Friday, May 31, 2019

What I Get To Do And With Whom I Get To Do It

He's a boy who has always been in motion, moving his body according to the story he's telling in his head. Even as a two-year-old he was that way. He's forever embodying personas, usually guys who throw things over and blow things up. He expresses himself with this full body, sometimes without apparent regard to those around him, although I also know that that's not always the case. You sometimes have to say his name several times to get his attention.

He has told me he hates me, usually right after falling hard. He tends to use me like one of his loose parts: ignoring me for long spans, then getting into me, intensely, for a day or two, before moving on to something more interesting.

He has a best friend. He loves his best friend.

I sometimes feel like he doesn't hear me when I speak to him; his internal voice is so insistent.

Last week, we performed our play, a project we've been working on, all of us contributing, since January. In the aftermath of this magnificent success, he approached me in a crowd of children, parents, grandparents, and family friends, seeking me out to say, "Teacher Tom, I love you. I'm going to miss you next year." Then he spread his arms for a hug. Not all the kids get what the end of the school year means. He does.

The parents organized a year-end "card shower" for me, working with their children to produce "something" for Teacher Tom. I've collected them in a canvas tote they've autographed. One of the kids gave me a chain saw made from bits of wood, tempera paint and a glue gun. Others painted pictures of me. Most had a few words to say: "I love you, Teacher Tom," "I like your stories," "I'll come back to see you."

This boy, the one who has always been in motion, handed me his card. He had dictated a poem:

I love you, Teacher Tom.
Teacher Tom, happy day.
The sun rise is good.
Watch the water flow.

I'm about to break from the beauty of what I get to do and with whom I get to do it.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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Thursday, May 30, 2019


There are any number of ways to define success, the most prominent of which involves coming into possession of money and lots of it. But having had at least four billionaires close enough to me in life to draw a few conclusions, none of them appeared to be particularly happy people. Indeed, they behaved in ways that I would consider troubling in a child: self-deluded, irritable, suspicious of the motives of others, and lacking in empathy, all traits that various studies have likewise found to be characteristics of the wealthy.

No, I don't consider the accumulation of riches to be a sign of success except in a very narrow sense (not that I'd reject it if you offered it to me). To me success in life involves having loving, stable relationships with others, enjoying good health, and waking up each morning to a day of meaningful employment, be it of the paid variety or not. These things tend to be true of people most likely to report themselves to be satisfied with their lives, and to me that's the real measure of success.

In the late 1950's an educator in Michigan named David Welkart had the radical idea of improving the academic performance of poor minority students by essentially inventing preschool as we know it today. You can read the full story here, but the bottomline was the Perry School Project experiment boosted I.Q. scores dramatically, leading directly to the federal preschool program called Head Start in 1965.

An interesting thing happened, however. These initial I.Q. gains faded after only a couple years, a result that was later verified by Head Start. While critics of the program used this to attack it as a failure, the Perry School research continued. While the intelligence of students who had attended preschool, as measured by the standardized I.Q. test, was no longer greater than that of their non-preschool peers, they continued to show greater academic achievement, were less likely to be assigned to special education classes, and showed fewer behavioral problems. This phenomenon was tracked through high school, with those who had attended preschool not being "smarter" than their peers, but continuing to do better in school by every measure. By the time they were in their 40's the test subjects were more likely to be employed, make more money, have healthier relationships, be involved in their own kid's lives, and were less likely to be involved in crime or drug use. All of this without any measurable I.Q. advantage; the only identifiable difference between these individuals and the control group being two years of what was essentially play-based preschool.

In other words, whatever was being measured by the I.Q. tests, it didn't seem to have any bearing on success.

According to Nobel Prize laureate economist James Heckman, who continues to work on the project, the assumption at the heart of a lot of economic theory is that measured intelligence is the key to everything. But with the Perry Preschool children, something else made the difference. It was not I.Q, but rather the development of "non-cognitive" skills like motivation, sociability, and the ability to work with others. These are the critical skills that help people succeed at school, work, and life.

What makes the Perry School Project so important, is that it is the only one that has tracked its subjects over the course of their entire lives. There as been renewed interest recently as Heckman has released a pair of papers that take another look at the subjects who are now in their mid-50's. Not surprisingly to those of us who work in early childhood education, those two years in preschool continue to have a positive impact not just on those who attended, but on their children and even grandchildren, who continue to be more "successful" than their peers, and it has nothing to do with I.Q., and everything to do with social and emotional skills.

The one consistent finding (Heckman's) seen . . . is that "successful preschools do exactly what successful parents do." They find were the kids are at, take them to the next step. allow them to make mistakes and engage them in a learning experience every day.

That, not drill-and-kill education, is the road to success, however you want to define it.

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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

This Community That Will Always Be A Part Of Who They Are

Every other year, we would be done with our school year by now, but Seattle, like much of the rest of the country experienced more snow than usual over the winter, so we tacked on three more class days. Many of our families had already made plans, however, so attendance was low yesterday, making it a quiet, lazy day, one that makes a nice transition into summer.

Our two-year-olds are mostly three-year-olds now, and as they tend to do, they have begun to turn increasingly toward one another, connecting over simple things like running from one place to another, digging the same hole, or tossing wood chips into the air. When I sang a familiar song yesterday, one with a by now well-known punch line, they waited together in complete silence, anticipating it together, agreeing without words passing between them to remain utterly silent during the extra long pause, then scream-laughing when I finally delivered the goods: laughing not at me, the performer, like audiences normally do, but into one another's faces, their ritualistic laugh bonding them, a celebration of this community that will always be a part of who they are no matter where in the world their lives take them.

Not so long ago, these "babies" did not know that they began and their mother ended. Some of them still don't know this for certain. It's the place we all begin and it's a place we spend much of our lives trying to recreate: not seeking a return to the womb exactly, although there may be a part of that as well, but rather expanding the womb, bringing what we are born knowing about the interconnectedness of humankind out there with us, learning that it's not just mommy, not just daddy, not just brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles, but all of these other people as well who make us whole. This is something the children teach one another. Or maybe it's more like they remind or confirm for one another, just as they remind we adults who too often live as if we've forgotten, even if we still find in reflective moments that this wisdom is still a piece of who we are.

Away we'll go now, off on our own, never to reconvene in exactly this way again, taking the us we've created along however, where it will re-kindle wherever we find people of goodwill playing together, singings songs, and telling stories.

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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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Comforting The Afflicted And Afflicting The Comfortable

Around the turn of the last century, while discussing the proper role of the press, author Finley Dunne wrote, "(I)t is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." In 1997, Harvard professor Cesar A. Cruz applied the notion to art, saying that it should "comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." That is to say that the purpose of journalism and art, indeed all forms of truth-telling, is to challenge the status quo. The same, I assert, goes for education.

Much of what passes for journalism or art these days has fallen under the control of the "comfortable," the large media corporations that dictate much of what we see and hear, and because truth disturbs them, they tend to turn it all into entertainment, stuff that might shock, titillate, or excite, but rarely disturbs or afflicts them in their role as gatekeepers.

The same thing is happening with public education, as large corporations and Wall Street backed charter schools have descended upon our classrooms, places that should be cauldrons of democracy. Our schools have never been perfect, of course, and the powerful have always inserted themselves in anti-democratic ways, but the drive to narrow the focus of education by reducing it to test-taking focused almost exclusively on literacy and mathematics, things that are easily measured, while pushing aside the more uncomfortable disciplines like art, philosophy, and the humanities has accelerated over the past couple decades. The comfortable are disturbed by the sorts of critical thinkers that emerge from a real education. They are afflicted by those of us who ask a lot of questions, challenge their authority, and stand up for our beliefs. And so the schools they seek to create are ones that focus on questions of how rather than why; schools that seek conformity through standardization; schools that are activity centers more than places of real learning.

Education is upsetting, it digs into the gray areas and asks difficult questions. An educated person always has doubts. An educated person is never fully satisfied. An educated person afflicts the comfortable.

The American author Ray Bradbury was a largely self-educated man, opting for libraries rather than university. In his 1951 masterpiece Fahrenheit 451, he conceived of a dystopian future in which books have been banned in the name of keeping the peace. His protagonist, Montag, is a fireman, although instead of putting out fires, his job is to burn the books. He meets a young woman named Clarissa, a kind of free-spirited throw-back to the olden days, who sparks doubts. As he begins to grow increasingly disillusioned, his chief attempts to explain why their work of book burning is so important and why people like Clarissa are so dangerous:

"You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can't have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn't that right? Haven't you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say . . . Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs. The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. 

"Heredity and environment are funny things. You can't rid yourselves of all the odd ducks in just a few years. The home environment can undo a lot of what you try to do at school. That's why we've lowered the kindergarten age year after year until now we're almost snatching them from the cradle . . . The family had been feeding her (Clarissa's) subconscious, I'm sure from what I saw of her school record. She didn't want to know how a thing was done, but why. That can be embarrassing. You ask Why to a lot of things and you wind up very unhappy indeed, if you keep at it. The poor girl's better off dead . . . Luckily, queer ones like her don't happen often. We know how to nip most of them in the bud, early. You can't build a house without nails and wood. If you don't want a house built, hide the nails and wood. If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none . . .  
Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change. Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can, nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won't be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I've tried it; to hell with it. So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your daredevils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the Theremin, loudly. I'll think I'm responding to the play, when it's only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don't care. I just like solid entertainment."

Bradbury was writing nearly 70 years ago, writing about the future, the place we now occupy. When I read this passage I see that he was, of course, wrong in some details, but right about too many for comfort. And I worry that the essence of his predictions are closer now than they have ever been. In an earlier passage in the book the chief explains that it wasn't the government that originally banned books, but rather the people themselves, who simply quit reading them. The more I reflect upon this, the more I think Bradbury is right: reading books, a lot of them, and especially those that make us uncomfortable, and then acting upon our discomfort, is the only way we can ensure that his dystopia remains fiction. And as educators we can never forget that much of our job is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

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Monday, May 27, 2019

They Already Are Being Careful

Awhile back, I was watching a boy playing around under the swings as a classmate was swinging. It wasn't a particularly risky activity in my view. I mean, I was standing right there, taking pictures, discussing it with him, and it didn't set off any alarm bells for me in the moment, although after the fact, while going through the photos, it occurred to me that it was something that would be scuttled in other settings. My lack of concern probably stems from the fact that it's far from the first time this sort of thing has happened:

In fact, I think what caught my attention about it was that it was the first time I'd seen a kid do more than just lie there giggling. Of course, many schools have removed their swings altogether, so maybe the very existence of swings is shocking to some. 

I imagine that in some dystopian future we'll become notorious for being the only school left with a swing set, let alone for not having a set of rules about how the kids can use them. That's because, in our six years with swings, since our move to the Center of the Universe, we've not found a need for safety rules, because the kids, the ones that live in the world outside our catastrophic imaginations, haven't shown a particular propensity to hurt themselves or one another.

Oh sure they get hurt like all kids do, like all people, but most of the injuries don't come from what people call "risky play," but rather from day-to-day activities, things you would think children had mastered. For instance, the worst injury we've seen during my 16 year tenure at Woodland Park came when a boy fell on his chin while walking on a flat, dry, linoleum floor. He needed a couple stitches. Another boy wound up with stitches when he fell while walking in the sandpit. 

Increasingly, I find myself bristling when I hear folks talk about "risky play," even when it's framed positively. From my experience, this sort of play is objectively not risky, in the sense that those activities like swinging or climbing or playing with long sticks, those things that tend to wear the label of "risky" are more properly viewed as "safety play," because that's exactly what the kids are doing: practicing keeping themselves and others safe. It's almost as if they are engaging in their own, self-correcting safety drills.

When a group of four and five year olds load up the pallet swing with junk, then work together to wind it up higher and higher, then, on the count of three, let it go, ducking away as they do it, creating distance between themselves and this rapidly spinning flat of wood that they've learned is libel to release it's contents in random directions, they are practicing keeping themselves and others safe. They don't need adults there telling them to "be careful" or to impose rules based on our fears because those things are so manifestly necessary to this sort of thing that they are an unspoken part of the play.

When children pick up long sticks and start employing them as light sabers, swinging them at one another, they are practicing keeping themselves and others safe. The safety is built into it.

When children wrestle they are practicing caring for themselves and their friends.

When preschoolers are provided with carving tools and a pumpkin they automatically include their own safety and that of others into their play. Adult warnings to "be careful" are redundant at best and, at worst, become focal points for rebellion (which, in turn, can lead to truly risky behavior) or a sense that the world is full of unperceived dangers that only the all-knowing adults 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 of self-doubt.

The truth is that they already are being careful. The instinct for self-preservation is quite strong in humans. It's a pity that we feel we must teach them to live within our catastrophic imaginations.

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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