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.

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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.) Register now to receive early bird pricing. And discounts are available for groups.

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