Friday, September 22, 2023

We Could be Using Our Power to Demand Evidence-Based Childhoods for All



Woodland Park is a first-come-first-served school. This means that the first families in line when registration opens are the ones who get in, the only exception being that our charter allows us to move alumni families to the front of the line.


When I first started teaching, this was a literal line. The 40 or so cooperative preschools that operate under the auspices of North Seattle College would set up tables in a large room on the designated morning, then the doors would be thrown open at 9 a.m. and the race was on. Generally, we would have filled our 65 spots by 9:30. In more recent years, the process has moved online, but it is still something of a cut-throat affair as people sit with their phones dialing over and over until they get through.


We were a popular preschool, meaning that we would wind up with a waiting list that we shared with our sister schools. For most of my two decades with the North Seattle system, there was always a spot somewhere for a family interested in coop, just not always in their first choice school. This continues to be true because half day programs that require hours a week of parent involvement, including in the classroom, isn’t for everyone.


Most American families are looking for full-day, drop-off preschool or daycare and in recent years that has become increasingly scarce. Right across the country there are too many children from the spots available. This has long been a problem, but with some 10 percent of centers closing permanently during the pandemic and the nationwide “worker shortage,” the situation has gotten much worse. 


From a purely economic point of view, it’s a miracle that more preschools and child care programs didn’t succumb. I mean, it’s never been a particularly profitable business for entrepreneurial-minded people. From a purely economic point of view, I’m often shocked that anyone remains in the profession. These are among the lowest paid jobs that require a college degree with the average annual salary of a little over $30,000, which is the equivalent of a minimum wage job, without benefits, in many places. With tuitions so high that they severely strain the budgets of even upper middle class families, it’s no wonder that US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen calls ours “a textbook example of a broken market.”


Of course, none of us got into this profession to get rich. For most of us, teaching and caring is more a calling than a vocation. Most of us would still do it even if we were paid less. We would do it even if our working conditions were worse. We would show up every day no matter what. We do it for the children. We do it for the families. And yes, we do it because there is nothing more richly rewarding when you consider non-economic measures.


It’s wonderful, but it’s also a problem. It’s this attitude, I believe, that makes it possible for us to continue to be underpaid and underappreciated. It’s this attitude that causes us to succumb to the pressure to engage in developmentally inappropriate practices like formal literacy instruction for three-year-olds. We know that young children should be playing, but I can’t tell you how often educators have agreed with me only to  complain that “the parents” demand preschool academics, so they have no choice but to accommodate them. Really? Maybe we need to be saying, “I will not harm your child.”


As “broken” as things are, we find ourselves in a position of power. I know that’s an uncomfortable place to be for many of us. We don’t, generally speaking, seek power, nor are we eager to wield it, but here we are. We are in a position, each of us, to use this power to empower the next generation.


If the world learned anything from the pandemic it’s that preschools and child care are the foundations of our economy. That’s right, the principle project of every civilization that has ever existed is to care for the children. If that doesn’t happen, then nothing else happens. When parents don’t have a safe, loving place for their children, they stay home from work. When they stay home from work, the economy grinds to a halt. When we accommodate the system by accepting low and lower pay, we are, in essence, carrying the entire system on our backs. I used to ask people to perform the mental experiment of imagining what would happen to the world if we all went on strike. The pandemic forced us to more or less try that experiment in the real world.


But as we know, most of us aren’t in this for the money, although I think we all can agree that we deserve to earn at least as much as public school teachers. We’re not asking to get rich; we’re asking for a living wage. Collectively, right now, we have the power to demand this. 


Where will the money come from? That’s the kind of question that caring people ask because we fear that it will have to come from the families who are already struggling. It’s also not a question for us to answer. We are preschool teachers and caregivers. What we do is foundational, not just to the economy, but civilization itself. Fixing a “broken market” is a job for economists and policymakers. But I will mention that as a non-economist it certainly seems like employers, especially big employers, should be the ones stepping up. We’re in an era of extremely high corporate profits. Shouldn’t that be where the money comes from? I mean, without us, their enterprises simply can’t function.


More importantly, however, I want to see us using our power to bring play back into the center of the lives of young children. One of the most bizarre things about our “broken” profession is that those few young people who are still enrolling in early childhood university programs are being taught the latest evidence-based, developmentally-appropriate practices, only to graduate into a real world where most schools simply, harmfully, do the opposite. According to psychologist and researcher Peter Gray, we have never seen such high levels of anxiety and depression in our young children and much of that can be directly linked to the dramatic decline in childhood play over the past couple generations. We have the power to reverse this. We have the power to say, “I’ll do this job, but only if we are going to do what is best for young children according to the evidence.” 


We could be using our power to demand evidence-based childhoods for all. We could be doing that right now.


******


"I recommend these books 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


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Thursday, September 21, 2023

Hope Is Every Bit As Infectious As Cynicism




In most cases, people, even wicked people, are far more naive and simple-hearted than one generally assumes. And so are we. ~Fyodor Dostoevsky


Cynicism is generally defined as the belief that our fellow humans are motivated purely by self-interest and is characterized by skepticism, distrust, and suspicion. One of my college professors, a self-confessed cynic and all-around aggravating man, asserted that skepticism, distrust, and suspicions were the only rational responses because it was impossible for anyone to act in a way that is not selfish. When someone would challenge him with something like, “What about a stranger who runs into a burning building to save a child?” he would respond, “It was still a selfish act because he knew that otherwise he would be consumed with guilt.”


Maybe you can’t win an argument with a professor of rhetoric, a professional cynic, but that doesn’t mean he’s right.


Cynicism doesn’t come naturally to me, which has led some to call me naive or idealistic. Indeed, those are words used as stand-alone critiques by those who are cynical about play-based or self-directed learning. If they are trying to be kind, they might use more positive words like “optimistic,” “trusting,” or “hopeful,” although in the mouth of a cynic they still come across as patronizing. When we are fighting on behalf of play-based learning, our instincts are often to assume that if we only provide enough evidence or information or science, we will ultimately be persuasive, and that would be the way to go if our adversary was mere ignorance. But it’s not – it’s cynicism.


I’ve always found it easy to expect the best of young children. Maybe it’s just my nature. Maybe it’s my upbringing. Whatever the case, it is my default position, and is probably why I gravitated into this profession. By the same token, I can’t abide the knee-jerk cynicism of adults, especially adults who work with young children, who are forever expressing suspicion about children’s motives. For these cynics, a child’s tears are always manipulation, freedom will only lead to them wasting time, and if they are not kept under constant adult control it will all devolve into a Lord of the Flies dystopia.


“Cynicism is not a neutral position,” writes musician Nick Cave on his site The Red Hand Files, “and it asks almost nothing of us. It is highly infectious and unbelievably destructive. In my view, it is the most common and easy of evils.”


The only antidote to cynicism is hope, which to a cynic will always, at least at first, sound naive. But at bottom, we all have vast experience with naivete. We know it's true with children, who are the definitions of it, but I find myself turning to the Dostoevsky quote at the top of this post as a regular reminder that it is true for everyone. The hard-boiled detective only exists in fiction. The hopelessness that stands at the heart of cynicism is a sign of brokenness. And it is a cruelty, even abusive, to infect others, especially young children with it.


Hope knows that cynicism is armor, worn by wounded people, disguised as a chic suit of sarcasm and reason. It’s tempting to use the word misanthropy here, but I don’t think it’s that as much as self-loathing and the fear that trusting others is just a set up for pain. Cynicism views hope as weak because, from where they sit, peeking out between the slits in their armor, those innocent children and foolish adults are just setting themselves up for heartbreak. Just wait and see. And they get to be right because heartbreak is as inevitable as the sunrise. See? I told you so.


When I stand amongst children who know they have permission to play, however, I have no need of any armor, so I’ve learned to shed it, to make myself as vulnerable as they are, opening myself to heartbreak, sure, because I’m exposing my naive and simple-heartedness. I can do this because I’m confident that these children, these original people, will be kind to me, even if they aren't always gentle. They will help me, even if they don’t always know what I need. They will be generous, only objecting when commanded to “share” or “take turns.” And they trust me, even if I do not trust them. 


When I left the work-a-day world of cynicism, of adults in their armor, to enter a world of children, I had no choice but to do so disarmed. They disarmed me. I let them disarm me. I hadn’t felt so free, so purposeful, so curious, since I myself was a child. It’s a world of hope. Hope is every bit as infectious as cynicism.


And the cynics are wrong: hope is not weak.


“Unlike cynicism,” writes Cave, “hopefulness is hard-earned, makes demands upon us, and can often feel like the most indefensible and lonely place on Earth. Hopefulness is not a neutral position either. It is adversarial. It is the warrior emotion that can lay waste to cynicism. Each redemptive or loving act, as small as you like . . . such as reading to your little boy, or showing him a thing you love, or singing him a song, or putting on his shoes, keeps the devil down in the hole.”


I love that: it is hope, not anger or fear, that makes us warriors on behalf of young children who only want to live, disarmed, open to the world and all its experiences. 


My rhetoric professor was not right about human nature, but he wasn’t entirely wrong. The cynic predicts it will rain and, if they wait long enough, they will be proven right. And they will have lived a life of waiting for the worst. Hope, however, predicts nothing. It anticipates. It knows that life is not for waiting, but for doing, right now, disarmed, making the most of each present moment, naively and simple-mindedly perhaps, but with curiosity and even awe. Hope makes us get up when we fall. Hope makes us help others when they fall. When we look forward with hope, we play with the better angels of our nature.

******

If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"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


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Wednesday, September 20, 2023

What I Saw Were The Godlike Works Of A Creator


We were messing around with pipe cleaners and tissue paper circles. It's a craft-ish project that most of the kids know, because I showed them. You can make nifty little flowers by sliding the thin disks of paper onto their bendy stems one at a time, giving each one a gentle "crush" as you go. I don't have any pictures of them, but it's a common enough preschool activity that I'm sure most of my readers know what I'm talking about. (But if you don't, just search for "tissue paper flowers preschool" and you'll find dozens of tutorials.)

Most of the kids do their own thing with the materials available, creating "space ships" and "spiders" and "decorations," but there are always a handful who really, really want to master the flowers. Sarah, I thought, was one of those kids. She plunked herself down at the art table and got to work, brow furrowed, her authoritative chatter letting us know she was on top of things. Since I'd already demonstrated my own technique, I moved on to other things, leaving the art station in the capable hands of a parent-teacher.

Later, while outdoors, I chatted with the parent-teacher, saying something like, "That art project was pretty popular today. Sarah seemed to really like it."

She answered, "It was, but you know, she didn't make a single flower. She couldn't figure out how to get the tissue paper on the stem without tearing it." A huge bouquet of flowers had been created at that table and Sarah had sat there, hands busy for a good half hour. How could it be possible that she hadn't produced a single flower?

"Nope, not one," was the answer, "But she worked really hard. Every time she tried to crush the tissue like you showed them, the paper came off."

I'd not been watching Sarah's production, but only, occasionally, her face and body language. Not once had I seen a sign of frustration or failure. No, the girl I'd seen was hard at work, concentrating, narrating her activities, deeply involved in what I assumed was a manufacturing process like that of the other kids around the table who were making one for "mom," one for "dad," one for "grandma," one for "my pet cat Simon . . ."

"I tried to help her, but she didn't want help. She told me she was already an expert flower maker."

I said, "I guess that means we'd better keep making flowers tomorrow."

The following day, I made the same materials available, not on the art table this time, but on another table, a place where there would be no dedicated parent-teacher. Sarah didn't go there right away, instead choosing a housekeeping game, but before long she was drawn in, taking up a spot, alone with the materials. I sat with her, taking up my own stem, not saying anything. I watched her slide a tissue paper circle onto her pipe cleaner, tearing a huge hole in it during the process. And as had happened the day before, when she crushed it, it came off the stem. This didn't seem to bother her at all as she tossed the wad of paper aside and reached for another. This time she worked more slowly, nudging it along carefully, still ripping the paper too much, but when she crushed it, it stayed, almost balanced in place. Gingerly, she added a second disk of paper, halfway up the stem, then a third. 

From an artistic perspective it was a pretty pathetic looking flower. She held it up, no extra pride in her expression, no sign that there was anything amiss. "That's just so beautiful," she said as she stuck it in the glass vase where we were displaying our finished pieces. She then got to work on another.

I put a piece of tissue paper on my stem and in my best imitation of the way she had done it, tore the hole a little too big, then crushing it to keep it precariously fixed in place. Sarah watched me from the corners of her eyes. "No, that's not the way," she said. "You have to do it more gently. Like this," then she showed me on her own flower.

I tried imitating her as best I could. "Good," she said, "That's right. Now, do another one." I followed her instructions.

She made a second flower as pathetic as the first and called it good. Before starting on a third, she watched me for a moment, growing frustrated with my attempts, although I was doing my best to imitate her. She snatched it from me, her voice infused with a false cheerfulness, "Here, let me just do that for you." In her rush, she caused all the tentatively fixed tissue to drop from my stem. "See?" she said, "That's what's supposed to happen. Now you can start over."

I didn't like the feeling of failure the exchange gave me, even as I knew I'd not failed. I knew because I'm an adult and I had practically invented this damn process, yet here I was with the tables turned. This is why I'm not a big fan of crafts in preschool: I worry that we put too many children in this situation. I said, reflexively, "I don't want to start over."

She sighed, "Okay, but you'll never figure it out if you give up."

"That's true." I got back to work, this time making a flower the way I'd initially shown the kids two days before, quickly pulling together a nice, tidy white carnation. Sarah watched me work without comment, then got back to her own stem. When she was finished with yet another pathetic flower, she said, "I think we should plant these in the garden."

I answered, "They would be pretty," then joking, "But, you know, they're not real flowers."

"I know that."

"I think the wind and rain would destroy them. The petals would all fall off."

"Real flowers always fall off," and even as she said it, one of her tissue paper wads fell from the stem she held. "Like that."

It was then that I understood Sarah's flowers. She was not making the perfect little imitation flowers the rest of us were making, but "real" flowers, the kind that bloom, live, then fall away when the winds blow. And in that flash, I was no longer in the presence of the pathetic attempts of a child, but rather what I saw before me were the godlike works of a creator.

******

If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2023

The Fallacy of Norms And Standards

Karntakuringu Jakurrpa


I've written before about how, when our daughter was a toddler, we lived within walking distance of the Seattle Art Museum, where we regularly popped in to visit our favorite paintings and sculptures. In the back of my mind, I suppose, I took her there out of a sense that doing so would be a mark of "good parenting." I don't specifically recall any expert recommending art museums, probably because two-year-olds aren't normally possessed of the executive function to make such a thing a pleasant experience. In fact, in all the dozens of times we prowled the galleries together, we never once came across another toddler. But that wasn't unusual for us: we didn't typically spend time with any other toddlers. During those first couple years our family of three formed a kind of happy pod into which the relatives and friends we allowed either had adult children or none at all.

The real reason we went to the art museum so regularly actually had nothing to do with parenting, good or bad. We went to the art museum because that's something that I've always done. A couple evenings ago, I had dinner with a woman who had been, for years, the director of our local art museum. When I mentioned that I'm there at least once a month, she replied, "Good for you -- thank you," as if my motivation was charity or civic duty, which is similar to the response I get when I mention that I read classic novels or attend Shakespearean performances.

I understand that many, if not most, of those reading this are suppressing yawns right now. I also know that at least a few of you think that by mentioning these hobbies of mine, I'm showing off. Add classical music to the list and I've hit the quadfecta (real word!) of cultural snobbery. But that genuinely isn't my motivation. For me, the arts are where I turn as a way to explore human nature, to understand myself and others, to shift my perspective. I come away from my engagements with art feeling more human, more connected to present, past, and future, and often even with a deeper sense of my own morals and values. I walk away full of reflections about the vastness of what it can mean to be human beyond the walls of the day-to-day humdrum of normalcy.

In contrast to its reputation for black tie fundraisers in celebration of dead, white men, the arts, and especially the ones that have stood the test of time, is the work of radicals, people who lived, or at least thought and created, outside the strictures of normal.

Too much of life is governed by norms: academic, social, medical, psychological. Those parenting books that I didn't read until our daughter was grown are a classic example. I have no doubt that millions of parents have found them helpful or comforting or even eye-opening, but like with much of what has been labelled the "therapeutic state" -- social workers, psychologists, dietitians, marriage counsellors, sex therapists, and the aforementioned child-development experts -- they work with the tools of what Antonia Case, philosopher and author of the book Flourish, refers to as "technique and normalization, offering step-by-step instructions on just about everything -- how to relate to our partner; how to quell disputes in the home; what not to eat during pregnancy; how to raise children; how to be a good mother; how to be tidier, neater, calmer, smarter." This leads, she argues, to a shrinkage of our imaginative and emotional horizon. "We no longer turn to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina . . . as a guide to human nature, or visit art galleries for some much-needed respite; the literary and artistic are brushed aside for the Beginner's Guide to Cognitive Behavior Therapy and a remedial massage. It is little wonder that modern life seems too highly organized, too self-conscious, too predictable."

"How can we serve others, nature or the planet," she asks, "when everything we eat, drink or think has to be put to some grueling standardized pseudo-scientific test?" And let's be honest, most of what the experts have to offer are based on what Stephen Colbert might call "truthiness." Not long ago, I was talking with the head of the neuroscience department at a major European university. When I tried to share some of my own thoughts on the subject, he shook his head, saying, "By the time any of our work makes it into the mainstream, it's already twenty years behind what we're doing in the lab. Even we have trouble keeping up." This is why science inevitably becomes pseudoscience in the hands of dilettantes. We've been taught by the ethics of the therapeutic state that science is made up of hard facts when, in fact, it is nothing more or less than a process by which theories are offered up as possible truth, then rigorously tested, and almost always found flawed.

In my life as a parent "science" once told me that the human brain is more or less fully formed by around five-years-old, while today we think we know that it remains remarkably plastic (renewable) throughout life. In the 1980's were were convinced that the ultimate healthy diet was one that limited fats and emphasized carbohydrates. Much of Freud is now considered bunk. This is the nature of science and any effort to define normal or to apply techniques or standards to our lives based upon it will inevitably be hit or miss.

The opening sentence of Tolstoy's novel Anna Karinina is one of the most famous lines in all of literature: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

This is the kind of truth that the therapeutic state simply cannot abide, yet it is one that has been true throughout the existence of humans. It's a truth that cannot be addressed by norms or standards or a step-by-step approach, because each case is a new one under the sun. It is a truth, however, that is found in the art that hangs on the walls of every art museum, on the pages of every great novel, and on the stages that bring us the comedies, histories, and tragedies of Shakespeare. And art is only one of the countless ways that humans may come to understand the world and their place in it.

I'm not saying to stop reading those parenting books or listening to education experts (myself included), but only to see them for what they are. Of course, you will find insights and ideas, but the moment they offer norms and standards, they are speaking the language pseudoscience, and the result is to drain much of the joy out of our work and play, limiting rather than expanding what it means to be human.

I've learned more about life from paintings, novels, and plays, than from any expert, not because they told me what to think, but because they spurred me to think for myself, and to ultimately see the cage that is created by the fallacy of norms and standards. What art teaches me is that none of us will find joy or peace by in a step-by-step approach, but rather that I must find my own path. I may not be any less unhappy than the rest of you, but at least I'll be unhappy in my own way.

******

"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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Monday, September 18, 2023

Effortlessly and Without Prompting



The four and five year olds started their days on the playground. Some would take a moment to greet me, but most barely paused to shed their backpacks and jackets before plunging into their play. That might mean manning a position at the cast iron water pump, digging in the sand, swinging, racing up and down the concrete slide, hunting out a favorite loose part, or gathering with friends to plot and plan together, inviting one another with the most beautiful sentences in the human language, the one's that start with the contraction, "Let's . . ."

"Let's pretend we're pilots!"

"Let's all be baby animals!"

"Let's go over there!"

Most of the four and five year olds I ever taught had been together in school for a couple of years already. They knew me, they knew the other kids, they knew the environment, and they knew how to derive satisfaction from playing together. They did it effortlessly and without prompting. This was life as they knew it, a formula of their own collective and ongoing distillation. Of course, they knew there would be conflict, even pain, because they had already learned from experience that the permission to learn from pleasure always includes the possibility of pain. That's perhaps the lesson of life, not this artificial pain that is imposed by schools in the name of teaching children the harsh lessons of the workplace: do what you're told even when it's mind-numbing and soul-crushing.

In our school, the children knew that they were free to pursue, both individually and together, a life in which their work was their play and vice versa. 

"(M)ost individuals today are born into serfdom to Factory Earth," writes historian Peter Stearns in his book From Alienation to Addiction. "With factory industry, most people, for the first time in human history outside of some forms of slavery, could never aspire to work without direct supervision."

The adults at Woodland Park performed their ancient role of caretakers, protectors, and occasional advisors, because the goal of education as we saw it is to allow young humans to seek their one true path, the one they follow, for a day or a week or a lifetime, out of curiosity. In our way of doing it, curiosity stands in the stead of the factory floor boss.

What do you do that is as effortless and unprompted as the four and five year olds playing together at Woodland Park? What is it that you do that doesn't need to be put on a "to do" list because you will do it anyway? As adults, many of us have forgotten what it means to live in this way, looking inward and asking ourselves what would give us permission to play-work-live like these children? People often envy these young children who are, quite frankly, living a life of abundance and purpose. It still surprises me how many feel they need to put a stop to it, "for their own good." They can't just go through life doing what they want. It's the grim view of life as a factory. A place where no one has ever found abundance and purpose. As the Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote, "Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance." 

But life can't just be about enjoyment! If it feels good, it must be bad. If we do it just to satisfy our curiosity, it must be a waste of time. Curiosity kills the cat. What's good must be hard and painful. Pleasure is only a dessert, something to be limited and saved for last. 

The novelist Edith Wharton asks, "Why do we call all our generous ideas illusions, and the mean ones truths?" Why indeed.

I've spent my adult life trying to learn the lessons of humans for whom pleasure and curiosity stand as the pure goods that they are. These are the people who are living, not happy lives, but abundant ones. At the end of life, no one wishes they had worked harder. If they have any regrets it's that they didn't love and play more. Why is it that we only seem to understand this central truth at the Alpha and Omega of life, whereas during the journey in between we treat it as, at best, a hinderance and at worst a devil that must be kept down lest we . . . What? Find purpose in life before it's all over? Sounds pretty good to me.

I know why, of course. It's fear and doubt. We've been taught by years of schooling, both curricular and extracurricular, that the floor bosses know best, that we are here to serve Factory Earth, and that anything that makes our hearts sing is a secret evil. It's reinforced every time a child is reprimanded for daydreaming and not paying attention. It's taught each time children are scolded for chatting amongst themselves instead to listening to the teacher's instructions. We've been made to feel afraid of ourselves and our own desires because they have no place in the factory.

As I spent my days amidst these self-directed humans who had permission to work-play-live, I knew that they would inevitably leave Woodland Park where they would begin their training for Factory Earth. Soon enough they would come across those who would direct them "for their own good" and make them feel guilt or shame over those things that bring them joy, and pride in doing the things against which their souls rebelled. I found my joy in the moment; the now of this community of children. I will always have the satisfaction in knowing that for a time, on that playground, the four and five year olds knew they had permission to live abundantly in a world in which "Let's . . ." was the sacred a call to live together with a purpose all our own.

I can dream that one day we will come to understand that this should stand at the center of education. Until then, I'll just live it.

******

"This inspiring book is essential reading for every family choosing a preschool, every teacher working with young children, and every citizen who wonders how we can raise children who will make the world a better place." ~Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids
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, September 15, 2023

We Are Meant To Live Lives Of Meaning And Purpose


I was watching the girl arrange her things, or rather, the things she had made hers by gathering them from around the playground. It was clear from her behavior that she had a plan, but since these were loose parts, anything could be anything to an outside observer. Only the girl knew what that length of rope represented or that battered saucepan. I could have asked her, of course, swooping in as the adult in charge, but I didn't want to interrupt. She was clearly thinking something through and when someone is so immersed in an activity in which thought and action are merged, it's a sin to interfere unless life and limb are at stake, especially if I call myself an educator.

Moments like this are common enough when we are children, but as we get older it becomes increasingly difficult for our thoughts and actions to merge in this way, even as we pine for it, because we know, in our hearts at least, that it is in these moments that we are most ourselves. This girl was at one with her purpose, pursuing a flow of thought-action, connecting experience, theory, and ideas to make something new: to create meaning from meaninglessness, order from chaos.

The psychologist and philosopher Abraham Maslow defined what this girl was doing as being creative and creativity is how we self-actualize, which is the pinnacle of his famous hierarchy of needs. As I watched the girl, I knew that for this moment, our preschool environment had satisfied all her baser needs, which is why she was free to come alive in this way.

As an educator, however, I had an interest in what she was thinking. I hoped that when she reached a moment of triumph or epiphany, she would seek me out to tell me what she had made or discovered or felt. I hoped that another child would join her game and I could construct my own understanding through overhearing their conversation. But until then, I was left with observation and reflection.

Eleanor Duckworth, teacher, psychologist, and translator of pioneering developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, wrote in her book The Having of Wonderful Ideas that the process of thinking and the process of learning are indistinguishable from one another. It's a concept that stands at the heart of much of my work as an educator: I see my role as creating environments, both for children and adults, that prompt thinking. Not agreement, although that might happen. Not memorization, although that might become a part of it. Not enjoyment, although that might emerge. I don't know what anyone will learn, but if I have evidence that they are thinking, like I did with this girl, it makes my heart sing. I know I've done well when a child looks up from their play and says, "I have an idea." I know I've done my job when someone says, "I've been thinking about something you said," or "I've been wondering about that post you wrote." But most of the time, I'm left to patiently wait for hints and clues. Duckworth feels that our role as educators is to be researchers and this is what I was doing.


The girl began to sing a song to herself as she played. It wasn't a song that I had taught her. It wasn't a song I recognized. It sounded like a lullaby, the kind that caretakers croon to a baby as it drifts off to sleep. It seemed to me that it was a song that evoked fond and soothing memories. The other day I came across a quote from the philosopher William James: "The art of remembering is the art of thinking." 

The author Doris Lessing wrote: "That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you've understood all your life, but in a new way."

Thinking, remembering, understanding, creating, learning. It was all happening right here in this moment of thought and action merged into a singular creative purpose. This is the way humans are meant to live. It's when our lives are full of meaning and emptied of doubt. We spend our lives trying to recapture these moments of merged thought and action from our childhood. It would be a sin to scuttle this girl's play just so I could tick boxes on an assessment form. What she was doing was nothing less that living, right now, on point and on purpose, and it's my hope that if we can allow her to fill her childhood with authentic moments like this, one after another, day after day, it will become a well from which she can draw when she feels lost, to drink of that substance she has understood all her life, learn it, and to continue to live with meaning and purpose until the day she dies.

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"I recommend these books 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


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Thursday, September 14, 2023

It Is Through Playing With Others That We Become Ourselves


"Through others we become ourselves," writes Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist best known for his work on the psychological development of children. He believed that our mental and cognitive abilities, our minds, are not biologically determined, but rather the product of interacting with the world around us -- the language, tools, ideas, culture, and especially the other people.

We know that babies who are not touched, roll over and die. Prisoners kept in isolation invariably go insane. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal noted that "(a)ll of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone," but the opposite is also seems to be true. Humanity's greatness stems from our ability to engage the world in cooperation with others. In other words, it seems that it is through becoming we that any one of us can become me.

The last 150 years of Western culture has been upended by massive ideological and technological shifts. The so-called "invisible hand" of capitalism has been interpreted as every man for himself; cities of millions means that we are living in permanent crowds of strangers, while our suburbs, along with private automobiles and televisions, isolate us; fewer and fewer of us sink our roots in a single place, but rather live nomadic lives in places far removed from those who knew us when we were young; the internet answers all our questions without the necessity for human connection. Increasingly, we're seeing the results of a disconnected world, one in which genuine community is increasingly rare. Soaring rates of anxiety and depression, hateful politics, and lone gunmen are all symptoms of a world in which people feel they do not belong. We say it takes a village to raise a child, but that begs the question, What village?

If Vygotsky is right, and I think he is, then the quality of our minds is the direct result of the company we keep. In the more distant human past, that meant a physical village or neighborhood, but today, for too many of us, where we live and work is little more than a collection of acquaintances and strangers. Some surveys find that one in five men report they have no close friends, and while women tend to have more people in their inner circle, that number is also declining at an alarming rate. Many of us are keeping no company at all, which means that the vacuum is filled with media personalities and influencers, people who we do not know, who cannot have our best interests at heart, and who are driven to connect for mercenary and ideological reasons. Sadly, this generation of preschoolers is being raised by parents who have never known a village.

If Vygotsky is right, and I think he is, learning is essentially a social process, yet our schools, our very idea of education, is an individual one. We measure what an individual knows. We grade the individual. We test the individual. We pathologize, diagnose, reward, and punish the individual. We talk about "school communities," but we run them as hierarchies complete with haves and have nots, winners and losers. If we were embracing Vygotsky and the hundreds of studies that have confirmed his theories, we would make our schools into the kinds of villages that allow our children to become a part of the essential we. Indeed, that would be the purpose of school.

Perhaps our schools are too far gone, but yours is not. Perhaps society has strayed too far away from the village, but you need not. It's never too late. Vygotsky was an advocate for childhood play because, as he saw it, the sandbox is the best and most natural way to build our mental and cognitive abilities. So I offer my small edit to Vygotsky's famous quote: It is through playing with others that we become ourselves. That is how we become great.

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If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"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

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Wednesday, September 13, 2023

"Oh Brother, Not Again"


"Oh brother, not again." It was a phrase that a small group of children had decided came with a built in laugh. Over the course of any given day, they would say it a dozen times or more, always cracking one another up. Sometimes they would use it in context, like when their block tower toppled over, but it was more often deployed during random moments. It didn't matter, it always got a laugh. Once a boy who had hurt himself in a fall even managed to laugh at the joke through his tears.

I hear it as an old fashioned expression, so I image that one of them picked it up from a vintage book or cartoon rather than an adult in their lives. Whatever the case, it delighted them and, in turn, it delighted me.

Over the course of weeks, this hackneyed phrase was an important plaything, one they tried out again and again, in a variety of circumstances. But where they seemed to find it most useful was the it reliably introduced the option of levity to tense or painful situations. More than one argument was diffused by an onlooker sighing, "Oh brother, not again." It was a magic spell in that it obliged the children in this group to laugh, not matter what else was going on.

My wife and I have a few jokes like this, one-liners we say to one another, particularly when things look grim. "This is the critical phase" might no longer incur belly laughs, but it does, even after nearly 40 years, still have the capacity to make us chuckle, often through our metaphorical tears, a reminder of all the other "critical phases" we've encountered together.

"Louder and funnier" is one that comes from my wife's family. "Get with the times" is a joke I picked up from my brother. They aren't particularly funny to you because the humor is embedded in the story of the relationship between people. To the rest of the world, they are empty words, clich├ęs, yet to those on the inside they are plump with so much meaning that to evoke them is to completely alter the emotional content of a moment.

No one teaches us about these kinds of jokes. They emerge as a natural part of human bonding, even among preschoolers. Each time a child would say, "Oh brother, not again," I found myself chuckling along, shaking my head in wonder over this sophisticated thing that the children were doing. As the renowned Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote, "Through others we become ourselves," and that, it seems to me is what they were doing: becoming themselves, both individually and collectively, unified behind this tired joke that they had revived and made their own. 

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If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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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