Friday, June 30, 2017

Courage To Take The Leap

"Institutional memory" has kept our "diving board" game alive for the past three or so years. I wrote a couple posts about it back in 2014 when it first emerged (here and here), but the essential idea is that the kids put a long plank of wood on the top of our three-step flight of stairs and anchor one end under the gate, making a diving board off which they take turns jumping.

The only change since then is that we've realized that the upward pressure it was putting on the gate threatened the integrity of the hinges and latches so we've added an adult outside the gate to stand on the short end, serving as dead weight. Usually, that adult is me, which puts me just over the gate in a prime position to over hear their conversations and observe their intimate interactions as they jostle, bicker, and otherwise figure out how they are going to manage their game.

One of the biggest challenges is that while the older children usually get the inherent fairness of waiting in line and taking turns, the younger ones typically do not. There's a lot of, "Hey, you cut!" that falls on uncomprehending ears. Sometimes the older children compel the younger ones into line through a combination of force and adult-like firmness, but most of the time they either shrug and let them have their way because "they're little," or, more often, one of the older kids will spontaneously take on the role of mentor, guiding the younger ones by their shoulders or elbows.

This week, they took it a step farther as the big kids began escorting their younger charges all the way to the end of the diving board, holding their hands as they jumped, sometimes even "catching" them. Despite their best intentions, however, the "help" pretty much universally resulted in the younger children falling as they hit the ground, especially when the big kids tried to catch them. Often both children fell. The ground is not particularly hard and the height from which they were jumping not particularly high, but it was the sort of thing from which one would typically expect crying from the two-year-olds. Yet, despite some falls that appeared to be quite impactful, not a single tear was shed, and every one of the kids returned to try it again and again.

As I watched these young children take their hard falls, assisted by the older children who were, in reality, only making those falls more inevitable, I saw them again and again refuse to scoot out to the end of the diving board until one of the older children took their hand. I expected that eventually the younger kids would begin to refuse those proffered hands, opting for full control of their own bodies in the name of personal safety, but it never happened.

As the younger children kept coming back for more, they showed no fear of falling, no fear of pain, no fear of failure, all of which they knew was built into this game. Yet over and over they insisted upon the hand of an older child before they would even stand on the end of the diving board: it gave them the courage, I guess, to take the leap, to keep going, which is more often than not the main reason why any of us need one another.

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

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

"I Want To Call Her"

He cried as his mother left him, bawling at the gate, shouting for her to return. As a cooperative school, parents are always welcome to stay with their kids, but this was a case when mommy had an important appointment. I sat with him as he wailed, letting us all know that he wanted mommy to come back.

He wanted me to let him out of the gate, he was going to chase after her, but I told him it was too late, that she had already driven away. With this information he turned to face me and the playground. I said, "Mommy will come back when we sing the boom-boom song. Mommies always come back."

"I want to call her."

"I don't know her number."

"I do." He then recited some numbers that sounded a lot like a phone number.

I handed him my iPhone. I didn't have a small child during the smart phone era, I'd heard that even the youngest kids all know how to use them, but this boy was barely three. Through his strong emotion he managed it expertly, and to my surprise and chagrin, he got his mother on the line. He had been calm and focused up to that point, but returned to a full throated wail at the sound of her voice. I had not expected him to be successful and I felt awful for both the boy and his mom who was surely feeling as badly as her boy.

After hanging up, I sat with him as he once more cried his emotions through to completion. Then he asked me for my phone again. I said I didn't want to let him have my phone, but that I had a different phone he could use. It was a shot in the dark, but we have a collection of discarded mobile phones that the kids use as toys. I told him I would get him his own phone, hoping it would satisfy him, but doubtful given his level of expertise.

The moment I handed the vintage phone to him, he deftly dialed his mother's number, then waited with the phone against his ear for her to answer. When nothing happened, he said, "It's not working."

I answered, "That's because we took the battery out of that phone."

"Put it back in."

"Sorry, I don't have it any more. We threw it away."

I was half expecting this information to set him off again, but he took it philosophically. He began to dial his mother's number again and again and again, no longer putting the phone to his ear in anticipation, just dialing, connecting with her through those 10 digits. He carried the phone with him for the rest of the day, dialing. He asked for the phone the following day, this time without his tears. He carried that phone all of last week and again this week. Sometimes he dialed mommy's number, but he dialed daddy's number as well, alternating, discussing it with me, showing me those numbers over and over, making a connection over a disabled phone. And each day, when we sang the boom-boom song, mommy (or daddy) came back.

Occasionally and increasingly, he would engage with the play around him, but one-handedly as his other hand was fully occupied holding that phone. He still sought me out at times, sitting beside me when I sat, drawing my attention to the magic numbers, but he did so less and less. At one point I watched him "call" one of the other adults on the playground, who used her fingers to make a phone. He figured out to stand near her in order to hear what she was saying because "this phone doesn't work very well," and carried on regular conversations with her throughout the day. He might have called others, but by now he was spending most of his time off my radar.

Yesterday, I found his phone abandoned in the dust while he played at the bottom of the hill.

(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, June 28, 2017

Real Learning Looks Like . . .

"(Real learning) does not look like 6-year-olds slumped in chairs . . . staring at iPads . . ." ~parent's testimony before Cambridge School board

This is the problem with letting dilettantes, even well-intended dilettantes, lead when it comes to education policy. They don't have the experience to recognize what real learning looks like, and since they tend to come from the world of business, they don't trust mere "employees" (teachers), especially if they belong to a union, so they come up with arbitrary data points that carry with them a hint of education-ness, then subject children to their amateur hour. I don't think that most of them want to be cruel to children and their parents, but in their ignorance they believe they know better because they've managed to make money off selling software or hardware or something, so they conjure up education-ish sounding ideas and, because they can, they impose them, despite the objections of those of us who do have the experience to know what real learning looks like.

Anyone who has spent any time in a classroom knows that real learning does not look like children slumped in chairs staring at iPads. Real learning looks like stepping in a puddle you've made with your friends, then sinking in until the water tops your boots.

Real learning looks like pouring water through systems of funnels and tubes.

Real learning looks like mixing a whole lot of stuff together with your friends to see what happens.

Real learning looks like negotiating how to share scarce and valuable resources.

Real learning looks like children imitating one another . . .

. . .  then taking it to the next level.

Real learning looks like testing our physical limits.

Real learning looks like performing experiments.

Real learning looks like trying on costumes.

Real learning looks like princesses and fairies.

Real learning looks like figuring out how to make something new from unfamiliar materials.

Real learning looks like conflict and resolution.

Real learning looks like hanging out with a friend and talking about the world.

Real learning looks like engagement in a process one has never tried before.

Real learning looks like children cleaning up after themselves.

Real learning looks like children doing things for themselves.

Real learning looks like preschoolers in a brewery carrying kegs.

Real learning looks like children playing in a concrete pond in the rain.

Real learning looks like animals lined up in a row.

Real learning looks like patterns made from goldfish.

Real learning looks like keeping track of important things like how many bowling pins you've knocked down.

Real learning looks like hands covered in purple paint.

Real learning looks like standing in play dough with your friends.

Real learning looks like creating great beauty with your friends.

Real learning looks like doing any project with your friends.

Real learning looks like being together, doing things together, figuring things out together.

Real learning looks like children carving out their own space in the world.

Real learning looks like children following their own path.

This list only scratches the surface of what real learning looks like. I've been teaching at Woodland Park for 16 years. It would take at least that long to give you my full list. But I assure you, one thing that real learning doesn't look like is children slumped in chairs staring at iPads.

(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, June 27, 2017

The Proper Thing To Do With Money

I've never watched the television program called Hoarders, but I understand it's a rather painful realty show that looks at the personal tragedies of lives impacted by compulsive hoarding disorder (CHD). Each episode focuses on individuals who can't bear to part with even the tiniest of possessions and how those possessions, through their accumulation, have come to possess them, mind, body, and soul. I don't need to watch the program to understand the dangers of hoarding because I've seen it in real life, albeit on a smaller scale. I've even lived it at times, in my own way.

I think we all suffer from hoarding. Indeed, at times it appears that we've set up a society in which many of us engage in a sort of competitive hoarding. When I was a boy, we called it "keeping up with the Joneses," the social pressure to measure one's worth by how many precious things one owns, be it a bigger house, car, or boat. Most of us know better, of course, yet still all of us at one time or another have looked around at all the crap we have and thought, "It's time for a purge." But even those of us who manage to live minimally are indirectly made to suffer from CHD via the widespread misery it causes to those around us.

And indeed, as I've written before, the natural state of a hoarder is misery. I've never seen a joyful hoarder. That's why I'm always quick to point it out when I see it happening around the preschool. Just as I will note, aloud, that someone is crying because they've skinned their knee or bumped their head, I make sure to point out the misery of hoarding when I see it: no judgement, no scolding, just a calm statement of fact (e.g., "He's sad because he's hoarding all the blocks"). I want children to not only understand their own emotions, but also those of the people around them.

And this doesn't just go for stuff. Last week I wrote about power. A lot of it comes my way by virtue of being a middle class, white, male, and a teacher to boot. As a citizen, my responsibility is to give it away, to not cling to my power, but to use it to empower others, because when one accumulates anything, it begins to stink, to become something to constantly curate and even protect, something that comes ultimately to posses the possessor. No, power, like stuff, is meant to move, to lubricate, to be spread around like fertilizer, or it will make you and everyone around you miserable. In fact, just like with the poor people on Hoarders, if you hoard too much of anything for too long it becomes fully toxic, even explosive.

I think most people who read here get that, and even as we all tend at times toward clutching things too tightly, we know we make the world a better place when we give it away.

But what about money? I mean, from the time we're toddlers, we're urged to save our pennies, to hide our cash in piggy banks, to hoard it against a rainy day. I'm certain that's how most of those TV hoarders feel about their own stashes of junk: But what if I need it some day? Of course, it's only common sense to bank a little dough, to create a cushion, to plan for those years, whether near at hand or decades away, when money isn't coming our way, but is that a truth about life or just a truth about how we, as a society, have opted to live it?

I've had four different billionaires near enough to me over my 55 years that I feel like I've had the chance to take a superficial measure of them, two were self-made while two inherited their great wealth. In each case, I walked away with a sense of their misery. None of them, at least when they were around me, seemed particularly happy, indeed, as a collection they came off as irritable, demanding, and even a bit sad, the natural state of someone who is hoarding. I, for one, would not wish that sort of wealth on anyone and should that sort of excess come my way, I hope that I would have the strength of character to dis-possess myself before it came to possess me. No, like power, our responsibility is not to cling to money, but rather to give it away, to spend it, to spread it around, to allow it to do its job of lubricating. I'm not saying I always do it, but I know it's true.

For the past few days I've been imagining a world in which we truly understood the personal a societal damage done by hoarding of all kinds. Of course, we can see it when shown to us through people whose CHD leads them to accumulate festering piles of garbage, but the hurt hoarding causes is no less real, and perhaps even more painful, when it comes to things like power and money.

No, it's our job to spread it around. All of it. I mean, look no farther than our reason for living -- love. If we hoard it, it does no good. Love only has value when we spread it around and that's true for everything else as well.

(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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