Friday, August 12, 2022

Shoulder-To-Shoulder, One Day At A Time, In Gratitude

For the past many months, my wife Jennifer and I have been all Teacher Tom's Play Summit, all the time, and tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. PST, it finally begins.

Originally, our plan was for the event to take place in mid-June, but that was before Jennifer's accident in April, a near-death experience that upended all of our plans. Four months later, still not a day goes by when we are not continuing to be impacted by her 14-foot fall down the stairs, landing on her head. She still suffers daily from vertigo, she still needs bed rest every afternoon, she still can't safely drive, walk down stairs easily, carry heavy objects, or concentrate for extended periods of time. 

When the doctors told us it might be a year or more before she was back to normal, it hadn't seemed real. Now it does.

Of course Jennifer at 50 percent is like another person at 110 percent.

Yesterday, as we sat shoulder-to-shoulder at our dining room table, taking a Zoom meeting, it occurred to me that we've hardly been apart since April. Of course, I've run errands and we've both occasionally seen friends separately, but for the most part we've been like we were at the table, shoulder-to-shoulder, living and working together.

This is the classic recipe for marital discord, disaster even, and we've had our moments, but I know that when I reflect back on this summit in the years to come, it will be this absolute togetherness that I'll most recall. We've been one another's partners in every way, every day, shoulder-to-shoulder, aligned in our love and in our life's mission, which is to make the world a little better by making the lives of young children, and those who care for them, a little better.

Tomorrow is day one of the summit, featuring my friends: Lisa Murphy, Lenore Skenazy, Maggie Dent, and Kisha Reid. Lisa is one of my greatest professional inspirations. Lenore's Free Range Kids movement set me on the road to being the educator and parent I am today. Maggie, in many ways, has taken me under her wing. And Kisha, one of my best friends in this profession, is also one of my most important guides into thinking about play and the families of young children. I'm moved to the edge of tears as I write this, recalling that each of them have reached out in care and compassion for us during these challenging months, offering their help and support.

Day two presenter Monique Gray Smith talks about gifts and gratitude, saying "sometimes a hug can be a gift." This morning, I'm overwhelmed with gratitude for our community of play-based early childhood educators. We are truly in this together on behalf of the children. 

I'm grateful this morning for the pandemic. I know this might be a strange thing to write, but it's amazing to me how many of our presenters expressed their own gratitude for these difficult times that we've all shared together, shoulder-to-shoulder. Monique talks of the importance of finding gratitude for the "gifts of the pandemic," a sentiment my mother expressed by reminding me to "count your blessings." Kisha Reid tells us that many of her school's families reconnected during the past couple years, spending more time together, especially outdoors. "They've been camping more," she tells us. "Some of them turned their yards into playgrounds." She tells us that as the new school year is starting more families than ever are opting for her half day program because they don't want to lose this blessing that emerged from darkness.

I'm grateful this morning for presenter Caitlyn McCain. I've learned so much from her, not just about talking with young children about challenging social issues, but also about the importance of "trying on," the way children try on costumes or actors embody characters, as a way of understanding. I'm grateful for the gift of Tiersa McQueen's courage as a mother, her commitment to really seeing and hearing her four children, especially when what she learns doesn't match society's conventions. My heart is full for the lifelong work of Valora Washington who has been championing play for Black and Brown children for four decades. 

My friend Juliet Robertson was the first interview I conducted for this summit. We did it so early because she needed to undergo another round of cancer treatment and wanted to talk with us before re-engaging her cancer -- not fighting it, she tells us, but by confronting it with the non-violent direct action that stands at the center of her pacifist upbringing. I was overwhelmed when I reached out to Suzanne Axelsson to ask her to join us only to have her tell me that she had spent the last year working with Roberta Pucci and Nona Orbach, inspired into collaboration by last year's summit. They wanted to share, shoulder-to-shoulder, their powerful insights at this year's summit. My heart is full that I've finally been able to tick meeting Pennie Brownlee off my bucket list. And I cannot tell you how grateful I am for Sonya Philip as well as Anitha Mereka and Jan Brown who show us what it means to really fight for the rights of children to learn through play in educational cultures (India and Rwanda respectively) that are too often characterized by unhealthy competition and yelling teachers.

I'm grateful for the deep commitment of Nick Terrones, who works each day to not just decolonize, but, as he says, to "re-Indigenize" the world for Native children and their families. And I cannot say enough about the gift of Jesse Hagopian who tells us about the joy and beauty of linking arms with fellow educators, parents, and students, always courageously at the forefront of the most pressing educational struggles of today: the fight against high stakes standardized testing, the movement to ensure that all children have access to recess, and Black Lives Matter at School. Likewise, I'm grateful for the gift of Mina Tobias' story about the impact of mental illness on her family and how that has sparked a struggle to cut through the stigma and shine light on the very real, very large problem of mental illness. 

Mr. Chazz Lewis inspires us with his raw honesty about learning "the hard way." Naomi Fisher takes us into an often painful deep dive into what we think we know about how humans learn. Vanessa LaPointe tells us how to regain our "swagger," both as parents and educators. "You've got this!" she says.

And then there is Mónica Guzmán who talks to us about nothing less than healing our divides. Americans today say that division -- political, social, and educational -- is the single challenge in our world that impacts them most directly. I expect that this is true of people all over the world, and until we figure out a way to heal these divides, these wounds, we can't possibly make progress on anything else. Her message of "radical curiosity" as the healing power we need is one that lifts me out of despair and makes me finally see that it is possible. Each of us is in a position to turn our assumptions into questions that can let us see that we are all, even if it doesn't always look like it, meant to be shoulder-to-shoulder on this earth. 

Jennifer and I are grateful for the gift that is you as well. We hope that you'll accept the summit as a token of our appreciation for all that you do with and for young children. Please join us for the next five days, or even for one day, or even for one session.

I have a vision of this summit as an enormous round table with all of us sitting together, shoulder-to-shoulder, face-to-face, sharing our perspectives, but more importantly, listening. Then together, arm-in-arm, in beauty and joy, we will stride out together in the name of our children to make the world, one day at a time, in gratitude, a little bit better.


Please join us for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Our presenters represent 11 countries, an age range that spans more than half a century, and a rainbow of culture, race, and neurotype. We want to include you as well! We want to include you so much that we've made it free! Please join us August 13-17 for 20 sessions from early childhood and parenting experts. You will be informed, inspired, challenged, and most importantly, included! Click here to get your free pass and learn more. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide so that we can include everyone who wants to be included. 

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