Friday, March 30, 2018

The Freedom That Will Make Them Confident And Independent Adults

When I was a boy, even as young as four, mom would say, "You're driving me crazy. Go outside and play." She would then open the door, close it behind me, and not expect to hear from me for hours. That's how we all grew up back then. If I didn't see any other kids out there, I'd make my way up the street, knocking on the doors of houses where I knew kids lived, asking if they could come out and play. We played in one another's yards, garages, and crawl spaces. We played in the street, vacant lots, and the school yard. Once we learned to ride bikes, which most of us did around five or six, the entire neighborhood was ours.

Today we call it being "free-range," a term coined by Lenore Skenazy, the woman generally regarded as the founder of the free-range parenting movement. She was was once dubbed "the worst mother in the world" for letting her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway on his own and writing about it. And while she was roundly pilloried, she at least wasn't charged with child neglect, endangerment or abuse as some parents have for simply allowing their kids to experience what was not long ago just called "childhood."

It is a great tragedy that most children growing up in America today will spend their entire childhoods under adult supervision, never having the opportunities to experience the independence and freedom that characterized life for those of us who grew up in the 60's and 70's, what Peter Gray calls the "Golden Age of Childhood." For whatever reason, we got scared as a nation, convinced there is a pedophile (or worse) behind every tree. According to the actual data, the world did not get more dangerous, but we came to perceive that it did and our children have suffered. Instead of saying, You're driving me crazy: go outside," parents were left with popping in a video or choosing between household chores and playing with the kids. Instead of kids organizing their own play the way we did, parents are on point for arranging supervised play-dates or driving junior to the playground or a class or some other "safe" facility under the ever-watchful eye of an adult. And children are suffering.

But perhaps the tide is turning. The state of Utah has recently passed a law legalizing free-range parenting. No longer can a parent be arrested for allowing her child to play alone at a playground or walk home from school. And apparently, there are a number of other states with similar laws in the works. This is good news, but it still starkly illustrates the fact that normal childhood is currently illegal in most places in the US.

Still, this is not just a win for both kids, but for parents, replacing irrational fear with common sense. Says Mica Hauley, Utah mother of five: "I can now make the decisions that are best for my children and not live in fear I am being judged and could be arrested. I trust that my kids can walk a short distance home from school. I may be looking out the window for them and praying for angels to be at their sides but I have to give them the freedom that will make them confident and independent adults."

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

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Moral Authority To Lead Us

I was in high school in Corvallis, Oregon and then college in Eugene during the early 1980's. Across the mountains near a tiny burg called Antelope, an Indian spiritual leader by the name of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh bought a ranch for the purpose of building a city, a nirvana, based upon his the principles of meditation, love, celebration, courage, creativity, and humor. Almost immediately, the local population fought against the Rajneeshees, and the Rajneeshees fought back. Things escalated rapidly to bombings, murder, bioterror, assassination attempts, and guns, lots of guns. The media at the time tended to portray the people of Antelope as victims, but there was plenty of blame to go around.

I was aware of the Rajneeshee story at the time, but didn't follow it because, honestly, to this young man it just seemed like a bunch of adults behaving badly, on both sides. It seemed absurd that everyone couldn't just get along. I've recently been reminded of those times by the Netflix documentary series called Wild, Wild Country. Many of the main protagonists from both sides shared their stories, I learned things I didn't know, but in the end I came away with the same feeling I had back then: there were probably "good guys" on both sides, but by and large, it's the story of adults behaving badly.

On Saturday, I headed out to one of Seattle's March for Our Lives rallies, a movement spearheaded by teenagers who are clearly fed up with adults behaving badly. This is the tip of the spear. As a parent of a young adult, I'm hyper-aware that from the perspective of the young people I know, many, if not most, of the problems in our world stem from adults having backed themselves into their respective corners, yelling at each other, and making no sense at all. Many of the "very serious" talking heads have criticized these teens as naive at best, some even accusing them of being pawns of political interests, or worse.

To me they just seem like the young people I know: smart, socially-aware, compassionate, and pissed off about the world they are inheriting. This, of course, is no different than the young people who came before them. Perhaps they are naive, but maybe that's their strength. Maybe that's why young people can, on some issues, be so much more clear-sighted than those of us who allow our knowledge of past failures to make us cynics and, at best, willing to settle for half measures.

I've attended more of these feet-on-the-street actions than I can count, but the march on Saturday felt different. As I heard the voices of young citizen after young citizen take the mic, I found myself feeling inspired by their passion as much as their words. This is not only how it should be, it's how it has always worked. Many of our nation's so-called "founding fathers" were in fact kids in 1776. Among those who were 25 or under were such historical figures as James Madison, Nathan Hale, Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, Betsy Ross, and James Monroe. Many others weren't much older. Indeed, youth have lead the way in virtually every major social change that has ever happened, not just in democracies, but everywhere.

The past is too often a story of adults behaving badly. Real change doesn't happen until we not just listen to the kids, but step aside so that they can take the lead. After all, no one has a greater stake in the future: it is theirs to create. And frankly, we "experienced" adults have behaved rather badly, making a mess of so much, that it's time we gave someone else a chance. Despite their youth, and perhaps because of it, they appear at this moment in history at least, to have not just clearer sight, but the moral authority to lead us.

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

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Evidence Tells Us That We Should Set Kids Free

Few things have put more wear and tear on my teeth than the entire concept of "teaching" character traits like "grit," "resilience," "optimism," "conscientiousness," and "self-control." It's not that those things aren't important. Indeed, they are vital not just for academic achievement, but for any kind of real, lasting success, be it in school, work, or just being a member of a family or community. No, what sets my teeth grinding is the self-satisfied way in which so-called education reformers, the ones with a product or agenda to sell, insist that they have figured out how to "teach" these things, even going so far as to produce pre-packaged curricula they claim will do this.

It's classic snake oil, based upon the faith-based notion that all these kids need are more lectures, more tests (yes, there are actually standardized tests now that purport to measure these noncognitive traits), and a vigorous system of rewards and punishments. It has been these Skinnerian notions that has lead to such things as zero-tolerance policies, No Child Left Behind, and other anti-child measures, none of which have worked in any way to move the needle on the holy grail of "academic achievement." It hasn't worked because what they are doing is not based upon science, but rather an ideology that comes right out of neoliberal economic theory -- the kind business executives, the very folks who are leading the charge to turn our schools into test score coal mines, tend to favor.

To underline this point, Roland G. Fryer, Jr., an economics professor at Harvard distributed nearly $10 million in cash incentives (e.g., rewards) to students in several US cities over the course of several years, with the idea of improving reading scores. These came in the form of cash, cell phones and other inducements just to read books and spend more time on their math homework. The results: "Students performed the tasks necessary to get paid, but their average math scores at the end of eight months hadn't changed at all . . . their reading scores . . . actually went down."

This quote is from an article by education author Paul Tough that appeared in The Atlantic entitled How Kids Really Succeed (they changed the title in the online version) in which he contrasts actual brain research with current educational practices. It's a worthwhile read, especially the first half in which he discusses the impact of early childhood "toxic stress" on the ability to learn. What researchers are concluding is that the behaviorists are wrong, at least with regard to children:

". . . (W)e are mostly motivated not by the material consequences of our actions but by the inherent enjoyment and meaning that those actions bring us, a phenomenon called intrinsic motivation."

This brings a resounding, "Well, of course," from those of us who work with young children.

(Researchers) identified three key human needs -- our need for competence, our need for autonomy, and our need for relatedness, meaning personal connection -- and they posited that intrinsic motivation can be sustained only when we feel that those needs are being satisfied. (Emphasis added by me.)

Competence, autonomy, and personal connection: these are the building blocks of a play-based education where children are allowed to become competent by having the time and space to autonomously ask and answer their own questions within the context of a loving community. This is where those bedrock character traits come from. And it is why they will never emerge from the reward and punishment model of the neoliberal Skinnerians.

Sadly, when Tough asks the question, "So what do these academic environments look like?" (e.g., those that emphasize competence, autonomy, and personal connection) he answers it by going into normal schools where teachers are using this research to manipulate kids into "learning" what adults have pre-determined is good for the kids, rather than what the kids themselves are driven to pursue, which means they might produce statistically significant improvements, but ones that are still marginal compared to the sort that would come from the kind of systemic change that brain (and psychological and anthropological and pedagogical) research tells us would transform the lives not just young children, but all of us.

The evidence tells us that we should set kids free to lead their own learning, but the policy-makers (and in that I include most of us as well) are still fixated on getting those damned orcas to jump just a little higher so that we adults can applaud ourselves.

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

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Squishing Play Dough And Discussing Urethras

We were gathered together around a fresh ball of play dough, five girls and Teacher Tom.

"Teacher Tom, look at my butt!"

"I don't want to look at your butt." I said it in such a way that they took it as a joke.

"Teacher Tom, look at my butt!"

"I don't want to look at anyone's butt."

"If I pulled down my pants and underpants you would see my butt."

"I don't want you to do that. I'm perfectly fine not seeing your butt."

There was some general giggling, then, "Why don't you want to see my butt?"

"I guess it's because that's where your poop comes out and I'm not a big fan of poop." 

The word made them giggle some more, "And it's where pee comes out, too!"

This assertion brought the frivolity to a pause as everyone let it sink in. Then one of them objected, "Pee doesn't come out of your butt."

"It does, I feel it sometimes."

"It doesn't. I think that's called diarrhea. Pee comes out of your vulva."

"You mean vagina."

"No, I don't. My vagina is the inside part you can't see. My vulva is the outside."

There was a general looking around at one another as if for confirmation. Then someone said, "I don't think that's right. Pee doesn't come from the outside part, it comes from the inside. There's another hole it comes out of . . . "

"Is it the labia?"

"No . . . I know! It's the urethra."

"That's right, the pee comes out of the urethra. That's what my body book says."

No one looked to me for either confirmation or information other than help with the pronunciation of "urethra."

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

Monday, March 26, 2018

Teaching And Learning From Preschoolers

I was enjoying the late March sunshine on Sunday with a walk through Belltown. Ahead of me on the sidewalk I noticed a boy and a woman I judged to be his grandmother walking toward me. The boy was walking backwards, slowly, studying his shadow over his shoulder.

"Hey," he said, drawing his grandmother's attention to the shadow he cast behind himself, "Now my right hand is my left and my left hand is my right." It was a moment of every day epiphany, the kind with which childhood is filled. As adults we seldom walk backwards. As adults we've come to take our shadows for granted. Perhaps we haven't entirely lost our sense of wonder, but it's certainly harder to come by as we get older unless we have young children in our lives to point them out to us.

I'm not a grandparent, but I expect this is a large part of why people are so excited to become one. You love your own kids, of course, but they grow up and part of that process, at least in our world, is to become increasingly immune to the magic of small moments as we live more and more of our lives in the future or the past, rarely noticing the miracle of our right hand becoming our left. This woman who I judged to be a grandmother, stopped to admire her grandchild's shadow. "It's true," she said. The boy began waving his shadow arms at her, reaching them out to touch her shadow. For a moment she hesitated, I think because she knew I was watching, but then, with a shrug that told me she had decided to not give a damn what a stranger thought, began waving her shadow arms back at his. They touched shadow fingers, shadow hands, shadow arms.

The tagline for this blog, one I placed here in 2009 before I'd ever written a single post, reads, "Teaching and learning from preschoolers." It's there because it's true: I've always learned at least as much from them as they do from me and most of their lessons come in the form of this boy playing with his shadow.

I sometimes wonder if we aren't born knowing everything we can ever really know: there is breath and light and pain and comfort. We are driven to nourish ourselves, to connect with others humans, and to play with the shadows and other everyday wonders. The rest of what we learn is, in part, a process of unlearning these central things as we attempt to construct meaning from the evidence, a process that takes us farther and farther into a world that only exists in the future or in the past, unlike these shadows that are here right now waving back at us. This is the gift of having young children in our lives.

I left that grandma and grandson there on the sidewalk, still delighting in their shadows on a Belltown sidewalk in the late March sunshine.

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

Friday, March 23, 2018

"Teach By Doing Whenever You Can"

I reckon it would be best if we didn't put so much energy into worrying about our children's futures. It would be best for both us and our kids if we could more often just be here in the present with them, wondering at who they are right now, appreciating the unique human they already are, helping and loving them right now. That would be best, but human parents have never been very good at it. Sometimes we dream big dreams for them, imagining our child, their best qualities flourishing, as a masterful something or other, admired, inspired, passionate, and supremely comfortable in their own skin. But there are times when we fear their worst qualities and fret that they will grow to be spoiled, disrespectful, and lazy, prone to messy bedrooms, selfishness, depression or worse.

Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn by no other. ~Edmund Burke

These thoughts enter our heads because we are the adults, cursed with the disease of thinking we have any control over the future. Maybe, we think, if we just lecture our children enough, take them to church often enough, give them enough chores to do, and reward and punish them appropriately we can somehow stave off the bad future and encourage the good. But that isn't the way it works.

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

Most of what children learn about being a human being in this world, they learn from the people they most love, but not because they have been drilled, scolded, or otherwise indoctrinated, but rather because they follow their example. If we want children to be kind, we must be kind. If we want them to be tidy, we must be tidy. If we want them to be respectful, then we must be respectful, especially toward them. Indeed, the more we focus on ourselves, on being the person we want ourselves to be, the better we "teach" the most important life lessons. Our children will not learn to pursue their passions unless the loving adults in their lives set that example for them. They will not learn to be unselfish if we live with a tight fist. They will not learn to manage their emotions, if their role models haven't figured it out for themselves.

Teach by doing whenever you can, and only fall back upon words when doing it is out of the question. ~Jean-Jacques Rousseau

That's asking a lot of adults, I know, but if we are going to ask it of our children, we must also ask it of ourselves. And we must also know that we will fail in our role modeling and fail often, but in that too we are role models. Children do not expect their parents to be perfect, but they are always making a careful study of what we do when we make mistakes. Do we give up? Do we blame others? Do we rant and rave? Do we cry and mope? Or are we able to apologize, forgive ourselves, and get back up to try again? The approach we take is very likely the approach our children will, in turn, grow to embrace as their own.

Teaching is painful, continual, and difficult work to be done by kindness, by watching, and by praise, but above all by example. ~John Ruskin

Of course, we all know examples of children, perhaps even ourselves, who have overcome poor role modeling. Perhaps we eat more healthily than our own parents, or make more time for our own kids, or avoid committing felonies. But even then, we can see that is was the examples set, more than the lessons "taught" that informed the future.

No one can predict the future and only fools take their attempts to do so seriously. When we are hopeful about the future we are, as my wife and I like to say, just "spending Yugoslavian dollars." When we worry we are, at best, wasting valuable emotional bandwidth that would be better applied to right now. The only future we can predict with any certainty is the next 10 minutes and, I've found, it's generally not too hard to be the best me, the person I most want to be, for the next 10 minutes. When we can do that, 10 minutes at a time, we are being the teacher, the parent, our child most needs. And it is from those 10 minute building blocks that the future emerges.

A master can tell you what he expects of you. A teacher, though, awakens your own expectations. ~Patricia Neal

It's not our job to "teach" our children anything, but rather to love them and to strive to live according to our own expectations, not in the past or future, but right now. The future, as it always does, will take care of itself.

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

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Long Paint Brushes

Earlier this week we got out the long paint brushes. I don't know where the idea came from, but some time ago, I got it into my head to duct tape regular length paint brushes to sturdy bamboo stakes. Usually, I then tape a piece of paper or cardboard up high on a wall so the extra long paint brushes make sense: if you're going to paint that paper or cardboard you need a long paint brush. This time, however, mostly out of curiosity, but partly because I was feeling a little lazy, I hung the paper at a regular height.

I figured that kids might gamely start by trying to use the long paint brushes, but would soon realize that they were entirely unnecessary. After all, using these paint brushes to paint on paper hung at eye level makes no sense: it transforms something simple into something challenging. I wondered what they would do once the epiphany hit them. Would they just give it up? Would they try to find some way to shorten the brushes, either by removing the bamboo or by "choking up" on the handle to give themselves more control? Would they instead opt for finger painting? I was half expecting at least one child to ask me accusatorily, "Why are we using these brushes anyway?"

And sure enough, there were a couple kids who resorted to finger painting, but for the most part, the kids who chose to pick up those long brushes stuck with the program I'd manufactured for them: making something simple into something unnecessarily complicated. No one was compelling them, of course, they were free to give in to their frustration and drop those brushes any time they chose.

Not all the kids picked up those long brushes. Most, in fact, only paused long enough to reject the idea before running along to something else. Indeed, only a handful really engaged with project -- about ten percent of the kids, I'd say -- but of those that did, most tended to stick with it beyond the point of mere novelty, approaching it as a technique or skill over which they sought some mastery.

I couldn't help but reflect on all the unnecessary challenges we adults set up for young children in the name of education: these lists of arbitrary objectives against which we measure them. The difference, of course, is that in a "normal" school all the kids are expected to not only pick up those long paint brushes, but to drill with them, together, until they are capable of producing something that the adults find acceptable, like "grade-level" reading proficiency or the ability to perform certain mathematical calculations or the memorization of spelling words, dates, or the location of some dot on a map. For a few kids, say 10 percent, this is hunky-dory, they are drawn to the challenge because it is either something about which they have a natural curiosity or they are temperamentally attracted to these sorts of challenges. There is another percentage, perhaps even a large one, who will more or less resign themselves to undertaking the task, not because they've chosen it, but because the adults they love insist that they must, or because we attach rewards (grades) or punishments (failing grades) to them.

And then there are those who simply will not be compelled, the "problem" children, the one's who don't see the point and have better things to do with their time. Most children would join them on the swings if they could, or in the sandpit, or in the midst of a game of their own creation. Anything other than wasting their time with those damn long paint brushes.

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

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Creating A Just-Right Challenge For Themselves

A long-ish 2X4 had been dragged across the path. It was in an awkward spot in my estimation so I picked it up and, in the spirit of play, positioned it to span the gap between the tops of the cedar rounds that line the lower level of our sandpit and our playground row boat. Several two-year-olds watched me do it. I said, "It's a bridge," then immediately wished I hadn't said it. A bridge is for crossing and I wasn't sure it was a good idea to encourage kids this young to give it a go: it was narrow, un-secured, and relatively high. I said, "I'll take it down."

"I want to go across."

"Me too."

I cautioned, "It's very narrow and very wobbly. I think it might be a bridge for grown-ups and not kids. I'll show you." I started across expecting that I'd either lose my balance or that the wood would slip off of one end or another. I was prepared to make a comical show of falling into the sand, waving my arms about and whooping in mock fear, but to my surprise the span felt fairly solid. It bent under my weight, but I managed to make it.

I said, "That was hard, but I did it." A clutch of kids gathered around the other end of the wood, but there were initially no takers. Several even said, "I want to try it," but they hung back, their sense of self-preservation warning them that perhaps Teacher Tom was right, maybe this was a grown-up bridge. Then, after a minute or two, a girl who I know to be particularly physically capable stepped up. She carefully tested the 2X4 bridge with one booted foot, then another. She paused as she felt the board bend a bit, shuffled forward a few inches, then stopped, again feeling her balance. She had begun walking with her toes forward as I had, but now carefully turned her body side-ways so that her feet her perpendicular to the wood and like this, slowly, she shuffled her way across. When she reached the end, she bent down to grasp the edge of the boat with both hands and stepped in to stand beside me.

No one had told the others to wait. They had watched their friend all the way to the end, but once she had accomplished the feat, several more said, "I want to go across," although there was still a lot of hesitation. Finally, a boy, another kid who I know to be physically capable, stepped a foot onto the board. He stopped as the girl had before him, feeling his balance. He tried a second step, then stopped again. I could see he was uncertain. I said, perhaps unnecessarily, "You don't have to try it," and began to move into a position to catch him if he fell. He then crouched, lowering his center of gravity. From there he reached his hands in front of him and began to methodically crawl across the bridge, fully concentrating on his effort.

Now the floodgates were open. The next child tried stepping onto the board, then sat on it, then straddled it, with her feet dangling almost to the ground on either side. Like this, she scooted her way across. This then became the method of choice, with child-after-child scooting one behind the other.

The human instinct for self-preservation is strong. I had bumbled into setting up something that was potentially hazardous, at least for children this young. I'd misguidedly made it worse by role modeling a potentially hazardous behavior. And yet the children, on their own, these two-year-olds, with no extra warnings from me, had taken most of the hazard out of it, creating a just-right challenge for themselves. And my job was to simply marvel at it.

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

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Occupying Their Brains With Our Stupid Questions

They say there's no such thing as a stupid question, but I beg to differ. We hear stupid questions almost every time adults and young children are together. 

For instance, a child is painting at an easel, exploring color, shape, and motion, experimenting with brushes, paper, and paint. There is an adult watching over her shoulder who points and asks, "What color is that?"

This is a stupid question. 

Here's another example: a child is playing with marbles, exploring gravity, motion and momentum. An adult picks up a handful of marbles and asks, "How many marbles do I have?"

The adult already knows the answer. The child probably does as well, in which case, the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies in order to reply to a banality. Or she doesn't know the answer, in which case the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies to play a guessing game.

In a moment, these stupid questions take a child who is engaged in testing her world, which is her proper role, and turns her into a test taker, forced to answer other people's questions rather than pursue the answers to her own.

If it's important that the child know these specific colors and numbers at this specific moment, and it probably isn't, then we should do the reasonable thing and simply tell her,"That's red," or "I have three marbles." If it's not new information, and it probably isn't, she's free to ignore you as she goes about her business of learning. If she didn't know, now she does, in context, as she goes about her business of learning.

This is probably the greatest offense we commit against children in our current educational climate of testing, testing, and more testing. We yank children away from their proper role as self-motivated scientists, testing their world by asking and answering their own questions, and instead force them to become test takers, occupying their brains with our stupid questions.

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