Thursday, October 31, 2013

Lost In The Mat Maze

We once brought bales of hay into the classroom for a week. It was fun, but it turns out they're something better left for the outdoors, especially since I'm prone to allergic reactions, including asthma. Concentrating all that hay indoors for a week turned out to be a little much for me.

The good news is that opportunities abound for outdoor hay bale play around here this time of year. Our last field trip featured a hay maze, and the children always report that their favorite part of any field trip even peripherally involving a hay maze, is, well, the hay maze. We could fly to the moon, and I'm pretty sure that if there was a hay maze prior to lift-off, that's what we would be talking about the next day.

There are secrets inside mazes, even ones made from gym mats. They make mysterious spaces out of old familiar places.

Many of us stand outside of them at first, summoning up a bit of courage. We don't have the benefit of the preview the grown-ups get from up there where their heads live. We're down here, lower to the ground where there is so much more that is unknown.

Others of us just plunge right in, making the rounds quickly, wildly, shrieking when we're surprised by a friend coming around a blind corner. Bumping into the friends who are following us, like a scene from The Three Stooges, when we unexpectedly come to a dead end. We chase around and through and between and over, finding our way, losing ourselves, finding our way again. Converting those unknowns into things we now know.

Saying to our friends, "Come on, this is the way out!"

Or, "This is a good place to hide."

Or, "This can be where we live."

As we figure things out, we start giving things names, like mapmakers do, to orient ourselves and others. "Come on, everybody, into my house where it's safe!" 

The light in our familiar classroom is different in here, an exciting and slightly disorienting mix of shadow and reflection off those primary colored vinyl surfaces.

It doesn't take long, however, before we've named everything, and we're all just pretending to be lost, pretending to be startled by our friends. 

And that's when it really gets fun -- knowing and pretending to not know. Try taking that attitude toward Christmas or the Fourth of July. Grown-ups rush in to correct us lest someone think we're heretics or insufficiently patriotic. All the other holidays want you to just know.

Pretending to not know: that's what makes Halloween the best holiday.

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Last night was our annual Halloween party; the big, loud sweaty one with more than 100 kids and at least as many adults. It's an all-school project the kids have been working on since the beginning of the month, all learning the same songs, creating decorations, and practicing making the babies laugh and the grown-ups scared with alternative "peek-a-boo" and just plain "Boo!" A team of adults arrived early to set up tables and hang decorations, while the rest were at home putting the finishing touches on their potluck dishes, picking up pizzas, delivering bales of straw, and (this year for the first time) preparing a silent auction featuring donations from our community both immediate and extended. Throughout the event, we worked together to take care of children, manage games, and empty the garbage. At the end of the evening the place looked like a frat house on Saturday morning, but within 30 minutes everything is set back to rights as if we were never there.

There is no written plan for this party, no boss, and no external carrot or stick motivator other than to come together for a good time. It's a project, a tradition by now, that happens in increments, with announcements at meetings, coordination through emails, sign-up lists, a community undertaking involving people who've known one another for a long time and others who will only meet at the party. Our team of early arrivers, for instance, the social coordinators from our three schools, began the evening by introducing themselves to one another. Each year the party has gotten bigger, more festive, and more elaborate, an organic project that continues to grow in the soil of institutional memory.

This is what communities do: collaborative projects, people stepping up as best they can, when they can, with what they can, to make something bigger happen. It's what we do in preschool as well, every day and over the course of many days.

Sometimes projects are part of traditions, like our Halloween party. 

Sometimes they emerge from the passion of a single child, a kid with a question, like the guy who for several weeks running spent much of his time using our cast iron water pump and a length of gutter to flow water into our two little red wagons, which he wrangled up there each day, positioning them side by side, fussing, arranging, studying, adding bits and pieces, bending his head down for closer examination, often all on his own, but just as often with friends drawn in by his intense curiosity. 

He could have complained, insisting that it was his, but as each child approached he made room for them, for their own curiosity, and when they moved on he simply carried on, not complaining that now he had a heavier load to bear.

Sometimes our projects appear unexpectedly as happened last week in our Pre-3 class. 

We had flipped our big round table and had for several days been using the legs as anchors for spinning a yarn "spider web," which had by Friday become a massive rainbow tangle in which our entire collection of plastic spiders were enmeshed. 

Our scissor caddy holds 15 pairs of scissors, all of which were immediately put to use as these 2-year-olds fell on the project, making it their own, working together, their bodies pressed into a tiny space, their hands wielding tools designed for cutting, tools most of them are still just learning to use, and for a good 15 minutes they stayed at it, making way, asserting themselves, doing a job that needed to be done simply because it needed to be done.

Sometimes our projects develop over several days, from the collective hive mind of the children. 

For the past couple weeks, our oldest boys have been "experimenting" (their word) with the larger loose parts in the outdoor classroom, wrestling wooden planks, tires, rocks, ladders, and pipes into various configurations, usually on the theme of balance or leverage, sometimes involving our monkey bars or the swing set or water or mud, usually in small groups of two or three, often conducting several individual experiments at the same time. 

Since many of these projects envision launching things through the air or dropping heavy things from heights or using our own bodies as part of the experiment, we've spent a lot of time on risk assessment, warning others to keep their distance if they don't want to get hurt or wet or muddy.

A common element in all of these projects, including the Halloween party, is that my role as teacher has been to do my best to simply stay out of the way and marvel at how people work together to achieve their ends, whatever their ends, without anyone telling anyone what to do.

It seems like every day I hear someone bemoan the loss of community in our world, how we've left behind the culture and values of "Mayberry." Some blame parenting or the break down of the family, others the media or technology, others find fault in the inexorable movement of population into our cities; many find the fault in "others," be they darker-skinned or from other places or poorer or wealthier. 

I don't think community has gone anywhere. It resides within each of us, within the projects we undertake together, not at the coercive behest of an employer or leader, but on our own, shoulder-to-shoulder, when we see fit, as we see fit, out of necessity or not, without punishment or reward other than those that emerge naturally from our collaboration. But most importantly, without anyone telling us what to do. That's the only place from which community has ever grown.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What Self-Governance Is All About

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. ~Winston Churchill

Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried. ~Winston Churchill

Whenever I write a post like I did recently, in which I defend public schools, I then spend two or three days in a state of depression as people write back to say, essentially, that I'm naive and that I really should completely give up on public schools. They themselves have washed their hands of them, or intend to the moment they can find a viable alternative.

Our public schools are imperfect. They are not even close to the ideal, which resides over a horizon they can't even see from where they are today. In fact, I'm certain that even under the best of circumstances, we won't come within sight of the ideal in my lifetime.  Indeed, we are currently being bull-rushed headlong in the wrong direction by the well-financed corporate-driven education reform movement, a gang of ideologues who would be thrilled to see public education turned over to the mythical "free marketplace." My current hope is that we can stop their momentum; my greatest hope is that we can at least get things pointed in the right direction.

So, even I don't have particularly grandiose expectations for the near future; forget about achieving the ideal, which we try and fail to reach every day at Woodland Park (I'm not going into what I mean by "ideal" in this post, because I attempt to do that here on the blog every day). I understand why many folks have thrown up their hands. I understand, and even support, parents' decisions to chose private schools or any of the variations on homeschooling, including un-schooling. Everyone wants what's best for their own kids, today. You only go around once, and if one has the wherewithal, financial or otherwise, to give your kids something better, I can hardly blame you for going for it. My own daughter has been educated her entire life in a private school, a decision we made 12 years ago because it suited her and our family better than our public school options, and we could, albeit barely, afford it. So, I do understand making other choices.

Most people, however, don't have the choice.

And none of that depresses me. No, what gets me down is that in those angry notes and comments from readers, is that I hear not only a rejection of public education, but by extension, a rejection of the whole idea of self-governance. That's what depresses me. Most children will attend public schools and it is incumbent upon all of us to make those schools, if not ideal, at least as good as possible because these children will all too soon be our partners in self-governance. What depresses me is that when people throw up their hands over public schools, they are, in a very real sense, giving up on the idea of democracy.

I share Churchill's opinion in that what we call democracy is a deeply flawed thing, an easy conclusion in light of the current state of affairs in America. At the same time, as a man with a public education, I know enough history to be reminded that this has always been the case: an institution, like all human institutions, will always be at least as flawed as its creators. What else can one expect from self-governance? No one ever said it would be easy or fast. No one ever promised that democracy would be tidy or efficient. It is, indeed, the worst form of government, but it's the best we've yet devised. Government is just another name for what "we the people" chose to to together. When people write to complain about "government schools," I take it personally, as should we all. I want the best public schools we can get because I'm hoping to improve those five-minute conversations Churchill was cynically joking about. And make no mistake, a big part of that will come in improving the listening skills of those of us who identify with Churchill.


I grew up with parents from the rural Midwest, the kind of rational conservatives who don't seem to exist any longer, with a strong commitment to public schools. When the courts ordered the schools in Columbia, South Carolina to desegregate, my parents were among the few in our all-white neighborhood to put me on the bus. Most of the other children who lived near me were moved into racially segregated private schools. An adult neighbor once informed me in a whisper that I would be going to school in a place where people "defecated in the roadside ditches." She did not use the word "people." Those years when I spent my day as an ethnic minority were perhaps the most purely educational ones of my life in the sense that the lessons I learned have been among the most applicable to my actual life beyond school. I had to learn to find common ground with, to self-govern with, people who were economically, socially, and historically very different from me.

I was a boy in the deep south in the 1960's so that meant arm wrestling, yo-yo tricks, football, all done with the other kids I found in my classes. One of the rationales for busing was for black and white children to grow up together so they could see each other beyond race, and in my case, it worked. Those years shaped me in important and fundamental ways, even while the "academics" were, as they are now in states like South Carolina, considered among the worst in the nation. I would not trade those years of schooling for anything, if only because I learned that racists lie; that these other human beings were not such animals that they defecated in roadside ditches. I'm sure that some of the kids who went to the all-white private schools wound up as fine people, but many of them still believe those lies. No matter what their test scores and report cards said, they were so poorly educated so as to be a current danger to society.

Of course, I went home each afternoon to my white suburban life and later moved with my family to Oregon where we again enrolled in the public schools. Again, they were imperfect in the way all human institutions are, but there I continued to spend my days with children from both the good and bad sides of the tracks, learning with them and from them, figuring out how to forge friendships, or at least partnerships, trusting and distrusting, learning about life in the real world: the skills required for self-governance.

This is all to say that I am indebted to my public school experience for the man I am today: not necessarily for what happened in classrooms, although some of the teachers made a real difference, but for what happened between the cracks where real learning always happens.


I came of age in 1980, just in time to vote for Ronald Reagan, the man who told us that "(g)overnment is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." It sounded like a revolutionary notion, one that seemed a lot like the Ayn Rand novels I'd recently read, offering a convenient excuse for the world's problems, one that contradicted the messages of communal effort I'd heard from the political leaders of my youth such as JFK, MLK, and Jimmy Carter. I was young and ready to hear this "new" message, not knowing at the time that it was just a cowboy-hatted Hollywood face on a message that traced its lineage back through failed presidential candidate Barry Goldwater all the way to the American Civil War seccessionists and the John C. Calhoun nullification-ists. These anti-government Americans have been with us for a long time and they're still with us today. They have had many different specific causes, from slavery to taxes, but the core idea is that smaller federal government is always better. For many it has become such an article of faith that they can't bear that anyone would question it.

It's this strain of American political thought that brought us our recent governmental shutdown. And I see it as well when anti-public school people write me, calling them pointedly "government schools," intending, I guess, to smear them. When I hear "government schools," I hear "the people's schools." You see, in a democracy, government is us: government is what we call getting together as equals to figure out the things we want to do together. I got it, our current political system is messed up, there is corruption, there's too much money mixed up in it, and too many of us feel disaffected, if not entirely disenfranchised. Even so, there are some things we have to do together, and the size of government is entirely dependent upon what those things are. What I want are well-run governmental institutions, ones that succeed with the tasks we the people assign them. First we have to decide what we want to do together, then we push for the right sized government.

And I'm one of those who believe that among the things we the people should do together is educate our children: it's simply too vital to the functioning of our democracy. Ideally, schools should be locally controlled, and many still are, but there are times when we need our federal government to make sure all of our citizens are included in the things we chose to do together, the way the courts ordered desegregation when I was a boy.

I'm all for efforts to root out the corruption and the money, both of which would go a long way toward boosting morale. But even were things not at all screwed up (and there are those, including me, who would insist that "screwed up" is the natural state of every government), there are those who believe that these things simply can't be managed by government at all, usually wanting to turn government functions over to private enterprise in the faith that the profit motive always, eventually, results in the best product at the lowest price, a claim that simply isn't bourn out all that often in the real world.

Here's the thing, look around: businesses are human institutions as well, and they screw up at least as much as anything else, probably more. I mean, most new small businesses don't survive past 5 years. There are at least as many scandals and as much corruption in corporations as in government: this is part of every large human institution, be it government, commerce, non-profit or religious. Human beings sometimes do the wrong thing or fail to do the right one: it's what humans do. To turn things over to the private sector is to abdicate personal responsibility in favor of the dictatorial hand of a board of directors. To throw up one's hands, is to give up on humanity. And when you give up on humanity, you give up on self-governance.


When one takes the long view, the broad view, it's impossible to argue that public schools have not played a vital part in the long march of our democracy, one that has, I believe, on balance been a good one. We the people have plenty of failures at our feet, but many more successes in our hands.

So as imperfect as they inevitably are, I continue to support our public schools even while I will, as is my responsibility as a citizen, keep talking about what I think they are doing wrong and how I think they could do things better.

This is true while there remains so much room for improvement it seems overwhelming. It's an argument that can be made about every human institution that has ever existed and that will ever exist. There is good and there is bad. I don't expect to achieve the ideal in my lifetime, nor in a thousand lifetimes, but I will do whatever I can to push things in the right direction, while hoping that others join me, which is what self-governance is all about. Of course, I also urge you to push back if you think I'm wrong, that's also what self-governance is about. But throwing up one's hands is not an option.

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Monday, October 28, 2013

No One's Going To Give Them The Business About It.

In preschool the process of making art is the process of doing science, which is to say we do it every day not so the children will have something cute to show mom and dad, but purely for the exploration and experimentation. In fact, most of what we send home with the kids isn't at all cute, but rather something that is tattered and torn, unevenly covered in shades of preschool gray. A good percentage of it winds up going directly into the recycling bin after we take a moment to reflect on where we've arrived, before setting out on our next journey.

People sometimes think making art this way is about making a mess. This is a misperception. I take no special pride in sending children home with paint in their hair, but I do want everyone to know that that's okay; that if part of the process, your process, involves getting paint in your hair, no one's going to give you the business about it, which is why I need the parents aligned in this.

The other day, I was a little surprised when Callie said, "My mom told me not to get messy today, but I got paint on my coat anyway." She didn't seem to be particularly upset, smiling as she held up her blackened coat for my inspection. I said, "Really? Your mom told you not to get messy?" She nodded earnestly. "Do you have to go somewhere after school?" No, she answered, but there was a twinkle there that gave me the idea she was putting me on. When her mom arrived to refute the claim, "I did not say that!" Callie gave us both a smile to let us know she'd enjoyed pulling our legs.

While Callie was feigning a mess-aversion by proxy, some children are, for a variety of reasons, including constitutionally, actually anti-mess. I'm not driven to get those kids messy, but rather to support them in their own process, which often is to observe, to stand just outside the spatter zone, remarking on what they see happening. There are always other things going on at school they could be doing, so when they stop to watch, that's often when I chose to role model my own artistic process, narrating as I go.

This was the case last week when we'd set up styrofoam meat trays of Halloween colored paints, butcher paper, and rubber mallets. The basic idea was to dip your mallet in paint, then pound away. I knew this was going to be a particularly messy project, not just for the art maker, but for anyone in the vicinity. The first children on the scene, apparently, could see this as well, so they hung back, curious, but not ready to take the plunge, so I grabbed a mallet, dipped it deeply into the yellow paint and brought it down with a stroke that would make John Henry proud. 

"Hey!" kids shouted, "You got paint on me!"

"Sorry," but that broke the ice for the first wave of painters, while others took another step back.

While the early adopters had their first furious go, I hung out with the observers, first showing them my paint-spattered jacket, echoing Callie, "My mom told me not to get messy today, but I got paint on my coat anyway." Then I shrugged, "That's okay, I can just wash it off later." I often demonstrate the technique of wiping my messy hands on my pants, encouraging similar behavior in the kids. "That's what pants are for," I'll say, which more often than not prompts kids to wipe their hands on my pants. I made sure to point out that there was a bucket of water and a towel nearby and that some of the kids were going inside to wash their hands in the sink. I just wanted to make sure they understood their options, that their bases are covered should they, after all, decide to take a mallet into their hands.

I then announced that I was going to make a mallet painting without getting messy, which I did by gently applying dollops of paint to a piece of paper, then covering it with a second piece of paper before pounding away. When I peeled the two pieces of paper apart to reveal not one, but two identical paintings, several of the observers stepped up to take their place, eager to try this process. They wound up messy, of course, but equipped with a plan for mitigating it, none of them seemed to mind.

A couple still declined, moving on to other things. Maybe next time, maybe never, because it's up to them, even when it comes to making a mess. And that's okay; it's their process and if not getting paint their hair is part of it, no one's going to give them the business about it.

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Friday, October 25, 2013

"It's About Playing Dinosaurs!"

Four of the oldest boys in our 3-5's class were playing together with the outdoor dinosaurs. Although three have been coming to school together for three years now, they've stilled struggled with their friendships at the beginning of the year: nothing unusual, but they've had to put a lot of effort into figuring out how they're going to play together. For the most part, they've done well in groups of two, but those third and fourth guys have often felt left out. I want to play with them, but they don't want to play with me. 

There have been a number of adult supported conversations in which we practice telling others what we want, listening to one another's answers, and talking about our feelings. That's the most important part, of course, talking about our emotions. It's quite powerful to share how we feel: it sparks compassion and empathy from both sides, and the boys have seen the truth of it this past month or so. Of course, they've had just as many conflicts as any other group of 4-year-old boys, but they've been short lived, and begin to end the moment one of them remembers to say, for instance, "That made me feel sad." As a teacher, I feel quite gratified, even honored, to be witness to this. 

Lately, they've seemed to hit their stride when it comes to large group play.

For the past week or so, it's taken the form of playing dinosaurs. The boys for whom it's important have staked "until further notice" claims on their favorites, and there remain plenty of other outdoor dinos for the guys who don't care, a system of agreements hammered out over the past few weeks, organically devised amongst themselves for reducing pressure, at least, on that particular conflict point. It's the latest iteration of our "let's play a story" invitation, with these boys shaping their dinosaur story together as they move from place to place around the outdoor classroom, stopping for chapters here and there, swimming together, hunting, or generally rampaging the way dinosaurs do. 

None of these guys are interested in being "bad guys." They're all about being "good guys" in their stories, so instead of vying, they been tending to form a team. When they're on a roll like they've been lately, it's easy to answer, "I'm sorry" when the other guy says, "Hey!" There's a kind of magic in how they've been playing together, one in which they even, amazingly, tend to not take offense when one calls another out for breaking the rules. That's right, they actually kind of listen to one another, which, having spent over half a century studying people, I've found to be a truly rare thing when people get together.

Yesterday, after a wallow in a puddle, they marched off with their dinosaurs along the ridge behind the laurels. One of them said, pushing forward, "Me first!"

Without a beat, a friend replied, "It's not about being first. It's about playing dinosaurs." Another echoed from the middle of the pack, "It's about playing dinosaurs!" Then they each repeated it, boldly, men on a mission, "It's about playing dinosaurs!" as they marched off into the laurels, not worrying themselves with being first.

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