Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Human Thought is More Magnificent Than That

"The Thinker," Auguste Rodin

If learning is, as Eleanor Duckworth defines it, "the having of wonderful ideas," one can legitimately wonder what a child is thinking about when they are not having ideas. 

Certainly, some of their mental energy is expended upon thinking about the questions and problems that will ultimately lead to those wonderful ideas. But I was once a child (and while that assertion is rarely the lead-in to a sentence that demonstrates any understanding at all about childhood), I nevertheless feel fairly confident that I spend more time stewing on things as an adult than I did as a kid. The endless pondering and fretting has come with age and experience: as a thoughtful boy I was more inclined to tuck my questions and problems away while engaged with the world in front of me where they would remain at the back of my mind until something happened in the real world to bring them back to the fore.

This phenomenon of things suddenly clicking at unexpected, unrelated moments -- while say in the shower or the stairwell -- is one we've all experienced. Often you have to walk away from your questions or problems, to turn your senses in another direction. The natural state of consciousness is freedom so it's only reasonable that it would often work best when set free from the confines a question or problem creates. I find that long walks help with this. An active vacation is better. But even reading a few chapters of a novel or going to the theater or playing a video game can provide the escape required by the thought process . . . Which is to say "the learning process."

My point is that educators must take this phenomenon seriously. If the goal is learning and learning is the having of wonderful ideas about the questions, problems, discoveries, and concepts that emerge in a child's life, then we must allow them the freedom to walk away to focus on something else, anything else. That is clearly part of how thinking and learning work and when we don't have that freedom our thinking suffers.

Of course, too often we insist that children in school remain in their seats, quietly, and expect them to, I guess, ponder questions and problems that haven't even emerged naturally, but have rather been imposed upon them. No one thinks well under those circumstances: there's no self-motivation, no natural curiosity. So then educators, knowing that their jobs depend upon all of the children "learning" the solutions to these specific questions and problem, must resort to all manner of tricks and tropes to motivate "reluctant learners." Or, when that fails, threaten them with some sort of punishment, like a loss of recess, which is likely exactly what a child needs in order to get to their Eureka! moment. We're eager to label children as "easily distractible" and to keep children "on task," forgetting that the distractions and the seemingly unrelated tasks (like taking a shower) are essential parts of how humans arrive at their wonderful ideas.

As an educator, my main concern is that children learn. Learning is thinking, but thinking doesn't usually happen in the methodical, linear, stove-piped manner envisioned by our school system. That's the way computers do it. Human thought is more magnificent than that, more complex, more capable of finding alternative routes and exploring the roads less taken, but it must be free if wonderful ideas are going to happen. 

Sometimes, perhaps, the image of "The Thinker" is how thinking looks (although, honestly, he's always struck me as more despondent than thoughtful). But most of the time, in the real world, the thinker is the one digging in the sand, climbing a tree, or picking wildflowers.

******

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.) Register now to receive early bird pricing. 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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Tuesday, March 30, 2021

When Young Children Lie


The average person admits to telling 1.65 lies per day according to one study done on the subject, although even the researchers confess that since they, by necessity, had to rely on self-reporting, people were probably lying toward the low end. Of course, it could also be that we all define things differently: some may consider nothing but outright falsehoods to be lying, while others may be sensitive to even those small lies of omission or exaggeration we commit by way of burnishing our own reputations or saving the feelings of others. 

But however we look at it, we all, to some extent, lie. I try not to lie. You try not to lie. Most of us have internalized the maxim that honesty is the best policy, yet at the end of the day, if we're truthful with ourselves, we can always look back and find those moments when we at least did not tell the full truth. And this is not necessarily a bad thing: evolutionary biologists tell us that lying is an essential part of our evolution as a species, that the ability to tell and detect lies is an important aspect of developing our social intelligence. Of course, as adults, most of us have learned that an over-reliance upon lying is destructive to our social and emotional world, and some of us may even strive to never lie no matter what, but the goal of living a lie-free life is one that will only be attained by the saints.

So it shouldn't surprise us when our children lie: it is part of their heritage as humans. When they're preschoolers it's usually quite easy to tell when a child is lying, but if they are going to be socially intelligent, they will get better at it, even if only to save the feelings of others. Children lie to me almost daily. I don't really care unless it is a lie of substance. I generally don't correct or challenge them, but rather simply affect to take them at face value the way I want others to take me at face value when I burnish or exaggerate. I suppose I could successfully bully them into confessing the truth, but toward what end? I'm not going to "teach" them not to lie by lecturing them any more than I'm going to teach them to read by lecturing. They will have to learn about the pitfalls of lying the way the rest of us did: via the lessons of going to far and the attendant shame and humiliation of being found out. Or worse, the guilt that most of us feel when we get away with a whopper.

Most of the lying around the classroom could really be classified almost as classic dramatic or pretend play: children trying on costumes or behaviors by way of discovering something beyond their everyday world. More often than not, children who have lied to me will later circle back to let me know that they had been "joking" or "pretending" or "tricking." I always imagine that there is a feeling of regret or even remorse behind those confessions. There are some that worry that if we don't nip lying in the bud, children will grow into unstoppable monsters, but from where I sit, that can only be true if we're willing to hang that label on most of humanity. Most children, most of the time, will learn the very lessons we have about lying: that it's not something to be proud of, but inevitable as we negotiate our social and professional lives.

A while back, our four and five-year-olds decided to make a new classroom rule: No lying. They all agreed, so by way of clarifying, I asked the kids to tell one another what "lying" means. Most of them had a vague notion that it involved saying things that weren't true, but many included behaviors like "stealing" and "hitting" in their definitions. In other words, the concept was still unclear, which is why they needed to continue exploring it. In the spirit of play, they needed to experience it from both sides, repeatedly, in order to really understand it. It was fascinating as they began to accuse one another of breaking the rule, the discussions and arguments were heated, with everyone denying that they had lied, even if they weren't really sure what it meant. In other words, they already knew it was "wrong," they just didn't know what it was.

To be socially intelligent one must understand lying and the only way to learn about it is to practice.

******

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.) Register now to receive early bird pricing. 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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Monday, March 29, 2021

The Pursuit of Happiness




I've asked thousands of parents the question, "What are your goals for your child?" It's something a lot of us ask at the beginning of a school years or when we are first getting to know a family. Far and away, the top answers have been some version of, "I just want my child to be happy," or "I just want my child to love learning." These are the answers I expect, especially from first time parents. 

The good news is that their children already love learning, they were born that way, so no problem there. Our only job, and it's made far simpler by a play-based curriculum, is to do no harm.

Happiness is, of course, another matter. It's the only emotion that tends to disappear the moment you become aware of it. It's a tricky, personal, and ephemeral thing, something we spot in others, but when we ourselves are happy we daren't look directly at it. It's like those phantom movements in our peripheral vision that Icelanders say are the "hidden people," elves and fairies and whatnot, who flee when you turn their way. Because of this phenomenon, Aristotle asserted that the only way humans can ever know if they've lived a happy life is in hindsight, from the perspective of our death beds, looking back over it all. This, of course, doesn't mean that we ought not pursue happiness, only that we have to accept that the pursuit is the most important part of that project, which is, at bottom, what self-directed learning is all about: the pursuit of happiness.

So I have no problem assuring parents that their preschool goals will be met. Their children will continue to love learning because they will be free to pursue happiness within the context of a community. The problem is that we too often fail to understand that the love of learning and the pursuit of happiness must be ends unto themselves, not means to an end. It's when we attempt to wrangle these highest of goods into the service of some more prosaic result, like a grade or a score or a certificate or a job, that we begin to undermine the joy of learning, replacing it with the avoidance of corrective sticks. It's when we begin to make the pursuit of happiness into a hopeless chase after carrots that are always dangled just out of reach.

No wonder so many children wind up finding school to be a disappointment: it is the place where they are taught that learning is a chore and something like happiness must be found in the praise of adults.

"I just want my child to be happy." "I just want my child to love learning." Laudable goals, indeed, the highest. My goal for these parents is that they come to see that the only way to get there is to set their children free and to trust them to know what to do with their freedom.

******

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.) Register now to receive early bird pricing. 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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Friday, March 26, 2021

Setting Ourselves, and Others, Free


I want the children themselves to tell me their stories, in their own words, reticences, giggles, and gestures. 

I want to listen to them, not just with my ears, but my combined senses; the one comprehensive sense which is, in the end, the only way to really "listen" to anything. 

I want to know them, as much as I can, as they know themselves, not filtered through the "knowing" of the important adults in their lives. That this is how I should strive to know all people is not lost on me, it's just simpler with young children. I suppose it's because they lack the layers of subterfuge and denial with which most of us adults armor ourselves. We call it "innocence," but I think it's also freedom: freedom from the shame that plagues too many of us. What will the others think if they know who I really am? That's not a question young children know to ask until they are taught it through the judgements of others. We teach it when we criticize and equally when we follow them around chirping, "Good job" or when we continue to urge them on even when they've clearly told us "No, this is not for me."

We teach children to be ashamed in both overt and subtle ways. It's too bad, of course, because lessons learned through shame are often crippling. They are lessons we spend our lives trying to either overcome or, more commonly, hide away in the dark where they fester, making them even more shameful, secrets we intend to take to the grave.

I'm all for common courtesy, but when we slap their hands for picking their noses or scold them under our breath for singing too loudly in church, I worry that we are using shame like a tool, in the same way we use "poor grades" as a tool. There is no doubt that shame can "teach," but at what cost?

I've done my share of shaming, as a parent, a teacher, and as a human being. Perhaps it's unavoidable. Perhaps shame is an important evolutionary trait, hardwired into us, the most social of animals. I imagine it's a good thing that I feel shame when I've hurt someone else, intentionally or not, that this shame causes me to apologize and make amends. Shame that emerges from an understanding of the harm I've caused is a useful, even positive thing, but it all changes when someone seeks to impose shame upon me, as we adults so often do to young children.

Honestly, as I write this, I'm feeling shame at the shame I've imposed on others because I can see that it was always my own shame, not theirs. Always. Yet I've made it theirs, which is shameful.

This is why I want the children themselves to tell me their own stories in their own words, reticences, giggles, and gestures. This is why I strive to "listen" to understand rather than judge. When they tell me their stories, they help me hear my own, without shame, because they are listening without judgement as well; listening with the one comprehensive sense which is, in the end, the only way to really "listen" to anything. It's through this kind of full-body listening that we can set ourselves, and others, free.

******

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.) Register now to receive early bird pricing. 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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Thursday, March 25, 2021

Opt Out!


In mid-December 2019, on the eve of the the plague that changed our lives, the New York Times reported under the headline "I Just Isn't Working":

The performance of American teenagers in reading and math has been stagnant since 2000, accordion to the latest results of a rigorous international exam, despite a decades-long efforts to raise standards and help students compete with peers across the globe.

Here is most of the cruel failings of American public education, all packed into a single lede: high stakes standardized testing, the blind assumption that curricular standardization is a good thing, the corrosive notion of competition amongst children, and the narrow, narrow, narrow focus on reading a math. Yet even here, where the journalist has apparently bought into all the make-believe theories of the corporate education dilettante "reformers," their efforts have been a disastrous failure, even when measured by their own precious measuring tool: the standardized test. For decades now, through No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the Common Core, and Every Student Succeeds, those responsible for education policy at every level have turned our schools into test score coal mines, with our children serving as forced labor on behalf of the only people who benefit from this: the corporations that create the very materials, tests, and curricula mandated by these policies. If we saw this on the stage, we would call it a farce, but it is a real life tragedy.

The best news about the pandemic is that it brought our nation's children a temporary reprieve from the harsh, money-grubbing cruelty of these childhood-stealing policies. With testing suspended, our children's days were, for a shining year, not spent in test prep and the relentless march through reading and math milestones that has come to characterize a typical American childhood. Teachers were suddenly thrust back to the center of the educational stage to do what their training and experience has prepared them to do: connect with their students, improvise, experiment, and invent. But now, as we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, as school districts prepare to re-open for in-person learning, those who created the drill-and-kill model of schooling are re-emerging from their very bad year to fear monger about "learning loss" and five-year-olds who have "fallen behind." And, on cue, the party on the left has declared its intent to pick up where the party on the right has left off. It figures that when it comes to abusing children for profit, we find the only glimmer of bi-partisanship in our otherwise divided nation.

It's time to end this destructive game of pretend, and that's all it is, a charade. They have failed by every measure, including their own. The all-work-and-no-play model has done nothing but harm to America's children. The testing masters are desperate and they are going all out to regain their place as the overlords of schooling. The simple solution would be for parents to simply keep their kids home until we break them, but since that isn't possible for most of us, we can send a strong message by opting out of the testing.

Here is a message from a public school teacher who wants to remain anonymous for fear of being fired:

It would be great if folks across all demographics got the message that they are allowed to opt out. (The only folks who ever do opt their kids out are White.) . . . One reason why we are not allowed to tell people is because we could theoretically "cheat" by telling only families of low-scoring students to opt out. (A school did this in Texas -- sent busloads of low-scoring students on a field trip on test day. It's gross.) . . . The test is supposedly there to hold us teachers accountable, like it's the only way we would actually do our jobs. People really buy into that narrative, too. I've heard people imply or straight-up say that Math and Language Arts teachers are the best, because our subjects are tested . . . You know the only reason why they are making us test is to punish teachers and schools for Covid, and also so they can cry "learning loss."

That's the reality of the mess we are in and it has nothing good in it for children. Parents, please opt your children out, not just for their own good, but for every child trapped in this high stakes game of make-believe. Teachers are not allowed to tell you this. Please pass it on.

Update: For information about how and why to opt out Fairtest.org is as great place to start.

 ******

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.) Register now to receive early bird pricing. 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, March 24, 2021

How Free and Equal Humans Are Meant to Live Together


Two freshly-minted three-year-olds were playing on the floor, not together, but near one another. I was lying amidst them, fiddling with whatever came to hand. The boy picked up a toy that was meant to impersonate a tiny version of the cast iron hand pump we have on our playground. After a moment, the boy said, perhaps to me, "Hey, it's a pump!"

The girl responded, "I want it."

That's what we had been encouraging kids to do for months, ask for things they want rather than just snatching them. The boy continued playing with the toy pump without saying a word. I briefly considered saying, "When you're finished with that, she wants it," but let the urge pass. The boy silently played with the toy for 30 seconds longer, then unceremoniously handed it to her. I was going to say something about that as well, some words of acknowledgement or even praise, but again thought better of it.

A five-year-old once told me, unprompted, as if it was something he'd given a lot of thought, "I don't like doing things people tell me to do. I like thinking of them myself and then doing them." Of course, that's how we all feel, right through our lives.

Adults say entirely too much to children, most of it either commands, which no one likes, or blather, to which no one listens. For whatever reason, we seem to feel that children are not listening simply because they don't respond to things like well-trained dogs. When the boy hadn't instantly acknowledged the girl's statement that she wanted the toy by saying, "I'm using it" or "You can use it when I'm done" or by simply handing it over, I was sorely tempted to say something, to amplify or translate or suggest. It was almost as if that silent space left after the girl said "I want it" was there for me to fill with blather.

And I know that whatever I said would have been blather because by remaining silent, I discovered that not only had the boy been listening, but it had prompted him to think. In that space of silence, he considered the information she had provided him, thought of what to do, and did it. He needed no reward from me, no pat on the back or "Good job," no benevolent overlord wielding carrots, sticks, commands, or blather.

This is how free and equal humans are meant to live together: thinking of things themselves and doing them, and that is its own reward.

******

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.) Register now to receive early bird pricing. 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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Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Our Future Villages


"We still had a blacksmith in our town in those days, if you can believe it." 

I was talking to the great grandfather of one of my students. Most of the time, the grandparents aren't much older than me, but here was a man 30 years my senior. I make a habit of talking to older people about their childhoods. I like seeing how they tend to light up. I learn about recent history through intimate stories, and I'm especially drawn to childhood memories. 

"My friends and I used to walk into town to watch him work. He opened his doors up wide to get some ventilation. They were like barn doors. There was a counter, then behind it was the fire and the anvil. We boys would stand in the doorway to watch. Sometimes he'd come out a talk to us. His arms were like this." He showed me with his hands, then chuckled, "At least one of them was. And he was always covered in soot and sweat. For a long time, I wanted to be a blacksmith when I grew up."

Another grandparent told me about how she used to go around to the back of a neighborhood ice cream parlor where the woman who worked there would secretly give her free samples and where they would often talk "about this and that. All kinds of things. She was like having a grown up sister."

John Holt wrote in his book Escape from Childhood

"Children need many more adult friends, people with whom they may have more easy relationships that they can easily move out of or away from whenever they need to or feel like it. Perhaps they found many of those in extended families, among various grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, and so on. Perhaps they found them living in smaller communities, villages, or towns, or neighborhoods in larger cities. But these communities, in which people have a sense of place and mutual concern, are more rare all the time, disappearing from country as well as city. The extended family has been scattered by the automobile an the airplane. There is not a way to bring it together so that children may live close to numbers of older people who will in some degree have an interest in them and care about them."

The scattering of our villages, through automobiles and airplanes, yes, but also through an economic system that demands more and more from adults during what are the typical child-rearing years, is something that concerns me a great deal. If caring for children is among the most important projects of any human civilization, and it is, then how can it be that we're tending to increasingly push children away from the center of life, cordoning them off in "schools?" If this pandemic has showed us anything, it's that the primary reason schools exist anymore is to get the kids out of their parents' hair so they can get to work. 

We know we all need the kinds of connectivity, the kinds of relationships of trust and kinship that can only be found in a community, village, town, or neighborhood, yet most of us start our days by sending the parents into one corner (work) and their children into another (school), one serving economic necessity while the other is left in a hothouse of like-aged children. On top of that, our automobiles and airplanes continue to scatter our small nuclear families far and wide, leaving the rest of our villages -- grandparents, aunts, uncles, and the like -- far away, only accessible by appointment. There are no longer opportunities to stand in the blacksmith's doorway or learn about life from an ice cream scooper. 

This was always my vision for the Woodland Park Cooperative School, a place where families could convene, where both children and adults could forge friendships with one another. Over the years, when I've written here about our preschool, I've focused mostly on the children, avoiding using photographs that show too many adults, but I'm showing a distorted picture of how our community really works. Visitors who see us up close and in person have always remarked on the number of adults around the place. At any given moment children might be playing with one another, but there are others "playing" with adults: cheek to cheek in the garden, tasting the cilantro blossoms from a plant that's gone to seed; working together to get a snack on the table; wondering together about where that jet in the sky is headed. These are often real friendships by anyone's definition of the word, easy relationships formed for a day, a week, or a year. There are always some children who feel so connected to "Paul's mommy" that they ask for her when they arrive. There is disappointment when "Sarah's daddy" isn't there that day and joy at being reunited when "Kisha's grandma" is there.

We know there is something broken in society. We want to blame the press, social media, video games, politics, or declining morals. We all know we are divided, that we are lacking connection and community, even as it continues its long, slow disappearance over decades. We too often believe, I think, that this break up of villages is the effect of some greater cause, but I find myself wondering if it's the other way around. Maybe it was our choice, as a culture, to scatter ourselves that came first. But whatever the case, I think it's clear that a return to the village, in whatever contemporary form, is the balm and cure we need.

I have seen that our preschools can, at least in part, serve the role of community based on mutual concern. That, at least, is much of the thinking behind my new e-course, Partnering With Parents (see below). We can't all be cooperative schools, but we do stand in a unique position to bring children, parents, and even grandparents together by placing our children at the center of our lives. As John Holt points out, children need this, but it doesn't take much reflection to realize we all do. Children, families, and educators: I can think of no better foundation upon which to build our future villages.

******

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.) Register now to receive early bird pricing. And 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!
Bookmark and Share

Monday, March 22, 2021

Embodied Learning


I wasn't exposed to the works of William Shakespeare until I was 17-years-old. I can't even remember what play we had to read. It was probably one of the best known ones like Hamlet or A Midsummer Night's Dream, but I barely understood a word. I blamed the material, of course. It couldn't be me: I was a good reader, something I'd been told since first grade when I was placed in "Reading Group 1" by my teacher Mrs. McCutcheon. This archaic crap might have been a best seller back in the 16th century, but today, in the modern world of 1979, it had clearly lost its relevance. Forcing us to endure it was an example of academic hazing or something.

I wasn't the only one who struggled, so our teacher had the idea of reading parts aloud to us so we could "hear the poetry." Aside from making it feel a bit like we'd been transported back to kindergarten, she was right, it did help. Shakespeare's meaning was more clear and I began to make some of my first approaches toward something like comprehension. As spring approached, our teacher announced the exciting news that we were going to be taking an overnight field trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. There we saw Coriolanus on a replica Elizabethan stage. Even though we had not read the play in advance, I was transported and transformed. The language, once a barrier, in the mouths and bodies of accomplished actors, accompanied by music, set here in a theater with an audience, came to life as I spent the next couple hours immersed in the tragic rise and fall of this supremely gifted and supremely arrogant protagonist. Now I understood, not everything, but enough to know that I would, at one level or another, be learning from this great artist's work for the rest of my life.

It wasn't until our daughter began performing Shakespeare as an eight-years-old that I realized that she had discovered the next level by fully embodying it. This is Shakespeare's art. It is not meant for the page, laid out in black and white, running left-to-right, condensed into 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Trying to appreciate Shakespeare by studying his scripts is like experiencing Notre Dame through its blueprints. No, you have to see it. Better, you have to walk up to it, touch its walls, and go inside. Best of all, however, is to worship there, to breath its ancient musk amidst the richly textured gothic detail and the light that shines through those magnificent stained glass windows. In other words, art, like life, is to be fully embodied if it is to be understood.

Too much of what we offer young children in the name of education is the reading of scripts and the studying of blueprints. We make the mistake of believing that this is where to start. In math, we begin with numbers, which are abstractions of concepts that are better learned through the embodiment of playing with shapes, patterns, sequences, and sets. In the early years, most of us have discovered that literacy begins with storytelling, dramatic play, and loving adults reading to us, but we are often too quick to pivot to the A-B-C's which is, like a blueprint, an extremely condensed version of the full experience, which is one that engages all of our senses; that expands rather than contracts.

When I read Shakespeare I struggle. When I read it aloud I begin to understand. When I see it acted, it comes alive. But when I perform it, I come to know it with all of my senses. This is the kind of deep and complete learning toward which we all strive. This, to me, is the strongest argument against forcing formal literacy instruction on young children: it condenses life so much that it renders it barely recognizable. A comma, for instance, reduces and distorts a pregnant moment, a gulp, a hiccup, a stutter, a facial expression, a gesture, or a tear into nothing more than a visual cue for the reader to take a momentary pause of indeterminate length. It has been stripped of most of its meaning. If we really want children to grow up to understand life, to be creative, curious, and engaged, we must begin by allowing them the opportunity to engage with life itself, which means with all their senses. It's only in this way that they come to know it in their bodies so that when they are finally faced with a script, blueprint, letters, or numbers, they know not just how to "read" it, but also how to understand.

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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.Act now to receive early bird pricing!

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, March 19, 2021

EdHeroes: What if Education Focused on the Needs of Children and Families?


I was recently honored to be asked to shoot a short video for the Rybakov Foundation's 2021 EdHeroes conference. Their mission is to support families around the world by providing them access to quality education that is align first and foremost with the interests of families. 

I can think of no better way to transform our educational ecosystem than to focus on the needs of children and families. We all want our children to grow up to be competent citizens who can create, love, and choose. Without that, the rest is meaningless.

Anyone who knows me, is aware than I find it difficult to keep my remarks (on pretty much any topic) to the 15-20 minute range. I decided to tell my own story of growing from parent to educator. (For the full-sized version of the video, click here.)


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It takes a village to raise a child. In this 6-part e-course I share my best practices to enable educators to make allies of the parents of the children they teach by bringing parents to the center of our work in the spirit of community, the kind of community every child needs. For more information and to register, click here. Act now to receive early bird pricing!

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, March 18, 2021

Partnering With Parents




By nature, I consider myself an introvert, so when our daughter was born, I happily stepped into the role of stay-at-home parent. Of course, I looked forward to the "parenting" part, but I equally, and a bit secretly, embraced the "stay-at-home" aspect of the job title. As I held my newborn, I imagined our cozy life, snuggling, puttering around the house, eating snacks, reading storybooks, and playing in the garden. My homebody self imagined a kind of utopia effectively walled-off from the rest of the world where my wife, the extravert, would go off into the world to slay the dragons, while the two of us nested, unmolested, at least for a time, by the stresses of being out in the world.

And it was something like that at first, but among her first sentences were, "Let's go somewhere" and "Let's do something," a clear indication that she was her mother's daughter. I took this to mean that she was asking me for preschool, but when I ran the idea by my wife, she said, "No. She has a stay-at-home parent. Why would we send her off to be raised by strangers if we don't have to?" She had a point, but just in case, I ran the idea of preschool by my mother, who said, "Why would you do that? She has you. Besides, once their gone they're gone. Keep her at home as long as you can." Another compelling argument, but I there was still my mother-in-law, but she too gave it a thumbs down and no wise person defies the three most important women in their life, so it was on me, the introvert, to cobble together the social life our 18-month-old clearly craved.

This primarily involved going to lots of neighborhood playgrounds and other places where young children gathered. One day, I got to chatting with the mother of a son who was only a little older, and I shared my story. She said, "I know how you feel. I'm a stay-at-home parent, but we've enrolled in a cooperative preschool two mornings a week." It turned out that instead of dropping him off, she attended preschool with him. That's all I needed to hear. When I ran this idea by my triumvirate of beloved women, they approved, just so long as we both went.

And so I discovered cooperative schools, places where the families own the school and serve as assistant teachers. For the next three years, we went to school together, and where I got to work alongside a master teacher by the name of Chris David. When it came time for our daughter to move onto kindergarten, Chris urged me to consider staying behind and become a cooperative preschool teacher, and that's when Teacher Tom was born and where I've been for the better part of the past two decades.

Every preschool becomes a community of children, but a cooperative, in a very real sense, becomes a kind of "village" organized around the all-important project of raising children, including parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and caretakers brought together in the context of community. It reminds me as much as anything in the modern world possibly can of the neighborhood in which I grew up, a place where parents sent their children outside to play, confident that they would create their own social lives simply by living amongst the people, both old and young, that we found there. The kind of place where we learn to teach, care for, support, and love all the children, and to, in turn, trust the other adults in that role with our own children. It's not an accident that the parents at Woodland Park are refer to it as "the community" more often than as a school.

As a teacher, I might have valued my cooperative community more than I did as a parent. At any given moment there were 5-10 of these "amateur" teachers with me, bound together by a culture of learning and care that we were creating together day-after-day. I cannot imagine doing this preschool thing any other way, surrounded by parents who are my colleagues, supporters, and allies: a village raising children.

This isn't the experience of most educators. Indeed, too often parents show up in preschool settings as adversaries instead of allies. They show up as "customers" and critics, mettlesome dilettantes, and people whose phone message, "We need to talk," sends our hearts into our throats. Others come off as disinterested and dismissive. This is not how it should be. Parents and educators are natural allies in that we all want what is best for the children, yet we too often find ourselves feeling that parents, at least some of the parents, are in the way or behaving in ways that undermine our good work. They challenge us about such bedrock things like play-based education, discipline, risky play, mess, and a host of other aspects of our professional work, often demanding we do things that we know are not in the best interest of children.

For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts this 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 to make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to learn more.)

Most of us don't live in the kind of villages envisioned by the proverb, but that doesn't mean our children don't need them. We may never again be free to send our children out into the neighborhood to play, but we can do the next best thing by making our preschools into places not just for children, but for families. This is how we make the villages our children need. 

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It takes a village to raise a child. In this 6-part e-course I share my best practices to enable educators to make allies of the parents of the children they teach by bringing parents to the center of our work in the spirit of community, the kind of community every child needs. For more information and to register, click here. Act now to receive early bird pricing!

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, March 17, 2021

Thinking, Learning, and the Having of Wonderful Ideas



The word "education" has two Latin roots: educare and educere. Educare means to train or mold someone and specifically refers to a processes of passing along knowledge from one generation to the next, with the goal of shaping youth in the image of their parents through rote learning and future employment in the economy. Educere, in contrast, means to "lead out," in the sense that we are preparing youth for an unknown future, which calls for thinking, questioning, and creating. The modern word "education" didn't appear in the English language until the tail end of the Middle Ages and was used primarily in the sense of educare, and was largely applied, often brutally, to making peasant youth into compliant workers. By the Enlightenment, however, the word had taken on a meaning more in keeping with educere. And here we are today, arguing over what we want from education.

The lazy answer is to say we want to find a balance, but from where I sit there is no way to balance concepts that cancel one another out. To be well-trained means to be obedient and compliant, which requires the suppression of thinking, questioning, and creating. Thinking, questioning, and creating, in turn, leads to individuals inclined to upset the status quo, which stands in direct opposition to the goal of shaping youth in the image of their parents.

When I talk of education, I am using the word exclusively in the sense of educere. I want my fellow citizens to be thinkers.

For all practical purposes, thinking is indistinguishable from learning. That might sound obvious, but when you look at how school works for most children, you would find that thinking is, for the most part, actively discouraged, replaced by the pursuit of "right answers." No matter how much lip service we give to thinking, coming up with pre-approved answers doesn't require thinking as much as remembering, which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but recalling the right answer for a test isn't what most of us mean when we think about thinking. In fact, in the context of right answers, thinking just gets in the way. It leads to questions. It leads, by definition, to the infinite universe of wrong answers, all the possibilities beyond the status quo. And lest we forget, every single one of today's right answers were once wrong answers discovered by students who chose thinking over acing the test.

Eleanor Duckworth, an educator who worked with the great Jean Piaget and who made it part of her life's work to "translate" his work into the classroom, defines learning as "the having of wonderful ideas." And wonderful ideas are neither right nor wrong, but rather rendered wonderful by the mind's eye of the one doing the thinking. A wonderful idea is a living thing, something the compels the thinker to continue to ask questions, to play with it, to look at it from all sides, which is a process that we define as learning. Whether or not it's right or wrong is immaterial: its value is that it becomes a step forward in a child's thinking. This process doesn't lead to right answers, but rather new ideas.

Too often in our schools new ideas are a problem. They don't show up on the tests. They distract children from the approved path. Children with too many new ideas are corrected, even punished, for not simply accepting the right answer. Certainly, a child's thinking might be indulged for a time, but the goal is always to steer them back to the orthodoxy of right answers. 

Educators who understand learning as a process of thinking, questioning, and creating know that our role is not to steer children, but rather to understand them, to, in a way, become Piaget, and take the stand of a researcher. This requires observation and careful, thoughtful listening: to see not wrong answers, but rather theories to explore. Our role is to be with children in a way that allows us to understand what and how a child is thinking with minimal interference. It's this understanding that's important. When we know where a child is, we can better create an environment in which they can pursue their wonderful ideas for as long as their questions remain. The goal is a human who thinks, educere, because thinking is learning, which is to say, the having of wonderful ideas.

******

It takes a village to raise a child. In this 6-part e-course I share my best practices to enable educators to make allies of the parents of the children they teach by bringing parents to the center of our work in the spirit of community, the kind of community every child needs. For more information and to register, click here. Act now to receive early bird pricing!

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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