Friday, November 17, 2017

"It's Safe"




When I first saw the boy sitting on a plastic truck at the top of the concrete slope, I felt the urge to put a stop to it. My knee-jerk risk assessment went something like this:
  1. Plastic trucks not designed to be sat upon, especially by these large 5-year-old bodies
  2. Concrete slope
  3. Short runway with a raised planting bed made of wood at the bottom
  4. Even if these competent kids could manage it, their success might lure less competent friends to try it
  5. Tender flesh and precious heads


I made it to the scene before anyone had put themselves at the mercy of gravity, "That doesn't look safe to me."

He looked from me to the slope. "It's safe."

"There's hard concrete and hard wood and a steep slope."


He gave the scene another once-over, then spoke from the perspective of a five-year-old boy sitting on a plastic digger at the top of a concrete slope, thinking about his own life and limb, "I won't get hurt." 

This is a boy who tends to look before he leaps, usually not the first in line for a risky venture, but rather more typically third or fourth, peering around those in front of him to observe what's going on, learning from their mistakes. In that moment, I tried to imagine what he saw, returning me briefly to my days as a boy who had made similar risk assessments. In the backs of both of our minds, I think, was the much longer, steeper concrete slope in our outdoor classroom, the one we both felt would be too big a risk. Daredevils might try it, but not us.

"Okay, I'll be here to pick you up if you fall."


With that he let himself go down the short ride, stopping so abruptly against the planting bed that the rear wheels were lifted of the ground. There was triumph behind his smile.


When he started dragging his truck back up the slope, I stopped worrying about him, turning my attention to the safety of the planting bed and the second boy who, having witnessed the success, was now steering a truck of his own into place.

I said, "Hang on! I don't want you guys to wreck the garden." The boys waited one behind the other as I dropped a car tire on the ground. "You can run into this."


As the boys took turns in this game of speed, slope, and impact, I began to worry again as other kids stopped by to check things out. I wondered if this was the time for physically less capable children to want their turns, emboldened beyond their reason by the success of these first two. But one after another they watched, then moved on to other things, the monkey-see-monkey-do chain reaction I'd feared not in evidence.

I could have let my fears over-ride the superior risk assessment capabilities of the boys. Instead, I offered my counsel, then trusted their judgement, while being near to pick them up if they fell.


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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Where They Are The Experts



Last week I wrote a piece about what is popularly referred to as "loose parts," or what I prefer to call "junk and debris." One reader referring to a body of research that consistently finds that children engaged in loose parts play use more math language and more elaborate vocabulary than children playing with traditional toys or during structured play and wondered why that would be.


I don't know for sure, of course, but I expect that it has to do with the fact that open-ended, unscripted playthings cause children to engage in more cooperative play, which requires communication, not with adults, but with other kids who are likewise learning math and vocabulary. Whereas "toys" and adult-lead activities tend to be more predictable, with many of their answers built into them, children interacting with loose parts are more likely to run across new concepts and unexpected challenges, situations that require children to stretch themselves in order to communicate with one another.


For instance, children building with familiar unit blocks, with their regular sizes and flat edges are playing in a more predictable environment, one that is less likely to present new concepts or unexpected challenges. Children building with a collection of pinecones, sticks, rocks and leaves, on the other hand, are playing with far less standardized building materials, ones that take children to places where they must find new language to communicate about things like relative density, shape, size, fragility, texture, and other aspects of their materials. The answers are not built into these materials.


Whenever children play together without the interference of adults, they are creating their own world, not just through their physical project, but also through the words and concept they discover and communicate about together. Often the words they use are imprecise at first, leading to disagreements and confusion. Often they misinterpret concepts, leading faulty theories. As they continue to play, however, as they learn more about the world they are creating, their language tends to become more precise and their theories more refined. I enjoy few things more than when children begin using terminology of their own devising, their own short-cut jargon, to describe phenomena they have discovered together.

This is why giving children the chance to engage in unstructured play with junk and debris is so powerful, it removes most of the "scripts" that are baked into regular toys and structured play, freeing children to create a world of their own, a place where they are the experts.


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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

When Democracy Suffers



I'm weary of hearing about "STEM," the popular acronym for "science, technology, engineering, and math." I'd be shocked if anyone reading here isn't aware of it being tossed around. Indeed, many of us have picked it up and held it high, declaring that play-based education is the perfect preparation for a career in STEM. Some of us have gotten clever and begun talking about STEAM education, tossing in "art" by way of expanding the notion, but it's a poor fit because "art" is not a career path the way the others are.


We're right, of course. When children play, they are scientists: exploring, discovering, hypothesizing, experimenting, concluding. When children play they are using the technology at hand, solving engineering problems, and engaging in the sorting, organizing, and categorizing that forms the foundations of mathematics. All of that is true.


My objection is that all this talk about STEM is just the latest way to keep our schools focused exclusively on vocational training, to prepare our children for those mythological "jobs of tomorrow," jobs that may exist today, but are unlikely to exist two decades from now when our preschoolers are seeking to enter the job market. It's a scam as old as public education, an idea that emerged from the Industrial Revolution because back then the "jobs of tomorrow" were stations along an assembly-line, where rote and repetition were king, so we made schools to prepare the next generation for that grim life. Today, those "jobs of tomorrow" are in cubicles, pushing buttons on computers, vocations that are equally prone to rote and repetition and equally likely to not exist in the future.


Most of the jobs my daughter will be applying for in the coming years didn't exist when she was in preschool. If I'd pursued the careers my guidance counselors recommended in high school, I'd be unemployed today. Anyone who claims to know the specific skills required for the jobs of tomorrow is just blowing smoke. They are wrong and they have always been wrong. Those jobs of tomorrow, as is true in every generation, will instead be largely invented by the generation that fills them.


I did not enter the teaching game to prepare young children for their role in the economy and if vocational training is the primary function of schools, then I'd say we ought to just shut them all down and let the corporations train their own damn workers. No, the purpose of education in a democracy ought to be to prepare children for their role as citizens and that means that they learn to think for themselves, that they ask a lot of questions, that they question authority, that they stand up for what they believe in, and that they understand that their contribution to the world cannot be measured in money. The project of self-governance requires educated citizens, people who are self-motivated, who are sociable, and who work well with others. That is why I teach.


I'm married to the CEO of a technology company. She didn't study STEM in school. In fact, she admits to having stayed steer clear of those classes, opting instead for a broad liberal arts education, one in which she pursued her passion for learning languages. Today, people invite her, as a one of those rare unicorns, "a woman in STEM," to speak with young people about her career. She is rarely invited back because she doesn't tell the kids what their teachers want them to hear. Instead, she tells them the truth, which is that her success is based on being self-motivated, being sociable, and working well with others.


Being able to earn a living is important and none of this is to say that children ought not pursue their STEM interests whether they lead to a career or not. But these things cannot stand at the center of education and when they do, democracy suffers.


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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A Reaction In My Soul




I'm familiar with the best known pedagogical approaches out there, not expert, but at least reasonably well-read. I take from them what I think I can make work within our little cooperative preschool and while I don't exactly disregard the rest, because I do keep a lot of things in the storeroom of my mind just in case, I don't feel compelled to implement anyone else's approach lock, stock and barrel.

That's probably why I have such a strong visceral reaction to the so-called corporate education reformers, with their high-stakes standardized test, standardized curricula, standardized teacher training, and their expectations of standardized results. Yes, I've come to hate that they seek to profit-ize schools, turning children into a kind of labor force in their economic enterprise, that they want it's focus to be exclusively vocational, and that they desire to narrow what our schools do down to little more than math and literacy factories. But, I've had to learn to distrust those aspects of what they're doing to public education; it's the threat of cookie-cutter sameness that causes a reaction in my soul.

One of the challenges presented by these blocks (that are really diaper
wipe boxes) is that they are so easy to build with that quite often a
single child or group of children will come to dominate all the blocks.

No, you'll rarely find me advocating for "best practices," except perhaps in the context of what I've found works best for me and the children I teach. Even within the play-based world there are sometimes attempts to standardize things, or if not that, at least reduce what we do into formulas that can be picked up by others. They are well-intended efforts, for the most part, designed to help newcomers to our world to implement a play-based program in their own school. Or, quite often, they are intended to be persuasive; an attempt to put what we do in the language of standardization so that doubters will take us seriously. A necessary evil perhaps, but one that makes me cringe.

Most play-based folks, for instance, advocate for a child-lead approach, one in which the teacher helps guide or "scaffold" or support children as they make their own freely chosen explorations or are driven by their own passions. The adults' role is typically seen as getting out of the way as much as possible and it will be through the opportunity to simply play together that children will learn what they most need to learn. And, indeed, I've found all of this to be spot-on.

I suspect that this project came about because of conflicts among peers and a desire to
 find a  solution. Playing with the parent-teacher managing the block area, these girls built
a  "warehouse" for all the blocks, organized by color. The idea, as I understood it, was that
 if someone wanted a block, they came to the warehouse to take what they needed.
 The girls then returned the blocks to their proper place when the builders were done.


The problem is that I, this individual person who is a teacher, got into this game largely because I really love to play with young children. I wouldn't last long in a rigid role of quiet observation and minimal intervention. I'm not here to care for them, although I do that. I'm not here because I think they're cute, although they are. I'm not here for any reason other than that I like to play with them. I need to be down there on my knees in the middle of the game or story or project. I have no desire to lead it, no desire to control it, no desire to make it into a "teaching moment." I just want to be there too, playing along, laughing, building towers to knock down, swirling my hands in the finger paint, squishing the play dough, talking about whatever pops into my head as a result of whatever we're doing, and listening to whatever pops into their heads. I hope it's not that I still have a lot to learn from these things (although that might be a part of it) but rather than I feel I must do these thing in order to enter into the flow: their flow. And it is, I think, when we are in flow together that the universe is ours.

And then, when I feel the flow is carrying us along, that is when I step away and go find some other kids to play with. If you don't know what I mean, it doesn't matter. You have your own reason for being a teacher, one that I'll bet you'd have a hard time describing to me.

The parent-teacher played with them, taking part in the problem-solving,
inserting vocabulary like "inventory" and "supply." The children lead 
throughout, getting into an easy flow of play that engaged them. When
Sasha, the child leading the first wave of warehouse play finally moved
on to something else, Sienna took over, creating a new warehouse, modeled
on the first but horizontal rather than vertical. As she said to me, "The
other one made kids want to knock it down. Nobody wants to knock this
one down."

Because of this, I don't believe I could teach anywhere but in a cooperative, a place in which I work every day with a team of dedicated parent-teachers, each of them with their own reason for being there. I do talk to them about the importance of getting out of the way. In fact, I used to tell them that their main job was to keep their station reasonably tidy and inviting, and to only intervene when the children needed help with their conflicts, or their struggles were overwhelming them. I now tell them that their job is to play with the children, not to take over, but to simply be one of them.

I'm sorry that I can never write posts here that provide you with "5 tips" or "10 keys," but it's not like that, not for me. Teaching cannot be standardized, cannot be reduced to a list or a program that can be taught in 6 months or 4 years or a lifetime. I can tell you what I do, what we do, and I can tell you that it changes from year to year, month to month, week to week, and day to day, because we are not standardized people, the children and parents and teacher who are this school.

If we are to ever become who we can be, we must first find a way to be who we are. And that can never be standardized.


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Monday, November 13, 2017

Where Worksheets Are Always Optional



My heart goes out to all those preschoolers who are today and every day being compelled to do stuff, not because it's stuff they need to do, not because it's the good or right thing to do, and certainly not because it's the best thing to do, but because some day down the road, the reasoning goes, other adults are going to seek to compel them to do things they would rather not do and so we might as well get them used to it.



Frankly, I hope they never get used to it. A few years ago, one of my former students moved on to a public school kindergarten where he refused to do his worksheets. While the other kids bent over them, he goofed around. After a couple weeks the teacher, at her wit's end, sent the entire stack of worksheets home with the boy, expecting his mother to march him through them. Both parent and child refused. As I said to the mother at the time, "What are they going to do, expel him? What are they going to do, give him an F in worksheets? And even if they did, what difference will it make in his life?"


Most of the children I teach manage "just fine" (a melancholy measurement, if you ask me) when confronted by the compulsory nature of normal schools. They might not like it, but they resign their noses to the grindstone after awhile and I take pride in at least not being the one who bent them to it. And it's true that many of the kids I teach go on to thrive in public schools despite having spent the previous several years not being compelled in preparation for being compelled, which kind of puts the lie to the arguments of the "school readiness" crowd.


Our playground is built on a slope, making it inevitable that children will regularly get the idea to roll things down it. For the last couple weeks, we've been rolling tires. They wrestle them to the top of the short flight of stairs that descend from the gate, wrestle them onto the ramp they make from a plank of wood, then call out their cautions before letting them go. Other kids, seeking to keep themselves and others safe, create a wall of junk halfway down the hill near the garden, continually repairing it as the tires crash into it. Other children mill about in between, thrilling themselves by standing in the way of the tires, then leaping aside at the last second. At any given moment there will be anywhere from five to a dozen of them engaged in the game in some way, creating, experimenting, cooperating, playing. No one is telling them what to do. Instead, they are doing what they were born to do, asking and answer their own questions about their world and the people they find there.


These children are preparing themselves for life much more directly and effectively than those bent over desks filling out worksheets from which they may or may not be learning anything, but certainly not what they most need or want to learn. Instead, they spend their days practicing for the decades of compulsory schooling that lie ahead, rather than life itself, a place where worksheets are always optional.

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Friday, November 10, 2017

"You Just Teach Silly Things"



He said, "Teacher Tom, you should teach us things. You never teach us anything, just silly things."

I answered, "What do you mean? I teach you stuff all the time."

"No, you don't. You just teach us silly things."

"Okay, so what do you want me to teach you about?"

"I don't know."

This is a boy who enjoys knowing things. He has previously informed us that he knows everything about spiders, likewise volcanoes, and has followed that up by lecturing us with his impressive store of knowledge. Every preschool classroom has children like this, those who pursue their narrow passions, absorbing everything they can comprehend through the repeated watching of videos and library books and asking questions. It's self-directed learning at its most obvious. 

Of course, every child is in the process of learning "everything" about something, it's just that their passions don't always fall so nicely into one of the "academic" categories like biology or geology. Some, for instance, might be going deep on their friendship skills or drawing the perfect butterfly or Star Wars. And some simply aren't specialists in life, at least not yet, opting instead, as my own daughter did to be more of a generalist, dabbling in lots of different pots, exploring the breadth of the world instead of its depth. That's also what self-directed learning is about.

I said, "Okay, how about I teach you everything about trees?"

"No."

"Then I could teach you everything about buildings."

"No."

"What about cheetahs?"

"No." By now he was grinning as if he has suddenly understood a joke I was telling, as if he somehow realized that it was up to him, not me, to pick the subject, and that I was being silly yet again in even suggesting otherwise.

"Tell you what, when you think of something you want me to teach you, just tell me and I'll teach you."

"No, I'll teach me! You just teach silly things." 



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Thursday, November 09, 2017

Knowing The Full Story



As a boy, my brother and I owned a game called Rebound. It's a tabletop version of shuffle board that one plays using small plastic disks with ball bearings in the center, rolling them to bounce off a pair of rubber bands before they scoot into the scoring zone. It has survived to find a second life in our classroom. Despite hundreds of children having played with it over the years not only has it remained intact, but we still have all 16 of the small game pieces.

I suppose some might consider it a kind of miracle that nothing has been lost or broken, but it's not magic. Whenever I make the game available to the kids, I tell it's story, the one about how it's my old toy, how my brother and I used to play with it, how it is 40 years old, and special to me. I ask them to treat it gently and to try to not lose the pieces. They then play with it, sometimes rowdily, sometimes until all the pieces are on the floor, but at the end of the day, for going on two decades now, all the pieces have always been there.

Yesterday, I forgot to tell the story of the game. Within minutes, I heard the sound of the Rebound board crashing to the floor. Fortunately, it didn't break, and I used it as an opportunity to inform a few of the kids of its background. Not long later, however, I discovered that several of the game pieces were missing. We looked everywhere for them, but no luck. I began to suspect that one of the children had snatched a fistful to use elsewhere in the classroom, not maliciously, but rather in the spirit of loose parts. I imagined I'd find them later, perhaps years later, in a container somewhere or squirreled away in a nook. Still, I was feeling a bit melancholy, even as I attempted to be philosophical. After all, I wasn't going to get to keep those things forever.


We still didn't find the pieces when we tidied up, so when we re-gathered on the checkerboard rug to de-brief before going outside, I told the game's story, hoping that one of them would recall what he or she had done with the lost pieces. I strived to tell the story in a matter-of-fact manner without suggesting any sort of suspicion or blame. I just wanted them to know that I missed those pieces and why. The children listened, several offered theories about where the lost ones might be, some offered to make me some new ones, but none offered any clues to the mystery.

Several minutes later, however, as we gathered in the mud room to gear up for the weather, one girl presented me with the lost pieces, saying, "Here they are." She had indeed squirreled them away, not in the classroom, but in her own cubby, intending, I suppose, to take them home as treasures. She had admired them, had wanted them, had secured them for herself. Children often take things home in their jacket pockets, small things, usually of little value like bottle caps or florist marbles. I'm sure she had considered these game pieces in that light, small, plentiful, insignificant things that no one would miss. When she heard my story, however, she readily returned them, knowing that they meant more to me than they ever would to her.

People often describe young children as selfish, forever putting their own needs and desires above those of others, but it's not, on balance, true. Usually, what we label as self-centered is really just a result of them not knowing (or not being developmentally capable of understanding) the full story, which is, I think, probably true of most humans most of the time.



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