Wednesday, January 17, 2018

"It's Not A Drum"



As clean up time approached, I began to survey the two-year-olds, "Is it clean-up time?" Some said, "Yes," while others informed me that they wanted to wait "Three minutes" or "Five minutes." They all know by now that after we tidy up we go outside. I've never instructed the children to participate in cleaning up, but I have instructed the parent-teachers in this cooperative class to practice stepping back, to leave space for the children who choose to participate to do so in a meaningful way.

After three or five minutes, I retrieved the hand drum we use as a transition signal. Children were engaged in their play all around the room, although a couple of them stopped what they were doing to notice me. I said, "I'm getting the clean-up time banjo," and proceeded to "play" it like a banjo.

A few more kids noticed me. "It's not a banjo," I said, "It's a flute," and I played the drumstick like a flute.

"It's not a flute, it's a trumpet," and I played the stick like a trumpet. Now several more children were watching me. One of them laughed, saying, "It's a drum!"

"It's not a trumpet," I continued, "It's a trombone," and I pantomimed playing the stick as a trombone.

"It's not a trombone, Teacher Tom! It's a drum!" By now about half the kids had dropped what they were doing to watch me.

"It's not a trombone, it's a tuba." I used the drumstick for the mouthpiece and held the drum over my head to represent the large, flared tuba bell.

By now, most of the kids were paying attention, and most of them had come over to where I stood on our checker board rug to stand amidst the Duplos that were scattered there. Several of them shouted at me, "It's a drum!" and "It's not a tuba!"

I said, "It's not a tuba, it's a harp."

"It's not a harp!" they shouted. "It's a drum!" Some were so full of anticipation that they demanded, "Bang it!"

"It's not a harp, it's a piano."

"It's a drum!" "Bang it!"

"It's not a piano, it's a drum and I'm going to bang it so loud that your brains are going to shoot out of your ears and splat on the wall."

By now everyone was focused on my silly little show and they were demanding that I bang the drum. They were demanding the transition. It's not the first time I've done this, indeed, it's part of my regular teacher repertoire. After a couple of goofs where I pretended to miss the drum, I finally made contact, playing it gently with three soft beats because they were all so focused with anticipation that that was all I needed.

As I said, I've never suggested that these two-year-olds participate in clean-up, although they have by now been coming to class since September and many of them have been pitching in of their own accord for months. Yesterday, however, the sound of Duplos being dropped into boxes was almost deafening, as they all, as one, leapt to the task. There were a couple visitors in the room at the time, mothers touring the school with an eye toward enrolling for next year. The response was so dramatic, so instantaneous, so opposite of the stereotype we have of young children, that I couldn't help making eye-contact with one of the prospective parents boastfully, as if to non-verbally say, Surely, you want your kid to be a part of this!

I then continued to make informational statements like, "That box needs to go over here," and "Phillip is putting away lots of blocks," and "We need help at the red table," until everything was packed away. None of them complained. None of them hid. None of them sought to avoid the "work." They simply did what we were doing until it was done, then we put on our coats and went outside.


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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

An "Us" Day



What I wanted to do yesterday was take a "me" day. I'd been traveling and felt like I needed time to goof off. In fact, when I left the apartment, the plan was just to soak up a little of our rare mid-winter sunshine and maybe sit down to a nice brunch before heading home for an afternoon of puttering. The first part happened, but the second part did not. Instead, I found myself on the bus on the way to Garfield High School where my fellow citizens were gathering to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with a morning of education followed by a march to downtown and a rally at Westlake Center.


I was six-years-old when MLK was assassinated. I remember learning about it from the news. If the adults in my life talked about it -- parents, teachers, neighbors -- it wasn't in my presence. It wasn't until a few years later, after my family moved from our all-white suburb of Columbia, South Carolina to Athens, Greece, that I began to learn about the man and his legacy of fighting the intertwined problems of racism, poverty, and war, what MLK called the "triple evils." Too often we think of MLK's legacy merely in terms of race, but I was happy to see that my fellow citizens have not forgotten his broader legacy of anti-capitalism, pro-labor, and peace.


As my fellow citizens gathered, we sang, chanted, and chatted. We carried our signs into the street where we were escorted by a legion of bicycle and motorcycle cops. Just last week I was showing the children at school pictures of police brutalizing and arresting similar protestors, but this gathering was one of peaceful celebration, even as we discussed horrible things. There must have been ten thousand of us out there yesterday. I ran into many people I know, including several of my school families.


At an intersection near Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill, we took a knee, then proceeded downtown to Westlake Center where we held our rally.


In 1970, the courts ordered public schools in Columbia, SC to be desegregated, a direct result of the Civil Rights movement that MLK helped to lead. Sadly, today our schools are re-segregated in much of the country and the same inequalities that provoked the movement in the first place are still with us. Indeed, all of MLK's intertwined triple evils continue to afflict us and in many ways are even worse than they were 50 years ago. We call it a "celebration," but it's appropriate it takes the form of a protest. It would be easy to fall into despair, but for my fellow citizens who have come together in hope, but for the smiles and laughter of the children, but for us all coming together like this to stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity.


It was a long, exhausting, and emotional day. I traded my "me" day for an "us" day and was reminded that every day that is not an "us" day is one on which the triple evils win.


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Monday, January 15, 2018

"A Strong, Demanding Love"


Free Photo: MLKWhite Photo of MLK, Martin Luther King JR


And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. ~MLK

What I'm saying to you this morning is that Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated. ~MLK

And I say to you, I have also decided to stick to love. For I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind's problems. And I'm going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn't popular to talk about it in some circles today. I'm not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love, I'm talking about a strong, demanding love. ~MLK

On this Martin Luther King Day many of us will listen to snippets, perhaps all, of his great "I Have A Dream" speech, and we should, but civil rights was not the only cause this great American championed, and it is not the only reason we celebrate his life today. He was also a great advocate for ending the war in Vietnam and on August 16, 1967 he gave what many consider his finest speech on poverty in America at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta.

Usually entitled "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community?" this is long, powerful, and to this day controversial speech that reminds us that we have, perhaps, made strides in race relations, but almost nothing has changed when it comes to poverty. Millions of our citizens of all races remain poor, but people of color bear the greatest burden. One in five black children lives in poverty. And while the powerful in our nation are engaged in a misguided, punitive approach to reforming our educational system, they are turning a blind eye to the core issue with education in America: poverty. Let this speech be a reminder that whatever we do in the classroom, until we address the debilitating societal sickness of poverty, we will, as a nation, ultimately fail.

This is a magnificent, thoughtful and inspiring speech, one that taken in its entirety is guaranteed to make you think, make you sad, and may even make you angry. MLK calls here, for instance, for a "guaranteed national income." I know that's a non-starter for many people, but so was civil rights, so were at one time most of the great things humans have ever done. One reason we celebrate this man today is that so much of what he stood for has proven to be prophetic. If nothing else, we must think about what he has to tell us.

If you'd like to read the entire speech, you'll find the text here.

If you're interested in listening to the entire 1 hour, 8 minute speech, here it is broken into 7 parts.

I've included here the concluding 16 minutes of the speech. I hope it inspires you to listen to the rest.


Martin Luther King - Where Do We Go From Here? (Conclusion) from MLK Speeches on Vimeo.



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Friday, January 12, 2018

Through That Second 15 Minutes




One of the things Seattle's teachers won in their most recent strike was a commitment from the school district that elementary school students would receive a minimum of 30 minutes of recess per day. In fairness, some schools were already providing more than that, but there were several, apparently, that were limiting their youngest students to a meager 15 minutes, but even so, it's actually disheartening to this play-based educator to learn that a half hour is considered a victory.


The ostensible reason for such pathetically restricted recess is that longer recesses cut into that all-important "classroom time," but I also heard that some administrators favor limited or non-existant recesses because when children freely play they are more likely to wind up in conflicts.


Let me be the first to say, "Duh."

As a teacher in a school that engages in no direct instruction, but rather bases its curriculum on the evidence of how children learn best, which is through their own self-selected free play, I'm here to tell you that conflict stands at the center of how learning happens. Our entire school day is, for all intents and purposes, recess, and yes, much of what the children are doing while playing both indoors and out is bicker.


For adults interested in eliminating bickering, I would say that 15 minutes is about right: it usually takes the children at least that long just to figure out what they're going to do, which, in a robust classroom like ours, with lots of kids with lots of agendas engaging with shared and limited resources, is typically followed by a period of often intense negotiation, which often shows up as conflict.


For instance, a group of four and five-year-olds, mostly boys, found themselves playing together with a collection of cardboard tubes and tennis balls. For the first 15 minutes or so, they engaged like independent agents, each arranging tubes, and collecting balls for their own personal use. That time passed relatively quietly, with each of them exploring and experimenting. 

The next 15 minutes was characterized by physical and emotional chaos, as they began to bump up against limitations of space and resources, but the real impetus for the conflicts were their divergent ideas for how they were going to play. Most of the kids were setting their tubes up at angles down which they were rolling balls, but at least one guy was more interested in using the tubes as a way to practice balance, rolling them the way a lumberjack might. The resulting spills and his lurching body, of course, tended to upend his classmates' carefully constructed efforts and there were a lot of things said about it, like, "Hey! You're knocking over my tube!" which was followed by a round or two of argument, sometimes even accompanied by shoving and other physical attempts to solve their impasse. 


Others began to collect balls, "all the balls," which lead to complaints like, "Hey! You have all the balls!"

Some objected when friends would block up the end of the tube so their balls couldn't pass through, robbing them of the satisfaction of witnessing the end result of their experiment.

By the end of this 15 minutes, there was one boy crying, several flush with frustration, and a couple who found themselves wound up into a slightly hysterical state by the hubbub. This is where I did my work for the day. I stepped in several times to help cool tempers and encourage conversation, which I did by reminding the children of the rules they had made together the previous week, the agreements we had made about how we wanted to treat one another. Among those rules were such classics as "No taking things from other people," "No hitting," "No pushing," and "No knocking down other people's buildings," along with an agreement that if someone tells you to "Stop!" you must stop and listen to what the other person has to say.


Most of the conflicts I let run their course as the kids were talking, sometimes loudly, sometimes heatedly. As long as they were heading toward resolution I stayed on the sidelines, but when things became physical or the emotions turned intense, I dropped to my knees in the midst of it and said things like, "I saw you take that tube from him. We all agreed, 'No taking things from other people,'" and "He's crying because he worked really hard building that and you knocked it down." But mostly what I did was encourage the children to listen to one another by simply saying things like, "I want you to listen to what he has to say."

This is the period of recess play that those administrators want to avoid. I know that many schools consider recess to be a time for the classroom teachers to catch a little break, leaving the school yard in the hands of a few "monitors." One kindergarten teacher told me that they often have 40 or more children per adult on their playground. I know I wouldn't want to face that second 15 minutes without all hands on deck.


So why do we put up with that second 15 minutes? To get to the third 15 minutes. That's when all that bickering begins to pay off. That's when all the conflict and talking and listening start to bring those ideas and agendas together. 

For the next half hour I more or less sat on a bench and watched the children play, together, saying sentences to one another that began with the invitation word, "Let's . . ." 

"Let's connect all the big tubes!"

"Let's put all the balls in this bucket!"

"Let's move it over here!"

There was still a bit of bickering, but it was of the productive variety, with children actually listening to their friends' thoughts and ideas, sometimes disagreeing, but mostly finding ways to incorporate it within their own agenda. This is the gold standard of a play-based curriculum: creative, cooperative play, and sometimes the only way to get there is through that second 15 minutes.


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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Putting What They Had Learned To Use


We arrived in the morning on Monday to find that someone had rudely used our parking lot to dispose of their Christmas trees, a pair of Nobel Firs.


The trees, naturally, evoked memories of the recent holiday, with children being inspired to share about their own trees, their decorations, their gifts, their relatives, their family traditions, and the ultimate fate of their own trees, some of which are still standing in their living rooms. We had obviously talked about a lot of those things in the run-up to the big day and it was interesting to hear the differences between what they had anticipated and what had actually transpired. In other words, these illegally discarded trees, showed me a snapshot of some of what the children had actually learned about their family and the holiday: they had previously expressed their theories about what was to come and now I was hearing what had actually transpired kind of like a pre- and post-test without, you know, the intrusive irrelevance and stress of an actual test.


The conversation then turned to whether or not the trees were alive. After some debate, they came around to the consensus that they were dead, despite the still-green needles, because they no longer had roots. But could they plant it and make it come back alive? That question generated more disagreement, with most coming around to the reality that these trees would never grow again, just as the ones that had decorated their homes would never grow again.


But that didn't mean they weren't going to try, if only to attempt to prove themselves wrong the way real scientists do. They began by choosing a spot, then digging a hole. They had no problem making their hole deep enough for a trunk, but with all those diggers, it turned out to be far wider than it was deep, which, of course, meant the tree would not stand on its own. Someone said, "We have to dig a down hole, not an out hole," a description that needed no further explanation, although it took them some trail and error to figure out that digging such a hole is a one-person job.


Even so, once the "down" hole was dug, the tree wouldn't stand on its own, so as one boy held the tree, the others bent their backs to the task of backfilling around the trunk, then packing the sand down. When the boy holding the tree ceremoniously let go, the tree remained standing, provoking impromptu cheering. Then, employing more of the Christmas tree knowledge they had acquired over the holiday break, they went back and forth about whether or not it was "straight," looking at it from various angles, then adjusting it accordingly.


When they were done, someone said, "We have to decorate it."

"But we don't have any ornaments."

One of the diggers hung his shovel from a branch, "That could be our ornament." And so the kids finished by decorating the tree with whatever wasn't nailed down.


They had learned about Christmas trees over the break, adding to the knowledge they had been accumulating on the subject over the course of their five years on the planet, an important subject. They were motivated, sociable, and worked well together, testing their theories, putting what they had learned to use in the real world. And when they stepped back they had done it: they had their very own decorated tree around which to celebrate.




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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Universal Truths


I was just standing back, watching the kids in our 4-5's class on the playground when she approached me, "Pretend I'm a baby."

I said, "Okay. Hi baby."

"No, pretend I'm baby me." Then she said her name, "L-."

"Hi baby L."

She snuggled up against my legs, sucking her thumb. "And pretend you're my mommy."

"I'll try," I said, "but your actual mommy is right over there." As a cooperative school, the kids' parents are often at school with them. I pointed to where her mom was working with other kids at the work bench. "I mean, I don't really look or sound like your mom at all."

She found the idea funny. "Yes you do. You look just like my mommy."

"Okay, but don't tell her you said that."

"Why not?"

I'd been joking, but her question was genuine. I tried to explain, "I just think that she might not want to be told she looks like me. I'm an old man and she's a young woman. I mean, I have a beard and I doubt she would want to have a beard. I guess I'm worried it would hurt her feelings if you told her she looked like me."

L thought about it for a moment, looking down the hill at her mother. "I won't tell her she looks like you. I'll tell her she looks pretty."

"That would probably make her feel good."

I try to avoid direct instruction, but there are some universal social and cultural truths that I want the kids to know, and when the opportunity presents itself, I take advantage. One of those truths is to not tell your mother that she looks like a bearded man who is twenty years her senior. If a kid snatches my hat, pulls on my hair, or messes with my glasses, I tell them that "no one" likes people to mess with their hats, hair or glasses, a universal truth if there ever was one. If someone shouts in my ear I tell them that "no one" likes that either. These are the social and cultural things that we usually only learn from experience, but for which I sometimes resort to a kind of direct instruction/persuasion.

The other day, a boy's mother arrived at school with a dramatic new haircut. Later, as I chatted with him, he let me know that he "hated" it.

"Really? I like it."

"I do not like it. It's too short. I told her to grow it back."

We spent some time talking about change, how maybe he will grow to like it, about how she is still the same person, even with different hair. He was thoughtful, not exactly agreeing, but also not disagreeing. I thought maybe I'd helped him turn the corner, but then he said, "When I see her I'm going to tell her I hate her hair."

I replied, "Oh, I don't think you should do that."

"Why not?"

"Because it might hurt her feelings. When someone gets a new haircut, I always tell them it looks good because I want them to feel good not bad. I think you should tell her you like it."

"I will not tell her that."

"Really? But then she might feel bad."

He thought about that for a moment, then said, "I hate her hair."

"I know, but you don't have to tell her that. Maybe just don't say anything at all. I told her I liked it and I could tell it made her happy because she smiled."

He answered thoughtfully, "I hate her hair, but I won't tell her."

The following day, we returned to the subject of his mother's hair. "I told my mom that I hated her hair."

"I'll bet that made her feel bad."

"It did. Today I'm going to tell her that I like her hair!"

"I think that's a good idea. Everybody with a new haircut likes to hear that."

Later when his mother arrived to pick him up, I whispered to him in passing, "Don't forget you were going to say something to you mom to make her feel good." As I walked away, I heard him say, "I do like your hair!" I saw her smile as she said, "Thank you!"


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Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The Meaning Of Life


 
Man is nothing else, but what he makes of himself. ~Jean-Paul Sartre

Among the founding principles of our American democracy is the ideal that we each be free to pursue "happiness." That's not a guarantee of happiness, but rather an aspirational statement, one that envisions each of us having the opportunity to choose our own course in life; whether that leads to happiness (however that is defined) or not is up to each individual. I don't think anyone believes that we have, as a society, fully achieved this particular freedom of pursuit, but it's an ideal that has the virtue of being nobel.

I think about the "pursuit of happiness" nearly every day, my own and that of the children I teach. Indeed, I consider it my highest goal on most days, to do what I can to create a bubble within which we are all free to ask and answer our own questions, which is, I think, the key aspect of anyone's pursuit of happiness. Answering other people's questions simply makes you a tool of their pursuit. It's only through finding answers to our own questions that we come a little closer to our personal truth, and as Mister Rogers sang, "The truth will make me free."


As adults we tend to take a longer view, pinning our future happiness on a set of circumstances that, when achieved, will, we believe, cause us contentment and satisfaction, that will fill us with joy in the morning, love during the day, and peace at night. Children are more focused on their immediate futures and they typically don't spend a lot of energy contemplating even that, choosing to rather apply themselves to the pursuit, to their self-selected path, the one that is paved with their own curiosity. They understand better than we do that the word "pursuit" is best understood as a synonym for "search."

What I see children doing each day as they play, is search for nothing more or less than the meaning of life. As sophomoric as that sounds, I've come to understand that this what education in a democracy must always be about and the degree to which we lose sight of that is the degree to which we rob others of their right to their pursuit of happiness. Discovering the meaning of life, our own life, our one unique life, is what we're here to do. It's a question that we were born to ask and one that only we can answer for ourselves. And we can only do that when we are free to seek our own answers: in that direction lies the meaning of life.


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