Monday, August 21, 2017

Getting Together


I attended a play-based kindergarten back in 1967. It wasn't called a "play-based" kindergarten, it was just called "kindergarten." We got together, played with blocks, dug in the sand, climbed the monkey bars, and ate snack. There was a short period of time each day during which we sat around tables and colored, we must have sung together, and there was a room into which I rarely went that had dolls, but the main thing we did was get together.

When I reflect on that year, I recognize I have unconsciously tried to recreate that experience for the children I teach at Woodland Park, a place where children get together to figure things out, through conflict and agreement, failure and success, but mostly through friendship and camaraderie. In 1967, we understood that this is the foundation upon which a life is built, not reading or ciphering or walking in straight lines. That could wait until later: first we had to work on the stuff that would make the rest of it worthwhile.



We all know that human contact is as important to a baby's development as food. Without it, we just roll over and die. This need for contact doesn't diminish as we get older any more than does the need for food, and it doesn't begin and end with parents. Humans are driven to get out there and mix it up, to seek out and create the kind of human contact that feeds our souls and psyches. And I would assert that the degree to which we have the opportunity to do that is the true measure of whether or not we grow up to have a "successful" life: not "grit" or "STEM skills" or reading.

According to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, presenting her research to the American Psychological Association:


"Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need -- crucial to both well-being and survival. Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed social isolation or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment . . . Yet an increasing portion of the US population now experiences isolation regularly."

According to Holt-Lunstad, over 42 million Americans over the age of 45 suffer from chronic loneliness, a population that is growing, will continue to grow, and that may represent a public health risk greater than that of obesity. Many nations are calling it a "loneliness epidemic." The cure will never be found in reading, ciphering, or walking in straight lines, but rather in the social skills we learn when we get together the way we do in preschool; the way we used to do it in kindergarten and the way we should be doing it right through elementary school. The skills we learn through friendship and camaraderie are not just the antidote, they are the foundation of what makes life worth living in the first place.


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Friday, August 18, 2017

What Did You Learn In School Today?




There has never been a more important time than now for teachers to do our jobs. The events of the past week have made it more clear than ever that none of us have the luxury of burying ourselves in crafts or finger songs. There are Nazis, literal Nazis, well-armed and marching in our streets carrying the flags, giving the salutes, chanting the chants, beating people, and even killing them. And they are apparently doing it with the approval of the President who says that some of them are "very fine people," while equating their excesses with those of the people who stand against them. His equivocation has buoyed them.

The Holocaust happened because decent people looked away, because they decided to sit this one out, or because they couldn't stand the unpleasantness. This is our moment. This is the moment when our grandchildren will ask what we did. As important adults in the lives of children, we cannot be silent. We must come to school each day prepared to answer their questions honestly.

When they ask "Why?" I'm going to answer, "Because their sadness and fear has turned into hate."

When they ask "Why?" I'm going to answer, "Because they believe that they are better than other people because of the color of their skin."

When they ask "Why?" I'm going to answer, "Because citizens must fight those who want to hurt others."

When they ask "Why?" I'm going to answer, "Because I love my fellow humans."

I might not use those exact words, but I will not mince them either. And while I will strive to be calm, I will not have failed should I also communicate through my emotions. Too often, our instinct as educators is to hide unpleasant truths from children for fear of making them feel unsafe. That's why we must also point out that they are surrounded by good people, that there are more of us than there are of them, that we've beaten them before and we will beat them again, to "look for the helpers," and assure them that we will protect them just as they will grow up to protect others.

As John Dewey wrote, "Democracy must be born anew with every generation, and education is its midwife." We are now being called to the bedside.



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Thursday, August 17, 2017

An Injury Pushed Off Into The Future




People think I'm joking when I say this to kids, but I'm not, and the kids know I'm not:

"If you have no bloody owies or just one, then you are being too careful. If you have four or more bloody owies then you're not being careful enough. The right number of bloody owies is two or three."

At least once a week I find myself in a group of kids comparing bloody owies. Sometimes we count bruises, but there's a general consensus that they don't count nearly as much as scabs.

Charlotte was a kid who robustly disagreed with my bloody owie-to-carefulness ratios. She claims to always have more than four bloody owies and felt that my standards are too low. She once complained, "It's impossible to not have at least four bloody owies. I have four just on this arm!" She once insisted that "eleven" is actually the right number of bloody owies.


Because of all this, I'm often very aware of the status of the scabs, cuts, and other assorted abrasions that have mangled the flesh of my charges (most of which, incidentally, don't occur on my watch). And what impresses me the most is how quickly they vanish. I mean, I might go two or three weeks showing off the same damn bloody owies on my own skin, while kids like Charlotte, it seems, can show me a fresh one every day without actually increasing the total number of bloody owies on her body. It's almost as if young children are designed for bloody owies.

And indeed they are. Otherwise healthy children heal remarkably fast. They have no knee caps so falling on them is rarely worse than a flesh wound. Their bones are flexible and everything about them is low to the ground. Their teeth grow back. Their skulls aren't even fully fused, for crying out loud, which means they have a greatly reduced risk of concussions. In other words, young children are designed to fall down, hard, and often.


And likewise they are designed to learn from falling down. 

This is why I'm so despondent about the changes the recently took place at my local playground. Up until then, two of the main features of the place were four large rocks that kids used as "stepping" stones, that would more properly be called "leaping" stones, and a large, slippery steel dome that really could only be ascended by taking a pell mell running start, then hoping you could stop yourself right at the top or else it was down the other side with you, often on the seat of your pants. The city is replacing it all with yet another boring climber under which they've installed a good three feet of wood chips. At least they kept the zip line.

How do you learn about bloody owies from that? Nope, all those injuries, all that learning, will have to wait until they're older, out in the world with knee caps to break, greater heights from which to fall, brittler bones, and fully formed skulls so that their jostled brains have no space in which to swell. 

No one wants children to get hurt, but at the same time every injury you prevent in childhood is just an injury pushed off into the future because as we say at Woodland Park, the only way to learn about asphalt is to fall on it.

You might think I'm joking about this, but I'm not.



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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

An Accident Of Random Gurgling?


When our daughter was born, I wanted her to call me "Papa," so I said it to her a lot, mostly as part of a joke-y competition I had with my wife to be the first parent she named. I won the race when she was three months old: she said, "Papa," as I was changing her diaper. Initially, I figured it was just an accident of random gurgling because even as a first time parent I expected the first word milestone was still months away. I stepped out of the room, then returned. She said, "Papa." I did it again and again and each time she said it, smiling at me. At five months, she added "Mama" to her vocabulary and by the time she was eight months she was speaking in full sentences.

It felt like a miracle, but even if it came ahead of schedule, it's actually something every normally developing baby does. Humans are born with the ability to use language. It is part of what renowned linguist Noam Chomsky calls "the human biological endowment." Indeed, according to Chomsky, humans are not just born with the ability to imitate and use vocalizations to communicate, but also with an innate sense of grammatical rules. From the latest edition of New Philosopher (online version not yet available):

. . . (E)very language has something noun-like, something verb-like. There is always a way to make something negative, a way to ask a question, and to indicate the difference between one and more than one . . . According to Chomsky, those "fixed invariant principles" suggest that there is something innate about certain grammatical rules . . . In other words, there is a universal grammar.

In elementary school, we spent a lot of time diagraming sentences, breaking them down into all their various parts, naming them, then putting them back together. To this day, my formal knowledge of the rules of grammar are quite weak in that I never really did learn to label all the parts or to memorize the rules governing them. I found the classroom drills tedious at best, but I was nevertheless capable of pulling down good grades, largely because while I might not have been able to define grammar, I knew it when I heard it. It was something I entered the classroom "knowing," even if I'd never been taught.

The Greek philosopher Plato believed that all learning was "but recollection," that humans are born possessing knowledge and that we then come to remember it as we live our lives. Subsequent philosophers, however, have come to view the newborn as more of a blank slate upon which their environment does it's work. The longer I work with young children, however, the more I come around to seeing the truth in Plato's point of view. Almost every day, there is a moment in which a child does or expresses something that strikes me as evidence of a deeper wisdom, a profundity that simply could not have come from her environment. I share some of those moments here, but more often than not I, shake my head with a chuckle, and dismiss it as an accident of random gurgling. But is it?

It appears that Plato was at least right about grammar, that it is something we, at least in part, recollect rather than learn. I expect there is much more of this kind of remembering than we imagine.



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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

This Is Not A Problem With People Or Math




Surveys of American students find that the majority of us feel relatively good about ourselves and mathematics through elementary school, an opinion that takes a sharp nose-dive starting in about middle school and continues in a downward trend through high school. This pretty much tracks with my own experience. I was usually pretty good at figuring it out and aside from a couple clinkers, I tended to bring home A's and B's. I even managed a surprisingly high score on my college entrance SAT test, an achievement I ascribe to my strategic ability at test taking more than any mathematical aptitude, which encouraged me to continue pursuing mathematics coursework through my first couple years at university even though I had no future plans that seemed to call for those higher-level math skills.

But even as I was capable of playing the math "learning" game, I didn't like it. I found it tedious and pointless. When I expressed this opinion around adults I was mostly told, in so many words, that I was wrong. When I shared it with my peers, they mostly agreed it was boring, with the exception of the occasional friend who, was, if not joyful, at least able to take a puzzle-worker's pleasure in ciphering. Those were the friends I chose as homework partners, especially if they were pretty girls, which may at least in part explain why I could keep my grades up while despising the work.


Today, as a preschool teacher, I don't attempt to "teach" math, yet all day long I see children engaged happily in both solitary and collaborative mathematical pursuits through their play. It's quite clear to me that humans, young ones at least, take great pleasure in the organizing, sorting, and patterning that lies at the heart of what we call mathematics. They take great joy in counting, in comparing, and in those eureka moments that come with mathematical discovery. It flows through them as naturally as, say, art. 

So what happens? Is our national "hatred" of math a problem with humans or a problem with how we try to teach it?


What if we taught art the way we teach math? We start by showing students all the colors, not to play with, but to memorize. Then, after a few years of that, we give them two or three colors and permit them to only paint straight lines over and over until they've mastered them. Then we work on arcs and then other curved lines for a few years. Finally, after many years of this sort of drilling, we move on to shapes where we drill some more. Then comes more repetitive drilling on colors, color mixing, composition, until finally, after many tedious years, the art student, now at a university, is finally permitted to actually create something of his own. Oh, and never, ever take a peek at someone else's paper. It's a ridiculous, backwards idea, but in a very real sense, this is exactly how we attempt to teach math.

I have a good friend who holds degrees in both physics and math. He once told me in frustration, "The problem with math in high school is that they think it's about numbers and memorizing and right answers. There are no right answers in math! It's messy!" You see, for him, math is a blank canvas upon which he can explore, guided by his questions and creativity. This is how I see math being explored by the children in our preschool classroom.


I'm a product of the sort of math education one finds in our schools today: one of rote learning, where you don't get to ask your own questions or express your own creativity. I'm sharply aware of how ignorant I am, but I do know what math is not: it is not algorithms and ciphering, even as that forms the basis of what we call "math education." I do know that math learning can and should be a joyful, fully human experience, one, like art, that is not discrete from the rest of the world, but woven through everything we do, yet we are producing generation after generation of young adults who "hate" math. 

This is not a problem with people or math, it is clearly a problem with how we expect children to learn it.



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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Good People, What Are We Waiting On?


This is what I've been reflecting upon over these past 24 hours. They're all short, they're all important. I hope you'll really listen. Good people, what are we waiting on?



"Race hatred cannot stop us
This one thing we know
Your poll tax and Jim Crow
And greed has got to go
You're bound to lose
You fascists bound to lose."



"You ain't no iron, you ain't no solid rock
You ain't no iron, you ain't no solid rock
But we American people say, "Mr. Hitler you is got to stop!"



"Good people, what are we waiting on?"

And the song that is my national anthem:






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Thursday, August 10, 2017

You Can't Hang A Label On That




We call what we do at the Woodland Park Cooperative School a "play-based curriculum." We also call it "progressive," "emergent," "child-directed," "project-based," "crunchy granola," and just about anything else that sounds descriptive in the moment. We often compare what we do to Reggio Emilia or Montessori or Waldorf or RIE or democratic free schools, although we're not purists about any of it. Luckily we don't struggle with enrollment, because if we did I'm afraid we'd have to become more precise in our description for marketing purposes. I imagine it might be frustrating for people who are shopping around for preschools to not be able to put us in a box for comparison purposes, but if we did that, if we could be labeled or standardized or plotted on a grid, then we simply would cease to be the Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool.


People often say they want their school to be more like ours or that they're starting a new school and they want to base it on what we do. They ask for advice, but I don't think I'm much help because to me the most important, foundational principle of our school is that we are a cooperative, owned and operated, equally, by the families who chose to enroll their children. And being a cooperative doesn't dictate any particular curriculum: it's an organizing principle that could just as easily be home to a hardcore academic program as it is our play-based one, depending largely on what sort of teacher the parents choose to hire. In other words, our curriculum starts with the community of families who have, for the past 16 years, chosen to re-hire me. I am a guy who only knows one way to do preschool and that's to make it possible for kids to freely play with the other people they find when they walk through our gates.

I suppose, at bottom, what we're really all about is playing with one another, day after day, month after month. Friends are found and friends are lost. We play in large groups and we play alone. Our feelings and bodies get hurt, then we heal. We find that some people can do, or know, interesting, exciting things, and also that we do too. We discover that we don't like some of the other people, but that we absolutely love others, and whatever the case we have to figure out a way to live with all of them, and in that process we often learn that we don't really dislike or love them as much as we originally thought. We are learning to live together: what we're doing is building community.


And that's why you can't hang a label on us: it's our community and no one else's is like it. We're not the only school with a play-based curriculum, but we are the only community like ours, inside and out, top to bottom, a truth that reaches into every facet of what we adults do as well. We have bylaws and policies, of course, but not a year goes by that we don't change them, often significantly. Just as the children do as they play, we bicker and laugh, make mistakes and enjoy great successes. We strive for equity and fairness, while knowing the goal is never for everyone to be the same -- indeed, as cliched as it is, it's our differences that make us strong. This is how vital communities are built, everywhere, all the time.

The skills, habits, and knowledge required to be an engaged member of a community are precisely the skills required for citizenship in a democracy, and acquiring those traits of self-governance is, after all, the real purpose of education in our society. That these are also the skills, habits, and knowledge required to thrive in the workplace or at church or in the theater or on a sports team or anywhere one finds other people, is not an accident: it's life itself.


I spend a lot of time thinking about my role in this ever-evolving community in which I spend so much of my time. I know the children and their parents do too. We think about the things we like and the things we'd like to change and we know that whatever the case, it's up to us.

No two play-based schools are the same: each one is a community of its own creation. You can't hang a label on that. Play together, day after day, month after month, and you'll create something that has never before been seen on this earth -- something to call ours.




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