Thursday, July 27, 2017

I Found A Small Boat


I took a walk in and around the Sunshine Coast hinterland town of Maleny here in the Australian state of Queensland. I was enjoying my favorite sort of place, these hybrid places that are neither entirely natural nor entirely the creation of humans.


Along the side of the walkway I found a small boat. It was like boats I'd seen before, but also unlike them. I held it in my hand, feeling its smooth, woody hull, varnishing it with the oils from my palm and fingers. It was light and strong and hydrodynamically smooth: although its shape was somewhat irregular for a boat. I imagined it would sit high in the water were I to launch it, moving as rapidly as the current with very little drag to slow it down.


I don't find boats like this back home in Seattle in the US state of Washington, but here they were plentiful, piled up among the undergrowth like an armada that had met a tragic end. I thought I'd like to carry them all back with me to my home where we don't have this sort of boat.


I was near the shores of the slowly moving Obi Obi Creek, so I carried it down to the water's edge and pushed it out into the flow. It drifted along the line along which I'd released it at first, but then that momentum gave way to the the nature of water moved by gravity and it turned downstream for a bit before being pushed to the shore where it stuck in the mud, no longer a boat, but rather just part of the rest of the debris.


Later I found a pair of similar boats stuck together. I pried them apart and found it was actually a puzzle, the round nut-like pieces falling to the ground and scattering amongst the leaves where there were dozens of other round nut-like pieces that had come from other puzzles. It was a puzzle and I wanted to reassemble it because that's what one does with a puzzle, just as one must launch a boat upon the water. I knelt there for a long time, trying to find the pieces that fit into their unique concavities, turning each one round and round in their empty places, seeking the perfect match.


Finally, I succeeded and experienced the all-is-right-with-the satisfaction of placing the perfectly fitted lid back in its place, the four irregular spheres fitting perfectly inside, together, more snug that peas in a pod.

I teach young children how to see the world and they in turn have taught me.


Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'm appearing in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .


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


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Their Better Judgement



The children were playing with our big wooden blocks, wooden boxes, and cardboard boxes. I had started things off with a few planks spanning the space between the wooden boxes, creating an L-shaped elevated walkway. Usually, the first child through the door dismantles my constructions, but not on this day.


The first few who tried balancing on the walkway were cautious. The planks were not secured in any way, there was nothing to hold onto, and I did not offer my hand, nor my words, for support. The kids were only 18-inches in the air, a height from which most of them are normally willing to jump, but no one approached this challenge as a daredevil, choosing instead the path of self-preservation, the path most young children choose when they've already had the opportunity to learn that the world, even the world at school, isn't necessarily designed with daredevils in mind. There are edges and heights and pokey bits to consider. There were no adult hands being offered that would allow them to perform physical feats they were not otherwise capable of performing. As they shuffled and crawled back and forth along the elevated L, they demonstrated varying levels of confidence, until, after several minutes of testing, most of them, at least the ones who attempted it (and not all did), were moving back a forth with relative ease. It was then that new blocks began to get stacked atop the walkway, making it higher, and yes, more risky.


This is when I renewed my vigilance, but so did they.


Then, after much hemming and hawing and consideration. After a long pause to summon up the courage to try something that needed to be done because it was there, this happened . . .





I did not say, "Good job!" or "Way to go!" but I did say, "That was cool!" a genuine expression of my feelings about how he not only jumped into the box, but then got himself out by tipped the whole thing forward. I quickly tried to backfill my empty expression with a little actual content. "You found an easy way to get out of the box."



In retrospect, I wish I'd said nothing, but what can you do? Once the words are out there, they're out there, and it's usually best to then just shut up and not try to fix it. What I'd done was draw attention to one boy's experiment. And adult attention, in turn, tends to draw the attention of other children, serving as a kind of endorsement. The first boy who attempted the jump-and-tip had judged correctly, without outside influence, that he was physically capable of handling it, but I had less confidence in the clutch of kids who now gathered around for their turns. By saying, "That was cool!" I worried I'd managed to cloud the judgements of kids who were now motivated to elicit a similar comment of approval from me, rather than listening to their own internal voice of caution.





Fortunately, my fears were not realized. Yes, several children gave it a try, some managing it just as competently and confidently as the first boy, but others had just allowed me the power to bring them to the edge where their better judgement, their inner voice rather than my external one, took over.


And that's the way it should be.


Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'm appearing in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .


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



I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Pain Or The Shame Or The Frustration




When I'm sick or injured, my loved ones will tell you that I prefer to be left alone. If there is to be a cool cloth placed upon my brow, I'll do it myself. Indeed, except in rare instances, I'd prefer you go into the other room or even leave the building altogether, and whatever you do, don't keep asking after me, I only find it annoying at best and sometimes infuriating. If I need something from you I'll ask, but otherwise I just want some space within which to get over it on my own terms. And I know there are other grown-up people for whom the exact opposite is true.

Young children fall down a lot: indoors or outdoors, while running or walking, on hard terrain or soft. At any given moment, it seems, there is a child down somewhere at Woodland Park. And just as often as they fall there is an adult reacting to it.

As a cooperative school, with so many loving adults around the place, someone is always there to provide the comfort that is needed, usually a mommy, but often a daddy, someone to be with the child as the pain or shame or frustration builds, reaches its peak, then fades, coming and going like the tides. Many of the kids want to be comforted with soothing words, but no one wants to hear, "Oh, you're okay," and more than a few would rather that you shut up. Some want to be held, but many do not. And they all feel a surge of panic when adults run toward them, because after all, when adults run without first putting on the proper training gear, something is must be horribly, horribly wrong.

Yes, it's always best not to run. Those few seconds you save in getting to their side does little to serve them and often makes matters worse. When it's my turn to deal with an injury I always walk, sometimes briskly, but always with the intent of bringing calmness to an otherwise tense and unfortunate situation.

When I speak, I strive to continue that same calmness, never asking, "Are you okay?" because either they are and the question is redundant as they pop back to their feet to go about their business, or they are not, which should already be evident by the expression of pain or the stream of tears. Instead, I let them know I'm there to help by stating the facts, such as, "You fell," or "You tripped." If there is blood evident, I'll say so, then ask someone else to retrieve the first aid kit. Then I drop to my knees beside them, sometimes with a hand on their shoulder, but usually not, and wait for them to let me know what they want from me.

Some throw themselves upon me, making it clear they want my arms around them, to feel my warmth or my strength or my comfort. Some say, "I'm okay," through their tight grimace, making it clear they don't need anything from me, but space. If they say it with enough intensity, I might even ask, "Do you want me to go away?" but usually I just remain there, my eye on the parts of their body most likely to show signs of injury that might need my attention whether they want it or not. I never pick them up unless they ask or otherwise make it clear that is what they need from me. Naturally, there are some who don't make it clear what they need. When that happens I might ask, "What can I do for you?" If they are too overwhelmed by their pain or shame or frustration to respond I wait with them, my hand on their shoulder, or not, depending on what I know of the child.

And that's, of course, the bottom line. I usually already have a relationship with the child. I know this one tends to belt it out and get it over with, short and sweet, while the next one tends to turn within, to take the pain to an inner place of healing. I know that some have a comfort item in their backpack for just such circumstances while others are looking forward to an opportunity to laugh their way out of it, but whatever the case, my role is to calmly wait for the fallen child to let me know what they want my role to be.

It's sometimes hard to remain calm, but that's the most important thing. It's usually nothing and any hysterics on my part can only serve to make it into something. And if there is a serious injury, well, any hysterics on my part can only make it worse. Falling down is as much as part of childhood as running, climbing, pretending, and laughing. It's an essential part of how we learn about our world and ourselves within it. As loving adults their falls concern us, but their falls and their pain belong to them. Just as adults get to tell our loved ones what we need from them, so do the kids. Like us, they themselves are the only experts on their own pain and suffering, and only they know what they need to deal with it.


Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'm appearing in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .


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


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, July 24, 2017

Especially If They Are Small And Quiet



It can be intimidating to speak before a group of people. I've seen surveys of American adults in which "speaking before an audience" emerged as our single greatest fear, coming in ahead of "death." When I first started teaching, one of my bedrock principles was that I would never compel a child to speak up during circle time. If they didn't raise their hand or otherwise indicate they wanted a turn to speak, I would not call on them. I wanted to respect their right to silence in front of the larger group. If I wanted their input on something I would track them down later and get it one-on-one.

One day, however, a mother pulled me aside to say that her three-year-old son regularly complained that he never got to speak at circle time and requested that I please call on him, even if he didn't raise his hand. It seemed wrong to me, I told her that, but she insisted, so the following day as we were discussing bloody owies, I asked, "Aidan, do you have something to say?" And he did. From that day forward I would call on him, unsolicited, when we were engaged in circle time discussions and he always had something to say.

Most people who know me are shocked when I tell them that every Meyers-Briggs test I've ever taken has classified me as an introvert. I tend to be outgoing in social circumstances. I speak daily in front of the classroom, which includes an audience of both children and adults (in the form of parent-teachers), and I regularly go on the road to speak before audiences of anywhere from 20 to 500. These are not the behaviors we typically associate with that personality type. In common usage, we mistakenly conflate "introversion" with "shyness," but there's more to it than that. It has much more to do with where one gets one's energy: the extrovert is energized by interacting with others while the introvert tends to find social situations to be draining and must regularly retire into solitude to recharge. Obviously, it's not that simple, but find it is true for me, even as I am what one might label a "highly functioning" social introvert.

We live in a society that tends to value the traits that come more naturally to extroverts: outgoingness, enthusiasm for social settings, and, indeed, speaking before an audience. Not only that but the ability to do so is a life skill with many advantages. A man I know, told me that he initially chose a career in engineering at least in part because of his introversion, but that as he advanced, he was increasingly called on to speak before boards, panels, and even entire conferences because of his expertise. "I had to learn how to do it. It was the hardest part of my job, but I have to say that by the time I retired, I was pretty darned good."

I still don't compel children to speak before an audience, but I try to provide varied and daily opportunities to do so, be it during our proper circle time or during informal gatherings around the snack table, always trying to mix up the invitations to speak, to have every voice be heard because it isn't "our" community until that happens. It comes naturally for some kids and is the hardest thing in the world for others which is true about most of the important things in life. School is a place to work on those things that are hard and for many, speaking before others is the hardest, most frightening thing of all. My job isn't to urge or cajole, but rather to create a variety of opportunities, to allow the time, and to value contributions of all kinds, especially if they are small and quiet.


Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'm appearing in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .


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



I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Sunday, July 23, 2017

"I Want To Remind You . . ."



When I first started teaching my own class of 3-5 year olds, I had this idea that the children should make their own rules. I'm sure I'm not the first to have had this idea, and I had probably heard about other classrooms that had done it, but when I set about turning this important project over to the children I only had a vague idea about how it would work. Indeed, I'd not really even thought about the process, nor the consequences: I just started with the idea that it was the right thing to do.

You see, I didn't want to spend my days bossing other people around, telling them "Don't hit," or "Don't run in the hallway." I didn't want to be forever chirping, "We don't hit our friends," or "We use walking feet indoors," statements that may have the virtue of sounding gentler, but are still commands (coupled with a kind of lie because, quite clearly "we" do hit and run or there would be no need to say anything). 

You can read here for a more step-by-step description of how we do it, but we start our year in an official state of anarchy. Typically within the first few days someone has complained, "She hit me!" or "He took that from me!" That is when I say, "It sounds like you don't like that. Does anyone like to be hit?" The answer is always a universal "no," so I respond, "Well then we all agree, no hitting. I'm going to write that down so we can all remember." Then I ceremoniously tear off a long sheet of butcher paper and hang it on the wall, writing "No hitting" with a Sharpie marker that I've been carrying in my back pocket expressly for this purpose. That usually opens the flood gates and we quickly compile a list of agreements about how we are going to treat one another, one that we will be adding to throughout the year. I'm trying really hard to refer to them as "agreements," but we continue to mostly call them "rules."

The longer I've taught, the more I've come to see these agreements as one of the cornerstones of what we do together. As for me, instead of saying, "Don't hit!" I'm saying, "We all agreed, no hitting." It might sound like a difference without a distinction, but what you can't see without being there is how the children so often turn to look at that piece of butcher paper, this reminder of the sacred agreements they made with their friends. They can't read it, of course, but they know it's there, because they put in there themselves via my hand. Many stand looking at our list in a kind of reverence, which indeed it deserves, because after all, what is more sacred than the agreements free people make with one another?

Many years ago my pal Henry was a two-year-old and he often found the noise and chaos of our full, robust classroom to be a bit overwhelming, so he spent many of his days huddled up with one of his favorite adults in a corner under our loft reading books. As a three-year-old, however, he began to take a strong interest in our agreements, partaking fully in the ongoing process. He had a passion for men in uniforms and frequently pretended to be a fire fighter or soldier. One day I spied him roaming the room with his hands over his head, rapidly flexing his fingers open and closed. I asked him what he was doing and he replied "I'm the police," with his hands representing the lights atop his squad car.

I asked, "Oh, are you giving out tickets?"

He looked at me blankly for a moment, then said, "No, I'm reminding kids when they break the rules." And sure enough, that's what he was doing, sidling up to his classmates to say, "I want to remind you, we all agreed, no pushing," and "I want to remind you, we all agreed, no taking things from other people," echoing the words he had heard me use. The difference was that when I do it, they tend to then look at the butcher paper, but when Henry did it, they looked right back at him, peer-to-peer, some of them even saying, "Thank you," but all of them reacting to his reminder by changing their behavior, reminded of their agreement.

As I watched him "police" the room, moving calmly from place to place I was moved by the thought that this is how he was making order from chaos; that this is how we were making order from chaos, our sacred agreements at the core of who we are.



Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'm appearing in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .


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



I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Is ADHD A Fraud?


According to the American Psychiatric Association, 11 percent of American kids (over 6 million of them) have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder). I'm not a psychiatrist, but I know the symptoms (inattention, hyperactivity, impulsivity) and I can honestly say that of the hundreds of children that have passed my way over the past couple decades, I've never met one upon whom I would hang that label.

Now, I admit to be completely unqualified to make that diagnosis, but you would think that by now I would have run across at least one child who set off my alarm bells. Or perhaps there is something about our school that attracts non-ADHD kids, or maybe I'm looking right at the symptoms and just see normal behavior, or it could be that the folks performing the diagnoses are wrong more often than they are right.


Well-regarded Harvard psychologist Jerome Kegan tends to think that ADHD is largely a fraud foisted upon us by pharmaceutical companies seeking to move their merchandise. I certainly can see that: the profit motive, when applied to things like healthcare and education, endeavors that simply can't be measured by dollars and cents, tends to warp things. For instance, there is an entire industry of for-profit "education corporations" (e.g., Pearson) that make their money by providing education-ish products like high stakes standardized tests and test prep materials and other nonsense that have little to do with learning and everything to do with returning dividends to their investors. It doesn't take a cynic to see that for-profit pharmaceutical companies don't the same thing, not always (or even rarely) placing health outcomes ahead of their bottom line.

That said, I know there are good, loving parents out there who insist that not only has their child "suffered" from ADHD, but that drugs have saved them. And, of course, folks like Dr. Kegan, no matter how well regarded, and there are those who consider him a modern day Carl Jung, are in a small minority. After all, ADHD has been included in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) since 1968. If it's a complete fraud then it runs broad and deep.


So, the odds are against it being a total fraud, but I still have my question: why have I never seen it? I've spotted autism. I've identified sensory issues. I've even seen bi-polarity (although I wasn't quite sure what it was) but I've not once thought to myself, "That kid has ADHD." It may be for any of the reasons I've listed above, but I think the most likely explanation is that the behaviors that define it simply don't show up as a "problem" in a play-based curriculum, while inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive children are a problem in traditional schools where adults determine what, how, and when a child should do things, where teachers are responsible for herding large groups of children through material that may or may not be interesting to them. Traditional schools emphasize paying attention, sitting still, and concentrating on one thing at a time and children who struggle with that simply show up as a problem. I mean, that's tough for any kid, let alone one with a highly energetic brain and body. In contrast, when we don't place those artificial expectations on kids, like in a play-based curriculum, the "problem" disappears.

No, I suspect that for the most part, ADHD is mental health disorder that largely only exists under certain, unnatural circumstances, namely in traditional schools or when adults try to make a living at a temperamentally unsuitable careers. Indeed, I figure that the thing we call ADHD might well be, as author Thom Hartmann argues, an important aspect of human evolution. Like so many things we call "disorders" in children it's time we started considering that we aren't looking at a problem with the kids, but rather a problem with us and what we unfairly, and perhaps even cruelly, expect of them.


Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'm appearing in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .


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


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Protecting Their Hidden Treasure


Without exaggeration, there must be 10,000 of those glass florist marbles scattered about our playground, most of which are buried in the sand pit or lost under layers of wood chips, but it doesn't take much hunting to find them. Typically, I can spy with my trained eye at least one from where ever I happen to be standing, and a kick in the dust usually reveals more. We call them "jewels" or "gems" or "treasures" and at any given moment someone is seeking after them.


Despite their prevalence, they have great value. I find stashes of them hidden in every corner of the place and they frequently go home in pockets only to be shame-facedly returned some days later when discovered by mom or dad complete with an apology to Teacher Tom for having taken something that doesn't belong to them. If one believes economic theorists the fact that they are so plentiful should make them virtually valueless, and indeed that's the theory I've been working on as I "re-seed" the playground on an regular basis, but the laws of supply and demand don't apply to jewels. If there is one object other than our swings over which fights regularly erupt it's these bits of colorful glass.

Not long ago a group of kids were earnestly shoveling wet sand onto what we call the "concrete slide," a slope poured there generations ago for the purpose of erosion control. It's a popular place to play, with children forever running up and down it, experimenting with their bodies in the pull of gravity, rolling things down it, and, with the help of ropes, pulling things up it, not to mention sliding. The damp sand was adhering to the concrete, where the children then smoothed it out with the backs of their shovels until they had covered the surface, or at least that was the plan. Other children were simultaneously attempting to remove the sand, objecting to their classmates project. While some brushed at the sand from the bottom, others carried buckets of water to the top and poured it down, washing away strips of sand that were then quickly covered back up.


There was a lot of bickering, with both sides complaining about the other. It started as a sort of good-natured rivalry, but soon devolved into genuine anger on both sides:

"Stop it! We're trying to put sand on there!"

"We don't want sand on there!"

"We do!"

"We don't!"

"Stop it!"

I'd been watching from a distance, but moved closer as the tensions mounted and even closer when shovels were wielded in a threatening manner. The clean-the-sand-away team was the calmer of the two, probably because it was not their project that was being washed away, but it was nevertheless a classic schoolyard conflict, the sort that erupts almost daily. I had drawn nearer for the purposes of being in position to intervene should violence erupt, but that didn't seem to be in the offing despite the apparent threats.


After several minutes, things were at a logger head, with both sides asserting "We do!" or "We don't!" in an increasingly loud and fierce manner. Perhaps I should have continued to stay out of it, but I thought I had information that might help things along so I said to the kids with the shovels, "I think those kids don't like the sand on there because it makes it too slippery. They're worried they'll fall on the concrete."

There was a moment of silence which I took as a sign that they were thinking about what I'd said, considering their friends and the potential consequences of falling on concrete. And in a way they were.

"We know that, Teacher Tom. That's why we're putting the sand on. We want it to be slippery because we hid our treasure up there and we don't want anyone to get it."

After that was clear, the conflict came to a sudden end as they all became pirates, working together now to completely cover the concrete slide with sand, protecting their bits of glass from imaginary bad guys.



Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'm appearing in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .


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


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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