Monday, January 16, 2017

Maybe, Just Maybe

(I've posted a version of this post for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for the past several years. I believe that I identify so strongly with this holiday, with this man, because most of his story, and by that I mean the dream of which we've all been a part these past five decades, is the story of my life. In preparing the post for this morning, I wondered if I could post it again in light of our recent Presidential election campaign, but I think it remains fundamentally true, even if it seems that the pendulum has recently swung in the wrong direction. Of course there are still racists, but when I look back over where we've been and where we are going, I can see that the long arc of moral history is still bending toward justice, just as MLK dreamed it would.)

Nonviolence is absolute commitment to the way of love. Love is not emotional bash; it is not empty sentimentalism. It is the active outpouring of one’s whole being into the being of another.” –MLK
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." –MLK

When I was in 2nd grade at the Meadowfield Elementary School in Columbia, SC, there was one black boy in my class. He and I called one another “best friends”. We played together at recess. We were the two fastest runners in our grade. He never saw my house and I never saw his. That was 1968, the year Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Two years later the courts ordered Columbia to desegregate its public schools. Most of our neighbors chose to send their kids to private schools, but my parents put me on the bus to Atlas Road Elementary, a run-down facility in the heart of a poor, black neighborhood. One of my friends’ moms prepared me for my first day by telling me that she’d seen people “defecating in the roadside ditches” along Atlas Road. My parents, however, had taught me that we were all the same inside and I was thankfully young enough that I took them at their word.

I’m pretty sure my “three R’s” education was sub-par that year: to this day South Carolina’s public education system ranks near the bottom. But that wasn’t the point of desegregation. The point was to have black and white kids grow up together so that they could learn through experience what my parents had taught me: we’re all the same.

In fact it was economics more than race that marked the year for me. I was disappointed almost to tears when we exchanged Christmas gifts (each child brought one gift to be randomly distributed) and I wound up with a pair of socks that appeared used. And race certainly didn’t stop Shirley Jeffcoat from having a very embarrassing public crush on me. We were just kids together. We were all the same, except some of us were a lot poorer than others.

When I spoke to the kids at Woodland Park about Martin Luther King, I told them about segregated restaurants, schools, and water fountains and they agreed it was unfair. Owen, in particular nodded along with me, saying angrily, "That makes me so mad!" When I said, “Today we try to be fair to everyone,” he looked relieved. When I said, “It's still our job to help make Martin Luther's dream come true,” he blurted out, “Yeah!”

I believe that we have solid evidence that his dream is coming true. Of course, racism has not been eradicated in our country. Indeed, it has shown it's ugly face of late, but the kind of overt, day-to-day racism that confronted those kids with whom I went to school at Atlas Road Elementary has been in retreat my whole life. Racists are decisively in the minority and polls indicate that it’s an ever-shrinking one, even as we still have a lot of work to do on the kinds of institutional racism that continues to make life unfair for our black sisters and brothers. And it might not feel like it on this Martin Luther King Day, but it’s only going to get better because our children are growing up in this world we’ve created, not the one in which we grew up. Remember, as the great man said, "The arc of the moral universe is long."

The experiment of desegregation and civil rights worked and I’m proud that my parents had the courage to make me a part of it. It’s no accident that just as the “desegregation generation” came of age, we elected our first black president. I am aware of no other nation in the history of the world that has elected a member of a racial minority as its supreme leader.

This was a major battle in our ongoing Civil War: non-violence and love continue to win, because while the are of the moral universe is long, "it bends toward justice."

Love is not “emotional bash.” I’m more confident today than ever that love is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal. As MLK said, “I am convinced that love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism, but of practical realism. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, love is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love.”

As we celebrate today, we should feel good about ourselves. We are cutting off one chain of hate and evil. But racial justice is only the first part of the mission MLK set before us. The poverty I glimpsed in that 4th grade classroom is still with us, and there are still too many who think war is the solution.

Poverty and peace are next on our nation’s agenda: problems just as impossible to solve as overcoming racism in America. When the bus pulls up in front of our home, we must have the courage to put our children on it. We must fight evil with love. And we must not despair that we will not win in our lifetime, but maybe, just maybe, our children will see the promised land.

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Friday, January 13, 2017

Why We Need Freedom

A couple days ago, I illustrated a post with some photos of some skewer and berry basket play. The photos had nothing to do with the content of the post, but I'd liked the pictures and wanted readers to see them.

The foundation of what you saw had been created by an adult who had been messing around with the materials because the kids weren't. I'd been a bit disappointed, because I thought it was a cool provocation, and several children did swing by to investigate the adult-created sculptures, contributing a skewer here or there, but for the most part the kids didn't share my definition of "cool."

But I've learned over the years that it sometimes takes a few days and a few tweaks to spark their curiosity. So I've let it ride for the last few days, although I did move it all to a different table and added old-fashioned wooden clothespins, some cardboard egg flats, and a few plastic counting bears. And sure enough, over the course of the week, more and more kids engaged the materials with each passing day, finding more and more complex ways to interact with both the materials and with one another via the materials.

At first their attempts were along the lines of Monday's adult -- one child in solo play using the baskets and skewers for constructions -- but it wasn't long before they began collaborating. A couple kids, for instance, invented a kind of board game involving the bears and the egg flats, a game they called Castle Capture and involved a complex set of rules by which you could move your bears "between the mountains" in the quest to "defeat" your opponent. It played a bit like Chinese Checkers and I never once saw a castle actually captured.

Then someone discovered how the peg-style clothespins worked and found they could be used to connect the berry baskets. This innovation lead to an explosion of play at the red table as kids, usually working together and in constant conversation, began to manufacture increasingly complex structures, both physical and social, sharing engineering and dramatic play ideas with one another in a mini-frenzy of viral learning.

This, of course, is how most of humanity's greatest advancements have occurred, people coming together in the spirit of cooperation, sharing their ideas and wisdom, sparking off one another, lifting one another, supporting one another, until something new and better emerges. It's the sort of thing, however, that can really only happen when humans are free: to associate with whom they wish; to tinker for hours and days; to think their own thoughts, try their own experiments, and to collaborate without the heartless mandates of beat-or-be-beaten competition.

I tried to remain aloof from the goings on at the red table, standing fully erect, observing, not wanting to step in and accidentally step on their freedom, because, you know, we're all counting on these kids.

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Talking, Laughing, And Making Up Stories

Over the weekend we had one of our thrice yearly, all-hands-on-deck, Saturday workdays. I can count on some 20 able-bodied folks to show up at each of them because participation is a requirement of enrollment, but also, honestly, I believe that most of our families would show up even if it wasn't.

One of the things we did was pull all the furniture away from the walls and sweep up all the debris that has collected there. While doing this, one parent came across our box of plastic sea creatures and mentioned that her daughter "V," a shark fan, would be thrilled if we could play with them, especially the sharks. So I've had the sharks in the sensory table this week.

We have several model sharks, but the "center piece" of our collection are four Great Whites, larger than the others in scale, with wide open, tooth-lined mouths behind which are their deep, hollow bodies. They are the reason I often segregate the sharks from the rest of our marine animal collection: they tend to invite a kind of play that involves aggressively jabbing the damn things in other people's faces, which not everyone likes. So, on Monday I put them in the sensory table and prepared myself to coach the kids through their episodes of jabbing.

Our 3's class more or less ignored them, but the 4-5's class, in which our resident shark admirer is enrolled, mobbed the table. I'd provided more than just the sharks, including dozens of smaller fish, octopi, lobster, artificial seaweed, and our collection of polished petrified wood, recently given to us by Pastor Gay's husband Leonard, an accomplished rock hound. There was no jabbing. Instead, V and her friends stuffed those hollow sharks full of whatever they could shove down their throats, while talking and laughing and making up stories.

I am always struck by this type of play: children using surrogates like these sharks to interact with one another. In most cases, each child at the table selected one of the sea creatures to be "me."

"I'm your baby!"

"I'm going to eat you!"

"I can fly!"

"Let's pretend we're friends . . ."

No one teaches children to wield these kinds of hand-held avatars. It comes naturally, perhaps not to all kids, but a lot of them. Of course, the classic of these surrogates are dolls, but we've all seen children do it with cars or rocks or flowers or just about anything one can hold in one's hand. It's something fundamental to learning to play with other people, a way to experiment with roles, environments, and situations; to try out, for instance, what it would be like to live in water with no arms and legs, but rather a powerful tail, rows of sharp teeth, and an insatiable appetite. And through that alien avatar play, they deepen their understanding of working and living together.

By the end of Monday, the group around the sensory table was essentially down to V and a couple of her oldest friends. They spent a good 20 minutes using the hollow sharks to scoop the water from one side of the sensory table to the other, eventually leaving one side dry, all the while talking and laughing and making up stories.

They played sharks on Tuesday and yesterday as well: being "me" the shark, emptying one side of the sensory table, "making an ocean" on the other. And all the time they've been talking, weaving their story together, one that has continued in installments for three days. And at no point did our sharks feel compelled to jab themselves into the human faces of their friends, leaving us adults with nothing to do but watch.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Failures, Mistakes, And Poor Judgement

In our cooperative school, there are days, like one right after the holiday break when a bunch of kids were still out sick or traveling, when there are as many adults in the room as kids. Even on regular days our classes have adult ratios of anywhere from 1:2 to 1:5, depending on the ages of the kids. When folks who are unfamiliar with our model hear this, they typically ask some version of, "Don't the parents get in the way?" 

My standard reply is that they don't get in the way any more than the children do. Now, if the question is, "Do our parent-teachers always do everything the way I want them too?" then the answer is, of course not. Nor do the kids. Nor does anyone for that matter. But just as so much of children's learning comes through what are commonly called "failures," "mistakes," or "poor judgement," the same is true for adult learning.

We are not here to just to educate young children, but rather entire families, which is one of the great strengths of the cooperative model. We call them parent-teachers, but in reality, they are students right alongside their kids, learning through the experience of living with the other people. And I would assert that a family that develops the habit of learning together is one that will be better prepared for the social, intellectual and emotional roller coaster ahead.  

My mother once said about being a parent, "You want them to be independent, but then you're terrified when they are." It's a piece of wisdom I reflect on daily as I watch parents struggle with their end of "letting go," of learning to trust their children. It's hard to watch any child struggle through their necessary failures, mistakes and poor judgement, and especially when it's your own "baby." It's heartbreaking when their hearts are broken and mortifying when they break someone else's heart. It's terrifying when they try to climb higher or run faster or step up in front of an audience of peers to perform. 

Most of our families are with us for three years and what they mostly learn during their time with us is to step back, to loiter with intent, and when and when not to step in. But we also learn how to play with our children, how to join them where they are, how to serve not as a leader but a follower of our own children, a role that teaches us perhaps the most of all. But mostly what we learn is that our children have to experience the consequences of their failures, mistakes and poor judgement, just as we did and continue to do.

So no, all those adults don't get in the way. Indeed, they are, as much as the kids, the reason we are here.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"Hey, It's Not A Race"

"We must prepare our children for the jobs of tomorrow."

"We need to out-educate the rest of the world."

These are the kinds of statements we most frequently hear from our elected representatives when they talk about education, framing their comments always in the context of economic competition. Competition is at the heart of the corporate education reform idea, the one adopted by both Republican and Democratic administrations: pitting student against student, teacher against teacher, school against school, district against district, state against state.

I've written before about one of the reasons I believe that corporate-types and other power freaks are so gung-ho on turning our schools into education factories. It's not because they have any actual data or research to support their plans (that is all on the side of those of us who advocate for progressive education reform) but rather because the factory is simply a model they understand from their day jobs of producing widgets, most of them having never spent a day in a classroom since they themselves were students. Another bedrock of this businessman's ideology is this notion of competition: a faith that competition always leads to the best and the cheapest, and the more unbridled the competition, the better. This is also not supported by anything that has ever happened in the real world, but rather by theories that live beautifully on the pages of text books, but that when implemented in the real world always lead to the inevitable result of the rich getting richer and the ranks of the "lazy" poor expanding.

No, perhaps competition would be the best way to organize education if the goal was purely to prepare children to take their place in the economy, if we accept the idea that we are here to serve the economy rather than the other way around. But I even doubt that. The most successful companies rely at least as much on teamwork and collaboration to succeed as they do competition. At most, competition is a part of the puzzle of business success.

But that's all almost beside the point. The purpose of public education is so much broader than preparing the workers of tomorrow. That's certainly not what I ever want for my child's education. I wanted her, first and foremost, to acquire the skills of good citizenship. Good citizens, the kind with the critical thinking and interpersonal skills required to truly assume the rights and responsibilities of self-governance, must be prepared to contribute to society in ways far beyond the mere economic. We must be able to count on our fellow citizens to contribute socially, artistically, politically, culturally, spiritually, and in all the other ways that make life worth living. A well-rounded citizen is more than just a worker: our schools exist to prepare the well-rounded citizens required for democracy to flourish, people capable of doing more than just hold a job.

Education simply doesn't work as a competition. At it's best, education it's a collaborative process with students and teachers and administrators and schools and districts and states working together, sharing, building upon the work and ideas of one another. This is how democracy is supposed to work as well: not as some competition between polarized political ideologies, but rather as the self-governed standing on the shoulders of one-another to build a better, more fair, more responsive, more beautiful, more enlightened, and yes, even a more prosperous society. Competition is all about "me." Democracy is about "we."

And likewise, education is about "we." Or as my friend Jaan, then a 4-year-old, said as his classmates were pushing and shoving to get through a narrow doorway, "Hey, it's not a race. The playground's only good when we're all out there."

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Monday, January 09, 2017

For Which We Are Designed

Last week, a parent arrived at school with a stack of V-shaped plastic signs marked with numbers, the kind that pizza parlors give you to put on your table so they know where to bring your order. She found them while cleaning out the garage amidst her husband's childhood keepsakes. Apparently, as a middle schooler, he and his buddies had thought it an hilarious joke to steal them, one by one, from a local restaurant. Having been an adolescent boy, I can imagine how funny it was. The signs then retired to a box where they've been for a couple decades.

She asked, "Can you use these?"

I replied, "Let's see," and left them out for the kids, who, sure enough, could use them.

I thumb through those fancy school supply catalogs like everyone else, often envying some of the materials, but we rarely purchase them, opting instead to take one last crack at junk like these table top numbers, giving it one last life before sending to the landfill. In fact, these numbers, already garbage, will likely become a regular part of our rotation of indoor materials for a time. We will find more and better things to do with them. Then, as they begin to break and become otherwise less "pretty," some will become incorporated into art or science projects, while others will find their way outdoors where we'll play with them until they're simply "gone" (e.g., buried in the sand, broken into tiny bits, lost under the shed). A few of them, years from now, might even wind up in the dumpster, but not until they are completely used up.

One of our guiding principles at Woodland Park is that educating young children need not be expensive. We count on parents and other members of our community periodically purging their attics, garages, and basements. That's where we get most of our best stuff. Indeed, I would assert that, generally speaking, the quality of an early years education is inversely related to how much is spent on "stuff": the more expensive the curriculum and curriculum supplies, the worse it gets.

Look at what's happening in our public schools, for example, where we spend billions every year on poorly constructed, high stakes standardized tests that measure nothing meaningful about our children, teachers, or schools, but are rather there to guarantee that most kids fail, which can only be "remedied" by purchasing curricula, text books, computer programs, and worksheets produced by the very same companies that create those crappy tests. What a magnificent scam they have going: get paid to create a problem, then get paid to "solve" it. These tests, the expensive out-of-the-box curricula, and the attendant "stuff" they sell to schools are simply the company store shovels and pickaxes with which we equip our kids for their days laboring in these test score coal mines, turning a profit for giant "education" corporations like  Pearson Education, who then turn out even more crappy tests in a vicious cycle that may look like school, but without, you know, the actual education.

Our goal at Woodland Park is children who love to learn because they are asking and answering their own questions through their play. We can do that because there are no stockholders involved demanding a profit, but rather parents who want their children to have an actual childhood.

As I watched the kids play with the pizza parlor numbers, attempting, for instance, to build with them, I thought of all those off-the-shelf building sets that click together perfectly, where this part fits that part just so. Usually, there are instructions in the box that show kids what they can build. In fact, many building sets can only be used to build the thing that's pictured on the outside of the box. As these pizza number constructions toppled and fell, the children started again and again, saying to one another, "Look what I did," with each temporary success. With no picture on the box to follow, with no building "system" to obey, with no end-product in mind, there were also no failures, but rather only experiments that made the children laugh and scream and want to try it again.

This is the childhood learning for which we are designed.

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Friday, January 06, 2017

Beyond Smashing

Seattle's marine climate typically keeps us damp and just above freezing for most of the winter, but a couple times every year, the skies clear, removing insulation, which allows temperatures to fall, and if it comes right after a good rain, all the collected water hardens into ice. This is an exciting thing for the kids, who then tend to go into a sort of ice smashing frenzy.

This is what happened on Wednesday this week. The kids made short work of the ice, dropping it, kicking it, throwing it, and hitting it with sticks, leaving the playground looking like the scene of an auto accident with "broken glass" scattered from top to bottom. I have nothing against smashing ice, we even got out our rubber mallets to support the process, but as a teacher this instinct to joyfully destroy it all it left me feeling like we had missed an opportunity to really explore the stuff.

So what's a good teacher to do? Well, I don't know about good teachers, but this one spent an hour after school replenishing every concavity on the playground with water, from buckets and wagon beds, to sauce pan lids and the insides of car tires. Not only that, but I filled a dozen other containers that I put atop the storage shed, set aside for purposes other than smashing.

My main idea was to offer the chunks of ice alongside regular tempera paint. I figured that would give more meditative kids a chance to play with the fundamental properties of ice beyond its brittleness -- hardness, melting, slipperiness, cold. And as some kids ran wildly about smashing what they could find "in the wild," others were intrigued by the notion of painting the stuff and did, curving their bodies over their work, commenting amongst themselves about the hardness, melting, slipperiness, the cold, and joking that this was art they didn't get to take home.

I was feeling pretty good about myself, when I noted one of the three-year-olds carrying a chunk of ice to the workbench where we were building with glue guns. We had earlier discovered that it takes quite a bit longer for the tools to heat up in freezing temperatures and that, once fully heated, we had to work faster than normal because the hot glue cooled more rapidly than normal. Now we were going to see what would happen if we shot hot glue onto ice.

The first thing we learned was that if the tip of the glue gun actually touched the ice, the tool wouldn't function. The second thing we learned was that the hot glue didn't melt the ice as we had predicted, but instead the ice cooled the glue instantly causing it to slide right off. So that's what we spent the rest of our time doing, emptying glue guns onto the ice, often painted ice, creating great tangled hot glue sculptures that we began to call "snow flakes."

The rain is supposed to return next week, so it's back to what we know: cold, but not freezing, and damp. Few humans on earth know more about those conditions than the kids I teach, but, for a couple days our natural habitat gave us something else to learn about and as children always do when given the opportunity to explore, we jumped in with both feet.

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