Monday, July 31, 2023

Playing In The Warmth Of A Mid-Summer Day

For a time, the children gathered together around the workbench where they made things with junk using glue guns. Others chose to create using construction paper, tape, and staplers. They talked quietly amongst themselves as they worked, sharing tools and ideas as they went.

After awhile, in ones and twos, they declared their projects complete and began to move away into the rest of the playground. Someone began to work the handle on the cast iron pump and the flow of water attracted the children, who took up shovels to direct the flow of the water. There was talk of creating a lake that was deep enough to float the old row boat that has rested in the sandpit for over a decade. They organized themselves.

It was a warm, breezy mid-summer day. I tried not to think of all those poor children who are still in school or its summertime substitute. It's impossible not to think of it as an outright robbery. For me, summer belongs to children. Only a self-important killjoy would take that away. I was grateful to live in a place that at least respects childhood enough to give them a proper summer. 

I was sitting with a mother whose oldest daughter just completed her first year of public school kindergarten. As we watched the children from afar she sighed. Her children had been part of Woodland Park for the past five years, a place where the seasons change, but the spirit of summer feeds the entire year. She said, "Kindergarten was great, but it made me doubt myself. When we're here I know my kids are doing the right thing." 

No one ever needs "desk time" more than they need this. 

Earlier in the week, I performed a little slight-of-hand for the kids. Some of them figured out how I did it, which lead to a conversation about magic that has stretched out over hours and days. Some of them believe in magic, others think it's all slight-of-hand. We've wondered about unicorns and tooth fairies. We had a long conversation about dragons. We discussed the fire-breathing kind, but also the metaphorical ones that exist in Chinese mythology: the creative dragon that flows through our minds as we make art, or the water dragon that exists in the flow of water coming from the pump, or the fire dragon that makes the sun so hot. One group of siblings told us they were taking a weekend drive up onto the mountain dragon's back where there would still be snow even in the summer. And then there was the heavenly dragon, who is so large and powerful that its entire body is made of pearls of wisdom and other dragons.

Some of us danced together. Some of us danced while hanging upside down by our knees.

Summer, childhood, where there is no such thing as falling behind. The dragon myths are uplifting, but the one about falling behind is crushing our children and crushing our families. Indeed, it's not even a myth, but rather one of those dark fairytales designed to frighten us into "proper" behavior. I've heard of teachers being celebrated for giving children short breaks to dance at their desks, a crowd control technique that empties dance of its joy and freedom. Indeed, it's not even dance.

I recently had lunch with a friend who teaches in the public schools. She's always been a ball-of-fire, aware of the flaws in our educational system, but convinced that she, at least for the children in her life, could overcome them. This time she told me, "I no longer think I can change the world. I'm not even sure I can change the world for a single child." She had hoped that the pandemic would have opened people's eyes to what we are doing to children in the name of "desk time" and the fear of falling behind, but, as she said, "Everyone is just rushing to get right back to the crap." 

Against this background, I watched these children play in their natural habitat. I took several deep breaths, allowing myself to join them in this genuine moment of summer, of childhood, without adults breathing down their necks, without having to get career and college ready, without worry over the myth of falling behind. This is what young children should be doing: creating, digging, splashing, talking about dragons, and dancing, not in a rush, but in the warmth of a lazy mid-summer day.


"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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Friday, July 28, 2023

Asking Ourselves, "Would I Say This To An Adult?"

"The grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and, for children, it's tiresome always giving them explanations." This is perhaps the most famous line from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's novella The Little Prince.

It's memorable and funny, to adults at least, because in this case the child is exasperated with adult ignorance instead of the other way around. It's also instructive because it shows us ourselves in a kind of mirror.

Over the years, I've found it useful to regularly look in that mirror. Before saying something about or to a child, I try to listen to how it would sound if I were speaking about or to an adult who I care for.

Few of us would say, for instance, "Get your butt over here!" to an adult. Of course, most of us wouldn't say that to a child either, but if you do hear someone shouting this, it will almost assuredly be an adult shouting at a child. What would I say to an adult in this case? Probably nothing because I'm in no position to boss anyone around, especially so rudely. 

And speaking of commands, how about something more benign, like, "Get in the car." Would I say this to an adult? Even with a gentle, lilting tone? Only if I were angry and I wanted them to know it. Saying, "Get in the car, please" might even be worse. If it's an adult whose goodwill I want to maintain, I'd likely to say something less directive like, "It's time to go." Or perhaps I'd simply announce, "I'm heading to the car" or "I'll meet you at the car" or "I hate being late" or I'd look at my watch and ask, "Where did we park?" 

But it's not just commands. Imagine saying any of these things to or about an adult:

"If you stop crying, I'll buy you a cupcake." 

"What are you going to be when you grow up?"

"She's just shy."

"They're always trying to kill themselves."

"No dessert until you've finished dinner."

"Because I said so!"

When I imagine saying any of these things with regard to an adult, I hear myself being controlling or dismissive or manipulative. I hear myself talking to or about someone as if they are ignorant or incapable. When I imagine myself being at the receiving end of these words, I understand why young children might react badly. These are not things I'd say to or about an adult whose good opinion I value, so it's worth wondering about why I might say them to or about a child whose good opinion I value.


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

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, July 27, 2023


Teacher Tom

I recently read Claire Dederer's book Monsters in which she considers the question of what to do about artists who have created beloved works of art, but who have also revealed themselves to be, well, monsters. Woody Allen is one of her prime examples. Dederer uses the metaphor of a beautiful piece of lace that has been stained. It remains a beautiful piece of lace, but it's nearly impossible to not notice the stain.

As people who work with and care for young children, we are in the business of forgiving and forgetting. Of course, we don't let a two-year-old's missteps stain them. Even our teenagers usually get to leave their transgressions in the past. At what age do we stop forgiving? How long ago does it have to be? It's been decades since Woody Allen was accused of his crimes. Has the stain faded? Should it? If we still enjoy his movies, are we condoning his past behavior? Are we forgetting about his victims? Are we forgetting about justice?

It's easy to forgive preschoolers, of course, because they're so young. Their brains aren't fully developed. Even if they hit or bite or verbally abuse a classmate, we don't let that stain set. They're not bad children; they just made bad choices. They didn't know any better. But when should they know better? There are teens who we try in court as adults. I guess we assume that they should have known better. On the other hand, we commonly expunge crimes from the records of teens under the assumption that they have learned their lesson and don't deserve to start life with a stain. But what if their's was a horrible crime, like rape? Some courts try to split the difference, keeping their juvenile crime a secret unless they're accused of doing it again, which might seem fair until you consider the second victim who might have benefitted from knowing about the stain.

When I was in school, one of the ways that adults tried to get us to behave was to warn us about stains on our "permanent record." Back then, it was a boogeyman -- there was never a permanent record. But in today's world, increasingly, everyone's permanent record is at our fingertips. It's no longer just the famous whose stains are visible to the world.

I'm grateful to have grown up in an era in which videos of my worst moments don't show up on the internet, where my outrageous and misguided "hot takes" are preserved forever in some database just waiting to be revealed. I'm not a monster, but I've made mistakes, out of ignorance, out of insensitivity, out of privilege, for which I might well have found myself "cancelled" were they have happened today. Many of us recoil against so-called cancel-culture when we think of it this way, but don't most of us wish that someone had done something to cancel history's monsters, the 9/11 high jackers, Ted Bundy, Stalin, Herod?

The children in our care will live their entire lives in a world in which their mistakes really might wind up on a permanent record. It's hard to imagine anyone making it through life without some sort of stain.

In the Christian Bible, Paul, in his letter to the Romans (3:23), writes: "For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God's glorious standard." In other words, we are all stained. Of course, God also forgives, washing sinners clean, rendering the beautiful lace unmarred, but for us mere mortals, forgiving other adults is hard and the stain remains no matter how much we try. God can look into hearts and know whether or not they are sincere, but since we can never know for sure, the stain remains. Is it truly forgiveness if we can't forget?

That said, I find I'm incapable of this sort of radical forgiveness. For instance, I think of those children who continue trusting and forgiving even when they are abused. The stain on "monsters" who do horrible things to children, like what Woody Allen has been credibly accused of doing, can never be washed away. The stain is too revolting to ignore; the lace is completely ruined. I struggle to forgive any adult who abuses the weak and vulnerable. And I write this knowing that forgiveness would, I'm promised, set me free.

But we do forgive young children. We must. We trust that they are sincere, and even if they haven't learned their lesson this time, we trust they will, eventually, with our loving support. So the capacity for god-like forgiveness is within us and no where do we see it more clearly than in the children themselves, who forgive us, daily, even hourly, for the mistakes we make. 

I'm grateful for Dederer's book, not because it provides answers, but rather because it poses important questions that may or may not have answers. 


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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Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Loving And Being Loved While Doing Meaningful Things, Together

Low pay is a major downside of being an early childhood educator. In most places in the US, our average pay barely rises above the poverty level. Low prestige is likewise a problem, one that goes hand-in-hand with low pay, but is also the result of ours being a profession that is increasingly made up of young women of color, a trifecta of economic marginalization. Oh sure, when we tell people what we do for a living, they often insist that we're saints doing the "most important work," but polls show that very few of those people would encourage their own child to pursue a career in the early years. The only reason I was able to remain in the classroom for as long as I did was that my wife had a good income.

Despite it all, the job has its compensations, not the least of which is the children themselves. Most of us, most of the time, love the children, and we know that we're making a difference in their lives. And we also know that the children love us back. No matter what horrible things were going on in my life, no matter what challenges our school was facing, no matter what candidate or ballot initiate was being debated in the political realm, as long as I was down on my knees with the children, the world was good. That's the power of loving, being loved, and knowing that we are spending our time on the planet making a real, tangible difference.

I used to joke that at any given moment, my best friends were five-years-old. These were the children who had been with me for three years. By the time they were five, they had been coming to Woodland Park for over half their lives. We had history together and told inside jokes. Indeed, whenever we came together it was within the context of a community we had built together, with its distinct culture founded upon the agreements we made with one another, on our individual personalities and relationships. We were relaxed with one another, a product of having been through crap together, and knew by now that we would always come out on the other side, together. If that isn't the stuff of genuine friendship, I don't know what is.

Maybe the best part of our profession is that it's very hard to feel lonely.

I've been thinking a lot lately about loneliness. Survey's find that some 60 percent of Americans report that they feel lonely on a regular basis. The pandemic didn't help, of course, but loneliness was already a problem, one that's been on the rise since the 1970's (so we can't lay the blame fully on the internet), and it continues to be such a significant problem that many experts, including US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, are calling loneliness a health crisis. 

According to Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist and psychology professor at Yale University:

(I)ndividuals who report feeling lonely are more likely to experience things like dementia, heart disease, stroke. It actually affects longevity. Meaning that people who self-report feeling lonely are even more likely to die than those that aren't . . . feel(ing) lonely is like smoking 15 cigarettes a day in terms of its impact on our health and our well-being.

Social neuroscientist John T. Cacioppo claims that loneliness also negatively affects our thinking abilities, willpower, and immune systems.

Our attempts to solve loneliness through technology has so far been a total bust. Social media, with its promise to connect people, seems to do the opposite, making individuals feel even more lonely than before, which may be why the problem of loneliness if even more pronounced among young adults. Attempts of create artificial intelligence companions will likely fail for the same reason. Liking a photo of a party is not the same as having been there; talking to a machine, even if it says all the right things, will never be the kind of two-way street that humans seem to need.

It's a cliché to say we're "social animals," but we are. Even those of us who identify as introverts need regular doses of human interaction in order to be fully healthy, happy humans. And while technology may be the ongoing process of attempting to solve problems that humans have so far failed to solve, it cannot, at least in the short run, ever hope to alleviate the sense of isolation, social rejection, and lack of connection that characterizes loneliness. 

The pop psychologists are simply urging us to "get off social media," and that certainly may be part of it, but there is more than that at work in making so many of us feel lonely. It's not an accident that our national rise in loneliness has coincided with a rise in the number of hours per week we spend with our noses at the grindstone. It's not irrelevant that our commute times are eating up more and more of our time on the planet. It's not a coincidence that the decline in the number of "third places" like bowling alleys and movie theaters, and roller rinks, other community gathering places, has coincided with the increase in feelings of loneliness. And I can't help but believe that the era of go-go, rah-rah, every-man-for-himself capitalism that was ushered in during the early 1980's is at least party responsible for making view our fellow humans competitors in some sort of bizarre race to . . . where?

When I think of playing with my best friends, our days were spent largely in cooperation. Sure there were moments of rivalry or conflict over limited resources, but our solutions, as they usually are amongst friends always involved more cooperation. As the late, great Utah Phillips sang, "I will not obey, but I'm always read to agree." As I think of what we did together, I see us learning together, as a community, in stark contrast to the hyper-individualistic don't-peek-at-your-neighbor's-work culture of standard schools where competition over test scores and grades drives everything.

We like to speculate about what gives our species its "advantages." People say it's the opposable thumb or language or relatively larger brains. But our real strength as a species is our ability to work together. Anthropologists tell us that Neanderthals humans were actually individually more "intelligent" than us smaller, weaker Homo sapiens, yet we thrived because of our unprecedented ability to cooperate. We did not evolve with the larger muscles, sharper teeth, greater speed, and ferocity of all the other so-called apex predators; we didn't do it through being individually brilliant; no, everything that makes our species special has come through working together. Feeling lonely can only be fixed through connecting with other humans, not just to chat, but actually do things together, to cooperate, and to create meaning.

To be a play-based preschool teacher might mean living humbly, but it also means that we need never feel lonely because we can spend our days loving and be loved while doing meaningful things, together. That is, in the end, the only cure for loneliness. 


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

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Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Memories Are The Stories We Tell Ourselves About What Happened

In her best selling memoir Educated, Tara Westover recounts a traumatic scene from when she was a girl, one that would have been emblazoned forever into anyone's memory. Her details are lurid and clear the way one would expect from such a terrifying experience. There were three other family members present during the incident, however, and in a footnote and also in an endnote, Westover tells us that they disagree about what actually happened, not just recalling different details in different ways, which could be accounted for by their varying perspectives, but rather fundamental things like who was actually present and what actually happened. Indeed, precious few aspects of the event appear to be consistent across all of their memories except that it was terrifying. As the author of a memoir, Westover resolves this by telling the story from her own memory, while acknowledging the alternative memories of her family members which, I think, is fair if one's concern is truth.

As disinterested observers, of course, we all know that only one thing could have happened. If the event had been recorded on video, for instance, we would know the truth and the participants, whatever their memories tell them, would be forced to acknowledge that their memories are faulty.

Increasingly, science is coming to grips with the unreliability of memory. For a long time, we assumed that memories worked a lot like that video recorder and that given the right kinds of probing introspection we could find objective truth which must be in there, somewhere. But we are now understanding that while life happens but once, memories tend to happen over and over, especially emotional ones like the one in Westover's book, and each time we conjure up the past our brains in subtle and not so subtle ways, alter those memories making them something new each time. Indeed, the more often we've remembered something the more we've altered it, meaning that our memories are more works of fiction than fact. Of course, they feel true, because they are our memories, and there is a greater truth embedded in there somewhere, but not the sort of objective truth one finds on video recordings.

I imagine this idea is upsetting to some people. It is to me. It means that much of what I believe to have happened in my past may have never happened, or at least not in the way I remember it. But I also know the phenomenon is real. I can't tell you how often I've gone over old times with people, especially people I've not seen in a long time, only to find that our memories are wildly divergent and we either wind up in an unresolvable argument or, more often, desperately seeking for some grain of "truth" upon which we can both agree.

What we call our memories are really just the stories we tell about what happened and those stories are edited each time we retell them.

While we cannot recall actual events with objective accuracy, it does seem that we never forget how those events made us feel. Westover may or may not have described the actual incident accurately, but the feelings the event evoked -- fear, sadness, confusion -- are as real today as they were back then and upon that all of her family members agree. I think of the children in our care, these people who are busy creating memories that they will turn into stories. Most of us remember very little from before we were five years old, at least when it comes to those concrete memories of actual events, but how those events made us feel will be with us forever. This is why our love is more important than any activity or experience or toy. That is the thing that will endure even the unreliability of memory.


"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!

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, July 24, 2023

"You're Right"

I attended elementary school in Columbia, South Carolina during the 1960's and was explicitly taught that the Civil War was fought, not over slavery, but over "economic differences" between the North (with its more industrialized economy) and the South (with it's farming-based economy). I learned this in a classroom to which I'd been bussed as a consequence of court ordered desegregation of the schools. The majority of my classmates were Black and this bit of propaganda was delivered by a young Black teacher doing her job. I had prior knowledge of the Civil War. I came into that classroom knowing that the war had been fought over slavery. When I mentioned this to my teacher, she answered, "You're right," but if I was going to get the right answer on the test, I was going to have to pick "economic differences" over "slavery." And so I did.

That extra-curricular "You're right" was real teaching within a system that was focused on manufacturing ignorance.

Thankfully, my family moved away from South Carolina. We moved away from the US altogether, to Athens, Greece, where I attended The American Community School, a classic international school where I attended with children from all over the world. We didn't focus exclusively on American history, which was eye-opening in itself, but one thing we definitively learned was that the Civil War was fought over slavery, and that slavery was brutal and evil. Likewise, we learned that fascism, something that had only just been defeated in Europe, was brutal and evil. More recently, I've learned from Isabel Wilkerson's book Caste that the Nazis literally modeled their own brutal and evil systems on American slavery and the subsequent Jim Crow era oppression of formerly enslaved Black people. They even rejected some American practices as too brutal and evil, even for Nazis.

I used to whine about having to learn history. "Why do I have to learn this?" I would complain. "I'll never use it." And wise adults would answer that we learn history so that we won't let the brutality and evil happen again. Even put that way, it seemed a bit of a waste. Of course, we've learned our lessons, I thought, it's so obvious that things like slavery and fascism are wrong, but apparently I was mistaken.

I know I'm not the only one who has been dismayed and outraged over what is happening in our nation's public schools, especially around the teaching of history. It's not just the state of Florida, but that is the current the epicenter of an attempt to whitewash history. Last weeks headlines were about new state standards that require children be taught that enslaved people "developed skills" from which they gained "personal benefit" by being enslaved. When the state's department of education pushed back on the public outrage they released a list of 16 individuals who they claimed personally benefitted from slavery. Outrageously, when actual historians looked at their list, it turns out that only 9 of them had actually been enslaved, 9 were identified with working in industries/professions in which they never worked, 14 of them did not learn their skills while enslaved, and one of them was the white sister of George Washington. If that's not whitewashing history, I don't know what is. What the hell else are they teaching those kids in Florida?

And make no mistake, this is not the only blatant distortion of history being taught to children in the state of Florida. It is not the only blatant distortion of facts being taught. Books that have anything to do with race, gender, and sexuality have already been removed from Florida schools.

This is, at bottom, an attempt to keep children ignorant. It is an attempt to erase the perspective of the Black experience as well as that of other marginalized people. The result is ignorance and history tells us that ignorance always leads to brutality and evil. It's already happening. As educators, truth must be our guide. 

I know that this little blog has readers in Florida and other places where the agenda of ignorance is being forced upon children. I also know that you are already planning to tell your students the truth, one way or another, like that young teacher who said to me, "You're right." Every good teacher is subversive and at no time is that more important than when truth itself is under attack.


"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

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, July 21, 2023

Allowing Myself To Be Their Student

Faig Ahmed, hand-woven textile

When our daughter Josephine was born, we lived in an apartment in downtown Seattle, a block away from the famed Pike Place Public Market. One of the reasons we loved living downtown was that we could walk everywhere and that included her, at first in her bassinet stroller and then on her own two feet.

One of our regular destinations was the Seattle Art Museum. Museums are notoriously dull for young children, especially when adults march them through the exhibits, one-gallery-at-a-time, urging them to look at this one or that one, and peppering them with questions with the idea of making the experience "educational. And I get it. We adults have paid good money, made the effort, and it seems like an incredible waste when the kids start begging to leave after 10 minutes of riding the escalators. After a couple of experiences like this, instead of giving up, we had the idea of purchasing a family membership so that we could pop in and out at will. It turned out to be a genius move. Now, the pressure was off. Josephine could say, "I want to see the painting of Jesus whacking those guys" (an actual reference she made to a medieval painting of Jesus driving the money lenders from the temple) and we were free to do just that: walk to the museum, look at that one painting, then leave without feeling any sense of having wasted even a second.

This simple move of an annual membership allowed us to let Josephine lead the way. I wasn't Teacher Tom back then, but just a father whose wanted, for reasons not yet clear to me, his child to be free to just explore. And her instinct was to walk fast, treating the galleries like a kind of maze, pointing and remarking, but only pausing briefly before moving on. Without the pressure of getting value for my money, I found I could relax and just follow her, figuring that at least she was getting a bit of exercise, because it sure didn't seem like she was engaging with the art. We would walk round-and-round, ending up back where we started, then plunge back in to do it again. 

I've probably visited this Albert Bierstadt painting, Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast, a hundred times. This photo can't do it justice, but if you click it, you will see it a bit larger. I feel like this is my painting.

Looking back, I can see how wrong I was. She was, in fact, fully engaging with the art. She was starting with the architecture. 

We would sometimes spend a half hour just motoring through the space, mapping it, noticing the windows, the balconies, finding the elevators and bathrooms, riding the escalators, saying hello to staffers, and only then, only once we knew our way around, would she say something like, "I want to find that silly painting." She would then lead us directly to it, like finding a landmark while traveling through a strange land.

With the lay of the land firmly in mind, Josephine would then often crawl onto a bench, where we would sit to ponder whatever art was within view. I specifically remember a piece by Cindy Sherman, a self-portrait in which she portrayed a queen on a throne. My memory of the specifics is fuzzy after all these years, although I recall it as a somewhat unsettling image. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, over the next few months we visited it a half dozen times. What fascinated Josephine was that this queen, this woman in a puffy, fancy dress, was apparently looking at something off the edge of the canvas. What was she looking at? Josephine was convinced that she was looking at her baby girl and that she was sad that her baby girl wasn't sitting on her lap. She would then tell stories about that baby and why it wasn't with her queen mommy, conjuring exactly the kind of introspection and wonder that every artists hopes to evoke.

Another time, I had made efforts to steer her away from a particularly macabre artwork that featured a dissembled woman's body on a collection of video screens. I thought I had been successful, until Josephine declared, "I want to find those TVs." And sure enough, she led me right to it. I was prepared for her to be frightened, but instead she stood laughing at the absurdity, a response so genuine that it completely shifted my own perspective on the piece.

This experience of following a toddler's lead taught me how to not just appreciate art museums, but to love them. To this day, I'm the guy you see either buzzing through the galleries or sitting on a bench. Never do I slowly and systematically making my way through as if ticking off boxes. But more importantly, it was one of my first lessons in letting a child lead me, of trusting young children to know how and what to learn, and, indeed, allowing myself to be their student.


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

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, July 20, 2023

Now Is The Time To Live


I've got values but I don't know how or why. ~The Who, The Seeker

Most of us, most of the time, are reasonable people. That's not to say we're always logical, but only that we usually have our reasons for the things we do, believe, and know. 

Occasionally, we run across adults who confess that they are behaving unreasonably, "I don't know why I did that." Even more rarely, an adult will admit, "I don't know how I know -- I just know." Psychologists tell us that much of our behavior is unreasonable in this way, meaning that we act, then later, if pressed, fill in a reason after the fact, usually one dressed up in logic because that's what's expected, even if it isn't entirely the truth. We do this all the time with our feelings. We often must search, sometimes with the help of a friend or therapist, for the reason we feel sad or irritable or anxious. Even knowledge can sometimes come to us without the framework of reasons: our best ideas often come to us in a flash that has nothing to do with reason, let alone logic. Einstein famously says his Theory of Relativity came to him in this way, then he went back and did the math to build a scaffold of reason to support his not-so-crazy idea. And, of course, some of our beliefs rest on faith, the reason we give to the things we know that simply cannot be supported by logic.

I once, in exasperation, asked a five-year-old why he persisted in harming other children. He was in anguish as he answered, "I don't know." This had happened after months of trying to support this boy in his genuine efforts to stop harming other children. It wasn't about emotional outbursts or losing control, at least not in the way we normally see it in young children whose ability to self-regulate are still developing. On the contrary, he generally presented as a charming, intelligent boy, one who said all the right things, who was usually surrounded by friends, and who behaved politely with adults. But at least once a day, usually when he felt the adults weren't looking, he would push someone to the ground, twist their arm, or otherwise hurt them. His mother once told me that she couldn't trust him alone with her newborn. 

His behavior confounded us, including his mother, who was a therapist, as well as the other professionals with whom the family and our school consulted. We were searching for the reasons behind his behavior, all of us, I think, desperately trying to avoid approaching the only reason we had left, which was that his boy was exhibiting traits often associated with a psychopath, an as yet untreatable condition that afflicts about one percent of humans, and is characterized, at least in part, as deriving pleasure from causing pain in others. I've lost track of this family. I hope he outgrew it, that he is not part of that one percent, but I will never forget him telling me, "I don't know." He normally expressed little remorse for his behavior, but this was a moment of genuine distress over not being able to attach a reason to his behavior. If only we could identify why he did the things he did, we thought, then we could help him. That moment of "I don't know" was so raw and genuine that it felt like truth, even if I was desperately trying to avoid the reason to which it seemed to lead.

This is an extreme example, of course. Usually, we are better at attaching reasons to behavior. As adults who work with young children, we often find ourselves in the position of playing detective when it comes to behavior. That's in part because young children, by and large, are still developing their language skills, but also because they haven't yet adopted the adult compulsion to backfill their behavior with reasons. They don't generally feel the need to explain or justify themselves, even as adults prod them for their reasons, ultimately "finding" them through our own conjectures. This child is hungry, we conclude, or that one is tired or overwhelmed or they need to poop. We might speculate about autism or ADHD or sensory integration issues. Those are guesses, perhaps educated guesses, even reasonable or logical guesses, but we are, of course, at some level always wrong because even if the child having their experience could put it to words that we would understand, it's quite likely there remains an unexpressed or unconscious motivation behind their behavior or knowledge that defies our attempts at labeling.

Whenever our reasons, as they often do, defy logic, we all struggle to put them into words because thinking is at least as much an emotional and physical process as an intellectual one. 

Think of those people you see interviewed about their political beliefs, especially if they diverge from your own. We hear them tossing word salads, seeking for something that sounds like logic, to sound reasonable, even as their real reasons clearly emerge from something other than logic.

Think of an athlete or musician who performs an amazing feats of physical dexterity, exhibiting a high degree of bodily intelligence, yet when they are asked to comment, to explain, to provide reasons, all we get are cliches and bromides about hard work and believing in yourself, reasons we must accept as stand-ins for something that can't be put into words. 

Western culture, at least since The Enlightenment, has sought to enshrine logic as the height of human intelligence. Indeed, we often use the word reason as a synonym as if logic, and only logic, can serve as reason. This is one of the central biases being programmed into so-called artificial intelligence (AI). Most non-western traditions, however, understand that logic serves as only one aspect of intelligence. Indeed, the very idea of ranking intelligence, or kinds of intelligence, displays an ignorance of the totality of human capability.

Our prejudice that human intelligence is superior to others is a dead end. Human intelligence orients to the world in its way. Amoeba intelligence in its way. Dog intelligence in its way. Intelligence is shaped by our sensory abilities, our emotions, our bodies, our environment, and by what it takes for a specific species to survive and procreate. Human intelligence in a dolphin body would be certain death. Logic, on the other hand, is a product of the same kind of hierarchical thinking that also gave us colonization, enslavement, and capitalism, all systems that rely upon competition, dominance, and submission. If we were really going to create an artificial intelligence, we better understand that if we rely on logic as a complete stand-in for intelligence, we will be building a monster that is incapable of behaving or knowing anything beyond the inevitability of its own superiority. It might not have the ability to take pleasure in the pain it causes us, but it won't care, which might be worse.

Logic is a useful, satisfying thing. When we understand that one plus one makes two, it gives us the sense that there is order, that there is, at least in this case, a defense against chaos. With logic on its pedestal, however, we assert that there are always reasons and if we can't find them, we must be either not intelligent enough or simply wrong. But intelligence, human or otherwise, is bigger than mere logic. It is capable of occupying space without reasons, where it is okay to not know why we know. Indeed, that is our natural state. When I watch young children at play, I see them exercising human intelligence at full-capacity. I see wide-open wonder, a direct connection to the world, unmitigated by the systems of knowing that we call education. I see people who don't know, who are, and who do. There will be plenty of time for reasons, later. Now is the time to live.


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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Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Talking About Spirit

Karntakuringu Jakurrpa

When we die, the arrangement of our physical parts remains the same as it was in life, yet something quite essential is suddenly, from one moment to the next, missing. The people of ancient India called this missing thing, prana. Chinese philosophers gave it the name qi. French philosopher Henri Bergson coined the term Élan vital. Having been brought up as a Lutheran, we spoke of the spirit leaving the body. Whatever we call it, this vital life force, has been an obvious reality for humans throughout our time on the planet. We feel it. We see it in others. And, perhaps most telling, we know when it has gone out of a human body.

In recent centuries, however, we find ourselves, in the West at least, talking less and less about this essential aspect of what it means to be alive. Indeed, it seems we've turned most of the discussion over to the practitioners of alternative medicine, religion, and fiction ("May the force be with you!"), where it can be boxed up and patted on the head as a sort of sweet, abiding myth. Science is ascendant and since scientists are no where close to understanding what qi is or how it works, many of us are suspicious of its existence. Certainly, we think, there must be some sort of tick-tock mechanism still awaiting our measurement and testing, something quantifiable and concrete that will explain this illusion of a ghost living in our bodily machines. Talk of qi or prana or Élan vital or spirit strays too much into the mystical and magical for our scientific age.

We have no problem talking about our bodies, of course. In the early years, we talk heaps about the importance of children moving their bodies, especially outdoors. We fret and worry over proper nutrition, eye protection, and the avoidance in injuries (at least severe ones). And, naturally, we have no problem talking about the mind. I mean, that's our business, isn't it, as educators, to develop their young minds? There are few of us who can't cite this or that bit of neuroscience to describe behaviors or defend practices. And then, there is the old mind-body connection that we insist upon. Much of what we think we know about the body and mind is rubbish, because science is always moving forward, leaving those of us on the "front lines" scrambling to keep up, but that doesn't stop us from talking about it, investigating it, and deploying what we do know (or think we know) toward the betterment of the children in our care.

Founder and director of Connecting 2 Culture, Jackie Bennett, a consultancy committed to bettering childhood services for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander populations, draws upon her culture when she speaks about spirit:

"So what does spirit mean to me? For me, spirit means my ancestors and my elders. It is my connection to my culture. It is my connection to Mother Earth and to the country where I was born. Spirit is my family -- my mum, my dad, my brothers and sisters, and my cousins. Spirit is my husband, my four children, and my eight beautiful grandchildren. And the relationship that I've had with friends and all the people that cross my path and everything in between. Spirit is my old people and my ancestors . . . They are the ones that have guided me throughout out my life to do what I do every day, every hour, every minute . . . My spirits have guided me here to share the story of my people in Australia and to talk about the adverse effects that colonization is having on our children and that the effects of it are still having on my people today . . . Spirit has brought us all together."

She speaks, not of the "science," as Westerners so often do, but rather of the reality of spirit as it manifests within her. Instead of breaking spirit down into smaller and smaller parts the way science wants to do with everything, Jackie is speaking of spirit as an active, motivating force, a unity that is not only found within herself, but as the thing, the vital force, that connects all of us. 

When we restrict ourselves to the science, I think, we sell ourselves and the children in our lives short. What I learned from talking to Jackie is just how narrow our Western focus is. Don't get me wrong, I value science, but I'm also keenly aware that when it comes to the most important questions, science remains as mute as a stone. Scientists still have no idea, for instance, what consciousness is or how it works, yet we all know, quite clearly that it not only exists, but is vital. Even something as fundamental as energy is a complete mystery to physicists. I wonder sometimes if the problem with our relentless reliance upon science, which calls on us to engage in taking things apart, in breaking everything down into pieces and equations, leads us to lose the very thing we hope to understand.

Part of the process of colonization that Jackie speaks about has been, and continues to be, the process of pushing ancient wisdom aside, of laughing at it as myth and mumbo jumbo. It has left us high and dry, however, as we increasingly concentrate on mind and body at the expense of the spirit. No wonder the world is limping along. No wonder so many of us feel disconnected. No wonder society seems hopelessly deformed. No wonder we feel helpless as we continue to destroy Mother Earth.

We must talk about spirit, as Jackie does, examining it from within and without. What does it mean to you? What does it mean to me? Science tells us, I believe falsely, that there is always a right answer and that, by definition, all the other answers are wrong, but what if truth can only be found in that thing, that qi, that prana, that Élan vital, that spirit that connects us all? Perhaps we are not meant to understand it, but rather to live it. That's the evidence before us. Perhaps spirit is what we see wherever free children play together. 


Today is the final day to register for my brand new course: a 6-week deep dive into transforming your classroom, home, or playground into the kind of learning environment in which young children thrive. This course is for educators  parents, and directors. Start the new school year with a new and improved "third teacher" I hope you join me! To register and learn more, click here

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