Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Everything Becomes A Gateway To Everything

"Let's pretend we're dinosaurs."

Any sentence that begins with "Let's . . ." and especially those that begin with "Let's pretend . . ." are music to this preschool teacher's ears.

"Let's be princesses."

"Let's make a bad guy trap."

"Let's play firefighter."

They are invitations to create the world together. 

In his book Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness, neuroscientist Patrick House writes, "A body . . . is restless to get moving; in fact, the entire purpose of the brain is too make efficient movement from experience, and everything else, including consciousness, is downstream of these efforts." Let's is a contraction for "Let us" and is an invitation, one child to another, to move in a coordinated and cooperative way. 

The curricular hierarchy of standard schools is one that places literacy and mathematics at the top, with the sciences and humanities slotted into the next tier, while the arts and physical education are pushed to the bottom, if they are even included at all. It's argued by those who really don't trust children that it must be this way because, as they see it, reading and calculating are the gateway to everything else. This isn't what scientists tell us about learning. It isn't what indigenous people have known for centuries. What we know about the world is that everything is connected. No, the concept of a curricular hierarchy is merely a vestige of the mistake we made in thinking that the manufacturing model was applicable to human learning. Deep learning will never emerge from an assembly line process; it emerges most prolifically from passion, movement, and the discovery of connections. In this kind of learning environment, everything becomes a gateway to everything.

Relegated to the very bottom on our curricular hierarchy is imaginative play, often dismissed as a waste of time best left behind in preschool. But as House asserts, "Any act of thinking is just pretending to act out. Consciousness requires cells that want to move and that know roughly what will happen when they do . . . thinking is just moving without motion. Consciousness is the consequence of the primitive irritability of single cells that all share the ability to be impinged upon, to be excited, or to be provoked." (Emphasis added by me)

When a child says to another, "Let's pretend we're dinosaurs," they are making manifest this process of thinking; this process of pretending and movement. As observant educators, we hear the excitement, we see the provocation. We experience how, through their imaginative play, they are thinking, which is indistinguishable from learning. We witness them pretending to act out, then actually doing so, which is how our brains have evolved to learn.

When children say, "Let's pretend . . ." they are inviting one another to engage in the highest of human activities, which is to think and move and make stories together. "Let's pretend we're dinosaurs" is my "musical" cue to get out of the way and let the children teach themselves how their world goes together.


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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Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Walking And Falling

Sunday was a gorgeous day so I used it the way I most enjoy using gorgeous days, which is to walk. 

I considered a nature walk, then an urban one, but wound up choosing what authors Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts call "the true wilderness." That is to say, I chose to cut through an empty office park to a once-paved service road between heights of barb wire-topped chainlink fencing. On one side was an abandoned water park. The slides remained, faded yellow, blue, and red, curling and coiling in their descent from rusty towers to bone dry pools where peels of paint mixed with leaves from last autumn. On the other side was a wasteland that occasionally fills with water when it rains heavily. Today it was dusty, dotted with garbage and natural debris that was washed there during the last storm. 

There were a lot of shopping carts along the way although the nearest grocery store is a good two miles off, which told me that I might not be the only human out this way. I imagine people were sleeping rough or otherwise living in the harsh shrubbery that clumped together here and there, but other than those shopping carts, I saw no evidence of them, no smoke from a campfire, no sound of distant voices.

I was quite alone in these "edgelands," except for insects, scavenger birds, ground squirrels, and rabbits. I'm sure there were rodents around, but they, like the humans, were staying out of sight. Of course, I could hear traffic in the near distance; jets passed overhead, low and loud as they approached the airport; power lines, empty municipal infrastructure buildings, and other evidence of humans let me know I wasn't alone in the world, but simply alone in this place that was neither nature nor civilization. 

On Thursday, we buried my mother-in-law Patricia. In keeping with the Jewish tradition, the funeral could not be delayed, so last week had been a whirlwind of arrangements, relatives, and telling the stories of her nearly century of life. In his essay entitled "Walking" Henry David Thoreau celebrated the art of sauntering, and that is what I was doing, taking this moment, this gorgeous morning in a place of broken pavement and peeling paint where no one else wanted to be, to settle into an aimless, unhurried pace that seemed necessary after days of strong emotion and purposeful action.

Of course we had talked of Pat's accomplishments, her opera career as one of the leading coloratura sopranos of her era, her doctorate, her years as a self-proclaimed radical feminist professor of English and women's studies, her Judaism and temple life, and her late in life career as a respected poet. But what I was thinking about as I sauntered was what Rebecca Solnit, in her book Wanderlust, refers to as "the unpredictable incidents between official events that add up to a life, the incalculable that gives it value."

Pat once came to visit Jennifer and me when we lived in Germany, before the birth of our daughter. Jennifer was then unexpectedly called away on a three-week business trip leaving the two of us, mother- and son-in-law, unexpectedly alone together in a foreign place for an extended period. In those early days, Pat made no secret of her concern that I wasn't bright or accomplished enough to have married her only daughter. My young man's ego took offense, which meant that our relationship was often prickly. The prospect of three weeks alone without Jennifer there to run interference was horrifying. 

On our first day together, Pat and I carefully, over-politely, circled one another. 

She was a bourbon drinker and we had laid in a stock of her favorite brand in anticipation of her arrival. As I began to prepare dinner for two I offered her a drink and poured one out for myself. As we loosened up, we quickly found the one topic that was to forever unite us -- Jennifer! And that's what we did for three weeks. No matter how the day had gone, we came together each evening over bourbon and dinner to talk about a person we both loved unconditionally. I learned things about my wife and my mother-in-law learned, despite her continued misgivings about me, that I nevertheless loved her daughter and that would have to be enough. This incident, this accident of being thrown together, this edgeland between official events formed the foundation, the common ground, of our relationship for the next three decades.

I was sauntering without a predetermined destination which is, of course, an obvious metaphor for a life well-lived. Obituaries are about destinations attained, but life as it is lived is more like sauntering through the edgelands, discovering things you didn't know needed discovering, learning things you didn't know you needed to learn, becoming things you never knew you wanted to become. This is what makes life joyful. It occurs to me that the most cursed person would be the one who succeeded in living their life according to a plan.

As Solnit writes: "I have been threatened and mugged on the street . . . but I have a thousand times more often encountered friends passing by, a sought-for book in a store window, compliments and greetings from my loquacious neighbors, architectural delights, posters for music and ironic political commentary on walls and telephone poles, fortune-tellers, the moon coming up between buildings, glimpses of other lives and other homes, and street trees noisy with songbirds. The random, the unscreened, allows you to find what you don't know you are looking for, and you don't know a place until it surprises you. Walking is one way of maintaining a bulwark against this erosion of the mind, the body, the landscape, and the city, and every walker is a guard on patrol to protect the ineffable."

For the past several years, Pat was afflicted by dementia brought on by a series of strokes. At first, we didn't recognize the cognitive decline, probably because the bumps, bruises, and broken bones caused by her regular falls seemed more urgent. For a time, she lived in an assisted living facility, until she began to saunter off on her own. After she was discovered in her nightgown wandering around the University of Washington campus at 4 a.m., where she had taught for a decade, we had no choice but to move her to the memory ward of a Jewish retirement community, a place she couldn't leave unless she was in the company of others. Even then, she spent her days on her feet, roaming the floor, taking part in every activity, pausing only to eat. The staff estimated that she walked 10 to 20 miles a day right up until the day she fell so hard she would never walk again.

As I sauntered in the edgeland, I found a yellow golf ball that had escaped from a nearby driving range. I picked it up. As I did, I recognized that this is what Pat would have done. She would always return from her walks with things she hadn't known she was looking for. Often, when we arrived to take her out to dinner or to a family event we would find that she had used those random things she had collected the way a child might, to decorate her walker or herself or a corner of her room, finding meaning and purpose in those random things.

Pat was a brilliant human, a woman who accomplished enough for a dozen lifetimes. I can understand why someone might say, "Too bad," about these past few years, and it was, in many ways, awful for her and for those of us who loved her: a cruel trick played upon her by life itself. Yet still, through it all, through the true wilderness of life, she continued to move, not forward or backward, but through wherever she found herself. "Children," writes Solnit, "begin to walk to chase desires no one will fulfill for them: the desire for that which is out of reach, for freedom, for independence from the secure confines of the maternal Eden. And so walking begins as a delayed falling, and the fall meets with the Fall."

Pat delayed her falls right up until she could fall no more. She continued to go out into her world, even when her world became small. She continued to seek out the random, to learn, to strive, and to chase desires no one would fulfill for her. That is the incalculable that gave her life, any life, value.

We tucked her body in with dirt from our own shovels, another Jewish tradition. But the person she was, the person she is, continues to saunter within those of us who knew and loved her.


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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Monday, February 06, 2023

A Day In A Life Well-Lived

Field trips have always been a fundamental part of what we do at the Woodland Park Cooperative School. We believe in getting out into the world together at least once a month, often more. I especially like the sorts of excursions that we can make on public transportation because not only does it make things inexpensive (children 5 and under are free), but the kids are generally excited about a ride on the bus, even if they do it regularly with their families, often, at the end of the trip, declaring it to be their "favorite part" of the outing. This is why we sometimes schedule field trips that are just riding public transportation -- bus, train, trolley, and monorail.

But no public transportation is need for a Fremont ramble field trip, in which we just roam around our neighborhood for a couple hours. This is the best kind of field trip, one that keeps us close to home. I'm reminded of the "field trips" Mister Rogers used to take in his Neighborhood. It's the sort of thing that traditional schools might struggle to pull off, but being a cooperative, we have no problem creating a child to adult ratio of better than 3:1, which is what we enjoy on a typical day. So when traffic is heavy, as it often is in Fremont, we have plenty of adult hands to hold as we cross the busy streets.

On this outing we started off headed for a visit to the beloved Fremont Troll, but decided to first check out the pocket park, The Troll's Knoll, which is tucked up against our end of the Aurora bridge. 

There we found the newly dug community pea patch at the top of the hill complete with a pair of soon to be installed large galvanized steel tubs that made terrific "thunder drums" that we played with our palms. A sign indicated that one could "earn" a pea patch of your own by volunteering time and labor, a concept we discussed together, finally deciding we would make do with the garden we already have on the playground.

The Troll's Knoll features a nice, grassy hill down which we ran, proving once again that one needn't install yet another garish, primary-colored "playground" to make a pocket-park fun. 

The Troll is an old friend.

We clambered on his hands and slid down the long slope into which he's been installed, leaving long, smooth butt imprints in the dusty ground.

On the way down to the ship canal we stopped to watch a pair of diggers and a dump truck removing the last of the dirt from the deep, deep hole in which the Tableau Software headquarters now sits. If this is all we had set out to do, it would have been enough. We had already done and seen so much and we were only a couple blocks from the school.

When we got to Canal Park, we stopped at picnic tables near the houseboats for a snack of oranges and pretzels, still under the Aurora Bridge which by now soared mightily overhead.

A group of us discussed the nets that were hung under her. There is maintenance being done and we speculated that the nets where there to protect us in case one of the workers dropped a hammer from above. We then began to spot holes in the net through which hammers might potentially drop. This is where the famous Burke-Gilman mixed-use urban trail begins to track the ship canal and we thought it wise that the cyclists had thought to wear helmets, you know, because of the potential for hammers.

We chose to finish eating at precisely the right moment because as we rounded the corner we found the Fremont Bridge drawn fully open to allow a large Coast Guard vessel to pass, probably on the way for maintenance somewhere around Lake Union.

It was both pulled and pushed by smart yellow tugs.

We waved at the seamen and they waved back at us.

Now it was time for us to climb the four-flights of stairs onto the Fremont Bridge itself. These are grated stairs, which I know make many adults irrationally nervous, especially as they near the top and can look down to see the ground far beneath their feet.

We called up and down the stairs to one another: "I'm standing on you!" and "Hey, you're walking on me!"

Once on the bridge we crossed it to the Queen Anne side, peering down into the water and cautiously stepping over the three-inch gap between the two side of the span that opens many times every day. We then pulled a U-turn and returned to The Center of the Universe.

Back down the stairs we went before continuing along the Burke-Gilman, the canal on one side, plied by rowers and small boats, and the offices of Google, Adobe, Getty Images, and the aforementioned Tableau, on the other.

We arrived at the crazy concrete stairs, a privately-own public space amidst the offices, and there was no question we would climb them, but only after we'd stopped to sniff the calla lilies. At the top we found sculptures that we immediately labeled "astroids."

Of course, we climbed them, all the while bickering with one another, "Hey, you're pushing me!" "Give me more room!" "You're going to make me fall!"

We found the shrubbery full of excellent dens, cubbies, and forts.

It was an excellent place for a bit of impromptu hide-and-seek. We challenged ourselves on the stairs and railings.

On the way back to school, we paused to bask under the Fremont Rocket, hoping it didn't decide to launch itself as we stood there.

There were no toys anywhere along the way. There were no screens. There was no curriculum, no learning objectives, and no worries that we were falling behind. No, what we were doing was so much more important than any of that: we were out in the world together, our world, experiencing it, sharing it, figuring it out.

The kids were engaged the entire time, asking questions, answering questions, explaining, theorizing, imagining, arguing, laughing, and we were doing it upon more or less their schedule. There were many flowers sniffed along the way.

This is what education is properly about, engaging the real world and the things and people we find there at the pace of our choosing. That we can do it in the company of our loving parents makes it even better.

We went out into the world, found both familiar and unfamiliar things, had a "wild rumpus," then returned tired, hungry, and satisfied. It's not just the plot to Where the Wild Things Are, but also the story of a life well-lived.


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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Friday, February 03, 2023

What Makes A Good Teacher?

Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable. ~David W. Augsburger

I've been having a lot of conversations with business people lately about teaching. I've been a preschool teacher for nearly two decades, yet I'm having a hard time with some of their questions, and specifically those centered around the idea of what exactly it is that makes a "good teacher." It's in the nature of business people, it seems, to want to take things apart, to figure out how they work, to reduce them to their essentials, and then find ways to replicate them, preferably very quickly and for profit. Will this be a productive process for me? I don't know.

These have been good conversations, useful, casting a new light on our profession for me. Are there some things that all good teachers do? I genuinely don't know. Maybe. I don't even know if someone can be taught to be a good teacher, even as I know that many, many of us demonstrate the skills. Generally speaking, it's widely assumed that it takes at least five years in the classroom to even know if someone is a good teacher or not, because nothing replaces experience. It seems that apprenticeship, working alongside veteran teachers, can accelerate learning, but as for "teaching" them to be teachers, I don't know.

I mean in all honesty, although I go by the moniker Teacher Tom, I'm not sure I do much of what these business people would define as teaching, which is widely understood as a synonym for "instructing." I know that the children I've worked with have grown and learned. I even have a pretty good idea what they've learned in some cases, but as for successfully instructing them, I have a very short, undistinguished track record. Can I prove that the children have learned? Can I prove what they've learned? No, at least not to the satisfaction of someone who is looking for the kind of hard data that business people tend to like behind the things they do. Traditionally, we've done it by starting with "learning objectives," providing instruction, then testing to see if the kids meet our objectives. I've never done any of those things because, while it produces data on the effectiveness of certain types of direct instruction, it forces children through a process that is the antithesis of how we know children's brains are designed to learn. Will we ever be able to produce acceptable hard data on children learning through play? I don't know.

I do know that I've spent very little time over my career in the role of instructor. People have suggested that maybe a better word for what we do would be facilitator or coordinator or perhaps more whimsically, games master. I put quite a bit of energy into preparing the environment for children, getting it ready for them, providing what I think they will need on any given day to pursue their self-selected interests or answer, through their play, their own questions. I can do this because I've spent the previous day paying close attention, observing, studying, striving to understand their motivations, individually and collectively. I've never, however, taken it on as a systematic study, but rather an intuitive one with a sniff test that manifests along the lines of "Oh, the kids are going to love this!" or, equally as often, the singular version, "Billy is going to love this!" Could this be made into a systematic, replicable thing, a chart or something with boxes to tick? I don't know.

Is there anything that all good teachers do? It's a question worthy of thought. I know that the foundation of what I've always done is to simply strive to treat children like people. What do I mean by that? It mostly means that, like with non-child people, I don't get to tell them what to do. It means I should avoid offering unsolicited advice, because most people, most of the time resent it. If I ask them questions, they should be real questions in the sense that I don't already know the answer and I have a reasonable expectation that this child can tell me what I need to know. And the most important thing is to listen to them, to shut up and let them say all the words they want to say to me about what's on their minds. (This is something that I actually do much more consistently with children than I do with adults.) And then to let them know through my words and actions that I've heard them.

Can this be called teaching? I don't know, but it's what I do and I know it's what the great teachers I know do. As Mister Rogers said, "Listening is where love begins: listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors." And at the end of the day, this is why I struggle so much to answer the questions these business people are asking me. Love can't be qualified or quantified, although I think it can be replicated, quickly: it is infinitely scalable. Love is like play. It is a pure good that can't be defined or measured, even when we know it when we feel it. That is what a great teacher of young children will always be: someone who loves us and who is loved in return.


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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Thursday, February 02, 2023

More Than Mere Knowing: The Emotions Of Critical Thought

We awake up each morning into the unknown. Oh sure, there are things we already know — my spouse takes cream in her coffee, my kids won't eat cold oatmeal, E=mc² — but when it comes to applying our brains to thinking it is upon the unknown that we apply ourselves. I mean, we may appreciate the simple things, the routines, the familiar, the established facts of life, but if we're going to engage in intelligent thought, and we must or else expire of boredom and stupidity. It's the unknown that gets our attention.

What will today bring and what will we do about it? That is what stands at the center of our intellectual lives. It's what gives life relish. Astonishment, confusion, struggle, panic, puzzlement, surprise, eagerness, anticipation, anxiety, excitement, passion: this is the stuff of critical thought, of intelligence.

At the beginning of the pandemic, for instance, I awoke each morning to face the unknown of how I was going to pay my bills. Up until then, I'd earned my living primarily as a public speaker, but suddenly, in a flash, I found myself scrambling from sun up to sun down trying to figure out how to fill in that suddenly opened maw in my immediate economic prospects. And I wasn't the only one. 

Every one of us experiences the emotions associated with intelligent thought, every single day as we piece together the new world into which we open our eyes. I'm not sure where we got the idea that critical thinking was a dry, cool, systematic endeavor but that's certainly not the truth. No, contrary to the popular notions, the application of intelligence is a highly emotional, messy, confusing, stressful process: much more Captain Kirk than Mr. Spock.

One of the functions of schools is to measure intelligence, indeed an entire industry has sprung up around this notion, bringing forth our current era of standardized testing, complete with standardized curricula designed with those standard measures in mind, as if we hope to make all the sprouts grow into plants of exactly the same shape and size. But this is nothing new. Schools were in the intelligence measuring game long before the advent of testing corporations, with their own tests and grades and report cards. Yet all they've ever sought to measure is what kids already know, which has nothing to do with intelligence.

I've had the opportunity to sit in on several psychologist administered IQ tests. I'll never forget the boy who was asked how many arms a person has and was judged to be wrong when he, after much thought, shrugged, "Two . . . or one . . . or even none." Had he just blurted out "Two!" the test would have assessed him as smarter. The kid with the quick hand and ready answer is judged to be the most intelligent by this process, downgrading the child who is engaged in the actual process of applying his intelligence. Which is to say making something that is unknown into something that is known.

Our intelligence is called into play when confronted with the unknown. What are we going to do about it? How do we go about solving or understanding this? Confronting the unknown is necessarily an emotional experience and those feelings of astonishment, confusion, struggle, puzzlement, surprise, eagerness, anticipation, anxiety, excitement, and passion are the material of intelligent thought. Without that, we're left with mere knowing. It's the values and virtues of not knowing that are the real measures of intelligent thought.


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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