Sunday, June 30, 2019

“Stick To Education”

I recently posted here about the concentration camps that our federal government is running on the southern border of the US. Since then even more horrifying and damning information has come to light about the inhumane treatment of families who have arrived at border seeking asylum. Most readers have expressed sympathy and outrage. There have only been a few who have written to either defend the administration’s heartless policies or to, remarkably, deny the existence of these camps as “fake news.” This I expected, to a certain extent, but honestly, one would have to at this point be willfully ignorant to in order to not know that a cruel tragedy of our own making continues to unfold. Denial or silence in the face of this is the moral equivalent of the so-called “good Germans” who made the Holocaust possible. I believe we are already at the point that future generations will look back upon these times in disbelief that we allowed this to happen. 

But some readers have chosen to criticize my post of last week by admonishing me to “stick to education,” asserting that “politics” has no place on Teacher Tom’s blog. Let me make this clear: everything I write here is political. I might not be directly discussing this or that policy, I might not be calling on you to write your representatives or take to the streets. I might not be asserting support for a particular political party. But believe me, everything you read here is a political act in the spirit of democratic self-governance, part of the practice of day-to-day retail democracy. I am sharing my views as honestly as I know how, seeking not necessarily to shape yours, but to let you know where I stand in the world. And I expect the same from you. This doesn’t mean that I have to agree with you (nor you me), but to remain silent is akin to an act of treason.

When people tell me to “stick to education,” I genuinely have no idea what they are talking about. None of us live in a vacuum. Indeed, perhaps that’s part of the problem with political life today: we have this idea that it can be wall-off from the rest of our lives. Nothing gets under my skin more than people who insist, often with a bizarre tone of boastfulness, that they “stay out of politics.” That is the equivalent of saying that they don’t give a damn, that they’re going to hide away in their smug selfishness and deny the rest of us their participation in our community that is inextricably interconnected whether we like it our not. That’s the deal: you live in the US, you participate, and opting out is to choose the side that is against me and my loved ones. Democracy requires participation: sitting out allows evil to prevail.

So make no mistake, even when I tell a simple, inspiring story about the capabilities of young children, I’m being political. I cannot draw a line. Indeed, I have no idea where that line could possibly be drawn. So know that when you read here,  you are engaged in politics. I don’t like being left to carry the burden of self-governance, no one does. I need you there with me. We may disagree. That’s part of living in a world with other people. But when you tell me to “stick to education” or when you opt “stay out of politics” you’re harming the rest of us. Democracy is a participatory sport.

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Thursday, June 27, 2019

Speaking It Into Existence

A couple years ago, Tom Drummond, one of my earliest teaching mentors, the man who introduced me to the technology of speaking with children, dropped by the school. He was particularly interested in our green house and our new "farming" program. After about an hour, we parted. As we did, he said, "You're doing great work. I'm glad you're in the world." We were standing on the wooden walkway that overlooks our playground. I replied, "Thank you. And I want you to know that none of this would be here without you. Everything here is a result of how you taught me to speak with children."

We tend to think of reality as a set of facts that exist outside of ourselves, things that are true in equal measure for everyone, and in one way it is, but we also create reality for ourselves, day-after-day, by the way we behave, believe, and especially in the way we speak. When we speak informatively with young children, from a place of warmth and connection, striving to avoid commands and minimizing our questions, we create a certain reality not just for those kids, but for ourselves and those around us. When I look at our playground, our green house, our classroom, I see them as visible echoes and amplifications of the technology to which Tom introduced me two decades ago.

After Tom left, I went back to puttering around, then before leaving went indoors to wash the dirt from under my fingernails. Being a Friday afternoon, the building was empty except for a pair of contractors who we had hired for a project. As I passed by the room in which they were working, one of them called out to me, "Hey, do you work here?"

"I'm the teacher of the preschool."

"Good. You're the guy I need to talk to." As he approached me, I could tell he was agitated. He was moving quickly. I imagine his heart rate was elevated. "Do you know the guy in the dress? The transgender person or whatever?"

All morning long one of our neighborhood's street people, one of Pastor Gay's men, had been hanging around the place, mostly just lounging on the lawn and smoking butts in the designated area. He was wearing a kind of a skirt, more like a small blanket tied around his waist, but I figured that's who the contractor meant. I said, "I think I know who you're talking about."

"Well, he just tried to come in the building and when I told him I couldn't let him in, he threatened me."

"Oh no. Thanks for not letting him in."

"I just wanted to warn you. He seems like he's about to go off."

"Is he still here?

"Yeah, he's just waiting right outside the front door. He says there's supposed to be a meeting here, but I was told not to let anyone in who doesn't have a key."

"Well, there are a lot of 12-step meetings in this building. Maybe he just got the time wrong. Listen, I know him. I should talk to him."

"He seems pretty irrational. We'll come with you."

When I opened the front door, I found at least a dozen people there, all familiar faces, people who regularly attend 12-step meetings at the Fremont Baptist Church in which our school is housed. Amongst them was a very large person in little black dress, fishnet stalkings, and four-inch heels -- one of the regulars.

Someone said, "Oh, thank god you're here. There was no key in the key box and we have our meeting now."

I replied, turning to the contractors who were standing over my shoulder protectively, "I know these people. It's okay if they come in."

Later, after the group had settled in, I stood on the sidewalk with the contractors who still seemed agitated. I said, "You did the right thing not letting them in."

"Yeah, well that big guy in the dress, or woman, or . . . Well they're big and they were mad. I thought I was going to get punched." He went into more details, obviously needing to get his emotions out, to explain himself, maybe to justify his fear. As he did, I was conscious of his struggle with finding the proper pronouns. Our daughter and her friends have been teaching me a lot  about gender and the use of pronouns.  I support this effort to create a new reality through the use of language even as I continue to struggle. .

As the contractor  began to wind down a bit, he shared that he lived in a suburban community a goodly commute from the Seattle city limits. "When I come into the city, I'm always on my guard, you know? It seems like there's always someone ready for a fight. I've even had to pull a gun on a guy."

This isn't the first time someone has earnestly told me about the gun they "had to pull" on someone, and it has almost always been a white man from the suburbs. "I have to tell you," a real estate agent friend from Kirkland once told me, "Some of the places I go in the city -- I'm sure glad I had my gun." Another friend who lives in Woodenville can't stop talking about the "dangers" of the city on those rare occasions that he is willing to come visit. This is a black leather wearing Harley rider, a man who affects the stance of a tough guy (although he's genuinely very sweet), yet he talks as if there is a hoodlum around every corner. Every time I see him, he advises me to get a gun like the one he sometimes carries because you never know when you might "need it."

I've lived in cities most of my adult life, I love living in cities, the more urban the better, and I have never once been in a situation in which I felt I needed a gun, yet over the years dozens of people, mostly white men from the suburbs, but not always, have spoken about "pulling guns" or otherwise having to violently defend themselves in the city. It's clear to me that the city presents a different reality for them than it does for me, and I can't help but wonder if much of the difference comes from the stories we tell ourselves and others, the language we use, to describe our experiences.

The media seems to get higher ratings from portraying urban dystopias. And researchers tell us that the more television a person watches, the more dangerous they believe  the world to be. If you don't live and work in a city, the words reporters and scriptwriters choose for creating their TV realities, I suppose, start to form an actual reality about cities that is distinct from that experienced by those of us who live here. That language of violence and menace becomes part of how some people think and speak about the city, which, in turn, results in a higher likelihood of perceiving threats, engaging in conflict, and even having to resort to "pulling a gun," a reality that is as alien to me as my reality is to them.

Some time ago, I wrote here about an experiment in some Swedish schools to eliminate the use of gender-specific pronouns. I tended to doubt the concept, even as I was curious to see the results. Now my own daughter has come home with the same ideas. These seemingly small tweaks to how we speak are attempts to create a new reality about gender through the conscious use of language. The goal is for it to become something we just all do without having to think about it: the way most of us don't think about our use of gender-specific pronouns. Every social change that has ever happened in our world has only really come about once we've fully adopted the new language that goes with it.

Today, we hear loud complaints about political correctness. It's hard to find oneself living a different reality than those around you. Perhaps for most of your life it didn't matter because most people shared your reality, but then as more and more of us attempt to speak a new reality into existence, you see your old, comfortable reality changing as well. I know from experience that it at first seems ridiculous, then irritating, then even frightening because this new reality will replace your old one.

Every day, the words we choose to speak create the reality in which we live. If we talk of cities as menacing, then they become so. If we talk of cities as thriving, exciting, uniquely human communities, that is what they become. If we speak the language of gender fluidity, then we create the reality of gender fluidity. If we speak to children as if they are fully formed human beings, then we create a reality in which children are free to live as fully formed human beings.

We build reality word by word. We all have the power to create it. Indeed, the reality in which we live is already a creation of our words. If we want a different reality it may well be as simple and as difficult as consciously speaking it into existence. It might take a very long time, but if we keep doing it, we will one day no longer have to even think about it and we will have created a better world.

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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Kids These Days

It’s almost common knowledge that kids these days don’t respect their elders. Indeed, it’s as predictable as the sunrise that aging wags will rail against the generations behind them as entitled and lazy, prone to whining and a lack of appreciation for us gray beards to had to work for everything, applying our noses to the grindstone, doing with less, yet enjoying it more. They don’t appreciate what they have. They don’t know what hard work is. And their manners and taste in music are atrocious.

Today, the main target is those “self-absorbed” millennials who aren’t up to snuff and even those of us who tend to believe that the younger generation is in many ways better, more attuned people than we were at their age, find ourselves nodding along sometimes in the hubris of our “wisdom.” We make jokes about their concerns, tending to admire their passion while feeling a bit smug in the belief that we have dealt with much more serious issues.

But what incredible jerks we are. When I look at the world we adults have created, it’s a wonder they show us any respect at all: we’ve made an environmental crisis, concentration camps, grinding poverty, wage slavery, full prisons, and rampant obesity. What do we have to be proud of? It’s hard to argue that we are owed their respect, except in the sense that all humans are owned respect.

Oh sure, some of us have worked and are working to combat those things, but it’s clear that we are either too few or else criminally ineffective. No matter what we’ve done or plan to do, we are leaving the youth of today in a house ablaze.

Among our failures is an educational system that is borderline abusive, placing incredible burden on children to retain more and faster, according to an artificial schedule monitored by high stakes tests and standardized curricula. The result has been unprecedented levels of stress and mental illness. It’s almost as if, as a last ditch effort, we’ve turned to pounding on these kids in the hope of creating a generation that will save us from ourselves, only to find that we’re instead burning up their youth in an effort to make them in our own failed image.

Maybe it’s not the youth who need to start respecting us, but the other way around, and not simply because all humans are deserving of respect no matter how small, but rather because at this late date the kids are probably the only ones who have a chance of saving us from the mess we’ve made.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The “Real World”

I was one of the lucky ones. I was born into a family that loved and supported me. It wasn’t always perfect, of course, we’re all human, but my experience growing up  as a member of a family was overwhelmingly a positive one, a circumstance from which I, by all rights, should have never sought to escape.

But I did. Sometimes I would read a book or see a movie that made me imagine that life might be a little better if I could only break away, say to a desert island like the Swiss Family Robinson or a pirate ship like in Treasure Island or  some other adventure, anywhere, in fact, beyond the humdrum of my life of family, friends and school. Not that I didn’t generally  like those things, but sometimes, even when I was very young, it would occur to me that maybe that wasn’t enough. I think it had to do with my emerging notions of freedom, of wanting to no longer belong to the class of people we call children, but rather join the world as a fully-formed human, to test myself, to test my theories about the “real  world,” to see just how far I could make it on my own.

They weren’t serious thoughts, of course, I never tried to run away, for instance (although I sometimes pretended to), but I had these thoughts  nevertheless, despite living what most would have considered an idyllic life; one without particular dangers, where my physical and emotional needs were getting met, where I wasn’t subjected to the stresses of having to earn a living. As I got older, those feelings grew stronger until I found myself beating against what I’d come to see as a kind of  cage. By the time I was a middle schooler, I’d figured out that adults didn’t necessarily know more than I did: they had more experience, sure, but despite that they continued to live their lives in irrational ways, slaving away in a cycle of work-home-work that seemed devoid of meaning. But even worse, “they” (and by now I was starting to conflate “adults” with “society” or “the man”) were forcing us kids to live just as irrationally as they were. What was the point of school? We were never going to need most of this crap in our “real lives.” 

By any measure, we were a “happy family,” a classic nuclear unit, living in a series of suburbs. If we had financial or other difficulties, I was blissfully unaware of them, yet still the feeling grew, this urge to break away. In high school, it took the form of fleeing to my friends, a teenage hothouse, no less artificial than the one in which I’d been raised, but tasting like freedom. We imagined we did “real world” things together, sneaking out of the house, going places we’d been forbidden to go, experimenting with drink and sex, trying desperately to find what we imagined to be our adult selves in these hideouts where teenagers ruled. We thought it was the “real world.”

And then I went to the university. Here, we thought, we were finally free, only to discover after the initial rush of pirate ship excitement, that it was not much more than an extension of childhood. From my perspective today as a man approaching 60, I see that I spent the first third of my life in a kind of holding tank of family and school called childhood, waiting, waiting, waiting until the day I could finally, on my own terms, engage with the “real world.” Then once there, I see now that I continued to be crippled by the experience to the point that it was another decade, at least, before I finally felt like a full-fledged adult.

This notion of walling children off from the “real world” is really a rather new phenomenon. Even our modern concept of the nuclear family is one that didn’t really exist only a few generations ago as young humans were more likely to grow up in extended families, with lives full of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins of all ages. Children  were much more free, even from the very earliest, to roam their neighborhoods, towns, and villages on their own, to engage the “real world” on their own terms, to make their own friends, which often included adults, even adults our own parents didn’t know. Historically, the age of seven was widely considered to be the age of reason, and it wasn’t uncommon for children this young to have jobs (and yes, some were exploited,, but most joined the workforce, on their own terms, willingly) or apprenticeships, school was not mandatory, and children sometimes even emerged as leaders of men: scholars believe, for instance, that Lief Eriksson, the Viking discoverer of the North American continent, was likely a teenager when he set sail. That’s not far off my Treasure Island dreams.

Over the course of the last century, for better or worse, the traditional manner of raising children together, as a village, has faded away: most American children are growing up  thousands of miles from their grandparents, they are no longer free to roam, it’s incredibly rare for them to have adult friends of their own,  even their teachers are expected to maintain a professional distance as they become  increasingly walled-off from the real world. These hothouses of nuclear family and school are anomalies in the context of human existence. Yet we now consider an extended, protected, childhood to be normal, even as the children themselves know, even from within their idyllic lives,  that this new normal  has come at the cost of their freedom.

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Monday, June 24, 2019

What’s The Hurry?

I have spent my adult life trying to figure out why parents and society put themselves into a race -- what's the hurry? I keep trying to convey the pleasure every parent and teacher could feel while observing, appreciating and enjoying what the infant is doing. This attitude would change our educational climate from worry to joy. ~Magda Gerber

It seems to me that the greatest gift we can give to other people is to let them know we love them just as they are. That we've all heard this before in some version or other makes it no less profound and no less precious.

I think that's what we do when we simply let ourselves be with young children, without that sense of possession or protectiveness or responsibility that too often attends our interactions. It's in those moments of two humans simply being together that we convey this vital knowledge of unwavering love to even the youngest children, who themselves are then permitted to be, without the obligations that come with being possessed, protected, or a responsibility.

I'm grateful to such blog-o-sphere guides as Janet Lansbury and Lisa Sunbury who continue to educate me about the ideas of Magda Gerber, and it's this idea of sincerely and carefully observing (what I think I have previously understood incompletely as "waiting") that resonates the most with me. But this observation is an essentially academic act, I think, without our own appreciation and joy in what the infant is doing or what we are doing together. Not only do we ourselves come to a deeper understanding of the child, but it's only through this heartfelt appreciation and joy that we actually convey to children the unconditional love that is our gift.

It may seem strange, I suppose, for many of us to understand that we, at best, stand on the planet as equals with all the other people, including young children. We are each fully formed, fully valid, fully functional human beings no matter our age. Naturally, we have different lots in life, different blessings and challenges, and are on our way to different places, but we always remain, most of all, worthy of being loved for being exactly who we are.

Parents and teachers traditionally see our role as helpers, instructors or guides; agents for moving young children through the world from point A to point B along their developmental track, ticking off milestones in baby books or report cards like we might a shopping list, taking pride in each "accomplishment." We can't help but look ahead, to anticipating the next destination, worrying about the next bumpy patch, feeling guilty about our failings when we lose our way or fall behind schedule. It makes us impatient, lead-footed, prone to live outside the present moment as we move relentlessly toward a future. We forget to just be with our children as they are right now. That future child does not exist: this is the real child, the one before you right now, and she is perfect.

We are, in fact, at our best when we manage to successfully override those urges to help, instruct, or otherwise guide a young person and instead give him the space and time to struggle, to practice, to come to his own conclusions. This, not our superior experience or intellect, is the great gift we have to give to children: to stop, to really see who they are right now, and be with them in appreciation and joy, loving them just as they are.

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Sunday, June 23, 2019

Creating Connection In A Previously Disconnected World

“Teacher Tom, that tree is peeking out from behind those other trees.“ He made his observation as we sat together at the top of the playground. He enjoys telling me his observations, usually of the most mundane things, but often made poetic by his instinctive use of metaphor.

For instance, he once said, “That boy is an island,” while referring to a classmate who was standing up to his ankles in a stream of water run down the hill of our sand pit. “The clouds are building snowmen.” “That music is hitting my ears.” “My hair is making curtains on the side of my face.” It’s as poetic as it is descriptive.

I’m currently reading Peter Wohlleben’s bestselling book, The Hidden Life of Trees. It’s a fascinating read. At one level it’s a fairly mundane popularization of the science of trees and forests, covering everything you might want to know from seed to nurse log. On another level, however, it is magnificent metaphor. Instead of sticking strictly with “facts,” Wohlleben tells the story of trees as having friends and enemies, mothers and families, as suffering pain and joy. He writes of trees that have their own characters, of being bold or timid, generous or stingy. Wohlleben’s trees seem to have brains, capable of retaining memory, learning lessons, telling time, and having an ability to communicate and cooperate with one another. While it’s possible to dismiss it all as sentimental anthropomorphizing, it’s also impossible to ignore the clear similarities between the behaviors of trees and those of humans. And whether or not trees actually possess these traits and capabilities, his metaphors connect trees to human behaviors in a way that makes the stories he’s telling more poignant.

Wohlleben’s use of the metaphor of “migration” to detail how various species come to populate different regions over time, for instance, creates a story in a way that the dry scientific language never could. And, of course, it is intriguing to consider that trees may indeed have a social and emotional life similar to our own because in considering it, either as metaphor or fact, one is lead to insight and understanding far beyond what is possible to gain from more prosaic language.

Humans can hardly think without metaphor and simile. They allow us to compare our experiences with previous ones, finding parallels and shedding light, creating connection in a previously disconnected world, often in wonderful and surprising ways. Trees that peek out from behind other ones, boys who become islands; this is how we create our world. It is uniquely human, or, as Wohlleben makes me wonder, perhaps not.

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Thursday, June 20, 2019

Recombobulation Area

I’ll be traveling for the next couple weeks (which explains why I’ll be posting here at odd times). I started my journeys in Milwaukee where I was honored to speak at the Summer Spark Conference hosted by the University School of Milwaukee. I’m not the first to note that air travel can be a challenging experience: it took me almost a full day and three flights to get there from Seattle. Then on Wednesday morning, I set out on in the direction of Sydney, Australia, and another set of three, even longer flights. After passing through the TSA security line, carrying my shoes, belt, and jacket, I came to the sign in the photo at the top of this post.

Recombobulation Area.”  Nice. It cheered me up to be standing under it as I, appropriately, recombobulated myself alongside my fellow travelers who were likewise recombobulating.

We need more recombobulation areas in our world. We spend so much of our lives striving to be “combobulated,” but try as we might it can never last. Of course, our homes are such places, but you never know when you’ll find yourself discombobulated. Schools and places of work should definitely have such places set aside for when we, for whatever reason, lose it.

I expect I’ll be less combobulated than normal during the next couple weeks. If you want to come see me Down Under and help me get recombobulated, you can find my public events in New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria by clicking here and scrolling down. Hope to see you!

Here’s a note from my hosts at InspiredEC: 

If you are coming to one of Teacher Tom’s Australian events this month, please get in touch with InspiredEC ( for your coupon code. This will enable you to pre-order his book at a discounted price and collect it at the event! Pre-orders are closing soon. Be quick! If you haven’t booked, check out the events here!

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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Responsibility Of All Good People

The US government is running concentration camps on our southern border. (If you have any doubts about the truth of this statement, please, please click this link and read the article.) Thousands of people, many of whom are fleeing for their lives, are being imprisoned in these overcrowded camps simply for exercising their internationally recognized right to come to our border in search of asylum. I am not using the term “concentration camp” as a metaphor. I’m not using it hyperbolically to imply that these facilities share some similarities with actual concentration camps. These are full-on, actual concentration camps, by definition, which is the term for the mass detention of civilians without trail. And there are some 50,000 people currently imprisoned in our concentration camps.

These are not (yet) “death camps,” like those the Nazis ran at Auschwitz, although at least 30 people, including 6 children have died in them, but they are concentration camps nevertheless. In fact, the President intends to beginning using a place called Fort Sill in Oklahoma, a place that served as a concentration camp for Japanese-Americans the last time we succumbed to ignorance and fear during WWII. We said “never again,” yet here we are.

But this is about more than mere ignorance and fear: this is about an administration that is engaged in unabashed racist cruelty as policy. And these are not just concentration camps for adults: thousands of children have been kidnapped by these monsters, some as young as four months old, put into cages, and kept from their parents for months on end. Some have reportedly even been given up for adoption to American families. Many are sick. They are living in overcrowded filthy conditions. Perhaps these are not death camps, but this behavior is genocidal, and if we the people allow it to continue, I fear that it won’t be long before we will have actual death camps on our hands.

The President meanwhile makes jokes about shooting them. Funny guy. His is the face of pure evil. These are times of pure evil. And now that you know this, now that you cannot claim ignorance, if you continue to support this man, you are aiding and abetting evil in the same way the so-called “good” Germans aided and abetted the cruel policies of the Nazis. Indeed, even if you don’t support these monsters and their policies, if you remain silent, you too are aiding and abetting this evil. More children will have their lives destroyed, more will die. We cannot distance ourselves from this: it is being done in our name.

We must, each of us, stand up and speak out. Our representatives need to hear from us, our friends need to hear from us, our friends, neighbors, and co-workers need to hear from us. Please use your social media platforms, make phone calls, write emails. Lives have already been destroyed, so in that sense it is already too late, but it isn’t too late for someone. This is not a political matter — it is a matter of the highest moral urgency — but the only solution is political and raising holy hell is the responsibility of all good people.

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You’re Right, Your Child Is A Genius

Every parent I've ever met knows their child is a creative genius. Sometimes they come right out and say it, but most often I see it in their sense of awe as they share the stories, anecdotes about their kids. Sure, they most often frame it as "cute," but you can see it in their faces, in the tone of their voices, in the wide-eyed enthusiasm with which they talk about their kids that they are genuinely impressed and even amazed. One of the best parts of my job as a teacher in a cooperative preschool, in fact, is that I'm not just surrounded by these genius kids, but also by their parents who tend to be "turned on" by their children's genius. And as they spend time in the classroom working alongside me as assistant teachers they invariably get to know the other children and, in turn, become amazed by the creative genius of not just their own child, but all the children.

One could argue, of course, that this is just the parenting instinct at work. Certainly they aren't all creative geniuses. Certainly, true genius is as rare among preschoolers as it is among adult where it is found in a relatively small percentage of us. That may seem like the most likely explanation, but it's not, at least according scientists working for NASA who have found that a full 98 percent of the 4 and 5 year olds they tested fell into the category of "creative genius," while only two percent of adults do. And lest you think that this is just an isolated incident, the results have been replicated over and over again.

Sadly, these scientists have also found through longitudinal research that the percentage of creative geniuses falls to 30 percent by the time the kids are 10, 12 percent at 15, and a mere two percent among adults. The scientists who performed the research assert that it doesn't have to be that way, that virtually all of us could go through life as creative geniuses, but that our abilities have been systematically deadened by traditional schooling. I won't go that far. I believe there is something about the structure of society at large that tends to dumb us down with or without schooling, but it's something worth thinking about.

Here is a short TED talk by George Land, one of the authors of the study:

From the time I was a young man, I've always said that I didn't care how I spent my days just so long as I got to spend my time amongst "great brains." I did my time in academia and business, but it wasn't until I discovered my own child's genius that I realized that preschool is where the geniuses really are and that, perhaps more than anything else, is why I've stayed.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Job

It's been at least 20 years since I last slid down a slide. I sometimes sit in the swings at school, but if I actually swing it is only to go back and forth a couple of times before getting off. Likewise, I don't roll down grassy hills, play on merry-go-rounds, or enjoy seesaws. I did all of those things as a boy, of course, enthusiastically, and I have fond memories, but they have lost their savor in adulthood. Indeed, some of those things actually cause me pain and nausea. No, I've grown up, finally, and these are children's games.

That doesn't mean I've stopped playing, it's just that as an adult, I've learned what I need to learn from playgrounds. Last Friday, my wife and I went out dancing. I like figuring out what my body can do, what our bodies can do, especially to unfamiliar music. That's one of the ways I play as an adult. There are some video games I like; I like messing around in the kitchen; I'm a dilettante woodworker; I've even learned to enjoy travel, even if it is sometimes very hard for me. In many ways, when my life is working the way it should, it's all play: I'm doing what I want to be doing, trying things I haven't tried before, following my curiosity, meeting new people, failing, trying again, bickering, cooperating, sharing, living in the moment, and ultimately learning new things both about myself and my world.

That is the purpose of play, of course; it's our education instinct at work, but it's easy to lose track of it as an adult in our culture. We tend to see being an adult as being "responsible," which all too often means playing it safe, planning ahead, covering our bases, reducing risks, being reasonable, and avoiding, at all costs embarrassing mistakes. As a result, we learn less, becoming increasingly calcified in our habits and opinions, a vicious cycle that tends to manifest in doughy bodies, inflexible minds, and a world-weary suspicion that we've seen it all. One would think that a guy like me, someone who spends his days around children engaged in play, would be immune to it, but you would be wrong: just because the people around me are playing, it doesn't mean I am.

Just as play is the work of childhood, it is also the real work of adulthood. Our job in this life is not the thing we do to make money, it is not even the things we do for joy. Our real job, the job that we will never finish in this lifetime, is to learn a little more, to seek enlightenment, which is, I think, the adult word for education.

So while I'm not necessarily playing with the children I teach, if I'm doing it right, I am still playing: I'm in the here and now, observing, taking notes, loving, and trying to understand what I see and hear as these play experts slide down their slides and swing in their swings. Often, their moments of epiphany, and there are dozens every day on the playground if we only really pay attention, are also our moments of epiphany, one leading to the next in the open-ended nature of play. When I'm not doing that, when I'm watching the clock, when I become a mere manager of activities, I've forgotten that ongoing enlightenment is the job. But when I remember, that's when I'm an adult who plays.

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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