Monday, February 28, 2022

You Will Always Find People Who Are Helping


Over the weekend, I was in Rockport, Texas at the Coastal Bend Children's Conference hosted by the Children's Coalition of Aransas County.

You may remember the name of Rockport, but maybe not why. This was the community that was devastated by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The coalition was formed in response, with the mission of supporting families and their young children as they strive to recover.

I recall when Harvey was the major news story. It was on my mind for a week or two. But the fact that Harvey came up in nearly every one of my conversations this weekend tells me how fresh it all still is for those who lived through it.

Some years back, I had a similar experience when I visited Christchurch, New Zealand to find the people there were still living through the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.


As I write this, families in the Ukraine are fleeing their homes or hiding in tunnels and cellars, as bombs and bullets fly. Right now, we are sharing images of sunflowers, public buildings are being lit up in yellow and blue, but if experience is any guide it will only be a matter of months before their living hell will be little more than a memory for most of us, even as today, this very minute, our hearts and minds are ablaze with empathy.

As I spoke to those Aransas County educators, these (mostly) women, who are, day after day, working on behalf of children and their families, I was amongst the people who did not move on, who could not move on, who knew that once the wind and rain came to an end that there were children who needed them. These are women who allowed their empathy, their compassion, and indeed, their love to spare them to start rebuilding where it matters most.

photo credit unknown

When humans are injured, our bodies release endogenous opioid neuropeptides, otherwise known and endorphins, a type of neurotransmitter, a morphine-like substance that is produced in times of stress, fear, or pain to suppress the transmission of pain signals to the brain, even creating a state of euphoria as one might expect from an opioid. When invaded by foreign objects like bacteria or viruses, our bodies produce proteins called immunoglobulins, or antibodies, that neutralize the invading organisms, killing them and removing them from our bodies.

When I think of endorphins and antibodies I imagine them swarming to the scene, overwhelming the attackers and invaders with sheer numbers. These women of Aransas County swarmed to the scene as well, and are still swarming there, like endorphins or antibodies, racing to the scene of tragedy to be helpers, to suppress the pain, to kill the virus, replacing the horror with the euphoria of human love. We see this phenomenon over and over, and while our news media focuses on the scary things, these women, and women like them, are swarming to the scene everywhere, just not always where the news cameras are pointed.

Forget the cynics and fear-mongers, this is a great truth about human beings: when there is pain, we swarm. You will always find people who are helping, and we are legion.

******

"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices.
If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 

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Friday, February 25, 2022

When We Are Free To Seek Our Own Answers


Man is nothing else, but what he makes of himself. ~Jean-Paul Sartre

Among the founding principles of our American democracy is the ideal that we each be free to pursue "happiness." That's not a guarantee of happiness, but rather an aspirational statement, one that envisions each of us having the opportunity to choose our own course in life; whether that leads to happiness (however that is defined) or not is up to each individual. I don't think anyone believes that we have, as a society, fully achieved this particular freedom of pursuit, but it's an ideal that has the virtue of being nobel.

I think about the "pursuit of happiness" nearly every day, my own and that of the children I teach. Indeed, I consider it my highest goal on most days, to do what I can to create a bubble within which we are all free to ask and answer our own questions, which is, I think, the key aspect of anyone's pursuit of happiness. Answering other people's questions simply makes you a tool of their pursuit. It's only through finding answers to our own questions that we come a little closer to our personal truth, and as Mister Rogers sang, "The truth will make me free."


As adults we tend to take a longer view, pinning our future happiness on a set of circumstances that, when achieved, will, we believe, cause us contentment and satisfaction, that will fill us with joy in the morning, love during the day, and peace at night. Children are more focused on their immediate futures and they typically don't spend a lot of energy contemplating even that, choosing to rather apply themselves to the pursuit, to their self-selected path, the one that is paved with their own curiosity. They understand better than we do that the word "pursuit" is best understood as a synonym for "search."

What I see children doing each day as they play, is search for nothing more or less than the meaning of life. As sophomoric as that sounds, I've come to understand that this what education in a democracy must always be about and the degree to which we lose sight of that is the degree to which we rob others of their right to their pursuit of happiness. Discovering the meaning of life, our own life, our one unique life, is what we're here to do. It's a question that we were born to ask and one that only we can answer for ourselves. And we can only do that when we are free to seek our own answers: in that direction lies the meaning of life.

******

"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices.
If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 

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, February 24, 2022

"Then We Will All Be In The Middle"

Anthony James


The two-year-old stood at the bottom of the stairway. From her perspective it must have looked massive, probably unlike any stairway she had ever seen, wide enough for a dozen people to ascend shoulder to shoulder. We were in the multi-storied atrium of an art museum and these stairs wound their way to galleries on the top floor.

She stood there for a moment, then took her mother's hand. "I want to go up these stairs," she said. "I want to go up them until they stop." When she lifted her short, chubby leg to step onto the first of the stairs her entire body tipped with the effort. Step-over-step, hand-in-hand she set off on her self-selected journey.

Over her head, her mother signaled silently to the other adults in their party, a father perhaps and grandparents, to go on about their own art museum business.

I've taken hundreds of children to art museums over the years, including my own daughter when she was even younger than this girl. And almost always, it's not the art on the walls, but rather the architecture that draws them in. They want to climb the stairs, to swing on the railings, to get lost in the maze of galleries. They want to scale the statues, press their noses to the windows, test the sound of their voices within these walls, and, of course, check out the restrooms.

Adults know why they are here: to see the artwork. I myself was there to see a certain special exhibit. We tend to utilize the architecture functionally, employing the stairs and hallways to get somewhere, the windows for lighting, the railings as something to stand behind, the walls as backdrops for paintings.

This girl was making a quest of the stairs. Later I found her in the top floor galleries stretching out on one of the benches that only very old or very tired adults tend to make use of. Her mother was standing beside her. "I want you to sit with me," she said, "And I want daddy to sit here too. I want to be in the middle."

Her mother went to the railing to look down through the vertical space of the atrium, presumedly to locate the daddy. The girl followed her, leaning her full body against the glass to see all the way to the bottom. "I see the stairs mommy. I see the stairs where we started. When we go down that's where we go."

This is what so many children are driven to do in new places, to map them in their heads, to understand them. They want to go up the stairs until they stop, they want to discover where this or that passageway goes, they want to explore the unfamiliar space. At least that has been my experience in taking children to art museums, libraries, fire stations, or anywhere for that matter.

Architecture speaks to young children in ways it perhaps no longer speaks to adults. They feel it in ways we don't feel it. It calls to them to run in its long narrow spaces or shout in its echoey chambers. It says climb with its half walls and jump when something hangs from above. Naturally, because of this, when you bring groups of children to public spaces, the security details go into high alert, shadowing the enthused explorers who are not typically behaving with hushed decorum, who are not fixing their gaze on paintings or sculptures. This little girl on her own can be tolerated perhaps, but more than one or two, or older children with bigger bodies and bigger voices, children who behave like children, are frowned upon.

This is exactly what architect Simon Nicholson was writing about in his manifesto that appeared in a 1971 issue of Landscape Architecture entitled "How Not to Treat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts Play." His big idea was that we are most inventive and creative when allowed to construct, manipulate, and otherwise play with our environments. He argued that when we leave the design of spaces to professionals, we are, in effect, excluding children (and adults) from the most important, and fun, part of the process. We are, in his words, "stealing" it from the children.

That the theory of loose parts emerged from architecture is fascinating to think about. It echoes, in a way, the work of Reggio Emilia founder Loris Malaguzzi who was at about the same time postulating that children had three teachers: adults, other children, and the environment, the environment being the primary purview of architecture. Nicholson’s theory, as he phrased it in that original article:

In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.

Nicholson was not talking exclusively about early childhood, but about educational environments in general. He included playgrounds and classrooms in his discussion, but also places for all ages, like museums and libraries. 

Even if we haven’t consciously adopted the theory of loose parts play, every early childhood professional, even those working in otherwise highly structured environments, knows this to be true. None of us would, for instance, build a block structure for the children, then expect them to learn anything by merely looking at it and listening to us lecture. We know that the children must take those blocks in hand, must both construct and deconstruct, must experiment, test, and manipulate. We also know that their play, and therefore their learning is expanded as we add more and varied materials to their environment.

The theory of loose parts applies the principles of the “block area” to the entire environment, encouraging us to let go of our ideas of how a learning environment is supposed to be and to instead fill it with variables, things that can be moved, manipulated, and transported. This, as Nicholson points out, is where creativity and inventiveness live. It’s important to remember that his theory continues to be a radical one, even as aspects of it are becoming more mainstream. This is about more than tree cookies and toilet paper tubes and clothes pins. It’s about more than old tires, shipping pallets, and planks of wood. At its core, the theory of loose parts is a theory about freedom, democracy, self-governance, and the rights and responsibilities of both individuals and groups to come together to shape their world according to their own vision.

The world is always ours to shape and when we are not shaping it, it is shaping us. Nicholson’s insight was that our environment is too often a kind of dictator, one that is restricting rather than expanding our possibilities. As we work with our “third teacher” it’s important that we keep this in mind and always ask ourselves, “Is this stealing the fun from the children?”

I saw the girl and her family one more time before I left the museum. They were all now again on the ground floor, the girl presumedly having experienced the long, wide stairway once more. She had found another bench and was directing her mother and father where to sit, then she took her place between them, the space within the space that she had envisioned earlier. 

She wiggled around, however, seeming dissatisfied. "I want us all to be in the middle," she said, jumping to her feet. "Everybody stand up." Her parents good naturally stood, then she instructed her father to sit in the middle of the bench. "Now mommy you sit on daddy's lap and I'll sit on your lap. Then we will all be in the middle."

******

"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices.
If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 

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, February 23, 2022

I've Not Found That To Be True


A young friend of mine who I had known for the entirety of her five years, brought me a gift. It was a picture she had drawn of me along with a message written in her own hand: "Ila (hearts) Teacher Tom." I probably receive a couple of these a week, pictures or other handmade gifts from the children I teach. They are often grubby, wrinkled, and torn from the effort of creation. As I talk with the children, I always learn that every little mark or doodle has a story behind it.


Some time ago I found myself in a friendly debate with an early childhood professional who I hold in high esteem. He argued that young children are essentially selfish. Not that he was judging them, but rather, he believed, the ability to view the world unselfishly was a developmental stage that most preschoolers had not reached.

I've not found that to be true. Certainly, young children can be selfish, just like all of us, and some of them tend to be more selfish than others, but every day, all around me, I see young children disproving my esteemed colleague's theory. What I do see are children objecting to being told what to do. I see them sulking when commanded into sharing. I see them reacting angrily, sometimes even violently, to having something snatched from their hands, but, almost without fail, when a child asks for a portion or a turn, they receive it, usually gladly. Every day, I bring conflicts to an end, or even nip them in the bud, by simply pointing out, for instance, "Eleanor doesn't have any play dough." It's a piece of information that a young child might not have discerned on their own, but that once clearly stated will respond to by generously breaking off a piece of her own play dough for the child who has none. In the lead up to the December holidays, I've discovered that children are at least as excited about the gifts they are giving as those they are about to receive.



If "selfishness" is acting without consideration of others for one's own personal profit or benefit, then "unselfishness" is sitting down with a piece of paper and a marker to spend time creating a gift. I would have to be incredibly selfish myself to not see the generosity in Ila's picture. She labored over those letters, shaping them carefully, for me, considering my feelings as she did. She reflected on my physical appearance, drawing a portrait, for me, that included the blue jeans I wear most days, my glasses, a shirt she has seem me wear many times. As she presented the picture to me, I learned that she had wanted to get the color of my eyes right and was disappointed that she had guessed green instead of blue. This picture was not for her own personal profit or benefit, but for mine, one created expressly and thoughtfully for me. If that is not an example of unselfishness then I don't know what is.

Ila gave me the picture on the playground, so after we had discussed it, I folded it up to fit into my jacket pocket. She had put so much unselfish thought into this gift and it made me feel exactly as she had hoped, I expect: loved and treasured. Several times over the past few days, I've felt the paper in my pocket, wondered what it was, then opened it to find that it made me feel loved and treasured all over again.

******

"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices.
If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 

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, February 22, 2022

Every Day Conflict



"Teacher Tom, Arthur is calling us 'finger binger'."

"Are you finger binger?"

"No!"

"Then I guess he's wrong."

Most of the time, the children don't need us to get involved in their every day conflicts.

"Teacher Tom, those guys won't let us in their factory."

"How does that make you feel?"

"Bad."

"Did you tell them it makes you feel bad."

"No."

"If I were you I'd tell them it makes me feel bad when they don't let me in their factory."

Sometimes, of course, they do need us, especially when emotions are running high, but most kids, most of the time, are fully competent. They just might need a different perspective.

"Teacher Tom, she took the hula hoops and we were using them."

"Oh no, what did you say to her?"

"Nothing."

"Maybe she doesn't know you were using them."

I don't want to call it tattling, because that word is full of judgement. I like to think of it as kids taking a moment to talk through their options with me. Children who are new to our school often arrive with the expectation that the adult will simply "fix" the problem through the blunt instrument of force that is ours simply by virtue of being an adult in a space for children. But resolving conflicts is a life skill that can't be learned through other people exercising police power.

"Teacher Tom, Erin hit me!"

"Oh no, we all agreed to not hit each other. What did you do?"

"I came over here to tell you."

"Now I know. What are you going to say to Erin?"

"I'm going to tell her to stop hitting me and that I don't like it!"

"That sounds like a good idea."

Sometimes they want me to come with them, to stand nearby. If I sense they are asking for moral support, then I go with them. If I think they just want to use me as muscle or an implied threat, then I ask them to report back.

"Teacher Tom, none of the kids will give me a turn on the swings."

"And you want a turn."

"Yes."

"Did you tell them you want a turn?"

"Yes, and they still keep swinging."

"Maybe they didn't hear you."

"They heard me. I said it really loud."

"What did you say?"

"I said I'm going to tell you that they were being mean."

"And what did they say about that?"

"They said they weren't being mean."

"Maybe they weren't being mean. Maybe they just aren't finished with their turn. Maybe they think you are being mean."

"I'm not mean!"

"I know, but maybe they think you are."

"I know! I'll say please!"

Most often it's the last I hear of the conflict. Other times they get stuck and need me to mediate, which doesn't mean "solve." Usually, I just listen, occasionally repeating or reframing key points.

"Don't call us finger binger!"

If he doesn't respond, I might say, "They don't want you to call them finger binger."

"I didn't call them finger binger."

If they don't respond, I might say, "He says he didn't call you finger binger."

"He did too."

"They say you did."

"I called them finger inger!"

"He says he called you finger inger, not finger binger."

"Well, we don't like that either."

. . . This can take a long time without anyone having more inherent power than anyone else. Learning to resolve conflicts among peers is, necessarily, an inefficient process. And it goes on throughout life. 

******

"I recommend this book to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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, February 21, 2022

Creating Metaphors: Interpreting The World Through The Prism Of Ourselves



When I consider a cherry tree, I think of its branch-arms reaching to embrace the sun's light, its protective armor of bark, its roots flowing inevitably through the earth relentlessly following the water, and about its practice of adorning itself in costumes for each season: flowers, leaves that transform from green to bronze, yellow, and red, and finally, bravely, striping naked for the beggarly months of winter.

It's possible that the tree itself has a thought of some sort about its own story, but I think it's more likely that it lives in the ever-emerging present, standing there, a tree, not a collection of metaphors, not reaching, not embracing, without arms or armor or costumes. Perhaps it has a message it wants to convey to me, perhaps it wants to fall into dialog, but I think it more likely that the cherry tree in all its metaphorical glory has no message at all. That cherry tree is happily a cherry tree. The rest is my own interpretation which happens through the process of creating metaphors. 

We have no way of knowing whether or not other species possess the capacity for metaphor, but again, I think it's likely that it's a uniquely human trait, one that stands at the center of what we mean by human consciousness. New knowledge is built upon metaphor. Understanding is arrived at through a process of applying what we already think we know about the world as metaphors to explain new things and ideas.

When I use the metaphor of arms to describe the branches of a cherry tree, I am connecting the tree not just to myself, but to the sunlight I perceive it as embracing, a thing that we share as the giver of life (another metaphor). I understand the tree through my interpretations, which is to say that all understanding, all knowledge, all wisdom is seen through the prism of myself. They say that every persona in our dreams is really a reflection of ourselves: this is also true of everything we perceive while we're awake.

School and education as we typically consider it, involves adults providing pre-approved metaphors to the children. Some don't get it, others do, while many just nod along, memorizing the teacher's metaphors in order to later prove they know the "correct" answer. Deep, real learning, however, requires that learners create metaphors for themselves. That is the thinking part. That is the learning. By hubristically providing our own metaphors to children, we rob them of the thinking, which means what we offer them is only a pale specter of actual learning.

It's the difference between a playground of loose parts and one of scripted toys.

It's the difference between experiencing a painted masterpiece and reading the plaque about it.

It's the difference between freely building with Legos and following the step-by-step instructions that came with with the kit.

It's the difference between considering a cherry tree and being lectured about it.

Learning, thinking, is largely a matter of creating and re-creating metaphors, one atop the other, layering them, interpreting the world through the prism of ourselves. 

******

"I recommend this book to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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, February 18, 2022

"The Age Of Reason"



The Age of Reason is another name for what we call The Enlightenment, a European historical period typically recognized as having taken place between the end of the 17th century into the beginning of the 18th. It is commonly associated with the elevation of science and rational thought. It was a time of European revolution and discovery.

The term "age of reason" is also commonly used, under certain codes of law, to refer to a child of seven, when it is said that they can assume moral responsibility for their behavior.

Many of us use the word reason as a synonym for logic, but in the real world reason seems to have little to do with logic. The great thinkers during the age of enlightenment, those individuals we still recognize by one name -- Descartes, Kant, Locke, Newton, and Voltaire -- applied what they called logic and reasoned their way to all kinds of bizarre, incorrect, even deadly, notions.

Enlightenment era reasoning held that the indigenous populations of the Americas, Oceana, and Africa, for instance, were either primitive savages to be exploited or children of nature . . . to be exploited. 

Enlightenment era reasoning was perhaps pro-logic, but looking back with the perspective of history, we can see that much what is wrong with today's world, such as competing nation-states, racism, capitalism, and imperialism, are the bitter fruit of the so-called Age of Reason.

Having worked with children under seven for my entire adult life, let me assure you that humans don't wait until they are seven to begin to exercise reason. 

One two-year-old pricked his finger on a pinecone, it hurt, so he reasoned, given the information available to him, that his best course of action was to avoid pinecones. As experienced adults, we tried to reason with him, but from his perspective we were ignorant, irrational savages, incapable of reason. When he later noticed that there were pinecones in the branches overhead, he decided to forever avoid that whole area of the playground.

Another two-year-old came to understand that there was a connection between hitting and crying. And so, when a child cried, she would, of course, race to their side and begin to compassionately pummel them about the face and head. Even as we adults pulled her away, she fought against us, determined to heal the hurt with her tiny fists. She would watch us gently attend to the crying child, clearly annoyed with, from her perspective, our irrational behavior.

From our perspective, we see the flaws in the children's reasoning, but they, in turn see flaws in ours. We might argue, that our adult perspective is more reasonable, more logical, perhaps even more moral, but since both reason and logic are always a product of perspective, the children are equally valid to view us as the unreasonable ones.

Enlightenment era poet, William Blake wrote in his poem Jerusalem:

The Spectre is the Reasoning Power in Man, & when separated
From Imagination and closing itself as in steel . . .
It thence frames Laws & Moralities
To destroy Imagination

Blake worried about reason and logic as destructive forces and we can see from history, that he wasn't wrong. But he worried most of all that the cult of reason would "destroy Imagination," which is, at the end of the day, at least as important to human thought as logic. Indeed, thinking is always the product of imagination. Imagination is a powerful way to understand because it allows us think beyond our "Laws & Moralities" in a way that logic cannot. Logic cannot, of its own accord, take us beyond the perspective of established "facts." Only imagination can do that.

There have been times and places in human history when we mere mortals didn't need to concern ourselves with such things. Our kings and queens, our priests and priestesses, handed truth down to us, but in today's world, we are all expected to be seekers of truth and because we all represent a unique perspective, our attempts at logic, with its false promise of objective truth, can only yield a small sliver, a piece of the puzzle. Imagination is how we come to discover the other puzzle pieces that we must have in order to make a complete picture.

Our schools tend to embrace the Spectre of Reasoning at the expense of Imagination and it goes beyond the unhealthy focus on literacy and mathematics at the expense of all else. It leads to a culture of right answers, of Laws & Moralities. It is the imperialism of reason and logic that is, in many ways, the most destructive legacy of the so-called Enlightenment. It destroys imagination with its insistence that there is, somehow, one truth. But experience tells us that truth arrived at by logic alone is fragile and incomplete, a mere piece in an infinitely larger puzzle.

All it takes is to shift one's perspective slightly and it vanishes like the Spectre it is.

******

"I recommend this book to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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, February 17, 2022

"I Would Prefer Not To"




"I would prefer not to." ~Bartleby the Scrivner: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville

It's important to me as an educator, to reject or defuse or diffuse any power over others that comes my way. Classrooms can too easily become tin pot dictatorships, perhaps benevolent dictatorships, but dictatorships nevertheless.

It's easy because most of us are left alone in rooms with children and children in our culture are lesser. We expect them to obey, to behave, and to been seen and not heard. Even the best intended of us can too easily fall into the habits of command and control in these circumstances.

Perhaps there was a time in our species' past, an egalitarian time, when we didn't assert power over one another. Indeed, there are many theories about human evolution that claim this was once the case, and that evidence of this past can still be found in what remains of the world's indigenous cultures. But in more recent centuries our species has been quite power hungry, with three-quarters of the global population living in bondage to powerful lords of one kind or another as recently as 1800. There are many who would insist that nothing has really changed over the past two centuries; that we've simply exchanged one kind of chains for another.

Maybe it's true that the children in our care are destined for lives lived under the power of others, but, as Herman Melville's Bartleby puts it, "I would prefer not to." 

"One of the effects of power," writes Rutger Bregman in his book Humankind, ". . . is that it makes you see others in a negative light. If you're powerful you're more likely to think most people are lazy and unreliable. That they need to be supervised and monitored, managed and regulated, censored and told what to do. And because power makes you feel superior to other people, you'll believe all this monitoring should be entrusted to you." This sounds very much to me the way many classrooms operate, with teachers serving as factory floor bosses. I would prefer not to.

Bregman goes on to write that those over whom power is exerted experience exactly the opposite effect. "Psychological research shows the people who feel powerless also feel far less confident. They're hesitant to voice an opinion. In groups, they make themselves seem smaller, and they under-estimate their own intelligence." This too, in many ways, is the story of what we call education, one in which children start out as creative geniuses only to emerge at the other end fit for employment, but perhaps little else. I would prefer not to.

My greatest wish for the children I teach is that they know, if even for a few short years, what it means to be free, what it means to not be monitored, managed, regulated, censored, or told what to do. I want them to step out into the world, confident and delighted with their ability to learn, think, and engage as an autonomous human, intellectually, socially, and emotionally. 

To do this, I must remain constantly vigilant because the culture in which I live wants me to exert power over children, even rewarding me for it. I often fail, but it's something I must strive toward every day. When I find myself viewing any child in a negative light, when I feel the urge to manage or regulate, that's when I must turn inward and do what I can to eradicate the urge to superiority. I usually find that I'm clinging to power rather than, as is my responsibility, giving it away, because that is the only way to fulfill my highest purpose as an educator, which is to empower.

That is what I prefer to do. And that, in the end, is the only way any of us will ever be free.

******

"I recommend this book to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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, February 16, 2022

The Word With Real Magic In It


When I was a boy the word "please" was said to be the magic word, and I suppose it was when we were performing for adults in order to get something we wanted, but "let's" is the word with real magic in it. "Let's" is, of course, really two words that we speak as one, meaning "let us." It's not a command nor a question, but rather an invitation and in the mouths of children it's most often used as an invitation to play.


"Let's play trains."

"Let's be princesses."

"Let's pretend we're pirates and I fall off the boat into the water and you have to rescue me." Without the word "let's" cooperative dramatic play would hardly be possible.


It's not so common in our 2's class, but by the time the children are 4 and 5 you hear it a lot as they play together, often at the beginning of every sentence.

And that would be enough, if this magic word could do only this, but it's a real magic word. You can use it for almost anything you need to do with the other people.


"Let's take turns."

"Let's make a rule."

"Let's try using a rock to open it."

Of course, there's always a dark side to every kind of magic, a way to misuse it.

"Let's take all the balls."

"Let's keep the girls out."

"Let's pretend we're pirates who push everybody else into the water."

But even so, even when we use it to experiment with the misuse of our collective power, there's no denying it's a magic word, one that brings us together, that creates room for other people, that makes our play better and our lives bigger. "Let's" is always an invitation, one that contains all of the open-ended possibilities of human beings together.


I don't worry about children who've learned the power of "Let's . . ."

******

"I recommend this book to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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, February 15, 2022

That Is Where We Must Water



One of my mother's mantras is "Count your blessings," which is her way of gently admonishing me to look at the bright side.

It's often good advice. And sure enough, I've become an adult who tends to look at the bright side of both myself (which I've been told can sometimes come off as egoism) and others (which I've been told can come off as naiveté). I've sometimes even been told that I'm in denial. 


The thing is, it's not that I'm unaware of my own deficits, nor am I blind to the deficits of others, but I'm not inclined to dwell there. Maybe I should focus on fixing this or that weakness in myself, but generally speaking, I find it more profitable, not to mention more joyful, to play to my strengths. 

It's the approach I take toward the children in my life as well.

Many educators, however, tend toward the opposite: looking for deficits in children and teaching to that. Maybe it's the process of constant and continual assessment found in most schools that conditions them for this. After all, it's in the nature of school-ish assessment to pick out the flaws and weaknesses in individual children, to highlight them, to enshrine them as "learning objectives." Their strengths in this system of assessment become mere tick boxes, missions accomplished, as the weaknesses take center stage. 


During my time at Woodland Park we often enrolled children with deficits that were too much for other schools. These kids came to us with rap sheets. Their parents warned me about what happened in the last school, equipping me in advance with the tips, tools, and tricks that they found useful in helping their child overcome their deficits. I always took notes, but what I was waiting for is the assurance, and it always came, "But he really is a sweet little boy." That's what interests me. That's where the relationship must begin.

It's not that I don't care that he hits other children, or screams, or gets overwhelmed, or can't sit still. It's just that I can do absolutely nothing about those things until we are on one another's bandwagons. It's the sweet little boy I must get to know first -- the boy who builds Lego masterpieces, who loves to sing, who is fascinated with dinosaurs. 


All good educators do this, of course, but too often, we are taught to then use those strengths and passions as a kind of Skinnerian leverage over their deficits: "If you don't hit anyone all morning, I'll let you watch your favorite dinosaur video." Indeed, a teenager I know who was viewed by his teachers as "at risk" once told me that one of the things he had learned about school was to never let teachers know what you like, because then "they'll use it against you."

This concentration on the brokenness of children stands at the heart of how our schools are failing. The narrow standardization that characterizes most schools, in fact, emphasizes only a certain collection of strengths and often winds up compounding the trauma and struggles of children. I'm not saying that we don't help children with their challenges, but rather that we will never succeed if that is where we are forced to focus.


The plant you water is the plant that grows. Canadian author Robin Sharma's version of this is, "What you focus on grows, what you think about expands, and what you dwell upon determines your destiny."

When we spend our efforts making children fit into school, we have no choice but to teach to their deficits, but when we free children to pursue their interests we exercise their strengths. And, more often than not, a strong child, a celebrated child, a child who knows you are on their bandwagon, will have the capacity to address their own deficits. This will never happen as long as we teach to their brokenness. 


I know that many of us chose this profession because we want to help, we want to fix and rescue, we see ourselves as the last best hope. As noble as that is, our first job must always be to discover every child's strengths, to find their passion, to reveal their joy, and embrace their sweetness. That is where we must water.

******

"I recommend this book to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here


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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