Friday, February 28, 2020

"Are You Okay?"

As the two-year-old boy tried to walk up a short, sand-dusted concrete slope, his feet slipped from beneath him. He fell forward onto the concrete. I saw it happen. He took a moment, still prone, to look around as if deciding if he was going to cry. When he saw me looking his way, his face wrinkled into a look of anguish and he let it out.

I walked to him. I usually walk in circumstances like this for the same reason I strive to maintain a calm expression: running conveys panic and the last thing I want to do is compound his pain with fear. Taking a seat on the ground beside him, I said, "You fell." Putting a hand on his back, I said, "I came to be with you."

When he cried louder, I asked, "Did you hurt your hands?"

He shook his head. I left some silence for him to fill with the details he wanted to share, but instead he filled it with crying.

"Did you hurt your tummy?"

He shook his head.

"Did you hurt your chin?"

This time he nodded, still crying.

I saw no mark on his chin, "It's not bleeding, but I can get you a bandaid."

He shook his head.

Another two-year-old boy had also seen it happen. He had joined us, looking from me to his classmate throughout the exchange. When I left more silence, this boy decided to fill it, almost as if showing me the proper formula, bending down and asking, "Are you okay?" This is what adults say to a fallen child, a phrase I've struck from my own lexicon figuring that an injured child will let me know soon enough if he's hurt without my planting of the idea with that question. In this moment, however, from a two-year-old's lips, I heard it as a courtesy, like saying "Please," "Thank you," and "How are you?"

He still cried, but not with the intensity of before, notching it down to a breathy, moaning, head up, his fingers tracing paths in the dusting of sand that had been his undoing.

Yet another two-year-old boy joined us. He had not seen what had happened, and asked me, "Why is he crying?"

I replied, "He fell and hurt his chin."

"I'm a doctor."

I asked the boy who had fallen, "Do you need a doctor?"

He shook his head. There were three of us now in a circle around our friend who was winding down his cry, finishing it.

The boy who had asked "Are you okay?" took what the older kids sometimes call "the easy way" up the short slope, a path in the dirt that circumvents the concrete part, intending, I thought, to go about his play. Perhaps that had been the plan, but he stopped and turned to check on his friend, saying once more, "Are you okay?"

This time his friend nodded. His cry had become a soft whimper. I said, "You're not crying now." He didn't respond. His fingers fiddled with the sand until they found a twig which he bent and twisted. I had been sitting beside him. I said, "I'm going to get up now," which I did. I had a vague idea that I was role modeling a possible next step for him, but he didn't immediately follow my lead. Instead, my place was taken by the doctor who sat, as I had done, silently beside him. We're always role modeling, but we can't pick what they will chose to imitate -- or even who will do the imitating.

I kept an eye on the situation from a few feet away. There was some conversation between the boys, but I couldn't hear it. The boy who had taken the easy way up, then climbed to the top of the concrete slide and slid down before circling back to the scene of the fall.

By now, the boy who had fallen had completely finished his cry and was on his feet. There was more discussion amongst the three boys that I didn't hear, but judging from the body language, I'm guessing it was either about the fall or about how to best navigate the short, sand-dusted slope. Then, the two boys who had come to their friend's aid, ascended via the easy way. The boy who had fallen, however, tacked the concrete slope. His boot slipped a bit, but this time he made it without injury. He then ran back down and tried it again, then again, four times in all before he moved on.

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Thursday, February 27, 2020

Human Skills

In today's stereotypical American family, the parents go off to work each morning and the children go off to school. They spend most of their waking hours apart, then come back together after a long, hard day of doing things they would rather not be doing, usually with the energy to do little more together than sleep.

This might not describe your family. It doesn't describe mine, but for millions, this is the way it works. Oh, we tend to like our jobs, more or less, with some 70 percent reporting that they are at least somewhat satisfied, and I think most young kids will tell you they like their school, but if given the choice of being apart all day or being together, I think it's a pretty safe bet that most of us would rather have more time with our loved ones. Yet this isn't a choice that most of us have. Indeed, it's considered "normal" that we spend our days apart from our loved ones even if it's a historical anomaly. Indeed, for most of the existence of Homo sapiens, it was not only a given that we spent our days with, or at least near, our immediate families, but our extended families as well, including siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. This is the way we've evolved to live.

This is a significant shift, a relatively recent one that is driven by the economy more than anything else, and I can't help but wonder how this is changing who we are. I suppose at one level, one can argue that this phenomenon is a testament to our amazing human ability to cooperate through specialization. There was a time in human history when pretty much everyone had to know pretty much everything that comprised human knowledge: we all had to be able to, say, know how to identify eatable plants, predict the weather, and defend ourselves against predators. Today, most of us know little about these things because other humans have become specialists and we count on them to do it for us, just as we ourselves have specialized in things that we do on their behalf. Perhaps child care is becoming another of those things that we don't all have to know about. We already seem to be well on our way to creating a class of citizens who specialize in child care while a generation of parents are left to rely upon them even as, at some deeper level, they worry about what they are missing.

And I think it is something to worry about. Raising other humans, caring for them, nurturing them, educating them, and being educated by them is a pretty fundamental thing. In the business world, it's pretty much assumed that machines, and specifically those that operate based upon artificial intelligence, will be increasingly taking over many of the jobs that humans are doing today. If you take time to dig into the predictions, you'll find that most experts see that what they call "human skills" or "soft skills" are going to become increasingly important: things like flexibility and adaptability, the ability to prioritize, the capacity to work well with a team, empathy, communication skills, leadership ability, innovation and creativity, conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and negation and persuasion. There is no better way to learn human skills than to raise a human. At the same time, human resource executives have seen a decline in these skills over the last several decades. New employees may have excellent technical or data skills, but are otherwise in human skills lacking compared to past generations. I would assert that this phenomenon is at least in part both the cause and effect of this crazy experiment in breaking up our families in the name of the economy.

Human skills aren't just necessary for the workplace. These are the skills that make us human. They are essential for any future we hope to have. Families are where we best learn these human skills and no amount of after-the-fact worker training will replace them: these are not things one can learn from weekend workshops or a series of e-courses. If businesses are really interested in "training" their workers of tomorrow, they will have to become serious about the family life of their employees, and do whatever they can to support them in bringing their children back to the center of their day-to-day lives. 

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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Paying Attention To A Bead On The Floor

I was waiting at my gate at Vancouver International Airport when I noticed a small, white bead rolling through the concourse. It occurred to me that it might not be a bead, but rather some sort of candy. Too small for a gum ball, but maybe one of those little sour things.

Whatever it was, it had been dropped and then kicked, probably inadvertently, and was now traveling smoothly, like a marble along the ground. It slowed, but didn’t stop where I thought it might, instead finding an invisible track in the apparently not entirely level flooring. But even so, it did finally find a low point and settle in. I decided to watch it.

Although it was a busy terminal, the bead or bon bon had found a relatively protected spot, not directly in the midst of the hurrying feet, but off to the side where a clutch of middle-aged men were waiting impatiently for boarding to begin. They created a sort of diversionary protection causing people to walk around them and therefore the bead. What a lucky thing, I thought, to find just this spot. Anywhere else and the poor bead would be kicked along according to the fates.

Inevitably, however, I knew it would be kicked along, the odds of that happening, I figured, were close to 100 percent. And sure enough, my waiting and watching paid off as a woman pulling a roller bag emerged from the Starbucks across the way and made a beeline for the bead. She was on her phone, head up, not watching her feet. Why would she be watching her feet? It was a flat, dry floor, the kind of walking surface on which one needn’t be especially attentive. She got closer, closer, closer, then, Rats! she missed it, by centimeters. 

I realized then that I was rooting for the bead to be kicked along. As I watched and waited, a few other people came close, then one guy stepped directly on it with the ball of his foot. It moved a little, then settled back into its divot. If this was a piece of candy it was a real jaw breaker to have survived the full weight of a grown man. Then it happened, someone caught it with their toe, not solidly, but enough that it traveled several feet, getting itself amidst the shoes of the waiting men.

This was it, I thought, now all bets are off. This bead was going to be traveling again soon. And I was right as it began to move about according to the shuffling feet, then a heel caught it and it went skittering into the middle of the concourse, unprotected, where it found another low spot in the floor. I was sure I’d lose track of it now, but despite being out there amidst things it managed to continue dodging all those feet by simply remaining still and small. 

Finally, a family approached, the mother holding the hand of her son, who was doing his best to keep up with her, walking a few steps, then running, then skipping, then going on his tip toes. He noticed the bead as they approached. I could see him trying to wriggle free of mom’s hand in order to stoop for it, but she held tight, scolding him absently. He forced her to slow down as they got to the bead by leaning back against her momentum, the sort of machination that causes so many parents to have shoulder pain, took aim, and gave it a kick. The bead skittered ahead a few paces where it awaited a second kick. This time, the boy made full contact and the bead rocketed ahead, careened off someone’s shoe and disappeared, probably winding up under a piece of furniture where it would remain until a future deep-cleaning of the concourse.

Only the boy and I had noticed that bead, an inanimate object that nevertheless sought out low points. The boy had made a conscious effort to impact the life of this bead, while I only observed. Meanwhile, many more people had impacted the “life” of this bead without knowing it, an accident of them going about their lives.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Learning To Keep Ourselves And Our Friends Safe

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 decade with swings, since our move to the Center of the Universe, we never 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 saw during my nearly two decade 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 when we feel we must teach them to live within our catastrophic imaginations.

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Monday, February 24, 2020

Isn't It Also Belittling To Children?

There was an old hamster wheel in our classroom. Most of the children had no idea what it was, but it was nevertheless an endlessly popular plaything. Someone was forever spinning it or turning it upside down to roll on the floor or otherwise employing it in their games. Over the years, I saw it used as a part of block castles, as a bulldozer in the sensory table, as a Ferris wheel for little people, as a play dough tool, and as a way to apply paint to paper. One boy spent weeks using it as a kind of impromptu puzzle, taking it apart, then putting it back together again.

Over the years, I watched hundreds of children play with it for the first time. They would mess with it for a few minutes, quickly figuring out that they could spin it, then take it from there, employing it in an endless variety of ways. In nearly two decades of playing with the hamster wheel, not a single child, ever, asked "What is this thing?" On occasion, however, a well-intended adult would take it upon themself to provide this information. "You know what that is?" they would ask, "It's a hamster wheel," and then proceed to go into detail about how and why. Time and again, I witnessed this and almost invariably the result was that the child quit playing with it. I'll never forget one girl in particular who had been using the hamster wheel as a kind of corral to hold her favorite little ponies. Upon receiving the "facts," she asked, "Do we have any hamsters here?" When she was told no, the girl expressed disappointment, saying, "Then why do we have this?" She then literally kicked the hamster wheel aside, collected her ponies, and took them elsewhere.

Maybe it's because we call ourselves teachers or educators (and all that implies) that we feel the need to do this to children. We spy them playing, engaged in a self-selected activity, and feel compelled to insert ourselves with our unsolicited information, advice, ideas, or jokes. Everyone is annoyed by "mansplaining," that phenomenon that causes some guys to feel that the rest of us, especially if we are women, are just waiting to be enlightened from their special store of wisdom and experience. Isn't that exactly what we're doing when we feel we must insert ourselves into children's play in the name of a "teachable moment" or "scaffolding" or "extending the play?" The children are already demonstrating their unique mastery of the moment, asking and answering their own questions, directing their own learning, not asking anyone for help. That should be enough, but too often we presume that it is our job to enlighten them from our special store of wisdom and experience. If it's belittling to do this to adults, isn't it also belittling to children?

The moment we interrupt to say, "This is a hamster wheel," we rob children of their game, converting it from a project of imagination into one of humdrum, diverting them from their creative exploration of the unknown into the well-trodden realm of the known. We reduce their world, in a second, from one of castles and corrals and bulldozers and Ferris wheels into a mere hamster wheel, a simple machine designed for rodents to run round and round without getting anywhere.

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Friday, February 21, 2020

"Make A Break For It, Kids!"

I want thank Peter Greene, the proprietor of Curmudgucation, one of my favorite education blogs, for sharing the following, stomach churning quotes from business leaders speaking about education:

"The workforce pipeline begins with quality early education." ~Gil Minor, retired Fortune 200 CEO

"I'm not sure public schools understand that we're their customers--that we, the business community, are your customer. What they don't understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation." ~Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil and former US Secretary of State

I wish these businessmen were Dickensian outliers, sociopathic aberrations who in no way speak for the business community writ large, but they aren't. They probably don't represent all business people, but they represent the dominant strain of corporate thought about our children: that they are products to be consumed by business and education is how we fatten them up. I'm sure they don't say these things about their own children, but they are saying them about yours and mine. And our policymakers listen to them.

As Utah Phillips famously ranted while speaking to an audience of graduating students:

"You are about to be told one more time that you are America's most valuable natural resource. Have you seen what they do to valuable natural resources? Have you seen a strip mine? Have you seen a clear cut in the forest? Have you seen a polluted river? Don't ever let them call you a valuable natural resource! They're going to strip mine your soul. They're going to clear cut your best thoughts for the sake of profit unless you learn to resist."

And that is what I expect our schools to do: to teach our children that it is not just their right, but their responsibility to resist those who would put them into pipelines, consume them, or otherwise reduce them to their economic roles. It’s time to start warning our children. As Phillips cried out as he was being dragged to the door by men in suits, "Make a break for it, kids! Flee to the wilderness . . . The one within if you can find it."

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