Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Always Bending Toward Justice


The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. ~MLK

When I was born in 1962, interracial marriage, abortion, and same sex marriage were all illegal in large parts of the United States. In 1967, the Supreme Court held in Loving v. Virginia that laws forbidding marriage between people of different racial backgrounds were unconstitutional. In 1973 the Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal across the country and now, with Independence Day approaching, we are celebrating Obergefell v. Hodges, the decision that made marriage equality the law of the land.

The court's decision last week felt to me both like a foregone conclusion as well as a miracle. Even ten years ago, the idea that same sex couples might legally marry was a scoff-worthy concept. Some of us thought that maybe we could get to civil unions or another contractual arrangements that would provide the legal protections and benefits of marriage, but the idea of marriage was one that lived in the realm of impossibility. 

I've been told by my elders that both Loving and Roe felt the same, impossibilities suddenly, almost magically, becoming real. I imagine people felt that way in 1920 when the 19th Amendment passed giving women the right to vote. I don't mean to in any way minimize the hard work and individual sacrifice that went in to making these social changes happen, but in a very real sense, these are victories of democratic self-governance.

Bloomberg Business has recently updated its collection of charts (I would embed them, but I don't know how) entitled "This is How Fast America Changes It's Mind." I came across these many months ago and bookmarked them so that I could revisit them in the aftermath of Obergefell, or whatever event eventually signaled the beginning of marriage equality. Just imagine, it was only in 2004 that Massachusetts courts ruled that their same sex marriage ban was unconstitutional. Honestly, at the time, even as a supporter of gay rights, I was certain that opponents would find some way to get around that court ruling, but that decision turned out to be the trigger, even though it was a long four years before Connecticut finally joined them. Then a year later it was Vermont and Iowa, then New Hampshire in 2010, then New York in 2011, then Washington and Maine in 2012. The floodgates had been opened. In 2013, eight more states joined them, then 19 more in 2014. With Florida legalizing same sex marriage earlier this year, there were 36 states already on board and the Supreme Court decision was, frankly, a foregone conclusion even as many of us waited on pins and needles for the announcement.

It's a familiar pattern, one that most major social change seems to follow in America. For centuries it's unthinkable, then some event gets us all thinking and talking until a tipping point is reached, and then we the people make it happen. Even if Obergefell had been decided otherwise, last week was still a foregone conclusion given that expanding majorities of us, and particularly among younger generations, wanted this to happen.

In Leo Tolstoy's great novel War and Peace, the Russian general Kutusov demonstrates a deep understanding of this concept of historical inevitability. As Napoleon's army advances, he embraces a strategy of retreat, choosing to fight only when absolutely necessary: that is, only when the soldiers, of their own accord engage in battle. His army retreats in this way until the French walk into Moscow. He alone knows that his army has already fatally wounded the French army, the trigger, in a seemingly minor battle and that the pendulum, as pendulums must, was poised to return and the Russians then, more or less, simple followed the French forces as they return to France. Tolstoy's idea is that "leaders" have little to do with history and that it is inevitably the people, the troops in this case, who decide when and where great things will happen, and the role of leaders such as himself is to serve simply as a cog in the machine of history.

I see this phenomenon very clearly in the major social changes that have taken place and continue to take place in America, and indeed, around the world. I remember the utter shock I felt when the Berlin Wall came down after a lifetime of Cold War fear mongering, yet a part of me always knew it was coming. South African apartheid was a fact of life until, in a flash, it wasn't. Again, I don't want to discount the struggle, but in historic terms, these changes were like one day to the next. There are leaders, of course, and heroes, often of the reluctant variety, but at best they serve as cogs in our inevitable democratic moral arc of justice.

This is why it is so important to me that the children I teach learn to think critically, to think for themselves, to question authority, and to, perhaps most importantly, speak their minds. As long as we have this, we're going to be okay.

This is how democracy works, indeed, this is how human beings in all societies work. The people always lead. We may retreat and retreat and retreat, we may lose and lose and lose, but it is a foregone conclusion that we will ultimately win because we the people always bend toward justice.

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Monday, June 29, 2015

They've Created It For Themselves

We don't have a water spigot near our playground garden, so we've semi-permanently installed a garden hose that we use to fill a pair of 5 gallon buckets that we use for watering the plants. The idea is to fill smaller watering can from the buckets. I call it "garden water," a term a repeat whenever I'm in the area, by way of emphasizing my intent for the whole set up. I talk about how the plants need water, along with sun, soil and time, to grow. I role model watering the plants: all the adults do. Most of the kids take our cues and make sure to splash water on most of the beds most of the days.

Across the playground and up the hill, we have a cast iron water pump set in the sandpit. This is the place officially designated for water play, where children can fill and pour and splash and flow to their hearts' content. We say to the kids, especially the ones who tend to be particular about getting wet or dirty, "If you play near the pump, you'll probably get wet."

Yet every day, at least one two-year-old, and often several, methodically use their watering cans to empty our 5 gallon garden buckets anywhere but on the plants, often just dumping it onto the ground beside the buckets. I say to those kids, "Hey, if you want to play with water, you can go over to the pump. This water is for the garden."

Older kids generally take me up on my suggestion, but the younger kids usually look across the way to where I'm pointing, then return to methodically emptying those 5 gallon buckets onto the ground, or, when they get tired of that, into any other empty container they find to fill -- a wagon, the inside of a tire, another watering can -- but rarely the garden.

One day, I tried to manipulate things by moving all the "empty" things away from the garden in the belief that they would then, in their search for something to fill, have no choice but to water the plants. Within minutes several of them had removed their boots and were filling them with water before then emptying their boots onto the ground beside where the plants grow. Another time, I tried pre-filling all the empty containers in the area with water in the same mistaken belief. Instead, they spent their time putting fistfuls of wood chips into the containers until they overflowed onto the ground beside where the plants grow.

Maybe the big kids are too rowdy up by the pump or their water play too sophisticated or it's too crowded or whatever, but I've finally come to understand what the younger children are telling me; that they need their own water play area in this particular spot with these particular materials. Indeed, they've created it for themselves, collectively. 

I'll keep attempting to engineer things toward my own ends, and the garden is hardly dying from neglect, so it's not of great importance, but it's become one of those things with which I feel an urge to keep on tinkering.

One of the ways the older kids play with water is to create dams or holes or canals in the lower level of the sandpit. They then fill our large muck bucket with water and dump it down the hill, running alongside the water flow, making a study of how their theories hold up to the real world. I guess that's kind of what I'm doing over by the garden except with two-year-olds instead of water.

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Friday, June 26, 2015

Pastor Gay's Men

It surprises me in a way that I've written so much over the years about the homeless population, and in particular the "street homeless" population, that comes into contact with our school. Seattle has a particularly large number of people in this situation, but it's a subject for every urban preschool.

Many of these men, and they're mostly men, appear to suffer from some sort of mental illness, often exacerbated by alcohol mostly, but probably other drugs. Because of this, I'm wary of the guys who I've not seen before, although I'm familiar with the regulars who come to visit the Fremont Baptist Church's Pastor Gay. They come for prayers, advice, work, money, and food. She takes care of them to the best of her ability. She calls them "my men."

Years ago, in our former location up on Phinney Ridge a man slipped into our school as we sang our closing circle songs and stole several purses. We became more security conscious after that, and our best security measure is a commitment to being friendly and solicitous to all strangers, asking how we can help them, asking friendly questions. We're a cooperative and there are a lot of us around, that's our greatest strength, so there are plenty of adults available to greet newcomers. When I invite people to visit the school -- my parents, prospective new families, teachers paying us a visit -- I warn them to expect us to be overly solicitous when they cross our threshold.

This attitude of safety through friendliness has greatly informed how I interact with Pastor Gay's men. It started because I made eye contact wanting them to know they had been seen, saying "Hi" and asking how I can help them. It started as a security measure, but over time it has changed who I am with these guys and through that it's changed who they are to me.

Pastor Gay's men are the types of people away from whom I'd habitually averted my eyes when I came across them on the street, but now I know many of them by name. We exchange pleasantries. Sometimes I listen to their stories or thoughts or ideas. Sometimes I even share some of mine. There are some who have crawled so far inside their protective shells that it doesn't seem possible to break through, but I find they acknowledge me in their own way. Willie, a man who I believe is alone on the street and severely autistic, won't lift his head as he passes me, but I hear him muttering, "That's the school teacher. That's the school teacher," over and over as he passes me.

It seems to me that Pastor Gay's men are on their best behavior when they come to visit her. And that makes sense: they're coming to a church to ask for help of some kind. I've come across some of them in other places, drunk or in the midst of some sort of episode, and their wild eyes tell me they don't recognize me out of context. Pastor Gay has a rule that they aren't allowed to panhandle from preschool families and it's a rare occurrence, but one of them once solicited me as I waited for my bus. When I spoke to him by name he locked eyes with me for a moment. His expression went from blank to recognition. He took my money, but then apologized the next time we crossed paths at the school.

Sometimes I talk to Pastor Gay about her men. They aren't all mentally ill and they aren't all addicts, but they all live very hard lives. There was a time when I would see apparently healthy men begging for coins and begrudge them. I would think they should pull themselves together, get jobs, learn to take care of themselves, but that doesn't cross my mind any more. These aren't lazy people: indeed living on the street must be one of the most difficult, grinding, humiliating jobs there is. No sane person would choose to live this way. They live this way because this is apparently the best we can do for them and they for themselves.

We've had gorgeous weather in here in Seattle for the past month or so. A couple days ago, I found myself in the Ballard neighborhood with the rest of the afternoon to kill so I decided to walk home, a trek that took me along the Lake Washington Ship Canal, a feat of industry and vision, completed some 80 years ago, connecting the fresh water lakes with the salt water Puget Sound. The Fremont Cut defines the southwestern edge of our school's neighborhood of Fremont, which is connected to the Queen Anne side by our blue and orange bridge with a neon Rapunzel forever yearning in her tower.

As I arrived in Fremont, walking in the shade of the tall trees that grow from the greenway that separates the paved Burke-Gliman Trail from the water, the canal sparkling between the trunks, I noticed one of Pastor Gay's men curled into a fetal position on the grass. Not right out in the open, but tucked way where the grass grows taller, partially hidden from view. The phrase "out of sight, out of mind" came to me. I slowed down to look at him, leaving the paved trail to get closer. He's a tormented soul even under the best of circumstances, but today, lying here in his bed of leaves, by the water, on this most benign of days, he looked peaceful.

There's another informal trail right there along the trees, separated from the paved trail, worn there by the passage of human feet, and I started walking it. From here, you can see down to the water's edge. There are no walls or fences to prevent people from falling into the canal, one of the reasons I'm always so nervous when we bring the kids down there. And as one might expect, every few yards my trail branched downward toward the water. From here I could see other men sleeping, curled into themselves, their life's possessions heaped up around them: backpacks and plastic bags stuffed to the breaking point. Some of them had even rolled out their sleeping bags, but it was warm enough that they slept atop them. A few tents were pitched.

I spotted other groups of men gathered socially, talking, complaining, laughing, tossing pebbles in the water. There were a few women mixed in, tough and leathery like the men. If it's hard to live on the street as a man, just imagine how hard it is for a woman with all the extra pain and humiliation they must endure. But this moment, this moment in the sun by the water, out of the sight of the rest of us, was a good one, maybe as good as it gets.

I understand that there are challenges of public drunkenness and hygiene, and I've no doubt that there are people in Fremont scheming to move these men along, but today, for these golden moments they were being left alone, to simply loll in the sun. Sadly, there are those who are scheming to take this away from them too.

The children and I periodically talk about Pastor Gay's men. When you live in an American city, you live with these men whether you like it or not. I don't need to educate the kids, honestly, because their parents have already been forced into those conversations. What we tend to talk about are solutions. I don't steer them there: it's where they go on their own. The children always say we should give them money, give them food, and give them homes.

And I agree. In the meantime I'm proud of the work being done by Pastor Gay and the small part we get to play in it.

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Living In Cooperative Societies

Yesterday, one boy started banging on the "thunder drum" with a longish stick. He was soon joined by a younger boy who picked as his drum stick a short pieces of tree bark. Like a dinner bell, the banging drew other children who took up their own utensils of varying lengths, some even brandishing the blank end of stick ponies. 

I was watching the game up close because, after all, these were young children swinging sticks in a tight formation. The noise was loud while the children were silent, focused on their target. Hands and even heads got close to the action, and there were close calls. The youngest children, the two-year-olds, appeared for the most part to be oblivious; a couple of them flinched protectively when a stick came close to their hands, but it was the older children who were keeping this game safe, taking responsibility not just for themselves, but for the younger children as well.

As play-based educators, we start from the premise that children, even very young children, are fully formed human beings with all the rights that that implies, and education is, in part, the process of coming to assume the responsibilities of being a citizen and person, a lifelong endeavor. 

Among the most evolutionarily necessary of these responsibilities is to care for one's own well-being, followed closely by caring for the well-being of others just as the older cared for the younger in our thunder drum game. The species does not survive otherwise. The popular thinking is that looking out for oneself comes naturally because it is based in self-centeredness, but that caring for others, altruism, must be learned. Scientists, however, are finding that this is not the case. Altruistic behavior, the core of the philosophical assertion that "man is essentially good," selflessness, appears to be at least as natural as selfishness.

A couple weeks ago, I posted on this topic, including a video of German scientists demonstrating this point. A few days ago, the New York Times published a piece linking to another vein of research:

Children as young as age 3 will intervene on behalf of a victim, reacting as if victimized themselves, scientists have found.

The researchers found that this sense of justice, of responsibility for others, was something that emerges in humans rather than something that is learned or taught. Said one of the researchers:

"The take-home message is that pre-school children are sensitive to harm to others and given a choice would rather restore things to help the victim than punish the perpetrator . . . Rather than punish young children for wrong-doings, children might better understand harm done to the victim and restoration as a solution."

This is, of course, is what we do at Woodland Park, and what play-based practitioners everywhere have done forever. It's nice to see that science is finally catching up with what we've known all along. 

And it's not just humans who are naturally prone to developing a sense of fairness and justice. Biologists have learned, for instance, that crows do, and dogs and monkeys do as well. In fact, scientists are coming to understand that this is a key aspect of all animals who live in cooperative societies.

That's what we do at Woodland Park: practice living in a cooperative society. It's what a play-based education is all about.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Freedom To Search For Answers

There are no teachable moments.

But there is a hole in the sandpit rowboat, something to notice, to stick a finger in, then two fingers. There is a hole to drop a pebble through, then when it subsequently bounces off my toe, I can bend down and look up through the hole from the bottom. I can drop other things into the hole, like wood chips, leaves, and a fistful of sand, all of which fall through to the ground like the pebble did.

There are no teachable moments, but there is this boat and I am standing outside of it. Teacher Tom is sitting inside of it and I can try to get into it too. It's not a simple thing since the side of the boat is as high as my waist and I'm trying to do it without releasing my grip on the thing I assembled down at the workbench. I can throw my leg over and dangle it down, reaching, stretching because the bottom of the boat is beneath the level of the sand outside and I'm going to have to drag my leg across the metal.

There are no teachable moments, but I have this feeling along the inside of my thigh to investigate, bending down to look at the part of my body that scraped over the edge of the boat where there was a hole. There's nothing to see, but I can still feel it. I stamp my feet on the bottom of the boat a couple times, then remember that I'm inside the boat with Teacher Tom and smile at him, a genuine, courteous greeting, unlike those phony "Good mornings" that adults try to teach us to say.

There are no teachable moments, but there is this boat and I'm standing inside of it. I got in. I'm going to get out and there it is again, the lifting of the leg, this time higher than before, not releasing my grip on the thing I made, pulling myself back into the sand, first on my knees, then back up on my feet.

There are no teachable moments, but I can smile at Teacher Tom again, Goodbye, before noticing a bigger boy in a high place doing impressive things. I can watch him up there doing his big boy stuff, making his big boy noises, taking his big boy risks. I can stand here and study and aspire. I will try to get up there for the next several days, my feet, time and again, slipping from beneath me, causing me to fall on my belly. Some day I'll get up there too.

There are no teachable moments, only learn-able ones, and they are all that, because I have questions and the freedom to search for answers.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Surface Upon Which To Reflect

"Teacher Tom," pointing, "She tried to put sand on my brother's back." 

One of the things that makes our summer program different than the regular school year is that the children don't all know one another, so there's a lot of "she" and "he" that "that kid over there." Another thing that makes it different is that many of the kids have had other teachers, other schools, with other philosophies or un-philosophies on how to deal with conflict. My first thought was that this was tattling, a sign that a child comes from a place where the grown-ups solve problems for children.

I answered like a blank slate, "You told me that."

He answered, "I did," then paused as if waiting for me to say something else. When I just stood nodding, he said, "I told her to stop, but she didn't."

I looked from him to the girl he was complaining about. She was busy digging in the sand, but also listening to us. I said, "She's not putting sand on your brother now. Now she's digging sand. She stopped."

"She didn't stop, Teacher Tom, so we walked away."

"Then she stopped."

"Then she stopped."

"You wanted her to stop putting sand on your brother. You told her to stop and she didn't, so you both walked away."


"You taught your little brother what to do if someone is putting sand on him."

"I did."

"That's what I would have done." I then asked the girl, who was still listening, "Is that what happened?" and she answered, "Yes, they didn't like sand on them."

"And you stopped putting sand on them."

"Yes. They didn't like it."

I said, "That's what I would have done."

This wasn't the first rodeo for either of these kids, as made clear by their words and attitudes. They've had good teachers. This five and four year old have solved their own problems before. This wasn't tattling. They were just using me like a mirror, a surface upon which to reflect.

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Monday, June 22, 2015

Just Be Sad

This video has been around for awhile, and I shared it the first time it made its viral rounds, but it's so good that I decided to re-share it when it recently came back around to me. It's both funny and profound (and only slightly vulgar).

I own a smart phone, of course, but I agree with Louis C.K. In fact, much of what he says can apply to all screen-based technology and social networking:

I think these things are toxic, especially for kids . . . They don't look at people when they talk to them and they don't build empathy. You know, kids are mean, and it's because they're trying it out. They look at a kid and they go, "You're fat," and then they see the kid's face scrunch up and they go, "Oh, that doesn't feel good to make a person do that." But they got to start with doing the mean thing. But when they write, "You're fat," then they just go, "Mmm, that was fun. I like that."

This is what we see all day in preschool, children being "mean," not on purpose, but because they have to try it out, they have to see for themselves the impact of their words and actions. This is probably the single most important reason for children to go to school: to test out their words and actions on a variety of the other human beings, to carry out this vital field research. When we bring screens into the classroom, or worse, when we replace school with screens as happens with online schools, I fear we risk creating a generation of sociopaths, kids who not only don't understand how their words and actions impact others, but actually take pleasure from the power of hurting them. Face-to-face interactions are the building blocks of empathy.

You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That's what the phones are taking away: the ability to just sit there. That's being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty -- forever empty. That knowledge that it's all for nothing and that you're alone . . . And sometimes when things clear away, you're not watching anything, you're in your car, and you start going, "Oh no, here it comes. I'm alone." It starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad . . . That's why we text and drive . . . People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don't want to be alone for a second . . . they don't want to be alone for a second because it's so hard.

People get mad at me, some really mad, when I suggest that it isn't a good idea to deal with an irritable child with a screen. They want it to be okay to placate or sooth or numb their kid with TV or an iPad or a smart phone, because they can't stand the crying or the fussing or the whining. Life can be tremendously sad. It can also be frustrating, enraging, frightening, and lonely. Our children need to learn to deal with this and the only way that can happen is through practice, through actually feeling those feelings from beginning to end, to learn to process them. When we shove a screen in front of them, we rob them of that full experience, we rob them of the opportunity to learn to cope, to philosophize, to feel the power of coming out on the other side. We take from them the experience of what it is to truly feel.

Just be sad. Just let the sadness . . . stand in the way of it, and let it hit you like a truck . . . And I let it come, and I just started to feel, "Oh my God," and I pulled over and I just cried like a bitch. I cried so much. And it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic. You're lucky to live sad moments . . . And then I had happy feelings, because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness . . . The thing is, because we don't want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone . . . You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kind of satisfied with your product, and then you die.

This is not new wisdom Louis C.K. is sharing. In fact, this is the wisdom of the ages, the thing that all humans must learn. This is the wisdom that makes us human, that connects us all. We must all learn to have our feelings and to live our lives without medicating or over-eating or numbing ourselves with screens. We have to be able to stand in the way of it, and let it hit us like a truck. Maybe that's why we keep giving our phones to our fussy kids, because we can't stand the idea of them being hit by that truck, just like we can't stand the idea of them scraping that knee or being singed by that fire or getting rejected by a friend: it hurts like hell. But that's the only way to release the antibodies.

It's wisdom that is as old as humanity.

Let your feelings flourish and get on with your life of doing. ~Lao Tzu (the Tao)

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Messing With People

You've gotta mess with people. ~Utah Phillips

When our new puppy plays with other dogs, after the initial sniffing ceremony, she proceeds to engage in behavior that, were she a human, would be called "messing" with them. She tries to jump on their heads, to bite their asses, to nip at their heels. She bumps them. She runs at them. She sometimes even barks and growls. Some dogs, usually older ones, rebuff her by turning their backs, ignoring her. More timid dogs might attempt to hide. Prickly dogs might react with fangs and snarls. But most take up the challenge and mess with her right back.

Of course, we recognize this as playing, but it usually at least starts off with this sort of probative messing with one another and even after they've settled into a mutually satisfying game, it isn't always pretty.

This is how it often looks when young children attempt to enter into play with one another as well, at least when left to their own devices, without adults urging the usual niceties and rules.

Sometimes it starts when one two-year-old messes with another by knocking down her block tower. Sometimes the builder objects and that's when I say something like, "She's crying because you knocked over her tower." But sometimes she laughs and wants to do it again. Sometimes these very young kids mess with each other by snatching things or knocking things on the floor or moving right up into someone else's face and smiling like a horror movie clown: just messing with people to see what will happen. 

Not long ago, I watched a boy systematically go around our block area, smiling and smacking kids on the top of the head, each one recoiling or even crying. Adults were futilely attempting to persuade him to stop, until he came to one boy who smiled, stood up, and smacked him right back. They then wordlessly exchanged head smacks until they were both laughing uncontrollably. You never know what's going to happen when you mess with people.

As they get older, most of them have figured out to leave the other people's block towers alone, but that doesn't mean they're done messing with people. For the most part that's what spontaneous classroom wrestling is all about, or the silly name calling, or intense dramatic play. There are always a few four and five year olds in our class who more or less greet one another with a body slam or even a hit. Last year, one boy went through a phase during which he snuck up behind both peers and adults alike and swatted them on the rump. One of the most popular games in that class was called "sneak attack" and involved tagging someone, shouting "Sneak attack!" and running away. Heck, a big part of the gun play we see around our school is really just an attempt to mess with people. This week, a group of boys and girls experimented with pouring water onto the heads and backs of unsuspecting people, including me.

While older boys are more likely to continue to mess with each other physically, older girls keep messing with people as well. They're just more likely to turn toward messing with people socially or emotionally, playing games of rank or inclusion and exclusion.

This is a core part of the play instinct, I think, and it's an aspect that confuses adults perhaps more than anything else. We jump in with admonishments and corrections, telling children what not to do, and, frankly, robbing them of the opportunity to learn from the natural consequences of their behavior. Of course, if a child is really being physically injured (or the likelihood is high), or if the social-emotional stuff tips toward bullying, we step in, but most of this messing with one another is of the run-of-the-mill experimental variety and if kids are going to get the full benefit of it, we need to take a couple steps back.

More powerful and effective than telling children what not to do, is when children are provided the opportunity to learn what they can do. They can say, "No!" or "Stop!" They can say, "I don't like that!" I role modeled that behavior several times last week when children poured water on my back, standing up and firmly saying, "No! I don't like when you pour water on me!" More powerful and effective than telling children what not to do, is to narrate (or as Magda Gerber called it "sportscast") the consequences of their messing with the other people, like when I say, "She's crying because you knocked over her tower," supporting young children in making the connection between their behavior and the behavior of others.

As important adults in children's lives, we too often create worlds too strictly controlled by black and white rules -- no hitting, no taking things, no excluding -- then proceed to enforce them assertively and uniformly, and in the process we too often gut much of the essential educational value of free play with the other people.

We'll get it wrong sometimes, of course, but developing the ability to recognize when it's just kids messing with people and letting it play itself out is vital if our children are going to grow into emotionally and socially healthy adults. It's through this instinct to mess with people that we learn to connect with one another, which is the reason we're here.

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Teacher Tom's Bandwagon

The way we run our summer program is like a camp in that every two weeks is a new session, which means that, from the kids' perspective at least, every second Monday is the first day of school.

Yes, about a third to a half of each session is comprised of children who attend Woodland Park during the regular school year, and there are always a few kids who have been in the summer program before, but there is always a significant cross section for whom this is a whole new experience. And even for the kids with lots of experience with me and the school, they typically only know, at most, a handful of the other kids in their session. Not only that, but we spend our whole day outdoors and the schedule is therefore different from that with which they are accustomed, all of which takes some adjustment.

For the most part we have a grand time during the summer, don't get me wrong, but it's not always fun and games. This Monday, I spent a good part of the morning, attempting to help one of the just barely two-year-olds, a boy I'd only met a few minutes before, get through his anguish at missing his mommy who really needed to be elsewhere for a couple hours. I've written about this before, how I sit with these kids as they feel their strong emotions, but it's always much more challenging on the "first day of school," of which we have plenty during the summer.

For one thing, many of these kids have no idea who I am, having only just met me, so I can't count on our history together, on all those deposits we've made into the good-time bank, so I can't really blame them for not fully trusting me. It takes at least a few days of playing together, of singing together, of reading stories together, of goofing off together, before most kids can take any particular comfort from my presence, what I often think of as getting on Teacher Tom's "bandwagon." 

The second challenge is that these kids, especially the youngest ones, have no idea what we're doing, so we can't count on the comfort that can come from familiarity and predictability. One of the most important tools I normally have in by belt during the regular school year is simply reminding upset children of the schedule: "First we play, then we clean up, then we eat snack, then we go outside, then we sing songs, then we read a story, then Mommy comes back." For many children, knowing what's next is a great and empowering thing, giving them back some of the sense of control they feel they lose when mommy leaves.

Monday was a tough day for this young guy. I strive not to use the tricks of distraction, genuinely wanting to allow the time and space for children to fully feel their emotions, but that doesn't mean that everyone approaches these things the way I do. As we sat together, a half dozen different kids approached us with toys or ideas that they thought might help this boy with whom they were attempting to empathize. One group of four older boys, after being informed by me that he was "missing his mommy," one-by-one assured him that "mommies always come back." It was as heartwarmingly sweet as it was ineffective.

I don't want any child to have a traumatic experience, especially on their first day of school, so after about half an hour, we managed to get in touch with his mom and she returned for the rest of the day. When she walked through the gate, I was sitting on the ground with her boy. I was able to assure him in that moment, "Mommy came back. Mommy always comes back."

On Tuesday, mom didn't leave him, but yesterday, Wednesday she attempted it again. Again he cried. He refused the assistance of several adults until I came on the scene. He hugged me, which he had strictly forbidden on Monday. He took my hand. He was on my bandwagon, now able to trust me after only two days of playing together. He wanted to sing a couple of the songs we'd learned together. We went together to check out the art table. We read a book in a circle with a half dozen other kids. Then . . . Well I lost track of his specific movements as he set out on his own, no longer needing me at his side.

I checked in with him visually several times. He seemed solid, engaged, moving as those young two-year-olds do, from curiosity to curiosity. At one point he fell and it startled him. He cried, he called out for mommy. I said, "You want your mommy."

He answered, "Yes. Mommy comes back."

I said, "That's right, Mommy comes back when we sing the boom-boom song."

With that, fortified by his new faith in me, his new faith in our school, and his abiding faith in Mommy, he got back to the business of playing.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Playing With Plato

"I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing." ~Plato

The older I get, the more I find that I don't know. I expect that by the time I die, I will have finally realized I know nothing at all. At least I hope that's the case, because it means I've spent my life with an open mind, learning right up to the very end. I didn't learn that from Plato. It came to me via my own experiences.

"We do not learn; and what we call learning is only a process of recollection." ~Plato

I've vainly tried to have original thoughts, but the more I study, the farther back I go into the history of thought, the more I find that my "great discoveries" have been discovered before me, frequently and by a wide variety of humans, and all I'm doing is turning over soil that's been turned over again and again by other human's searching for truth. If we could only find a way to not forget these great truths: it seems like it's not enough to write them down if only because none of us have the time to read it all, and even if we did, we would likely not learn it until we have an experience that allows us to understand it.

"The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things." ~Plato

It took me a lot of years to figure out what kind of teacher I was going to be. Each year, each month, each week, and sometimes even each day, I learn something new that teaches me that it's an ongoing, lifelong process. It was such a revelation to me when I came to the new understanding that play is simply the manifestation of the human animal's instinct to learn, and it is knowledge that is as old as mankind.

"Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind. Therefore do not use compulsion, but let early education be a sort of amusement; you will then be better able to discover the child's natural bent." ~Plato

No one can tell anyone what to learn or when to learn it, it is only through our own questions that we find answers with meaning.

"The noblest of all studies is the study of what man is and of what life he should live." ~Plato

The more I play with children, the closer I feel I'm coming to understand not just how to teach, but how to live. 

"Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes." ~Plato

Everything worth knowing is already known. It resides in books, in stories, in songs, in art, in minds, and in souls. The only way to learn it for yourself, however, is to play, each day amongst lovely things.

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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