Friday, December 29, 2017

Getting Into "Fights"

The other day I moderated a debate between a pair of three year olds that went more or less like this:

"I'm not going to move."

"I'm not going to move."

"I'm not going to move."

"I'm not going to move."

You get the idea, they went back-and-forth for probably two dozen rounds as I knelt there, occasionally reminding them whose turn it was to talk. It might have sounded to an onlooker that they weren't making progress in this debate over a square foot of carpet space, but looks can be deceiving. They started by arguing their cases fiercely, but with each round the energy dissipated a bit, until, by the end, they were merely mouthing the words as they gradually went back to playing with the toys they held in their hands.

We both want to drive our trains in the same place at the same time.

This is a pair of strong willed kids. Both of whom have had major "success" in their short lives with the tactic of being fierce and immovable. In most cases, especially with adults or older children, they've figured out that being fierce and immovable is a good way to get the other side to relent, at least a little, to concede something, but in this conflict, with pushing and hitting off the table, it was evident that they were both working their way through to the realization that they had each met his match. After a few minutes, they were back to playing side-by-side as if nothing had happened, neither of them having budged an inch.

For me, this is why we come to school: to learn to live in a community with other people, and a huge part of that is getting practice in dealing with conflict. I'm still reeling from having learned that administrators who were against the Seattle teacher's strike demand to guarantee elementary-aged children a minimum of 30 minutes of recess per day, objected in part with the rationale, When they have longer recesses, they get into fights. How crazy is that? If there's one thing I know about making this world a better place it's that we humans need way more practice in settling disputes without resorting to violence.

Then we figure out a way to make it work for both of us.

Woodland Park is a robustly enrolled school located in a small facility. When we're all together it can be crowded and noisy, just like the city in which we live. There is no way to avoid bumping up against the other people, there is no way to avoid conflict, there is no way to avoid negotiation, and there is no way to avoid learning about our own feelings and the feelings of others, which is the first step in becoming the sort of empathetic humans I've written about before

It isn't always pretty because at Woodland Park we strive to ensure that there is plenty of time in which to get into "fights." That's because we know that this is the only way practice such vital skills as standing up for ourselves and listening to others. It's how we begin to develop the foresight and self-knowledge that allows us to pick our battles and avoid unnecessary conflict in the first place. And it's how we begin to create the agreements and courtesies that underpin every thriving community.

This may not be the way the real world works, but it's how the world should work. I'm proud that we send children off in to that world with this expectation.

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Thursday, December 28, 2017

How I Would Start To Transform Public Education

I often write here as a critic of normal schools with their compulsory top-down, standardized curricula that devalue the interests of our youngest citizens in favor of adults deciding what, when and how children are to learn. It's a system that flies in the face of what we know about how human beings are designed to learn, a product of the Industrial Revolution that has continued more or less unchanged to this day, perpetuated by habit rather than an ongoing, rigorous application of the science. The evidence is clear that if we truly want well-educated citizens, ones capable of thinking for themselves, of questioning authority, of standing up for their beliefs and values, people who are sociable, motivated and able to work well with others, then we would have long ago transformed our schools into places where children direct their own learning.

Sometimes I like to imagine what that would mean. More and more Americans are opting out all together, choosing a version of homeschooling or un-schooling that works for their families. Others have sought out alternative private schools that employ, say, the Waldorf method or Reggio Emilia or perhaps even the democratic free school model of places like the Sudbury Valley School. These are all fine ways for individuals to opt out of normal public education, but there is a limit to how many of us can afford the price, either in terms of time or money. No, it seems to me that a real transformation of education in America, one that includes all children, must be a public one: well-educated citizens are a public good, one that is vital to every citizen in that it is the only guarantee of our grand experiment in self-governance. So what I'm thinking about here is a true transformation of public education, which, I believe, is necessary if our democracy is to continue to thrive.

If we get rid of schools as we know them, it seems to me that we will still need something "like" schools, safe places for our children to spend their days. Unless this transformation in education comes as a part of a wider transformation in our society, one that does not require so many two-income families, "schools" will need to continue to serve this function. Indeed, I reckon that the school facilities that we've already built will work just fine as a starting point: large buildings with lots of room and, typically, with a fairly substantial amount of land surrounding them.

Neighborhood children of all ages would arrive at these "schools" in the mornings just as they do today and, as in the democratic free-school model, they would be free to pursue their own interests throughout the day with the support of "teachers" whose jobs would be re-defined to more closely resemble that of professional play-workers, adults who spend their days loitering with intent, not intervening or directing, but available to step in, minimally, when needed.

There would, of course, continue to be the cafeteria, a place where professional cooks prepare and serve meals, the difference being that these kitchens would be open to the children to participate as their age and interests (e.g., chopping, stirring, measuring, serving) allow under the guidance of the kitchen staff. Likewise, there would be a garden and greenhouse tended by professional gardeners charged with supplying the kitchen, and who would also likewise make room for children interested in any or all aspects of that process. There would be a functioning workshop where professional carpenters would build the furniture and other items needed by the school, another place where children of all ages are welcome. These transformed schools would be home to musicians and other artists, mechanics, engineers, computer scientists, psychologists, athletes, handy(wo)men, nurses, custodians, accountants, yoga masters, and other specialists, each going about their real work while also always making space for young apprentices of all ages, role-modeling, supporting, and teaching, allowing the children to explore as their ages and interests dictate.

But, of course, the children would not be limited. If a group of kids take an interest in, for instance, building a rocket, the more experienced children (which would likely most often be the oldest, but not always) would lead, while the adults would be there to help with locating information or securing materials.

These "schools" would not just be for children. Neighborhood seniors, for instance, would also be invited on campus to spend all of part of their days, sharing their skills and wisdom, while also participating in meals and serving as audiences for dramatic and musical performances. In the evenings, parents would be encouraged to not just fetch their kid and rush off, but to rather spend their evenings there, together with other families, dining, dancing, reading in the library, or puttering around the workshop or garden, and otherwise hanging out with their neighbors, creating community.

Each neighborhood school would be "owned" by the neighborhood, in the way that our cooperative school is owned by the parents who enroll their children. Each household would have an equal voice in how their school operates, managing the funds to best serve their community, democratically creating a school that most perfectly reflects the aspirations and dreams of the people who live there.

These transformed schools would be, like our democracy itself, grand experiments, each one continually evolving to serve the needs and interests of the neighborhood, and especially the children. I envision them as standing at the hearts of their neighborhoods, around-the-clock gathering places, based not on commerce, but upon the shared interests of the people who live in the community: places that serve as models of real self-governance in action. I imagine that children who are raised in this type of environment will grow into the sorts of citizens we most need.

This is just a thumbnail of how I see transformed public education in America. There is so much more to talk about. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

You Cannot Instill Values In Other People

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.  ~James Baldwin

I don't claim to be a parenting expert.  I'm just a guy who has spent a lot of time playing with children, from that I've learned a little bit, and because of this blog people write me for my take on things. If there is any one thing that people ask or write me more than anything else, it's something along the lines of, "I've tried everything and nothing works." I'm talking about universal parenting aggravations like getting kids to eat their vegetables, take a nap, or participate in household chores. And these are important things. Not only do we want our children to be healthy, rested, and responsible today, but these behaviors represent the values of good health and responsibility that, if we can only "instill" them, we know will serve our children throughout their lives.

While I try to be more sympathetic than this with individual parents and readers because I know they wouldn't turn to some guy on the internet wearing a red cape unless they were truly at the end of their rope, my answer to their dilemma is really quite simple: Quit trying.

You can serve children healthy food, but you can't make them eat. So quit trying.

You can put children into their bed, but you can't make them sleep. So quit trying.

And you can't make them clean up their room without the promise of a reward or the threat of punishment. 

So, I suppose I could reply to these parents that they haven't, in fact, tried "everything," because obviously you could always come up with a carrot that is sweet enough or a stick that is painful enough that you can get a child to do what you want them to do, but I would never suggest that anyone consciously step onto the vicious cycle of reward and punishment. Rewards and punishments may appear to work in the moment -- the promise of ice cream may well motivate a child to eat a few peas; the threat of having toys taken away may well motivate a child to tidy up -- but human nature dictates that, being unnatural consequences, the value of the rewards and the severity of the punishments must be regularly increased or they lose their effectiveness. Not only that, but the lessons taught in the long run, to be motivated by the approval or disapproval of others, are certainly not what we wish for our children. Values must come from within; they are not imposed from without: that's called obedience an unsavory and even dangerous trait.

Whatever we publicly proclaim, our actual values (as opposed to the values to which we aspire) are always, always, always most accurately and honestly revealed by our behaviors. When we eat junk food, we demonstrate that we value convenience or flavor over eating healthily. When we don't get enough sleep, we demonstrate that we value our jobs or our hobbies or our TV programs more than rest. When we let our homes become cluttered and dirty, we demonstrate that we value something else over a well-ordered household.

No, the better course, I've found, when it comes to teaching values is to simply give up trying to make another person do something that you want them to do. If you value healthy food, then eat it. If you value being well rested, then sleep. If you value a tidy bedroom, then keep yours tidy. And ultimately, with time, sometimes lots of time, it will be your role-modeling of these behaviors that your child will come to imitate, not on your schedule, but one of his own, which is all we can expect of our fellow humans.

You cannot instill values in other people, you can only role model them. And while I've avoided mentioning them in this post, no matter what your priest, rabbi, pastor, imam, or guru says, this goes for moral values as well.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

"Who's There?"

Any adult who has worked with young children for any length of time has taken part in a session of knock-knock jokes. Perhaps we have even started it, offering up an example of the type:

Who's there?
Canoe who?
Canoe shut the door, I'm getting cold!

And you get a laugh, every time, even if they've heard that particular joke a dozen times. Then they tell their own jokes, mimicking your pattern, but usually ad libbing:

Who's there? . . .

There is often a pause as they search their brains or their environment for something, usually anything:

Chair who?

Then another pause, before:

Chair table!

And then we laugh, all of us, together, louder with each re-telling, with each nonsensical punchline. And it can go on and on, never failing to end in laughter. Sure, some might call it false or forced laughter in the sense that it isn't the sort of spontaneous or "involuntary" laughter one experiences, say, during a good stand-up act, but it is, nevertheless, real laughter. It is the laughter of mathematics and community. Children laugh at knock-knock jokes, not because the punchline has surprised them the way a comedian's joke does, but rather because they take joy in working a simple give-and-take equation, one that always adds up to a laugh, one that always requires at least one other person to tell.

Everyone laughs. Perhaps it's also collaborative poetry, the knock-knock joke, a duet that ends in laughter. It never bugs me, it never bores me, because in the end we laugh, forced perhaps, even phony-sounding, but communal: we're laughing together and that's the point. We spend entire circle times just taking turns telling these nonsensical jokes, laughing harder and harder as we go. It's math, poetry and community. That's why we laugh together.

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Friday, December 22, 2017

Staying Within The Lines

Parents often ask me about their child's artwork. They sometimes worry that their four-year-old, for instance, doesn't seem to be capable of painting within the lines or drawing recognizable trees or flowers the way their friends do. "When will that start to happen?" they ask, to which I answer, only half joking, "Maybe never."

One of my earliest school memories was the day me kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Jennings, handed out pre-printed pages of train car outlines for us to color, each of us with a box car or passenger car or coal car that were, when finished, to be arranged on the walls of the room as a complete train. I felt somehow honored to have been entrusted with the engine, for which I chose red with yellow accents. She gave us careful "instructions," urging us to not only strive to stay within the lines, but also to try to only employ horizontal strokes as we filled in the various white voids.

My rebelliousness is not inborn, but has rather has come to me with age. I didn't perceive Mrs. Jennings' instructions as anything particularly confining. To the contrary, I recall taking pride in adhering precisely to her rules, and in the end admiring how accomplished my looked looked when all the crayon strokes went in the same direction. The completed classroom train ran along the wall above the blackboard for the rest of the school year, where I often admired my own handiwork. From that point forward, whenever the opportunity came to color within the lines, I took it on eagerly, employing the techniques Mrs. Jennings had taught us.

I was a boy who enjoyed coloring books and could spend hours practicing and perfecting my side-to-side-within-the-lines technique. I'm not surprised that adult coloring books have become popular. To this day, when I doodle, I often draw shapes or find shapes pre-printed on my page, then carefully fill them in. I find the process meditative.

What I also recall is that many of my classmates did not follow Mrs. Jennings' instructions, that perhaps in all fairness, may have been offered more in the spirit of "suggestions." The proof was right there on the wall of the room all year long, each train car colored by a different hand, and not all of them stayed within the lines. Still, I mostly remember that train as a whole, not as individual components, other than my own and the wonderful caboose that Mrs. Jennings colored herself.

Whatever we may now think of Mrs. Jennings' project, it seems apparent to me that she did one thing brilliantly: she did not make it into a competition by comparing our finished work or making us otherwise feel that we'd not toed the mark. There they all were in the end, side-by-side, inside and outside the lines, smooth strokes or scribbled, linked one after another along the wall. I imagine other children looked up and admired their own work, being pleased perhaps by their choice of colors or swirling crayon strokes, not even noticing or even being aware that there was anything wrong with a few stray marks outside the lines. I also imagine there were others who got the project done as quickly as possible, sloppily, not caring at all for the process, never even later noticing the train on the wall.

Each year, we do a handful of potentially "inside the lines" types of projects at Woodland Park. For instance, around Halloween we always spend at least one session painting jack-o-lanterns that I've pre-drawn in permanent marker on their paper. Naturally, I don't say anything about staying within the lines, but the lines are there and a few of the older children will always accept the challenge of staying within them. In the end, whatever they look like, just like in Mrs. Jennings' class, they all get hung up on the wall, side-by-side, equally, with no editorializing or comparisons from me. Some of the children will eagerly show their parents, "That one's mine!" while others can't be bothered to even look that way again.

The same goes for drawing or painting "tree or flower shapes." Occassionally, we attempt "art" projects that involve following step-by-step instructions. For instance, each year I challenge the oldest kids with "If" paintings, with a proscribed process of 1) conceiving and articulating a concept, 2) drawing the picture in pencil, using an eraser if necessary to get it "just right," 3) tracing over the pencil lines with permanent marker, 4) choosing colors, and finally 5) painting. My object is not for them to produce a work of art so much as to expose them to a 5-step process. Most of them, as I did with Mrs. Jennings' instructions, take it on as it's intended, a challenge not unlike balancing across a beam or assembling a puzzle. There are always one or two, like me, who really dig on the process itself and work through it several times, taking pride in their work. And, yes, there are almost always a few who either don't or can't accept the challenge.

I'll always remember Jarin's "If" painting from several years back. Drawing was not one of his fortes, but he gamely joined the others at the table, starting with the concept: "What if 1 were 2?" As the others went about putting wings on elephants and candy on trees, Jarin sat there with pencil poised over paper, his mind apparently blown by this idea -- What if 1 were 2? As the others marched through the steps he remained there seemingly both stuck and struck by this impossible mathematical concept. In the end he wound up with a paper topped with his question "What if 1 were 2?" a pair of very faint pencil marks, and nothing else, but what a lot had gone on inside his head during the time he struggled with this big idea.

I didn't hang the "If" paintings on the wall, but if I had, Jarin's would have looked feeble compared to the "tree and flower shapes" of his friends, and how unfair it would be to judge the work he did the "painting" he produced.

It's as impossible as expressing Jarin's concept, I suppose, to expect humans to not, at least at some level, look around at what the others are doing and compare them with our own children. How tall are the other kids his age? Are any other 3-year-olds still in diapers? Everyone else seems to be able to draw a tree or a flower or to stay within the lines. And there is certainly some valuable data to glean from this, especially if one's child appears to be an extreme outlier, but there is real danger, I think, when this kind of thing makes us feel competitive or inadequate on our child's behalf.

The paintings on the wall, the test scores, the grades, only measure how well a child manages to stay within the lines, which is, after all, at best, a limited grounds upon which to form judgments. It tells us nothing, for instance, about what happens along the way.

Coloring within the lines is a fine thing, but all you need to do is take a look at the paper train that is humanity to know that life itself is an outside the lines endeavor and that each of us strays outside them every day. If our child's caboose or box car diverges from some arbitrary "norm" it is indeed not cause to be overly concerned. In fact, it is usually cause for celebration.

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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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Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Darkness Is Passing

I've been walking to and from school in the dark for the last couple weeks. I’d have to say that the short winter days are one of the most challenging aspects of life in the northern tier, but things are turning around. The Winter Solstice will occur in Seattle this morning at 8:28 a.m., marking the end of our ever-longer nights and the return of light.

Not to lessen the significance of Christmas, Hanukkah or any of the other festivals of lights, but this astrological event is the original reason for the season. The Earth is tilted on its axis at, on average, a 23.5-degree angle and today is when the North Pole is farthest from the sun, causing it to appear to rise and set in the same place. We call it the first day of winter, and while the days will now grow longer by increments until the Summer Solstice in June, the average temperature of the “top” part of the globe will continue to drop as the oceans slowly lose the heat they still store from the warm summer months.

Humans can hardly think without resorting to metaphor and there is none more profound than this. It’s not an accident that this is a time for reflection as well as celebrating new beginnings. It’s not an accident that we seek out the people who mean the most to us, family and friends, those we love and without whom we live in perpetual winter. It’s not an accident that Christians retell the story of the birth of a child, the son of God, the light of hope in a darkened world. It’s not an accident that we give one another gifts and wish each other merriness, happiness and cheer – the darkness is passing, buck up, light is returning, have hope.

Winter is often used as a metaphor for death, but the comparison is superficial. The trees may not have leaves, the forests may have been temporarily emptied by hibernation and migration, there may be fewer children on the play grounds and at the beaches, and it may stay that way for some months to come, but we shouldn't mistake stillness for death.

The word “Solstice” comes from the Latin phrase for “sun stands still.” We spend the rest of the year in motion, moving forward, making progress. But if we can hold still long enough to listen, we hear winter whispering to slow down, take stock, cut back, rest, tend to the core of what makes life worthy of its name. All is calm. All is bright.

Even the sun stands still.

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

God Laughs


Man plans, and God laughs. ~Yiddish proverb

I'm in New York right now, visiting our daughter for a few days before taking her home to Seattle for the holidays. I was out playing tourist, hoofing it toward the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), when I passed a young businessman talking on his phone. He was urgent, as if attempting to persuade the person on the other end, "Predicting the possibility of success is almost impossible to do."

Godlike, I laughed aloud. Thankfully, he had no idea I was laughing at him, but the absurdity of his words made my response involuntary. By the looks of him, he was not a whole lot older than my own child. I wanted to take him by the shoulders and tell him that no one has ever spoken truer words, and that if I were his boss, I'd give him a raise and promotion on the spot. The person on the other end of the line had clearly asked for assurances. If I've learned anything at all in my 55 years, it's that life offers no assurances.

Most of the businesspeople I know are entrepreneurs, folks with ideas who, much like the children I teach, ask and answer their own questions, not by trying to look into a crystal ball, but by going out there and doing. Can I balance across this plank? There's only one way to find out. Can I draw a ballerina? There's only one way to find out. Will people like my idea enough to pay for it? There's only one way to find out. Oh sure, there's always a bit of planning in the spirit of a child making sure her pencil is sharp before she begins, but for the most part they chose a direction then find their way to places no one has ever been before by trial and error.

One of MoMA's current exhibits is one called "The Long Run" that includes later-in-life works from Jasper Johns, Georgia O'Keefe, Louis Bourgeois and others. I'll use their words to describe it:

Innovation in art is often characterized as a singular event -- a bolt of lightening that strikes once and forever changes what follows. The Long Run provides an alternate view: by chronicling the continued experimentation of artists long after their breakthrough moments, it suggests that invention results from sustained critical thinking, persistent observation, and countless hours in the studio. Each work in this presentation exemplifies an artist's distinct evolution. For some, this results from continually testing the boundaries of a given medium, for others it reflects the pressures of social, economic, and political circumstances. Often, it is a combination of both . . . All the artists presented are united by a ceaseless desire to make meaningful work, year after year, across decades.

This could be true about any endeavor worth undertaking, be it relationships, business, or art. What you don't see here is the word "planning," at least not of the sort that makes god laugh.

Certainly, I can see the economic value in having a team of junior executives laboring over "predicting the possibility of success" when it comes to more efficiently traversing well-worn tracks. That's how we get buzzers that startle us when our dryer load is done or programmable coffee-makers or TV's that can stream programs via the internet. Perhaps there are some who find satisfaction in expending their precious lives compiling the data that will tell them that customers want buttons rather than a dial or that advertising on this or that radio station will increase sales by .5% over the next three quarters, but these are not the dreams of humans, but rather of corporations that measure success in greasy bucks. These are not the questions to which actual humans seek answers.

In recent decades, do-gooder (and not so do-gooder) business types have bull-in-a-china-shopped their way into education, shattering the dishes while proclaiming themselves saviors out to re-shape our schools in the image of corporations, seeking to predict the possibility of success from their ivory towers through curricula packaged like mac-and-cheese, tests that create meaningless data, and analysis that pretends to predict the possibility of success without ever really understanding what success means beyond a greasy buck.

Corporate vulture Mitt Romney famously said, "Corporations are people, my friend," and this is the vision of one of those corporate people, an entity with a very, very narrow measurement of success: profit. Actual humans, like the ones I teach, cannot be measured, except by themselves. Period. If we are to transform our schools, we must seek to do so in the mold of the entrepreneur or the artist, to become places where sustained critical thinking, persistent observation, and countless hours of experimentation through doing stands at the center.

I can perhaps plan my morning, perhaps, in a way that leads to me getting out the door on time, but even that is often a challenge. What folly to suggest that any human, let alone a child, can plan for anything beyond that. Corporate people can't do that even with their narrow measures and easily definable goals. Because my own child is a young adult, just now setting out in the world, I have the opportunity to speak with many others in the same boat, many like the young businessman I encountered the other day. My gray-beard advice to them is always the same: just chose a direction and go. Never let goals blind you to the beauty of your journey. Don't plan, but do practice dreaming. Practice dreaming vigorously, magnificently, bravely, because ultimately the secret to the only success that matters, to making your dreams come true, is to dream a lot of dreams.

If you do that god will still laugh, but now he will be laughing with you, not at you.

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Abuse Of Power

Few things make me angrier than when the powerful abuse their power, so as you might expect the almost daily revelations of powerful men, from Bill Cosby to Al Franken, who have engaged in harassment and assault, have had an enormous impact on me. It's not just abuses of the sexual variety that raise my outrage, of course. I've railed both publicly and privately about the large and small sociopathic cruelties of businessmen and bankers, employers and parents, but these new revelations, coming one upon the other, have taken me from righteous anger to a sort of despair. Can we not trust anyone with power?

Of course, Lord Acton's words have become a cliche, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," and so it seems. What is usually left off is this: "Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more where you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority."

Few disagree, although many will take exception for this leader or that one. Some suggest that women might bear power with more humanity, but since even the most powerful women in our world do so within the patriarchy we will never be able to test that theory lacking a major restructuring of our world. I was among those who once believed that certainly there must be some who are capable of wielding power, be it through "influence" or "authority," while remaining fully human, but recent news, and particularly that about men like Cosby and Franken, both of whom I would have sworn were men of such character that they could stand as exceptions to the rule, has left me to conclude that Lord Acton was right, absolutely.

It's not that they all start as "bad men." I genuinely believe that a young Cosby or Franken would have been appalled at what they have let themselves do, but no one, it seems, is immune from power's corruptive influence. And science is proving that. According to UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner who has been studying the effects of power for the past two decades has found that people under the influence of power act as if they have suffered traumatic brain injury. That's right, power causes brain damage.

And Keltner isn't the only one. From a recent Atlantic article:

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, "mirroring," that may be a cornerstone of empathy . . . Once we have power, we lose some of the capabilities we needed to gain it in the first place.

Researchers have found that this impairment is evident even in otherwise powerless people who gain temporary power, and while it disappears when the power is taken away, the evidence seems to indicate that the longer one has power, the more permanent the brain damage. In other words, it's not just our imaginations: the powerful are brain damaged and the longer they have had power the more brain damaged they are.

The Atlantic article goes on to suggest some things that powerful people might do to mitigate some of the damage, such as consciously striving to stay connected to memories of times when they felt powerless, but this means that we, those of us with limited power over others, must rely upon these untrustworthy people, these brain damaged people, to do the right thing, something they appear neurologically incapable of doing. And hence, Bill Cosby and Al Franken.

I'm sure there are those who take exception to my lumping of Cosby and Franken together. After all, one systematically drugged and raped dozens if not hundreds of women over the course of decades and the other seems to have "merely" groped and fondled, but they have both displayed symptoms of the same mental illness. I don't know what to do about men like Cosby whose power came from popularity (other than to make them unpopular) or those corporate criminals who sit in the boardrooms of banks or who heartlessly rob pensioners from their Wall Street towers (other than to throw them in prison), but I do know what to do with men like Franken, who while no where near as "bad" as those others, is clearly showing the early signs of this pernicious and progressive disease. It's good that he is stepping down from his position in the US Senate, not just for us, but for his own mental well-being.

We live, or at least we strive to live, in a democratic society, one in which we entrust others with the power to act in the best interest of we the people, "entrust" being the key word. This is why their abuses so anger me as a man who is entrusted, daily, with the health and well-being of young children. One might say I have power over them, and I do in the way that bigger, stronger, more experienced adults always have power over children, but I have never wanted that power, and my greatest failings, I feel, are those times when I have used those advantages to compel or force or "trick" children into doing my bidding. I am grateful that I hold my position as a teacher within the context of a cooperative school, one in which the children's parents are not only my employers, but are present day-to-day in with me in the classroom serving as checks against any abuses and reminders of my own ultimate powerlessness. Any power I have is derived from the trust I've earned, over years, and any extra power people seek to give me, I in turn, strive to redistribute, to the children if at all possible.

You see, that is the proper use of power: to give it away, to use it to empower others. That is what a healthy brain, one that retains it's ability to empathize, naturally does. By the same token, we also know that feeling powerless is likewise damaging, that those who feel disempowered are prone to a wide spectrum of enfeeblements. Indeed, it seems that power is like blood: it must flow or otherwise the body dies. If you find yourself with power, then, give it away, let it flow, for the good not just of others but of yourself: for the good of us all.

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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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Monday, December 18, 2017

The Real Story

We have recently been arguing at circle time, not angrily as the word often connotes, and not with the hair-splitting dryness so often associated with academic debate, but passionately, over things that matter.

For instance, the kids recently insisted that I "tell a story." They were expecting one from the collection I've memorized over the years, and tell with the sort of repetition and telegraphed punchlines that young children tend to enjoy, but instead I opted for the traditional (as I learned it) version of the Three Little Pigs folktale. In my telling, the wolf devours the first two pigs, while he is in turn devoured in a stew by the pig who built his home of bricks. Oh, the children wailed at me as I told it, interrupting me to insist that the pigs actually "get away" and that the wolf "turns nice" at the end, insisting on the versions they have learned from today's more sanitized picture books.

Some of them, however, agreed with me, either they have been told the originals by their parents or they are taking the stance of contrarian, forming a small, but steadfast minority supporting my point of view. We then took turns sharing our "real" versions, each one being met by a chorus of "Noooooo," with me continuing to insist that mine is, in fact, the "real real" version.

I keep a shelf of books behind my usual perch in the corner of the checkerboard rug and among them are several alternative re-tellings of the story, each sillier than the last. As the our friendly, yet intense debate began to enter the "Yes it is"/"No it isn't" phase, I said, "Well, we don't seem to be able to agree about which is the real story, but maybe we're all wrong. Maybe this is the real version." And I produced, with a flourish, a version entitled, appropriately, The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (Jon Scieszka).

Many of the kids are familiar with this popular re-telling from the perspective of the wolf. As I read it, we paused to notice where this version matches the ones we already know and where it differs. At the end we then argued about whether or not it can really be called the "real" version. I then pulled out another re-telling and then another, insisting each time that the new one must be the "real" version.

In the end, when I once more wondered which was the "real" story, however, we all tended to go back to the version with which we were most familiar, but not without knowing that our friends disagreed which is the place many argument, by necessity, must end. And that that's okay. Then, in the spirit of folktales, these stories that are called that because they belong to the folks, I said, "Maybe none of these is the real version. Maybe we have to write the real version ourselves." And many of them did just that.

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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!
Bookmark and Share
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