Friday, May 07, 2021

If Our Goal is to Help Our Fellow Humans Rather Than Merely Control Them


Yesterday, I arrived home from walking the dog, to find police cars, fire trucks, and an ambulance filling the city block just below my apartment window. Last weekend, the seven square blocks just north of the building were completely shut down for an entire morning due to a gas leak and I wondered if it had something to do with that. In recent years, I've taken it on as a civic duty to get nosy about anything involving police activity, so instead of just staying out of the way, I got out my phone and got it ready to record. As I waited to cross Westlake Avenue, a young man excitedly told me that there was someone on the roof of my building, eleven stories up, threatening to "start a fire and jump." 

My first thought is to wonder if it was was someone from the building I know. One would need to gain access to the building and then use an elevator code to get up there, so it was likely that it was one of the 300 or so people who live in the building. 

I did what we all do, I think, when we consider suicide. I recognized how small my problems were compared to what this person was going through, I despaired about the tragedy of mental illness, I wondered if there was something I should be doing to help. I finally decided that the best thing I could do would be to just get out of the way and leave it to the professionals.

It wasn't until I was back in my apartment, the flashing blue and red lights just below me, that I thought to ask, "What professionals?"

Fire fighters, EMTs, and ambulance drivers aren't mental health professionals, and if the last decade has taught me anything, it's that your typical cop certainly isn't. If someone is threatening to start a fire and jump from the roof of a tall building, I can understand why you would want fire fighters and trained medical people on hand, but why police? I counted at least 10 officers milling around below me and just as many squad cars, including one larger, ominous looking van. From what I could determine, they were there for -- What? -- crowd control? Two of the police vehicles were being used to block off the roadway to traffic. Fair enough, but do we really need an army of well-armed men on the scene of an individual's existential despair? I can't imagine that their presence gave any sort of solace or peace to the poor man on the roof. 

If you have to send an army of any kind to the scene of a potential suicide, wouldn't it make more sense to send in an army of mental health professionals, people trained in the art and science of talking people off of ledges? It occurred to me that I was probably better equipped to handle the situation than a cop: I've spent my entire career working with human beings in emotional moments. I even considered making my way to the roof of my building. What stopped me were all the guns. I was afraid of getting caught in crossfire or being mistakenly identified as a threat. I spent the rest of the afternoon anxiously anticipating, not the tragedy of a despondent fellow human throwing himself to his death, but rather the sound of gunshots. 

There are times when armed police are required, but this was clearly not one of them. Unarmed people could have blocked off the street, they do it all the time in my neighborhood, due to all the construction. Could the suicidal man have turned violent? I suppose, but he was 11 stories in the air and all these guns were on the street below, being carried by men strutting around like an occupying force. What could they do from down there, other than add tension to an already tense situation? If we're going to send people to the scene, wouldn't it make far more sense to send in a team of mental health professionals? That's what the man on the roof needed, not a bunch of cops.

Of course, I don't know what really happened because I was too afraid of this overwhelming and completely unnecessary police presence. And I'm a middle-aged white man. 

I imagine I'll learn about the details in bits and pieces over the course of today, but whatever the story, I'm left with asking why we persist in our insane reliance on an armed response to everything. I have no way of knowing what was in the hearts of those individual officers. Maybe they, like me, were comparing their own small problems to those of this poor man. Maybe they were in despair over the tragedy of mental illness. Maybe they wondered if there was something more they could do to help. I'm not denying their individual humanity, but taken together, they were a menacing and useless force, one that can only bring the threat of violence to a place where it is unneeded and unwanted.

We really do need to rethink our nation's relationship with policing. There are certainly times when we need armed police, but not for this, and not for most of what we expect cops to do, from issuing traffic citations to responding to human beings suffering from a mental health crisis to domestic disputes. There are professionals better equipped to handle these types of situations, people who have not been trained in weapons use and choke holds, but rather to listen, understand, and support. That's what makes sense if our goal is to help our fellow humans rather than merely control them.

******

Tired of butting heads with kids? Scolding them? Bossing them around? Do you feel like they just don't listen? Sign up for my new 6-part e-course, The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, in which I pull the curtain back on the magic that comes from treating children like fully formed human beings. This course is for educators, parents, and anyone else who works with young children. It's the culmination of more than 20 years of research and practice. I've been speaking on this topic around the world for the past decade and know that it can be transformative both for adults and children. For more information and to register, 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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Thursday, May 06, 2021

To Be Alive is to be Ceaselessly Beginning



I met Amelia as a two-year-old. Like many young children experiencing their first days of school, she didn't talk to me. Feeling shy is a common, and completely rational, reaction to new people and environments. It wasn't just me. As long as she was in the classroom, she didn't talk to anyone, including her own parents. Again, not a problem. She talked at home, in the car on the way to school, and in other places, but her lips were sealed once she crossed our threshold. 

We're a cooperative school, which means Amelia's parents attended school with her. They assured me that when she spoke of school at home it was always with enthusiasm. That didn't surprise me because other than the not talking, she always seemed engaged. Not only that, but as she approached her third birthday she was making friends. She was part of a group of three girls who played together every day. It was never clear if the other girls even noticed that Amelia was a silent playmate.

I discussed selective mutism with her parents, although the descriptions in the literature never quite fit Amelia. She didn't show others signs of anxiety, nor did she seem to fear nonverbal social interactions. In fact, we were all impressed with her, and her friends', ability to create relationships without speaking. In other words, she behaved and interacted like a typically developing child, just without verbalizing. Her parents decided that since she was an otherwise engaged and cheerful child that they wouldn't pressure her about speaking, but just relax and let her decide for herself when to start speaking in public. After all, she was still quite young. The following school year, she remained mute when it came to adults, but now began to talk with her friends. The year after that, without any intervention, she began talking to me, and then, shortly thereafter, the other adults in the room.

When she headed off to kindergarten as a five-year-old her parents told me that she "reverted" to silence for the first couple months. Her teacher had at first been insistent that they get professional help, but the parents urged her to be patient, and sure enough, Amelia soon found her way to vocalize. I lost track of her family after that, but I recently learned though social media that she graduated from high school. I reached out to her parents in congratulations. According to her father, "No one would ever guess what a shy little girl she used to be." He described her as outgoing, charming, and something of a social butterfly. The photos he showed me place at the center of large groups of friends, looking for all the world like a teenager living her best life. 

I'm sure that there a some reading this who believe that her parents were too cavalier or that I should have been more insistent upon engaging professional help. It could have gotten worse. She could have been feeling extreme anxiety that we adults weren't able to identify. Most children wouldn't have responded to our "let it emerge in its own time" approach. And I stipulate to all of that, but at the end of the day, for this family and for this girl, it was the approach we took and it turned out, perhaps luckily, to have been as successful as anything else. I don't know Amelia any more. I know the young child she was, but the Amelia that smiles at me while riding piggy back on a boyfriend's shoulders is an unknown human.

I have no doubt that she still experiences anxiety, who doesn't these days? But it doesn't appear to be particularly debilitating. This new person she has grown into over the intervening 15 years demonstrates to me the plasticity of this thing we call personality. It isn't something we are, but rather something we construct for ourselves out of our environment, our emotions, and the people around us. And it changes, daily, usually in small ways, until we become someone else. If you stood these two Amelia's side by side, you would see little resemblance other than vestiges of a physical resemblance and an ability to make friends. 

I'm telling Amelia's story today, not to discourage adults from consulting with experts when they are concerned about a child, but rather as a reminder that our own personalities are not fixed things either. No one's is. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we awake each morning and construct who we are and it is never the person we were the day before. There is nothing that requires us to live up the labels others hang on us, and especially not the ones we hang on ourselves. It isn't necessarily because we don't like who we are, but rather an acknowledgement that all humans are a work in progress. Life is a constant process of becoming, a fact that is so incredibly evident in preschool classrooms where we are surrounded with young humans who are changing into new people before our very eyes.

And it never ends, this process of becoming, although I sometimes think it can be more difficult the older we get. Perhaps we feel we have too much to lose, that if we did shed yesterday's labels, the whole house of cards will come crashing down. I've been married for 35 years, all to the same woman. Neither of us are who we were when we met, which is why we are constantly asking ourselves if this is really still working for both of us. And if it's not, then we have work to do. Several times in our lives that's involved tossing the whole deck of cards into the air to see where they land, essentially reconstructing our life together according not to who we once were, but according to who we are becoming. 

Amelia's evolution into the person she is today was not a singular process, but rather the result of constant change. The great George Eliot believed that if science could see freedom, it would be evident in the mind's ability to alter itself. It "is not cut in marble -- it is not something solid and unalterable," but rather as "active as phosphorus," a continual process of becoming. She was writing over a hundred years ago, about something the scientists have only recently confirmed and named as neurogenesis. As Johan Leher writes in his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist: "The mind is never beyond redemption, for no environment can extinguish neurogenesis. As long as we are alive, important parts of the brain are dividing. The brain is not marble, it is clay, and our clay never hardens . . . And while freedom remains an abstract idea, neurogenesis is cellular evidence that we evolved to never stop evolving. Eliot was right: to be alive is to be ceaselessly beginning . . . (W)e each start every day with a slightly new brain, neurogenesis ensures that we are never done with our changes. In the constant turmoil of our cells -- in the irrepressible plasticity of our brains -- we find our freedom."

******

Tired of butting heads with kids? Scolding them? Bossing them around? Do you feel like they just don't listen? Sign up now for my new 6-part e-course, The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, in which I pull the curtain back on the magic that comes from treating children like fully formed human beings. This course is for educators, parents, and anyone else who works with young children. It's the culmination of more than 20 years of research and practice. I've been speaking on this topic around the world for the past decade and know that it can be transformative both for adults and children. For more information and to register, 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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Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Seeking Not Truth, But Complete Truth


I grew up in a household with magazine subscriptions. We always had the latest edition of Time and Sports Illustrated on the coffee table, and for a long time we took National Geographic as well. I'm pretty sure mom read Women's Day, and there were others. As I got older, when I had my own magazine budget to spend, I chose comic books. Magazines were a habit I took with me into the world. As a young man I subscribed to all kinds of magazines, periodicals I considered more sophisticated than the ones my parents read, like Harpers, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. Later I began to receive a number of literary journals like The Paris Review, The Sun, and other less well known publications, looking vainly for a place to that might be open to publishing my own strange (and, I know now, immature) fiction. 

At one point, in the late 80's, I cancelled all my subscriptions because I wasn't reading them. The internet had arrived. Today, perhaps out of nostalgia, at any moment I'm subscribed to at least one magazine. Currently it's a quarterly publication called The New Philosopher, published in Australia. Honestly, I await its arrival every four months with great anticipation, and like when I was a boy, I read it cover to cover.

I see now that magazines, in a way, were what we had instead of the internet. For the first three decades of my life, wherever I sat down at home, there would likely be a magazine handy. Sometimes I would just thumb through them, looking for short, blurb-like articles to scan, consider, and move on. Other times I would dig into one of the more in depth pieces. And then there were times when I'd just look at the pictures. I read books as well, of course, but they filled a different role in my life, standing as entire alternative worlds in which to submerge yourself, whereas magazines offered the kind of quick-hit-and-move on style of reading we do today while bouncing around between news and lifestyle sites, blogs, and social media.

There are major differences, however, between magazines and the internet. The first is that there was far less variety of perspective with our magazine culture (one that carried forward into the ascendant media of television that was firmly controlled at the time by three major networks). My family once experimented with adding Newsweek to our mix of magazines, but dropped it after a month because it repeated too much of what we'd already read elsewhere. Today, we talk about seeking out a variety of news sources in the interest of making sure we aren't being bamboozled by the politics of editorial boards, but, to our detriment, back then we didn't even know enough to consider such things. The news was the news and it was the same on CBS as it was on NBC as it was in Time.  What we today call the mainstream media had a stranglehold on public truth. We can now see it was not objective truth as we thought, but homogenized propaganda that was white supremacist at its core, corporatists, and tended to amplify the voices of the most powerful who, we know, don't always have the best interests of the public at heart. 

This is still true, but is becoming far less pronounced today even as it seems we are awash in misinformation and propaganda. As the single point-of-view has been broken into more and more competing points of view in these early stages of the internet era, we can feel as if we are being overwhelmed with perspectives. It often feels to some of us, especially those of us who grew up in the era of magazines, as if the world is falling apart. What's happening? It seems to us that there was once a day when we could all agree on "facts," but now we all disagree . . . About everything

Younger people, as they are prone to do, are more easily adapting to what I see as an inevitable shift toward this multi-perspective understanding of the world. My daughter and her friends, seek out perspectives different from their own. They are suspicious, even dismissive of mainstream media, something that was exceedingly rare within the magazine culture. What is being revealed is the extent to which we were thoroughly propagandized by a media that was more or less unified behind a narrow, single perspective which we ignorantly accepted as truth.

I can wax nostalgic about the days of calmly flipping through a magazine, comparing it favorably to the frantic thumb tapping and finger swiping of today, but those days, thankfully are behind us, I think forever. Today, we can't help but be exposed to a wider variety of perspectives, still not wide enough, still not inclusive enough, but trending in that direction. The big three television networks are still with us but with diminished power. Time magazine is evolving fully into just another website. But the singular, unified perspective is fragmenting: perspectives are becoming data points for those of us still interested in truth. Increasingly, we are coming to understand that we don't know the truth until we've listened to everyone. That can be an overwhelming idea to those of us who grew up in magazine culture.

When I look around at our world today, I see a lot of our challenges as being tied to this dynamic. Marshall McLuhan, author of such books as The Medium is the Massage and The Gutenberg Galaxy, predicted this dramatic shift from the fixed perspective world dictated by print media toward the multi-perspective world made possible by electronic media. Whether we like it or not, we are in the early stages of the democratization of truth. Pundits and others are labeling our era as "post truth," but that is only in comparison to the single perspective so many of us older people have always known. What we are really moving toward, I think, I hope, is an era in which our goal is the complete truth, meaning one that is considered from a diversity of vantage points, the wider the better. We don't have to accept them all, but we do have to listen if we are going to know the truth.

In creating the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summit, my wife Jennifer and I have intentionally gone out of our way to create a multi-perspective event. We have failed, of course, to provide every perspective, that would require 8 billion presenters, but we intend it as a start of our efforts to break-up the prevailing single perspective too often found in gatherings of early childhood educators and parents. 

Denisha Jones, editor of the best-selling Black Lives Matter at Schools (among other accomplishments), and presenter at the summit, says, "Even some of our developmentally appropriate practices might be grounded in white supremacist notions of what kids should know and be allowed to do."

Our indigenous speakers like Hopi Martin, Brenda Sauter, and Jackie Bennet share insights into their cultures -- Ojibwe, Maori, and Australian Aboriginal respectively -- that reveal a deeper understanding of perspective. As Hopi tells us, "The Western way says, 'one-size-fits-all.' The indigenous world view is, 'How do you see it?' We're not after one view. We're after multiple views." 

I get shivers realizing that this is what Brenda Souter is talking about when she says, "Our view is to always look to the past to move forward." The multi-perspective way of viewing truth is as old as mankind. Those of us steeped in the singular perspective of mass magazine culture are the historical anomalies. 

And what, Jackie Bennet asks us, has this done to our spirit? 

As educator Suzanne Axelsson, who is autistic herself, tearfully tells us about the experiences of her three autistic children as they were forced to navigate a single-perspective school system. In listening to her perspective we clearly see why it is important, if we truly care about children, to learn to look at everything from all sides and to seek those out who can help us do it.

As we're creating this summit, I'm becoming a changed person. I still have a long way to go, but even as a product of magazine culture I'm starting to see that what has sometimes appeared to me as a breaking apart of the world is really a process of the world coming back together around the traditional, multiple-perspective complete truth. It will be a long, always challenging, and sometimes ugly process, but as presenter Caitlyn McCain says, "Close your eyes to activate your imagination." When I do that I imagine a world were we understand that truth is built by asking everyone I meet, "How do you see it?" And then listening with an open heart and mind.

******

Teacher Tom's Play Summit from the idea that our youngest citizens need us and that there is no force on earth more powerful than parents and educators united. This is nothing less than an attempt to bring the full web of the early childhood world together with the mission of defending childhood by transforming the lives of young children and their families. It's a chance to listen and learn about best practices and new ideas from around the world from a wide variety of perspectives. Please join us for this important free event. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here. If not us, who? As the great children's troubadour and summit presenter Raffi sings, "Together we can turn this world around."

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Tuesday, May 04, 2021

What the White House Should Know About Preschool


The current administration is proposing universal free preschool in the US. People keep asking me what I think about it. I support publicly funded early childhood education, but frankly, I'm worried. In my lifetime, policymakers and elected representatives, no matter where they stand on the political spectrum, have always been wrong about education. Sadly, it appears to be one of our only true bipartisan issues: to be wrong about what our children need. I'm worried because history tells us that they will not listen to educators. I'm worried because they will say they want children to grow up to be successful, without having any idea what that means. I'm worried because they will listen to deep-pocket corporate education "reformers" who are more interested in a greasy buck than the future of young children. I'm worried that the current regime of academic testing and grading and ranking and judging will be foisted upon our youngest citizens. 

Back in the 80's I held the position of communications manager at the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce where I kept my hair short (even sporting a flat top for a time) and wore suits with large shoulders and lots of extra fabric. About a year or so into the job, my assistant manager found a better position and as she moved up, I began interviewing to fill the vacancy. My superiors left it up to me to make the decision, so the resumes landed in my inbox where I took pleasure in sorting and categorizing them the way I had my baseball cards as a boy, using this process to bring the number of candidates down to a reasonable number, then scheduled interviews. Within a couple weeks, having spoken to a dozen or so prospects, I had my top five. Up to this point it had been a fairly easy process, but now I had five top quality candidates, each well-qualified on paper and general deportment.

So how did I make my final decision? The way every employer makes the final decision: I tried to imagine what it would be like to spend my days, day-after-day, with each one of them. Would I be able to handle this personality quirk or habit or would it get on my nerves? Did they seem upbeat or dour? Had we laughed together during the interview? Did we connect in any way on a personal level? In other words, putting transcripts and resumes and achievements aside, my final decision came down to how well I thought we would get along.

No one had told me about this as a young man. No matter how locked down and data-driven the world becomes, no matter how much they attempt to treat humans like resources, if you're going to move up in the world, be it in business, a profession, government, or education, if you don't work well with others, your only hope is to develop savant-like skills because otherwise people are just not going to want you around.

A longitudinal study conducted by researchers at Penn State and Duke Universities and published in the American Journal of Public Health (pdf), confirms what many of us have known for a long time. Social-emotional skills, the kind we practice in play-based preschools, are at least as important, and probably more important, than those precious "academic" skills that reformers and politicians continue to force upon our youngest citizens. The researchers followed a group of 800 children over the course of two decades to determine if there is a link between a child's social skills in kindergarten and how they were doing in early adulthood. 

Our analysis included 4 education and employment outcomes representing attainment through age 25 years. Kindergarten prosocial skills were significantly and uniquely predictive of all 4 outcomes: whether participants graduated from high school on time, completed a college degree, obtained stable employment in young adulthood, and were employed full time in young adulthood.

Of course, education is about more than just vocational success, but that is the leading argument used by those who are turning our public schools into test score coal mines: getting our children ready for those jobs of tomorrow. This study confirms what early childhood educators already know. It doesn't matter how traditionally brilliant a child may be, if he lacks the ability to resolve conflicts, share, and cooperate, he's going to suffer both in school and the workplace.

Two of the 3 outcomes representing public assistance in young adulthood were significantly linked to early social competence. Early prosocial skills were negatively related to the likelihood of living in or being on a waiting list for public housing.

Corporate reformers love to dress themselves in the garb of social do-gooders, even going so far as to call themselves "civil rights" leaders, claiming that their narrow focus on academics will lift those poor children out of poverty (approximately half of all public school children live in poverty), yet it appears that focusing on social skills will do more to keep these children "off the public dole."

Results for justice system outcomes demonstrated consistent patterns across different ages and variables. Early prosocial skills were significantly inversely predictive of any involvement with police before adulthood and ever being in a detention facility . . . juveniles' self-report of whether they had been arrested and or had appeared in court followed the same pattern. In young adulthood, early social competence was significantly and uniquely linked to being arrested and appearing in court. Finally, early social competence significantly predicted the number of arrests for a severe offense by age 25 years, as determined through public records.

Reformers and politicians of all stripes regularly pivot to "education" when asked about crime rates. It appears that a focus on social competence would do more to reduce criminal activity than any amount of drill-and-kill education.

And when it comes to health:

Although early social competence was not associated with alcohol and drug dependence diagnoses in early adulthood, our model showed that it correlated with substance abuse behavior. We found statistically significant associations in separate models of the number of days of binge drinking in the past month and the number of days marijuana was used . . . Finally, early prosocial skills significantly predicted number of years on medication for emotional or behavioral issues through high school.

The conclusion:

The growing body of literature that demonstrates the importance of noncognitive skills in development should motivate policymakers and program developers to target efforts to improve these skills to young children. Much evidence has shown how effective intervention in preschool and the early elementary years can improve childhood noncognitive skills in a lasting way. Enhancing these skills can have an impact in multiple areas and therefore has the potential for positively affecting individuals as well as community public health substantially.

I've been looking for years, and despite the corporate reformers' pretense of being hard-headed businessmen, I've never found a single longitudinal study that points to any sort of long term benefits of our current drive to hammer children with academics. Even Bill Gates, the billionaire leader of the corporate reformers, admits that we won't know if he's right for decades. In other words, they are using a generation of children as guinea pigs in their cruel experiments. Meanwhile, this study is just one of many that have shown that social-emotional skills in early childhood are the greatest predictor of future success.


As I read through some of the mainstream media reports (like this one from CNN) I found "experts" touting things like special social skills board games and books to help children exercise their social skills "muscles." What a load of crap. The way to learn social skills is to practice in a safe and loving environment. No video game or pre-packaged program can replace what we do in play-based preschools and kindergartens, places where children have the freedom to play with one another in self-directed and therefore meaningful ways, where they actually practice cooperating, sharing, resolving conflicts, and being sociable in the real world.

Perhaps the greatest accolade our school has ever received was from a local public school kindergarten teacher who regularly sees the children from our school in her classroom. She told me, "I can always tell which kids came from Woodland Park: they know how they should be treated and how to treat others." That's the secret to success.

******

Teacher Tom's Play Summit from the idea that our youngest citizens need us and that there is no force on earth more powerful than parents and educators united. This is nothing less than an attempt to bring the full web of the early childhood world together with the mission of defending childhood by transforming the lives of young children and their families. It's a chance to listen and learn about best practices and new ideas from around the world from a wide variety of perspectives. Please join us for this important free event. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here. If not us, who? As the great children's troubadour and summit presenter Raffi sings, "Together we can turn this world around."

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

Monday, May 03, 2021

"Art Therapy is Therapy"



Conversation isn't always the best way to get to know a child. This is true of adults as well, but it is especially true of children who are still developing their language skills. The words they say are important, of course, but more revealing is often how they interact with their environment, including the other people in their world. How they use art materials can be especially instructive to someone committed to listening.

This is part of the art and science of art therapists, for instance. Nona Orbach, author of The Good Enough Studio and presenter at the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summit, says, "Art therapy is therapy," although not necessarily of the "talk therapy" variety. 

A classic example, are drawings children make of their families. A lot can be determined from, say, the relative size of the individuals portrayed. The mother, for instance, is often portrayed as the largest figure, representing the out-sized importance the child places on her. Older siblings might be represented as being smaller, revealing a sense of rivalry. The child sometimes makes themself the largest figure and we might begin to worry when a child draws themself as dramatically smaller than the rest of the family. The relative position of the individuals on the page, a new baby or a father drawn as separated from the rest of the family might tell us something else. Children might include people who are not, to our minds, family members as all. I've often been included in family portraits.

Color choices, material choices, the manner of making the art, body language, vocalizations: a careful observer, a researcher, a full-body listener might learn a great deal about a child without a word being spoken. Many of us have a bias about art, one that we've learned from our highly literate society, that causes us to judge it based upon how well or poorly it represents visual reality, but that is a narrow way of looking at art, one that only considers a singular visual perspective. The making of art is a language unto itself, one that is in many ways far superior to the spoken or written word for communicating certain things.

The process of making art, especially for young children, can be understood in ways far beyond the mechanical logic of geometry and perspective. When we set aside our prejudices, we begin to be able to see a connectedness of meaning that perhaps can't be put into words.

This is a problem in our profession. So often we wish (or are required) to put our observations into words in the name of documentation or assessment, yet the dictates of the written word, its grammar, causes us to re-shape the actual experience to fit rather than fully reveal. Indeed, it's not just our profession, but the modern world that trusts the written word over all other evidence. We might see that a child portrays the new baby as a dot at the corner of a page (which I've seen more than once), we might even feel with and for the child, understanding their entire experience in that singular, faint mark on a page, yet it's not "real"  in our world until it is somehow rendered into words. And the process of rendering it into words, quite often, diminishes it, even, in some cases, stripping it of all meaning and replacing it with mere grammar or geometry.

Let me be clear, I'm all for literacy, but this is what literacy does to us. Seeing is believing, but what about feeling, hearing, tasting, smelling? Literacy has taught us to value and trust the visual over our other senses, and when it comes to art we tend to attempt to force it to make visual sense by assessing it according to what we perceive as "realistic." What young children create is non-representational art, more akin to the art of medieval painters who would often repeat the main figure many times in the same picture by way of representing all the possible relationships that affected them. They knew, the way young children know, that revealing this kind of truth can only be done by a simultaneous portrayal off all of them, even if it doesn't make sense visually. We often think of pre-historic cave paintings as crude representations of reality, even sometimes comparing them to the "immature" drawings of preschoolers, but it's likely that these early homo sapiens knew exactly what they were doing. These were certainly not depictions intended to be viewed under the blare of modern lighting as we view them. They were created deep under ground, in profoundly dark interior places, and were only revealed by the flicker of torchlight, hidden and exposed by the shadows cast by moving bodies, shaped and reshaped by the movements of people, flame, and textured walls, offering a multi-faceted view not restricted by the fixed-point realism that has come to dominate our modern manner of perceiving art.

This is what both early humans and children are creating when they make art. As another summit guest Robert Pucci puts it, there is a "grammar of matter" that cannot be understood according the linear chain of logic that children usually understand far better than we adults. This grammar is unique to each child and is expressed in everything they do as they engage with materials. In this process, children are expressing what could be considered a pre-literate, pre-linear, pre-visual dominant reality, one that most of us have forgotten in our drive to put it all into written words (as I'm doing, poorly, right now). When we study children's art by looking for evidence of geometric development, we miss the things we have been conditioned to ignore: the connectedness of meaning. The process of becoming literate is in their future and, whether we like it or not, it is a process of homogenization of both the people they are and the materials they use. 

I worry that in our current cultural drive to hurry children through this pre-literate phase of their lives by forcing formal literacy instruction earlier and earlier, we are robbing them of something vital. Literacy with it's emphasis on a singular point-of-view, linearity, geometry, and "realism," changes the human brain in ways we are only now starting to fully comprehend. It seems to me that this connectedness of meaning is something we should not hurry children through. Studies of unschooled children who have never received literacy instruction, tell us that the natural window for learning to read comes between about seven and 11 years old, yet today we are trying to teach it as young as two and three. What do our children lose in the rush?

Preschool teachers have a great deal to learn from art therapists like Nona Orbach and Roberta Pucci, who strive to understand children where they are, through their art, which is a more natural and expressive language for young children, with a more flexible, personal grammar. A page with a dot in the corner can sometimes express far more than an encyclopedia full of words.

It's all right there in their process, but often must we must do the work of overcoming our modern conditioning to hear it.

*****

I have been profoundly shaped by my discussions with Nona Orbach (Israel) and Roberta Pucci (Italy), both of whom are presenting at the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summitalongside two dozen other international thought-leaders. This is nothing less than an attempt to bring the full web of the early childhood world together with the singular mission of transforming the lives of young children and their families. It's a chance to listen and learn about best practices and new ideas from around the world from a wide variety of perspectives. Please join us for this important free event. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here. If not us, who? Together we can turn this world around.

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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Friday, April 30, 2021

Our Raccoon Teacher


We were in the midst of circle time when a raccoon began climbing a tree behind me. I didn't see it, of course, but I knew it was there, or rather that something was there, because the eyes of every child were following it.

Maybe I knew that raccoons climbed trees before this moment, but wether I previously knew or not, I did now. We all did. It made its way up the trunk, apparently oblivious to the two dozen humans watching from below.

I wonder what we had been talking about or singing or reading before the raccoon began its assent. Whatever it was it was far less important, far less significant, far less educational than this. The evidence was in all those eyes, wide, curious, unable to look away.

I didn't try to recall them to our previous project, whatever it was. For one thing, I knew it would have been futile. Have you ever tried to get children, or pretty much anyone for that matter, to pay attention to anything else when there is a bee in the room? A giant house spider crawling up the wall? The rumbling approach of a thunder storm? 

Of course, we dropped whatever we were doing to attend, fully, to that raccoon, an emissary of Mother Nature, our first and best teacher. The evidence was right there before us. Nothing, and I mean nothing, was more important to any one of us than that raccoon who began to inch along a branch toward . . . We saw it together, almost at once -- a bird's nest. 

"It's going to eat a bird!"

"No, eggs!"

"No!"

"Yes!"

"The branch is going to break!"

"Oh no!"

The branch began to bend, we all saw it, we all feared for the raccoon, for the baby birds or the eggs. It was a drama as real and as old as creation, full of danger, suspense, life. Life itself was taking place above our heads and we were unable to pull ourselves away, not for a lesson or a lyric or a look at the pages of a picture book. 

The raccoon was moving more cautiously now as the branch bent under its weight. There came a point when it stopped entirely, raising it's pointy nose to the air.

"It's sniffing!"

"It's smelling the eggs!"

"It's going to fall!"

"Why isn't the mommy bird saving its babies?"

We were all, including the raccoon, one, tied together in concern, desire, and life itself. We live in the city of Seattle, named in honor of a Duwamish chief who said, "Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect." Ancient wisdom that modern scientists have only just begun to learn through their precious, childlike method of taking everything apart to see how it works only to destroy the very thing they are studying.

The raccoon slowly turned itself around, having assessed the risk to be greater than the potential reward. It made its way back along the branch and down the trunk. And we, all of us, did as well.

******

Indigenous educators Brenda Souter (Maori), Jackie Bennet (Australian Aboriginal), and Hopi Martin (Ojibwe) share their views of Mother Nature as our first teacher. Teacher Tom's Play Summit is nothing less than an attempt to bring the full web of the early childhood world together with the singular mission of transforming the lives of young children and their families. It's a chance to listen and learn about best practices and new ideas from around the world from a wide variety of perspectives. As I've interviewed our presenters, this idea of play within the context of community is a strong recurring theme, especially from indigenous educators. Please join us for this important free event. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here. If not us, who? Together we can turn this world around.

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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Thursday, April 29, 2021

"Gamification" is Just Another Exercise in Institutional Power


As we're trying to get back to something approaching "normal," I'm seeing a number of articles and discussion threads about the latest and greatest ways to motivate students. This is not something play-based educators need to think about, of course, because the children we teach are always self-motivated.

Perhaps the trendiest of these external "motivators" is what folks are calling "gamification," which is essentially the idea that teachers who have boring things they must teach, which is to say, things most children have no interest in learning, are to figure out a way to make a game of it and, Ta-da! the children are tricked into learning it. What an alien concept for those of us who spend our days watching the children themselves create their own games, infusing them with the ideas and concepts they themselves want to explore.

Indeed, children have been gamifiying their learning for as long as there have been children. The hubristic notion that adults can devise better "educational" games that children is absurd, even if they are "video games." This is exactly what I'm writing about when I warn about those who try to disguise their distrust of children with phrases like "play with a purpose," attempting to steal play away from the experts, children, in order to exert their power over of what, when, and how these young humans learn.

Gamification is just the latest, sweetest carrot in the control-freak game of carrot and stick. Carrots and sticks are for motivating stubborn mules to pull heavy loads. The fact that we've managed to turn learning, something that we do joyfully from the moment we are born, into a heavy load should tell us all we need to know.

Children are born to eager learn and they do that naturally, instinctively through their play. If you find you must "motivate" children to learn then you are simply doing it the hard way, the wrong way, the way that will ultimately burn them out and leave many, if not most, completely de-motivated by the time they hit middle school. "Education" that is not about freeing children to follow their curiosity, their interests, to ask and answer their own questions, isn't education at all, but rather an exercise in institutional power, one designed not to educate children, but simply to make them "normal," a misguided (even cruel) attempt to fill all of their heads with the same pre-approved "knowledge."

I have been teaching young children for a long time, no two alike, each of them uniquely curious about their world, each of them motivated to satisfy that curiosity, and each of them fully capable of discovering their own truth without being tricked by a carrot or beaten by a stick.

******

Self-motivated children is everyone's goal: educators and parents. As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. I'm proud to announce that I've assembled what I've learned into a 6-part e-course called Partnering With Parents in which I share my best thinking on how educators can and should make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to register and to learn more.) Discounts are available for groups.


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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Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Learning is for Each Child a Unique and Personal Experience (and why not acknowledging that is so stressful)



I've been married to my wife Jennifer since 1986, that's 35 years, and during that time we've shared a lot of experiences, side-by-side, the difference in our relative perspectives only a matter of degrees, yet we still regularly find ourself disagreeing about what we saw, heard, touched, tasted, or smelled. Often, it's a simple matter of whether someone was wearing a red or green shirt, but other times our memories differ about matters of great moment. Indeed, there are some things that I remember with clarity, moments in which something significant happened, that she hardly remembers at all, and vice versa.

The older I've gotten, the less certain I've become about the objective accuracy of my memories. Or rather, I find myself questioning the concept of object accuracy altogether. Yes, something in the past happened, but it only exists for me as the form it imprints upon my brain. But not even that. Researchers have discovered that we are constantly making and re-making our memories. Each time we recall something, they tell us, it becomes altered in some way. The more we recall something, the more we tend to change it until our memories very often only have a passing resemblance to what actually, objectively, happened.

This is a recognized phenomenon in law, for instance, as eye witnesses can credibly report seeing the same thing in different ways. It's why contemporaneous comments or writing about an event is often accepted as stronger evidence than oral testimony, under the assumption that one was created closer in time to the actual, objective events.

We tend to think of memories as a kind of recording of what happened, but in reality, what we "remember" is actually something our brains have constructed, and continue to construct even long after the arrow of time has swept us off into the future. As educator Eleanor Duckworth writes, "(W)e cannot assume that an experience whose meaning seems clear to us will have the same meaning for someone else."

This is why we don't all think, for instance, that The Catcher in the Rye is a great novel. For many, it's work of genius, perhaps the great American novel, while for others it's a real yawner. Our brains do not record events, but rather shape and interpret them from the very start. For instance, if an English teacher has forced me to read Salinger's novel (which happened thrice during my years of formal education) my brain will store the experience completely differently than when I choose to read it of my own accord. 

This is the big challenge for most teachers, those charged with the task of somehow working through a standardized curriculum. The expectation is that if we expose all the children to the same experience they will learn the same thing. We cannot assume this, not about children, not about anyone. Perhaps some will have the experience we expect, but most won't. They can, however, learn to create the illusion that they have had the "right" experience by getting the "right" answers on a test, which is the real lesson of school for most children. Oh, they are all learning something, but what that is specifically is different for each child and is most certainly not the lesson intended by the teacher or the curriculum.

Even before the pandemic, polling found that teaching is one of the most stressful occupations in the U.S., tied only with nursing. (You can find the 2013 poll here, although you will have to download it to read it.) And it has only, of course, gotten worse during the past year. In my decades in the classroom, I had my moments, but by and large I didn't find it particularly stressful, and I attribute that in large measure to the fact that I was never charged with implementing a standardized curriculum. Our play-based program is based on the concept of allowing the curriculum to emerge from the children themselves rather than imposing it on them. The result is that I don't have to pretend the children are learning what I'm teaching. I don't have to spend my energies on such nonsense as "classroom management," which is the equivalent of trying to push water uphill or herd cats. Add to that the fact that teachers are expected to also keep children perfectly safe, serve as therapists, mitigate the impact of a pandemic, and heal the wounds of bigotry and poverty, and it's easy to see why we, as a profession, are so stressed out.

It's all an impossible task, at least the way we now have it set up. And if teachers are unduly stressed, the same must be true of our children. I'm blessed to have worked my entire career in places that don't expect me to do the impossible. When the random benchmarks of standardized curriculum are removed, when we acknowledge that learning is for each child a unique and personal experience, when we stop trying to herd the cats, we find our natural role as important adults in children's lives, which is to care for them, keep them safe enough, and to support them emotionally and intellectually when they need it. That's why most of us, especially in the early years, got into this profession in the first place. 

*****

A "new normal" requires that we take a good, hard look at what "normal" means, to ask ourselves tough questions, and consider that maybe we've been doing it wrong all along. Teacher Tom's Play Summit is nothing less than an attempt to bring the early childhood world together with the singular mission of transforming the lives of young children and their families. It's a chance to listen and learn about best practices and new ideas from around the world from a wide variety of perspectives. As I've interviewed our presenters, this idea of play within the context of community is a strong recurring theme, especially from indigenous educators. Please join us for this important free event. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here. If not us, who? Together we can turn this world around.

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

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Unfortunate Yet Transient Immaturity


Last week, the United States Supreme Court in a split decision made it easier to sentence children to prison without the possibility of parole. Every year, children as young as 13 are locked away for the rest of their lives in our country. There are currently over 2500 people, mostly black, mostly poor, and mostly from backgrounds of abuse, who are living their entire adult lives behind bars. There is only one country on earth where this is legal: the United States.

Despite a global consensus that children cannot be held to the same standards of responsibility as adults, a worldwide recognition that children are entitled to special protection and treatment, not to mention numerous international laws banning the inhuman practice, the court has in my eyes lost any claim to morality, decency, or legitimacy it may have once had. 

I'm not proud of the USA.

What kind of monster can possibly believe that any human, let alone a child, is beyond salvation? Indeed, it is monstrous to make that kind of determination about a 15-year-old, the age Brett Jones was when he stabbed his grandfather to death after a life as a victim of abuse by multiple people in is life, including his grandfather. Defying the "judgement" of incorrigibility, Jones has while in prison completed his GED, has conducted himself as a model prisoner, and his grandmother, the wife of the man he murdered, is steadfast in her belief that he should at least have the opportunity to be released. As Jones himself says, he has done everything he can to reform himself, yet with this heartless, headless decision, all hope for him has been erased. I have no illusion that Jones is a saint, how could he be? But to condemn anyone for life for something they did when they were a child, defies science and decency.

As Justice Sotomayor writes in her dissent, citing precedent (which I've removed here for ease of reading, but which can be found here):

"First, "as any parent knows," and as scientific and sociological studies have confirmed, juveniles are less mature and responsible than adults, which "often result(s) in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions . . . Second, juveniles are "more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures" and "have less control . . . over their own environment . . . Finally, "the character of a juvenile" is "more transitory" than that of an adult. (A)s individuals mature, the impetuousness and recklessness that may dominate in younger years can subside . . . Weighed against these "signature qualities of youth," the penological justifications . . . collapse.

And:

"To justify life without parole on the assumption that the juvenile offender forever will be a danger to society require the sentencer to make a judgement that the juvenile is incorrigible . . . But "incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth." . . . Rather, "(m)maturity can lead to that considered reflection which is the foundation for remorse, renewal, and rehabilitation."

I'm not a lawyer, of course, but I am an expert on children. I know that it is in the nature of youth to awake each morning a new person. I believe this is true of all humans, even as I know that some are so broken that it is best they not be left to their own devices, but both science and basic human decency tells us that all children are capable of reform.

No, the idea that any child is incorrigible is one based in ignorance and hatred. It is based on the feeble and craven justification that engaging in cruel and unusual punishment can somehow right a wrong or persuade future potential offenders from committing similar acts. The arguments in favor of throwing children in prison for the rest of their lives are flimsy veils for the real underlying motive, which is clearly pure, seething vengeance, which has nothing to do with justice, nothing to do with humanity, and leads me to conclude it is those heartless people who support life without parole for juveniles to be the true danger to society. I'm old enough to remember that the man who wrote the court's majority opinion, Justice Kavanaugh, was crying and yelling about how he should not be judged for his own youthful indiscretions during his confirmation hearing.

The Supreme Court, with this decision, proves to me that it has become a sociopathic institution, one that is incapable as currently constructed to make judgements on citizens.

Tell me, who are the monsters here? Here is Jones' full story as told by Justice Sotomayor using the evidence in the case:

Jones killed his grandfather just 23 days after Jones’ 15th birthday. In his short life before the murder, Jones was the victim of violence and neglect that he was too young to escape. Jones’ biological father was an alcoholic who physically abused Jones’ mother, knocking out her teeth and breaking her nose on several occasions. The two separated when Jones was two years old. Jones’ mother then married Jones’ stepfather, who was also abusive, especially toward Jones. He beat Jones with belts, switches, and a paddle labeled “The Punisher.” He rarely called Jones or his brother by their names, preferring cruel epithets. (“[H]is favorite thing to call them was little moth- erf***ers”). According to Jones’ mother, Jones’ stepfather “hated Brett more because Brett reminded him of [Jones’ biological father].” According to Jones’ grandmother, he was simply “easier to hurt and beat.”

In 2004, after Jones came home late one day, Jones’ stepfather flew into a rage and grabbed Jones by the neck, preparing to beat him with a belt. This time, however, Jones fought back and told his stepfather, “No, you’re not going to hit me ever again.” Jones took a swing at his stepfather and split open his ear. The police were called, and Jones was arrested. Jones’ stepfather then threatened to kick out Jones’ mother and brother if Jones did not move out. As a re- sult, Jones’ grandparents picked him up less than two months before the murder and brought him to Mississippi. 

When he moved, Jones lost access to medications that he had been taking for mental health issues.  When he was 11 or 12 years old, Jones began cutting himself so that he “would not feel the panic and the hurt that was inside of [his] head.” He later experienced hallucinations and was prescribed antidepressant medications. These medications were supposed to be tapered off gradually. When Jones left for Mississippi, however, they were abruptly cut off.

The murder was precipitated by a dispute over Jones’ girlfriend. After Jones moved, his girlfriend ran away from her home in Florida to stay at Jones’ grandparents’ home in secret. On the day of the murder, Jones’ grandfather, Bertis Jones, discovered that Jones’ girlfriend had been staying in their home. 

He ordered her out.  Later that day, Jones was making a sandwich in the kitchen using a steak knife.  Jones said something disrespectful to his grandfather, who started yelling. The two began pushing each other, and Jones’ grandfather tried to hit him. Jones stabbed his grandfather with the steak knife. Jones’ grandfather came at Jones again, and the fight continued. Jones ultimately stabbed his grandfather eight times, grabbing a second knife when the first one broke. 

No one disputes that this was a terrible crime. Miller, however, held that “the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes.” Jones’ crime reflects these distinctive attributes: “That a teenager in trouble for having been caught concealing his girlfriend at his grandparents’ home would attempt to solve the problem by resorting to violence dramatically epitomizes immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks or consequences.” 

Jones then attempted to save his grandfather by administering CPR. When that failed, he clumsily tried to hide what he had done. He was spotted walking around in plain sight, covered in blood, trembling and muttering to himself. When a neighbor questioned him, Jones told a feeble lie, claiming that his grand- father had left and that the blood on his clothes was “‘a joke.’ ” Jones then met up with his girlfriend and attempted to hitchhike, but not to make a getaway. Instead, he was trying to go see his grandmother to tell her what had happened. The police stopped Jones, found that he was carrying a pocket knife, and asked if it was the knife he “‘did it with.’”  Jones replied, “‘No, I already got rid of it.’” He then agreed to be interviewed by three police detectives, “without invoking his right to silence or his right to counsel and without a parent or guardian present.” Thus, “Jones’s behavior in the immediate aftermath of his tragic actions also demonstrated his fundamental immaturity.” 

At his resentencing hearing, Jones provided evidence that not only is he capable of rehabilitation, but he had in fact already matured significantly since his crime. In more than five years in prison, Jones committed only two disciplinary infractions. While incarcerated, Jones earned his GED and sought out work, becoming a “very good employee.” Jones and his prison unit manager often discussed the Bible, and in time, his unit manager came to think of Jones “almost like [a] son.” Jones confided in him that Jones “regretted” what he had done. 

Jones’ grandmother (Bertis Jones’ widow) testified at Jones’ resentencing hearing and submitted an amicus brief to this Court. She remains “steadfast in her belief that Brett is not and never was irreparably corrupt.” She speaks with Jones weekly, encouraging him as he takes college courses and serves in the prison ministry. Jones’ younger brother, Marty, and his other family members have also stayed by his side.

This significant body of evidence does not excuse Jones’ crime. It does mean, however, that under Miller and Montgomery, there is a strong likelihood that Jones is constitutionally ineligible for LWOP. His crime, while terrible, appears to have been the product of “unfortunate yet transient immaturity.”


Clearly, there is plenty of evidence that this man who was sentence to life in prison as a child is not incorrigible. Some time ago, I asked the question, Does America Hate Its Children? I'm afraid of the what the answer might be.

******

Educators and parents have similar goals for children, but it often doesn't seem like it. There are few things that can improve your life as an early childhood educator than improved relations with the parents of the children you teach. As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. I'm proud to announce that I've assembled what I've learned into a 6-part e-course called Partnering With Parents in which I share my best thinking on how educators can and should make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to register and to learn more.) Discounts are available for groups.

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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