Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Not So Special Day

Our final day of school last week was nothing special or, rather, it was as special as every other day.

We came here as we have since September, and for many of the children this represented their second or even third time of circling the sun together while playing here at Woodland Park. One might think that by now we would have exhausted the possibilities, but even last week, even on our last day, even after years, we found new things to do, things that no one has ever done before.

Of course, sometimes we revert to the old themes or games or activities and they might appear to be the same to an outsider, but from the inside there is always something new to see, smell, taste, hear or feel, something new to explore, some new failure to experience, a lesson or two that has not yet been learned, or else we wouldn't be doing it at all because that's the way play works.

Sometimes it's so incredibly nuanced, this newness, that it strikes the rest of us almost as rote or as if a child or group of children is stuck, but children engaged in play, especially outdoors, with other children, plenty of time, and without the constant interference or instruction of adults are never bored.

And so it was on our last day as the same old wooden blocks and the same old collection of mis-matched plastic animals became a massive animal hospital, a place where we built, sorted, collected, argued, agreed, and joked, while telling our story of animals that needed help and others that helped them.

We set sail one more time in our little row boat that sits in our sand pit sea, imagining destinations we'd only heard about or perhaps even invented amongst ourselves.

We fished off the bow for our supper, while telling our stories of adventure and survival.

We re-discovered an old collapsable cart that started the school year as a container for adults to use to transport snack and cleaning supplies, but has since been replaced, and as most old things do it has become another part of our playground. What if we tried it on the track that was built for the wagons? Would it race down the hill? 

Could we make it happen if we worked together? We struggled and wrestled and scooted and talked, sharing our idea, trying it, then trying the next one, while telling our story of engineering, teamwork, and a dream for daredevil speed.

We positioned a plank across a space over which no one had ever positioned a plank before, cautiously using it to bridge the gap from here to there, not really even talking about it because what we were doing was really about some sort of housekeeping game taking place on the top of the playhouse.

But time and again we found excuses to balance across the bridge, while telling our story about collecting supplies and otherwise preparing for some danger or journey or encounter with the wild things that lay ahead.

We started our day by saying it was our last one, then forgot about it. In every corner and nook of this not so special day we continued the only education there is: telling our stories together.

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Monday, May 30, 2016

The Gift Of Accepting That Child's Uniqueness

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, May 27, 2016

Busy Living It

"I didn't see the time/I waited half my life away." ~Leonard Cohen

Today is our final day of classes for the 2015-16 school year. As usual, it has gone too fast. Our oldest kids do something special to end the year: they write, costume, stage, and perform an original play, which is attended by parents, grandparents, and friends. It's a tradition that stretches back to my second year teaching. Since everyone is already there, we then typically finish the day with a pizza party and a simple bridge ceremony. Otherwise, the rest of our classes try to end the year just as we've begun with no particular hoopla or fanfare, which is also how the 5 year olds finished their year yesterday, the day after the play, one last day to just be us together.

I like reading Eve Bunting's Little Bear's Little Boat as I send the kids on their way, a sweet metaphorical story that almost always makes me tear up, but I also usually read Sandra Boyton's Yay, You! during this final week. I love the way it ends with "I know you'll be great because you already are."

And, naturally, like everyone in the world, we read Dr. Seuss' Oh, The Places You'll Go! This is, like most of his works, a piece of genius that emphasizes hope, but does not ignore the dark, sad places that all of us will spend at least some of our time. I've read it many times before, but this week, I've found myself slowing down as I read:

You can get so confused
that you'll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grinding on for miles across weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
                                                                  The Waiting Place . . .

. . . for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for the wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

As I read it I recognized that this is not in the realm of the experience of most young children. They may know, for instance, that there is kindergarten in their future, but when we shared our future "plans" yesterday, most of them talked excitedly about the next few days, of camping trips or visits to grandmas or coming back in two weeks for our first session of our summer camp. There is no Waiting Place, or at least not one in which any of them would willingly spend time. The time is now! Seize the day!

And when I turned the page and read, "NO! That's not for you!" those 5-year-olds let out murmurs, and even a couple shouts, of agreement. They turned to one another and shook their heads, agreeing that this applied to them. It felt like a revelation.

We all have to wait sometimes, but it's the self-imposed waiting, the waiting half our lives away that Seuss is writing about. Kids know better than we do that, no matter what, you've just got to get on with your life of doing. It's one of the gifts every child give us, especially now as we contemplate the rest of her life while she's busy living it.

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Thursday, May 26, 2016


When I write about the central truth so succinctly encapsulated by author and researcher Peter Gray -- "Children don't like school because they love freedom" -- such as my post from Tuesday entitled I'm Not Sure That's Teaching, much of the feedback is some version of this comment from Facebook:

"My child is going through this industrial school experience. He realizes he is "not a computer." That he can't process and recall information. He tells me that every day. And he thinks he can't learn or isn't that smart . . . We tried home schooling in NY, but the regs are so Third Reich. I panicked. It was too much pressure. I put him back in elementary school after only one year. I would love some guidance, so I can carry the load more efficiently. I tried."

And honestly, many of the folks who respond in this vein haven't even tried because it all seems, as one reader put it, "daunting." I mean, as Carol Black points out, we are seven generations into the industrial-style model of public education, most of us can't even get our minds around the change that needs to happen and if we finally do, it's only natural that we might panic. That's because what needs to happen is nothing short of a revolution and revolutions are terrifying.

We need a revolution in how we perceive children. They are not incomplete adults or empty vessels or anything less than full-fledged human beings with rights, including the right to be respected, heard, and responded to as fellow human beings and not inferior ones to be bossed around.

We need a revolution in how we view learning. It's not the job of adults to decide what and when children learn. That is the children's job. Our responsibility as adults is to role model our values in day to day life, strive to be the person we want our kids to grow up to be, take a genuine interest in what our children are excited about, and know that childhood exists, first and foremost, for play.

We need a revolution in how we view "stuff." I recently returned from China. In the US, we tend to think of "communist" China, but that somehow hasn't been an impediment to their decision-makers deciding that the nation should move toward a "consumer economy" more like those found in western societies. The thing is, the Chinese people apparently haven't been particularly accommodating. They don't seem overly interested in more stuff, they've learned to love what they already have, and it is putting the skids on their central plan. Yes, I'm sure part of that is generations of official education emphasizing that consumerism is an evil of the west, but it is noteworthy nevertheless. Many of the barriers to improving our educational system have to do with our consumption of stuff, the cars and houses and electronics and space we think we need. It makes us need two incomes and long work days. None of it is necessary, and probably detrimental, to a satisfying life.

We need a revolution against authoritarianism. Yes, I'm talking about politics, but also about day to day life. We must rise up against the entire concept of obedience. As Utah Phillips sang, "I will not obey." And then he sang, "But I'm always ready to agree." That is, at its heart, is what this revolution is about.

All of it is scary. Our revolution requires upending at least four sacred cows. All of it is daunting. This revolution requires generations of work. I used to be uncomfortable using the word revolution, but I've come to realize that human history is one of continual revolution, we're all a part of every one of them by either our actions or inactions. Revolution is the engine of progress and we are it's fuel. We either choose our revolution or it chooses us.

Of course, I hear you: all of this is well and good for some ivory tower blogger, but what about my kid, right now? This is where idealism meets reality. Public schools are looking increasingly like test score coal mines, private education is too much of a financial stretch for most of us, we love our kids with every ounce of our beings, and we want what's best for them. Something's got to give. Given reality, given our fears, given how daunting it is, what do we do? At bottom it's a question each of us can only answer for ourselves, but I think we make a mistake when we don't err on the side of revolution because in that direction lies the better future we want for those we love.

We must be firm, I think, in our defiance of standardization in our schools and specifically I'm talking about opting our children out of high stakes testing and home work. Be assured, high stakes testing and home work are not evidence-based aides to learning: indeed the evidence points to testing and homework mostly succeeding in making our children hate school even more. Your child is objectively more likely to grow into an avid, life-long learner if he is not subjected to high stakes testing and homework. The more of us who stand up for this, the more revolutionary it will be.

The second thing you can do for your child right now is talk to your friends and family. Talk to them about their own childhoods, ask them about their memories, revel in their stories about playing outdoors, unsupervised, with their friends and few toys. Share your own stories along with your concerns about today's children missing out on that. Revolutions must speak to the souls of every day people and I've found that there is no more direct way to get there than through connecting folks with their own childhoods.

Thirdly, we can all work on how we speak with the children in our lives, striving to avoid the directives of obedience, those commands like, "Come here" or "Sit down" or "Eat this" or "Stop it!" Better is to practice replacing those commands with informative statements, like "It's time to go" or "The people behind you can't see if you stand up" or "I don't want you to do that." Yes, it takes more words, but it is trading out commands for the space of simple truth in which children can practice thinking for themselves. A revolution will not be told what to do.

And finally, perhaps most difficult, and definitely most important is coming to appreciate the beauty of living with less. This would be the greatest revolution of all. The time it would give us as parents would set our children free.

The only thing we can do is to try. Just try. I give all my respect to each one of you who does. And ultimately this is the only way to guarantee that you will be doing the best you can to make a better future for your child. A revolution will never be a result of what you do, but it will always be a result of what we do. Everything is daunting if you feel you're going it on your own. If we all try at the same time, we cannot be stopped.

Our children love freedom and so do we. 

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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Most Of Our Lives

Most often when we talk about traffic it's to complain. We focus on the jams, idiots, and accidents, but most of the time, especially in frequently congested urban and suburban areas, traffic is a kind of miracle. I'm especially aware of this while on the freeway with thousands of other drivers, barreling along at high speeds in our tons of steel, and somehow, most of the time, we aren't killing one another. Indeed, we are an accidental fellowship of travelers cooperating with one another according to a shared and often complex body of rules, agreements if you will, about how to use the roads to get from here to there. And while any given day may offer us plenty to gripe about, any given moment can in the right light be viewed as a testament to our human capacity for getting along.

Maybe I'm stretching the example a bit, but I figure if one can find this sort of beauty in traffic, then certainly it exists throughout the rest of our lives. 

I tend to write here about conflict between children, but from day to day, from moment to moment, our days are full of these small, inexperienced humans just getting along.

A pair of two-year-old boys were driving their construction vehicles near the playground grazing garden. 

One of them, intentionally, bumped the trucks together, a wordless way of saying, "You're in my way," or perhaps, "Do you want to play?"

Still, without a word, the boys bumped their vehicles together several times, gently. They synchronized with one another, drawing back, then pushing forward, bumping solidly, but without violence, seven, eight, nine, ten times. They shared a smile with one another. Then, one boy picked up his truck and moved away, announcing the end to this game just as clearly and effectively as a driver using his left turn signal to let the rest of us know his intentions.

We talk about the jams, idiots, and accidents, but if we remember to look, we spend most of our lives surrounded by this kind of simple human beauty.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

I'm Not Sure That's Teaching

I said, "I'm going to teach you how to eat your snack."

"Teacher Tom, we already know how to eat our snack."

"How did you learn that? I don't remember teaching it to you."

"We just know, Teacher Tom."

"But, I'm the teacher. What am I going to teach you?"

"You can teach us new songs, okay?"

"Good, how about I teach you the Frozen song?" Then tunelessly, "Frozen, frozen, frozen all the daaaaaay!"

"That's not it!"

"No, that is it. I'm the grown-up and you're the kid. I know."

"You're wrong, Teacher Tom. It goes like this . . ." She then proceeded to tunelessly sing a few lines from the movie's theme song, a couple of her friends joining in less expertly, following her lead.

I think a lot about what I do in my capacity as a teacher here at the Woodland Park Cooperative School. I certainly don't do what most folks think of as teaching, which would be coming up with some knowledge that I think the kids should know, then somehow inserting it into their brains. Mostly what I do is goof around with kids like this, stepping in when safety is in question, responding to their requests, and keeping track of the schedule. 

I'm not sure that's teaching. And by the same token, if I'm not teaching, is what we have here even a school? Probably not in the sense that the wider society perceives it, yet we call ourselves a school and I call what I do teaching, I think, because there's not really another name for what we do, at least not in America. In New Zealand, they call their play-based, cooperative preschools "Playcentres," which, I think, is a more descriptive word for what we do, and the UK has a profession called "play worker," which seems a lot more like what I spend my days doing. But words are meant to communicate and "playcentre" and "play worker" are meaningless terms where I'm from, so for the time being we're going with "school" and "teacher."

I find myself feeling increasingly alienated from what the rest of the world calls "school." Indeed, if we didn't need there to be a safe, inexpensive place for our children to spend their days while mom and dad go to work, I wonder if we would even need schools. Woodland Park serves a community of families that don't need us to serve as day care. They either are getting by on one income, are self-employed, or have otherwise cobbled together work schedules with the flexibility to allow them to spend their days with their kids. If everyone had this luxury, would they still send their children off to those institutions we call schools?

I reckon most would because we've largely bought into the idea of school as a good thing. I mean, we all went to them and we have memories of having learned some useful things, although it's hard for us to recall most of what they tried to teach us. Speaking for myself, I can only come up with a short list of lessons learned from pubic schooling that serve me today, hardly a great return on the 12 years I invested there (kindergarten was not part of the public schools when I was young). Most of my education happened in an extracurricular manner, on the evenings and weekends and lunch breaks and between classes, when I spent time with my friends outside of the classrooms.

I've been reflecting quite a bit these last few days on an essay entitled On the Wildness of Children written by Carol Black. She begins with a quote from Ellwood P. Cubberley, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education, writing in 1898:

Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials -- children -- are shaped and fashioned into products . . . The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of 20th century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifics laid down.

This, essentially, is the model of public schooling we have followed ever since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and it is based upon the idea that children, indeed, all humans are essentially evil and that it was incumbent upon society to create institutions with the goal of elevating humans above our base "natural state." And we've been doing this for the past seven generations: none of us know any differently.

I urge you to take the time to read this long, well-written and well-argued piece in which she asserts that humans have evolved to learn best through "wildness," and that we do our species a great disservice when we seek to separate ourselves from "nature":

In many rural land-based societies, learning is not coerced; children are expected to voluntarily observe, absorb, practice, and master the knowledge and skills they will need as adults -- and they do. In these societies . . . even very young children are free to choose their own actions, to play, to explore, to participate, to take on meaningful responsibility. "Learning" is not conceived as a special activity at all, but as a natural by-product of being alive in the world.

This certainly fits what little I feel I've learned about being a "teacher" in a "school," but most of my colleagues don't spend their days teaching the way I do, nor are they in schools like we have at Woodland Park: 

Researchers are finding that children in these settings spend most of their time in a completely different attentional state from children in modern schools . . . it may have much in common with the Buddhist concept of "mindfulness." If something moves in the broad field of perception, the child will notice it. If something interesting happens, he can watch for hours. A child in this state seems to absorb her culture by osmosis, by imperceptible degrees picking up what the adults talk about, what they do, how they think, what they know.

I'm not claiming that Woodland Park achieves this ideal, because, after all, we were all subjected to the schools spawned by the Industrial Revolution, but we try each day to keep in mind this essential truth about human learning. To spend one's day being compelled to "learn" about things that don't inherently hold our interest leads only to stress for the sake of stress whereas when we are allowed to spend our hours pursuing our interests we find our passion for life.

If professional educators can't understand how kids outside of school learn so much without being taught, it may be because they don't understand how this kind of attention works. They shut it down as soon as the bell rings. In school children must turn off their powers of observation, they must narrow their attention and "focus," which means they must not notice what's happening around them. They are told not to look out of windows. They are told not to let their eyes -- or their minds -- wander. A child who maintains a state of open attention in the classroom will be diagnosed with an attention "disorder" and drugged.

Humans are not widgets to be manufactured, yet this is how schooling treats us and, as Black illustrates, the mindset of rote, subjugation, and obedience has come, horrifyingly, to become a cornerstone of our political world. Again, I urge you to read it.

Today's education reformers aren't as fixated upon assembly lines as they are on upon computers, but they are just as wrong as those earlier corporate reformers. "The human brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge, or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer," but because they seem to believe this is true they are actually doubling down on the anti-human aspects of our pubic schools, making them into the sort of test score coal mines that would have made even our Victorian era ancestors cringe.

I don't know if I'm a teacher, but when I talk to "real" teachers it is clear that I don't spend my days doing what they do. I don't know if we are a school, but when I look at "real" schools it is clear that we don't do what they do, which is to strive against our industrial school past to create a place in which children follow their own interests, together, with adults around to support them. Perhaps we're not yet "wild," and perhaps our environment falls short of "nature," but it is the direction we are going.

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Monday, May 23, 2016

Striving Toward Our Ideal

A common characteristic of play-based schools are informal policies discouraging adults from helping children with things they can do for themselves. This goes for everyday personal care things like putting on jackets and using the toilet, as well as physical challenges like climbing to the top of the playhouse or using the swings.

Ideally, we step back as they engage their struggles. When they begin to get frustrated, we might support them with narrative statements like, "You've put your arm in the sleeve," or perhaps helpful informative statements like, "Your other sleeve is behind you." When it's something necessary like dressing appropriately for outdoors or peeing in the potty, we then might step in with actual assistance when it appears the challenge is still too much for them, but only after giving each child a chance to do what he can for himself. When it's something with which the child is challenging herself, like climbing a tree, we might move closer and offer words of encouragement, or say things like, "I won't help you, but I won't let you get hurt."

Competence is built upon perseverance and these struggles with meaningful, real-world challenges (as opposed to the manufactured challenges of tests and homework) are the foundations upon which confident, self-motivated humans are built.

As a cooperative preschool in which parents work in the classroom as assistant teachers, this is one of the most important and difficult lessons some parents learn. Teachers who have never worked in a cooperative often ask me if parents "get in the way" or intervene too much or too quickly, and my answer is, "Yes, they do." When families arrive at our school with their two-year-olds, many are still brand new to the parenting game, primarily experienced in caring for infants who need so much done for them. For first time parents, that is the only parent-child relationship they know, and while there was a time when it frustrated me, I've come to realize that part of my job is to recognize where they are on their journey and to be there as they, and their child, transition into this new phase.

In other words, we don't always live up to our ideal, but rather, as is the case with any ideal, we always strive in that direction. 

The "unicycle merry-go-round" is one of the features of our outdoor classroom. It's made to sit on a paved surface, which we had when we acquired it, but it's now installed on sloped, wood chip covered ground. There's a "track" upon which the wheels are meant to turn, but it's almost always blocked with wood chips and other debris making it nearly impossible for children to peddle. At the beginning of the school year, in our 2's class in particular, there is almost always an adult bent to the task of pushing the children.

But by this point in the school year, however, it's thrilling to see clear evidence of the progress we've made along our journey. Now the adults stand back without my encouragement, as children struggle with the apparatus. The kids identify the wood chip problem themselves. They find brooms to sweep the track. Some choose to be "riders" while others are "motors," pushing one another around and around, taking turns by an unspoken system of their own devices, while the adults stand back, not helping, all of us striving toward our ideal.

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