Monday, September 25, 2017

Ultimate Life Skills



I played a lot of organized sports as a boy, mostly baseball, but I was also on football, basketball and soccer teams as well. I played eagerly, nagging mom to get me signed up, waiting impatiently for each coming season, then fully engaging in practices and games. My parents never emphasized winning, instead simply encouraging me to give it my best, and while some of my coaches may have slipped over the line at times, I learned basic sportsmanship with simultaneously coming to embrace the competitive aspect of sports.


Over the weekend I went to watch my nephew's middle school Ultimate (frisbee) match. I'd seen people playing the sport before, even paused to watch for a bit, but this was my first real exposure. From a fan's perspective, it's a fine sport to watch with plenty of action marked by teamwork and athleticism (running, throwing, defending, and catching). It's a non-contact sport, placing an emphasis on speed, leaping, and passing. I can imagine that were I a middle schooler, this might well have been one of my games.

At one point, a pair of girls were facing off, one handling the disc while the other defended. I didn't see what happened, but I looked up to see the disc on the ground and the action had stopped. The girls started talking. A coach called out, "Everyone freeze until they work it out!" The girls continued talking back and forth for a minute or so, then one of them picked up the disc and the game continued. What had I just witnessed?


There are no referees in Ultimate. From the game's inception in the late 60's, this has been part of the design of the game, with the players on the field instead empowered to enforce the rules according to "the spirit of the game." The coaches are not involved, the parents are not involved, their teammates on the sideline are not involved, only the players on the field can make determinations about fouls and other rule violations. If they cannot come to an agreement, the game is over. I could tell that neither of the girls wanted to admit fault, but they came to an agreement for the good of the game and then on they played. Later I saw another player call herself "out of bounds," before turning the disc over to the rival team.

Unlike the sports I used to play where "sportsmanship" was almost an afterthought, these higher values, these life skills, appear to be inextricably woven into the Ultimate game. There was no no yelling at the refs or the usual griping and moaning like we see in other sports. It was refreshing. Even more refreshing was that at the end of the match both teams stood together in an inward facing circle, teams intermixed. I couldn't hear what they talked about, but apparently it's an opportunity for players to compliment their opponents' play. After a bit, they were doing some sort of chicken dance together which was followed by a round-robin rock-paper-scissors competition.

I've always thought that the name "Ultimate" was a bit hyperbolic, but after what I saw on Saturday, I now understand.


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Friday, September 22, 2017

Jargon



I think I understand most of the things that other English speaking teachers say to me, unless they're from the UK, then I only understand about half. It's because of the jargon that I struggle, or rather, I don't struggle because when anyone talks at me with lots of acronyms or words like "provisioning" or expressions like "learning modules" my mind goes numb as I nod, make facial expressions that I hope are suitable, and wait for the moment when they seem to be pausing for my reply.

Every profession has it's jargon, of course, and it serves a purpose, often condensing complex ideas into word nuggets that make professional-to-professional communication more efficient. I know, for instance, that when a businessperson says "synergy" or "disruptor" or "market cap" she is using a sort of code for a whole set of ideas or dynamics that her fellow businesspeople understand. Likewise, the teaching profession has its jargon, a secret language that I really don't speak even if I can sometimes noodle out the meaning through contextual cues.

I suppose if I spent my day hanging around other teachers, I would pick it up pretty quickly, but I've spent my entire career in cooperative schools where my colleagues are mostly the parents of the kids I teach and while there is jargon used by parenting "experts" and educators, it's rarely used by us in our day-to-day life where we mostly engage in simple jargon-free dialog.

While there are obvious benefit to professional jargon, the biggest downside is that if people don't learn to turn if off and on depending on circumstances, the very words that make communication more efficient within a profession can also create a barrier to comprehension for the uninitiated and sometimes it seems that jargon is actually used for exactly that purpose: to make things seem more complex than they are, to keep the outsiders confused and at bay. At least that's how I feel much of the time when I attend professional conferences or seminars.

It shouldn't bug me, but it does. I mean, I don't think education is a particularly complicated thing and I worry that our instinct to make it seem more complicated than it needs to be, and jargon is only the superficial manifestation of that, is harmful. It tends to put the focus on the "teaching" or the "curriculum" or the "standards" or even the facilities, making it about us, the grown-ups, rather than the children. It's the children who need to lead the way by asking and answering their own questions, by satisfying their own curiosity, by engaging in their own experiments. My job, the job of the adults, is simply to provide a community within which children are free to do that. The rest is up to the kids who educate themselves by simply playing with one another. So that's what we do, come together day-after-day in our little town square and that's as complicated as it needs to be.

But that still doesn't mean we're jargon free. We're not even two weeks into the school year and already our own, special jargon is starting to emerge. "Bad guy traps," "jewels," and "poopy butt" are already being used as communication short-cuts that contain more meaning than outsiders can comprehend. It's jargon designed to unify rather than complicate or exclude: it's the kind of jargon of which I fully approve.


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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Genius




Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will . . .  ~Charles Baudelaire

According to the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, 98 percent of kindergarteners qualify as "creative geniuses." By age 25, only three percent can make that claim.

To me, that 98 percent seems a bit low. I have never met a preschool aged child who is not, in her or his own way, a genius. The three percent rate for adults, however, seems about right. Until I read about the Torrance Test, I figured that my observation and interpretation of this phenomenon likely had more to do with my own prejudices than anything else. I mean, certainly there is genius within each adult as well, left over from childhood, but now simply hidden beneath the layers of normalcy and averageness that come to form the shell of what we call being "grown up."

Every parent of every preschooler I have ever met knows that her child is a genius. Sometimes they are proud of early-onset "academic" skills, but more often they are astonished by genius of the creative, social, emotional, or physical variety. "She can climb to the top of anything!" they might enthuse or, "He cries when another child gets hurt!" or, "She makes friends everywhere we go!" You hear genuine astonishment in their voices, the way one always does when one is discussing genius.


Cynics might say that I'm not writing about genius as much as the doting adoration of parental love, but from my perch as a teacher in a cooperative school, I've spent decades listening to parents being equally astonished at the genius they see in other people's kids. Indeed, I've long felt that one of the most powerful aspects of the cooperative model is that it gives parents front row seats to not only their own child's genius, but also that of others.

The sad truth, however, is that the adult world tends to only reward certain types of genius, those we typically file under "academic" in school settings, then "economic" in the years afterwords, but even then only after pounding it into more traditionally useful shapes. That, I expect, is why genius is so rarely seen in adults: it's there but relegated to the ashcan of uselessness because it serves neither academics or commerce.


As havens set aside for the preservation of genuine childhood, places like the Woodland Park Cooperative School (where I teach) are free to celebrate genius in all its forms whether or not it can pass through the infinitely fine sieve that sorts useful from useless. This is perhaps the greatest sin of our tradition of schooling: it is in many ways a decades-long process of pounding down the nails that stick up as we increasingly value conformity, order, and normalcy. The child with a genius for whistling or comedy or climbing onto the roof of the school is typically shut up or shut down as we seek to force their genius into the molds of usefulness, of averageness.

Genius is quirky, unusual; it may seem insane or even dangerous. Most of the time it is "useless" because we can't grade it or pay for it, but it is genius nevertheless. We all have it, then we outgrow it. I don't think Baudelaire was wrong: the genius is the one who has remained passionately connected to her childish self.

I sometimes try to imagine what it would do to the world if we raised an entire generation that could recapture childhood at will. It would be a world in which our institutions, like schools, would exist not to create standardized products as if off an assembly line, but rather to fill the world with one-of-a-kind humans free to pursue their highest potential according to her or his own genius. It would mean that we spend our lives playing because that is obviously the soil in which genius best grows. I suppose a world of genius would present it's own problems, but in a world in which play stands at the fore, I like our odds of being able to solve them.


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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Train Track Back




His mother left and he didn't like that. He stood at the hallway door crying while I sat with him, although he soon made it clear that he would rather that I give him space so I did. Earlier, a couple of his three-year-old classmates had spontaneously tried to comfort him with hugs, but he had rejected those as well.

I remained near, however, and as the intensity of his emotion began to ebb, I went back into the classroom to retrieve a couple train cars. I put them on the floor beside him, saying, "When you're finished crying, here are some trains to play with." He stopped to look at the trains. I said, "I'll get you some tracks too." I returned moments later with a couple pieces of train track, putting them on the floor with the trains. I wasn't trying to distract him, but I wanted him to at least have some options.


A classmate, one of those who had earlier offered him a hug had been watching me and, I guess, found my efforts inadequate because the moment I stepped away, she stepped in, assembling the tracks for him. She then said, "I'll get more," returning to the classroom for additional railway sections. As the boy whimpered at the door, she began assembling a track, one piece at a time, down the center of the hallway. By the time she was finished, she had built a track from him back into the classroom. She said to him, "I finished your track," then went back inside to play.


He was finished with his cry by now, squatting to examine the train cars, an engine and a cargo car. Over the course of the next twenty minutes then, he slowly engineered his train along the track until he arrived at the classroom doorway where the track his friend had built came to an end. The rest of the way he was on his own. From there he could see his classmates playing with the rest of the trains and tracks. He sat there fiddling with his two train cars for a long time until finally he crossed the threshold and joined the rest of us.


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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Let's Just Let Children Play




Why are so many of us so afraid to just let children play? 


Not long ago, we got out our boxes of Magna-Tiles. These are cool, popular building toys. If your classroom doesn't have a set or two, I recommend them. As I watched the children build, I noticed a battered page of instructions at the bottom of the box that bore the headline Magna-Tiles "where math, science & creativity meet." The text then goes on to discuss Pythagoras and the history of mathematics. To their credit, they do recommend that children be allowed to explore their toys through open-ended creative play, but the very fact that this needed to be emphasized at all is a bad sign.


It's as if we've become convinced that young children are just wasting their valuable time when they "just" play, that every minute spent not exploring math, science and creativity leaves our kids another minute behind those Chinese kids who, legend has it, never rest. The fact that all play is educational, that all toys are educational is beside the point: when did we lose sight of the fact that play is what children are supposed to do?


I reckon we can, at least in part, blame the corporate education reformers who have intentionally sewn seeds of doubt about the efficacy of our educational system, selling the story that our schools are failing, causing parents to fear that junior is fall behind, that even those precious evenings and weekends when their kids aren't engaged in homework or extracurricular enrichment activities must be chock-a-block with things like Pythagoras. 


When did we forget that all play is educational and because of that all toys are educational? Maybe we never knew it, of course; maybe our grandparents just sort of intuited that kids needed play, that they didn't need adults hovering over them drilling them with stupid questions or "teaching" them this or that. Maybe they just understood that without play, and lots of it, there is no childhood.


As I watched the children using Maga-Tiles to create castles and cars, squares made of squares and triangles made of triangles, as I heard them negotiate for blocks and tabletop space, as they chattered about their thoughts and discoveries, it didn't occur to me that they were doing anything other than playing, having fun, until I spotted that sheet of instructions telling me about Pythagoras. We were outdoors, on the playground. No one was making them sit at these tables to build with these plastic, magnetized blocks: they were choosing it, freely, and they could just as freely walk away which many of them did the moment it stopped being fun. Or rather, the moment something else looked like more fun.


And even as I write that, I can see the fear-mongers wagging their fingers, I can hear them tut-tutting: "Where's the gritWhere's the rigor? How will they ever learn about hard work?"


Anyone who has spent any time watching young children play knows that grit, rigor, and hard work are at the heart of all true free play. What they really mean to ask is "How will the children ever learn to do the rote tasks that others demand of them?" Or perhaps, "How will they learn to obey?"


That isn't what childhood is for, although that's what adulthood sometimes teaches us, and no amount of practice makes it any easier, unless what they're talking about is "breaking them." What kind of Dickensian villain would take away childhood in exchange for the work house?


At the end of the day, after the families had left, the Magna-Tiles packed away in their boxes, I reopened them to remove that sheet of instructions and threw it in the recycling. Play is its own reward; the kids don't need that piece of paper around encouraging adults to make it "educational." First they need their childhood.




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Monday, September 18, 2017

None Of Us Wants To Be Told What To Do




My wife and I have had four dogs over the course of our three decades together. Whenever I have made the mistake of pulling on any of their leashes, they pull in the opposite direction every time. Believe me, left to their own devices, they always want to go where ever I go. I know this because when there is no leash involved they follow right on my heels, hot breath on the backs of my legs, tripping me up when I turn around unexpectedly, but if they sense I'm compelling them, their instinctive response is to rebel.

I've found this to be true in humans as well. No one likes to be told what to do, even when we know it's for our own good, even when it's something we want to do. Imagine being commanded, "Eat your dessert!" I might still eat that dessert, but there will be a moment of reluctance, of rebellion, even if it's chocolate ice cream. And I know if I do, it's not going to taste as good after being bossed into it. And depending on who says it and how they say it, there's about an equal chance I won't eat that damn ice cream at all.


Rebellion is built into us, and ultimately it is an adaptive trait. We all pull back against the leash because we are designed to act according to the pull of our own instincts and the tug of our own knowledge. Of course, we've all found ourselves in circumstances when we've decided that we must stuff our rebellious urges, but we always grow to despise those dictatorial bosses or teachers. If we do well it's usually "in spite" of them. And, of course, we wriggle out of those particular leashes as soon as we possibly can.

Parents know the truth about rebellion all too well. We set limits and rules and our children always test them. Even the most patient and progressive among us know, from the inside, that teeth grinding spiral of commands and refusals, until we finally resort to either physical force or the heavy hand of punishment. It leaves everyone feeling angry, resentful, and abused. And if we're not careful, if we're not conscious parents, these smaller spirals become part of a larger whirlpool of ever escalating rule breaking and punishments because every pull on the leash, every punishment, leads to a pull in the opposite direction.

Some of us have decided that this rebellion is a bad thing, at least when it's directed at us, and it must be quashed at all costs. We're the parents after all. We will not have our authority challenged. If that's your approach, your future will likely be either one of temporary, savorless victories followed by frustration, or a regime that involves punishments of increasingly extreme severity. Every study ever done on the subject of punishment (both parental and societal) winds up concluding that punishments only work under two circumstances:

  1. when the punisher is present; or
  2. when the punishment is debilitating (e.g., so disproportionately severe that one will never again risk it.)

Most of us are unwilling or unable to play the role of ever-present punisher. And I hope that none of us are the type to inflict debilitating punishments on our child.

The alternative is to accept rebellion as a demonstration that our child is healthy and normal, that it is not a sign that she is on her way to a life of crime and ruin, but rather evidence that she thinks for herself, trusts her own instincts, and will not be pushed around. When we accept this, we see that our job is to guide rather than command our children, to help them come to the understanding that behavior has its own rewards and consequences. I've written before about "natural consequences" and they apply here.

A parent taking away a boy's dessert because he hits his sister isn't the natural consequence of hitting. The consequence is that his sister is hurt and the evidence of that is the crying. That's where our attention ought to be. "You've hurt your sister," keeps the focus on the boy's behavior, allowing everyone to explore the consequence and potential remedies. "No dessert for you," turns the boy's attention on the "unfairness" of the parent who is pulling on that damn leash.


Rebelliousness is not a synonym for "anti-social" or "uncivil," it's merely a reaction to the leash. We all want to do the right thing and none of us wants to be told what to do.


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Friday, September 15, 2017

Lord Of The Flies



One of the great "lies" in all of literature is William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies. For those unfamiliar with it, and I can hardly believe there are many over the age of about 35, it's the story of a group of British school boys who find themselves castaways, without adults, on a tropical island. Their efforts to form a society, however, fall apart as they succumb to their essential evil natures becoming brutish murderers, saved when adults in the form of the British navy arrive, drawn by the smoke from a fire the boys have set that is consuming the island.


I'm not saying it isn't a good book, but rather that it takes an exceedingly grim view of human nature, one based in the ideas of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who argued that without strong control from government, religion, and other social institutions, life among humans is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." 


I mention this book because it is quite regularly brought up to me by those who have objections to the child-centered, play-based approach advocated on these pages. There is a strain of thought that what we do leads to a sort of law-of-the-jungle free-for-all that will ultimately end in tears, chaos, and worse.


This, of course, is the opposite of the truth that I have found in the world, and is why I call it a lie.


Not long ago, inspired by a couple of our classmates who brought their new skateboards for show-and-tell, we broke out our classroom "scooters." There were ten wheeled vehicles for 20+ kids. In the first few moments there was a mad, competitive scramble, with a few children complaining loudly, "I want a turn!" Conditioned by a world that tends to buy into Hobbes whether we like it or not, we adults girded ourselves to manage the negotiations, assuming they would need our strong control.


Of course, as anyone knows who works with young children the way we do, that's not what happened.  After an initial flurry of back-and-forth amongst the kids, some of it angry, some of it sad, they settled into their play. 


Despite racing about at high speeds in randomly chosen directions, there were few accidental collisions, as the children instinctively knew when to brake and how to steer in order to avoid harming one another. This isn't to say there weren't collisions, but those were most often encountered by mutual consent, one that was typically forged by making eye contact, smiling, and then slowing down to create a controlled contact. A few felt it necessary to fortify this agreement by announcing, "I'm going to crash you!" just to make sure everyone was on the same page. Indeed, the children, even while speeding across the floor, were in constant communication, talking, scolding, warning, objecting, listening, and agreeing.


After a time, rather than breaking up into "civil war" as Golding and Hobbes would predict, the opposite happened. The longer they played the more they joined together cooperatively, creating games of catch, and trains of kids on wheels, each grabbing hold of the one in front, laughing until their cheeks were red.


After our initial forays into adult control that generally only made things worse, we found ourselves stepping back, sitting off to the sides, joining the games when invited, but otherwise observing that the law-of-the-jungle, at least our jungle, is actually one from which a great society could be built. I'm not saying there weren't conflicts and tears along the way, but instead of steps toward a burning island in need of rescue, those moments were part of a general movement of the children in the contrary direction, toward one another rather than away; they were instinctively exploring a path toward a cooperative existence, the way human nature tends when the "adults" seek to support rather than control.


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