Thursday, March 30, 2017

"I Already Know That"


He is our resident expert on stability. Earlier in the year he rarely left the block area where he tended to use every block that was otherwise not employed to create his complex, messy buildings. His process tended to be one that grew to fill all the time our schedule allowed, because even after he had used all the blocks, he would continue to fuss with them, adjusting them, shifting pieces from here to there, perpetually seeking improvement. And his main criteria for improvement was "stability" which he would discuss with a wide-eyed officiousness that caused the rest of us to stand back a few steps, you know, just in case the whole thing came toppling down. When we were using our larger blocks he would climb atop his creations as they tipped and tottered, warning anyone who approached, "Be careful! It's not stable!"

If other children wanted to play his game, he let them in, but he kept their focus on stability. Sometimes it seemed that he built intentionally unstable buildings and that the ultimately goal was not actual stability, but rather putting himself in a position to warn the rest of us about instability, even to the point of ludicrousness. Indeed, there was a point at which I was convinced we were seeing a quirky sense of humor at work and I tried to get him to crack a smile, but he remained steadfastly sincere.

It wasn't long before both other children and adults began to turn to him in his unofficial capacity as our resident stability expert. Whenever there was a question about whether or not something would fall down, he would be consulted, a job he readily accepted, always finding our constructions woefully unstable, before offering his stability services.

As the year has progressed, he's moved on from this type of play, expanding his horizons to activities beyond the construction zone, but I still regularly find him amongst the blocks, head down, hands engaged. Today, if the subject of stability comes up, it rarely comes from him these days, but from our collective memory of his earlier passion. We still call on him in when we have questions, which he gamely answers, although perhaps without the zest and personal involvement of a few months ago.


Earlier this week, a few of his closest friends were working on a significant building of their own, one intended to house our plastic insect collection. I was sitting nearby and noticed that one wall was about to fall. They had worked long and hard on their creation so I thought they would appreciate my input, "Hey guys, that tall wall is about to fall."

They studied the wall for a moment, not seeing what I saw. "What wall? This wall? It doesn't look like it's going to fall, Teacher Tom." Then I turned to our expert, who was puttering around a few feet away, not in any way engaged with a construction project, "We need your help. Is that wall stable?"

He was curled over a pile of insects he had collected for his own purposes. He didn't look up at me, but I saw his back expand, then heard a long, slow release of breath as he issued a huge sigh. He then turned to me with exaggeratedly weary eyes, before glancing perfunctorily at the wall in question. In a tired-of-the-world voice he said, apparently letting us in on a professional secret, "If you push it a little and it doesn't fall it's stable. If it does fall it's not stable. Okay, guys?" He then went back to his business, washing his hands of us along with his role as stability officer.

One of his friends gave the wall in question a gentle push and the whole thing came crashing down. One of them said, "It wasn't stable."

Without looking up from his insects, our newly retired expert replied, "I already know that."



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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"The Makers Of Men"


On Sunday, I was riding the light rail home from the airport. A father and his son, who looked to be about five, boarded the train together. The father was immediately drawn into a conversation with a fellow passenger, while the boy, as young children do, began to make a study of the world around him. He started with the other passengers, including me, staring at each of us a bit too long as he thought his thoughts about us, then moved on to the train itself and the view outside the window.

At one point, he interrupted his father excitedly, "I think the airport is close to here!"

Dad paused in his conversation a moment to gently disabuse his son of the notion, saying, "The airport is father south. Now we're near Safeco Field." He then returned to his adult conversation. I followed the boy's eyes as he looked above the exit door, his lips moving slightly.

Moments later, the boy interrupted again, "Are we at the stadium?"

His father answered distractedly, "Yes, Safeco field is the baseball stadium."

The boy was attempting to make sense of the train map posted over the door. After a few moments of silent study he asked, "Are we going to Sodo?"

"No, we're getting off in the International District."

There was another beat of silence before the boy virtually shouted, "That's the next stop!"

This got his father's full attention, "That's right! How did you know that?"

"I read it up there," the boy answered, pointing.

"When did you learn how to read?"

The boy shrugged, then said, "Did you know that someone could ride this train all the way from the airport to the University of Washington?"

Children are always studying their world, of course, and if not the external one, then the internal one of their own emotions. We are born to be scientists, explorers, discoverers, piecing together clues and cues from the world around us, connecting what we observe, hear, feel, or intuit with what we already know to create brand new knowledge, underpinned by the old, just as this child had noodled through the symbols above the door of the train to make sense of his current place in the world and the potential for going new places. It was a door he had opened for himself and it clearly excited him.

Too many of us dismiss or ignore young children's capacity for teaching themselves through their own curiosity, falsely believing that only we grown-ups can tell them where to look. How will they ever learn to read if I don't teach them? How will they ever learn to cipher if I don't drill them? How will they know what's important unless I tell them? It's the kind of hubris that leads to the drill-and-kill model of education, the one in which adults drive and cajole children through subject matter about which they may or (in most cases) may not have a curiosity. It's the kind of hubris that leads our leaders to opine that we must educate our young for those "jobs of tomorrow," those fantastical cogs in the economic wheel that may exist today, but will be on the scrap heap of history by the time  our preschoolers are looking for meaningful employment.

Indeed, adults have no idea what specific skills will be required in the future: only the children know that because, in a very real sense, it will be those young scientists, explorers, and discoverers who will create those jobs of tomorrow, not we adults who, by the time the future arrives, brought to us by our very own children, will be in our retirement homes complaining that the world has passed us by. It's the children themselves, not the adults, who know what they need to know to get from here to there. As the great Maria Montessori wrote, "If help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children, for the children are the makers of men."

As we approached the International District station, the boy on the train was quietly reading off the names of each station along the line, not to show off for his father who had gone back to his conversation, but rather by way of proving it to himself, for himself, in preparation for the future he himself will create. This is his world and he is a maker of men.



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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

"This Time You'll Win"


When I was a boy, we owned a game called  Animal Twister, which my mother saved in her attic until I brought it into school few years ago. Like with traditional Twister, you start by spreading a vinyl sheet on the floor and removing your shoes. The "caller" has a stack of cards with pictures of animals that correspond to pictures on the vinyl sheet. Then you try to be the first to "capture" the animal using your hands and feet.

I keep a close eye on the game to make sure the competition doesn't get out of hand, but I've found that contrary to my adult fears, this game more often than not brings out the best in the children.

Normally, I serve as the "caller," but sometimes I  turn the duties over to one of the kids like I did a couple of years back with my friend Audrey. At one point as she was calling the cards, Phillip became frustrated with his lack of success and very quickly went into a mini tantrum, rolling about on the floor and crying. He found his way over by me, where he squeezed his body between my back and the a shelf where I stroked his shoulder as the rest of the kids continued the game. After a few minutes he decided he wanted to rejoin the game.

Face still red and wet, he didn't assume an alert ready position at the edge of the mat like the other kids, but rather stood there looking a bit hopeless. Before Audrey could make her call, he said rather pathetically, "I want to get one."

And I, rather cold-heartedly, answered, "You'll have to do your best."

He replied, "But I won't win." I was going to suggest that he might like to play somewhere else for awhile when Audrey took over.



She walked over to Phil, got right up close to him, and said, "This time you'll win. I just know it."

"No I won't," he answered, starting to cry again.

She said, "Yes, you will," then turning to the other competitors she commanded, "Everyone just stay where you are. It's Phil's turn." Turning back to Phil, getting right up close to make sure he heard her, "Okay? I'll call the card and everyone will let you have a turn all by yourself. Okay?"

He nodded. 

She then returned to her spot and called, "Cow! Hand!"

Phil stood at the edge of the mat scanning for the proper picture. When it became apparent that he simply was still too upset or feeling under pressure or whatever to identify the proper animal, Audrey quietly walked over to the cow and pointed it out with her toe. As the rest of us stood by, he walked slowly across the mat and touched the cow with his toe. Audrey whispered, "Hand! Use your hand!" Phil bent down and touched it with his hand. "Alright! You did it! You win!" and she handed him the card.

When he returned to his position at the edge of the mat, he was smiling through his wet face.

The next call was one of our usual free-for-alls, after which Phil complained, "I didn't win."

Audrey said, "That's okay. You won last time. Sometimes you don't win, sometimes you do." She then orchestrated another round in which Phil got a card. "See look," she said, handing him his card, "You won that time."

By now all the rest of the players were in on the system, alternating between competitive turns and turns manufactured for Phil to get a card. In fact during those turns, the other players began to help him as well, pointing out the pictures to him. He still had moments of frustration, once starting to walk away, but Audrey followed him and talked him back into the game, coaxing and encouraging.

Lukas had been playing the game for quite some time, had more or less memorized the mat, and was winning most of the other rounds. For the kids other than Phil and Lukas, it wasn't about winning the cards as much as the stocking-footed, bodying-bumping free-for-alls.

At one point, Audrey said, "Phil, you have seven cards! That's a lot! You're really doing good!" Lukas replied, "I have seven, too." Audrey got close and whispered to him, "Don't feel bad, I'm just trying to make Phil feel good." She then kept track of the two boys cards in her head, alternating between cheering for Phil and assuring Lukas, who became her teammate in keeping the card counts even.

After the round was complete, Phil announced he was going to do "something else." I followed him from the field of play as the game resumed behind me under Audrey's leadership. I asked, "Are you feeling better?"

"Yes, but I didn't really win."

I said, "You got a lot of cards."

"I did. Those guys were really nice to me."



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Monday, March 27, 2017

"Okay?"



"It's a party, okay?"

"Yeah, we need a cake."

"I'm the polar bear baby. She's kind of shy about the party."

"Oh, that's okay polar bear baby you can come with us."

"What if a ghost comes to the party?"

"Hey, we need a light for the party!"

"Let's pretend it's this guy's birthday, okay?"


Many years ago, my three-year-old friend Sylvia taught me to call it "playing a story." In this case they were using our classroom Duplos, each of them taking an avatar or two in hand, joining the circle. Sometimes newcomers ask something like, "What are you doing?" which leads to a hasty summary of where the story stands, but usually they just drop to their knees and listen for awhile until they have enough of the gist to join in.

I've always viewed these types of games as a kind of every day miracle. Only a few months ago, this would have been nearly impossible for most of these three and four year olds, to sit down together like this, to not be tempted by the urge to destroy, but rather to gather around on our bellies and knees and negotiate a story together. They may strongly assert the parts of the story that are about themselves like, "I'm the dinosaur!" but when it comes to the shared parts, their sentences tend to turn into questions and invitations as they look for agreement and participation from the rest of the kids.


It's from games like this that children begin to learn what they are going to need to be truly successful in life, which is to say, the skills and habits necessary to be productive, participating members of a community. Too often, there is an adult at the center of the games children play in school, directing, making rules, guiding, and even scolding, but it's only when the grown-ups shut up and get out of the way that the kids can really dig into the real work they need to do. 

I love few things more than being a fly on the wall as they strive to create their story world together, making assertions, then tagging an "okay?" at the end, creating space for the others to agree, alter or disagree; inviting others with sentences that begin with "Let's pretend . . ."; moving their bodies to accommodate one more person; talking to one another through the characters they hold in their hands, often dealing with important social and emotional issues; arguing productively (as opposed to combatively) when ideas clash, both sides willing to yield a little or a lot in the interest of keeping the story going.


These are the skills and habits they will use throughout life. This kind of play directly reflects what most of us spend our lives doing: coming together with other people around some shared challenge or interest or opportunity, putting our heads together, then creating the community or team that we want or need to get things done. It's as true in business as it is in the arts as it is in our neighborhoods. Indeed, this is, at bottom, what democracy itself is supposed to be about: people of goodwill coming together to figure things out.

What encourages me is that it is a universal thing. I see it everywhere children are freely playing together. Of course there are conflicts, but if we adults can manage to keep ourselves out of it for a few moments longer than is typical, the children, through the community they have created are often quite capable of handling it themselves.

"Hey! Don't take that! This is our party!"

"Yeah, we're using that!

"No, stomping dinosaurs!"

They may not always be as polite, but they are often far more effective than adults who so often come in and "fix" things.

"I wasn't taking it, I was just moving it over to here because my horse needed a chair."

"Oh, I'll put it back."

"The dinosaur just wants to stomp around the party, okay?"


There is nothing more important for humans than learning about life through playing stories like this. Some assert that our great evolutionary advantage is our big brains or our opposable thumbs or something like that, but the truth is that our biggest adaptive advantage is that we are hyper-social animals, using language and mathematics and all sorts of complex systems, forever making ourselves more and more reliant upon one another. It is our hunter-gatherer drive to live as members of a community that determines whether we thrive or struggle as a species. It is our hunter-gatherer drive to sit around the fire playing stories.

When children play like this, they are not just learning about the complex interplay between individual needs and those of the community, but, if we allow them, they are also teaching us how it's done. The answers are all there if we would only listen.

"Let's . . ."

"Okay?"


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Friday, March 24, 2017

The Mind Of Non-Discrimination


"We know that when we look into our cells as a human being, we see that the human being is only made of non-human elements.


"We have the mineral element in us. We have the element of vegetable in us. And we have the element of animal in us. We not only have human ancestors, but also animal ancestors and vegetable ancestors and also mineral ancestors; and our ancestors do not belong to the past, they belong to the present. They are fully present in us.


"Without them, we cannot see the way we see, we cannot think the way we think, we cannot live the way we live . . . So when I produce a thought, all the ancestors in me, including the mineral ancestors and animal ancestors, collaborate within me in order to produce that thought.


"It's like when you see -- when you look at a tree -- that is not the job of only your eyes. You know very well, without the brain, without the blood, without the cells in your body, without all that, "seeing" would be an impossible thing for eyes.


"So when the eyes see, the whole body is participating in the act of seeing. So when we produce a thought, when we reason, when we create music, when we do mathematics, not only are a number of neurons doing so, but the whole body, the whole lineage of ancestors in us are participating in producing that thought.


"So looking like that, you see that you are made of non-you elements and the non-you elements continue to be in you. And if you take the non-you elements out there is no more "you" left.


"So we have the complex of superiority as a human being. We think we have that kind of intelligence, that kind of consciousness, that other living beings do not have. But I'm not proud of that kind of mind that we are using in our daily life; the mind of discrimination caught by many notions; the foundation of all kinds of suffering.


"We discriminate against this and that, and that creates complexes of superiority, inferiority, equality, and so on.


"This plant has intelligence. This plant has knowledge. This plant has a will to live. This plant knows how to fabricate flowers and fruit, and how to continue to live the best way it can. And it seems to me this plant is creating far less suffering than human beings.


"I am not very proud of my mind of discrimination. Therefore, I am free from the complex of superiority of a human being. I know that I can do better.


"And that is why, when you produce a thought, Mother Earth is producing that thought together with you. Don't say that you are along producing that thought. Mother Earth is in you and she is producing that thought with you at the same time.


"So this thought is not your property. This thought is a creation of the whole earth; but not only the earth, but the sun also, because without the sun, the earth cannot be itself; and she is not able to create you and bring you into existence.


"So that is the mind of non-discrimination. As far as you use the mind of discrimination to judge and to organize, you continue to create suffering. That is why it is so important to remove notions at the foundations of discrimination and separation." ~Thich Nhat Hanh





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Thursday, March 23, 2017

"Be Careful! I Might Kick You!"




The only rule we have surrounding our swing set is that the adults don't push the kids. Other than that, we take things on an ad hoc basis, allowing the children to experiment and explore as they see fit, negotiating as new circumstances and new children arrive. 


Many of our four and five year olds, partly because adults are not pushing them, have figured out how to "pump" themselves, a rite of passage skill like whistling, snapping, or winking. This means that the kids are starting to experience some of their classmates swinging higher and faster than they did at the beginning of the school year. There may have been a time when the adults felt compelled to warn the kids about the danger of swings, but it's been months since I've heard one. That's because the children, of their own accord, perceiving the potential for injury should one not remain alert around a swing in motion, have taken on that role for themselves, listening to their inner voices of wisdom rather than the external one of command.



Last week, one of our newly-minted high flyers was really leaning into it. A couple of friends stopped to admire her. They stood directly in front of her in a spot close to where her feet were arcing into the sky, but just out of reach.

The girl in the swing shouted through a mischievous grin, "Be careful! I might kick you!"

Her friends reflected her grin back at her, then accepted the challenge by stepping closer. On most playgrounds an adult probably would have swooped in at this point, but our community of parent-teachers has learned that not only do these kids know their current limits, it's also necessary for them to occasionally test those current limits because that's part of how we grow in wisdom.


On the next swing forward, the swinger's boots missed the heads of her friends by a good two feet, so they stepped closer. This time they were within a foot of being kicked, so they stepped closer. This time their beaming faces were mere inches from her boots, so they stepped even closer. Now they were within range and they knew it. You could tell by how they prepared their bodies: poised to dodge. They had the measure of the timing by now and as those boots headed their way, they stood their ground until the last second, before falling back, pretending to be kicked, dramatically acting out the worst case scenario, laughing at the near miss they had carefully manufactured for themselves.

They did it again and again, all three of them laughing at the risk they were pretending to take. There were a couple times when the dodgers waited a bit too long or were a little clumsy in getting out of the way, but the girl on the swing simply curled her legs away from them, insuring that there was no actual contact even if there theoretically could have been.


These are important moments for children and when we over-regulate them we rob them of the opportunity to learn about themselves and others. As the adult responsible in that moment, I was alert, staying nearby, ready to coax or coach as the case may have required. I may have responded differently had different children been involved or different emotions or a different style of risk-taking. What I saw in this case, however, were three children fully in control of their situation even as it may have looked hazardous to someone viewing the situation from the outside.

This is the problem, of course, with many of our "safety" rules: they create hard, immovable boundaries when living, breathing ones are called for so that the children can actually make space into which they can grow, even if that space is only the whisker of daylight between the heel of a boot and your chin.


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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

"I Actually Love You The Same"





I had known the boy for two years. He didn't want his mom to leave, although she had left him at school hundreds of time before. He stood at the top of the stairs at the schoolyard gate, yelling after her, crying through the slats, saying, "Come back! I want to go with you!"

I sat beside him as he yelled. I said, "You want your mom to come back."

"Yes, I want her to come back." He cried and yelled some more.

"I think she has some things she has to do."

"She does," he answered. We had both heard her tell him that she had an appointment as she walked away. He cried and yelled some more.


When this happens with younger, less experienced children, I remind them of when mom will come back, but I knew that he already knew this. Instead, I said something else that was true, "I wish your mom would come back."

"Me too," he replied. He cried and yelled some more.

"I'm going to miss her."

"Me too," he replied.

"I wonder why."

"Because I love her."

"I love my mommy, too."

He started to cry and yell again, then stopped to tell me, "And I love my daddy."

I nodded, trying to wordlessly convey the idea that I was right there with him.


He was looking at me, tears still hanging from his lower lids, fingers still curled through the gate slats. He was thinking something through. Finally, he said, "I love you, too . . . " as if wanting to make sure I didn't feel left out.

I answered, "I love you," a little too eagerly, I guess, because he hadn't finished his thought.

". . . but not as much as Mommy or Daddy." Then he stopped again, perhaps taking a moment to absorb what I'd said on top of his words. In any case, after a moment, he let go of the gate and stepped toward me, "I actually love you the same." He didn't want me to feel unloved.

I said, "I'd like to play a story with you."

And he answered, "Me too."



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