Monday, July 25, 2022

"Play Can Save Humanity"

Yesterday, I listened to Pink Floyd's masterpiece The Wall as I showered. The album came out in 1979. I was a high school senior and on my way to university the following year. For those unfamiliar with it, the album was conceived as a rock opera and is the story of an alienated young man who responds to the slings and arrows of his life by building a metaphorical wall around himself ("All in all it's just an other brick in the wall"). 

At the time, I appreciated it as a work of art that showed me a person struggling with mental health, who had suffered at the hands of society, and who was undergoing a kind of ongoing existential crisis. Although I didn't necessarily identify with it, I knew that there were many kids around me who did, who had not had the kind of privilege that I had lucked into. I was a relatively well-adjusted youth with decent grades, plenty of friends and lots to look forward to in life. That doesn't mean I wasn't inspired to "try on" the affectations of youthful alienation and angst, but it was never really me, even as I found myself romanticizing the moodiness.

The record came back into my life when our daughter Josephine was 12. The entire 6th grade was given the assignment to create some sort of artistic response to The Wall. It was a project that took weeks, so once more the album regularly played in our home. By now, I was an educator and the story seemed more tragic than it had when I was younger. I didn't think that I was one of the adults who contributed bricks to the wall. I certainly didn't want to be that adult. I wanted to be a person who tore walls down, both for my child as well as the children I taught.

Perhaps the best known song from the album is the anthemic "Another Brick in the Wall," with its unforgettable lines:

We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teacher! leave them kids alone
Hey, teacher! Leave them kids alone.

At one point, a chorus of children take over singing it. Yesterday, as those young voices shouted, "Hey, teacher! Leave us kids alone," I began sobbing uncontrollably.

I've been involved with education for a long time now. I've always strived to do it the right way by placing children at the center, by not commanding or controlling or shaming them. I've tried, to the best of my ability at any given moment, to allow children to be free to do and be what they want to do and be. I've made plenty of mistakes. I've even made some children cry. But, all in all, I don't believe that I've ever been a brick in anyone's wall.

That said, there are still too many children for whom school does not work, who do not have the advantages that I had. Over the years, I've come to understand that for many kids, school is and was a kind of hell. We don't do anyone a favor when we ignore this fact. And we are especially irresponsible when we try to blame the kids themselves, or their parents, who are, in most cases products of this very same school system that manufactures at least as much alienation as it does education.

Part of what made me cry yesterday was when those children shouted, "Teachers!" I imagined them pointing their little fingers, their faces stony with anger. I'm aware that there are some awful human beings in our profession, as in any profession, but all in all most of the teachers I've known are likewise not to blame for the alienation. Indeed, teachers are the heroes of our schools because we are the ones who inject humanity into what would otherwise be a hollow behavioristic system of carrots and sticks. From where I sit, any successes our school system can point to are the direct results of teachers who find it in their hearts to mitigate the harm.

Teacher-activist, author, and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Jesse Hagopian tells us that school taught him that he wasn't smart. He had been labeled by standardized tests as being "below" some arbitrary standard and it wasn't until "years later" that he came to understand his own intelligence. Likewise, Kisha Reid, another summit presenter and one of the world's leading experts on play-based learning, tells us, "Play taught me I was smart . . . It wasn't until I went to school that I started to doubt myself."

We tell ourselves that education is our society's great equalizer, that education will allow us to rise above and grow beyond, but for far too many of us, that is a myth. The world is full of people like Jesse and Kisha who have risen above the harmful tendencies of our system of mandatory schooling, with its relentless focus on deficits, but for every Jesse or Kisha, there are dozens, if not hundreds, who experience "education" as a wall to overcome or escape or, tragically, behind which to remain forever entrapped.

I cried yesterday, because I've been trying for decades, like Jesse and Kisha, to do my part to be the change I want to see in the world, but the central facts behind those lyrics remain. It was only a couple of years ago, that my friend and colleague John Yiannoudis blared that song into the streets of Athens, Greece to attract a crowd of hundreds to listen to me and others as we discussed our dreams for what education could be. More than 40 years later, those lyrics, those angry children, remain relevant.

But I remain unalienated, as does Jesse, as does Kisha. Jesse has built an inspiring career from "struggle" against the injustices of school and society, sprinkling his stories with the words "joyous" and "beautiful." Kisha has created a "circle of love" in which robust, authentic, play teaches generations of children and their parents that not only are they smart, but that they can do and achieve anything their hearts desire. "Play," she assures us, "can save humanity."

This is why I am once more hosting Teacher Tom's Play Summit. It is why I am committed to offering it for free and why we are inviting everyone who cares about children and education to take part. The last thing our world needs is more schooling, more curriculum, more testing, and more homework. What we need are more educators like Jesse and Kisha, who stand up boldly and who, as Kisha puts it, "Step into our positions as professionals." It means educators like you who know what is right for children, who love children, and who are committed to tearing down the walls.


To watch my full interviews with Jesse and Kisha, please join us August 13-17 for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. You will be inspired, informed, and challenged. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Let's tear down those walls . . . Or even better, not build them in the first place!

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