Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Becoming Our Own Unique, Quirky Selves

In the last couple weeks, I've traveled to speak at early childhood education conferences in Virginia, Florida, and Ohio. For whatever reason, I'm more often invited to speak in other countries, so it's been a treat to find myself among my fellow American citizens talking about values like education, freedom, democracy, and play.

I can't tell you how thrilling it is to mix and mingle with these dedicated, passionate educators, people who are not doing this to get rich, famous, or, even (in some cases) respected. It's clear to me that for most of us, what we are doing isn't a job as much as a calling. Indeed, while I do believe that teachers deserve to be paid more for the important work we do, I'm also aware that if, by some miracle, our average salaries were raised to the level of, say, lawyers, the profession would begin to attract those whose motivation is more monetary, and we would all suffer for that.

I'm at these conferences to share the stories from our progressive, play-based cooperative school located in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. There is no other place like it in the world and I like to think that our school, our Fremont school, reflects this unique, quirky community. It's the Center of the Universe where we sometimes dance naked in the streets; where we gather annually to light up and sing Festivus carols around a 16-foot tall, seven-ton cast bronze statue of Vladimir Lenin; where we celebrate the Halloween birthday of a giant, VW devouring troll who lives under a bridge; where we brew beer, create art, make chocolate and go about our day-to-day lives in a place where you are officially advised to set your watch ahead five minutes upon crossing our borders. Not all of our families live within the physical limits of the neighborhood, but since being a Fremonster is a state-of-mind, we are all citizens of the Artist Republic of Fremont. This is where we are choosing to raise our children, this is our community, and our school strives to reflect the values and spirit of this special place.

That said, there are things we do at the Woodland Park Cooperative School that other schools cannot and, indeed, should not do. Every community is special, every neighborhood has its own character, its own reason for being, and if there is any message I want to convey at these conferences it's that our preschools must reflect the community in which they exist. We might be inspired by the schools of Reggio Emilia or Roseville or Framingham or Fremont, but at the end of the day every school is at it's best when it acknowledges and embraces the place the children themselves call home. Woodland Park could not exist in Richmond or Ft. Lauderdale or Columbus, just as the schools I visited in those places could not exist in Fremont. And that's the way it ought to be.

As education author Alfie Kohn wrote, "Progressive education is marinated in community." For 99.9 percent of human existence, humans have lived in hunter-gatherer societies, small communities that create and were created by a unique set of values, history, and geography. It is from within these types of communities that we learn most readily. It is within the context of community and through the process of play that humans have evolved to learn, especially in the early years.

I do not write this blog to tell anyone how to do early childhood education, just as I do not speak at conferences to provide a blueprint for how to do it. No, my hope is only that I can provide food for thought, that by telling our stories I can help others to reflect upon their own stories. I don't expect anyone to agree with everything. In fact, I hope no one does. No, what I strive to do is to make my own reflective practice and journey transparent, to share it with my colleagues and peers, and hope that in some small way I can help others build their own unique, quirky community, and in that way provide a place in which the children can become their best, unique and quirky selves.

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