Friday, April 20, 2018

The Best Stick Collector

"I'm the best stick collector." He said it to me earnestly, as if telling me something I didn't already know. His cubby, the place designated for his personal belongings, is always overflowing with sticks. His mother tells me that he has a similar collection at home near their front porch. Yesterday, he was wielding a length of bamboo, which had looked from afar to be a copper tube. When I remarked on it, he informed me that one of his friends had found an identical one, but that he had lost it, while he, the great stick collector, still had his.

He brings sticks from home. He finds sticks on the way to school. He finds them on the playground. The world is covered in sticks and he, the best stick collector, has an eye for which are worthy of his collection and which are not.

At any given moment, he has a stick in his hand, an extension of his body, a fantasy ninja weapon, a tool, a pointer, an instrument of science. He waves his sticks around, flourishing them in sudden bursts according to the script that is always playing in his head. Sometimes adults who aren't aware that he's the best stick collector will warn him to be careful not to poke or hit his classmates, but I never worry about him. He seems to always be aware of his body in space, including those sticks which are mere extensions of it.

The best stick collector focuses on relatively short sticks, typically not longer than 12 inches, leaving the longer ones to the amateurs. He favors ridged sticks because, it seems, he prefers precision tools. Upon occasion, I've discovered sticks that I think he might like, offering them to him the way one might an unusual stamp to a philatelist. Most often, he rejects them with only a glance, but every now and then he'll take a closer look, studying it for a time. Once, and only once, he accepted my find as worthy, although it wound up in his cubby with the back-ups, never entering the rotation of favored sticks.

He is a connoisseur, a prodigy, a master. He is the best stick collector and he is my friend.

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

I Stand With Them

I've never understood how people who believe in democracy can be opposed to labor unions. Most workplaces are, in fact, small dictatorships set up in the midst of our supposedly democratic society, and while it's true the dissatisfied workers have the theoretical right to simply quit their jobs, that isn't a reality for most Americans who need their incomes to feed their families. Coming together to collectively bargain and, yes, to sometimes to act together to withhold their labor in some form of a strike or work slow down is how working people inject self-governance into an otherwise top-down system.

I've never understood why corporations are free to ally themselves through cooperative working agreements, mergers, and acquisitions, while so many want to deny those very same rights to every day working people.

Over the course of the last few months, public school teachers across the country, protesting stagnant and even falling wages as well as the underfunding of schools, have been forced to resort to taking matters into their own hands. Over the past decades state legislatures have responded to pressure from corporations by lowering their taxes, in an era of record profits, then pleading poverty when it comes to schools. These strikes are evidence that we are reaching the inevitable breaking point.

The opinion polls I've seen indicate that parents, despite the hardships strikes in places like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona have caused, are backing their teachers. And they should. After all, our teachers' working conditions are our children's learning conditions. Crumbling buildings, broken furniture, out-of-date text books, and wages that require many teachers to take on second jobs just to make ends meet while also paying out of their own pockets for essential classroom materials are far from ideal learning environments. Our children, in a very real sense, are paying for those corporate tax cuts with their futures and both parents and teachers have had enough.

The good news is that so far these strikes are ending well for our children, with elected representatives scrambling to come to terms. The state of Oklahoma even reversed decades of tax policy by increasing taxes on oil and gas companies to pay for it. What teachers and parents are showing is that no one can stand in our way when we come together to fight for our children. No one.

Underfunding to public schools is not isolated to these states: it's a nationwide problem. Teachers and parents in other states like Indiana, Texas, and North Carolina are now considering their own actions. And our children in those states will win if we stick together.

I know that I'm hard on public schools on these pages, but I try to never be critical of my fellow teachers, most of whom are doing their best to teach the children despite deteriorating learning conditions. Every day I hear from public school teachers who know how they should be teaching, and who are subversively at times, doing so within the cracks and crevices, even as they are being forced into the drill-and-kill methods that have come to dominate our schools. We all know that a child who must worry about where their next meal will come from will struggle to learn; we also know that a teacher with the same worries will struggle to teach.

There will be more strikes, I'm afraid. No one wants that, but I thank public school teachers for being courageous enough to go there, not just in support of themselves, but also for our children. No one can stand before teachers and parents united. I stand with them because I stand for democracy.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Story Of How He Fell And Got Back Up

As the two-year-old boy tried to walk up a short, sand-dusted concrete slope, his feet slipped from beneath him. He fell forward onto the concrete. I saw it happen. He took a moment, still prone, to look around as if deciding if he was going to cry. When he saw me looking his way, his face wrinkled into a look of anguish and he let it out.

I walked to him. I usually walk in circumstances like this for the same reason I strive to maintain a calm expression: running conveys panic and the last thing I want to do is compound his pain with fear. Taking a seat on the ground beside him, I said, "You fell." Putting a hand on his back, I said, "I came to be with you."

When he cried louder, I asked, "Did you hurt your hands?"

He shook his head. I left some silence for him to fill with the details he wanted to share, but instead he filled it with crying.

"Did you hurt your tummy?"

He shook his head.

"Did you hurt your chin?"

This time he nodded, still crying.

I saw no mark on his chin, "It's not bleeding, but I can get you a bandaid."

He shook his head.

Another two-year-old boy had also seen it happen. He had joined us, looking from me to his classmate throughout the exchange. When I left more silence, this boy decided to fill it, almost as if showing me the proper formula, bending down and asking, "Are you okay?" This is what adults say to a fallen child, a phrase I've struck from my own lexicon figuring that an injured child will let me know soon enough if he's hurt without my planting of the idea with that question. In this moment, however, from a two-year-old's lips, I heard it as a courtesy, like saying "Please," "Thank you," and "How are you?"

He still cried, but not with the intensity of before, notching it down to a breathy, moaning, head up, his fingers tracing paths in the dusting of sand that had been his undoing.

Yet another two-year-old boy joined us. He had not seen what had happened, and asked me, "Why is he crying?"

I replied, "He fell and hurt his chin."

"I'm a doctor."

I asked the boy who had fallen, "Do you need a doctor?"

He shook his head. There were three of us now in a circle around our friend who was winding down his cry, finishing it.

The boy who had asked "Are you okay?" took what the older kids sometimes call "the easy way" up the short slope, a path in the dirt that circumvents the concrete part, intending, I thought, to go about his play. Perhaps that had been the plan, but he stopped and turned to check on his friend, saying once more, "Are you okay?"

This time his friend nodded. His cry had become a soft whimper. I said, "You're not crying now." He didn't respond. His fingers fiddled with the sand until they found a twig which he bent and twisted. I had been sitting beside him. I said, "I'm going to get up now," which I did. I had a vague idea that I was role modeling a possible next step for him, but he didn't immediately follow my lead. Instead, my place was taken by the doctor who sat, as I had done, silently beside him. We're always role modeling, but we can't pick what they will chose to imitate -- or even who will do the imitating.

I kept an eye on the situation from a few feet away. There was some conversation between the boys, but I couldn't hear it. The boy who had taken the easy way up, then climbed to the top of the concrete slide and slid down before circling back to the scene of the fall.

By now, the boy who had fallen had completely finished his cry and was on his feet. There was more discussion amongst the three boys that I didn't hear, but judging from the body language, I'm guessing it was either about the fall or about how to best navigate the short, sand-dusted slope. Then, the two boys who had come to their friend's aid, ascended via the easy way. The boy who had fallen, however, tacked the concrete slope. His boot slipped a bit, but this time he made it without injury. He then ran back down and tried it again, then again, four times in all before he moved on.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

"They Have Never Failed To Imitate Them"

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.  ~James Baldwin

I don't claim to be a parenting expert.  I'm just a guy who has spent a lot of time playing with children, from that I've learned a little bit, and because of this blog people write me for my take on things. If there is any one thing that people write me more than anything else, it's something along the lines of, "I've tried everything and nothing works." I'm talking about universal parenting aggravations like getting kids to eat their vegetables, take a nap, or participate in household chores. And these are important things. Not only do we want our children to be healthy, rested, and responsible today, but these behaviors represent the values of good health and responsibility that, if we can only "instill" them, we know will serve our children throughout their lives.

While I try to be more sympathetic than this with individual readers because I know they wouldn't write to some guy on the internet wearing a red cape unless they were truly at the end of their rope, my answer to their dilemma is really quite simple: Quit trying.

You can serve children healthy food, but you can't make them eat. So quit trying.

You can put children into their bed, but you can't make them sleep. So quit trying.

And you can't make them clean up their room without the promise of a reward or the threat of punishment. 

So, I suppose I could reply to these parents that they haven't, in fact, tried "everything," because obviously you could always come up with a carrot that is sweet enough or a stick that is painful enough that you can get a child to do what you want them to do, but I would never suggest that anyone consciously step onto the vicious cycle of reward and punishment. Rewards and punishments may appear to work in the moment -- the promise of ice cream may well motivate a child to eat a few peas; the threat of having toys taken away may well motivate a child to tidy up -- but human nature dictates that, being unnatural consequences, the value of the rewards and the severity of the punishments must be regularly increased or they lose their effectiveness. Not only that, but the lessons taught in the long run, to be motivated by the approval or disapproval of others, are certainly not what we wish for our children. Values must come from within; they are not imposed from without: that's called obedience an unsavory and even dangerous trait.

Whatever we publicly proclaim, our actual values (as opposed to the values to which we aspire) are always, always, always most accurately and honestly revealed by our behaviors. When we eat junk food, we demonstrate that we value convenience or flavor over eating healthily. When we don't get enough sleep, we demonstrate that we value our jobs or our hobbies or our TV programs more than rest. When we let our homes become cluttered and dirty, we demonstrate that we value something else over a well-ordered household.

No, the better course, I've found, when it comes to teaching values is to simply give up trying to make another person do something that you want them to do. If you value healthy food, then eat it. If you value being well rested, then sleep. If you value a tidy bedroom, then keep yours tidy. And ultimately, with time, sometimes lots of time, it will be your role-modeling of these behaviors that your child will come to imitate, not on your schedule, but one of his own, which is all we can expect of our fellow humans.

You cannot instill values in other people, you can only role model them. And while I've avoided mentioning them in this post, no matter what your priest, rabbi, pastor, imam, or guru says, this goes for moral values as well.

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Monday, April 16, 2018

Like Water In A Raging River

As young boys, my brother and I would contend over who got to stand on the transmission hump in the middle of the back seat floor of our family's Chevy Impala in order to have an unimpeded view out the front windshield. An accident or even a sudden stop could have easily launched our small bodies through the glass. There were lap belts, but they were more often than not lost beneath the seat cushion. Sometimes we wore them, but only for the game of buckling and unbuckling them. Few people, no matter their age, belted up. Today, of course, American kids are in car seats for a large part of their childhoods and I know few adults who don't automatically buckle up. This saves lives. It's a good thing.

Still, deaths by car accident remain one of the leading causes of childhood death in our country. And yet every day we put our kids in cars and drive them around, while fretting about things like "stranger danger," pointy bits, and tripping hazards. We worry that our child will be injured on a swing or slide or while using a hand tool, even as we place them in far greater statistical danger just driving them to school in the morning.

Gever Tulley, the founder of the Tinkering School, Brightworks School, and author of 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do), has coined a useful term, "dangerism," to discuss how a society or individual decides what and what is not dangerous, often relying upon rationalizations and fear rather than facts. One example he uses is to point out that Americans tend to keep their kids away from sharp knives until they are "old enough to handle them," yet even two-year-old Inuits are handed these very same tools to cut seal blubber. Every culture both under and over-estimates the risk of certain activities leading to such irrational things as removing swing sets from playgrounds while at the same time driving their children around in automobiles, a far greater danger.

I've had the opportunity to reflect upon the concept of dangerism these past few days while here in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to present at an early childhood education conference hosted by the South Saigon International School. I love few things more than exploring new places by foot, but doing so here is a harrowing experience. There are many videos of the phenomenon (like this one here) posted on the internet by westerners, but let me assure you that watching it from the comfort of your computer screen is nothing like finding yourself in the middle of it. Stop lights are optional, every traffic lane is two-way, sidewalks are extensions of the roadway, it's not unusual for people to ride their motorbikes right into shops, and the swarming buzz of their motors is incessant. One of my colleagues here told me that she lived in the city for a year before she stopped feeling like crying every time she crossed a street.

On Monday, I found myself on foot crossing a long bridge during rush hour. The sidewalk that was only about 18 inches wide which I had to share with a steady flow of motorbikes trying to get around the congestion. I had no where to go so I pressed myself into the railing to let them pass, turning my feet parallel to the wall in the hope of saving my toes. Amazingly, I still have all ten. Also amazingly, nearly every rider made eye contact with me as they passed, nodding and saying either "Sorry" or "Hello" as they passed, their friendly calmness in stark contrast to my sense of danger.

This is a clearly dangerous situation to this American, yet here were every day Vietnamese people, often four to a bike, often with young children and even babies on board, some with children even standing between the adult's legs, just going about their business with apparently no sense of danger at all. I have no conclusion to draw from this reflection other than to say I didn't see a single accident even though I was sure one was about to happen at any given moment. Far be it from me to judge another culture, but holy cow, what a way to live!

I spent most of the day yesterday walking around this sweltering and exciting city. I have to say that my own sense of danger has diminished quite a bit even as the reality of that danger hasn't. By the time I got downtown to take in some of the tourist attractions, I was feeling pretty confident, so much so that I gave tips to an American couple who were, it appeared, on the verge of tears as they attempted to merely cross from one side of the street to another. And while I'm sure that the incidence of injury and death by motorbike would be completely unacceptable at home, I found myself feeling joyful about the remarkable amount of beautiful cooperation required to make it all work and I must confess that there were moments when I felt that I was a part of it as I crossed the street with motorbikes flowing round me like water in a raging river.

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Without Love It's Worse Than Useless, It's Meaningless

When we enrolled our daughter Josephine in cooperative preschool, I explained how it worked to a friend, telling her that there was one professional teacher in the room and a dozen assistant teachers in the form of parents. She freaked out saying, “How can you let amateurs teach your child? I only want professional teachers near my child.” She feared that the parents of other children would somehow damage her child’s educational prospects. So while Josephine spent her 3 years in co-op, my friend's son attended a preschool in which parents were not allowed into the classroom, even to observe.

I could no more have made her decision than she could have, apparently, made mine. Even as a new parent who had no inkling that teaching was in my future, I knew I wanted to be there with Josephine as much as possible, and when I wasn’t I wanted her to be surrounded by the love of a community. I didn’t care about her having a teacher who could teach her how to “read” or identify Norway on map before she was 3, like some kind of circus trick, I wanted her to be in a place where she simply got to play with friends and be guided by loving neighbors.

The more I teach, the better I feel about my decision.

What parents may lack as pedagogues (and, indeed, many of them are masters) they more than make up for by bringing love into a co-op classroom. And as Mister Rogers puts it:

Learning and loving go hand in hand. My grandfather was one of those people who loved to live and loved to teach. Every time I was with him, he’d show me something about the world or something about myself that I hadn’t even thought of yet. He’d help me find something wonderful in the smallest of things, and ever so carefully, he helped me understand the enormous worth of every human being. My grandfather was not a professional teacher, but the way he treated me (the way he loved me) and the things he did with me, served me as well as any teacher I’ve ever known.

My friend also thought that our co-op sounded too much like “play school.” She wanted her child to go to “real school.” Again, as a new parent, my thoughts on the subject were not well-enough formed to answer her with logical argument (not that it would have done any good), but I just knew she was wrong. Today, I know that to undervalue the importance of play for young children is to make a tragic mistake. Frankly, I think that goes for older children and adults as well. The times in life when my mind has been the most shut down are those times when I felt compelled to do “work” prescribed by others. When I've been playing, however, even if dressed up as hard work, I've learned the most about myself and the world.

Again, from Mister Rogers:

Play does seem to open up another part of the mind that is always there, but that, since childhood, may have become closed off and hard to reach. When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit. We’re helping ourselves stay in touch with that spirit, too. It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.

It’s love and play that form the foundation of a good education. Without that, the rest is worse than useless, it's meaningless.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Work Of Creating A Community

We don't have a huge set of big wooden blocks, which is okay because we don't really have enough space for more and besides, if the kids are going to play with them, they generally need to find a way to play with them together, which is what our school is all about.

The dramatic play game of the year in our 4-5's class had been "super heroes." It was mostly boys, but they hadn't been particularly exclusionary, with several of the girls regularly joining them, often making up their own hero names like "Super Cat" due to the lack of female characters of the type in our popular culture. This in turn inspired some of the boys to make up their own hero names like "Super Dog" and "Falcon," along with their own super powers. And although there had been a few instances of someone declaring, "We already have enough super heroes," in an attempt to close the door behind them, most of the time, the prerequisite for joining the play was to simply declare yourself a super hero, pick a super hero name, and then hang around with them boasting about your great might, creating hideouts, and bickering over nuance.

At some point, however, a break-away group began playing, alternatively, Paw Patrol and Pokemon, which looked to me like essentially the same game with new characters. One day, some boys were playing Paw Patrol used all of the big wooden blocks to create their "house," complete with beds and blankets. A girl who was often right in the middle of the super hero play wanted to join them, but when they asked, "Who are you?" she objected to being a Paw Patrol character at all. Indeed, she wanted to play with them and with the blocks they were using, but the rub was that she didn't want to play their game.

After some back and forth during which the Paw Patrol kids tried to find a way for her to be included, they offered her a few of their blocks to play with on her own, then went back to the game.

She arranged her blocks, then sat on them, glaring at the boys. They ignored her. I was sitting nearby watching as her face slowly dissolved from one of anger to tears. Another adult tried to console her, but was more or less told to back off. I waited a few minutes, then sat on the floor beside her, saying, "You're crying."

She answered, "I need more blocks." I nodded. She added, "They have all the blocks."

I replied, "They are using most of the blocks and you have a few of the blocks."

"They won't give me any more blocks."

I asked, "Have you asked them for more blocks?"

Wiping at her tears she shook her head, "No."

"They probably don't know you want more blocks."

She called out, "Can I have some more blocks?"

The boys stopped playing briefly, one of them saying, "We're using them!" then another added, "You can have them when we're done," which is our classroom mantra around "sharing."

She went back to crying, looking at me as if to say, See?

I said, "They said you can use them when they're done . . . Earlier I heard them say you could play Paw Patrol with them."

"I don't want to play Paw Patrol. I just want to build."

I sat with her as the boys leapt and laughed and lurched. I pointed out that there was a small building set that wasn't being used in another part of the room, but she rejected that, saying, "I want to build with these blocks."

I nodded, saying, "I guess we'll just have to wait until they're done." That made her cry some more.

This is hard stuff we're working on here in preschool. And, for the most part, that's pretty much all we do at Woodland Park: figuring out how to get along with the other people. Most days aren't so hard, but there are moments in every day when things don't go the way we want or expect them to and then, on top of getting along with the other people, there are our own emotions with which we must deal. Academic types call it something like "social-emotional functioning," but I think of it as the work of creating a community.

It's a tragedy that policymakers are pushing more and more "academics" into the early years because it's getting in the way of this very real, very important work the children need to do if they are going to lead satisfying, successful lives. In our ignorant fearfulness about Johnny "falling behind" we are increasingly neglecting what the research tells us about early learning. From a story about a study conducted by researchers from Penn State and Duke Universities:

Teachers evaluated the kids based on factors such as whether they listened to others, shared materials, resolved problems with their peers and were helpful. Each student was then given an overall score to rate their positive skills and behavior, with zero representing the lowest level and four for students who demonstrated the highest level of social skill and behavior . . . Researchers then analyzed what happened to the children in young adulthood, taking a look at whether they completed high school and college and held a full-time job, and whether they had any criminal justice, substance abuse or mental problems . . . For every one-point increase in a child's social competency score in kindergarten, they were twice as likely to obtain a college degree and 46% more likely to have a full-time job by age 25 . . . For every one-point decrease in a child's social skill score in kindergarten, he or she had a 67% higher chance of having been arrested in early adulthood, a 52% higher rate of binge drinking and an 82% higher chance of being in or on a waiting list for public housing.

Here is a link to the actual study. And this is far from the only research that has produced these and similar results, just one of the most recent.

If our goal is well-adjusted, "successful" citizens, we know what we need to do. In the early years, it isn't about reading or math. It's not about learning to sit in desks or filling out work sheets or queuing up for this or that. If we are really committed to our children, we will recognize that their futures are not dependent upon any of that stuff, but rather this really hard, messy, emotional work we do every day as we play with our fellow citizens.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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