Wednesday, December 07, 2016

A Job They Love

I hear it a lot, I've said it myself, and I hope there's not a parent who doesn't wish it for her child. Our great hope for ourselves and our loved ones is that we do something we love, that word "do" referring to the vocation or calling or role we play in life. It can't all be joy and sunshine, of course, but we want that activity upon which we spend the best part of our time and energy to be a thing we are motivated to do from the depths of our souls. Perhaps it's too much to hope that we get to say, as comedian Jerry Seinfeld does, "I've never had a job," but it's something like that: to at the end of our days be able to know that we've spent our time on the planet engaged fully in our passions.

This is not some new-fangled, secrets-to-success-and-happiness kind of idea. It was Confucius (551-479 BC) who is supposed to have said, "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life." And it was probably not original to him. Humans have always had access to the knowledge that work is not the opposite of play: work is the absence of play.

If you ask Bill Gates or any of the other self-appointed education reformers out there about this, I'm sure they would agree. If you ask Alfie Kohn or Sir Ken Robinson, or any of the other self-appointed progressive education advocates out there about this, I'm confident they'd agree as well. So, if everyone has the same goal, ask yourself then, which approach is most likely to lead to children who understand this? Can an educational model that calls for larger classes, more testing, and increased standardization ever hope to help children find that passion, let alone live it? Or does it seem more likely that a play-based, experiential model will get us there? I mean, could the choice be any more of a no-brainer? One approach is based on the efficiencies of the factory; the other upon the tradition of education that predates Socrates and runs through John Dewey.

No one has ever had a passion for factory work.

The opposite of play isn't work, it is rote. ~Dr. Edward Hallowell

This is why, I believe, there has been such a concentrated, if unconscious, effort to denigrate play over the past couple centuries, to dismiss it as idle and empty, to equate it with waste and laziness. Play is something, we're told, to do with the time that is left over. It's because so much of what our modern world offers up by way of jobs is mundane and repetitious, hollowed out of the opportunity for creativity, exploration or innovation. Most of us won't have the luxury of doing what we love.

But no one reading here aspires for her child to work in one of those jobs, right? I sure don't. So what do we do? Naturally, we expect they will go to college where we expect they will learn specialized skills that will qualify them for jobs that will one day lead, if they keep their noses clean, by the time they are in their 30's or 40's, to the opportunity for creativity, exploration or innovation.

I've finally reached a position of responsibility; now I can afford to be irresponsible. ~Albert Brooks (playing David Howard in Lost In America)

Perhaps I'm exaggerating, but if you take a look at the typical pathway from here to there -- decades of grades and homework and testing and resume-building and rote -- it's incredible to imagine anyone making it through to the life of passion for which all of us hope. Yet, some do, which is to me me a testament to the power and tenacity of play (and teachers willing and able to somehow buck the system).

But what a waste of years, what a long, uncertain, and unnecessarily circuitous route. If the goal is for each of us to do something we love, I say the way to learn to do that is to do it. And that is what a play-based curriculum is all about, giving children the opportunity to choose a job they love, to pursue it with their whole being, to engage meaningfully with the things and people around them; to be supported by adults who encourage and inspire them, who ask questions and make suggestions, and even give the occasional boost up to a level that is just slightly out of reach.

That's what I wish for schools.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2016

"Blue Bears"

The young two-year-old had carried the plastic bears halfway across the room to show me. "Blue bears," he said, holding them in front of his own eyes.

I said, "Two blue bears."

He looked from one to the other, then pushed them a bit closer to me as if to say, Look at them. I said again, "Two blue bears." He looked from one to the other again, then held them closer together, right in front of his eyes. There was something else he wanted to say about these bears, but he was struggling to find the words.

"You are really looking at those bears."

He said, "Blue bears, " and pushed them toward my eyes as if asking me to really look as well. I really looked. I said, "You are showing me two blue bears. One of them is darker blue and one of them is lighter blue."

He looked at them, examining them, then shoved them toward me again. I said, "You are showing me two blue bears that are different shades of blue." That's when he smiled. "Different," he said, "Blue bears different." He then took them back with him halfway across the room.

I followed him to where the kids were playing with the little plastic bears, plastic baskets, and water. One boy held an empty basket. He picked up a bear as it floated past, putting it in his basket. He beamed at me as I knelt beside him, so I replied, "You put a bear in your basket." He put another bear in his basket, then another, each time, smiling at me. When he put the fourth bear in the basket he told me, "More." I answered, "You have more bears in your basket."

He then added another and another, each time telling me, "More," "More," "More."

Later, I was learning over the top of some cabinets, watching the two-year-olds playing with our wooden trains. Children were queuing their train cars up, the way one does, one after another. A girl shouted, "Teacher Tom, look at my long train!" I looked at it. She connected another car and shouted, "Teacher Tom, my train is longer!" I nodded. She added another and another, each time proclaiming it longer until there were no more train cars in her immediate vicinity. She then announced, "It's the longest!"

I was still learning across the shelves when another girl brought me one of the wooden trees that came with one of the intermixed train sets we own. She set it in front of me. I said, "You brought me a tree." She picked up another tree. I said, "Now I have two trees." Then another. "Now I have three threes." And another. "Now I have four trees." The trees were of different colors, shapes and manufactures, but they were all trees. The she then added a small traffic sign. I looked at her in mock confusion and she laughed and laughed at the math prank she'd just pulled on me.

This is what preschool mathematics looks like in a play-based environment. It is not an academic pursuit, but rather a truly intellectual one, even a joyful one, something every child pursues as if it was coded into her genes. And indeed, it is.

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Monday, December 05, 2016

The Only Way To Understand Play

I'm so happy to live in a world in which I don't need to defend the educational benefits of turquoise water, wooden boats, chop sticks, clothes pins, and rocks.

In fact, I'm often shocked when confronted with a person who doesn't get it, who sees children as some sort of raw wood with the basic shape of a finished vessel perhaps, but in need of fixing or filling or painting or trimming or rigging.

These are not bad people. They have good intentions in wanting to mold little bodies and minds into a version of what a person ought to be, one that they feel will sail most uprightly upon the "real" seas of life.

No, they are not bad, but they are ignorant and often cocksure, convinced by the results of their own mental experiments that "prove" that more rigor, longer hours, more academics, and uniform standards will lead to smarter kids. They start from the perverse premise that knowing stuff is more important than knowing how to know. And their entire body of "knowledge" comes from a place of suppositions, books, standardized tests, and analysis so far removed from a classroom that even what they do "know" is a mere abstraction of the "real" seas of our children's lives. I'm so happy I don't need to spend my days convincing them.

I'm so happy I don't need to be dissecting our play, looking for proof that education is taking place, that they are learning this or they are learning that. I'm so happy that the people around me, the parents who send their children to our school, understand this.

Perhaps it's because they are there with us in the classroom instead of reading studies and reviewing test scores. They are right here playing alongside the kids, performing their own experiments with turquoise water, wooden boats, chop sticks, clothes pins, and rocks. They are rolling up their sleeves and doing it. And that's really the only way to understand play.

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Friday, December 02, 2016

Telling Jokes

Back in my junior executive days, a colleague and friend, a young man with whom I shared a wall and a secretary, was offered a sweet new job. He was a great guy, even if he was a bit full of himself. When he announced at a staff meeting that he was moving on, I quipped, "Wow, you're leaving one big hat to fill!" There was a beat of silence as the room took it in, then an explosion of laughter. I still think of it as the best joke I've ever told, although looking at it here in black and white perhaps it was one of those for which you had to have been there.

My jokes tend to be hit or miss, and often my best ones are funny only to myself. For instance, I'm more likely to get an argument than a laugh when I say, "The difference between your neuroses and mine is that mine make sense," but I think it's hilarious and 100 percent true.

I'm not a "funny guy." I think I have a decent sense of humor, but I can also assert, unequivocally, that I'm simultaneously the most hilarious man in the world . . . if the only audience that matters is the kids I teach. Oh, it does wonders for the ego, indeed it does, when I get the whole crowd screaming with laughter by making a silly face, or pretending to get mixed up about the lyrics to a song, or engaging in some simple slapstick. One of my best bits is one I learned from my father. He would walk toward a doorway, then pretend to bump his nose on the door frame, creating a realistic sound effect with a well-timed kick to the wall. That one always makes them laugh; a beat of silence and then an explosion of laughter when they see I'm not really hurt.

Anyone who has ever worked with young kids knows that if you want a laugh, all you have to do is start a conversation with, "Knock, knock . . ." Pretty much anything you say, so long as it matches the rhythm of the joke, will get a laugh.

"Knock knock."
"Who's there?"
"Table who?"
"Table chair!"

Then everyone laughs. It's collaborative poetry, the Knock-knock Joke, a duet that ends in laughter. It never bugs me, it never bores me, because in the end we laugh, forced perhaps, even phony-sounding, but communal: we're laughing together and that's the point. We spend entire circle times just taking turns telling these nonsensical jokes, laughing harder and harder as we go.

Even though I'm not a funny guy, humor (or at least silliness) stands at the center of my relationship with children. When a kid says, "You're silly, Teacher Tom!" I answer, "Silly is a complement around here! Thank you for saying that!" I like that "silly" is part of my reputation.

There's another "joke" of which I'm proud, this one having occurred on the streets of Manhattan. Our family was living in Soho for a month because my wife had business there. I was walking the dog early one morning, when a car alarm went off. The street wasn't NYC crowded, but there were still a lot of us out there. I stopped and loudly asked, "What's wrong with you people? Can't you hear that car is being stolen?" There was a beat of silence, then an explosion of laughter. I guess you had to be there.

There is nothing that brings people together more than laughing with them and you do, in fact, have to be there.

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Thursday, December 01, 2016


A couple years back I taught a boy who would, upon the completion of just about anything, turn to me and ask, "Is that a good job?" I would answer, "You worked hard on that," or "You sound proud of it," or something else that I hoped would help turn his search for validation inward instead of outward. I wouldn't say that he was a praise junky, however, given that he was generally a very internally driven boy, but he had apparently come to expect the automatic "good job" the way the rest of us expect the automatic "Thank you" or "You're welcome." In fact, he would in turn offer his friends a hearty "good job" whenever one of them completed something or seemed particularly proud.

Most of us know by now to avoid the sort of empty praise of "good job," "well done," or any of the other regular ways adults misguidedly attempt to bolster self esteem. If we want children to be self-motivated, the general rule of thumb is to avoid external rewards and punishments, verbal or otherwise, and instead focus on observable things like a child's effort (e.g., "You worked on that for a long time"), feelings (e.g., "You look happy about that"), or simply remarking on observable facts (e.g., "You pried the lid off that can"). 

During their three years at Woodland Park, this boy's family tried to pull back on "good job," even as they found it a hard habit to break: it can become so woven into how we interact with our kids that it's almost impossible to eradicate entirely. There are a lot of semi-conscious things like that in how we speak to not just our children, but with the rest of the world as well. When I lived in Germany, my German friends would return from travels to the states, every single one of them complaining that Americans were obsessed with telling everyone "Have a nice day," something about which I'd never given much thought. It irritated them, however: "They say it, but they don't mean it," or "Who are they to tell me what kind of day to have?" Of course, Germans have their own automatic niceties that I found every bit as grating. And that's what most of these things are for us adults, conventional courtesies that we rely upon to make our public life run more smoothly. I think that's where "good job" had migrated for this boy.

Earlier this week, I was hanging out with a group of kids, most of whom had just created various kinds of weapons from construction paper and masking tape. As they showed me their handiwork, explaining, often in detail, how it could defeat a villain, I was responding by saying "You worked hard on that." I like to think I've become quite good at avoiding the empty praise. Then one boy pushed to the front to show me his creations. He shoved them into my face, beaming with pride, saying, "Teacher Tom, look at my hard works."

It appears that "You worked hard on that" has become my own personal "good job," an automatic nicety, at least for this kid. It's a risk whenever we find ourselves interacting with others without being fully conscious or present. Sigh. I guess I'll need to work on that.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

For That Purpose Alone

Our playground is built on a sloping piece of land that is about one quarter sand pit, while the rest is covered in a layer of wood chips. As will happen with erosion, both the sand and wood chips migrate from the top of the yard to the bottom. A couple times a year, the adults, as part of our regular work parties, take on the Sisyphusian task of counteracting the results of gravity, weather, and playing children with shovels and wheelbarrows, hauling it all back to the top of the slope again.

We're between work parties and it's been bugging me that some of our raised planting beds are about to be overwhelmed by wood chips, so I grabbed a shovel and wheelbarrow and started digging as the children in our 4-5's class were arriving. The kindergarteners were already out there playing and their teacher, Teacher Rachel, said, "It looks like Teacher Tom could use some help."

Soon I was surrounded by shovel-wielding five and six-year-olds asking me what I was doing. I showed them that the planting beds on the downhill side of the garden were four boards high, while the one beside which I was digging only had the top board showing above the chips. "There's over a foot of wood chips here that needs to be moved back under the swing set."

As a half dozen kids fell to the task of digging, there was no longer much room for me, so I stepped back. Other kids retrieved wagons and other wheeled conveyances and we soon had a line-up of "trucks" waiting to haul our loads.

When the kindergarteners were called inside, their places were smoothly filled by a second shift of preschoolers, bending their backs to the task.

In the beginning, each newcomer had asked me, "What are you doing?" and I had explained, but by now the children were expert enough to answer one another, effectively and efficiently conveying the idea of erosion to their friends, who in turn leapt into the hole to dig.

Whenever there was a gap or a lull in the digging, I plunged my shovel blade into the ground and within seconds there were smaller people replacing me. Sometimes we thought we had hit a rock, the ground was so hard, but usually it turned out to just be wood chips mixed with sand that had become compacted. We did unearth two large logs that we had at one time used as benches. We found dozens of "jewels" (florist marbles), and several small toys (like the leg of a plastic elephant). We found that the roots of some of our garden plants (our raspberry bush in particular) had pushed between the planter boards.

Occasionally, a kid or two would start goofing around in the hole, but they were quickly and firmly informed, "Hey, we're working here! A couple kids rounded up several of our orange caution cones and created a visual "work zone."

I helped out with the wheelbarrow loads, but the kids managed the wagons and smaller carts on their own, dumping them under the swing set.

In Leo Tolstoy's short story The Three Questions, the hermit answers the king:

"Remember then: there is only one time that is important -- Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are . . . and the most important affair is to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!"

I had started to dig, the children had seen they could help me, and they did. The rest of eduction -- and society and religion and everything else for that matter -- is mere bells and whistles: this is why we're here.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

More Hard, Messy, Emotional Work

Last week, I illustrated a post about the hard, messy, emotional work that the children in our school are doing every day using a story about a girl who wanted to join a game in progress, but who was unwilling to agree to actually play the game already in progress, and was therefore excluded. Yesterday, a group of younger kids, 3-year-olds, found themselves in a similar situation.

Two boys were playing in the top of our loft. I have no idea what they were playing, but each of them was holding one of our classroom baoding balls, which I've written about before. What I haven't shared, and what I've only discovered within the last couple of months is that we, in fact, have three of these balls, an extra one having appeared from who knows where. It's a fact that may have eluded me for weeks, but one of which the children have long been aware seeing that these shiny, metal balls with the gentle chimes inside are valued loose parts.

A third boy, a regular playmate, began to ascend the stairs into the loft when the boys with the balls said, "You can't come up here unless you have a ball," causing their friend to break down in tears. He threw himself into his mother's lap to bawl. The boys in the loft appeared confused. I said, "He's crying because you told him he couldn't come into the loft."

One of the boys replied matter-of-factly, "He can come in the loft. He just has to have a ball," showing me his silver ball. His companion's attention, however, was fully on his crying friend.

I answered loudly enough that the upset boy could hear me, "Oh, so if he has one of those balls, he can come up?"


"Well, there's another ball right over there," I answered, still loudly enough for all to hear, pointing. I waited a few seconds, then took it upon myself to retrieve the third silver ball and put it on a table near the crying boy, who ignored it.

I had done what I could, I felt, so backed off, while still keeping an eye on things. As I watched, the boy who had shown the most concern descended the loft, not once taking his eyes off his crying friend. He stood on the floor for a moment, holding his ball. I thought I saw his throat spasm as if fighting down tears of his own. The other boy descended the stairs as well and they stood there together for a moment. They might have spoken, although I didn't see it, then crossed the room to where we generally keep the box for those balls, put the balls away, and closed the lid.

The boy finished his cry, then all three boys went about their day

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