Tuesday, April 30, 2019

We Do Not Need Standardized People

The parent of a former student recently brought my attention to a letter sent to her by the Seattle Public Schools. The opening paragraph read:

This spring, your child will take the online Smarter Balanced tests in math and English language arts. Students in grade 5 will also take the online Washington Comprehensive Assessment of Science (WCAS). This is the fifth year our state will administer the Smarter Balanced tests and the second year for the WCAS. The results from these tests will give a more accurate picture of whether students are on track to be ready for college or career.

These are elementary school children. The proper career aspiration for a young child is princess or cowboy.

I know I teach in a bubble, one where we base our practices on evidence. And the evidence is overwhelmingly clear: children learn best through self-directed learning, or what we in the business of actual education call play. We know that these kinds of high stakes standardized tests, being linked as they are to funding, pay, and promotions, have forced schools to dramatically narrow their educational offerings in pursuit of high test scores. We know that the primary thing to be learned from them is the socio-economic status to the children being tested. We know that this kind of testing is making schools into grim, stress-filled places that contribute significantly to the decline in the mental well-being of many children, and teaching all of them the lesson that learning is a difficult, joyless pursuit, one to be avoided whenever possible. And we know that giant corporations are raking in billions in profits in their test score coal mines. This is what the evidence tells us.

Yes, there are individual teachers who work wonders "within the cracks," but anyone who has read here (or indeed, just paid attention) knows that public education, as an institution, has lost its way and it's not just our children who are paying the price.

The drive to standardize education has accelerated over the past generation, lead largely by billionaires who made their billions not by inventing something new, but rather by standardizing the process of manufacturing, sales, and distribution in the name of efficiency. It works well when it comes to software or electronics or toilet paper, but human beings cannot be standardized, unless, of course, your only goal is to manufacture college and career ready machine parts. Bill Gates (Microsoft) once, nauseatingly, compared our children to electrical plugs, saying that once we can plug them all into the same outlets we will "unleash powerful market forces" on them.

As Sir Ken Robinson recently wrote: "Standardization broke education."

If the focus of public schools is simply to get them college and career ready then I'd say it's time to scrape the whole idea of publicly-funded education altogether and let the corporations train their own damn workers. No, contrary to the assertion by Seattle Public Schools (and every other public school system with which I'm familiar), the purpose of education is to assure that the next generation is up to the challenge of self-governance, which must stand at the heart of any democratic society, and the skills required to be a contributing citizen are in many ways the exact opposite of those required to be college or career ready: critical thinking; questioning authority; standing up for values, beliefs, and ideas; contributing in ways far beyond mere service to the economy. None of these skills go over particularly well in the workforce, but they are essential if we are going to ever have a functioning democracy. We do not need standardized people. We need citizens who are free to achieve their own highest potential, or what is more patriotically referred to as "the pursuit of happiness."

I know that Seattle Public Schools forbids its teachers from telling parents this, but we have the right to have our children opt out of these tests and I urge every parent, everywhere to do so, especially if your child is one who tends to score well on them. This is the first step in wresting control of public education from the hands of the billionaires who will standardize our children in the quest of profit and efficiency. It's time to reclaim our schools in the name of democracy and self-governance. As the great John Dewey wrote: "Democracy must be born anew with each generation, and education is its midwife." Opt out: it's the patriotic thing to do.

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Monday, April 29, 2019

A Joke We're Playing On The World

Like most preschools, we have child-sized furniture, which is, of course, great for children, while being a bit limiting for adults. Usually, I sit or kneel on the floor, but when I opt for a little chair, I've taken to flipping them around backwards and straddling them. This is especially beneficial when I want to get up close to a table to make art or punch play dough because otherwise my adult knees tend to keep me uncomfortably far away from the table top.

Our snack table is a particularly low one, so if I'm to join the children, I really have no choice but to straddle. I've been doing this for years, and every year kids ask me why I'm sitting backwards, to which I respond with something akin to the above paragraph. Earlier this year, however, I instead responded to a four-year-old by insisting that I was sitting in my chair the proper way. "It's the rest of you who are sitting backwards."

"No, Teacher Tom," they replied, "You're the one sitting backwards."

Naturally, they took it as a joke, the kind I tell by way of letting them know that it's not just their right, but their responsibility to question my authority. It's a game I've been playing with most of them since they were two, so they weren't put off when I feigned earnestness as I continued to argue my obviously flawed assertion.

"Of course, you're supposed to sit in chairs this way. See? I have a place to put my hands so I can pretend to be riding a motorcycle." I grabbed the back of the chair and revved my engine. "Or so I can pretend to be riding a horse." This caused a couple of the kids to immediately turn their own chairs around.

"But, Teacher Tom, you might fall off the back."

"That's why I have this handle," I insisted, grabbing the back of my chair, "So I can hold on."

"You're being silly, Teacher Tom."

"That's a compliment," I answered, "And, you know, you're also supposed to sit on the toilet like this. That way you have a little shelf for your comic books." (With apologies to South Park)

By now, all of the kids had joined me in turning their chairs around, jokingly insisting along with me that this was the "right" way to sit in chairs. This has continued and grown all year long and has now filtered down to even the two-year-olds, a game that often occurs whether I'm there or not. They joke with one another that sitting in the snack chairs the traditional way is "silly." They have taken to improvising other silly ways to sit, like by turning the chairs sideways or by sitting with their backs to the table. Even the children who tend to be more literal are by now in on the joke, or, as I'm coming to understand it, have adopted a new cultural norm. Indeed, on most days, the older kids are far more often straddling their chairs than not. They still know that the rest of the world sits in chairs the conventional way, but here at school, in our place, straddling has become our way of doing it. It's a joke we're playing, together, on the world.

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Friday, April 26, 2019

Worth Everything

“I want it!”

“I’m using it!”

They were fighting over a toy digger, each attempting to wrest control from the other. 

“I had it first!”

“I had it first!”

Their voices grew louder. They were pushing into one another with hips and shoulders, their faces pinched into grimaces. Earlier in the school year, I might have felt the need to step in, but despite the growing intensity of their conflict, I remained where I was, seated on a table some distance away.

They were beyond words now, letting their bodies do the negotiating for them. Neither of them looked my way: they were going to solve this themselves. Finally, one of the boys gained a seat on the vehicle, ending the tussle. The boy who had lost out, looked disappointed, but not overly so. I said, “There are more trucks over there,” pointing to a pile of them not far away.

The boy who had “won” jumped to his feet, “I’ll get the dump truck,” leaving the until recently coveted digger to his rival. He returned with the dump truck and the two sat on their respective vehicles together for a moment, side-by-side, looking into one another’s eyes. They both smiled. No words were spoken as they began using their feet to push themselves forward while continually checking to make sure they were still together.

Moments later a girl took hold of the trapeze bar, preparing to take flight, when another girl attempted to push her out of the way. “Hey, I’m using this!” She shouted. Again, I might have moved closer earlier in the year, but now we are nearing the end of our time together as a class, so I stayed where I was, confident in their capabilities. 

The intruder responded, “We could use it together,” to which her friend replied, “Okay,” and they did, swinging side-by-side, looking into one another’s eyes, smiling.

A school year can sometimes feel like a long haul for a teacher, but knowing that this was our destination all along, makes it worth everything.

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Thursday, April 25, 2019

A "Mommy Bottom"

Take it hip to hip, rocket through the wilderness. ~The B52s

Yesterday, we were out on a neighborhood ramble. We started by rolling in the grass and picking dandelions and other wildflowers at a relatively new park called the Troll's Knoll, which was, of course, followed by a clamber on The Troll himself. After this, we hiked to "the Dump Playground," called that because it was built adjacent to and as part of the recent updating of the solid waste transfer station, which we also visited to watch the garbage trucks vomit their loads of rubbish.

As we returned home, we passed the global headquarters of the Brooks running gear manufacturer which features a stylized, over-sized statue made from what appear to be old medals. It's clear to me that it's meant to represent a powerful, athletic woman, but I've discovered over the years that this isn't always so evident to the children. A group of us stopped to admire her as we waited for our slower-walking friends to catch up. Someone referred to her as a "guy," but a friend disagreed, pointing out that she had a "mommy bottom," patting her solid hip to make the point. This settled it for the kids.

I was reminded of a project from many years ago when a group of four and five-year-olds set themselves the task of creating a giant Nutcracker statue. They had wanted to use a pair of cardboard tubes for the legs, so running with that theme, I collected several other cylinders -- cans and tubes -- that I suggested we could use. In demonstrating my thinking to the kids, I had selected a large can that I imagined would work as a nice masculine chest. I laid the entire figure out on the floor to show them how I thought it would come together. They liked the general idea, but objected to my arrangement: the large can, they told me, would be better used as hips since this was going to be "a girl Nutcracker," the result of which you can see in the picture at the top of this post.

When I shared this story with one of the parents who had joined us on our ramble, she replied, "Well, they do spend a lot of their lives riding on their mothers' hips. They're important." Of course, women's bodies come in all shapes and sizes, but children are nevertheless keen observers. I suppose if it had been up to me, I'd have suggested something artistically clumsy like adding obvious breasts by way of feminizing our Nutcracker (or categorizing the Brooks statue), but the children, as they often prove themselves, are much more subtle and observant than I.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Sometimes Mommy Has To Leave

Sometimes mommy has to leave and you don't want her to leave. 

When I started teaching, I was a distractor. In fact, I considered myself a master distractor. I had every confidence that I could calm any kid down in less than five minutes through a combination of goofing, enthusiasm, and "Look what those kids are doing over there!" Today, I'm more inclined to simply sit with a crying child, to listen to any words they might be trying to say, to show warmth and empathy, to assure them that mommy always comes back, and to allow them the full arc of their strong emotion. Most kids still stop crying in less than five minutes, but that's no longer the goal now that my priority is their feelings rather than my discomfort with their feelings.

So when mommy left last Friday, when he reached out to mommy as she walked away, when he screamed and cried and pulled himself from my arms, when he dropped to the floor to kick his feet in outrage, I sat there with him, blocking out the whole world but him.

I could hear he was saying words as he screamed, but they weren't at first discernible, so I said, "You're mad that mommy left," and "You're sad that mommy left." No one can truly tell another how they feel, but I was pretty sure I was close to the mark in this case. He was still saying the words through his tears, repeating them. Finally, I thought I made out, "I want mommy to come back."

I wanted him to know that he had been heard, that I understood and empathized, and I wanted it to be something that was true, so I said, "I want your mommy to come back too."

He shout-cried at me, "I want mommy to come back!"

I nodded. I worked on keeping my voice gentle. I said, "I want your mommy to come back too."

And he said back, "I want mommy to come back!"

We went back and forth like this several times. He seemed to really wanted me to know that he wanted his mommy to come back.

Other children tried to sooth him: one girl brought him a costume, another tried to hand him a construction paper fire truck. He didn't accept their overtures, although he was by now present enough to shake his head "no" at them rather than simply scream as he was doing at me.

By now he was very clearly saying, "I want mommy to come back!" And I was replying, "I want your mommy to come back too," to which he always shout-cried back, "I want mommy to come back!"

I continued to attempt to put a name to his feelings, using words like "mad," "sad," and "angry," as well as to state the truth that "mommy always comes back." But whenever I said, "I want your mommy to come back too," he shouted at me, "I want mommy to come back!" 

Then, finally, I really heard him. He said, "I want mommy to come back!" stressing the pronoun for his tin-eared teacher.

This time I answered, "You want mommy to come back."

He nodded as if to say, "Finally," and in one motion picked himself from the floor, stepped up to the art table, still crying, and got to work gluing construction paper shapes to a red fire truck pre-cut, his hands not fully under his own control. As he wadded and creased the paper, it looked almost as if he were wrestling with it, his fingers clenching and curling from the emotion that was still coursing through his whole body.

After a couple minutes, he became silent as he concentrated on manipulating the small pieces of paper, the last of his strong emotion going into this construction project.

I said one more time, "You want mommy to come back." This time he ignored me.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

"That Was A Kind Thing To Do"

We were playing with our very cool, new-to-us, train table. There was a crush of kids vying for space and vehicles. One boy was particularly excited, so much so that his emotions were right on the surface and it was almost too much to bear when he couldn't get his hands on a specific pair of train cars. He did not want "regular cars." He did not want the other colors. He wanted the cars that were in the hands of his friend who was not about to give them up. He alternatively stood passively saying, "Please" and making grabs for the prized objects.

It's a fairly typical scenario. I reminded him that we had all agreed to not take things from one another, suggesting that if he wanted the train cars he would have find a way to do it without just taking them. He said, "I want them."

The other boy said, "I had them first."

"I had them first!"

"You did not. I had them in my hands!"

"I wanted them first!"

"Well, I have them in my hands. You can have them when I'm done." And with that he continued moving his two-car train along the track.

His rival's body went tense, then he shouted a sound something like a roar. I said, "I see several regular cars on the ground you can use." He ignored me. I said, "You can use the cars you want when he's done." Again, nothing. He was full of his emotion -- anger, frustration, sadness -- he moved his body energetically, as if barely able to contain himself. He wasn't crying, but his face was red. I stayed close because he sometimes lashes out physically when he's in this state and I wanted to be there should violence emerge. Instead, he took it out on inanimate objects. He threw one of the cars he didn't want. He kicked at the new train table. He paced around and around. I said, "You're upset about not getting the train cars you want."

I knew we had an audience: the other children were listening, they could hardly help it, although to all appearances they were fully engaged in their train play. The boy roared again. I said, "You're frustrated that you have to wait for your turn." I picked up a couple of the regular cars from the ground and in the spirit of role modeling said, "I'm going to drive these cars while I wait."

"I don't want to drive those cars!" he shouted, obviously offended by my attempt, "I want train cars! The kind that connect together!" I nodded, "I understand, but other kids are already using all the train cars. You'll have to wait until someone is done." I said this sentence loudly and clearly, speaking as much to the group as to the boy. Less than a minute passed before another boy disconnected two cars from his four-car train and handed them over. He had listened, understood, and realized that it was in his power to make things better for someone else.

The boy eagerly snatched the proffered cars and without a word got busy driving them around the track. I turned to the boy who had given up part of his train, "That was a kind thing to do." Again, I said it as much to the whole group as to the individual. Shortly thereafter a girl offered one of her extra train cars as well. This time it wasn't me, but the boy who said, "That was a kind thing to do."

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Monday, April 22, 2019

Reinventing It Themselves

On garbage day in my old neighborhood, after the trash had been collected, we would play with the galvanized steel cans that stood empty along the curb of our street. One game was to convert our red wagons into race cars by turning the cans on their sides, then wrestling them into the the wagon beds. We would sit with our feet inside, reaching over the top of the can to grab the wagon's tongue which we would use for steering.

When we watch children play, much, if not most, of what we see them doing is attempting to re-create aspects of their world, what the great developmental psychologists Jean Piaget referred to as "reinventing it themselves." As a boy living in a suburban neighborhood, cars played an important role in our lives -- they signaled the comings and goings of our fathers, they were our conveyances for adventures to places beyond our day-to-day world, they were a source of pride and concern for the adults -- so it's no wonder we sought to more fully understand them through reinvention.

We marched in lines with stick guns on our shoulders the way we saw the soldiers do at the nearby Fort Jackson, we set up pretend grocery stores, we played made-up versions of the sports we caught glimpses of on television, we played at being families, congregations, and classrooms full of students. And yes, we imagined ourselves to be the heroes of our favorite movies, television programs, and books. Teachers see this sort of imaginative play all around us every day as the children we teach do exactly as we did, and what our parents did before us.

As teachers and parents, the temptation is to try to help them along their path of understanding, to interject with vocabulary or concepts or our own ideas, hoping to somehow hurry or deepen their learning, but we do so at the risk of interfering with this process that is as old as humanity, this urge to understand the world by reinventing it ourselves. No matter how well-intended, unless done with great and subtle care, more often than not our interruptions, rather than boosting children along their self-selected path of learning, have the impact of either derailing them or, perhaps worse, forever robbing them of the opportunity to come to real understanding on their own.

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Friday, April 19, 2019

"Hey, It's Not A Race"

One day, when I was working in my daughter's preschool classroom, the teacher announced it was time to go outdoors. The children rushed the door, elbowing one another as they crowded through the narrow passageway. The scrum of children came to a standstill. One poor girl was pinned against the door jamb and started to cry. Others shouted objections. The adults began to fuss about, trying to to find words that would help loosen the knot. One boy stood outside the fray, a four-year-old, looking on with an expression of calm bemusement. He said to his friends, ineffectually, "Hey, it's not a race."

I often think of that moment when I consider the state of education. It shouldn't be a race, but that's how it's set up, with children being labeled as "advanced" and others as "behind." Children are compared to one another through grades. Their tests are even timed with stopwatches. We've done it despite overwhelming evidence that competition is unhealthy for children, especially young ones.

From Alfie Kohen, the author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition:

One after another, researchers across the country have concluded that children do not learn better when education is transformed into a competitive struggle. Why? First, competition often makes kids anxious and that interferes with concentration. Second, competition doesn't permit them to share their talents and resources as cooperation does, so they can't learn from one another. Finally, trying to Number One distracts them from what they're supposed to be learning. It may seem paradoxical, but when a student concentrates on the reward (an A or a gold star or trophy), she becomes less interested in what she's doing. The result: Performance declines.

There are those who insist, "But competition is part of human nature," that's not what anthropologists who study hunter-gatherer societies tell us. If one considers human existence as a 12-hour clock, we were hunter-gatherers for 11 hours and 59 minutes, and it was in these kinds of societies in which we have evolved to thrive. As Peter Gray told us at last week's Play On Early Childhood conference in Athens, Greece, there is little evidence of competition in these societies, their games tended to be cooperative contests as opposed to competitions. No, it wasn't until very recently in evolutionary terms, when the agricultural revolution introduced the notion of "ownership," that competition became normalized, and it runs counter how humans have evolved to interact with one another on a day-to-day basis.

Perhaps there is a place for competition in our wider society (although from where I sit, it is largely corrosive) but there is no place for it in eduction. Everyone learns at their own pace. We need to put the stopwatches away: it's not a race. Summer is upon us. Your children will not fall behind if they spend it picking dandelions. There are better ways to use our time than trying to beat one another.

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Thursday, April 18, 2019

Replacing False With True

"We don't hit people."

"We don't run in the hallways."

"We don't take things from other people."

I strive to be honest with children, yet I lie to them, or at least tell them these sorts of falsehoods almost every day, and I'm not the only one.

I hear it in our classroom and on playgrounds: many of us have fallen into the habit of "correcting" children with sentences like the ones above, "we" sentences, that are objectively false statements. Of course, I understand that "We don't hit people" is spoken in the spirit of aspiration, in the sense that we hope to one day be a place where no one hits anyone, but since we almost always say it in the immediate aftermath of someone indeed being hit, it's simply not true that "we don't hit people" and everyone knows it. If "we" don't hit people, then why does my nose hurt?

"I don't want you to hit my friends." Now that has the virtue of being true. 

"She's crying because you hurt her." True. 

"I can't let you hit people." Safety is part of my job, so yes, this is true, and not only that but I'm role modeling being responsible.

And because of the way the children make their own rules at Woodland Park, I can even say, "We all agreed, no hitting," perhaps the most powerful true statement I can make in that circumstance because it includes the unity of "we" with the virtue of truth.

It might sound like a little thing this trading out one set of words for another, and in a way it is, but the foundation upon which we build the future is always made of little things, one atop the other. And whenever we can replace false with true in life, it's never a small thing.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

For Their Own, Better, Purposes

I recently visited a friend's school where he pointed out their purpose-built "mud kitchen." He noted that the kids had dumped all the moveable parts of the kitchen into the sand pit, where they were being used as sand toys, something they did on a daily basis. He said, "I don't think they've ever actually used the mud kitchen." That didn't surprise me: children always have better ideas than we adults about what to do with materials. I can't tell you how many schools I've toured that feature abandoned mud kitchens. And yes, there was a time when we attempted a mud kitchen at Woodland Park with similar results.

This doesn't mean the kids at our school don't sometimes pretend to be cooking up a pot of mud stew or mud cake or mud pasta. Just yesterday, one of our newly-minted three-year-olds set up a three-course dinner along a concrete ledge using containers she collected from around the playground. But what we've learned from experience is that you can't force, cajole, or lure children into a particular type of play without rendering it "not-play." The adults might set up what they think are cool provocations, but after that, it belongs to the children: that's what I've learned, often painstakingly, over the course of many, many "failures."

Over there in the right hand column of this blog, you'll see a header labeled "Teacher Tom's Topics" and under that you'll find a link to posts tagged with "Little World." There are 19 posts there, most of which are dated from 2010. The final post is entitled, "Little World is Still Dead". When I go back and re-read these posts from the beginning, I'm more than a little bit embarrassed by most of them, even to the point of being tempted to delete a few, but I've opted to leave them up as evidence of the journey that has brought our community from there to here when it comes to the introduction of what are commonly called "loose parts." In a nutshell, our journey began with "loose parts" that were not so loose and ended with the children having taught us how to let go to the point that we rarely use the term "loose parts" any longer, going instead with the more accurate moniker "junk."

Indeed, going back over the decade of writing on this blog, there are more than a few posts, especially from those early years, that today make me cringe. I don't go back and read them often, but every time I do I become aware of how much I've grown, both as a teacher and a human being and that's why I don't delete them. I fully expect that if I'm still writing here in 2029, I'll look back on some of what I'm writing today with the same sort of chagrin. If not, that would mean that I've not continued to grow and learn which would be a sign that it's time to move on to something else.

Often, children will begin by playing with our mud kitchens or Little World's in the way we envisioned, but they quickly learn, through their play, all they can from the artificial limitations we've set and must to move on, which is why they dismantle our creations for their own, better, purposes, the next steps in their own journeys.

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