Monday, December 31, 2018

The Real Value Of Education

The small, landlocked South Asian Kingdom of Bhutan uses an index called "Gross National Happiness" to guide all of it's economic and development plans. They take it very seriously and the success or failure of every governmental policy is measured according to this index. One must even submit a GNH impact statement for review before undertaking any new endeavor, public or private, that may impact on the general well-being of the nation.

I just mention that by way of pointing out that there are ways other than money, perhaps even better ways, to assess the real value of an economic activity, just as there are ways other than test scores and grades, perhaps better ways, to assess the real value of education.

For instance, I've never come across a standardized test that measures the ability and willingness to take turns, but everyone knows that it's one of a happy life's most essential skills.

And you're sure not going to get very far if you don't work well with others, but you don't see that on any of the corporate academic assessment matrixes.

Or how about curiosity? I'll take curiosity over knowing the capital of Bhutan any day. (It's Thimphu. I was curious and looked it up.)

And anyone who has studied what it takes get what you want out of life knows that boldness . . .

. . . and the willingness to take risks . . .

. . . and the ability to fall down . . .

. . . and get back up is far more important than the ability to diagram a sentence or deduce that the answer is "none of the above." What meager things we've come to expect from our schools.

A well educated person is skeptical and often full of doubt.

She looks at things closely and doesn't necessarily take my word for it.

An educated person tries new things . . .

. . . and plays dramatically with his friends, practicing the complex interpersonal skills that will ultimately get him through life.

When I'm assessing students, I want them to be able to stand on their own two feet.

And to invent new things (at least things that are new to them) . . .

. . . and to feel proud of their accomplishments.

I'm looking for kids who help others . . .

. . . and can work well on their own . . .

. . . concentrating . . .

. . . and persevering . . .

. . . and just being silly.

I want to see that they are full of awe and wonder.

And ultimately, like the King of Bhutan, I'm always looking out for our Gross National Happiness.

Because in this world if we are to be truly happy, we are to be happy together. No one can call himself educated unless he understands this. And therein lies the most important academic skill of all -- the capacity for unmitigated . . .

. . . unbridled joy.

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Friday, December 28, 2018

"We're Having Fun Now"

The three girls were in a sort of irritable stew. They were bickering with one another like it was a stereotypical family holiday dinner, moping, whining, and fussing.

Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not . . . Thus the sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our spontaneous cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully, to look round cheerfully, and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there. If such conduct does not make you soon feel cheerful, nothing else on that occasion can. So to feel brave, act as if we were brave, use all our will to that end, and a courage-fit will very likely replace the fit of fear.  ~William James

One of them began to spin in circles, at first, it seemed, in frustration. The other two stepped back, wary, but still sparring. The spinning girl began to chant, "I'm having fun now . . . I'm having fun now . . . I'm having fun now . . ."

How do you get yourself to a point of believing? Start make-believing. Be like a child, and make-believe. Act as if you have it already. As you make-believe, you will begin to believe you have received. ~Rhonda Byrne

The other girls continued debating over some finer point of their play until one of them began to stomp away. As she did, she passed closely by her spinning friend who reached out and grabbed her arm. She stopped spinning for a moment to look into her face and say, "I'm having fun now." The two started to laugh, then spin together, their chant now altered to reflect a new reality: "We're having fun now . . . We're having fun now . . . We're having fun now . . ."

Men acquire a particular quality by acting a certain way. ~Aristotle

Now there were two girls spinning together, chanting feverishly, wildly. One girl was still holding on to her irritability, still trying to get the others to listen to her whinge, but they were too busy having fun to hear her. She stood outside the "fun" for a moment in silence. Then she made a choice; I saw it in her face, and she too began to to spin and chant, "We're having fun now . . . We're having fun now . . . We're having fun now . . ."

And they were.

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Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Very Definition Of A Just And Civil Society

We have a pair of wheel-less skateboards around our junkyard playground. One was found by the kindergarten class while on a neighborhood outing. The other was donated by a family with an excess of skateboards when the first one had an end snapped off during some rowdy play. Most days the skateboards are just used as planks of wood in the children's play, something with which to construct, say, a bad guy trap, but every now and then, someone will identify them for what they are and get the idea to ride them down the concrete slide, the name we've given to a slope of concrete poured generations ago for the purpose of erosion control.

A pair of three-year-old girls were taking turns riding the skateboards down the slide when a friend wanted to join them. Not having access to a third skateboard, she opted for an old, plastic shopping cart. She could have whined about wanting her own skateboard or demanded a "turn," but chose to instead make do with an alternative of her own devising. That said, the idea of a kid trying to ride the plastic cart down the concrete slide was one that gave me cause for concern so I stepped a little closer.

She struggled to get the shopping cart up the hill and over the lilac roots on her own. The girl with the unbroken skateboard, without being asked, saw a friend in need and came to her aid. At first she tried to assist with just one hand, clutching her skateboard in the other, but soon realized it was a two-handed job, so put the skateboard on the ground. Working together, the girls wrestled the cart to the top of the slope.

Meanwhile, the third friend, the girl who had been using the broken skateboard, noticed the "better" skateboard on the ground, apparently abandoned. She dropped her board in favor of the upgrade, but before she could get far the original owner returned. "Hey!" she said firmly. "I'm still using that." There was a moment's hesitation, a balance point during which she had a choice to make. As often as not, this common preschool scenario descends into conflict, but in this case, she returned the skateboard without comment, retrieving her older, broken, less coveted one in its stead.

As this happened the girl with the cart had made her way to the top of the concrete slide. I was worried she planned to try to ride it down. I knew from experience that it would not go well: the slope is steep and hard, while the cart, especially with a kid in it, would be too top heavy to remain upright all the way to the bottom. Even with a helmet, it would be a hazardous attempt. Again, I moved closer, but whatever her original plan had been, by the time she was at the launching point, it became clear that she was going to let the cart fly solo, at least on its first run. Miraculously, the cart managed to make it to the bottom of the hill on its wheels before falling hard when it hit the dirt at the bottom.

The three girls looked at one another with wide eyes as the cart came to a stop at the bottom of the hill, two of them holding skateboards. The girl who had released the cart, then scooted down the concrete slide on her bottom, followed by the skateboard girls, one at a time, waiting for their friends to clear the way first. They huddled at the bottom of the slide, deciding to put the skateboards into the shopping cart, and all pushing together to get their equipment back to the top.

There were many opportunities for me to have stepped in, to assume the mantel of adult, to intervene, to fill their play with words of caution or compromise or rules or what passes for wisdom. I could have inserted myself into their game with blather about sharing or taking turns or "good jobs" or whatever else we too often feel driven to spew into children's play. But on this day, I didn't say a word and what I witnessed were three girls who didn't need me at all.

They repeated their game over and over until they were done: three girls, equals, getting their own needs met while helping their friends meet theirs, the very definition of a just and civil society.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Things We Don't Expect

When our daughter Josephine was about eight-years-old she revealed a family tradition to us that we didn't even know we had. At the time we had a living room with a 15-foot ceiling and we tried each year to find a Christmas tree that reached the rafters. This involved traveling out to the Eastside to first locate our own (no easy task even on the tree farms), then lash it to the roof of the car for a trip back across the I-90. As the one responsible for securing the tree to the roof of the car this was nerve wracking for me. I mean, that's a big tree on a small car and I was never completely confident that my tying abilities would handle freeway speeds for the better part of an hour. And then there were the visions of the disaster that would transpire should the tree actually blow off, especially on the bridge itself.

That year we had already enjoyed our ritual cups of hot cider and stacks of pancakes and were preparing the merge onto the freeway when Josephine said, "This is the dangerous part."

I asked, "What do you mean?"

"This is where you always say, 'If the tree falls off, we're not stopping and we'll just have to go to Chubby & Tubby's for a $4 tree.'" It made me laugh, albeit nervously, because in that moment I realized this had become one of our most reliable family traditions, one we came to call the "annual cursing of the tree," a name that would make even more sense to you if you could have been present throughout the whole day long process of getting the thing into the house, set up, and then decorated from atop an extension ladder.

We had other more conscious traditions, but none was as meaningful as that one, even as I was happy to let it go when we moved to our downtown apartment seven years later. Traditions and rituals are important to all of us even if we aren't particularly conscious of them. And indeed, most of us value the smaller, personal things, the ritualistic parts of our traditions that make them unique to our families or communities, more than the gala and grandiose.

It was probably 20 years ago now that the adults in our extended family decided to place not only a $5 limit on holiday gifts, but to put a special value on those that were hand made. We still buy toys for the kids, but the idea was to stop spending hundreds of dollars on things that people may or may not even want and instead spend the lead-up to our holiday making things rather than looking for parking at the mall. Several years ago, Josephine asked if she could join the adults. My brother's oldest daughter has now done the same as if moving up to expecting less has now become a rite of passage in our family. What an unexpected thing.

We may try to do it all, to match our celebrations to the wider social norms, to have a holiday like one sees on TV, and that's all well and good, but in the end it's the things that we don't expect, the things we can't plan, that give them meaning.

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Monday, December 24, 2018

A Lantern Walk

I figure that the children don't need me hyping the big North American holidays, especially Christmas, so unlike with days like Martin Luther King Day and Chinese New Year, I tend to let the topic emerge from the kids. The one aspect of the season I do make sure to note, is that the days are getting shorter and shorter leading up to the Winter Solstice, which took place on Friday this year in Seattle at 2:22 pm.

We decided to celebrate with a neighborhood lantern walk around Fremont on Thursday. Our 4's class is an afternoon session and sunset wasn't until shortly after 4 p.m., so it wouldn't quite be dark, but we've had some extremely overcast afternoons lately, and were anticipating another one to give us at least a little dark and damp into which we could shine our lights. We made lanterns during the week. We planned on warm cider and cookies upon our return.

The weather turned out just as we had hoped: overcast and rainy, but with the unwelcome addition of high winds. Indeed, the winds were enough of a concern that there was even some email banter about whether or not we should be roaming the neighborhood with the potential for falling branches. Then, as I was eating my lunch in the classroom, the power went out, followed immediately by the sound of a transformer exploding somewhere near the school. Normally, we cancel school when we don't have power, but there wasn't time to notify everyone so I waited outside in the gust and drizzle, planning to take a poll of the parents as they arrived. The classroom has plenty of windows and enough residual heat to get us through, so I was game for pressing on, which is the sentiment that won the day, with the caveat that should the high winds continue, we would forego the walk and just stick with cider and cookies.

We played in the wet, windy gloom for a time. It was a skeleton crew in that many had already left for their holiday destinations, but we were in high spirits. Several of the kids told me they were excited about the lantern walk. I tried to prepare them for the idea that it might be cancelled, but that didn't dampen their spirits any more than the weather did.

Indoors the hallways were dark and different, but the good news was that we had lanterns. We each carried one to light our way. Normally, the kids race down the hallways, but on this special day, we crept along, seeing the old familiar place in a new light, literally. There was real magic in all those children clustered together, lighting their own paths, finding their own way. The classroom itself was well-lit by the remaining sunlight, but most of the kids opted to keep their lanterns with them. We had made them from glass jars and I worried that they would get broken as we played, but they were cautious.

As we immersed ourselves in our play, I noticed that the room became lighter and lighter. Outside, the winds had died down, but not until after they had blown all the clouds away, leaving us under a high, blue sky. It wouldn't be dark at all for our lantern walk.

That didn't matter, of course. We took our lanterns outside and were joined by a large group of parents who had taken time away from their regular work to join us. We carried our lanterns to The Troll that lives under the bridge, sending light to cheer him. We sent our light to the three billy goat sculptures that cower just down the hill. We spread our light around the neighborhood, to the library, to local businesses, and then back to our school, the setting sun blazing in support. Then back at school, we fell upon our treats, savoring room temperature cider, cheerfully celebrating our community as the long dark night at last descended upon 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!
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