Wednesday, March 22, 2017

"I Actually Love You The Same"

I had known the boy for two years. He didn't want his mom to leave, although she had left him at school hundreds of time before. He stood at the top of the stairs at the schoolyard gate, yelling after her, crying through the slats, saying, "Come back! I want to go with you!"

I sat beside him as he yelled. I said, "You want your mom to come back."

"Yes, I want her to come back." He cried and yelled some more.

"I think she has some things she has to do."

"She does," he answered. We had both heard her tell him that she had an appointment as she walked away. He cried and yelled some more.

When this happens with younger, less experienced children, I remind them of when mom will come back, but I knew that he already knew this. Instead, I said something else that was true, "I wish your mom would come back."

"Me too," he replied. He cried and yelled some more.

"I'm going to miss her."

"Me too," he replied.

"I wonder why."

"Because I love her."

"I love my mommy, too."

He started to cry and yell again, then stopped to tell me, "And I love my daddy."

I nodded, trying to wordlessly convey the idea that I was right there with him.

He was looking at me, tears still hanging from his lower lids, fingers still curled through the gate slats. He was thinking something through. Finally, he said, "I love you, too . . . " as if wanting to make sure I didn't feel left out.

I answered, "I love you," a little too eagerly, I guess, because he hadn't finished his thought.

". . . but not as much as Mommy or Daddy." Then he stopped again, perhaps taking a moment to absorb what I'd said on top of his words. In any case, after a moment, he let go of the gate and stepped toward me, "I actually love you the same." He didn't want me to feel unloved.

I said, "I'd like to play a story with you."

And he answered, "Me too."

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Giving It Away

We're due for a new batch of play dough, so I thought we could make it during class yesterday, but one of the kids arrived with a supply of store-bought kinetic sand that she was donating to the cause. I figured we could do with a little change of pace, so I put it on the yellow table instead of the usual ball of dough.

At one point, I found myself sitting with four boys, one of whom was attempting to collect it all for himself. This rarely happens with the regular play dough, but often happens when we're investigating something new in its place.

"Hey, I want some!"

"He has all of it!"

"He won't share!"

He didn't have all of it, as a matter of fact, but simply most of it, leaving each of the rest of us with portions the size of a child's fist. He had formed his lion's share into a mound and was encircling it with his arms, hunching over it with his body. There is no official classroom expectation that he give any of it up, but there it was clear from the reaction of his friends that there was an issue of fairness at stake. 

"You can't have it all!"

"I need some more!"

"You're not even using it!"

I said, "He does have most of it, but look at his face. He's not happy about it, either." And indeed, his expression was one of tense misery. 

One of the boys asked, "Why isn't he happy?"

I left the air clear of words for a moment, hoping that the boy with all the sand would offer us his explanation, but he remained silently dour. I said, "You'll have to ask him why he's not happy, but I've noticed that people are usually miserable when they're hoarding something."

I've been using the word "hoarding" for a couple of years now, not in a judgmental way, but rather by way of objectively labeling a particular, common behavior. Often, the kids ask for a definition of the word, but this time no one did, the illustration before them, I guess, being clear enough.

"But I just need a little bit more sand," one of them said to our hoarder, leaning toward the boy, which caused him to lay across his stash even more protectively, his expression approaching anguish. At that moment, one of the guys who had slightly more sand than the rest, broke off a fistful and passed it across the table to the boy who needed just a little bit more. In contrast to our hoarder, he was beaming.

I said, "Look at his face. He gave some of his sand to his friend and now he's really happy." Then I turned to the hoarder and said, striving for the same tone of objective narration, "And look at his face. He is hoarding his sand and he looks really unhappy." There was a moment as everyone studied one another's faces, before the group opted for happiness, each one handing some of his meager supply of sand to the kid beside him. There was a flurry of giggles as they joyfully gave it all away to one another only to find that there was always more to give.

Our hoarder, his stash no longer under assault, eased up for a moment as he watched his friends play their game of give-away. His body was still tense, his expression a stark contrast to those of the rest of the kids who had forgotten him for the moment. 

I leaned toward him, "They are giving their sand away and they are happy. You are hoarding your sand and you are miserable." He looked from me to his pile then at his friends before taking a handful and shoving it across the table. His face immediately relaxed into a grin. He did it again and again and again until he had no more or less than anyone else, laughing, exchanging his hoard for a share of the joy the rest of them had found in giving it away.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

"Real" School

I attended a play-based kindergarten. It wasn't called a play-based kindergarten. It was just called kindergarten and what children did in kindergarten was play with blocks, paint on easels, and run around on the playground. Most kids didn't even attend kindergarten, it wasn't considered a proper year of schooling.

The following year, first grade, was the first year of "real" school. Most of us were approaching seven years old. We were not expected to know the alphabet, although I did, even as I was still unclear about the lower case letters, and we certainly weren't expected to have a tool belt full of "sight words" at our disposal. In fact, other than my own name, I'm pretty sure I didn't have any. Sitting at desks was a totally new concept and when we took our seats on that first day, we found small construction paper teddy bears, one for each of us, upon which Miss McCutcheon had written the word "Ted." I went home that day to tell mom that I'd learned to read. We were later to be divided into reading groups where we worked together to make out the text in our Dick and Jane books. We were all more or less starting from scratch.

When we received our report cards, I received straight A's, which made me proud, but what confused me was the second set of grades that came under the heading "personal skills" (or something like that), scored with numbers instead of letters. There were four of them. I don't recall the other three, but one of those skills upon which we were being evaluated was "self control." Self control? I remember thinking, how could anyone not get a high mark in that? And indeed, as I compared my grades with my classmates as one does, every kid in my social circle had managed one of the two highest marks.

In today's artificially rigorous schools, children who are still struggling with the alphabet on the first day of kindergarten are considered "behind." In fact, most are expecting the kids to already be working on sight words. Miss McCutcheon's "Ted" activity is the kind of thing teachers are now doing in preschool! At the same time we've accelerated our academic expectations for young children we have seen more and more of them struggle with "self-control" (e.g., struggling to self-regulate attention and hyperactivity). 

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research:

We found that delaying kindergarten for one year reduced inattention and hyperactivity by 73 percent for an average child at age 11 and it virtually eliminated the probability that an average child at that age would have an 'abnormal,' or higher-than-normal rating for the inattentive-hyperactive behavior measure.

In other words, if today's kids had the sort of introduction to school that we had back in the 1960's they too would be scoring high marks in self-control. Instead, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, the prescription of psychostimulant medication to children, drugs like Ritalin, has boomed in recent decades. In some parts of the country as many as one in ten school-aged kids are on some sort of medication to help with self-control. Many of these kids then go on to a lifetime of mood altering medication. It's a nightmare as parents, teachers, and doctors are doping young children to make them "school ready" when simply giving the kids an additional year of the sort of unstructured play would do essentially the same thing, you know, without the drugs.

And this doesn't even factor in the majority of kids who are perhaps able to sit still, but continue to struggle with curriculum expectations that are beyond their developmental abilities, leading them to either conclude they aren't smart, to hate school, or both. 

It's around this time of year that parents tend to ask me whether or not their child is ready for kindergarten, especially those with kids whose birthdays fall right on the cusp. I always advise them to give their kid another year at our play-based school or one like it. Indeed, I would advise that for all children whatever their birthday, because the research is quite clear: children are best served by the sort of play-based education I received in kindergarten, even if we didn't call it that, until at least seven-years-old. 

It turns out that playing with blocks, painting on easels, and running around on the playground is "real" school after all.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Listening And Understanding

Every parent has had an experience like this. Our daughter wasn't even two. We were in the car, headed to meet grandma and grandpa at a Seattle University basketball game. Traffic was horrible and I became particularly incensed at one driver in particular. I rarely swear so I'm confident that what I said aloud was "clean," but I nevertheless let him have it. There was a moment of silence, then from the backseat, I heard my little angel say, "Get out of the way driver! Go over there and drive in the trees!"

One of the most common complaints about children is that "they don't listen," but they are always listening (they just don't always obey, which is a healthy thing). Humans are designed for language and from the moment they are born, indeed, even before they are born, they are listening. They may simply begin with tone and timbre, but they very rapidly move on deciphering not just the words we use, but their meaning, often comprehending long before they are ready to use the words themselves.

One of the most remarkable experiences of my teaching life came a couple years ago when I was visiting my friend John's Dorothy Snot preschool in Athens, Greece. One of his teachers asked me to tell a story to a group of 4-5 year olds in English, none of whom spoke the language. I chose to tell George Shannon's Lizard's Song, one that I often tell to the kids at Woodland Park. At the end of the story, the kids wanted to hear it again, so I retold it. Then the teacher interviewed them. As a collective, they had missed some of the details, but they had more or less understood not only the plot, but many of the nuances, as well as the moral of the story.

I'm sure that I "sold" some of the story through my facial expressions and hand gestures and I'm certain that they knew more English than they let on given that it is sort of the unofficial second language of the country, but their ability to tease out meaning from my foreign language floored me. There is no way I could have done that had the tables been turned.

They are always listening and they understand far more than we credit them with.

Lately, I've been trying out the expression "tough luck" with the kids. Not in a mean or dismissive way, but more as a statement of philosophy.

"I pinched my finger!"

"Whoa, that's some tough luck."

Yesterday, I was sitting around the play dough table with a couple of kids and one of them told a story of woe. I replied, "That's some tough luck."

She replied, "What does that mean?"

And before I could answer, a newly-minted four-year-old replied, "It's like saying 'Bummer, dude!'"

They are always listening and they understand far more than we credit them with.

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Thursday, March 16, 2017


They are best friends, two girls who seem to love little more than being together. Younger sisters of older brothers, carpool companions, they share their fondness for certain stereotypical "girl" things, like princesses and ponies. Lately, they have been spending their mornings huddled together under the loft, just the two of them, in their gowns, playing with stuffed animals or our collection of My Pretty Ponies.

Sometimes other three and four-year-olds seek to join them in their games, squeezing into the area. The girls are accommodating, even making room for them, but the presence of a third wheel tends to break the intimacy of their face-to-face play as they turn shoulder-to-shoulder to engage the newcomer, usually just listening to what they came to say, perhaps sharing a toy or two, but otherwise politely tolerating their presence until they move along. They make no effort to exclude others, but their love for one another creates a kind of bubble that the rest of us can rarely enter when they are inside.

From a teacher's perspective, they are quiet, sweet, and undemanding, mostly taking care of their own business. They have their conflicts both between themselves and with others, but these are rare. It would be easy to just leave them alone, which is mostly what I do, perhaps checking in with them now and again, but otherwise directing my attention toward the squeaky wheels which is, for better or worse, what most teachers spend their days doing. Lately, however, I've become curious about what exactly they're doing under there in their fancy dress. 

I've taken my moments to position myself near them with the intent of eavesdropping, but they speak so softly, so closely, that it's impossible in our active classroom. So for the last couple weeks, I've been taking the role of third wheel, dropping to my knees and sneezing in with them, which is a technique I feel better about because there's nothing secretive about what I'm doing, like with the eavesdropping. Of course, they are then fully aware of my presence, which means their inside-the-bubble game stops as they turn to deal with me the way they deal with their interloping peers, shoulder-to-shoulder. In physics they call it the "observer effect," whereby the act of observing changes the phenomenon being observed.

Of course, I should just leave them alone, I suppose, which is what I mostly do, but my curiosity and my understanding of my role as teacher to include being a researcher, compelled me again yesterday to attempt it once again. This time they greeted me by introducing themselves, in character, "I'm Moana and she's Anna."

"No, I'm not Anna, I'm Elsa."

"Oh, that's right Sweetie, you're Elsa."

And in that give-and-take, they fell into their bubble as if I wasn't there, or more accurately, as if I had fallen in with them.

"Yes, Sweetie, I'm Elsa," then holding her pony the way one does when using a handheld avatar, she said, using a higher pitched voice, "Mommy Sweetie, when will I grow up?"

And her best friend held up her own pony to reply, "You're already growing up, Sweetie. You're a big girl now."

"But I'm just a teenager, Sweetie."

"Yes Sweetie, but some day you'll be a grown-up like me."

Not wanting to disturb anything I slowly rolled back onto a pillow to listen. Their conversation was gentle, each of them making room for the other. When one of them said, "I want to be the mommy now," her friend replied, "Okay, Sweetie," and they easily reversed roles.

After a few minutes, they looped me into their play, proving that they had not forgotten me, but rather included me, "Teacher Tom, you can be the baby now." They handed me a small pony. Their ponies had wings, whereas the one they handed me had lost it's wings, leaving only a plastic nub on its back. They continued to talk with one another, even as I sat with them holding my wingless, baby pony. Their ponies were planning a picnic, one that would involve flying. I thought they had forgotten the baby, but on cue they turned their ponies to the one I held. "It's time to go now, Sweetie . . . Oh, but look, the baby hasn't grown its wings yet!"

"Oh dear, Sweetie, how is it going to fly to the picnic?"

"We'll have to carry it, Sweetie."

"Yes Sweetie, we can carry it on our backs," and with that they took the baby from me as all three ponies rose into the air. "Don't be afraid, Sweetie, we won't let you fall," their love story ascending into the more rarefied air.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

In The Cracks And Crevices

People tell me that the new federal education secretary is awful. I reckon she is, I mean, she is clearly determined to destroy public education, although I want to follow that reckoning up with the caveat that the previous one was awful too and he, in his way, was equally determined to do so, him with charter schools and the Common Core federal curriculum and her with charter schools and vouchers. Indeed, I sometimes think that the only reason we still have public education in our country is because our nation's founders had the wisdom to leave education to the states and so the Secretary of Education really has little power beyond the bully pulpit and, to a certain extent, the pocketbook.

This isn't to say that our states are significantly better, but at least the politicians that need to be persuaded are far more accessible to real human beings with stories to tell, and that includes both parents and teachers. We at least have a chance with them. We have little chance on the federal level because, ultimately, it's the corporations who have their ear and they are the ones behind the federal curriculum, vouchers, and charters, as Diane Ravitch (who worked in the education departments under both Republican and Democratic presidents) fully details in her book Reign of Error.

Let (your scholar) know nothing because you have told him, but because he has learned it for himself.  Let him not be taught science, let him discover it. If ever you substitute authority for reason, he will cease to reason; he will be a mere plaything for other people's thoughts. ~Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Ultimately, what corporations seek from education is different that what I seek. They are looking for employees who diligently do their work, comply, and toe the company line. Oh sure, they claim they are after critical thinkers and leaders and whatnot, but that's just window dressing. If that was what they really wanted they would stand opposed to education in which authority is substituted for reason, which has long been one of the defining characteristics of American schooling. But they don't. Instead, they favor a system in which adults make all the decisions about what, how, and when children will learn because ultimately they seek easily managed employees. They sell their educational "ideas" to our elected leaders and the farther away they are from we the people, the more easily they are persuaded to endorse schools that support corporate rather than democratic principles.

You see, corporations are dictatorships that have set up shop in the heart of our democracy. What they need are compliant workers who do as they're told and don't question too deeply. By keeping our nation focused on education as vocational training, preparing children for those "jobs of tomorrow," and making parents anxious about their kids' economic future, they seek to guarantee a steady stream of playthings for their thoughts. This is why they continuously bend the ears of our elected representatives for things like artificially rigorous top-down curricula, ever more de-humanizing quality control measures (high stakes testing), and the guarantee that some pre-determined percentage of our children will land in the reject pile like defective merchandise. I mean that's how they do it in large corporations and they have been amazingly successful given that I've yet to come across a politicians who hasn't bought into their ideas, be they Republican, Democrat, Socialist or Libertarian: they all view our schools, essentially, as factories that produce workers.

The flaw in their system is that there are still a lot of teachers who refuse to toe that line, who come to work each day committed to doing what's best for their students rather than the economy. I can't tell you how many of the teachers I know who hold their noses as they do what they must to avoid being fired, while seeking every opportunity to find cracks and crevices within the system in which children can learn things for themselves rather than always being told what to know. I am not one of those teachers because I have been lucky enough to find a place that embraces the broader, democratic idea of education, but I can't tell you how grateful I am for my public school colleagues who go into their classrooms each day as if into battle, subversively fighting on behalf of their charges' right to something more than mere job training.

This is why the corporate model ultimately favors wresting the control of public schools away from we the people, preferring a full-on privatization of schools by way of charters and vouchers which will slowly drain funding and middle-class students away from traditional schools, weakening them until they finally crumble from neglect. The plan is that these privately run schools, then, without citizen oversight and unionized teachers, will have fewer cracks and crevices in which real teaching can take place.

If this all sounds gloomy, I suppose it is, but I'm not without hope.

One of the corporatists leading the charge against public schools has been Bill Gates via the Gates Foundation. They have literally spent billions developing and promoting the Common Core, high stakes standardized testing regimes, and other education initiatives. Indeed, the Gates Foundation spends more money on education than anything else, yet in their most recent annual newsletter in which they usually boast of their successes, there is not a single mention of education. That tells me that despite it all, our resistance is working: all those teachers, parents, and students are successfully pushing back. I doubt the Gates Foundation has given up, but they have certainly gone silent.

And this is why I'm not in despair over the new secretary. When teachers, parents, and students are united, there is no force in all of society that can defeat us -- not even the wealthiest man in the world. I dream of someday creating the sorts of schools Rousseau envisioned back in the 16th century, but until then, we will defend our children's right to a childhood on the picket lines, at the ballot box, in the streets, and, mostly, in the cracks and crevices where they are finally allowed to "learn it for himself."

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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

STEM Education

My wife is the CEO of a software company. Earlier in her career she was an automotive executive and has held senior positions in several technology-based businesses. She is, as she realized to her delight not long ago, one of those much sought for rarities: a woman with a successful STEM career. That said, she studied languages at university. That's right, languages, not science, technology, engineering or math, yet here she is today running a technology company.

One-to-one correspondence. 

Science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM as they are collectively called in the contemporary lexicon, has become an emphasis for our schools both public and private. The idea is that those legendary "jobs of tomorrow" will require STEM skills and so we are feverishly "educating" our children to be prepared for their future roles in the economy. Setting aside the hubris embodied in the assumption that anyone can predict what jobs our preschoolers will grow up to hold, science, technology, engineering and math are important aspects of what it means to be human and fully worthy of exploration whether or not one is going to one day require specific employment skills.

These boys are swinging while simultaneously trying to avoid being hit by the swinging tire, a game that involves science, technology, engineering, and math, among other things.

Science, after all, is the grown-up word for play. As N.V. Scarfe wrote while discussing Einstein, "The highest form of research is essentially play." I know a number of scientists and whenever they are discussing their work, they describe it as play: "I was playing with the data and guess what I discovered," or, "I played with the variables and you won't believe what I found." Conversely, the highest form of play is essentially science as children ask and answer their own questions with both rigor and joy without the soul-sucking artifice of rote.

Working on math skills at the art easel.

Technology, which is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, is how children typically extend their play, building upon their discoveries to further explore their world.

Engineering is the process by which children create their technologies, be they dams intended to hold back flowing water or springboards designed for jumping into it.

Exploring a circle

And math is something humans have to be taught to hate because, after all, it is the process of learning increasingly complex and wonderful ways to do things that give us great pleasure as human animals: patterning, classifying, and sorting. When we boil it down, that's the entirety of math, which is ultimately the foundation of analytical thinking.

Constructive play forms the foundation of engineering knowledge. In this case, she is also exploring set theory, including the  horses in one set while relegating the other types of animals to another.

The tragedy of STEM education in the early years, however, is that too many practitioners have concluded that we must engage in extraordinary measures to teach it, that without lectures, worksheets, and drill-and-kill testing it simply won't happen, which is, in the lexicon of a generation long before mine, pure hogwash.

This two-year-old is exploring the technology of a lever or a balance scale, striving to find a balance point.

STEM education is not a complicated thing, children are already doing it when we leave them alone to pursue their own interests in a lovely, varied, and stimulating environment. We can, however, destroy their love of science, technology, engineering and math by turning it into the sort of rote learning that involves authoritarian adults dictating what, how, and by when particular knowledge is to be acquired or skills learned. A good STEM education is a play-based one; one that takes advantage of a child's natural curiosity; that gives free rein to their boundless capacity for inventiveness; and that understands that vocational training is but a small part of what an education should be about.

These hydraulic engineers spend their days working together to manage the flow of water.

When we step back and really observe children in their "natural habitat," which is while playing, we can see the STEM learning, although it takes some practice because it's intertwined with the other important things they're working on like social-emotional skills, literacy, and the capacity for working with others, which is, at bottom, the most important "job" skill of all. Indeed, while we are only guessing at what STEM skills our preschoolers are going to need in the future, we do know that getting along with our fellow humans is the real secret to future employment, not to mention happiness.

What happens when I stick this in there?

When my wife was a preschooler, no one envisioned computers on every desktop, let alone on every laptop. The internet hadn't even made an appearance in science fiction novels. And we all carried dimes in our pockets just in case we needed to make a call on a public phone. Today she is the CEO of a software company by way of the automotive industry by way of the jobs that her study of languages made available to her when she stepped into the workforce. The problem with predicting what specific "job" skills our children will need in the future is that we can only guess, because it's not us, but the children themselves who will invent those jobs, just as my wife has invented her own STEM career.

That said, when we allow children to explore their world through play, we see that they are already scientists, technologist, engineers, and mathematicians. We don't create them, but rather allow the time and space in which those natural drives can flourish, and that's how we ultimately insure that our children not only have the narrow skills that may or may not be necessary for those jobs of tomorrow, but also for the broader  purpose of living a good life.

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