Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Through Their Eyes

Fall is finally upon us here in Seattle, after a summer that extended through most of October. Yesterday, I was outside with two-year-olds, human beings experiencing only their second trip through the seasons.

I was at the top of the hill, singing to them. I had started by singing Fly Like an Eagle because one of them had flapped past me saying, "I'm an eagle." I'm not a good singer, but that doesn't stop me, and it didn't seem to bother the kids as they gathered around, a half dozen of them, to take in my impromptu concert. When I was finished, they continued staring at me, which I took in the spirit of "Encore!" so I launched into Bohemian Rhapsody.

As I sang, a light wind came up, and in a moment we found ourselves in a swirl of leaves, shaken loose from a nearby tree. The children, as one, tipped their heads to the sky, saying, "Leaves!" As the leaves twirled around us we watched silently, awed by this simple miracle. I joined them, saying, "Leaves!" as well. I reached out for one, catching it in my fingertips. I said, "I caught one," holding it up for them to see.

They looked at me, at my leaf, then, again as one, they began picking up leaves from the ground, one at a time. At first I thought they were showing me their leaves the way I had shown them mine, but then I realized they were handing them to me, helping me collect these leaves about which I was clearly enthusiastic. We made a little pile of our leaves on the table upon which I sat.

Then another gust of wind shook the tree's branches and we again tipped our heads to watch them spin around us. We waited for several minutes after the last of them had settled on the ground around us, heads tipped back, watching for it to happen again, anticipating the magic of wind, of leaves, of autumn, of being together outside. The last time the leaves fell they were babies. One day, they will be 56 years old, prone to forgetting to take the time to really see leaves falling. But yesterday I saw them through their eyes, and it was magic.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Things To Say Instead Of "Be Careful"

Awhile back, I riffed on what is popularly called "risky play," what author and consultant Arthur Battram argues we should call "challenging play," what I want to re-label "safety play," and what one reader pointed out used to just be called "play."

Whatever we call it, most people who read here agree that we need to give children more space to engage in their self-selected pursuits, even if they sometimes make us adults nervous. At the same time, it can be difficult it is to break the habit of constantly cautioning children with "Be careful!"

Adult warning to "be careful" are redundant at best and, at worst, become focal points for rebellion (which, in turn, can lead to truly hazardous behavior) or a sense that the world is full of unperceived dangers that only the all-knowing adult can see (which, in turn, can lead to the sort of unspecified anxiety we see so much of these days). Every time we say "be careful" we express, quite clearly, our lack of faith in our children's judgement, which too often becomes the foundation for self-doubt.

Sometimes people ask me about alternatives, such as saying, "pay attention to your body." For me, "pay attention" has the same flaws as "be careful." They are both commands that give children only two choices -- obey or disobey. On top of that, they are both quite vague. Better, I think, are simple statements of fact that allow children to think for themselves; specific information that supports them in performing their own risk assessment. This reminds me of the "good job" or "well done" habit many of us adults have acquired, in that we know we ought not do it, but can't help ourselves. So, in the spirit in which I offered suggestions for things we can say instead of "good job",  here are some ideas for things to say instead of "be careful."

"That's a skinny branch. If it breaks you'll fall on the concrete."

"I'm going to move away from you guys. I don't want to get poked in the eye."

"That would be a long way to fall."

"When people are swinging high, they can't stop themselves and might hit you."

"That looks like it might fall down."

"Tools are very powerful. They can hurt people."

"I always check to make sure things are stable before I walk on them."

"Sometimes ladders tip over."

"You're all crowded together up there. It would be a long way to fall if someone got pushed."

"When you jump on people, it might hurt them."

"You are testing those planks before you walk on them."

"That's a steep hill. I wonder how you're going to steer that thing."

When we turn our commands into informational statements, we leave a space in which children can think for themselves, rather than simply react, and that, ultimately, is what will help children keep themselves safe throughout their lives.

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Monday, October 29, 2018

Freedom Of Thought

I've always been interested in maps, especially maps with lots of roads on them. I came by it honestly as my father, a transportation engineer, would bring home scrolls of old maps from work for my brother and me to play with. We would sometimes draw on them with colored pencils, but I often just traced the roadways and waterways with my fingers, imagining where they were taking me. I could lose myself for hours at a time lying on the floor with those maps. As I got older, my interest turned to our family's globe. Sometimes I would just spin it, but I also spent afternoons memorizing the names of places in Africa or South America, imagining what it would be like to live there. Sometimes those lazy day studies would lead me to our set of World Book encyclopedia's where I would read up on the climate, economy, and history of these distant places.

I took a particular interest in the islands of the South Pacific, a fascination that carried well into my teenage years when I would formulate plans to run away to a tropical paradise and live simply under some palm branches on a white sand beach. As a young adult, I wrote a novel length coming of age story called "Apeman" about a guy who sheds the modern world to go live in a jungle paradise. To this day I'm a fan of castaway literature and movies, always hoping that the protagonists figure out a way to create a utopia, even as I've lost my own interest in idling my life away in Margaritaville.

I sometimes tried my hand at making my own maps, either of a real place, like my neighborhood, or, more fun, a place of my own invention. Maps, for me, were a spur to imagination. As I got older, I found myself interested in a different sort of map, the kind we call floor plans, an interest that lead me to take four years of drafting classes in high school. I even considered studying architecture for a time. I especially enjoyed using straight-edges and t-squares to draw lines of varying widths and I took great pride in my lettering. Neither skill is any longer of vocational importance seeing that most of that work is now done on computers, but I still rotate my pencil when drawing along a ruler so that I create lines of consistent width, and I still very much enjoy printing in all caps. Whenever my wife and I set up a new household, something we've done a dozen times in our 32 years together, I'm in charge of arranging the furniture, a skill that comes directly from my dilettante studies.

Maps of cities, of course, gave my tracing fingers the most to do, following those grids and tangles of roads of various sizes and lengths. Those earliest maps were all about urban growth, traffic flow, and the human beings that spur it. Today I prefer to live in a city, right in the center, in fact. I find it beautiful that thousands upon thousands of us from all walks of life, from all over the world are opting to live here together, committed to making it work. These days I'm more interested in mass transit, bicycling, and walking, than in motor vehicle roadways, but it all still stems from that early fascination with maps.

To this day, I can happily wile away hours flipping through an atlas. No one every told me to be interested in maps. I never approached them as a course of study designed to lead me to a pot of gold, but rather merely out of curiosity, opportunity, and even boredom. My interest in maps has, in part, taken me all over the world, both metaphorically and physically. It has lead me to acquire skills, habits, and philosophies that I would not have otherwise acquired. It has enriched my life in every way, making me a more complete human being. This lifelong study of maps has, in a very real sense, made me free.

A person's freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take away from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.  ~John Holt

This should be our goal in education: freedom of thought. And every time we tell our students what to do, what to care about, what to study, we are destroyers of that most important of freedoms. It is only through being permitted to pursue our own interests that we will ever be free.

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Friday, October 26, 2018


I've always known that some of my fellow citizens don't value inclusion as a foundational American principle, but I do. I have to believe that most of us do, at least philosophically. We're a nation of newcomers, we always have been, and that, I'm convinced is the source of any greatness we've ever achieved as a people.

Inclusion is a principle we likewise value at the Woodland Park Cooperative School. As a cooperative school, we can't function without the active participation of all of our families, and one of the hallmarks of a thriving community is how quickly newcomers are brought into the center. I reckon we've all found ourselves on the outside, feeling uncertain and unwelcome. Cliques of any kind are toxic, they tend to create an opaqueness behind which misunderstanding, prejudice, and distrust fester. It's why I could never join, for instance, a fraternity. Inclusion is about transparency and the fundamental democratic notion that we sink or swim together.

That said, I still lock my door at night. Our school excludes pedophiles, people carrying guns, and, those who are clearly intoxicated. These are matters of safety, civility, and even morality for us, and because of that we have the right, and even the responsibility, to bar the door. We all draw lines and where we ought to draw them is always a matter of perspective.

Children pick up and play with these concepts just as they pick up and play with every "loose part" they find on the playground of their lives. I find myself objecting when they, say, draw their line at gender ("No boys allowed!") or hair color or some other arbitrary marker of difference. I find myself agreeing when they seek to exclude those who hit, knock down their block constructions, or otherwise hurt or destroy. And I sympathize when they find themselves in the gray areas, such as when two friends simply don't want their intimacy infringed. As adults, we're there to coach them through it, but it's not always easy because while most of us value inclusion, we all also know there are times and places when it's okay to say "you can't play." We spend our lives figuring that out.

When children experiment with exclusion, we often find ourselves becoming emotional. We've all been there, we've all found ourselves on the outside looking in. We know the pain and injustice of rejection. We easily empathize with the victims. At the same time, we've all been on the other side as well, locking our doors in the name of safety, civility, or intimacy. Some of the lines we draw are hard and fast, while others are situational. And, of course, our opinions change as we grow and learn.

We are all working on it every day and our children are no different. This is difficult and important stuff, fraught with emotion. What we do is talk and listen and talk and listen. We may not always be successful in reaching agreement, but failure is guaranteed if we retreat behind our walls.

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Thursday, October 25, 2018

"Example Is The School Of Mankind"

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 their loving adults 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 thing over which we know 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.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The World In Which Most Of Us Would Prefer To Live

Anyone who has worked with young children for any length of time has known a child who, when told what to do, will invariably do the opposite. If you say, "Come here," he runs away. If you say, "Sit down," she stands. If you say, "Stop hitting him," he hits all the harder. To a certain extent, we're all that child; no one likes to be told what to do.

Imagine you're home alone, reading a book, eating from a box of crackers. You've managed to get crumbs on yourself and on the floor. You know that you'll have to clean up, but you'll get to it later. Then your spouse comes home and says, "Vacuum the rug." Are you going to jump to it? Not likely, even if he says it in a sweet singsongy voice. In fact, if you're like me, you're now not only less likely to vacuum the rug, but you're angry at your spouse: "Why don't you vacuum the rug!" No one likes to be told what to do, whatever our age.

It's not an easy thing to do, but I've spent my professional career trying to eliminate commands from my repertoire, yet I still catch myself saying, "Come here," or "Put that away" almost every day. Sometimes when I hear those words coming from my mouth, I try to fix it by adding the word "please" to the end ("Stop shouting . . . please") as if that somehow makes it better. In truth, most kids, most of the time respond to my commands, which when I think about it, is a sad thing. I don't want children to grow into adults who jump at the commands of others. To the contrary, my hope for every child, is that they learn to think for themselves, to not learn the habits of obedience, but rather those of agreement.

As frustrating as they can be at times, I've learned to appreciate those contrarian children, the ones who consistently rebel against my commands, because they remind me that my job isn't to control the behavior of other people, but rather to help them achieve their highest potential, and no one has ever gotten there through allowing others to boss them around. Commands are an obey or disobey game, one in which reacting is more important than thinking for oneself, a fundamentally anti-democratic concept.

So instead of saying, "Come here," I try to say, "There's something here I want you to see." Instead of saying, "Sit down," I try to say, "If you sit down, the kids behind you will be able to see." By swapping out our commands for informational statements, we create a space in which children (all people for that matter) can do their own thinking, to make their own decisions. And what I've found is that most people, most of the time, when presented with information, opt for cooperation and agreement over conflict. That too is human nature.

When it comes to unsafe or hurtful behavior I try to make informational statements about my own responsibilities. Instead of saying, "Stop hitting him," I might say, "I won't let you hit him," and then I follow that up by not allowing the hitting to happen. If necessary, I'll block their hands or hold their arms to ensure that the hitting stops. I sometimes even explain, "My job is to keep people safe so I can't let you hurt her," a statement of fact about my own responsibilities. "I won't let you . . ." "I can't let you . . ." and "I don't want you to . . ." are all informational statements that, as Janet Lansbury explains:

. . . (I)nstantly connect us person-to-person and clarify our expectations. This is the connection children need first and foremost when they misbehave. Toddlers don't miss a trick, so they need (and deserve) a respectful, straight answer.

And that's the point: these children I teach are not mine to command. I have responsibilities in my role as their teacher, but I am not their boss. They are, rather, my fellow citizens, my partners in this business of self-governance, which is, at bottom a project of connection and agreement, people of good-faith working together to create a world that works for all of us. This may not be how the "real" world works as evidenced by the fact that it is often quite difficult to break the habit of commanding others, but it is the world in which most of us would prefer to live.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

"This Is The Best World We've Ever Made!"

I was working a floor puzzle with one of the kids. It's a popular puzzle, one with fairies, unicorns, and a castle, but everyone else was busy elsewhere so we were one-on-one. Soon, however, we were joined by another girl, and together, the three of us fit the final piece into place. Then we began admiring our handiwork, as one does.

"I'm that one," said one of the girls, pointing at a fairy.

"Okay," answered the other, "Then I'll be that one."

When I didn't say anything, I was invited, "Which one are you, Teacher Tom?" I picked one to be "me."

"And this is my pet," the first girl said, pointing to one of the unicorns. Her friend picked out one of the butterflies to be her pet, while I opted for a ladybug.

"Where do we sleep?"

"In the castle, silly."

"Oh, right," then bending over the puzzle, she pointed to one of the windows on the distant castle, "That's my bedroom." So we each selected our bedrooms.

"You're room is right next to mine, Teacher Tom!"

"And mine is right above yours!"

"We can have a castle sleepover!"

"I'm just going to dive right into our land." She pretended to plunge into the picture.

"Me too!"

Then in mock panic, "But how do we get back out? How will we get back to our real homes?"

"We just say the magic word . . . Flower!"



"We're back home again."

As we played at diving into our magic world, another girl approached, using the language of a master player, "I want to play too."

"Sure, we're just diving into our kingdom"

"But first you have to pick a fairy." The newcomer picked her fairy.

"Then you have to pick a pet." She picked a unicorn.

"Then you have to pick your bedroom." When she did, the others gushed, "You're right beside me for the castle sleepover! We're going to have movie night!"

"Let's dive in!" and we all dove in.

We wove a story together about our magic world, forgetting that we were all fairies, switching our identities to princesses and queens. I was assigned, "The old grandpa king." I was told, "You have to be jolly."

As we played, I mentioned that we had another castle puzzle and so we decided to work on that one together as well. As the puzzle came together, we agreed that, when completed, we would combine it with the first puzzle to make our magical kingdom even bigger. Once the two puzzles were side-by-side, however, we had a problem.

"But, how to we know if it's night or day? This puzzle has a sunshine and this other one is nighttime." After a moment of study, we decided that the nighttime puzzle was where we slept and the daytime puzzle was where we played.

There was one more puzzle on the floor. This one was Halloween themed. "Let's make that one too. Then we'll have day and night and Halloween!" By the time we had pushed the third puzzle over to become part of our story, we had been at it for the better part of an hour.

As we stood admiring our work, we drew a crowd with a half dozen other kids gathered around. We explained our kingdom to them, who we were, what pets we owned, and where we slept. We invited them in by showing them how to dive in and return back home. We explained about day and night and Halloween, the three seasons in our magic place.

We watched our classmates playing in this place we had created together. Then one of the girls said, "This is the best world we've ever made!" and her friends agreed.

I've 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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