Thursday, October 20, 2016

Black Lives Matter In Schools

Yesterday, more than 2000 Seattle Public School teachers wore t-shirts that read "Black Lives Matter/We Stand Together," an action that was unanimously supported by their union as well as dozens of prominent citizens and civic organizations. Thousands of parents and students joined their teachers in solidarity for "Black Lives Matter in Schools" rallies before classes. 

Last month, inspired by professional football player Colin Kaepernick, the entire Garfield High School volleyball and football teams began taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem in protest of discriminatory academic and police practices, an action that made national news and in turn inspired other high school students across the city to take similar action.

As Garfield history teacher and author Jesse Hagopian said, "You can only understand the Seattle educator's union unanimous vote for this action in the context of the Garfield High School football and girls' volleyball teams who are taking a knee for Black lives during the national anthem and helping to inspire people across the city and the country to take action against racial injustice." 

This is one of those remarkable moments when our youth are taking the lead. Needless to say, I'm extremely proud of the students and teachers in our city. Despite threats of violence, they are taking a leadership role in the non-violent movement to bring justice to our black and brown citizens. People often criticize me for injecting politics into this blog, but I don't see how I can not, especially when I see our children and their teachers taking such a prominent role in creating a better future for our country.

As I watched the final Presidential debate last night, it occurred to me that despite the high stakes, it was still a mere sideshow to what has been happening in Seattle schools and elsewhere around our nation. It's one thing to vote, but from where I sit, that is the bare minimum responsibility of citizenship. Too many Americans looked at Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump last night and believed that they were seeing one of the two people who will be the "leader" of the free world for the next four years, but they are wrong. We don't elect leaders in our country: we elect representatives. If they are behaving as leaders then we aren't doing our job as citizens.

These Seattle students, parents and teachers are showing us what democracy is meant to be about: speaking out, standing together, and taking the lead. And if our elected representatives are worth anything, they will join our parade or be left behind.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Our Stupid Questions

They say there's no such thing as a stupid question, but I beg to differ. We hear stupid questions almost every time adults and young children are together. 

For instance, a child is painting at an easel, exploring color, shape, and motion, experimenting with brushes, paper, and paint. There is an adult watching over her shoulder who points and asks, "What color is that?"

This is a stupid question. 

Here's another example: a child is playing with marbles, exploring gravity, motion and momentum. An adult picks up a handful of marbles and asks, "How many marbles do I have?"

The adult already knows the answer. The child probably does as well, in which case, the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies in order to reply to a banality. Or she doesn't know the answer, in which case the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies to play a guessing game.

In a moment, these stupid questions take a child who is engaged in testing her world, which is her proper role, and turns her into a test taker, forced to answer other people's questions rather than pursue the answers to her own.

If it's important that the child know these specific colors and numbers at this specific moment, and it probably isn't, then we should do the reasonable thing and simply tell her, "That's red," or "I have three marbles." If it's not new information, and it probably isn't, she's free to ignore you as she goes about her business of learning. If she didn't know, now she does, in context, as she goes about her business of learning.

This is probably the greatest crime we commit against children in our current educational climate of testing, testing, and more testing. We yank children away from their proper role as self-motivated scientists, testing their world by asking and answering their own questions, and instead force them to become test takers, occupying their brains with our stupid questions.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016


I didn't see the time, I waiting half my life away . . . Waiting for the miracle to come. ~Leonard Cohen

The weather forecasters had been telling us all week to expect a big storm on Saturday evening. It was going to hit right around dinner time and was to be the storm of the decade, if not beyond. It was the remnants of a typhoon that had made its way across the Pacific Ocean from Japan, winds were going to be in excess of 60 mph., and we were advised to make sure our emergency kits were up to date.

This was actually one of three major storms headed our way, a Friday, Saturday, Tuesday succession that I worried was going to impede the departure of folks who had travelled from Greece, Iceland, Australia, Canada, and the UK to take part in last week's International Play Iceland conference here in Seattle. Friday's storm hit us just as forecasted, a wet, wet atmospheric river that flowed through the city without much wind. It had been so wet that for the first time in Woodland Park history, we cut our outside time short by 15 minutes because some of our two-year-olds were so saturated they were shivering.

To be honest, I was looking forward to the big one on Saturday. Naturally, I didn't want anyone to be hurt and I wasn't rooting for major property damage, but I've always been drawn to nature's power. When visiting the Midwest for a family reunion, my daughter and I more than once rushed out into thunderstorms (a rare phenomenon in the Pacific NW), making the cousins think we were crazy. Sometimes we would dress from head to toe in our best rain gear and drive over to West Seattle to stand in a spot where storm waves could crash over us. My girl now off the college, my plan for this storm was to just sit in the living room and watch it through the windows.

The timing couldn't have been better for our international guests, all of whom either made it out ahead of the impending storm or weren't scheduled to leave until the following day. It was a successful conference, and I enjoyed helping to host, but as you might imagine, I had awoken on Friday feeling the full effects of the "let down" that often follows a much anticipated event. For weeks I'd been losing sleep over the duties and responsibilities of being the host of something like this. It wasn't as if there was a lot for me to do exactly, because the Play Iceland team was on top of things, but I had nevertheless become increasingly consumed with the process of waiting for the all those visitors to arrive for a week in my hometown.

On Saturday morning, the conference behind me, I stayed in my PJs until noon, a luxury I'd not had for several weeks, reveling in what I felt was well-earned exhaustion, but the whole time I was aware that the big storm was on its way, just as I'd been aware for weeks that the conference was on its way.  In the afternoon I pulled myself together and went to the store for bottled water, extra flashlight batteries, four kinds of cheese, a big box of crackers, cans of tuna, and a few other items that I felt would help my wife and I weather the storm should we lose power. We were being warned to be prepared for power outages that lasted days, not hours.

And then I sat in my living room and waited. I made sure our electronic devices were fully charged. I did a load of laundry. I ate some of our more perishable food for lunch. But mostly I sat in my living room anticipating the storm by following its progress on the internet. I watched impressive video of it hitting first the Oregon coast and then, moving northward, the Washington coast. Locally, things were still. Blue sky still occasionally peaked through the clouds. One forecaster said it was "the classic calm before the storm."

My wife was waiting with me. We began snacking from our storm supplies, especially the cheese. Those final hours were almost like a countdown. I could hear a few people outside going about their Saturday evening business. At 6:30 p.m., when the storm was supposed to hit, a few of the trees started moving a bit more animatedly and the sky darkened a bit -- of course, that might have been my imagination as well. I stood in the living room window for the next 15 minutes, watching for the storm, waiting for it. I began to worry that maybe we had eaten too much of our storm supplies. I wondered if I had time to rush back to the store to replace them. Fifteen more minutes passed and then it started.

Within seconds the winds went from nothing to a rage accompanied by driving, sideways rain that swept the street in waves. I saw a man on a bicycle struggling to ride into the wind before finally dismounting. A couple with an umbrella were pushed back across the street they were attempting to cross and blown into a doorway. How could they not have known about the storm? Didn't they know they might be stuck in that doorway for hours?

I stood in the open window, elbows on the sill, listening to the sound, feeling the intense, damp wind on my forearms. Within minutes the entire intersection below my apartment was several inches deep in water, a flood that caused brave/foolish pedestrians to detour nearly half a block to cross the street. This was what we had been promised. It's what I'd been waiting for this past week, this past day, these past few hours. Indeed, I realized as the storm raged, it was, at least in part, what I'd been living for.

And then, after 10 minutes, as suddenly as it had started, it was over. For awhile I figured that there must be another wave coming, that perhaps the storm was just turning and would rotate back over us in a few minutes, but wait as I might, it never came. After a half hour, I let myself believe it was over. The internet told me that part of the Eastlake neighborhood had lost power. When I went out to walk the dog an hour later, I found a couple of branches down, and the flooded intersection had already drained.

When as children we had wished it was Christmas morning, Mom would caution us, "Don't wish your life away." I thought of that in the mini-storm's aftermath, in the aftermath of my week as a host. What had missed in my waiting? I could see in the clarity of left behind after that short, dousing storm all the minutes, hours, and days I'd lost in the posture of waiting for the miracle to come, no doubt missing the unanticipated miracles that each moment holds.

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Monday, October 17, 2016

One Of The Secrets

Whenever I put a board game on a table, usually our blue table, children bunch together around it. Because we're a cooperative, I have the luxury of also putting an adult at that table, who can, should the need arise, read the rules and coach the kids on how to play it. Sometimes that's how it goes, but most of the time, the adult's job is to sit back and, at my request, "keep track of the pieces," while the kids make it up as they go.

Growing up, we were a family of five, and mom loved her board games, so we would often gather around the dining table for a round or two of Parcheesi or Life after dinner. Every year Santa would bring the family a new game that we played together on Christmas morning, a tradition that remains to this day. As a boy, I would sometimes get a hankering for spinning the spinner or rolling the dice when there was no one able or willing to play with me, so I would set the game up on my bedroom floor and play by myself, assuming control of all the pawns. I once spent several hours playing four hands of Monopoly keeping a running tally of which properties were landed on the most over the course of a full game. (For those interested, the top five in order were Illinois Ave., Indiana Ave., New York Ave., Kentucky Ave., and St. James Pl., which is why I always covet the red and orange properties.)

Parents often complain/boast that their child is into video games, but the more likely truth is that they are simply into games, it's just that most video games are designed to be played solo whereas board games, my own experience aside, really require others to bring out the most fun and that can be a difficult hurdle with smaller families and busier parents. But for any parents looking to get their kid to put down the iPad, I reckon a family game night would do the trick. 

The game in these pictures is one from my own boyhood, a game called Booby Trap. A big part of the attraction is the "gadget," a spring loaded bar that applies tension to those little discs. The object of the game is to carefully remove those discs one at a time without causing the bar to move. Sometimes the children play it that way, but last week, they made up their own turn-taking game that involved collecting your favorite color as fast as you can while squealing each time the bar snapped shut a bit more. At any given moment last week there were four or five heads bent over that game, bickering, negotiating, and agreeing.

It's gotten so I put a game on that table almost every day. Sometimes we play by the printed rules, but most of the time not. Indeed, the children have taught me that there is no wrong way to play a board game, just so as long as everyone agrees to the rules. And ultimately that may be their greatest attraction: they teach us to make it up as we go along in consultation with the other people, which is also, not coincidentally, one of the secrets to living a satisfying life.

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Friday, October 14, 2016

Saying Nothing

It happened in a flash. He wanted to dump the bowl of "jewels" (florist marbles) that he had collected into the mud. She wanted them to remain clean. He dump the jewels. There were loud voices and when I looked from across the sand pit I saw her push his face, then storm off.

Both children were upset. The boy's mother was nearby and after checking to make sure he wasn't hurt, engaged him in a discussion, so I followed the girl whose body was tense with rage. She marched this way and that for a moment, jaws locked in anger. As I approached, she turned her back on me, so I stopped in my tracks.

What was I going to say to her? Maybe I was going to remind her of the rules we had all agreed to some weeks ago, specifically mentioning the one that goes, "No pushing." I might have been preparing to say something like, "When you pushed his face, you hurt him." She walked slowly away from me, her shoulders hunched forward. When she got to a corner formed by a railing and a random cart that has found its way onto our playground, she knelt on her knees, nose in the corner.

I looked back at the boy who was now chatting easily with his mom as he bent down to the mud handling the jewels he had dumped there.

I didn't say anything to the girl because, frankly, there was nothing to say. Or rather, anything I said would be redundant at best. There was no question that she was already feeling remorse, regretting her action, mulling it over in the quiet of the corner she had found for herself. I stepped away and left her to her conscience. After a couple minutes, she moved herself into a more distant corner, although this time she faced outward, her face a study of sorrow, staring into the ground.

Again, I began contemplating words I might say to her. Maybe I could comment on her emotional state. Or perhaps there was something I could say to help her understand the cause and effect of the affair. But again I realized that anything I said just then would be a mere distraction from the important work she was doing, sitting alone, calming down, and painfully reflecting.

Moments later the boy approached her, hand outstretched. In it was a jewel. He offered it to her saying, "I cleaned this one for you."

She took the jewel and held it in the palm of her hand. The boy shifted from foot to foot as if waiting for her to say something. When she didn't, I softly said, "That was a kind thing to do." He went away then, back to his play. The girl watched him go then looked back at the jewel in her hand, contemplating it for a moment before clutching in her fist. She stayed that way, thinking and feeling, until she was ready to return to her own play. It's from these moments that we become wiser, gentler people.

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

"May I Play With You?"

During this first month of the school year, J has more or less been playing alone, milling around the edges, watching. His mother has told me that he yearns to be included in the larger games, that he talks about it at home, but that he's either waited in vain to be invited or has been rebuffed when he's asked the other children, "May I play with you?"

It's not an untypical scenario. My own daughter experienced some of this when she was four and five. I would try to coach her, telling her that most preschoolers automatically say "No" when they are already engaged and someone interrupts to asks if they can play. I suggested she would have more success if she were to instead start by asking, "What are you doing?" or simply stating, "I'm going to play with you," or inviting, "Let's play on the swings," or best of all, just join the game without any introduction at all, dropping to her knees and getting busy alongside the other children. But despite my best efforts she would insist on doing it her way, continuing to ask "May I play with you?" and suffering those heartbreaks in return.

J's mother has been coaching him along the same lines with similar results. He's not been miserable at school, finding solo activities or grown-ups with whom to interact, but he's also been immune to our adult ideas on how he could more effectively enter into play. I've noticed he was particularly focused on a group of kids playing superheroes: The Hulk, Spiderman, and Batman, along with made-up up caped crusaders with names like Violet, Falcon, and Frogman.

On Monday, he was still hanging back. On Tuesday, however, he arrived in full-on Thor regalia, complete with helmet and Mjolnir, the thunder hammer. From the moment he walked through the gate he was surrounded by the other superheroes, questioned, enthused over, included. His mother told me that it was his own idea.

Yesterday, he came as Wolverine and was not only again included, but several times took on the leadership roll of boldly calling for the superhero team to assemble in this or that place on the playground: "All superheroes to the hideout! All superheroes to the hideout!" And the superheroes responded.

Every human has vast experience with how it feels to be rejected. Studies I've seen indicate that even the most "popular" children are told "No" some 30 percent of the time. And it's not something that goes away as we get older, even if perhaps we've learned to be more philosophical about it.

J made his study, he performed his experiments, he evaluated the results, and through his own process, in his own time, found his way from the edge into the center. But as we know, the center always shifts and sooner or later he'll find himself on the outside again, we all will, but now he knows, though experience, that he can always find his way back in. 

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016


One of the most useful classes I took in college, in a vocational sense, was a class called Advertising Agencies, taught by a professor who had just left his job at a big Madison Avenue shop. We spent most of our time learning how to "sell" our ideas to our superiors and clients, the basis of which was the written proposal. It was a real eye-opener for me, a kid who fancied himself a creative writer, suddenly challenged to more or less forget what I knew about grammar, crafting sentences, and creating narrative structure, and to instead pack as much information as I possibly could into bullet points and fragments, starting with a conclusion then backfilling with the strategies and tactics that would be the stepping stones to success.

When I landed my first job, it was this skill, this ability to create concise, yet detailed, logical, step-by-step plans, that got me the most kudos and brought me to the attention of those higher up the pyramid. In fact, I made one of them literally cry with joy in a meeting based on having pulled together a vital proposal on a deadline that the rest of the team thought we certainly must miss. It got me invited to a lot of meetings I wouldn't have otherwise been senior enough to attend because my bosses wanted me there the shape the discussion into a blueprint for next steps. I loved it: it was the perfect marriage of left-brain and right-brain. By the time I left that job I was pretty much writing every plan and proposal that came out of our office. 

It took me a couple years, however, to figure out that no matter how brilliant my words on paper, no matter how precisely I laid out the timeline and benchmarks, nothing ever went according to plan. I would sometimes, part way into a project, pull our plan out of the filing cabinet and marvel at how "off the tracks" we were. Seriously. This doesn't mean we weren't successful, because we were most of the time, but as great as my written plans were to get everyone going, once the "sale" was made, once people got involved, we might as well have tossed it all out the window. Sometimes even the actual objective would change in the process of real people doing real work.

This is a quote from the book A Simpler Wayby authors Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers.

Emergence is so common to our experience that it's a wonder we don't recognize it, that we still believe we must plan everything into existence. How much of any human endeavor comes to fruition from precise plans unfolding step by step, just as their designers describe? If we look at any successful human activity, we see that what led to success was the newly discovered capacity of people. They came together and invented new ways of doing something. They explored new realms of ingenuity. They made it happen by responding in the moment and by changing as they went along.

I've come a long way since those days as a little junior executive, taking such pride in his plans and such frustration in their destiny as file drawer fodder. When I first started teaching, I put a lot of effort into planning out our school days, but I'd already moved past expecting that those plans would be of any use other than to ease my anxiety.

Our plans, blueprints, and diagrams have made it difficult to see this wonderful creative capacity growing around us all the time. We fear surprise and retreat to caution. We would rather know what's in store than be caught off guard by new possibilities . . . What are we guarding against? Is newness so fearsome?

What I was attempting to guard against back then was failure, of everything running off the rails, but now? After over a decade of playing with children, I've learned that it is exactly that "surprise" that let's me know we've been successful. It's not the plan I've put together, whether on paper or in my head, but rather the "new possibilities" that emerge from us that makes it all worthwhile.

Every act of organizing is an experiment. We begin with desire, with a sense of purpose and direction. But we enter the experience vulnerable, unprotected by the illusory cloak of prediction. We acknowledge that we don't know how this work will actually unfold. We discover what we are capable of as we go along. We engage with others for the experiment. We are willing to commit to a system whose effectiveness cannot be seen until it is in motion . . . Every act of organizing is an act of faith. We hope for things unseen which are true.

Once our plans have given us a sense of purpose and direction, a filing cabinet is exactly where they belong. Because once we've engaged with others for the experiment no one can predict where our creativity will take us.

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