Monday, May 31, 2021

"We Have to Liberate Ourselves First"




A while back, NASA commissioned a test designed to measure the creative potential of its rocket scientists and engineers. Only two percent of adults ace this test, being classified as creative geniuses. When NASA tried the test out on preschoolers, however, they found that 98 percent tested at the genius level. Curious about those results, they made it into a longitudinal study, re-testing the same kids after a decade of schooling. They found that the number of geniuses among these kids had plummeted to a mere 12 percent. This study has since been replicated over and over again.

This begs the question: What did we do to them? Nearly all of the kids were geniuses, then we sent them to school and most of them stopped being geniuses. Maybe there is a problem with the test, of course, and maybe there's a problem with our definition of "creative genius," but what if these results are telling us something real, and horrible, about the way we tend to do school to our kids?

If you listen to education policymakers, and I do, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that as far as they're concerned, our schools are little more than vocational training programs designed to prepare the next generation of worker bees for those "jobs of tomorrow" or to conscript them as warriors in an economic war to "out educate the Chinese." Sometimes they dress it up in the language of civil rights, insisting that "education" is the path out of the ghetto or barrio or whatever, which is still, at bottom, an economic argument. And maybe that's what most people want from our schools, but that's not what I wanted for my own child, nor for the children alongside whom I've travelled these past couple decades. I've always been much more interested in their capacity for creative genius.

Director of the Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College and editor of Black Lives Matter at School, Denisha Jones says in our conversation at Teacher Tom's Play Summit, "I can tell you black children are brilliant. I can tell you brown children are brilliant. I can tell you all children are brilliant until they go through American schooling and we educate the brilliance out of them."

Some years ago, as part of a conference at which I was presenting I had the opportunity to visit what is called the Ration Shed Museum in the town of Cherbourg in Queensland, Australia, the site of an aboriginal reservation that was created by the 1904 "Aboriginal Protection Act." Indigenous people from all over eastern Australia were forcibly re-located there, and as European colonists did wherever they went, they took it upon themselves to control every aspect of the lives of these formerly free people. We learned about the schools that were established for the education of these "primitive" people, schools chartered to teach children about keeping their noses to the grindstone, obedience, and a very narrow range of vocational skills. It's a story that can be told about everywhere these colonizers went.


It is impossible to not see parallels with the current state of education in America and around the world. After several decades of trending in the direction of a more truly democratic education over the course of the 20th century we have now seen a sudden shift over the past thirty years back in the direction of those aboriginal schools. 

Oh sure, we don't say it aloud anymore, but it's clear that those who designed such disasters as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core federal curriculum here in the US are seeking to create the modern day versions of obedient domestic workers and field hands. Since the middle part of the last century, childhood has been increasing colonized by such anti-genius measures as high stakes standardized testing, standardized curricula, increasingly academic style drill-and-kill teaching methods, accountability, grit, and a dramatic decline in opportunities to explore art, natural sciences, and the humanities in general. Most critical is the loss of childhood play, which is to say, the loss of freedom.

As Denisha tells us, "Play is freedom. Play is liberation. We're so afraid of free people, but free people make the best learners." 

This year marks the 102nd anniversary of the great John Dewey's seminal work Democracy and Education (this links to a long, fantastic article I urged you to read):

Did you attend a public school in the United States and perform in a school play, take field trips, or compete on a sports team? Did you have a favourite teacher who designed their own curriculum, say, about the Civil War, or helped you find your particular passions and interests? Did you take classes that were not academic per se but that still opened your eyes to different aspects of human experience such as fixing cars? Did you do projects that required planning and creativity? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you are the beneficiary of John Dewey's pedagogical revolution.

Today, we are facing the same sort of pushback against democratic education that John Dewey faced back at the turn of the last century. They claim they are only doing what is best for the poor "primitives," and perhaps they believe they are, but at what cost? The battle lines continue to be drawn between those of us who believe that the purpose of public education is to create citizens with the critical thinking and creative skills to take part in the great national project of self-governance and those who would use schools to turn children into malleable worker bees. While Dewey's ideas shaped the schools we attended, the so-called education "reformers" are shaping the schools of our children, something that if left unchecked will result in nothing less than the end of democracy.

The skills and habits of citizenship such as critical thinking, questioning authority, and living a well-rounded life not always tethered to the almighty dollar, are the diametric opposites of the those required to succeed in the nose-to-the-grindstone, do-as-you're-told future the colonizers have planned for our children.

A return to the promise of progressive education in general and childhood play in particular may not save us, but it's the best hope we have. Before that can happen, however, as Denisha reminds us, "We have to liberate ourselves first."

******

To hear my entire interview with Denisha Jones, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "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, May 28, 2021

Childhood Comes Alive in Those Places Adults Don't Really Care About


I grew up in many homes. Our family moved often, on average once every couple of years, as my father pursued his career as an engineer; from Missouri to Connecticut, from Texas to South Carolina, from Greece to Oregon. Each place we had a home, sometimes moving to another one within the same city after a year or two. But when I think of the homes I grew up in, I also include the other homes I knew almost as well as my own: the homes of neighbors and relatives where I spent enough time that they became a part of me.

In my own homes, kids were allowed run of the house, although we generally avoided the living room. In other people's homes, the living rooms were strictly off limits. More than one of these homes featured plastic covers on the living room furniture, only to be removed when more important guests, adult guests, were expected. In some homes there were other kinds of rooms that were off limits, like grown-up bedrooms or workshops, or, in a couple rare cases, a home office. In contrast, kids' bedrooms were always free play zones, as were garages, basements, and attics. And these were the places to which we children would gravitate.

And then, of course, there was the outdoors. Most of the homes I grew up in had rules about outdoors as well. There were gardens to keep out of, certain trees that weren't for climbing, and it was important to know which flowers we could pick and which we were to be left alone. Generally speaking, however, we knew that the farther away we were from the house itself, the more free we felt. Backyards tended to offer more freedom than the more public front of the house. Side yards or alleyways were often our favorite places.

Looking back I can see that the thread that tied all of these child-friendly (a phrase that didn't exist in my youth) places together was that they were places where the adults more or less left us alone.

As outdoor learning guru and founder of Early Childhood Outdoors Jan White puts it in her session at Teacher Tom's Play Summit, "The places where much of my formative play happened were places adults didn't really care about." 


This is true for me as well, as it was for everyone I knew growing up. The adults left us alone in these places because they weren't worried that we would break or damage or soil anything, or rather, anything important. As children we might not have understood this, but when we were in the attic or horsing around in the basement, it wasn't the absence of the adults so much as the fact that they were simply more relaxed, more permissive, more laissez faire. We knew that if we broke something in the living room, there would be stern words and punishments, whereas the response to breakage in the garage was to hand us a broom. In the living room there were constant reminders to keep our feet off the furniture or to "be careful" around this or that, but in our places we were free to engage in what Jan calls "formative play." 

The right kind of environment, Jan has found, is a "scruffy one," a place "full of stuff, time, and possibilities."

As children, when we didn't find this kind of environment at home, wherever that was at the moment, we, without really thinking about it, began to roam in search of it. I'm thinking in particular of one home we sometimes visited as guests. These people didn't have children and so the whole of indoors was a place the adults cared about. Even the manicured gardens were off limits. Fortunately, the house backed onto a small woods, so, of course, this is where my brother and I played. 

We live in a different sort of world today, but children still need places to play that adults don't really care about. "The curriculum that matters is what's inside the child," Jan says, and these places, these scruffy, uncared for places are where it flourishes best. Childhood comes alive in those places adults don't really care about.

******

To hear my entire interview with Jan White, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "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, May 27, 2021

Raising Free People


"What are you going to be when you grow up?"

It's a question adults asked me as a boy and one I still hear adults asking children. From quite a young age I knew that questions required answers to it so I always had one ready. "I'm going to be a cowboy." "I'm going to be an astronaut." "I'm going to be a baseball player." "I'm going to be an engineer like my dad."

My answers varied, often week to week, but I always had one at the ready. Adults expected it. None of them ever thought to ask about my current interests, my plans for the day, or about who I was right then. It was as if I, as a child, wasn't really a complete human being yet. That my real life wouldn't start until I'd become something else, and as a white boy in America becoming was naturally attached to one's profession. 

Of course, I realize that for most adults it was simply a convention to ask this question of children, a way of making conversation with the smaller humans, but it seems as if I've always known there were limits to which answers were acceptable. It wouldn't have crossed my mind to have replied, "When I grow up I'm going to be a daddy." Even worse, I knew without having ever been told, would have been to answer, "I'm going to be a mommy." I knew that I couldn't aspire to grow up to be a homemaker or seamstress or even, for that matter, teacher. If I had said I was going to grow up to be dancer or hair stylist, I imagine there would have been some talk of my needing to see a therapist.

I'm not blaming any individual adult for this. They didn't know any better because they too had been children. There were simply some aspirations that I ought not even consider and being a "good boy" I didn't.

And I had all the advantages: a white, middle class, American boy born into a society designed around elevating me simply because of those traits. Nevertheless, even as a preschool aged boy I knew that there were some things I would never be allowed to be, even if those things were actually who I was. Even I, with all my privledge, was oppressed.

"We cannot keep using the tools of oppression and expect to raise free people." ~Akilah Richards

I'm not comparing my situation to anyone else's, but rather pointing out we are all impacted by this pervading idea that adults always know best when it comes to children. There was a process, long and often painful, that I had to go through to overcome those limitations, to feel good about my choice to be a stay-at-home father, for instance, or a preschool teacher. Even now, even after I've been able to embrace who I am, I receive regular random accusations of being a "pervert" and worse from those who feel threatened by me. As founder and lead producer of the Raising Free People Network, author, podcaster, and radical unschool parent Akilah Richards tells us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit, she had to overcome her own colonialism, even as a Jamaican immigrant to this country, in order to set her own children free.


Akilah strives to overcome her own oppressive habits through her commitment to "love in action." She is an example of how important it is that each of us, especially when and where we have power, such as the power adults automatically have over children, to deeply examine how we use, or even abuse, our power by imposing our will and expectations upon others. If we aspire to raise free people, we must seek out, acknowledge, and strive to overcome our own colonizing impulses. None of us is truly free of this impulse to assume our backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives are the "one true" way of viewing the world. 

"We're all raising each other," Akilah says and as such it is our responsibility to raise one another to be free. And that begins with love.

******

To hear my entire interview with Akilah Richards, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "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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Wednesday, May 26, 2021

"The Bigger and More Important Education"


Ask any successful person for their secret and they'll inevitably talk about people: parents, teachers, relatives, and friends. Oh sure, some of them talk about hard work and perseverance, but that generally always strikes me as a matter of form, almost like we're expected to credit these Puritan work ethic traits, like a kind of good luck talisman, but the long list, the thank yous and gratitude, is always reserved for the relationships they've had with other people.

Sometimes they might give credit to things they have been taught, like in the case of a mentor, but more often than not it's the relationship itself that they talk about. 

"They believed in me." 

"They supported me." 

"They never gave up on me."

"They loved me."

Rarely does anyone give credit to their education, yet as a society we've convinced ourselves that school is the lynchpin to success. 

Researcher, author, and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Peter Gray points out that "almost nobody asks the question, 'What is my child actually learning in school?' Instead, they ask the question, 'What is my child's test score?'" He chuckles at the absurdity of it. As a researcher, he knows that the high stakes standardized tests that have come to dominate public education and drive education policy and that the tests "aren't measuring anything that's important." In other words, test scores have nothing to do with success, except perhaps within the narrow world of climbing the academic ladder. Indeed, research has shown that high test scores don't demonstrate intellectual ability as much as the current socio-economic status of the test taker. The same can be said of grading of all kinds.

Peter tells us, "I often say that I had two educations: I had school, but the bigger and more important education was a hunter-gatherer education which was everything that happened outside of school." This is what those people are talking about when they share their secret to success. 

"They trusted me."

"They saw something in me that others missed."

"They knew I could do it."

"They're my biggest cheerleader."

These successful people are not talking about what they learned, at least not in the formal sense. They're talking about how other people made and make them feel. That is what they credit for their success.


Peter cautions us that American school children today, at least pre-pandemic, are suffering from mental illnesses like depression and anxiety at historically high levels and much of it can be directly traced to the rising "importance" of what we've come to call schooling. In the name of setting our children up for "college and career" we've re-made our schools into academic factories and turned the assembly lines up to full speed. There is no time to waste, they tell us. Our children are falling behind, they warn. We must out educate the Chinese or prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow, all of which is demonstrably bunk, yet the fear this creates in parents and school boards is real. In the rush and crush of more and faster, there is less and less time for the "more important education" Peter talks about. You can't replace relationships with test scores and expect everything to be alright. Or as Peter puts it, "If you take play and freedom away from kids, they're going to get depressed."

Those of us who work with young children -- parents, caregivers, and educators -- have been increasingly feeling these pressures as well. It's hard not to see us as the last stand for the kind of hunter-gatherer education, the relationship based education, that underpins success, however you define it. 

Peter is a researcher to his core, so he's waiting for all the data to come in, but he offers a ray of hope. Speaking about the pandemic, he notes that "some people are learning that going to school is not as important as they thought it was" and that many surveys are showing that more children than ever won't be returning to it the pandemic's aftermath. He sees a spike, for instance, in parents reporting that they intend to homeschool or unschool their children, having seen that their children seem happier and healthier without the daily grind. He talks about "tipping points" when it comes to social change and wonders if perhaps, perhaps, we are beginning to approach one with regard to education, one favors the "more important education."

"They saw the real me."

"They understood me."

"They picked me up when I fell down."

These are the education stories that successful people tell whether they are standing on a stage receiving an award or talking to their grandchildren about a life well-lived. That is the bigger and more important education, the one that no amount of drilling and testing can overcome. It's noteworthy that when I asked Peter, as a parting question, for words of advice for parents and teachers, he answers, "Look into your heart . . . When you're thinking from your heart, what is it you really want for children?" 

******

To hear my entire interview with Peter Gray, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "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 25, 2021

Doing Deep Democracy


I was hanging out on one of our swings chewing the fat with some of the kids. I can't remember what we were talking about, but I'd just said, "I guess I forgot," when Roko earnestly replied, "You know, Teacher Tom, "When you get older you forget more stuff."


The following day, I was a sitting in a circle of children heatlessly arguing about Star Wars. Roko was there and when one of the other kids insisted I was wrong about some detail, I answered, "Well, I saw the first movie a long time ago, when I was a teenager. Roko told me that when you get older you forget more stuff so maybe I just forgot."

Roko nodded, "It's true."

Cecelia, who has just finished her first year of kindergarten, didn't agree, "No, the way it works is you go to another school and another school and every time you go to another school you get smarter and you remember more."


Paul had another thought, "If you see Star Wars when you're little and short, then you get tall and old you forget."

Roko's older brother, Matija, another kindergarten graduate said, "When you get to be like 70 years old you start to forget things. That's what's happening to my grandpa." Now I understood what Roko had originally been trying to warn me about.

Henry then insisted, "You get smarter when you watch TV."

I couldn't help myself, "Really?"

He clarified, "When you watch animal shows, then you get smarter . . . about animals."

Myla jumped in, "I'm a girl scout. We get badges when we learn new things."

Liam told us that he was going to be a boy scout.


One of the youngest boys said, "I'm going to be a girl scout when I get bigger." Some of the older kids jumped on that, telling him that he was a boy and that he would have to be a boy scout. He looked crushed so I tried to buck him up by siding with him, "When I get bigger, I'm going to be a girl scout too. I want to get some of those badges so I don't forget so much stuff." When the kids then turned to me to insist that 1) I wasn't a girl and 2) I was already too old, I role modeled standing up for myself. "If I want to be a girl scout I can be a girl scout."

Myla asked, "Are you like a girl inside of a man?"

"Maybe so."

"Does that mean you have a penis and a vagina?" She was joking, going for an absurdity.

Cecelia jumped in, "I know a girl with a penis."


Several of the older kids responded with some version of, "Really?" an invitation to tell them more, unlike my earlier "Really?" to Henry which had been, frankly, a good natured, but still judgmental expression of doubt.

"Yes, she has a penis and she wants to be called they."

I asked, "She wants to be called they instead of he or she?"

"Yeah, so I call her . . . I mean I call they they."

Myla asked, "So could they be a girl scout or boy scout?"

Cecelia shrugged, "I guess so. They can be anything they want."

Hanging around together, discussing the world and the people we find there, tossing out our thoughts and ideas, sharing without judgement, asking questions, learning new stuff, changing our minds: this is deep democracy.

******

What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Registration is now open for Teacher Tom's Play Summit , a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. Please share this far and wide. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "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 24, 2021

An Intellectually Creative Affair: Teacher Tom's Play Summit


My journey as an early childhood educator began in 1996, the year our daughter was born. In the back of my mind, I'm sure I was aware that my wife and I were going to be her primary "teachers," at least for the time being, but I recall secretly telling myself that this aspect of parenthood could wait. My instinct was to simply love her, care for her, respond to her, and, well, make every moment as perfect as I could. Any "teaching" that I was going to do would come later, I told myself, sort of thinking that I could hold it off at least until we could carry on a conversation.

That was more or less my concept of education back then: adults telling and doing things to children. The Baby Einstein company (now owned by Disney) was founded in 1996, but it wasn't alone in promoting theories about things one could do to boost your newborn's learning potential, like hanging certain types of mobiles over her crib, buying special toys, and the playing of classical music. Well-meaning people gave us these things as gifts, but they went into closets to wait until I thought we were ready for teaching. They felt like distractions or intrusions into our little three-person triangle of love. 

It wasn't until our daughter was two-years-old that I was first exposed to preschool. I'm forever grateful to the random mother I met on a local playground who told me about cooperative preschool. We were loath to send our little girl off to a place for others to raise, but this was a school that required parents to attend with their child. What I found there wasn't anything like my notions of schooling, but rather my ideas of childhood, with parents and children playing together in the context of community. 

I was in awe of the children who surrounded me, these humans who I'd previously thought of as somehow lesser than adults. Daily they astounded me with their curiosities and insights. I had the sensation that it was me, not them, who was scrambling to keep up. It was thrilling for both me and our child to plunge into our cooperative community, engaging with the things and people as we saw fit. We were obviously learning and growing, as were all the children and their parents, but there was little, if any, evidence of "teaching."

This was the gift that teachers Sue Anderson and Chris David (a woman I hold dear as my most important mentor) gave us. Through them, I saw that teaching, as I'd previously perceived of it, had very little to do with learning. Oh sure, I might offer a child useful tips and advice here and there, but most of the learning came from simply playing within the context of community.

Since that time, I've been thinking about learning -- every day. Sometimes all day. Lately, I've been wondering how the lessons I've learned from working with young children apply to adults. I think about Sue, Chris, and the other "teachers" I've had in my adult life. None of them were people who lectured me or tested me or otherwise instructed me. No, most of what I learned from them was by looking in the direction they were looking, observing them as they went about their lives, asking them questions, and listening. I've not become Sue or Chris, but they are both, to this day, part of everything I do.

So how do these principles apply to adults? This is the question I've been asking myself as we've put together the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summit. How do we approach creating a genuine learning environment within the limitations of an online environment? I didn't want to just offer a series of experts to tell and do things to you. This is why I opted for an interview format, one that is more suggestive of dialog than instruction. This is why I opted for a diversity of perspectives, because I've found that real learning happens when we are free to turn things round and round, considering them from all sides, the way young children do with their playthings. And this is why I'm reluctant to pretend to tell you what you will learn from any given session, because each one of us, as children do, will take away something different and unique.

My thesis is that learning, no matter what our age, is indistinguishable from the process of thinking. It is a creative affair. My intent is to offer you the occasions to be intellectually creative, to provide a forum in which ideas become loose parts that each of us are free to assemble into our own learning. How do the ideas offered by, say, Lisa Murphy go together with the insights of Jackie Bennet? Does what Peter Gray says contradict with what we hear from Liana Chavarin or is there a way to put them together in a satisfying whole? How does Kisha Reid's experience compare and contrast to my own? What can I learn from educators in societies as varied as Russia, New Zealand, and Greece? My invitation to you is to come to Teacher Tom's Play Summit with a curious mind. We tend to drop the term "play-based" in favor of "self-directed" when it comes to adults. And that is the environment we're hoping we've created: a place of beautiful ideas for you to turn around in your mind, comparing, contrasting, assembling and creating. There are no competing ideas, only ideas that make your original idea bigger.

What is sorely missing from most online forums, as we've become all too aware during this year of pandemic, is the essential community piece. Our Facebook community group is a hopeful start. There are already thousands of people in there introducing themselves, but that won't be enough. My hope for this summit is that it will spawn communities of adults learning together. One way we hope to do that is to keep the community group alive and vital long after the summit itself is over, but the real work of creating community, as always, comes down to all of us. 

My vision is that each of you will bring your friends and colleagues along with you, for entire schools to take part, and for us to take the learning beyond the limitations of an online conference into your own "real" world where you can really dig into these ideas.

I envision existing communities of educators and parents sitting around together discussing Raffi's ideas, Barb O'Neil's stories, and how Jan White's thoughts on connecting children with nature jibe with Hopi Martin's notion that Mother Earth is the first teacher. 

I see parents and educators sitting in circles discussing what Maggie Dent or Laura Markham alongside the insights of Caitlyn McCain, Roberta Pucci or Suzanne Axelsson, each piecing their learning together like one might a puzzle.

I see school communities asking themselves if Akilah Richards' and our panel of homeschoolers are really telling us to shutter our schools or is their message about unschooling and raising free people one that can be a fulcrum upon which we transform our schools to better suit young children? 

I imagine us wondering together about the stories of Denisha Jones or Nona Orbach or LaleƱa Garcia or John Yiannoudis or Tania Hino.

I hope that this summit sparks a million thoughtful conversations, both online and in our homes and schools. It's the thinking that matters. That is where the learning is.

I'm inviting you to join us. Bring your community. Engage with the loose parts we've come together to offer you. It's an intellectually creative affair. I know you will learn, but what exactly that will be is up to you and your community.

******

What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Registration is now open for Teacher Tom's Play Summit , a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. Please share this far and wide. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "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, May 21, 2021

If it's Belittling to Do This to Adults, Isn't it Also Belittling to Children?


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

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




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

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

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What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Registration is now open for Teacher Tom's Play Summit , a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. Please share this far and wide. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"


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Thursday, May 20, 2021

Space Has a Way of Imposing Its Will on Us



We didn't stay in a lot of hotels when I was a boy, but when we did they were mostly motels because our family often opted for taking trips across the country by car. I remember those long motel hallways with doors all along both sides. They seemed to go on forever. As dad wrangled the suitcases, my brother and I would race ahead, vying to be the first to locate our room. Mom didn't try to stop us from running, even though it was probably against hotel policy and certainly against the etiquette of the era. I imagine she couldn't have stopped us from running even if she tried. I mean, that is what a long, straight hallway says to young children: "Run." 

Our first order of business once we'd claimed our sleeping spots, even before suiting up for the pool, was to grab the ice bucket and race back along that hallway, in search of the ice machine. This, of course, involved either careening down the empty stairways at the end of the halls or, when things were perfect, riding the elevators up and down. In those multi-floor establishments we didn't settle for the first ice machine we found. No, we had once stayed in a place in which we had discovered the ice machines on each floor produced a different shape of ice cube, so from that point on we would have to find all the ice machines in the building before deciding which type our family would be sucking for the evening.

We didn't spend much time in the motel rooms. The highlight were all those hallways, stairways, and elevators.


Space has a way of imposing its will on us. Just as long, straight hallways call out for children to run, large echoey places demand shouting, softly carpeted places command children to tumble, furniture arranged around a central point calls out for round-and-round game of chase, things hanging from the ceiling gives little choice but to jump up, waist high surfaces want to be climbed on, loose parts on the ground say "kick me," doors and drawers with knobs or handles insist upon being pulled open. Adults, perhaps have learned to ignore some of these things, but we are still dramatically influenced by our surroundings, which, I think explains the runaway success of home decorating and remodeling programs where people, spaces, and lives, are transformed by moving a few walls or putting windows in certain places.

When I look at so many spaces that are ostensibly intended for children, I see design that reflects, at best, an adult idea of what children should want, and in many cases they are adult-centric space that are overtly intended to control behavior. Desks in rows come to mind. Too many of our rules come down to an attempt to fight against the higher rules dictated by space. Walking in regimented lines down the hallways is a case in point.

As important adults in children's lives, we too often find ourselves scolding the children when our challenge really is about space. "No running!" "Indoor voices!" "That's not for climbing!" "Feet on the floor!" Some of us kind of give in, like my mother did, sending us out into those hallways, stairways, and elevators, closing the door behind us and counting on the kids to take care of themselves. Others try imposing rules or creating unnatural consequences (punishments) for simply following the dictates of the space in which we find ourselves. The wisest of us identify the source of our frustrations and rearrange the furniture or otherwise alter our spaces so that they speak differently to children.


And some embrace it. A recent conversation with an educator form New Zealand reminded me of one of the most genius playground structures I've ever experienced. It was back in 2013 when I was visiting the city of Auckland. On a dark, damp day, I came upon a freestanding structure that I at first thought was a strange narrow building under construction, but on closer inspection, I realized that I was seeing the product of someone who understood children and space from the inside out. There is was the motel of my childhood, stripped of walls and doors: it was nothing more and nothing less than three stories of hallways, stairways, with an elevator on each end. I was instantly transported to my own childhood. My brother and I would have been in heaven.

The only thing that would make it better would be a pool of water below it into which to drop pennies, because, after all, that magnificent three-stories in height says, quite clearly, "Drop something off!"

******

Registration is now open for Teacher Tom's Play Summit , a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world, including, of course, New Zealand, a place where I have consistency found that they get early childhood right. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. Please share this far and wide. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, and inspired to create a world -- a space -- that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "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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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

We Will Win When We Love


Psychologist Carl Jung wrote, "Where love rules there is not a will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking." This, I think, is an important thing upon which modern educators in general, and early childhood educators in particular, could stand to meditate.

I strive to place love at the center of my practice, as I know is true of most of my colleagues. We genuinely love the children we teach and they love us. I've witnessed this to be widely true wherever I've visited. It's perhaps our greatest reward (because it sure isn't financial). When it goes as it should, we spend our days loving and being loved, swimming in it, breathing it. Our job is to keep them safe and to otherwise simply be there, loving them and helping them as they figure out how to connect with, to love, more people. This is the foundation of not just all learning, but all living in the fullest sense of the word.


When I look at our habitual idea of schooling, I see a lot of loving individual teachers working in a system in which love has been pushed to the side, and where power therefore predominates. From our earliest years, we are judged by our educational system, one that pretends to know what is normal and to then act to enforce it. The French philosopher Michel Foucault sees this as an exercise in power, a form he calls "normalization," in which our souls are imprisoned by expectations and standards and this has characterized our schools right up to our current era of high stakes standardized testing which has come to dominate the educational experience for most of our children.

It's a system of power that appears largely designed to create "normal" children rather than educated ones, where those that cannot bend to the will of the system are labelled, then subjected to increasingly overt forms of power, right up to the use of force, which is ultimately a failure of power. They must either "learn" how to behave or find themselves rejected. It's a power, however, that isn't derived so much from the threat of force as from the capacity to label: this one is "normal" and that one is "abnormal," and it can only exist as a poor replacement for the love that should stand at the center, but has been pushed aside.

I watched a baby on my flight home from visiting our daughter in New York over a long weekend some time ago, and what I saw was a free human. Sure, he was 100 percent dependent upon the adult humans in his life, yet because love clearly stood at the center of his relationships with those important adults, this dependency didn't translate into them exerting power over him. Instead of "behaving," he shouted when he felt the urge, grabbed whatever was within reach, bounced furiously, cried from his belly, and everyone around him considered this to be "normal." You do too. This is just what babies do. By the same token, when his two-year-old brother whined or cried or kicked the seats in front of him, people around me shook their heads and pursed their lips, as if to say, "This mother needs to gain control over her child," to exert power over him. That is to say, this slightly older human cannot be allowed to be free.


Thankfully, this mother on this six hour flight did not replace her love with power, but I couldn't help but reflect that it was, sadly, only a matter of time.

Of course, we are all subject to Foucault's normalized power. We allow society to exert its power over us. We don't shout and cry on airplanes, even when we may often feel like it. And when one of us does "lose it," the rest tend to agree that he ought to be removed from the plane. Although if we think beyond our own comfort and the arbitrary confines of "normal," I expect we can all see how love would be a more appropriate response to that troubled individual than an exercise in power.

I know there are some teachers who have become creatures of the system. I came across them in my own schooling: those who allow their will to power to dominate, who see success in terms of well-behaved, properly drilled students, turning out passing grades and high enough test scores, normal kids prepared for normal lives. Thankfully, most teachers have not lost touch with love and who, despite the demands of the our habitual schools to normalize children, set their love between the children and those demands, putting love first, especially for those who would whine and cry and kick the seats in front of them. These teachers are my heroes.

Our schools are not unique in having replaced love with power. Indeed, it has become the main focus of most of our institutions and professions to label what is normal and what is not, then to work to make as many of us normal as possible, to exert power over not just how we behave, but ultimately who we are.

It upsets me when I think that these free humans that we teach will all too soon find themselves increasingly subject to this normalized power, the systematic hammering down and smoothing out, the judgements and labels.

Ah, but we have love on our side. It is perhaps the only revolutionary force in that it is the only thing that can supplant power. When we celebrate heroes, it is always because they have loved where others would control. It is always because they have chosen to empower rather than exercise power. I am inspired by thinking about all of us preschool teachers out there in the world in our church basements and living rooms, our classrooms and playgrounds, fighting the power every day by simply loving. They think we are weak, but we are strong. We are the revolutionary force the world needs and we will win when we love.

******

Love comes first. Registration is now open for Teacher Tom's Play Summit which will take place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders. Every one of these people are professionals who have, in their own amazing and varied ways, placed love first. Please share this far and wide. Together we can, with love in our hearts, 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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