entire book (which I've not read), but I see the basic principle at work every day even in areas apparently unrelated to economics, so I'm inclined to accept its essential truth. It's why fundamentalist dogma of any sort (economic, religious, educational) always becomes dangerous when it comes into contact with reality and why, when faced with the real world, advocates, unwilling to give up on their other optimal conditions, have to instead resort to increasingly draconian measures to keep the faithful in line, usually with the excuse that this is just a phase through which we must pass in order to get to their utopic promised land.

And that brings me to the rote-based education reform types (e.g., Education Secretary Arnie Duncan, former superintendent of Washington DC schools Michelle Rhee, education dilettante Bill Gates) who believe that if they can only inject public education with the kind of systematic rigor, carrot-and-stick accountability, and bottom-line focus of their neoliberal "Paretian optimum," then, by the magic of the "invisible hand," our schools will invariably tend toward perfection. They are undaunted by the fact that the real world keeps right on toppling their rocks, crushing toes and denting cars, because, they tell us, "this is just a necessary phase." We'll see they were right when we finally get to the other side. In the meantime, we're going broke paying doctors and mechanics, with no real hope of meaningful reform.

From the moment a child is born into our bright, cold, noisy world, she knows it is an imperfect place. I know it. You know it. And Bill Gates knows it. And all of us, given that sure knowledge, seek the next best thing, which is to get as close as we can to our ideals, even while knowing that perfection is impossible. The perfectionists among us bang their heads against the wall, but the rest of us scramble and scheme and shrug our way toward a "good enough" or "as good as it gets." And we know to append that with "for now," because we also know that everything important requires constant re-balancing, re-organizing, re-assessing: that the ever-changing world will upset our best laid plans, unsettle what we thought was settled, and break what we've recently mended. We get up each morning and wrestle life back into shape, knowing we'll have to do it again the next day and the next. We have all always known this.

Yet there are those who persist in devising "general equilibrium systems," which are often fascinating, even inspirational, but that are mere thought experiments designed for the two-dimensional world of paper. In the proving ground of the 3D world, however, they fall apart the moment it becomes clear that  the "optimal conditions" cannot be met. Their tendency is to persist in balancing those rocks, striving to come as close as possible to the ideal, but they do so at inevitable peril because the Grand Theory of the Second Best always comes 'round to bite everyone in the ass.

When Benny, in the moments when he isn't drunk or throwing rocks at people in fits of rage, talks about his art he says he is "playing with rocks." I've seen him playing with them, a true tinkerer: gently, carefully, focused, a man who is fully present. There is no system or dogma that can balance a rock. Only a human at play can do that. 

I do appreciate that there is right now such a focus on education in America, and indeed much of the rest of the world. The talk is of reform, of progress, of improvement. This is the conversation to be having, but not because our current system is a bad one, but rather that it's been neglected for too long, and from what we all know about systems, no matter how beautiful they look on paper, someone needs to be constantly messing with them, playing with them, tinkering with them, or the whole rock pile comes toppling down. All that the Duncans, Rhees, and Gateses are trying to do is replace one ultimately fallible human system with another, their version made particularly dangerous by their "invisible hand" fundamentalism.

Education reform is something that should be happening every day, in every classroom, as teachers, parents, administrators, and students play together, wrestling their world into a newly, temporarily balanced system. Then we do it again tomorrow. That's how we make the best schools possible, not with an invisible hand moved by pretty formulas that live only in the fantasy world of thought experiment, but with our own hands, our many hands, the only ones capable of balancing those damn rocks.

          Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,
          Till thou applaud the deed. Come, seeling night, 
          Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day 
          And with thy bloody and invisible hand 
          Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond 
          Which keeps me pale. 
          Light thickens, and the crow 
          Makes wing to th' rooky wood. 
          Good things of day begin to droop and drowse; 
          While night's black agents to their preys do rouse. 
          Thou marvel'st at my words: but hold thee still. 
          Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill. 
          So, prithee, go with me.  ~Shakespeare (Macbeth)

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Life Is Affirmed

Every two years I renew my first aid certification. I've also been trained in dealing with a range of health emergencies, from severe allergic reactions to life-threatening bumps and bruises incurred by a hemophiliac to re-inserting a glass eye. Thankfully, aside from the occasional bandaid or ice pack, I've never had to use any of it. Of course, if you don't use it you lose it, which is why I'm forever going back to make sure I really know how to use an epi-pen or defibrillator or whatever it is I might be called upon to employ.

That said, I'm not a worrier, but I do regularly make people show me again and again, because I want to do it right should I need to.

Yesterday, during circle time, one of my four-year-old friends was attacked by an epileptic seizure. We were singing "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly," just getting to the cow, when there were gagging sounds coming from where she sat. She had fallen onto a classmate's lap who began instinctively rubbing her head in a comforting way. For about two seconds we all thought it was just kids goofing around, but then, all together, we realized what was happening.

This was one of those times, and there are many, that I am incredibly grateful to teach in a cooperative with lots of adults around to help. One parent-teacher dialed 911 while another phoned her mother. A parent-teacher stuck with me to care for the girl, while the rest of the adults took her classmates outdoors. 

The seizing girl was already in a spot where she wasn't likely to injure herself so we left her where she was as she convulsed. I had been trained to administer rescue medication, which needed to be measured carefully (too much could kill her) into a syringe, then sprayed into each nostril, but only if the seizure lasted more than 4 minutes. As I fumbled with the medicine, I felt as if too much time was passing. I couldn't remember how to install the special nostril attachment to the syringe, I dropped things, I checked and re-checked the instructions, not at all confident I was remembering or even reading them correctly. I was letting the poor girl die through my incompetence.

By the time I was ready to go, however, the seizure seemed to have passed. Her eyelids drooped and she yawned. Her mother had said that she became very sleepy after a seizure so this was a good sign. All told, despite my concern, it had only lasted 1-2 minutes. I had been ready to go in plenty of time after all. She seemed to be sleeping, but her breathing was shallow. We were discussing what was to be done, but then she yawned deeply, taking in a large amount of air. Then she went back to shallow breathing, followed by another big yawn, a cycle that repeated itself several times.

Time does strange things in high adrenaline situations. Yes, it seemed like everything was happening in slow motion, yet at the same time everything seemed to be happening with breathtaking speed. Her mother arrived in an impossibly short amount of time. She had just been around the corner having coffee. The EMTs also seemed to arrive almost as soon as we'd called them, yet the mother who had phoned and waited for them at the curb said it felt like a lifetime.

The EMT's offered to take her to the hospital, but didn't think it was necessary, nor did her mother, so they just went home to sleep it off.

Before bringing the children back inside, I needed a moment. I hadn't noticed it, of course, but the adrenaline had taken me over. It had been comforting to be around the calmness of the girl's mother (who has gone through this before) and the EMTs, but left alone I realized that my body was still primed for fight or flight. I paced back and forth in the classroom for several minutes trying to figure out what to do with myself after they had all left. The kids were outside and it was just the three of us adults who had taken lead roles. I said, "I feel like I need to take a five mile walk." 

Finally, we brought the kids back inside and spent a few minutes discussing what had happened. Before too long the discussion devolved into everyone sharing about their own illnesses and what kinds of vitamin supplements they took.

As we adults talked together the rest of the afternoon, we began to realize that despite it all, we had done everything exactly as we should have, with the possible exception of not immediately noting the time when the seizure started and stopped. If I ever have to deal with another medical emergency like this, one of the first things I'll do after making sure someone is calling 911 is to ask someone else to keep track of the time, noting exactly what happened and when. In this case it turned out to not be important, but it could have been.

Still, the bottom line is that we did what we needed to do and life is affirmed.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

When I Teach The MLK Holiday

Free Photo: MLKWhite Photo of MLK, Martin Luther King JR

I've taught the Martin Luther King holiday to preschoolers for as long as I've been teaching. Sometimes it does, but usually it doesn't emerge from the children, which makes it different than most of what we do and talk about at our school. 

I start the new year by saying, "We've celebrated Halloween, Thanksgiving, Pearl Harbor Day, Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice, Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Does anyone know the next holiday?" This is how I've introduced all the holidays, of course, and there is typically guessing before someone hits on it, usually by saying something like "King Day!"

I've learned to not then ask the children to share what they know about the day or about MLK because if they remember anything it's usually that he was shot by a man with a gun, which, of course, becomes the focus of our discussion, a distraction from the man's work, and the conversation is hard enough without that.

I strive to focus on the big concepts like "love," "freedom," "fairness," "togetherness," and "non-violence," but it's impossible to get there without also discussing such things as "bigotry," "racism," "slavery," and "violence." As we do, I see the looks in their faces: confusion, anger, and maybe even fear as we look at pictures of segregated water fountains, police brutality, and MLK behind jail bars. I tell them that this is the way the world was when I was a boy, growing up in South Carolina in the early 1960's. I remember the signs that said "White Only." Our neighbors used the N-word without shame. There were two black boys in my entire elementary school. I often pause to ask the group, "Is that fair?" And they answer, "No!"

It's always at some level an unsatisfying experience for me, these weeks of talking about skin color and violence. I know I'm doing a grotesquely incomplete job of it. But I do what I know how to do, showing them the pictures, reading them the words, listening to MLK's voice, and telling my own story. I've told it on this blog before, of having grown up in the segregated world of the American deep South, then taking part in the experiment of court ordered desegregation, being bussed to a black school while most of my white friends were shifted into all-white private schools. I strive to leave the children with a sense of hope. At least the "White Only" signs are gone, we've elected a black President, and we actually celebrate MLK, a man that Time magazine once called "the most dangerous Negro alive." These are all signs of progress even as I'm fully aware that we are still only in the beginning of our journey to the promised land.

Yesterday, I watched the amazing documentary King: A Filmed Record, From Montgomery to Memphis. Directed by Sidney Lumet, this rarely seen film was premiered in 1970 on more than 600 screens around the US for one day only, but has recently been released for general viewing. I don't know why, but it should be required viewing for every American. There is no narrator or musical score, just news footage and sounds from the time. It's both eye-opening and depressing to see the same debates, the same rationalizations, and the same resistance that we see today, just given a new face for our modern times. I came away wishing for another great leader to emerge, yet doubting that it will ever happen again, and realizing that in the meantime, we all have to try to be that person. You can find the documentary online, but I suspect it's available illegally, so I won't link to it. Instead, I'll share this one hour Democracy Now! piece in which long excerpts are included (I couldn't get it to embed, so you'll have to go to the source). As I tell the children when introducing the story of the MLK holiday, it will probably make you mad and sad, but hopefully you'll also be inspired.

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Monday, January 18, 2016

A Small, Amazing Thing

By necessity, we store a lot of our classroom supplies on shelves in the classroom, which we cover with pieces of fabric held on by velcro strips. It's an imperfect system, but one I've come to appreciate.

During the first few weeks of school, children new to Woodland Park, want to see and then play with the toys and other things they find when they peek behind the curtains. When they do, we adults say, "That's closed, but do you want to play with that tomorrow/next week/some other time?" 

There was a time when I felt badly about this. It seemed somehow wrong to be telling children that things in their classroom, at their school, were closed to them, but it only took a few accidental experiments in allowing two-year-olds free access to everything all the time to figure out that that road lead to the chaos of toys, tools, and supplies all over the floor with no where to walk, no where to play, and lots of tears and frustration. Children, no one in fact, can thrive in that sort of environment.

So, until the day dawns that the classroom isn't needed for storage, we will have "closed" shelves and the truth is that after the first couple weeks of the school year have past, even the youngest kids accept it. It helps that they know that all they need to do is take my hand and show me what they've spied to make sure it's "open" in the near future.

There are four of these curtains along two sides of our checker board rug, an active place where we most often build with blocks and have circle time. One corner of one of the curtains does not stay up well at all, the velcro being some 15 years old. Several times a day, every day, one of us will brush against it causing it to fall. When I see it's fallen, I put it back up, without comment, and so do the children. All of them. All day long, be they two or six, when one of us notices the curtain has fallen, we simply  pause in what we're doing, be it building, dancing, or singing, and put it back up. It's a small, amazing thing: a simple act of agreement, of community, of we. I've never talked with anyone about it, child or adult, yet it happens day-after-day, year-after-year, for as long as I've been teaching here.

Last week, a parent, while once more reattaching the fallen corner, said to me, "You know, I have some spare velcro at home. I could replace that." I said, "That would be great!" but now I'm having second thoughts.

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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