Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Teacher Tom's Play Summit is Here: Together, Let's Turn This World Around




It's time to do more than just mark you calendar. I'm giddy to announce that registration for Teacher Tom's Play Summit is officially open!

You probably haven't been counting down to this day like I have, but if you've been awaiting this moment, you can click through right now to get signed up

I can't tell you how proud I am to offer this online conference, June 20-25, entirely for free. It means a lot to me to be able to bring you 26 early childhood and parenting experts from around the world -- from New Zealand to Sweden, from Canada to Greece, from Russia to Australia -- to share an incredibly wide variety of perspectives on education, parenting, and the current state of childhood.

There are several names you're sure to recognize, like children's troubadour Raffi, Ooey Gooey Lady Lisa Murphy, champion of childhood Peter Gray, renowned parenting experts Maggie Dent and Dr. Laura Markham, and the magnificent and profound Akilah Richards. And while I'm grateful and honored that these amazing presenters have joined us, I might be even more excited about this opportunity to introduce you to some less well-known people who have been my teachers over the months and years. Please click through to the registration page if only to take a look at our diverse line-up, guaranteed to make you think, and likely to transform your life and the lives of the children who count on you.

This is more than a summit. It is also a call to action. For decades now, children have been losing their childhoods. Play is being replaced by homework. According to research presented by Peter Gray, we have never before seen such high levels of depression and anxiety among our children, even as young as three-years-old, a trend that can be linked directly to our increased societal focus on soul-crushing, top-down, sit-in-your-seats, academic style education. The pandemic, according to Peter, seems to have resulted in a reduction in childhood mental illness, at least in some populations. Think about that! It took a plague to get us to start allowing some children the opportunity to have the kind of childhood that we once took for granted.

As unschool parent Natalie Pipkin tells us, "We traded in meaningless curriculum for meaningful conversations."

Play-based educator extraordinaire Kisha Reid says, "Let's take over the world!" It's something that many of us who care about young children have been thinking for years. The research is with us, the need is clear, and the moment is now. I, for one, have been waiting my entire professional career for someone to step up to take the lead. As I approach my 60th birthday, it occurs to me that if it's going to happen, maybe we together are the ones the world's children have been waiting for.

It's with this in mind that I invited Raffi to join us. This Grammy-nominated, gold and platinum selling creator of more than 30 albums of songs for children, and writer of some of our most beloved songs, including the classic "Baby Beluga," is on a mission to transform the world by honoring children. This is exactly the kind of inspiration we need in these times.

But change can't happen without all of us.

In creating this summit, my wife Jennifer and I have intentionally gone out of our way to create a multi-perspective event. We have failed, of course, to provide every perspective, that would require eight billion presenters, but we intend it to be the start of an effort to break up the prevailing single perspective too often found in gatherings of early childhood educators and parents.

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

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

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

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

Educator Suzanne Axelsson, who is autistic herself, tearfully tells us about the experience of her three autistic children who struggled to navigate a single-perspective Swedish school system. In listening to her vulnerable and candid perspective, we clearly see why it is so important, if we truly care about children, to learn to look at everything from all sides and seek out those who can help us do that.

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

I'm inviting your open heart and mind to this free event. Click here to learn more and register. See you there! Together we can turn this world around.


******

Please join us June 20-25 for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass to all 26 of our incredible sessions. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Together we can turn this world around!


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, May 17, 2021

"Bewilderment is the True Comprehension"




I was waiting at the crosswalk. Across the street was a building of windows. Behind me was a future building of windows, yet another downtown residential tower under construction. I could see a multitude of reflections of the building behind me in the windows of the building across from me. Then, in a flash, I was bewildered as it seemed that the building I was looking at, or its windows, or something strange inside of it, began to, it seemed, undulate or vibrate or wiggle. 

Was the building falling? Shaking? Were we having an earthquake that I somehow couldn't feel, but only see? Was some magic afoot?

My confusion ended in a moment as I realized I was seeing a construction elevator ascending in those reflections across the street, it's image flashing first in one set of window panes, then another, as it rose. The moment of disorientation had lasted but a second, and now, on the other side of perplexity, I'd created comprehension.

I don't remember a time when I didn't, at least intuitively, comprehend reflections in glass surfaces, but certainly there was that time. I think of my own infant daughter who would sometimes seem startled by her own reflection in the mirrors of our home. That construction elevator, reflected in dozens of windows, had likewise startled me before, as the mind does, I made sense of the nonsense.

But, of course, all those reflections were not nonsense and there is no guarantee that what I'd constructed as comprehension had anything to do with reality. I mean, it might seen ludicrous, but it's quite possible that the entirety of what we perceive is simply a mosaic of infinite reflections, that we each, individually, assemble into "sense." Scientists assure us that we can never really know what we are "seeing," the inadequacy of our senses limit what we can really know about the universe, and "comprehension," as we know it, isn't a way toward greater truth, but rather a way out of bewilderment.

Martin Luther, the original Protestant, wrote, "Bewilderment is the true comprehension. Not to know where you are going it the true knowledge." 

When I think of human history, or at least the tiny sliver that I know about, I see a species constantly seeking to overcome its bewilderment, to create sense from the nonsense, to comprehend the incompressible. I also see a species constantly trading one perplexity for another, understanding (or thinking we understand) one thing only to find something beyond it that we don't understand. We delude ourselves when we believe that we are coming somehow closer to a universal and final understanding.

Confusion, bewilderment, perplexity, not knowing: that is the true nature of life.

It's easy to see this in young children who have been entrusted with the freedom to play, children who are not being constantly instructed on how they ought to overcome their bewilderment, but rather left to pursue "true knowledge" on their own. Children move from bewilderment to bewilderment. Sometimes it startles or alarms them. Sometimes it intrigues them, peaking their curiosity. Sometimes children approach their bewilderment with caution, taking their slow, deliberate time, while at other times they throw themselves into it. As adults we too often see their bewilderment as something we must fix, so we tell them how, or show them why, or hurry their process with tips and hints that point them in the "right" direction. When we do that, I wonder if we aren't robbing them of their true knowledge, which is, their bewilderment.

We tend to cast bewilderment in a negative light, as something to be avoided. I'm thinking now of a loved one suffering from dementia. This is a woman who, in her prime, was an intellectual giant, a person gifted in the art of creating sense from nonsense. But it's not the bewilderment that disturbs her. No, it's rather that dementia has taken away her ability to construct comprehension the way she once did with such panache. That is, to me, the real tragedy of dementia, not the bewilderment, but the inability to move beyond it. 

As I watched that construction elevator's many reflections, each slightly different than the other, create the illusion of movement up the side of the building across the street, I found myself trying to return to that initial moment of bewilderment, to again see what I'd originally seen. I couldn't do it, of course, but I've been thinking about it for weeks now. There was, for me, a moment of sheer delight in my bewilderment, when the world suddenly didn't make sense to me, when reality gave me a glimpse into its true nature which is to be fully, joyfully, and completely incomprehensible. 

We are the sense makers, each of us, all of us. We are windows that reflect according to our own, unique angle and perspective, each possessing true, but incomplete knowledge. Tom Hunter sang, "Build it up and knock it down, and build it up again. Knock it down and build it up and knock it down again." It's song that goes around and around, infinitely, reflecting the true knowledge that every preschooler knows. From bewilderment we construct comprehension, but being incomplete it cannot lasts, and then we do it again. 

*****

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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Friday, May 14, 2021

What I Tell Parents About Play-Based Education


Based on my informal and unscientific surveys of early childhood educators, one of the biggest hurdles to fully realizing play-based education is "the parents." Not all the parents, of course, but there are apparently a lot who might like the idea of their children playing, but who have bought into the "fall behind" snake oil. This leads them to apply pressure to us to become "more academic" in defiance of the science behind how young children learn.

I've found that one of the best things one can do for your play-based program is to consciously manage those expectations, right from the start. For us, the process of getting parents on our bandwagon starts with our spring orientation.

I use this opportunity to tell the assembled parents that I will not be teaching their children literacy, although they will be laying the foundations for literacy through their play, their dramatic play in particular; every time we read to them or tell them stories, or when they tell stories to us; each time they get excited and say, "Hey that's my letter!" or "That's your letter!" I won't be teaching them, but they'll be doing exactly what they need to do to read when their brains are ready.

I tell them that I will not be teaching their children math, although they will be practicing their math skills every time they count something out, put things in order, arrange things in groups, worked a puzzle, make or identify a pattern.

I tell them I am particularly uninterested in teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) skills so they would be ready for those "jobs of tomorrow," although again, through their play they will be engaged in teaching these things to themselves. When one studies children at play, it's impossible to not see them as scientists or engineers, asking and answering their own questions, engaging in experiments, figuring out fundamental truths about our world and the other people. 

I tell these parents that I'm singularly uninterested in vocational training. The proper career aspiration for a preschooler is princess or superhero. The jobs for which their children will be applying two decades from now do not yet exist and anyone who tells you they can predict the employment landscape that far into the future is blowing smoke. The jobs my 24-year-old daughter is considering did not exist when she was in preschool. The careers my high school counselors suggested that I pursue would have left me unemployable today. But more importantly, we don't educate our children so that they can take their role in the economy, but rather so that they can perform their role as citizens.

We then talk a lot about "community" at our parent meeting. In fact, nearly everyone who speaks finds that word in their mouth, not because it's part of a coordinated effort, but because it is the real foundation of what we do at our school. We're a cooperative which means that we are owned and operated by the parents who enroll their children and these parents will attend school with their children, serving as assistant teachers. We are not just a community of children, but in a real sense, on a day-to-day basis, a community of families, assembled together around the common goal of supporting our children as they learn the foundational skills of citizenship.

At it's most basic, this means that we strive to form a community in which our children can practice living in a world with other people, learning how to get their own needs met while also leaving space for others to meet theirs. Nothing is more important, not just for individuals, but for our larger society. A good citizen is someone who thinks critically, who thinks for herself; a good citizen is someone who asks a lot of questions and who questions authority; a good citizen knows that it is not just their right, but their responsibility, to speak their mind, even when others disagree; a good citizen likewise knows that they must listen, especially when they disagree; a good citizen knows that they contribute to society in ways far more vital and varied than as a worker bee. It is from citizens with these traits that strong communities, strong democracies, are made.

I tell our assembled parent community that their children will be learning these things as they play together, creating their own community, and that it wouldn't always be pretty. Their children will come home covered in water, mud, paint, snot, and even upon occasion, blood. Their children will find themselves embroiled in conflict. They will be learning through joy, yes, but also tears. They will, as they must, mix it up with the other children, sort things out, make agreements, and help one another. They will teach themselves to be self-motivated, to work well with others, and begin to understand the importance of being personable, all of which are, not accidentally, the most important "vocational" skills of all.

I tell the assembled adults that our job is not to teach them anything, but rather to love and support them as they perform their inquiries, test their theories, and figure out what works for them and what doesn't. We're not there to push or command or mold, but rather to create a safe space in which the children can play, together, in the context of their community.

It takes a village to raise a child and this is where it starts.

******

If you're interested in learning more about creating a learning "village" that parents will wholeheartedly support, I've developed this 6-part e-course in which I've included everything I know about Partnering With Parents. It takes a village to raise a child. 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. How would it be to have parents show up as allies? (Click this link to register and to learn more.) Discounts are available for groups.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Practice of Purpose



When parents say they just want their child to be happy or that they just want their child to love to learn, I think what they are saying, without really knowing it, is that they want their child to find their purpose. Of course, it sounds a bit ridiculous to talk about a two-year-old finding something as significant as their "purpose." That's something that takes decades to discover, and only then after much trail, error, and introspection. It seems to us that most adults haven't figured that out, if we ever do. No, that's too much pressure to put on a kid, to find their purpose, but we wish for them what we perceive as the products of a life with a purpose -- curiosity, passion, direction, a sense of being worthy, determination, resilience, contentment, and a place in community. 

But I wonder if we sometimes get purpose all wrong. It gets mixed up with such things as doing well in school or career or the day-to-day purpose behind things like caring for a family. We think we see it in people who are driven towards a goal, while shaking our heads over those who seem aimless. When we really step back, we might be generous and philosophical enough to see purpose as a journey and that while our very young children may not yet have a destination in mind, these first steps toward happiness and love of learning are the necessary and proverbial beginning of the journey of their lifetime. The longer I've lived, however, the more I've come to understand purpose, not as a progression through time, but rather a practice of the moment.


Purpose is important. Psychologist William Damon, and author of the book The Path to Purpose writes that "(s)tudy after study has found a persons' sense of life purpose (is) closely connected to virtually all dimensions of wellbeing." People with a purpose tend to be mentally, physically, and socially healthier, live longer, and are far less inclined to self-destructive behaviors. So, we are right to be concerned about it: purpose seems to be a kind of inoculation against many of the pitfalls of life, so of course we want to see signs of curiosity, passion and direction in our children, and we fret when they feel badly about themselves, give up too easily, or seem anything but content. But, I think, we too often mistake these traits as the source of a purposeful life, rather than, as they are, the result of living a life of purpose.

As we do with so many things in life, we get the cart before the horse. First we must be free, and trusted, to find our own purpose. When we stop distracting them with our adult agenda, we see two-year-olds living lives of purpose every day, exploring their physical, social, and emotional world. There is no one more purposeful than a preschooler engaged in self-selected play. This is the where the foundations of the practice of purpose are laid. We see it clearly for what it is: exploration, discovery, and invention. Ultimately, these are the traits we see behind a life of purpose. Goals and objectives are distractions, they take our eye off the ball, they place contentment or success or satisfaction always just out of reach, like sweet carrots dangled in front of a stubborn mule's nose.


Young children have shown me what purpose is all about. It's not a means to an end, but rather the end. To practice purpose is nothing less that to come alive. I think that is what parents mean when they talk about happiness or love of learning: they want their children to come alive. This, at least, is my definition of a life of purpose. As author and civil rights leader Howard Thurman advised, "Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

When I stand amongst free children, all questions of goals and objectives, of happiness and love of learning, fall away into irrelevancy. I am with the humans who are most fully alive. This is the practice of purpose and we see it every day where children are trusted with freedom.

******

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


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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Being With Our Toddlers as They Explore the World




Growing up, television was still a relatively new thing, at least around our house. The only reason we came to understand that our black and white Zenith wasn't state-of-the-art was because NBC started promoting itself as being "in living color." I remember asking dad why our pictures were still black and white, when the announcer said it was in color, which is how I learned that we would have to buy a whole new TV if we were going to see living color in our own den. I learned a lot by asking mom and dad questions about the programs we watched.

Watching the "boob tube," as mom called it, was usually a family affair. We sat together and talked about what we were watching. Conversation was what made me, as a boy, prefer television to going to the movies where you had to sit quietly in deference to all the other people. The highlight of our television week was The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights. Mom would pop up a big bowl of popcorn and slice up some apples for dinner and we would all settle in for an evening of running commentary. 

Without really thinking about it, I carried the watch-and-talk tradition into my own parenting. I automatically sat down with Josephine to watch Barney or Teletubbies or Powderpuff Girls, and we would talk about what we were seeing, thinking, and feeling. I had studied "mass media" in college and in the way my own father, a transportation engineer, would educate us about the nuances of transportation design as we drove around town, I would deconstruct the advertisements we watched, pointing out the half-truths, weasel words, and outright fabrications. Sometimes she would argue with me, insisting that I was wrong and that if we bought the toy on the screen her life would be more complete. I thought I was trying to push water uphill until one day she was watching a baseball game with me. A beer commercial came on. It featured lots of young men drinking beer being fawned over by young women drinking beer. She said, "That's not true! Drinking beer won't make people like you!"

That's when I realized I was raising her to be a media critic rather than just a passive observer.

In their book Media Exposure During Infancy and Early Childhood, researchers Daniel Anderson and Katherine Hanson tell us that co-viewing media with toddlers promotes both critical and creative thinking. Believe it or not, as important adults in children's lives, we remain far more influential than media messages, but not if we leave those who would "target" our children alone in the room with them. When we're there to offer our insights and opinions, to answer their questions, to scoff, joke, listen, and generally connect with our children over this mutual experience, we start to equip them for their future in which navigating the media will become increasingly vital. The window for us to "curate" our child's life influences is very limited. They will soon enough be exploring the darkest corners of the internet on their own no matter how much we limit them in their preschool years and it's in their best interest that we strive send them off into that world with the eye of a critic.

There are many of us who look at the world through our screens, say, "No way," and turn them off altogether for our children. It's a natural response, but I'm not sure it's tenable, knowing as we do that more and more of our lives are going to be taking place online. It is, whether we like it or not, an increasingly important aspect of "real life." We owe it to our children to prepare them for it by being there, holding their hands as they explore it, answering their questions, and showing them the ropes as best we can. Their own ability to navigate the new world will quickly surpass our own and when it does, they are on their own, but we can prepare them by joining them on their journey, talking and listening, for as long as they'll permit us.

******

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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Where Community Begins


Several years ago, I was passing a table at which four boys were eating snack. They were discussing a classmate, a boy with sensory challenges that often manifested in ways that disturbed and even hurt his classmates. One of them said as I passed, "He's a bad guy." That stopped me in my tracks.

"Yeah," a friend replied, "He's a real bad guy."

And another, "He hurts me all the time."

The poor boy had one defender in the group who added, "He never hurts me," but his opinion was overwhelmed by the prevailing sentiment. As I stood there, they came to an agreement that they weren't going to play with him any longer.

As a teacher, it was upsetting to hear. Yes, he had hurt these boys and others. They had every right to be wary of him, even to shun him. That said, this was a preschooler with a diagnosed condition, one that caused him to behave impulsively. He wasn't a "bad guy," of course, but there was no doubt that he frequently did bad things: things that hurt and frightened other people.

I went home that day knowing that we adults needed to do something. There is always going to be a little hitting and shoving around a preschool, but obviously, despite our best efforts, we had not succeeded in keeping the other children safe from this particular boy. Because of that, the kids, or at least the four boys I'd overheard, had decided to take matters into their own hands, labeling and then shunning, "natural" consequences that come right out of our hunter-gatherer past. But obviously, this was a natural consequence we could not allow to stand, not in a school setting and not amongst children.

Ultimately, our "solution" involved the kind of transparency that is one of the hallmarks of a cooperative school. Since all the parents work in the school as assistant teachers, all of them were already aware not only of this boy's behavior, but the underlying condition that caused it. We had already been attempting to mitigate things with a plan of action, but it was clear we were falling short, so after much discussion, some of it tense and tearful, we decided the best thing to do was to extend our transparency to the children, to share this boy's challenges with them, to explain how he wasn't a "bad guy," but that his brain sometimes made him do bad things, like hurting other people. And instead of having these discussions at school where we feared they would have the affect of shaming the boy, we placed the responsibility upon each family to talk about this boy and his challenges with their own children at home. We provided resources as a fallback, but we left it to each family to find their own way of discussing it.

This was, to say the least, a challenging emotional process for the parents of the boy who was not a "bad guy." His mother shared some of her feelings with us, but I can only imagine her private anguish. It was often crushing for her to sit in those parent meetings where we discussed her son's behavior hearing from her peers what the other children had experienced and what they were saying at home. It was almost unbearable to hear her own beloved child being labeled "bad guy." Yet, she understood it too, he had done "bad" things to those other children. She later shared with me, however, that the process had also been cathartic. She had often worried about what others were saying about her family behind closed doors, but now, with it all out in the open, she had found compassion where she had feared accusation.

As the weeks passed, families had their discussions at home, helping their children understand and how they could help him. Things got a little better. We coached the kids to be firm with him, even proactive:

"I don't like that!"

"You can play with me if you don't hurt me."

"You are hugging me too hard!"

"Don't knock down my building."

The hurting still happened, although perhaps not as much as before. But more importantly, the children began to show more compassion toward him when he was impulsive because we had helped them actually understand their classmate beyond the cookie cutter label of "bad guy." Sure, they still yelled at him, got angry, and cried, but they were far less prone toward shunning. I'll never forget one girl saying to him, "I know it's hard for you to do, but if you don't stop pinching me, I'm not going to play with you." It was a kind of perfect balance between compassion and self-preservation.

This process would be a difficult, if not impossible, thing to do in a traditional school where "privacy" and "confidentiality" concerns override those of transparency, but that doesn't mean that parents' hands are tied. The school may not be able to be transparent, but parents can be. We found that one of the most powerful tools at our disposal was one-on-one play after school, at homes where a calmer atmosphere made the boy less inclined to his impulsivity, where the children could form a different kind of bond than was possible at school, where they had the opportunity to make deposits in the "good time bank," so that when problems arose there was a balance to fall back upon. But perhaps most importantly, it gave the parents a chance to get to know one another which is where compassion grows best.

In other words, it all came down to relationships and it started with adults of goodwill because that's where community begins.

******

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


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, May 10, 2021

Making Irrevocable Decisions with Insufficient Information


As a 24-year-old married man, I was certain that I didn't want to be a parent. My wife felt the same way. We had lives to live, after all. We were the kind of people with places to go, things to do, adventures to have, and none of them involved being parents. I once found myself being harangued (or so it felt) by a colleague, himself a new father, "Until you have children, you're just scratching around on the surface of life. I want to go deeper." And I replied, "You're just digging the same hole everyone else is digging. I'd rather at least try digging somewhere else."

He wasn't the last one to suggest that I would be missing out were I not to have children, my mother being prominent among them. I pretended to listen, but with my mind made up against their evangelism. They were all so earnest, so sincere, so sure of their decision, but, I reasoned, they had no other choice but to be that way: they had made an irrevocable decision and to behave otherwise would be a kind of cruelty to these new lives to which they were now committed. Of course, they had to adopt the position that parenthood was a transformative experience. What repelled me in particular, however, was their condescension that no one could fully appreciate it until they were likewise irrevocably on the other side.

As tends to happen, our child-bearing friends drifted away from us as we collected friends who, like us, chose to remain "free," a world in which it was a given that parents were a self-deluded bunch. We saw them in public, haggard, hair a-tangle. Their children behaved atrociously in restaurants and on airplanes. They were forever scolding through tight lips, obviously right on the edge, as their children whined and cried and misbehaved. If we did reach out to them with social intent for old times sake, everything was dependent upon the reliability of teenaged babysitters and contingent upon saying goodnight at 8 p.m. And the few conversations we had were about poop and pee and vomit. No thank you.

A decade later, we had a child, a perfect baby girl, and discovered that it was, indeed, a transformative experience. And like every parent before us, we had made this irrevocable decision based upon insufficient information, which is the nature of transformation. One moment we were not parents, "free" as we once thought ourselves, and now we were on the other side, finally able, as the evangelists had asserted, to fully appreciate it. Only now did the other parents finally confess to the trials we had previously glimpsed, judgmentally, from the outside. But now we understood. We were, in an instant, new people, dramatically different than we had been before. Better? I don't know about that, but definitely and irrevocably different, so different that we could hardly comprehend the people we had been before.

The term "transformative experience" is one too often surrounded with a lot of woo-woo hoopla, but it is a real and powerful thing. We are always changing, of course, usually gradually, one day at a time, like the way aging works, but a transformative experience comes abruptly. Sometimes they are thrust upon us, like when a loved one dies unexpectedly, but just as often we choose them, even if unconsciously, through the decisions we make. On the other side, we have been transformed into different people. And while I would argue that change is necessary, it is not always good, or at least not all good. The haggard, hair a-tangle parent is as real as the one who is full to bursting with parental love.

You don't have to have a baby to have a transformative experience. Indeed, anyone who has lived for a few years has had them. Young children have them all the time, moments when they suddenly discover new things about the world, new ways of being, new ways to interact. And these experiences are usually challenging and difficult, but they are also what keeps us intellectually alive and vibrant as we figure out this new world in which we find ourselves.

Too often, as we grow older, we stop choosing our transformations. We grow afraid of the insufficient information, we come to fear the inevitable difficulty, we grow increasingly cautious about change. The problem is that we then leave the field open for the transformative experiences to find us instead of us finding them. Much better, I think, is to keep choosing, childlike, to leap into the new, to continue to make irrevocable decisions with insufficient information. That's how we renew ourselves. That's what transformative experience is all about.

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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Friday, May 07, 2021

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, May 06, 2021

To Be Alive is to be Ceaselessly Beginning



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Seeking Not Truth, But Complete Truth


I grew up in a household with magazine subscriptions. We always had the latest edition of Time and Sports Illustrated on the coffee table, and for a long time we took National Geographic as well. I'm pretty sure mom read Women's Day, and there were others. As I got older, when I had my own magazine budget to spend, I chose comic books. 

Magazines were a habit I took with me into the world. As a young man I subscribed to all kinds of magazines, periodicals I considered more sophisticated than the ones my parents read, like Harpers, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. Later I began to receive a number of literary journals like The Paris Review, The Sun, and other less well known publications, looking vainly for a place to that might be open to publishing my own strange (and, I know now, immature) fiction. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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