Wednesday, November 30, 2016

For That Purpose Alone

Our playground is built on a sloping piece of land that is about one quarter sand pit, while the rest is covered in a layer of wood chips. As will happen with erosion, both the sand and wood chips migrate from the top of the yard to the bottom. A couple times a year, the adults, as part of our regular work parties, take on the Sisyphusian task of counteracting the results of gravity, weather, and playing children with shovels and wheelbarrows, hauling it all back to the top of the slope again.

We're between work parties and it's been bugging me that some of our raised planting beds are about to be overwhelmed by wood chips, so I grabbed a shovel and wheelbarrow and started digging as the children in our 4-5's class were arriving. The kindergarteners were already out there playing and their teacher, Teacher Rachel, said, "It looks like Teacher Tom could use some help."

Soon I was surrounded by shovel-wielding five and six-year-olds asking me what I was doing. I showed them that the planting beds on the downhill side of the garden were four boards high, while the one beside which I was digging only had the top board showing above the chips. "There's over a foot of wood chips here that needs to be moved back under the swing set."

As a half dozen kids fell to the task of digging, there was no longer much room for me, so I stepped back. Other kids retrieved wagons and other wheeled conveyances and we soon had a line-up of "trucks" waiting to haul our loads.

When the kindergarteners were called inside, their places were smoothly filled by a second shift of preschoolers, bending their backs to the task.

In the beginning, each newcomer had asked me, "What are you doing?" and I had explained, but by now the children were expert enough to answer one another, effectively and efficiently conveying the idea of erosion to their friends, who in turn leapt into the hole to dig.

Whenever there was a gap or a lull in the digging, I plunged my shovel blade into the ground and within seconds there were smaller people replacing me. Sometimes we thought we had hit a rock, the ground was so hard, but usually it turned out to just be wood chips mixed with sand that had become compacted. We did unearth two large logs that we had at one time used as benches. We found dozens of "jewels" (florist marbles), and several small toys (like the leg of a plastic elephant). We found that the roots of some of our garden plants (our raspberry bush in particular) had pushed between the planter boards.

Occasionally, a kid or two would start goofing around in the hole, but they were quickly and firmly informed, "Hey, we're working here! A couple kids rounded up several of our orange caution cones and created a visual "work zone."

I helped out with the wheelbarrow loads, but the kids managed the wagons and smaller carts on their own, dumping them under the swing set.

In Leo Tolstoy's short story The Three Questions, the hermit answers the king:

"Remember then: there is only one time that is important -- Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are . . . and the most important affair is to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!"

I had started to dig, the children had seen they could help me, and they did. The rest of eduction -- and society and religion and everything else for that matter -- is mere bells and whistles: this is why we're here.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

More Hard, Messy, Emotional Work

Last week, I illustrated a post about the hard, messy, emotional work that the children in our school are doing every day using a story about a girl who wanted to join a game in progress, but who was unwilling to agree to actually play the game already in progress, and was therefore excluded. Yesterday, a group of younger kids, 3-year-olds, found themselves in a similar situation.

Two boys were playing in the top of our loft. I have no idea what they were playing, but each of them was holding one of our classroom baoding balls, which I've written about before. What I haven't shared, and what I've only discovered within the last couple of months is that we, in fact, have three of these balls, an extra one having appeared from who knows where. It's a fact that may have eluded me for weeks, but one of which the children have long been aware seeing that these shiny, metal balls with the gentle chimes inside are valued loose parts.

A third boy, a regular playmate, began to ascend the stairs into the loft when the boys with the balls said, "You can't come up here unless you have a ball," causing their friend to break down in tears. He threw himself into his mother's lap to bawl. The boys in the loft appeared confused. I said, "He's crying because you told him he couldn't come into the loft."

One of the boys replied matter-of-factly, "He can come in the loft. He just has to have a ball," showing me his silver ball. His companion's attention, however, was fully on his crying friend.

I answered loudly enough that the upset boy could hear me, "Oh, so if he has one of those balls, he can come up?"


"Well, there's another ball right over there," I answered, still loudly enough for all to hear, pointing. I waited a few seconds, then took it upon myself to retrieve the third silver ball and put it on a table near the crying boy, who ignored it.

I had done what I could, I felt, so backed off, while still keeping an eye on things. As I watched, the boy who had shown the most concern descended the loft, not once taking his eyes off his crying friend. He stood on the floor for a moment, holding his ball. I thought I saw his throat spasm as if fighting down tears of his own. The other boy descended the stairs as well and they stood there together for a moment. They might have spoken, although I didn't see it, then crossed the room to where we generally keep the box for those balls, put the balls away, and closed the lid.

The boy finished his cry, then all three boys went about their day

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Monday, November 28, 2016

Rocks That Shape The River

When I was a child, I thought that all I needed to change the world was to wait, to grow older.

As a young man, I thought that all I needed to do was to set forth, engage, and wrestle it into a new shape.

And there are those who've done it that way, conquering this or that, making a mark here and there, blazing their trails through forest, field and city.

But there is also the force of change that is a rock that simply stays in the flow of the river, bending it, shaping a rapid, swirling an eddy, or causing the stillness of a reflecting pool.

That's the way teachers change the world, at least if we stay there long enough, being there to guide the course of events through the passage of children rushing by, creating shared experiences through years and generations.

Those rocks, over time, are in turn shaped by the river, made smoother, more accommodating, yet in the end it's the rocks together that make the shape of the river.

That's why there are those who fear teachers, I suppose. They know the power of the rock to teach each child that passes through those simple lessons, like the patience of waiting your turn . . .

. . . or the power of working together.

And if your purposes are not served by the things we all teach, year after year, like the joy of free expression . . .

. . . or the importance of critical thinking . . .

. . . or the excitement of intermingling our imaginations . . .

. . . I can see how it might make you rail at teachers who, by being rocks, are thwarting plans that call for people who will not question too much, nor think too creatively. You might blame the teachers when the grown up people wind up not being the way you want them to be . . .

. . . and are instead who they want to be, doing what they know is right, demanding fairness, sharing, and cooperation, insisting that you are the one standing outside the flow.

Unlike parents, whose role is to be along for the ride, teachers stay where we are, deploying our dried pasta necklaces . . .

. . . our soapy water . . .

. . . our blocks . . .

. . . and our puzzles . . .

. . . year over year, again and again, making our part of the river flow into channels it might not have otherwise known to flow . . .

. . . not teaching people what to think, but how. 

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Friday, November 25, 2016

Someone Comes To Save The Day

Who wants to be responsible? Whenever anything goes wrong, the first thing they ask is "Who's responsible for this?"  ~Jerry Seinfeld

One recent afternoon, our kindergarten teacher, Teacher Rachel, was hauling the big wooden blocks a few at a time from the preschool classroom where they're stored, to her classroom down the hall where the big kids were going to be building with them the following day. I said, "It looks like Teacher Rachel needs help," and without hesitation, indeed with alacrity, a half dozen four and five year olds came to her aid.

It didn't surprise me. Despite common parent complaints about how difficult it is to get kids to pitch in with household chores, I've found that the young children I teach are generally always ready and willing to help. That is, there are always some who are ready and willing. At any given moment, of course, there are always some who are too engaged to pull themselves away from their own pursuits, but when I say, "I need help," that help always arrives.

The other day, S was sitting on a swing. As I passed, he said, "Teacher Tom, push me." I answered, "I won't push you, but I'll bet someone will," then louder, "Hey, S needs a push on the swing!" Within seconds a friend was there to push him. I watched for a minute, then said, "See? We're like super heroes around here. All you have to do is ask for help and someone comes to save the day!" 

And it's true, we are super heroes. The difference between helping out at school and helping out at home, I think, comes down to choice. At school, the call goes out for help and one can either assume that responsibility or not; at home, generally speaking, someone (usually an adult) is attempting to impose a specific responsibility on a specific kid, and in all honestly, that's when we all balk. Maybe we adults have learned that sometimes we have to stick our noses up against the old grindstone whether we like it or not, but no one is happy when we feel compelled. Responsibilities are not something that can be placed upon us -- those are called obligations. Responsibilities are things we assume of our own free will.

We have an old dog crate on the playground right now. An older sibling was visiting for the afternoon and he got the idea of trying to get it to the top of the concrete slide. He tried, but it it was too heavy for him to do alone. He said, "Help!" and within seconds a team of eager helpers had assembled. While some pushed, others tied ropes to the crate and pulled from the top. It was a struggle, but they finally managed it, then, when they let it go, it plunged back to the bottom of the slope. Then they did it again, each of them assuming responsibility for getting the project done, gladly, because that's what human beings in a community do unless and until someone comes along and turns it into an obligation. Then we fight it.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

What Was In Those Boxes

A large school supply order arrived last week.

On Thursday, I brought one of the boxes to our 4-5's circle time and put it at my feet. Naturally, the children wanted to know what was in the box. We looked for clues. We noticed the mailing label, so I read it aloud. It had been sent to the home of one of the parents in a different class named Jennifer, who lives in Seattle. Several of the children said they knew grown-ups named Jennifer and we took turns telling one another about the Jennifers we know. Many of them, however, lived in places other than Seattle. We then took the time to confirm that we all lived in Seattle, each child chiming in with the information, "I live in Seattle." Some seemed struck by the coincidence.

We read the return address label. It said "Discount School Supply." We ignored the word "discount," focusing instead on the words "school" and "supply." We were definitely a school, so maybe the box was for us after all. There was some back and forth about what "supply" referred to. Some of us thought it might be supplies like ropes and tools. The speculation became hyperbolic as we jokingly wondered if maybe they were astronaut supplies or camping supplies. A few kids rejected the hype, insisting instead that it was school supplies, "like paint and stuff." Others began to demand that we "just open the box."

There was then a brief discussion about how to go about doing that. When one of them mentioned a tool their family had at home called a "box cutter" I said I just happened to have a box cutter right there in a drawer behind me. I showed them how sharp it was and how the blade retracted into the handle for safety. I then cut the box open under the watchful eyes of a hushed crowd.

I had imagined the children surging forward as the box was opened, but they remained in place, backed off, I guess, by some of the wilder speculation that the box could be full of poison or a dangerous animal. As I pulled out items like bags of beads and bundles of pipe cleaners, the children cheered for each one, many excitedly informing the rest of us what they were going to make with this or that. We agreed that we were going to be able to use all of the stuff in the box.

On Monday, the next day we got together, I brought the rest of the dozen or so boxes into the room. I said, "We need to unpack the rest of these boxes." When one of the kids suggested they would need the box cutter, I showed the sharp blade to them again. Some of them thought they could use it safely, but there were others who said they would rather that their classmates not be wielding sharp knives around them. "We'll just use our hands." And that's what they did, tearing into the boxes in groups of two and three, using their fingernails, teamwork, and ingenuity.

As they struggled with the boxes they talked and giggled. Some of them called out for help. Some leapt to their aid, while others remained focused on their own tasks. Some turned to one another for advice, "How did you get that open?" while others offered advice, "If you pinch the corner of the tape -- like this -- you can just peel it right off.

As each box revealed its contents there were shouts, "It's paint!" "It's paper!" "It's crayons!" each revelation a cause for celebration.

I'd told the children that I'd like the supplies to be "organized" on a bench.

When the last box was empty, there was several minutes of wild play as they put the boxes on their heads, tossed them in the air, and stepped in and out of them. Then as that died down, a calmer group took over, working together to build an airplane.

They then used some of the new markers to decorate it.

On Tuesday we took a few of the boxes outside and painted them with our new paint.

Yesterday, we cut some of the boxes into smaller pieces to be used for glue gun constructions.

It'll be awhile before this story is over because we're still discovering what was in those boxes.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

That Second 15 Minutes

One of the things Seattle's teachers won in last year's 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 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.

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.

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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