Friday, August 31, 2018


Last week, Seattle's teachers voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike should their efforts to negotiate a new contract fail. This weekend we celebrate Labor Day. It's an odd thing setting aside a holiday to honor working families given the ongoing war being waged against them by many of the most powerful members of our society, and the outright vitriol coming from elected representatives and business leaders who malign working men and women in vile terms, labeling these working Americans as, among other things, "selfish, lazy, union thugs." At the beginning of summer, on Memorial Day, you will find no shortage of people stepping to the front to wave their flags in honor of soldiers who gave their lives. But at the end of summer, on Labor Day, these very people actually become the "selfish, lazy, thugs" they condemn, enjoying a three-day weekend of picnics and family time, ignoring the thousands who gave their lives so that they can enjoy a middle-class privilege, brought to them by unions.

Indeed the middle class exists because of the Labor Movement, although it's not surprising that so many Americans are unaware of this fact, and can be so easily manipulated by politicians with anti-union agendas, because most public schools have relegated this vital piece of our civic history to a few paragraphs in text books, if it's taught at all.

And just because you don't belong to a union, don't think that your life is not better because of the long fight in which labor has been engaged on your behalf.

The very weekend you are currently enjoying has indeed been brought to you by people who fought and even died because of the radical notion that families should have time to be together, that children should not burn up their tragically short lives in sweat shops and coal mines, that mothers and fathers should expect workplaces where they won't be maimed and killed, that they should not be beaten, have their wages arbitrarily withheld, or be forced to work 61 hour weeks (the average in 1870, meaning many worked far more hours than that) with no hope of a day off. Oh, these were great times for business owners, but they were hell for everyone else.

You can thank labor for your employer-based health care coverage, your living wage, your paid sick leave, vacations, and holidays. Without a Labor Movement you would not have workers compensation for on the job injuries, unemployment insurance, pensions, anti-discrimination laws, or family medical leave. You would have no "due process," living at the mercy of your employer, who may well be a good guy, but just as likely is not.

Wages and the standard of living, even for non-union workers, in states with laws that support unions are higher; states with union-busting laws have lower wages and lower standards of living. That is a simple fact.

I've heard people argue that unions are somehow anti-capitalism (as if that's an inherently bad thing). Of course, I see how a strong union might cut into corporate profits (which are currently, even in this rocky economy, among the highest in the history of the world, in real dollars) but from where I sit unions are pure capitalism. Why can't individuals with a service to sell, be it teaching or steel working, ally themselves together to negotiate the best deal possible? I mean, it's certainly democratic. And isn't that what corporations do all the time with their mergers, acquisitions and strategic partnerships? If capitalism is just for those with capital, then it's clearly and fundamentally anti-democratic and should have no place in our society.

I've heard people argue that unions are somehow selfish. I find that a singularly silly assertion. Really? Selfish? People getting together for the common good, sticking together, sticking up for one another, acting in the best interests of "we" instead of "me." That's selfish? Yet somehow a corporation seeking to  squeeze every nickel out of the hide of it's most lowly worker isn't selfish? Please.

I've heard people use anecdotal arguments that union workers are somehow lazy. I have no doubt that there are actually lazy union workers, just like there is laziness in every aspect of life. But you've got to do better than anecdotes to convince me. The actual research shows that unionized businesses are made more productive through reduced worker turnover which leads to lower training costs and more seasoned workers, which results in not only higher productivity, but better quality. Actual research shows that higher paid workers forces managers to actually do their jobs of more effective and efficient planning.  Actual research shows that employers who involve union workers in their decision-making process see an almost 10 percent increase in productivity. Companies like Costco with a high percentage of its workforce unionized enjoy 20 percent higher profits per worker hour than anti-union bottom feeders like Sam's Club. Productivity statistics put the lie to the claim of laziness.

And as for the argument that union workers are thugs. Look at the history of the Labor Movement and tell me who the real thugs are.

I'm writing about this on my education blog because teachers right across the country, in places like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Puerto Rico are standing together to demand better wages and working conditions. They have found themselves under full-on assault, and not just from politicians and businesses, but by the so-called "education reformers" who seem to find, without any evidence, that those rotten union teachers are the cause of our "educational crisis" (which in itself is a myth made up solely to serve their agenda of high-stakes testing, privatization and the de-professionalization of the teaching profession).

I am not a union member, nor have I ever been, but I'm waving my flag this weekend not only for abused and hard working teachers, but for all of my brothers and sisters who work for a living, who continue to fight for their fare share of this democracy, and who envision a better more egalitarian and democratic future for our children.


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Thursday, August 30, 2018

What We Will Learn

Last night at our parent orientation meeting, I told the parents that I would not be teaching their children literacy, although they would be laying the foundations for literacy through their play, their dramatic play in particular; every time we read to them or tell them stories, or when they tell stories to us; each time they get excited and say, "Hey that's my letter!" or "That's your letter!" I won't be teaching them, but they'll be doing exactly what they need to do to read when their brains are ready.

I told them that I would not be teaching their children math, although they would be practicing their math skills every time they counted something out, put things in order, arranged things in groups, worked a puzzle, made or identified a pattern.

I told them I was particularly uninterested in teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) skills so they would be ready for those "jobs of tomorrow," although again, through their play they will be engaged in teaching these things to themselves. When one studies children at play, it's impossible to not see them as scientists or engineers, asking and answering their own questions, engaging in experiments, figuring out fundamental truths about our world and the other people. 

I told them that I'm singularly uninterested in vocational training. The proper career aspiration for a preschooler is princess or cowboy. The jobs for which their children will be applying two decades from now do not yet exist and anyone who tells you they can predict the employment landscape that far into the future is blowing smoke. The jobs my 21-year-old daughter will be considering did not exist when she was in preschool. The careers my high school counselors suggested that I pursue would have left me unemployable. But more importantly, we don't educate our children so that they can take their role in the economy, but rather so that they can perform their role as citizens.

We talked a lot about "community" at our parent meeting. In fact, nearly everyone who spoke found that word in her mouth, not because it was a coordinated effort, but because it is the real foundation of what we do at our school. We're a cooperative which means that we are owned and operated by the parents who enroll their children and these parents will attend school with their children, serving as assistant teachers. We are not just a community of children, but in a real sense, on a day-to-day basis, a community of families, assembled together around the common goal of supporting our children as they learn the foundational skills of citizenship.

At it's most basic, this means that we strive to form a community in which our children can practice living in a world with other people, learning how to get their own needs met while also leaving space for others to meet theirs. Nothing is more important, not just for individuals, but for our larger society. A good citizen is someone who thinks critically, who thinks for herself; a good citizen is someone who asks a lot of questions and who questions authority; a good citizen knows that it is not just her right, but her responsibility, to speak her mind, even when others disagree; a good citizen likewise knows that she must listen, especially when she disagrees; a good citizen knows that she contributes to society in ways far more vital and varied than as a worker bee. It is from citizens with these traits that strong communities, strong democracies, are made.

I told our assembled parent community that their children will be learning these things as they play together, creating their own community, and that it wouldn't always be pretty. Their children will come home covered in water, mud, paint, snot, and even upon occasion, blood. Their children will find themselves embroiled in conflict. They will be learning through joy, yes, but also tears. They will, as they must, mix it up with the other children, sort things out, make agreements, and help one another. They will teach themselves to be self-motivated, to work well with others, and begin to understand the importance of being personable, all of which are, not accidentally, the most important "vocational" skills of all.

I told the assembled adults that our job is not to teach them anything, but rather to love and support them as they perform their inquiries, test their theories, and figure out what works for them and what doesn't. We're not there to push or command or mold, but rather to create a safe space in which the children can play, together, in the context of their community.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

When Anastasia Became A Monster

The monsters under Anastasia’s bed had been keeping her awake. Their usual growling, snarling and belching had been bad enough, but lately there had been an increase in howling, moaning and bellyaching. Anastasia had become increasingly indignant at the utter rudeness of her neighbors dwelling down there in their land of dust bunnies.

“Of course they must live,” she said to herself. “And of course they must live in their natural habitat. And they will, after all, make some noise, but I simply must be allowed to sleep!”

Up until then Anastasia had more or less ignored the monsters. They were down there; she was up here. She let them have any toys that rolled under the bed, while they avoided attacking her ankles as she got in and out of bed. Otherwise she rarely thought of them.

But now, in the darkest part of the night, she was thinking about those monsters. She pulled her flashlight from under her pillow and hung over the edge of her bed to shine its beam into the monster’s domain. “Hey, keep it down!”

The monsters fell silent.

Satisfied, Anastasia pulled her self back into bed, but minutes later the monsters were back at it.

“Hey, monsters! I’m trying to sleep up here!” she shouted.

They again fell silent before a single monster voice cried out, “Just who do you think you are?!”

“I’m Anastasia, that’s who -- the girl who sleeps in this bed. The one who keeps a roof over your head.”

Anastasia heard some scrambling, then felt something moving on her bed. She turned her flashlight in that direction and sure enough it was a very angry monster.

“Ho-ho,” said the monster. “So it’s you who keep a roof over our heads, is it? How about it’s us who keep a floor under you!”

This was outrageous. “For your information, monster, you’ve been making entirely too much noise under there. If this keeps up I’ll be forced to ask you to leave.”

The monster sputtered and putrid yellow bile flew from his lips. “Perhaps it will be us who ask you to leave!”

“Why would I leave my own bed?” Anastasia demanded.

The monster answered, “Because of that racket you’ve been making on our roof every morning, just as the babies are getting sleep. They keep the rest of us up half the day with their crying. And now listen to them. It’s the middle of the night – normally the most cheerful part of the day – and they’re howling, moaning and bellyaching.”

Anastasia reflected that she had lately developed the habit of jumping on her bed each morning before getting dressed for school. It was her workout. Who were these creatures to tell her not to jump on her bed when even her own parents allowed it?

Just then a heart-piercing wail came from below.

“This is your fault,” said the monster who stomped off in a fury.

For the rest of the night the monsters’ hideous sounds were louder and more varied.

The following morning, exhausted and bitter, Anastasia jumped so furiously on her bed that even her mother asked her to stop.

Her day was monstrous. She growled at her father. She snarled at the bus driver. She belched during a spelling test and was laughed at by the whole class. She dozed through lunch and was sent home with a note from her teacher insisting that she get more sleep.

She didn’t put up a fight when she was sent to bed early. When the monsters began their cacophony she leapt to the floor with her flashlight and presented the note.

“Do you see this?” she asked. “My teacher commands you to let me sleep.”

“Do you see this?” answered the monster, wielding a paper of its own, “This is a cease and desist order from the high court. If you jump on that bed again, we’ll call the cops!”

“You’ll hear from my lawyer!” shouted Anastasia, who bounded onto the bed and gave it a thorough jumping.

The monsters responded with yowls, caterwauls and shrieks.

The following morning came far too soon for Anastasia who was barely able to drag herself from bed. She dozed and crabbed the entire day.

That night as she lay there grinding her teeth at the monsters’ ruckus she formulated a plan. Anastasia slipped quietly into the hallway where she retrieved the vacuum cleaner from the closet. Then she directed the nozzle under her bed. With a sudden whine the machine came to life, sucking up everything in sight. “That should take care of them,” she muttered with an evil chuckle.

When she returned from restoring the vacuum to its spot in the hallway closet, she found her bed striped down to the bare mattress – her sheets, pillow and stuffed animals were gone. Then with horror she remembered, “Blankie!” Her beloved Blankie was gone!

Blind with despair and rage, Anastasia snatched up a baseball bat, fell to her stomach, and began swinging it wildly under the bed. Moments later she screamed in pain as the monsters sank their fangs into her flesh. An enormous battle ensued. Blood and bruises proliferated. Nasty things were said. Viciousness ruled the field.

After a very long battle, Anastasia lost consciousness.

When she awoke she lay amidst the ruin of her room, surrounded by the nearly lifeless bodies of the monsters. Everything had been decimated. She barely had the energy to raise her throbbing head. That’s when she noticed small bits of Blankie scattered about. She looked at the monsters with cold hatred.

It was that hatred that allowed her to finally move her hand. She picked up a chunk of ceiling tile with which to clobber her nearest enemy. As she raised her weapon over her head she took aim, then hesitated. It was a monster baby, sleeping peacefully.

She couldn’t hit a baby, could she? Even a monster baby?

The monster baby growled gently, snarled with satisfaction, and belched in contentment.

Anastasia dropped her arm. Her hatred wasn’t strong enough. In fact it was no longer even strong enough to keep her awake. She drifted sweetly asleep to the familiar sounds of the monster baby.

After a long rest, Anastasia and the monsters awoke together. As they were barely able to move from their wounds, a truce was called.

Anastasia agreed that the monsters had every right to live under the bed, but only under the condition that they avoided excessive growling, snarling and belching, while foregoing howling, moaning, bellyaching, yowling, caterwauling and shrieking altogether. For their part the monsters conceded Anastasia’s claim to sleep on their roof, but only if she agreed to relocate her morning jump to her parents’ bed.

Then a very important thing happened. Anastasia said, “I’m sorry.”

The monster smiled. “We’re sorry, too. How could we have let things get so out of hand?”

“All of this and we’re right back where we started,” sighed Anastasia.

Her room was a shambles, her body injured, and her reputation besmirched. She no longer had Blankie. And even worse, her heart felt wounded from all the rage, despair and hatred.

The monster replied, pointing to the destruction, “All of this and we’re even worse off than we started.”

They tried to laugh, but it hurt too much.

Over the next few days Anastasia’s body began to heal. The abrasions clotted and the bruises faded.

One night she pulled out her flashlight and peered under the bed. “Is everything all right down there?” she asked.

“I hurt right here,” the monster said, pointing to his heart.

“Me too,” she answered. Then without thinking she said, “I became a monster.”

“And I,” said the monster, “became a human.”

It hurt them to laugh, but a little less than before.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

"It's A Bouncy Lever Totter"

One of the kids hoisted a length of 2X4. It was unwieldy, throwing him off balance at first, but he got it under control, finding a pivot point upon which he could balance it. He didn't have a plan for the wood beyond lifting it, or rather, if he had a plan it was lost in the effort to wrangle it. Catching my eye, he smiled, as if to say, "Look what I did." I raised my eyebrows and nodded, letting him know that I was indeed looking at what he did.

He then began to rock the 2X4 on his hands, up and down like a teeter totter. He was no longer looking at me as he concentrated on the motion. Not far away, lying flat on the ground was a shipping pallet. He eyed it for a moment as the board rocked downward, he took aim, weaving the wood between the slats of the pallet. When he released his grip, the 2X4 remained in place, jutting from the pallet at an angle. He studied this new development for a moment, hands on hips, then reached out and grabbed hold of the board, pushing it first away from himself then pulling it back toward his body. The motion caused the pallet to move side to side. He then pushed down on the board and it acted like a lever, lifting the far side of the pallet. Again he wordlessly looked at me and I again acknowledged him with my eyebrows.

I was not alone in watching him. A girl had also been following his exploits from her perch on a nearby swing. She called out, "You made a lever and a teeter totter . . . You made a lever totter!" She laughed at her joke. The boy looked from her to his apparatus, then back again. It seemed as if he was trying to make sense of what she had said. At least that's how she took it. Jumping from her swing, she announced, "I'll show you!"

She instructed him to stand on the pallet while she gradually put her weight on the end of the 2X4, lifting him into the air. Now getting what she was driving at, he then attempted to create the seesaw action by jumping up and down. The motion caused her to lose her balance. She hopped off, causing the pallet end to land with a small thump. They were both laughing now. She stepped back on and he bounced her off, she stepped back on and he bounced her off. They did it over and over, laughing at their discovery. She said, "It's a bouncy lever totter!"

They played their game for several minutes, then as it began to lose its charm, which is to say, it's challenge, they began to experiment, moving their bodies to different points on the pallet or lever, looking for balance points, trying to startle one another. If they were old-time-y scientists, I imagine they would have been saying Eureka! but instead they were laughing, which when children play is often synonymous with that cry of discovery. This game too began to inevitably lose it's "charm" as they played the risk right out of it, so that's when they began to experiment with wiggling it side-to-side rather than up and down.

Before they finally left their game, they tipped the whole thing on its side, then upside down, then onto its other side, effectively rolling it over. The girl said, "Now it's just a blah blah," an expression that gave them one last laugh before they went their separate ways.

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "We are here on this earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different." Any educational philosophy that takes us away from this core purpose is an unnecessary, perhaps even harmful, complication.

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Monday, August 27, 2018

Design Flaws

I was recently leaving a downtown store. When I came to the exit door, I saw that it had a handle. I grabbed and pulled. The door didn't budge. I then, counter-intuitively, pushed and the door swung open. This is a prime example of a failure in design: a handle means "pull" and a push plate means "push." Indeed, every time you see a sign on a door reading "push" or "pull," you're looking at a design flaw that someone has clumsily attempted to correct.

Design flaws are all around us. My local Whole Foods has begun offering discounts to Amazon Prime members. To take advantage you open an app on your phone, then hold the bar code under a scanner which is located beneath the checkout screen. There is no beep, no green light, or any other indicator that your code has been read, which means that every single person who uses it winds up fuddling around, trying their phone at different angles before finally, in frustration, engaging the cashier in the following conversation:

"Did it work?"

"What work?"

"My app thingy."

"You mean your Whole Foods Amazon Prime code?"


"Let me see . . . Yes, it worked."

And you thought the "Paper or plastic?" question got old.

This too, is a design flaw that a simple beep or bell or light would fix. These sorts of design failures are all around us. Every time you see that pedestrians have worn a path through a lawn instead of sticking to the sidewalks, you're seeing evidence of design not working. My father was a transportation engineer who was fond of pointing out how design flaws were causing the traffic jams we were experiencing. He would say, "I'm sure it looked beautiful on the drafting board, but the engineer forgot to consider how actual people behave."

When I first started teaching, I set up our classroom as I would have a living room, thinking in terms of seating and "traffic flow," making sure the passageways were wide enough, that there were no places where one could get "trapped," and so forth. The reality I discovered once actual children were on the scene was that I'd created a race-track that said, quite clearly, "Run in circles," and that's what they did. After weeks of scolding the kids about running inside, I finally re-arranged the furniture and the behavior disappeared.

One of the aspects of the Reggio Emilia model for early years education that I think about often is the concept of the three teachers: 1) the parent, 2) the classroom teacher, and 3) the environment, which is where design comes in. Quite often, I've found that repeated troubling or trying behaviors have little to do with the children themselves and everything to do with an environment that forgot to consider how actual children behave. Things hanging from above tend to tell children, Jump or Swing or Hang. Long open areas say, Run. Echoey spaces say, Shout. Dark and confined says, Giggle and Whisper. Bright and busy creates a different vibe than muted and uncluttered. And design flaws are not limited to the physical space. Sometimes the aspect that needs tweaking has to do with the schedule or the expectations or even the school's philosophy, all of which I consider to be part of the children's environment as well.

Of course, it's not always about design flaws, but whenever I find myself forever correcting the same behavior, I begin to suspect that's what it is. And it's amazing how often even a small change, like moving the furniture or replacing a handle with a push plate, can make all the difference in the world.

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Friday, August 24, 2018

Knowledge Is Power?

When I was in my early 20's I was a manager with the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. In that capacity, I had the opportunity to work quite closely with many of the most powerful people in the Puget Sound region: CEOs, presidents, mayors, city council members, and even on a couple of instances, the state governor. It was heady stuff for this young man who envisioned himself one day climbing into their ranks, but as time went on, my enthusiasm waned.

These were undoubtedly powerful people. We would discuss things in meetings, then the next day the newspapers would report them. Buildings, roads, and parks were built where we wanted them to be built. Laws that we deemed necessary would get passed. When the chamber spoke, people didn't just listen, they acted. These people both individually and collectively were powerful, but what surprised and disappointed me was that I didn't find them particularly impressive. I mean, I'd thought I would be moving among the "best and the brightest" when, in truth, I didn't find these people particularly smarter or better educated or more knowledgable. There were a few Einsteins in the bunch, of course, but most of them had apparently risen to power on "talents" that looked more like luck, loyalty, longevity, and the kind of obedient flattery we generally ascribe to sycophants.

Francis Bacon asserted that "knowledge is power." It's something most of us accept without question, especially those of us who work in education. But is it true?

When we say that knowledge is power we (and Bacon) are generally referring to the idea that knowing stuff gives you an advantage over the people who know less stuff: being educated is more powerful than being uneducated and being well-educated is more powerful being simply educated. If this was true, of course, the most powerful people in our society would also be the ones with the most knowledge. That is rarely the case. Indeed, when I look at those controlling the levers of power, be it in government, business, or the arts, I see people who may, in fact, have plenty of drive, but are rarely the most knowledgable. They may have a particular kind of intelligence, but more often than not they didn't acquire it through book learning.

Knowledge is awesome, but it isn't power: the desire for power is what leads to power and those with that drive, if they are to be successful, tend to share more with Niccolo Machiavelli (who connected power with unscrupulous cunning) than Francis Bacon. No, from where I sit, there doesn't appear to be much of a connection between knowledge and power in the way Bacon meant it, in which knowledge equates with education and power with the ability to get others to do what you want. And I'm uncomfortable with any of us "selling" education based upon this flawed assertion.

Self-knowledge, on the other hand, is a different matter. Understanding one's inner life is directly connected to feelings of personal "power," the sort of power that leads individuals not to manipulate others, but rather to seek a life of self-motivation, in which good relationships, emotionally satisfying work, contentment, and even love, are the goals. I've often said that I don't care at all about literacy or mathematics or STEM. My concern is that the children I teach have the opportunity to learn to live in a community; to get their own needs met while also creating space in which others can meet their needs as well; to approach others not with the goal of compulsion, but rather agreement; to cooperate rather than compete; to lift up, not subdue.

Knowledge in the conventional sense is at best the power of being the only one who knows the combination to the safe. And power in the conventional sense is a dubious goal because no matter how benevolently one wields it, it still means bending others to your will, a dark place of winner and loser. Self-knowledge, however, is the path to enlightenment, empathy and understanding, a place where empowerment is the only rational use for power.

As I watch children play together, I often think of my time at the chamber of commerce. I had always wanted to spend my time amongst the best and the brightest, and now I do.

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Thursday, August 23, 2018

To Live Is To Play, And To Play Is To Live

Yesterday, a friend shared an unattributed poem on Facebook. It seemed familiar and it was pretty good. I even thought, I wish I'd written that, then realized that I had! It was a piece from my book, a version of which I'd originally written as a kind of gratitude for the beginning of a new school year. Since the timing is about right, I thought I'd share it again with everyone.

I'm grateful I've not taught in a normal school,
Where children sit and follow my rules,
Or are told what to think, what to know, what to be;
A place not for them, but for me.

I've neither the heart nor the head for ending their play,
For making them cram day after day,
For the gnawing inside that knows all they're missing.
It would build up within me; I'd be the radiator hissing.

I'd get my ass fired while lighting those flames.
I'd finally bust out, "My god, this is lame!
Life is big, varied, exciting, and fun!
It's not just something for when the rote is all done!"

I'm not bearing that message: life is a toil.
That play is dessert kept underneath foil
Until you've been sapped of what you had to give
No, to live is to play, and to play is to live!

I'm sorry I boast, because that's what I do.
Underneath, please believe, I celebrate with you.
Because every parent and teacher knows what is true.
If you've not quit already, you'll get your ass fired too.

And then we will learn, really learn through our day.
Our minds free to pursue what to know, and to say.
It's a place, such a place, so old it is new;
A place not for me, but for you.

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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