Monday, February 20, 2017

Today I'm 55

Ninety percent of life is showing up. ~Woody Allen
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. ~Goethe
Experience is the name we give our mistakes. ~Oscar Wilde

I went back last night to take a look at what I wrote here on my birthday five years ago. I'm happy to report that I still stand by every word, so I'm sharing it again today with a few edits to account for the passage of time.

Now I'm 55. It's not exactly a milestone birthday, but I nevertheless think that permits me the indulgence to offer a piece of unsolicited advice.

That's a long time to have lived, don't you think? Fifty-five years? I've seen over half a century. I've lived in historic times. I should by now know most of what I'm ever going to know about life. I've still got my health, accented by a few well-earned aches and pains. I love my work. This should be my time, baby!

Here's one thing I know: Goethe was right, there is magic in boldness. If 90 percent of life is just showing up, then I'd say another 9 percent is boldness.

Of course, boldness must be formed from something; otherwise it's just brashness or, worse, its embarrassing cousin, braggadocio. I've found one does need at least a little genuine, deep-down confidence to pull off boldness, and that can only come from experience or out-of-this-world innate talent. Since I never discovered my world class innate talent, I'm left to rely on experience. 

I'd say that 90 percent of boldness comes from that confidence. And 90 percent of that confidence comes from experience.

And experience is the name we give our mistakes.

So, you know, the secret to life is to show up and make some mistakes before it's too late.

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Friday, February 17, 2017

"I'll Help You"

Like every preschool with which I'm familiar we celebrated Valentines Day this week by exchanging messages of love and friendship with one another. I know, I know, it's a "Hallmark holiday," but so what? I like that we set aside at least one day every year to celebrate love in all its forms. Our tradition is that each kid makes his or her own construction paper pocket, decorated with hearts, lace, and other bits and bobbles, which serves as a "mailbox" into which classmates deliver their Valentines. In the morning, I set up long tables in the large room across the hall from the class room, lay out the pockets, then as the kids arrive, they start their day by distributing their cards. At the end of the day, they take them home then spend the afternoon enjoying them. It's straight-forward and simple.

The kids in our 4-5's class have come to understand that they are indeed in charge of the curriculum, and one boy in particular almost daily requests some special activity or another. Often they are things that require some prep time so we often have to agree to the following day, but not always. On Wednesday, he asked for "mat slamming." The tables were still set up in middle of the the big room, so I answered, "How about tomorrow? Those tables are in the way."

He answered, "We could move them. I'll help you."

These are fairly heavy folding tables with plenty of pinch points for good measure and they are stored in a closet where they lean against a wall standing on end. I wasn't really sure how he was going to help me, but I wasn't going to do anything to extinguish the sentiment, so said, "Alright, come on."

As he propped the doors open with doorstops of his own accord, a handful of other kids asked what we were doing. They wanted to help too. I said, "The first thing is to fold up these tables and move them into that closet over there. First, we'll have to tip the table on it's side so we can fold the legs." We worked together to tip the table, then I showed them how the legs worked, making a point of pointing out those pinch points. Without discussing it, two of them held the table still while the other three wrangled the legs into place.

They seemed to have it, so I walked over to the closet to wait for them saying, "It goes in here."

At first they struggled. They were able to get the table moving by sliding it along the floor, but they couldn't get it heading in the right direction. "Teacher Tom, we can't steer it."

I said, "The person in front is the steerer. The rest of you are the motors." That was what they needed. I thought I ought to handle the job of stashing it into the closet if only because it was too small of a space for five kids. I took the table from them and before I'd finished leaning it again the wall, they already had the next table on its side. This one had a slightly different mechanism for folding the legs, but they figured it out before I did and were soon maneuvering this one toward the closet as well.

The first two tables had been rectangular, but the third and final one was round. This one they were able to roll to the closet as everyone agreed that round tables are easier to move.

Now it was on to the gym mats which were stacked in a corner. They were no longer helping me; it was their project and I was only there in a supervisory capacity. I said, "Next we need to set up the mats." They wrestled and wrangled them. They played and ran and fell onto them. They argued and complimented and suggested and agreed. It was an inefficient project, one that got sidetracked by tumbling, chase, and general horseplay, but at any given moment at least one of them was working to set up the long runway we needed to play the game of mat slam.

I noted that I was calm, feeling no need to coach or cajole, which of course was a result of it not being my project, but theirs. I knew this because when it's my project I coach and cajole because I have internalized the dictatorship of getting from point A to point B in a straight line, whereas the kids intuitively embraced the democracy of getting there together no matter the zigs and zags, listening to their hive mind intuition rather than mere logic.

Finally, after a good half hour, they got everything set up to their satisfaction. According to the clock, getting ready for play had eaten up all the time we had allotted for play. If I'd been sticking to the schedule, we would have now had to tidy up, so of course we ignored the schedule: we'd done the important part of working together, I could hardly rob them of their reward.

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Primed And Ready

Last week I shared a story from one of our five-year-old storytellers that was largely an exercise in using the word "poop" as many times as possible for comic effect. Naturally, her classmates found it hilarious and, predictably, inspirational. We have since seen an outpouring of similar stories, some of which have expanded the vocabulary to include "pee" and other scatological variations.

I've been here before with other classes. Once the "poop" genii is out of the bottle, it's not going back in of its own accord. I once tried to ride it out, but that just allowed it to grow until it reached a point that I one day read 15 in a row from the genre with no breaks for, you know, actual stories.

After a couple more poop stories yesterday that were met with universal delight, I introduced my concern with a true statement, "I can tell you kids find these stories funny, but I don't like reading those potty talk words over and over." In years past, this has prompted certain children to agree with me (probably out of wanting to be on my bandwagon more than any actual objection), which has lead to a discussion in which we agree that potty talk belongs in the bathroom or that we wouldn't use potty talk in our stories or, as we did one year, decide that we would use our own made-up euphemisms to replace the standards.

Yesterday, however, I was met with a unified front, "We like them! We think they're funny!"

After some back and forth, one of the kids suggested that maybe they should just read their own words so that I didn't have to. Now, we're a preschool, and while most of them have begun to read a bit on their own, it's not universal, nor is it something we go out of our way to teach. When I asked for clarification, citing the fact that not everyone can read, she amended her suggestion: the kids could read the words they know and I, Teacher Tom, could help them read the words they don't know. Several of her classmates objected, but I saw something promising there.

I said, "How about this? I like reading your stories, but I would just rather not read 'poop' and 'pee' over and over. How about I teach all of you how to read those words, then when I come to them, you can read them aloud instead of me?" There seemed to be consensus that this could work so I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote "Poop," "Poo poo," "Pee" and then "Pee pee," all the words they thought they'd like to know. I used a variety of upper and lower case letters as well because the adults who transcribe these stories are not always consistent.

I then committed a rare act of direct instruction, pointing to the words and sounding them out along with the kids. We did it several times, with full and enthusiastic participation. We then segued into me writing out their individual names and we read those aloud together as well. I frequently denigrate direct instruction here on the blog, mostly because it dominates the school experience for most children, putting blinders on them, boring them, and unnaturally narrowing their focus on what the adult thinks they ought to know whether they're curious about it or not. But in cases like this when there is a specific thing children really want to know, direct instruction can be the most efficient method of teaching it because their minds are already naturally narrowed down on a specific question, primed and ready for a specific answer.

I'm eager to try our new system, with the kids reading those important words aloud to one another. I have little doubt that they all can now include "poop," "poo," and "pee" in their list of "sight words."

As the children were packing up to leave at the end of the day, I was passing through as one boy was showing off his new knowledge for his mother who seemed to be simultaneously amused, impressed, and slightly appalled. He furrowed his brow in concentration, looking off into the distance behind his mother, perhaps envisioning the words as I'd written them in black marker on white paper. "P-O-O-P," he recited in a slightly halting cadence, then "P-O-O" and "P-E-E."

And people ask how children learn to read in a play-based curriculum . . .

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

We Don't Understand

For me, the most challenging part of being a parent of a young child was when her friendships aren't going the way she wanted them to go. Especially heartbreaking were those teary car rides home from school when someone had rebuffed, insulted, or otherwise treated my baby badly. I suspect every parent knows the anguish of helpless pity and impotent rage; that objectless casting about for someone to blame or punish or at least be the deserving recipient of the whipsaw of karma, all of it made worse by the knowledge that no one deserves any of that; that these are just children with parents just like you who are trying to figure it out as well.

We all have a vast pool of experience when it comes to being rejected. Researchers have found that even the most popular kids in elementary school are rejected 30 percent of the time when they seek to enter into play with others. Knowing this, of course, does nothing to reduce the sting, and in particular the special pain we suffer when it is experienced by proxy as it is when it's our own child.

I still have these feelings as the parent of a young adult, but they're now tempered by a couple decades of what I'll call wisdom; the experience of having my child repeatedly come through on the other side where there really is friendship. We still, quite regularly, remind ourselves of the great genius of her classmate Katrina who I once overheard successfully comforting my then six-year-old by saying, "She's mean to me too. When she's nice to me, I play with her. When she's mean, I don't play with her."

As a teacher in a cooperative, I am right there with parents as they see their child struggling with friendships, being rejected, but also, perhaps even more painful, rejecting others. I know how it's often impossible to not drop to your knees and plead with your child to behave or feel differently, to accept, if only just this once, your advice and counsel. Or to tell them they must apologize or make amends or buck up or take it philosophically. I'm there as all of these efforts fail because we, as parents, really are helpless and impotent when we try to do anything other than hold them, and listen to them, and feel with them.

Learning about friendship, learning about how we make friends, is, in fact, a lonely road. Learning to populate that road with fellow travelers is something we have to do for ourselves, through the experience that comes from trial and error. "You just don't understand!" is a great truth our children shout at us when we try to do more than just let them finish their cry. We don't understand, even while we have a vast experience.

Friendship is a joy found quite often through pain, sometimes great pain. That's probably part of why it feels so good when we get there.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"They Ruined It"

When our daughter Josephine was three, the cooperative preschool we attended was temporarily housed in a pubic school building in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle, which was just across the street from the Wallingford Playfield, which in turn made it one of our go-to stops after school.

One corner was dedicated to a wading pool (empty for most of the year), some swings as I recall, and a massive, asphalt covered mound upon which the Parks & Rec Department had erected a one-of-a-kind construction featuring walkways, stairs, and a pair of massive tunnel slides. This play area was ringed with trees and shrubberies which is where Josephine typically played with her friends after a few minutes of going up and down the slides.

Those yellow dots are the kids playing in the landscaping rather than on the "proper" playground.

At one point the playground was closed for several months as the play-area was being rebuilt. The goal was a safer (e.g., less asphalt) and more aesthetically pleasing place. In the meantime, the school found it's permanent location north of Wallingford, so it wasn't part of our regular circuit any longer, but we eagerly awaited the re-grand opening nevertheless, having circled the big day on our calendar.

I'll never forget how my now four-year-old Josephine stopped at the fence for a moment in stunned silence before remarking, "They ruined it." At the time I disagreed, but I now know exactly what she meant. They had replaced this quirky, one-of-a-kind place with flashy out-of-the-box equipment, including a "climber" that filled the same footprint as the asphalt mound, but without the height, impressive slides, or perception of risk. The nail that stuck up had been hammered down.

As you can see, the climber, to the right in this photo, has been abandoned.

Josephine and her friends nevertheless tried it out for a few minutes before retreating into the trees and shrubberies which they had thankfully left, albeit now at the top of a tidy rockery. As I stood with some other parents on the sidelines we realized that all the kids were playing on the rocks and in the trees, while the only ones on the slides and swings were the adults who had brought the kids. This pattern held true for our next few visits as well and that playground eventually fell off of our rotation.

Last year, a parent, on her own dime, installed a type of climber on our school playground, a structure of pipes create by a parkour trainer. It was a big hit for a few months as the kids tested themselves on it, but then that corner of the space fell fallow. When we started this new school year, the structure again received attention for a couple months, but has since become a relative dead zone. That's the problem with these sorts of things: yes, children are attracted to them at first, but they usually only enjoy them until they've mastered them, until they've played the risk out of them, then they're done. This is why I have no problem with them being installed on "destination" playgrounds because most children are only there occasionally, and then for only an hour or so, but I'm not a fan of them on schoolyards. Our community has agreed with me. Next week we are are removing our parkour climber and replacing it with something else that I expect will be used every day because it will be more open ended.

A couple weeks ago, our 4-5's class took a trip into Chinatown to visit the Wing Luke museum, then popped over to a nearby pocket playground. There was a cool dragon sculpture on which the kids could clamber, a small sand box, and a standard issue climber. The kids swarmed the equipment for the first few minutes, but before long, they were all climbing the rockery and playing in the landscaping. Climbers come and go, but the newness never wears off terrain featuring rocks, sticks and plants.

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Monday, February 13, 2017


I receive a fair number of newly published early childhood/teaching books, often unsolicited, with the idea that I'll write a review or otherwise promote it on the blog. I don't read them all -- indeed, I only tend to read those that come from authors who I know or who previously contacted me. I'm sure most are fantastic books, but I only have so much time, and even if I do read the book, there is no guarantee that I'll hype it here.

These guys have invented a game they call "bumper swings." They get the tire swing in the middle going side-to-side, then strive to avoid getting hit.

I hope that each one of these books finds it's audience, even if I'm not included in it, but there is one type of education book that really, really gets under my skin. Last week, I receive one such book. I don't want to embarrass anyone, so I won't share the title with you, but it's ostensibly a book about children acquiring STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning through play. They quote Mister Rogers:

"Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood."

Nice. They go on to talk about how children learn best through play, how they tend to be holistic learners, and generally promote the idea of play-based learning. Then they make this ludicrous assertion: "The idea of integrating science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) into learning centers is relatively new." If they mean, relatively new in terms of the history of the universe, then okay, but animals have been learning science, technology, engineering, and math through play since there have been animals. In fact, almost everything any human has ever learned has come through play.

It's a game that involves science, technology, engineering, and math, among other things .

Once one gets past the opening pages, the book disappointingly goes on to instruct adults on how to set up activities that contain elements of play or that seem playful, but that require the adult is to continually "tell" or "explain" things to children, or to "have" them do this or that, and to generally boss the kids around, essentially turning what could be meaningful, child-directed opportunities to learn and explore into formulaic, adult-directed marches through material. The comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term "truthiness" to describe those things that sound true, but really aren't: I'm going to claim the term "playishness" to describe those things that might seem like play, but are really just exercises in direct instruction using toys and art supplies instead of lectures and text books. Often you will find these sorts of things under the heading, "play with a purpose," a sure indication that what you're going to read about is not play at all.

I have no idea what they are learning from their game, but I do know they are learning because they find it engaging enough to choose to play it again-and-again. When they choose to stop playing this game, that will tell me they have learned what they wanted to learn from it.

First and foremost, play is a self-selected activity. The moment you have an adult "telling" you things or "explaining" things or "having" you do things, it is no longer play; it's direct instruction, a type of teaching that this book's authors argue against even as every page is about how to get children to learn what the adult thinks they ought to know rather than, as happens in a true play-based curriculum, leaving the children free to both ask and answer their own questions.

This is what learning through play actually looks like.

The research is quite clear, as the authors point out, that play is how children learn most naturally, including the so-called STEM skills. The book even has the word "play" in the title, but it's all just playishness used to disguise the same old top-down, adult-driven, tick-box style of learning that already makes school a place where so many children lose their love of learning. Play is about freedom to pursue one's own learning and the more free we are, especially from adults always telling us what to do, the more we love to learn. 

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Friday, February 10, 2017

"I Brought Candy For The Kids!"

Our playground is built on a long slope along the side of the Fremont Baptist Church from whom we lease our space. The church offices are located above the playground, accessible via a boardwalk walkway, so we have a view of everyone who is coming and going. We see church staff and congregants, but most of the traffic on any given day is comprised of "Pastor Gay's men," our neighborhood population of people (not all men, but mostly men) living rough, stopping in to ask her for prayers, money, advice, and other sorts of help. They made us nervous when we first took up residence, and sometimes they still do, but for the most part, we've come to view them as fellow members of our community and take pride in the small part we play in the vital service of Christian love that Pastor Gay provides.

The children largely ignore them as they pass by overhead, but last week, one fellow arrived carrying five large, festively festooned cans in addition to his regular rucksack. Boy, we noticed that!

"I think that guy has candy!"

"That's a lot of candy!"

"Maybe he's bringing it to us!"


The cans were indeed decorated as if they contained sweets of some kind, but I figured the man was just using them to carry some of his belongings or something. I joined the kids in their game, enthusing about this magical man with buckets of candy. It crossed my mind to trot out the stranger danger warning from my own childhood -- "Don't take candy from strangers" -- but bit my tongue, especially since he was ignoring us. If he heard the kids' remarking on his haul, he didn't let on, passing into Pastor Gay's office and, in turn, out of our imaginations.

Shortly thereafter, the man emerged from the offices no longer carrying his cans, which rendered him once more invisible to the kids. I was standing near the walkway. As he passed, he leaned over the railing, spread his arms, and said, "I brought candy for the kids!" I answered, "Really? Thank you." Then he said it again, "I brought candy for the kids!" There was joy in his expression.

Later, when I spoke with Pastor Gay, I learned that they were, in fact, unopened supplies of caramel popcorn and maple candies, and that the man had claimed them at a food bank, thought of us, and dropped them by. The pastor and I agreed that there were more deserving places for these treats to go, but I asked her for the cans when they were empty.

As I've reflected on this, I'm reminded of an incident from a couple years ago, when a rough-looking guy who I'm now pretty sure was the same man as the one last week, approached me as I watched the kids from outside the playground fence, "Do you want some more toy trucks?" I replied, "Sure, we can always use more toy trucks," a response I meant as breezy, friendly conversation, not expecting anything to come of it. After all, how could this guy, a man living on the streets, come up with toy trucks?

The following morning there were a half dozen metal, gently-use construction vehicles on the playground. Of course, I worried they had been stolen from a neighbor's garage. Later that day the man showed up again. I said, "Are those new trucks from you?" He proudly said they were. I tried to not sound accusatory when I asked, "Where did you get them?" He answered, "Up the street," then I think he realized what I was asking. "I didn't steal them or nothin'. There was a sign that said "free."

I thanked him, then he asked, "Can I watch them play a bit? I'll stay right here." I stood with him as we watched the kids enthusiastically embrace their exciting new toys. He watched and nodded. If he wasn't the same man as the one last week, the joy in his expression was. Then he said, "I guess I'll be on my way." 

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