Thursday, April 30, 2020

Understanding Must Precede Algorithms and Rules



It seems that a lot of our neighbors have lately added pets to their lives. Everywhere I go, there are puppies straining at the ends of their leashes, impulsively lurching after an up close sniff of whatever has caught their attention. Often it's me they want to get at. Of course, their owners hold them back, usually apologizing, sometimes feebly saying something like, "Leave it."

Personally, I enjoy when these balls of fluff frolic against my shins, but I likewise know that responsible dog owners teach their puppies to "leave it," especially when the "it" in question is a human being. But for now they are all driven to get as close as they can, to invade my personal space in order to engage their sense of smell. It's part of dog culture, so to speak, which is never more clearly on display than when we're at the off-leash areas where there is no delicacy about nosing into even the most private nooks of personal space. I'm sure there are exceptions, but most dogs don't seem to naturally require, nor do they naturally respect, personal space. It's something about which they must learn.

Although, I wonder if they ever really "learn" it. Sure, dogs can be trained to keep their distance from humans unless invited, but I doubt they ever understand what it's all about. They've learned that their beloved human wants them to keep their distance. They might have learned that there is a punishment connected to forgetting or a reward offered for remembering. They may have even transcended the carrot-and-sticks paradigm and internalized it as "good dog" behavior, but I doubt they ever come to comprehend why. Their brains, being dog brains, are simply incapable of grasping our human concept of the sanctity of personal space, even as they are capable of heeding the "rules" surrounding it.

When it comes to dogs, that's probably good enough, but too often, it seems, we adults act as if this is good enough for children as well. The other day, a child at the supermarket was repeatedly, and joyfully, shrieking in the sort of high pitched way that only toddlers can. His mother shushed him several times, but it only stuck for a few seconds before he would begin shrieking again. Finally, she leaned into his stroller and said motioning toward me apologetically, "When you scream like that it hurts other people's ears." That did the trick: she had given him the why instead of just the rule and his brain was clearly ready to understand. 

This reliance upon rules as a replacement for understanding, especially when it comes to teaching children, is pervasive. Indeed, that's the way mathematics is most frequently taught. Children memorize algorithms that will lead to the correct answer whether they understand the concepts or not. We drill three-year-olds how to sound out words before they're capable of actually reading. This is what standardized tests measure, not understanding, but whether or not certain rules have been internalized. We instruct children in such classroom rigors as walking in lines, raising hands, and sitting on their bottoms, then we wonder why so many of them persist in breaking those rules. So we scold, cajole and punish until they know they must do those things even if they don't understand why.

Teachers are in the business of understanding and understanding must precede algorithms and rules. When a child understands that what he is doing hurts the ears of others, he then understands why he shouldn't shriek inside the supermarket. It's not until a child is capable of understanding that letters and numbers are abstractions that represent words and numbers that he can actually understand reading, writing, and ciphering. It's not until a child's brain has developed beyond a certain level of self-centeredness that they understand that raising hands is a fair way to make sure everyone gets a turn. (I still don't understand walking in lines and sitting on bottoms, except as crude crowd control measures, something in which I've never been interested.)

Sometimes as adults we must rely upon rules because the children for whom we are responsible are not yet developmentally ready for understanding, although whenever we find ourselves relying too much on rules, we must ask ourselves if what we are expecting of the children is appropriate. I mean, if we need rules and algorithms, then maybe the kids simply aren't capable of understanding and we're just, at best, wasting everyone's time. Then all we're really teaching is obedience and I think that's an immoral and dangerous thing to do.

This is why we leave children to their play. This is why we strive to create environments in which they can explore, experiment, question and discover without requiring a slew of adult mandated rules. We want them to start with understanding, in their own way, in their own time, and according to their current capabilities, which is to say their developmental stage. It's only from there that the algorithms and rules will ever make any sense at all.

******

My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Bookis at the printers! We're offering a pre-publication discount through May 18. I'm incredibly proud of it. And while you're on the site, you can also find my first book, Teacher Tom's First Book, at a discount as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.

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!
Bookmark and Share
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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

We Could Not Pick a Better Time



Yesterday, I read that the President wants state governors to "seriously consider and maybe get going on opening schools." It wasn't a surprise, of course, given that he's been advocating for a rapid end to our nationwide quarantine. As anyone who has been reading here knows, I'm more concerned about the social-emotional toll this is taking on us, than I am either the disease itself or the economy, so I'm keen to resume at least some of our normal activities sooner rather than later. But this hit me square between the eyes.

They want the schools to re-open, not because they're concerned about education, not because they're concerned about children, and certainly not because they give a damn about teachers, but because without child care, the economy cannot restart. That's right, the entire economy is built on our backs. I'm not necessarily saying that preschool teachers and child care workers across the nation should come together, draw up a list of demands, then refuse to return to work until they are met, but if we did, we could not pick a better time. The moment we go back to "normal," society can go back to taking us for granted, but right now, as a profession, we've never had more leverage.

We all know our profession is broken. A full one half of Americans live in what are called "child care deserts," areas in which there are three or more children for every available spot. And where spots are available, they tend to be very expensive, with families around here paying close to $2,000 per month per child. That's the law of supply and demand, right? When demand is high and supply is low, prices go up. But at the same time, we are facing a nationwide teacher shortage, especially in the early years, in part because the pay is so low. Preschool teachers in our state make an average of $25,000 per year. Those are poverty wages. Supply and demand isn't working for us. Our profession is broken and the economy depends on us returning to work as soon as possible.

Caring for children is the central project of every human society that has ever existed, yet it's hard to imagine how we could have shoved our children any farther from the center. Our profession is low paid and low status. It is physically and emotionally taxing. We are abused by ignorant politicians and indignant parents. Our work is vitally important in ways far beyond our contribution as one of the cornerstones of the economy: we are, as John Dewey wrote, the midwives of democracy. Yet, we are treated, at best, like afterthoughts.

Right now, a generation of parents is getting an education on the work we do as they are on point for caring for their own children. Right now, an entire economy hinges on us returning to work. Right now, there is an opportunity for us to address some of the brokenness of our profession. Most of the early years professionals I know are as eager as I am to get back to work, but if we had the collective will, we could use this unique moment to insist upon change. It's pie-in-the-sky, I know, but a boy can dream, can't he?

In all likelihood, we'll go right back to business as usual. I know that, even as I also know it sounds cynical. But I, for one, am pointing these dynamics out to anyone who will listen. The economy cannot re-open without us. Democracy cannot function without us. Never again should people be allowed to treat us as sweet little puddin' heads who can find nothing better to do with our professional lives than spend it in the low status, low paying ghettos that we've created for our youngest citizens. Never again should they be allowed to take us for granted.

As long as the preschools and child cares are closed, the economy cannot fully re-open.  I'm not necessarily saying that preschool teachers and child care workers across the nation should come together, draw up a list of demands, then refuse to return to work until they are met, but if we did, we could not pick a better time.

******


My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Book, is at the printers! We're offering a pre-publication discount through May 18. I'm incredibly proud of it. And while you're on the site, you can also find my first book, Teacher Tom's First Book, at a discount as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.


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, April 28, 2020

"Stop Using Teacher Talk!"



When our daughter went off to kindergarten, I essentially stayed behind to become a preschool teacher. I had a lot to learn, of course, I still do, but at the time I was working on the language piece of the technology of treating children like human beings. I was working on changing a lifetime of bad habits, moving away from adult language that treats children as subordinates toward a way of speaking that gives them the respect we all deserve.

It wasn't easy. I often came off as stilted and slow as I wrestled with my instincts, working to replace my old way to speaking with a new, more thoughtful manner. I practiced constantly, even at home. One day as I struggled to inelegantly convert what was going to be a command into an informational statement, our then six-year-old grew frustrated, shouting, "Stop using teacher talk!"

I knew what she meant. She didn't like her own father to sound strange and artificial, which is how everyone sounds as they learn this stuff. I answered, "I know it sounds weird, but I'm trying to not boss you around." I went on to explain that most of the sentences adults say to children are phrased as commands and that I was trying to stop doing that by instead giving her the chance to do her own thinking. I'll never forget the look on her face as the idea clicked for her. Indeed, she liked it so much that she said that she would help me by pointing out every time I slipped up.

And she did. For the rest of her childhood, she would inform me when I was being bossy. It was at times irritating, but it turned out that she was my best teacher. She would wait while I converted to an informational statement. She liked the way those informational statements, the loose parts of language, opened up space in which she could to do her own thinking, make her own decisions, and offer her own ideas on the subject at hand. I liked the way she took it so seriously, knowing that this wan't a parent-child relationship like those of her friends, but rather one where we were working together as humans beings do when they are at their best.

Over the last couple decades, with her help, it's become more natural to me, although I still slip up at times. Parents often refer to my ability to work cooperatively with children as "Teacher Tom magic," but I quickly disabuse them of that notion. This is why I refer to it as "technology," the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. The pertinent difference being that with magic, once you've revealed how it is done, it stops working, whereas with technology, the more everyone understands how it works, the better it works.

In a broader sense, this is called transparency. Whether it's as adults working with children, employers working with employees, or elected representatives working with constituents, transparency is the magic that turns adversarial relationships into cooperative ones.

******

If you want to learned more about the technology of speaking with children, you're in luck! I'm currently working on a 6-part e-course in which I'll pull back the curtain to reveal all the secrets. It should be ready by mid-May, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, you might want to check out my new book . . .


Teacher Tom's Second Book. We're offering a pre-publication discount through May 18. Books should arrive before the end of May in the US and a little later in Canada. And while you're on our site, you can also purchase my first book, Teacher Tom's First Book, at a discount as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. As you can see, I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.

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!
Bookmark and Share
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Monday, April 27, 2020

The Secret to Being a Parent




There is scant evidence that the little things we do as parents, be it co-sleeping or tiger mommy-ing, have much of a predictable impact on how our children turn out. I have my opinions about parenting trends and can't help but feel that some of them have the potential to do damage, while others have the potential to do good, but the truth is that the world is so large and complex and our children are so human and complex that we can simply never know. Most, I expect, have no impact one way or another.

When our daughter was around three months old, my wife and I had come to our wit's ends over her sleep, or lack thereof. She seemed to doze all day and wake all night. We tried every sleep technique we could find, including having her in bed with us, beside us, rocking her to sleep, nursing her to sleep, we even tried putting her bassinet on top of the running clothes dryer for a few days (which worked until the end of the cycle). We finally tried a version of "cry it out." I've never admitted this in public before because the technique has such a bad reputation amongst readers here, but for us, after about 15 minutes of fussing, she slept through the night on the first attempt. I'll never forget my wife and me lurching awake the following morning, panicked that we hadn't heard a peep from in her several hours, only to find her in her bed, eyes open, gurgling happily.

From that moment, she was a solid, even an eager sleeper. She never fought bedtime or nap time. In fact, she would often tell us, "It's time to go night night." Most mornings she would lie in bed singing for twenty minutes or so before she called us in to her room with a cheery, "I wanna wake up now!" It was a daily concert played over the baby monitor that made our mornings a joy. The only reason she stopped taking daily two hour naps was that her kindergarten schedule didn't permit it, otherwise I think she would have continued napping right through elementary school. For years, we credited this phenomenon to our use of "cry it out," but then I started hearing horror stories from other parents about how traumatic the technique was for them and their child, how they felt it was emotionally neglectful or even abusive. So our use of the technique became a secret I didn't share even though when we we tried it it had "worked" even better than the proponents said it would.

Did we get lucky? Maybe. No one really knows and I'm definitely not recommending this technique to anyone. Indeed, had it not "worked" on the first attempt, I expect we would have abandoned it, but like I said, we were at our wit's ends and trying everything. We twist ourselves into knots as parents, stewing, scheming, and anguishing over the little things we're doing, and we should because those little things make up the day-to-day substance of our relationship with our children. It's important for us to be the kinds of parents, the kinds of people, we want to be. I imagine that had my wife and I done nothing, however, had we not cast about for "solutions," had we not resorted to this version of "cry it out," our child would have slept through the night anyway because she was simply ready to start sleeping through the night.

As the parent of a young adult, I look around at the children of the parents who were my contemporaries. Most of their kids have turned out to be personable, self-motivated adults. Some, however, are struggling in life, one way or another, still casting about for who they are or what they want to be. A few seem to be headed for trouble. But when I look at those parents, those people around whom I spent a good part of the last couple decades, I judge some to have been "good parents" and some to have been "bad parents," yet I can see no consistent connection between their parenting and the kinds of young adults their children have become. The good and bad parenting simply doesn't seem to have come into play.

Contemporary parenting has become more stressful that it has ever been in the long, long history of parents. There are too many "shoulds," and those shoulds change with the publication of each new parenting book. There are too many prophecies (and that's really what they amount to) about how this parenting technique or that parenting technique will lead to this or that desirable trait. And through it all, children grow into the adults sometimes right in line with what the books promise, but just as often their path takes them to places not anticipated by the theories.

If I had one wish for every new parent it is that they would know that parenting is not a job, it's a relationship. If we love our children, if we tell them we love them through our words and deeds, if we do our best to keep them safe, and if we help them when they let us know they need help, then we will be doing everything we need to do as parents. In the metaphor of the developmental psychologist and author Alison Gopnik, we are gardeners: we plant the seed, we protect it, and make sure it gets enough sun and water, but the sprouting, the leafing, the growing, the budding, the flowering, and the fruiting is all up to the plant.

Being a parent is a relationship and it's not just the children who grow. We are plants in the garden as well, always growing according to the garden of love in which we find ourselves.

As Mister Rogers wrote: "When we love a person, we accept him or her exactly as is: the lovely with the unlovely, the strong along with the fearful, the true mixed in with the facade, and of course, the only way we can do it is by accepting ourselves that way." What makes a difference is the love.

******

This is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.

. . . Or even better . . . 

Order my brand new book entitled Teacher Tom's Second Book. We're offering a pre-publication discount through May 10. Books should arrive before the end of May in the US and a little later in Canada. And while you're on our site, you can also purchase my first book, Teacher Tom's First Book, at a discount as well.

Or maybe you would like to sign up up for Partnering With Parents a 7-part e-course designed to help you make allies of the parents of the children you teach. 

Thank you for reading!


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!
Bookmark and Share
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Friday, April 24, 2020

The Plague, Human Love, and Our Common Fate



When I travel, I like to read a book that is set in my destination. For instance, I read Death in Venice while in Venice. One could get more up to date information from tour guides, of course, but there is something about reading fiction about a place, while in a place, that for me lends an atmosphere and insight to the experience of travel that non-fiction simply cannot. Reading about Gustav von Aschenbach commuting by gondola, then going out for a ride in a gondola made me feel like I was part of not only a place but an era in a way that mere visiting could not. Gustav described it as "the most comfortable seat on earth" and, for me, that day, it was. When I wound up in bed for two days with food poisoning, I felt as if I was actually living the experience of dying in Venice. It's less romantic than it sounds, but it's a memory I'll always cherish.

Sadly, we've all had to place our wanderlust on hold for the time being, but when the computer screen grows tedious, fiction never does. So, in the spirit of reading fiction about an experience while having a similar experience, I decided to re-read Albert Camus' novel The Plague. It's been decades since I first read it. My memory was of a heavy handed, somewhat tedious use of plague as a metaphor for existential angst. I recall skimming long sections of the book. I mean, how much is there to say about the plague: it's bad alright, and dull, and frightening, but couldn't the characters do something besides talk and think and live the plague? But reading it from the perspective of now, I found myself clinging to every word, to every nuance of the characters' thoughts and feelings, and identifying with every twist and turn of the endless dialog about their common fate to be quarantined together, an entire city of several hundred thousand, on the northern coast of Algeria, with the Black Death.


The narrator Rieux writes: "There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise." And yes, we've always known a pandemic was possible, and while we have reason to have expected our elected representatives to be less surprised than they apparently were, the fact that this has taken us collectively by surprise is in the nature of the plague. It's also in the nature of the plague that no one really knows what to do about it. I mean, of course, we've known for centuries that some version of quarantine or social distancing is the only way to slow these things down, but still, none of us, not even the experts, know what lies ahead of us.

As I read, I found myself taking comfort in knowing that what we are experiencing right now is not unique. Humans have lived through plague before and, as horrible as it is, it is one of the few things that can fully and completely unify us. Indeed, unity is the only way through it. Even as we argue, and even as there are those who still wish to somehow shirk their responsibility, we have no choice but to recognize that " . . . once the town gates were shut, every one of us realized that all . . . were in the same boat, and each would have to adapt himself to the new conditions of life. Thus, for example, a feeling normally as individual as the ache of separation from those one loves suddenly became a feeling in which we all shared alike."

"(T)his business is everybody's business," says Rambert a journalist from another town who had believed he was trapped in the city unfairly, but who came to recognize that he shared the common fate, giving up his plans of escape, volunteered for a position on the "front lines" caring for the sick. We're not today trapped in a single city with this particular pandemic, but we are nevertheless all in this together. The entire world is today struggling toward this realization.

It's through unity that we fight plague. We have no other choice, which is why those who are refusing, who are still impotently hammering at the gates to be let out, are so infuriating. This is not about an out of control government trampling our freedoms, it's the virus that's doing that. The only escape is through one another. Humans can do this, of course, because cooperation, even of the involuntary variety, is our greatest evolutionary strength, but there will always be those who are brought to it kicking and screaming.

"However, there's one thing I must tell you: there's no question of heroism in all this. It's a matter of common decency. That's an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is common decency." As I stand in well-spaced queues of my fellow citizens wearing their masks and keeping their well-washed hands to themselves, each still reeling from the surprise, each mourning what they have lost, each not knowing what will happen next, I see that common decency is indeed more common that I might have guessed before all this.

"They knew now that if there is one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love." Plague strips us of our security, our status, our routines, and to an extent, our individuality, leaving us as both more and less human. And while I am not anticipating that our current pandemic will drive humanity to the grim ends of which Camus writes, I can see better now what I've long suspected, that it is human love, and that only, that can stand against plague.

******

This is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.

. . . Or even better . . . 

Order my brand new book entitled Teacher Tom's Second Book. We're offering a pre-publication discount through May 10. Books should arrive before the end of May in the US and a little later in Canada. And while you're on our site, you can also purchase my first book, Teacher Tom's First Book, at a discount as well.

Or maybe you would like to sign up up for Partnering With Parents a 7-part e-course designed to help you make allies of the parents of the children you teach. 

Thank you for reading!


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!
Bookmark and Share
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Thursday, April 23, 2020

When We Choose to Not Pounce on "Teachable Moments"




"Don't worry Leon, you can always make some more blood."

I heard Luke say it in passing, consoling his friend, as I was on my way to somewhere else. Not having heard what came before or after, it struck me as both hilarious and intriguing. I couldn't help but try to bring it up again. When next Luke and I met on the playground, I said, "You can always make some more blood."

"It's true, Teacher Tom! Your heart pumps and makes more blood. That's why you don't run out when you bleed." Luke knows a little something about bleeding. "And you know what else? Blood is really blue."

I was sitting on the ground with Audrey and a couple of other kids. Audrey interrupted, "No, blood is red."

"No, really," Luke said, turning to her persuasively, "It's blue inside, but when it comes out it looks red."

"Luke, it's red. I've seen it."

"No really, it's true, it's blue."

I thought I could clarify. "I think what Luke is saying is that blood looks blue when it's inside our body. See my vein?" I showed her my inner wrist. "Doesn't it look blue? Veins are how blood flows in our bodies."

Luke supported me, "That's right, Teacher Tom. That's what I'm saying."

But Audrey had other information. "No, that means the blood is flowing to your heart, and it's red when it flows away from your heart. That's the way blood flows: around and around." She drew a circle in the air with her finger.

Some of the other kids were fascinated with studying the visible veins in their wrists and I was distracted into that conversation, but the science debate continued between our two experts. By the time I re-focused on them Luke was saying, "I guess we're both right."

And Audrey replied, "Yeah, we're both right."


Friendship won out over being right, but not over science. Luke was, of course, correct in his assertion that blood inside the body -- as seen through the skin which reflects blue, but absorbs colors of other wavelengths -- appears blue to the human eye. And, of course, that is the nature of color: we only see what is reflected. It's why everything appears to be the same color, black, in the pitch dark. Audrey was correct in her assertion that blood flowing away from the heart tends to be a brighter red because it is highly oxygenated, while on its return trip it tends to be a sort of purplish-red because it is oxygen-depleted. 

It's tempting, as an adult with a little more information, to step in and correct the flaws in their arguments, to give them the correct, or more correct, or more complete answer. This is the sort of conversation that we so often pounce on as a "teachable moment," but I chose to let them conclude like this. Science is built on inquiry and collegial debate, just like this one. (The angry debate is for politicians and theologians who are too often more invested in winning arguments than understanding)

Luke and Audrey came to the table with essentially true, but incomplete information, which is how we all go through life every day. They each walked away with a little more truth, but their knowledge, like that of all of us, remains incomplete. That is what drives the educated mind, not the knowledge, but the incompleteness, the wanting to know. Education is about discovery. It is about knowing, I can think and find answers. When we leap in with our grown-up "knowledge" we too often rob children of what makes science, or anything for that matter, worth pursuing.

******

This is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donate button below.

. . . Or even better . . . 

Order my brand new book entitled Teacher Tom's Second Book. We're offering a pre-publication discount through May 10. Books should arrive before the end of May in the US and a little later in Canada. And while you're on our site, you can also purchase my first book, Teacher Tom's First Book, at a discount as well.

Or maybe you would like to sign up up for Partnering With Parents a 7-part e-course designed to help you make allies of the parents of the children you teach. 

Thank you for reading!


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!
Bookmark and Share
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Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Why Children Must Bicker as They Play Together





One of the things Seattle's teachers won in their most recent strike was a commitment from the school district that elementary school students would receive a minimum of 30 minutes of recess per day. In fairness, some schools were already providing more than that, but there were several, apparently, that were limiting their youngest students to a meager 15 minutes. Even so, it was disheartening to this play-based educator to learn that a half hour is considered a victory.


The ostensible reason for such pathetically restricted recess is that longer recesses cut into that all-important "classroom time," but I also heard that some administrators favor limited or non-existant recess because when children freely play they are more likely to wind up in conflicts.


Let me be the first to say, "Duh."

As a teacher in a school that engages in no direct instruction, but rather bases its curriculum on the evidence of how children learn best, which is through their own self-directed play, I'm here to tell you that conflict stands at the center of how learning happens. Our entire school day is, for all intents and purposes, recess, and yes, much of what the children are doing while playing both indoors and out is bicker.


For adults interested in eliminating bickering, I would say that 15 minutes is about right: it usually takes the children at least that long just to figure out what they're going to do, which, in a robust classroom like ours, with lots of kids with lots of agendas engaging with shared and limited resources, is typically followed by a period of often intense negotiation that often shows up as conflict.


For instance, a group of four and five-year-olds, mostly boys, found themselves playing together with a collection of cardboard tubes and tennis balls. For the first 15 minutes or so, they engaged like independent agents, each arranging tubes, and collecting balls for their own personal use. That time passed relatively quietly, with each of them exploring and experimenting. 

The next 15 minutes was characterized by physical and emotional chaos, as they began to bump up against limitations of space and resources, but the real impetus for the conflicts were their divergent ideas for how they were going to play. Most of the kids were setting their tubes up at angles down which they were rolling balls, but at least one guy was more interested in using the tubes as a way to practice balance, rolling them the way a lumberjack might. The resulting spills and his lurching body, of course, tended to upend his classmates' carefully constructed efforts and there were a lot of things said about it, like, "Hey! You're knocking over my tube!" which was followed by a round or two of argument, sometimes even accompanied by shoving and other physical attempts to solve their impasse. 


Others began to collect balls, "all the balls," which lead to complaints like, "Hey! You have all the balls!"

Some objected when friends would block up the end of the tube so their balls couldn't pass through, robbing them of the satisfaction of witnessing the end result of their experiment.

By the end of this 15 minutes, there was one boy crying, several flush with frustration, and a couple who found themselves wound up into a slightly hysterical state by the hubbub. This is where I did my work for the day. I stepped in several times to help cool tempers and encourage conversation, which I did by reminding the children of the rules they had made together the previous week, the agreements we make about how we aspired to treat one another. Among those rules were such classics as "No taking things from other people," "No hitting," "No pushing," and "No knocking down other people's buildings," along with an agreement that if someone tells you to "Stop!" you must stop and listen to what the other person has to say.


I let most of the conflicts run their course as the kids were talking, sometimes loudly, sometimes heatedly. As long as they were heading toward resolution I stayed on the sidelines, but when things became physical or the emotions turned intense, I dropped to my knees in the midst of it and said things like, "I saw you take that tube from him. We all agreed, 'No taking things from other people,'" and "He's crying because he worked really hard building that and you knocked it down." But mostly what I did was encourage the children to listen to one another by simply saying things like, "I want you to listen to what he has to say."

This is the period of recess play that those administrators want to avoid. I know that many schools consider recess to be a time for the classroom teachers to catch a little break, leaving the school yard in the hands of a few "monitors." One kindergarten teacher told me that they often have 40 or more children per adult on their playground. I know I wouldn't want to face that second 15 minutes without all hands on deck.


So why do we put up with that second 15 minutes? To get to the third 15 minutes. That's when all that bickering begins to pay off. That's when all the conflict and talking and listening start to bring those ideas and agendas together. 

For the next half hour I more or less sat on a bench and watched the children play, together, saying sentences to one another that began with the invitation word, "Let's . . ." 

"Let's connect all the big tubes!"

"Let's put all the balls in this bucket!"

"Let's move it over here!"

There was still a bit of bickering, but it was of the productive variety, with children actually listening to their friends' thoughts and ideas, sometimes disagreeing, but mostly finding ways to incorporate it within their own agenda. This is the gold standard of a play-based curriculum: creative, cooperative play, and sometimes the only way to get there is through that second 15 minutes.

******

This is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donate button in the right hand column under "Support Teacher Tom."

. . . Or even better . . . 


Order my brand new book entitled Teacher Tom's Second Book. We're offering a pre-publication discount through May 4. Books should arrive by mid-May in the US and a week later in Canada. And while you're there, you can also purchase my first book, Teacher Tom's First Book, at a discount as well.

Or maybe you would like to sign up up for Partnering With Parents a 7-part e-course designed to help you make allies of the parents of the children you teach. 

Thank you for reading!

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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

We Know the Meaning of Life . . . Now What?



In Douglas Adams' novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a computer is built specifically to answer the question, "What is the meaning of life?" The computer warns the people that it can, in fact, answer their question, but it's a calculation that will take seven million years. They insist that it's worth the wait. Seven million years later the computer provides the answer they've long awaited: it's 42.

It's a joke, of course, but 42 is actually the answer to many of our earthly questions, at least when we rely solely upon science to supply them. I don't want to give the impression that I'm a science-denier or anything, but despite its pretenses, when it comes to the most important questions, science often leaves us with answers that fall into the category of true, but not useful. For instance, I'm sure that science can tell us the bio-chemistry behind the feeling of falling in love, but everyone knows that if you really want to get to the core of what love is all about, you turn to the poets. So while 42 is, indeed, the correct answer to the question "What is the meaning of life?" it lacks the complexity necessary to satisfy us.

Most of the answers that our school curricula provide children are the residue left over once we've boiled away the complexity, which is why I so often call it trivia, the proper term for information that falls into the category of true, but not useful. We decide what children need to know, we tell them it's 42, then we wonder why they're not interested in school. So we've devised an arbitrary system of complexity to motivate them, relying on grades and tests and punishments and rewards, an ever more elaborate machinery designed to compel all the children to learn that the answer is 42.

And to a degree it works, at least to some extent. That's because complexity always works. It's complexity, not answers, that motivates humans. So yes, grades and whatnot provide at least a modicum of external motivation to replace the natural complexity that has been removed, even if it is a complete distraction from the actual subject matter.

Knowing that the answer is 42 reveals no complexity, it simply is, which means that there is nothing upon which to exercise our brains. But much of what we've come to consider being well-educated, especially in the early years, is based almost entirely on the ability to provide answers, usually in a rapid fire manner, like on a test or when a teacher calls out, "Who knows the answer?" and picks a raised hand. The "best" students are those who have memorized the "rules" that apply to this or that type of knowledge. But that's far from actual understanding, which requires complexity, because it's from thinking through complexity that we actually learn.

When children play, they are fully exploring the complexity of their world. Nothing is simple. They are not waiting for the computer to spit out an answer, but rather are doing the work of the computer, sorting through conflicts that arise between what they know and don't know, discovering new ways of seeing or expressing or understanding. They are asking and answering their own questions, which is to say that they don't need us to introduce complexity in order to engage them: they are already fully engaged because what they are doing is naturally complex. The important thing is not the answers as much as the process of thinking about the complexity. And it's the thinking that motivates us. It's the thinking that is the hallmark of a well-educated person, not the knowing.

******

I hate to do this, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've just had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donation button at the bottom of this post . . . Or even better . . . 

. . . sign up for Partnering With Parents a 7-part e-course designed to help you make allies of the parents of the children you teach. 


Or maybe you're more the reading type. In that case, you might want to pre-order my brand new book entitled Teacher Tom's Second Book. We're offering a pre-publication discount right now. Books should arrive by mid-May in the US and a week later in Canada. We are still working out the rest of our international distribution, so hang tight! 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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Monday, April 20, 2020

"I'm Bored"



When I was a boy I would say, "I'm bored," and mom would answer, "Only boring people get bored." If I persisted, she would start listing household chores I could do. It was an infuriating response, even as I got her point, which was, essentially, Well, then do something about it.

Those of us in the play-based education world value boredom. Modern parenting would have a child's boredom be a sign of dereliction of duty, one to be filled with scripted activities, but play-based educators know that experiencing boredom is essential. It is by living with the tedium and "grayness" of boredom that we begin to notice the little things that otherwise pass us by, it is the void through which our thoughts can wander into new and unexpected tributaries, and it teaches us that we're going to have to get constructive to overcome it. Boredom is how we turn rocks, leaves, and trees into knights, princesses, and castles. Boredom is the medium in which new and surprising connections are made, it's how resourcefulness is learned, and, ultimately, it's through boredom that we discover who we are.

I hope that this period of closed schools, playgrounds, toy stores, and cancelled extracurricular actives is teaching parents this lesson. I pity those who feel that, in the name of good parenting and homeschool teaching, they must drop what their doing every time their children complain, "I'm bored." That must add an extra level of stress to what is already an incredibly stressful time. When parents ask me, what to do about their bored child, I tell them to acknowledge their boredom, but to otherwise stay out of it. For instance, say, "You do seem bored," then leave them to mope. Let them stare out the window. And whatever you do, be careful of unsolicited advice. That's all too often an invitation to an argument, one of the least constructive ways to deal with boredom. And even if they do solicit your ideas, don't feel you have to offer yourself up as a playmate.

There will be tears anyway, even anger at you for not saving them, but modern children are not as accustomed to boredom as children of previous generations. Our contemporary culture of over-parenting has done that. But eventually, with time and practice, they will get it the way children have since the beginning of children.

I'm writing about boredom because I myself have been bored. I know it sounds like a childish complaint coming against this backdrop of suffering and fear, but even when there is plenty for me to be doing, even when our gorgeous spring is offering the brightest of blue skies, even when I have my family around me, I am daily finding myself at a loss as the weekdays have all become Thisday or Thatday instead of Monday or Tuesday. I'm feeling it as a kind of rollercoaster of anguish and numbness. I have these sudden urges to break things and shout. There are parts of my days that seem so impossibly long that I could swear that time has come to a stand still. Then when I look back on the day from my too early bedtime, it disappears in a smudge of gray sameness. I don't feel this way all the time, of course, but it's a presence that's with me during some part of every day. I bring this up because I know I'm not alone.

When the histories of plagues are written they tend to focus on the fear, suffering and dying, horrible things, but far from boring. But here I am, day after day, making a study of my boredom. This is how children feel when they say, "I'm bored." We too often dismiss boredom in our day-to-day lives, belittling it with comments like, "At least you're not starving," or "Only boring people get bored." As a play-based educator, I've gotten into the habit of thinking of boredom as a necessary, even positive state for children, but I'm seeing now that I've neglected to really empathize. Boredom is not an easy state of being. It can be unbearable, fraught, and endless. Crying, whining, even tantrums are natural responses, ones I've experienced myself these last few weeks.

So while it's not our job to "solve" our children's boredom, it is our job to help them when it becomes too much, when they simply need to know they are heard, that we understand, and that we are there with them. Boredom is good for us, but like exercising our bodies our intellect or our souls, it's only through the pain that we reap the rewards.

******

I hate to do this, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've just had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donation button at the bottom of this post . . . Or even better . . . 

. . . sign up for Partnering With Parents a 7-part e-course designed to help you make allies of the parents of the children you teach. 


Or maybe you're more the reading type. In that case, you might want to pre-order my brand new book entitled Teacher Tom's Second Book. We're offering a pre-publication discount right now. Books should arrive by mid-May in the US and a week later in Canada. We are still working out the rest of our international distribution, so hang tight! 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!
Bookmark and Share
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