Friday, February 16, 2018

It's Why We Laugh When We Play

Most of the actual work I do is in preparing for the arrival of the kids, and by "work" I mean the kinds of things I'd rather not be doing: the stuff for which I'd wave a magic wand if I could. Once the kids arrive on the scene, however, it's pretty much all play for me, the part of my day I'd not wish away for anything. 

Indeed, sometimes we adults need to deal with certain aspects of cleaning or snack prep or bodily functions that we might identify as "work," but really, if we're going to be a play-based classroom worth its salt, everyone in the room should be playing, children and adults. A roomful of shoulder-to-shoulder learners is one of the key features of our play-based curriculum.

Much of what play-based learning is about is making connections, discoveries that come from putting things together then comparing the results to the things we thought we already knew. This is why the exact same environment, the exact same classroom set-up, serves as a learning environment for humans of all ages. We might be starting with the same stuff, but we're not all starting from the same place. A tool, a shovel for instance, may be used by a 2-year-old to make discoveries about the properties of corn starch mixed with water. That same tool may be used by an adult to make discoveries about the properties of that child or children in general or interactions between children and herself in relation to them.

As a child struggles to pull, say, a dinosaur from a cornstarch and water muck, she's experiencing adhesion, leverage, angles, emulsion, tension, moisture, suction, and the flexing of muscles. This is like the mud she found in the same place last week -- damp, gooey, possessing properties attributable to both liquids and solids -- but different as well. And as she plays, connecting what she knows with what she doesn't yet know, the adult makes her own connections between this child and the others she's known. This is like the child she found in the same place a few minutes ago -- persevering, testing, talking -- but different as well. And these connections, these examinations of similarities and differences, the interplay between what is known and unknown, shake the foundations of our metaphors, creating new ones, opening our eyes to mysterious places within ourselves, other people, and the physical world.

We discover there are always new connections to be made: that the more we know, the more there is to know.

When a child crosses the ground from the art table where he's been driving cars through paint and down ramps, hands slimy with red, he shows us all a newly connected world, opening up avenues into the very things we just thought we'd figured out. And as children begin to run back and forth to carry their own fists full of paint to where we're playing, we adults laugh with them from the joy of our own epiphanies, wondering at their wonder. They, the adults, look up at me, their eyes sometimes more than the children alight with the joy of connection, of discovery, "He made pink! We're making pink! Now the dinos are pink!"

And the kids are saying, "Ghost dinos! Pink ghost dinos!" as metaphors take shape, new scaffolding erected, the world changing before our very eyes.

Then someone else comes over from the work bench, still clutching the Duplos he found over there, drawn by the sounds of discovery, and from that curiosity, we then all learn what happens when we drop a block in the pink goo.

I think about connections as I go through the "work" part of my day, trying to anticipate the paths it will take, and every now and then I get to experience the euphoria of being right, of having my best guesses proven in the real world of play-based learning. But that's a rare treat, one I enjoy, but no more so than the ones we all share when we play here together, connecting. Discovery is always unexpected. It's why we laugh when we play.

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

Everything Else Is Up To The Kids

I get a lot of credit for things I didn't do. Grateful parents are forever thanking me for "teaching" their children things that they would have learned with or without me, or our preschool, or any school at all for that matter. I accept the thanks or reflect it back to them, crediting them as "great parents," but the truth is that most of what their children have learned they would have learned with nothing more or less than a community, our love, and the freedom to pursue their own interests.

Children hate school because they love freedom. ~Peter Gray

One of the things I get the most credit for is helping their children learn to "love learning," another compliment that I can only accept with a certain amount of guilt because all humans are born with that love for learning. Indeed, that's what play is: the instinct to educate oneself made manifest. Play is what children do to make sense of their world. In everything they freely do, we see children asking and answering their own questions, educating themselves. I often think that my real accomplishment is that children spend three years attending the Woodland Park Cooperative School without learning to hate school, which is something about which I have mixed feelings, because I can't help but think it's a bit of a set up: as long as they go on to attend normal schools, the "hate" is coming, because the freedom to pursue their own interests is going to be slowly throttled. I make myself feel better by convincing myself that we are fattening them up in order to better survive the famines ahead.

Oh sure, they may still, on balance, enjoy school, and there will be parts they enjoy very much, but from where I sit that's more a testament to the resiliency of children than anything else. One of the happiest parts of being a teacher is seeing my former students all grown up; one of the saddest parts is when they tell me they're excited for a long weekend because they "don't have to go to school." When they attended Woodland Park they cried when they learned that school was closed over the holidays. So while hate may be too strong a word, they all certainly come to have mixed feelings, and for some it grows into the idea that they hate learning altogether.

Some will assert that this is the natural order of things, that they must learn to take the good with the bad, to endure, to have "grit," to persevere through their hate. Indeed, there are those who believe that our kind of school does children a disservice by not doing more to get the children "school ready," which seems to mean teaching them to hate school at least a little bit before they get to kindergarten where the hate is inevitable. I will not do that to children. If they must come to hate learning, even a little, I'll leave that to the fun-stealers in their future.

Learning can only happen when a child is interested. If he is not interested, it's like throwing marshmallows at his head and calling it eating. ~Katrina Gutleben

Some will assert that the fault lies with the teachers, that they aren't being creative enough, that they haven't employed all the tricks to "make learning fun," that if we would just "gamify" it or something, then the kids would be happy learners. The problem with this is that children are already happy learners, they were born that way, but they were also born to learn through their own interests, not the compulsion of others. Forcing children to "learn" things that hold no interest is like forcing a person to eat when they aren't hungry or to sleep when they aren't tired: you can do it, but it will always be a battle for everyone involved.

If children started school at six months old and their teachers gave them walking lessons, within a single generation people would come to believe that humans couldn't learn to walk without going to school. ~Geoff Graham

And therein lies the crux of the problem: normal schools attempt to replace a child's natural interests with a curriculum full of crap that kids couldn't care less about. On top of that is the hubris that these children will learn nothing without adults standing over them "teaching" every step of the way. If children started school at six months, teachers like me would even be congratulated for their learning to talk and walk. This is what has happened with so many of the things we try to "teach" in normal schools, like reading and basic math. Humans taught themselves to learn these useful, necessary things for hundreds and thousands of years, at their own pace, through their own interests, before they were made compulsory through schooling. (For those who doubt this, literacy rates in America were higher 250 years ago than they are today, well before widespread compulsory schooling.)

Sometimes a parent will thank me for something for which I really do feel responsible. They will thank me for helping to create the Woodland Park "community," a place in which their child has thrived. I accept those compliments without an ounce of doubt because, after all, that is the main role of adults when it comes to the education of children: to create a real community full of connection, cooperation, and love. When we do that, we do all we must. Everything else is is up to the kids.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

"First Is Worst"

When our oldest kids come in from outdoors to convene on the checkerboard rug for our daily community meeting, what we call circle time, there are a few who race to kick off their rain boots and wash their hands while others take their own sweet time.

"I'm the first kid!"

"I'm the first girl!"

"I'm the second boy!"

Earlier in the year, someone responded to this boasting with what has become a contemporary bromide, "First is worst, second is best, third place gets the treasure chest." I'm aware that third place might also receive a "wedding dress" or a "hairy chest," but "treasure chest" is the one upon which the children seem to have settled. I once tried to sell them on being "named Celeste," but it didn't fly.

One day, after a particularly fierce battle of elbows down the hallway, I corrected them, "I'm sorry, but you're all wrong. It goes like this: First is worst, second is worst, third place is also worst." They argued with me, one girl invoking her older brother as an unimpeachable authority, but I persisted to the point that we now regularly spend that five minute wait time engaged in the debate.

"But Teacher Tom, that means everybody is the worst."

"No, it means every place is the worst. I don't think we should be all that worried about what place we are. Who cares? It's not a race."

"What happens if you're in fourth place?"

"That's still also the worst."

"What about fifth place?"

"Still the worst."

"What about one-millionth place?"

"Still the worst."

"Who gets the treasure chest?"

"No body."

This has gone on for weeks, with the kids working together to "prove" me wrong, each supporting the other, "She's right, Teacher Tom, third place does get the treasure chest, my mom told me." As I look around at my feet, I see primarily younger siblings. Indeed, I expect that this construct, one that doesn't even really make sense, was concocted by a parent dealing with competitive siblings as a way to tone things down. (I always imagine my brother and I, as competitive a pair of kids as there ever was, slow walking everywhere in quest of securing the "best" second place.) The single and eldest sibs tend to filter in later, not nearly as focused on rivalry as their first-on-the-rug classmates, and as they do, my side, the side that claims it's all "worst," gains support, although it is usually of the yeah-yeah-whatever-you-say-let's-move-on variety.

Late last week we were assembling like this, me trying to get them to see the ridiculousness of this sort of competition, while they sought to correct me, one girl who doesn't normally arrive with the early crew sat with narrowed eyes, listening to what is by now almost a choreographed give-and-take. She raised her hand amidst what was a free-form discussion, so we gave her the floor.

"Teacher Tom," she said earnestly, "They're not all worst. Maybe they're all best. First is best, second is best, third place is also best. Everybody is best!" She looked from her classmates to me, her hands outspread in front of her as if to emphasize the profound logic of her assertion. We sat in silence for a time as her words sank in.

Finally, the silence was broken, "Yeah, we're all best!" Then the others joined in with agreement. "We're all best." I sat there nodding as this seemed to put a lid on it, then as the things died down, another girl said, "But I was still first," and we were back to the academic debate over the meaning of a bromide.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

"If I Only Had Two Blocks . . ."

I purchased our set of oversized, vinyl-covered, foam-rubber blocks over a decade ago using a $2000 windfall in the form of a generous donation from one of our families that included matching funds from an employer. The only stipulation was that the money was Teacher Tom's to spend as he saw fit. I'd seen these blocks in a catalog, knew that they were something I would have loved as a kid, and spent every penny purchasing a set.

An irritating aspect of owning this expensive and attractive set of blocks is that as much storage space as they eat up, when all is said and done, there aren't very many blocks, maybe 30 in total, which means that one industrious kid can commandeer the lion's share of them in a matter of minutes. Every time we have them out, there is controversy about someone "having them all." I'm not saying that this doesn't present an opportunity to learn all sorts of things, and it does, but it's still irritating nevertheless.

Yesterday, I saw the pattern emerging as two builders were cornering the market. I figured I knew what was coming, so I laid my hands on one of the few remaining blocks and announced, "I'm going to build my house with this block. That's all I need for a house, one block." I stood the block on the floor and stood beside it, "There's my house."

The kids playing in the area didn't exactly stop playing, but a few of them heard me. One boy said, "You can't build a house with one block. You need two blocks."

I replied, "I only need one block for my house, but if I only had two blocks . . . " I didn't finish my sentence intentionally, leaving it there for his brain to complete.

"You have to have two blocks so you can have a door," he said as he picked up one of his blocks and brought it over to set beside mine. "See? You can move it like this to open and close it." He demonstrated.

I said, "That's cool! Thank you," then to the everyone in general, "This is my house. I made it out of just two blocks and it's so cool . . . But if I only had three blocks . . ."

Another boy brought me a block, positioning it on the other side of me so that I now had three walls.

I thanked him, then said, "Wow, now my house is extra cool and I only used three blocks. I have everything I need . . . But if I only had four blocks . . ."

Soon I had a fourth, then a fifth, then a sixth block. As the building began to grow around me, I stepped away, offering my spot inside the house to others. By now all the builders were working together with these scarce resources, dismantling their individually "owned" buildings in favor of this cooperatively "owned" building. I was reminded of the story of making stone soup, in which the traveler offers to create the most delicious soup with nothing but a stone and water, then adding, "But if only I had a pinch of salt . . . " except in this case I started with a house made of a single block. Just as the traveler does, I'd counted on their better angels, the ones that almost always win out when no one is commanding, but rather simply offering up information and giving them a chance to do their own thinking.

I probably should have let them discover the pathway to cooperation on their own, through scarcity and conflict, the way kids have done with these blocks for the past decade, but instead I'd "tricked" them into a shortcut. We'll play with those blocks again today and tomorrow. There will be ample opportunity for things to take their normal course, but maybe, just maybe, some of them learned the lesson of stone soup. The proof will be in the building.

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Loving Them Just As They Are

I have spent my adult life trying to figure out why parents and society put themselves into a race -- what's the hurry? I keep trying to convey the pleasure every parent and teacher could feel while observing, appreciating and enjoying what the infant is doing. This attitude would change our educational climate from worry to joy. ~Magda Gerber

It seems to me that the greatest gift we can give to other people is to let them know we love them just as they are. That we've all heard this before in some version or other makes it no less profound and no less precious.

I think that's what we do when we simply let ourselves be with young children, without that sense of possession or protectiveness or responsibility that too often attends our interactions. It's in those moments of two humans simply being together that we convey this vital knowledge of unwavering love to even the youngest children, who themselves are then permitted to be, without the obligations that come with being possessed, protected, or a responsibility.

I'm grateful to such guides as Janet Lansbury who continues to educate me about the ideas of Magda Gerber, and it's this idea of sincerely and carefully observing (what I think I have previously understood incompletely as "waiting") that resonates the most with me. But this observation is an essentially academic act, I think, without our own appreciation and joy in what the infant is doing or what we are doing together. Not only do we ourselves come to a deeper understanding of the child, but it's only through this heartfelt appreciation and joy that we actually convey to children the unconditional love that is our gift.

It may seem strange, I suppose, for many of us to understand that we, at best, stand on the planet as equals with all the other people, including young children. We are each fully formed, fully valid, fully functional human beings no matter our age. Naturally, we have different lots in life, different blessings and challenges, and are on our way to different places, but we always remain, most of all, worthy of being loved for being exactly who we are.

Parents and teachers traditionally see our role as helpers, instructors or guides; agents for moving young children through the world from point A to point B along their developmental track, ticking off milestones in baby books or report cards like we might a shopping list, taking pride in each "accomplishment." We can't help but look ahead, to anticipating the next destination, worrying about the next bumpy patch, feeling guilty about our failings when we lose our way or fall behind schedule. It makes us impatient, lead-footed, prone to live outside the present moment as we move relentlessly toward a future. We forget to just be with our children as they are right now. That future child does not exist: this is the real child, the one before you right now, and she is perfect.

We are, in fact, at our best when we manage to successfully override those urges to help, instruct, or otherwise guide a young person and instead give him the space and time to struggle, to practice, to come to his own conclusions. This, not our superior experience or intellect, is the great gift we have to give to children: to stop, to really see who they are right now, and be with them in appreciation and joy, loving them just as they are.

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Friday, February 09, 2018

"Ahhh . . ."

He is forever messing around with water both indoors and out. When there isn't proper "play" water available inside, like in the sensory table, he finds some anyway, usually by washing his hands for a very long time or by monkeying around with the water fountain. Last year, as a two-year-old, we found we had to push the filtered water dispenser out of his reach so that we didn't wind up mopping the floors several times a day, but this year, his three-year-old year, we really want the kids to be serving themselves and so, despite the occasional mini-floods, he's had daily access to the apparatus.

As a cooperative school, the parent-teachers rotate through the responsibility for managing snack service which means he's had any number of teachers when it comes to our self-serve water. He's done it "wrong" quite often, usually the moment the adult supervisor has turned her back, not seeming to really care about the mess he'd made until recently. In fact, he's usually been fully absorbed in watching the flow of water hit the floor, then spread in all directions.

Yesterday, he said, "Teacher Tom, I'm getting water." He positioned his Dixie cup under the spout, something he had previously sometimes failed to do. He manipulated the spigot precisely, something he had previously sometimes failed to do. Then he said, "I just want one drop," then managed to turn the flow on and off so quickly that, indeed, it only dispensed a single drop, which he showed me proudly before downing it.

He served himself one drop again and again, alternating with friends who were after the more traditional "full" cups, savoring each tiny sip with an, "Ahhh."

It had been a process that had frustrated a few adults, one that involved lots of paper towels, but here he was, through dozens of "mistakes," enjoying the pleasure of being the master of the water dispenser, so in control that he can manage a single drop. This is the story of learning in preschool, every time. Sometimes we only get it wrong once, sometimes the process is accelerated by observing others, but sometimes, for some of us, it's a longer journey of trail and error. It's not usually the "easy" route, but when we're allowed to travel it in our own way, at our own pace, the destination is most often a satisfying, "Ahhh," before we set out on the next.

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Thursday, February 08, 2018

I Want Them To Question My Authority

If you would be a real seeker of truth, it is necessary that you at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things. ~Rene Descarte

On the first day of school, the day I meet many of our two-year-olds for the first time, I make sure our box of plastic farm animals is handy. As the kids arrive I greet them, then introduce one of the pigs by holding it up and saying, "The pig says, 'Moooo.'"

Most of them laugh, "No, the cow says 'Moo!'" or "The pig says, 'Oink!'" Some squint at me like I'm crazy, often glancing up at their mothers as if to say, You're leaving me with this guy? In fact, I tend to do a lot of this sort of goofing around. I might, for instance, sing the Alphabet Song with the letters in the wrong order, "D, N, Q, P, T, R, A . . ." Or maybe I'll insist that the carrot sticks are candy, or that the book we are about to read was printed upside down, or that I'm listening with my nose. You see, I want children to really listen to me and if I say something that doesn't match up with what they already know to be true I want them to call me on it.

That's right, it's an overt attempt to cause the children in my care to question my authority. I want them to know that not only is it okay, but that I expect it. You see, I want the children I teach to grow up to be citizens who are not only able to identify BS when they detect it, but to speak up about it. As the kids get older and more experienced in correcting Teacher Tom, I might push back, insisting for instance that I've heard pigs say 'Moo' with my own two ears. Sometimes I'll even say things like, "Listen, I'm the grown-up and you're the kid, of course pigs say 'Moo.'" It's deeply gratifying when they refuse to budge from their insistence that I'm wrong, often laughing at it like a joke, but sometimes angrily, letting me know that they aren't having any of it.

Of course, the whole idea of children questioning a teacher's authority is a challenging one for many people, especially those who only know traditional schools, but in a democratic society, authority is not imposed, but rather granted by the consent of the governed. I, like any authority figure, shouldn't be saying anything I can't defend, and when I do, I deserve to be called on it by a thoughtful, educated citizenry. I'm not the boss of these children, but rather an older (and hopefully wiser) colleague who just happens to be sharing this part of their journey with them. When they one day pass on from my company, I hope they do so knowing that it's not only their right, but their obligation, to question those who would set themselves up as authorities . . . And that also includes their own parents.

Maybe it's a radical idea, but without it, I can hardly hope for our democracy.

Several years ago, I had put chunks of ice in our sensory table. As the four and five year olds arrived, children who had been with me since they were two, I said, "Hey! I put ice in the sensory table, but now there's water in there! Who put the water in there!" I did my best to sound frustrated, angry even.

"Teacher Tom, no body put water in there. The ice is melting."


Taking turns contributing what they already know about the world, we then went into a group discussion about the properties of ice as we played with it. As we talked, I pulled out some rock salt, which we sprinkled on the ice, accelerating the melting process. When talk turned to how we could get the ice to melt even faster, we had the idea of heating it up in a pan over a burner. We encircled the pan to watch the ice quickly turn to water, then to steam. What else could we melt? We tried a crayon. We learned that crayons melt, but the paper wrapper doesn't. We tried a candle. We learned that the wax melts, but the wick does not. One of the children wondered about wood. Would it melt? Many of the children thought it might, but others were sure it would burn, so we put one of our blocks in the pan and, sure enough, after a few minutes it began to smoke. We learned that wood does not melt; it burns. Then one of the boys suggested metal.

Now, I knew they had me on that one. I know that metal can be melted, but our little hot plate couldn't generate nearly enough heat. We tossed a paper clip in the pan. It got hot, but didn't melt. That's when I said, "Listen, metal does melt. The problem is that this burner doesn't get hot enough. If we could make it hotter we could turn it into liquid."

There was a moment of silence as the kids processed what I'd said, then as a unified front they pushed back:

"No, Teacher Tom!"

"You're wrong!"

"You're joking!"

All of them doubted me. They weren't prepared to take my word for it. I tried to persuade them, but at the end of the day the kids went home firm in their belief that metal could not be melted. And I went home feeing frustrated. How would I prove it to them? The next day I phoned a steel mill locate in the south end of the city, thinking that a smelter might be just the kind of dramatic evidence the kids needed. Naturally, they laughed at me saying, "We're not letting preschoolers into a smelter." Then I thought maybe I could just find a video of a smelter, but rejected it under the reasoning that I don't want the kids to believe everything they see on the internet either.

And so it remained this way for several weeks until I one day recalled that my wife had grown up in Vienna where they have a New Years tradition that involves melting small lead figurines in spoons over candles. The liquified metal is then tossed into a bowl of water and the new shape of the lead tells your fortune for the coming year. I got in touch with one of my wife's friends who sent me a package of the figurines.

When they arrived, I told the kids, "Today, I'm going to prove to you that metal can be melted." We went outdoors because I was somewhat concerned about the fumes (I've since learned that a candle can't generate enough heat to cause the lead to release toxic fumes). I lit the candle and the children stood in a semi-circle around me as I held a spoon over the flame, staring at that figurine until, finally, it melted into a pool of liquid metal.

It was only then that the kids believed me. These are the kinds of people I want as my partners in the great project of self-governance.

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

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