Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Legal Currency In The Marketplace Of The Future

When my daughter was little and frightening news of the world got to her, I would try to put things in perspective, "Most people, most of the time are having a fine day." That this has been true throughout all of history, even when great tragedy is unfolding in one part of it (and indeed when is it not?) I have no doubt.

Maybe it's not a great day, although someone is also always having one of those as well, but a fine one, because most things involving humans are like that -- a little high a little low, a little hot a little cold, a little smooth a little rough. Both the optimists and the pessimists are right: it could always get better and it could always get worse. 

I suspect that most of us are pro-optimism, even if we're pessimistic by nature. It's hard not to be when you're working with young children, who themselves are generally having fine days, but by virtue of the metaphor of their youth shine for us like a light into the certainty of a better future. And even if we can't help but regret in advance the equal assurance that they will suffer, it just seems that optimism is the proper stance when it comes to the young so we pull ourselves together and say, "It will heal," "The lights will come back on," "The worst is behind us."

On the longest night, as I greeted people at the door of our Fremont arts community's Winter Solstice Feast, I tried it out on the grown-ups, saying things like, "This is as dark as it gets, now we can look forward to more light," or "It all gets better from here!" Most thanked me, accepting my invitation to look forward with hope, but many drew back in mock defensiveness, bubbling back, "I love the dark! I love the long night!" denying my assertion that there could be anything wrong. I understand that they were looking into the dark with the certainty of their optimism, wearing it like a shield against doubt.

Hope and fear are the two sides of this coin and both are legal currency in the marketplace of the future. There are those that claim that we create reality through our attitude, that if we anticipate success we make it more certain, while the same goes for failure. And I expect there is some truth to that, although probably a lot less than the pop philosophies would lead us to believe. In her book Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, inspired by her struggle with breast cancer, Barbara Ehrenreich, calls this faith in the determinism of attitude "the new Calvinism," seeing a world in which we are all ultimately and personally responsible for the evils that befall us, be it cancer or unemployment, casting every set-back as a personal failure, having nothing to do with the pernicious randomness of disease or outgoing tide of economic recession.

Optimism is a magnificent thing, I hardly think I'd want to go on living without it. Living hopefully does not call for optimism of the blind variety, but rather the eyes-wide-open knowledge that this sure as hell can work given what I know to be true about the world and myself. Optimism backed up by thoughtfulness, experience, and confidence is always justified, but when worn merely as a prophylactic against fear, it sets us at the roulette wheel feverishly spinning away, doomed to go bust no matter what our attitude.

Pessimism gets a bad rap and I understand that. Relentlessly pessimistic people are hard to be around unless they're able to temper it with a cynic's humor, and even that wears thin after awhile. But that doesn't mean that the fear at the heart of the pessimist isn't justified. It could always go wrong. The future is full of pitfalls: we count on our wary pessimists to point them out. Whose investment advice would you be more likely to take: the optimist or the pessimist? The pessimist's, of course, after all if he's willing to place a bet on the future, you can be darned sure he's done his homework and is not relying on the vagaries of a "good vibe."

Young children don't think in terms of optimism and pessimism, especially the very young for whom the future really doesn't exist, let alone with enough concreteness to evoke hope or fear. And sure, as they get older they quite reasonably adopt the cloak most appropriate for the occasion; dressing for instance in eager anticipation of the holidays or in fearful anticipation of the doctor's needles. Rational responses both, ones that belie the reality that the presents are rarely as incredible as one hopes nor the pain as bad as one fears: our attitude, be it hope or fear, not altering reality, but rather helping to temper our experience with reality in a way to prevent the highs from being too high and the lows from being too low.

While I'm thinking of all this today on the last day of 2013, I can't help but think of the "curse" that is usually attributed to the ancient Chinese: "May you live in interesting times." And indeed, I have been cursed; we have been cursed. The brilliance of this curse, of course, is that it can just as easily be a blessing, because really, who would want to live in boring times? And indeed, I have been blessed; we have been blessed.

I'm going to try this year, as a resolution, to approach the future more like a child, setting aside the dogmatism of optimism and pessimism. I will let my feelings flourish, learn what I can from them, then wearing them on my sleeve, I'll seize the day while worrying about tomorrow when it comes.

When I succeed, I will credit those who hugged me when it was dark. When I fail, I will shrug and not heap all the blame on myself, knowing that I have no control over the weather.

There is a companion curse that goes along with the famous one. It's one we habitually evoke for one another this time of year as a blessing, so take it as you will: "May your wishes be granted."

And in the meantime, however, have a fine year.

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Monday, December 30, 2013

Lantern Parade

My Christmas tree is still up and we only just got around to celebrating Hanukkah a week ago, so I'm going to declare that it's still not to late to share some festival of lights celebrating we did this year in our 5's class.

We decided, in honor the approaching Winter Solstice, to have a lantern parade around the Center of the Universe. Our school day ends at 4 p.m. and in our minds we had lately been heading home in the dark, although when we studied it, we saw that it was really just dusk. So the idea was to extend our class time a little on the Thursday before the holiday break, long enough that we would be together at least until sunset, which was going to be 4:18 p.m. 

Our first attempt at making lanterns was a classic version of paper mache involving small balloons as the base, wrapping them with tissue paper that had been dipped in liquid fabric starch. It proved, in my judgement, to be a little much for the kids, and while we produced a couple dozen of these "lanterns," my professional judgement was that they would perhaps be pretty, but insufficient as lanterns.

This is always the problem with agendas. It wasn't purely an adult agenda because the kids were fired up about the lantern parade as well, but if this was going to happen with actual lanterns, it was up to the grown-ups to hold the vision between now and then, and it didn't look to me like it was going to happen with these particular lanterns. Nile's grandma Kathleen, a professional-level crafter, came to the rescue, saying she had some ideas for simpler, fool-proof lanterns. I've learned I can trust her completely, but just in case, I ran down to Chinatown that evening for a stash of paper lanterns, a back-up plan that gave me a bit of extra serenity in case all else failed.

In the meantime, Fergus' mom Adrienne was in charge of finding a supply of glow sticks which we planned to use for illumination. There had been quite a bit of discussion about using real candles, both among the children as well as the adults, with some people of all ages being enthusiastic about the idea of real fire, while others were nervous, especially since we were manufacturing our lanterns at the last minute which had pushed fire safety to the bottom of the list -- not a good time to toss fire into the mix. Next year, we'll plan it better, maybe make the lanterns from baby food jars or something, but for this maiden lantern parade we streamlined things with the glow sticks. 

As part of expressing our disappointment, I think, about not burning a little solstice fire, a group of adults were out on the playground as the light faded, discussing inspiring fire-based things we had experienced. Several of us had taken part in ceremonies in which paper hot air balloons had been released, usually with the symbolism of our human wishes being carried into the universe or something. My own experience was last New Years Eve when I was one of a party of revelers who fuddled around in the dark on the shores of Lake Washington with tissue paper balloons that finally rose into the air one at a time, aglow with their buoying flames, some of which became fully enflamed, burning out beautifully against the deep purple midnight sky. Henry's dad Chris told us about how he had made similar balloons from newspaper as a boy, telling us that if there was no wind, how they would retain their shape for a time, even when reduced to a form of mere ash. This lead to Chris offering, as a way to bring fire to the solstice, to make a little hot air balloon show for all of us as a way to kick off the lantern parade.

I was imagining something along the lines of the newspaper idea, but Chris isn't a man for half measures as you can see in the pictures. Using a nice, hot charcoal fire, we sent his homemade paper balloon into the darkening sky again and again as the children counted down. This was good. This created just the right vibe for a lantern parade.

As you can also tell, however, it was no where near dark enough for our lanterns to take effect so we turned off the lights indoors and marched around in there for a bit before taking it to the streets, the kids proudly waving lanterns made from plastic cups, bubble wrap, and empty soda bottles, as well as some made from paper mache -- I'd been wrong in my professional judgement.

We took our loud, giddy parade out the gate and past The Troll, then headed down to the ship canal where we shared the Burke-Gilman trail with cyclists forming the early edge of the evening commute. Some of the kids were careful with their lanterns, while others beat and banged them, using them to prod and test the world. We made our way to our local chocolate factory where we played under the topiary dinosaurs for a time. 

There's meditation master Sri Chinmoy holding his own torch along the banks of the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

We were still out in the world at sunset, 4:18, which didn't mean darkness, but it was dark enough, I think, for us to know we were together at a time and place outside the usual. Upon our return, many of us stuck around as the darkness finished falling, drinking hot cider from a thermos. We discussed scheduling next year's lantern parade as a night class.

The next day, Adrienne reported that their lanterns really popped in the dark on their walk home.

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Friday, December 27, 2013

"Thank You For Teaching Me"

I was talking to Audrey, a two-years-old who has known me her entire life. In fact, she first started coming to Woodland Park in utero with her older sister Ella. She has always treated me as a trusted familiar, comfortable, clambering onto my lap, already an accomplished conversationalist.

We were in the outdoor classroom. I was sitting on the log staircase that leads from the lower sandpit to the upper. Audrey stood beside me. I want you to know that this conversation was broken up constantly by interruptions from other children wanting to get my attention, so you're getting it with those edited out.

Me: "I'm just sitting around."

Audrey, after a pause: "I'm just standing around."

I then went through the laundry list, narrating everything I saw around me: "Mason is digging around," "Liam is balancing around," "River is running around," and so on. Then I blathered out, "I want to learn how to play. Can you teach me?"

Audrey seemed, for once, at a loss for words. She was thinking about the question. I try to stay focused on being silent after I ask young children questions, even semi-serious accidental ones. Unlike most adults, they actually take time to think about their answers and that often means waiting for a response, at least if you want an honest answer. If you're only looking for the "right" answer, it's fairly easy to gently badger a child into it, but I'm not interested in doing that.

Finally, she answered, "You throw things."

"Hey, I'm gonna try that." I picked up a plastic snake that Grace had brought to me. I said, "I'll throw the snake into the bucket." I threw the snake at a bucket several feet away and missed.

"No, Teacher Tom, you have to throw something up."

I picked up a small pine cone, "I could throw this," and proceeded to toss it into the air and catch it. I said, "Look! I caught it!" showing it to her. I did this two more times.

She took the pine cone from me. "No, you have to throw it like this!" She threw the pine cone into the air and let it fall to the ground somewhere behind her.

I asked, "Is that playing?"

Audrey answered, "Yes."

"That was fun. You really know how to play. Who taught you how to play?" 

I waited while she thought. Finally, she shrugged, "Ella taught me."

"Ella knows how to play."


I said, "Thank you for teaching me."

She answered, "Yes."

That's when Liam approached, toy dinosaur in hand, "Let's play a story."

Audrey and I said together, "Okay."

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Hopes

I've been thinking about what I'd like to give you for Christmas. I'd really like to give you something that just fits your own wishes and needs the way these shoes just fit me. I suppose the thing I'd like most to be able to give you is hope. Hope that through your own doing and your own living with others, you'll be able to find what best fits for you in this life.  ~Mister Rogers

FDR's radio Christmas greeting, 1940:

The old year draws to a close. It began with dread of evil things to come and it ends with the horror of another war adding its toll of anguish to a world already bowed under the burden of suffering laid upon it by man's inhumanity to man.

But, thank God for the interlude of Christmas. This night is a night of joy and hope and happiness and promise of better things to come. And so in the happiness of this Eve of the most blessed day in the year I give to all my countrymen the old, old greeting: "Merry Christmas, Happy Christmas."

A Christmas rite for me is always to re-read that immortal little story by Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol." Reading between the lines and thinking as I always do of Bob Cratchit's humble home as a counterpart of millions of our own American homes, the story takes on a stirring significance to me. Old Scrooge found that Christmas wasn't a humbug. He took to himself the spirit of neighborliness. But today neighborliness no longer can be confined to one's little neighborhood. Life has become too complex for that. In our country neighborliness has gradually spread its boundaries -- from town, to county, to State, and now at last to the whole Nation.

For instance, who a generation ago would have thought that a week from tomorrow -- January 1, 1940 -- tens of thousand of elderly men and women in every State and every country and every city of the Nation would begin to receive checks every month for old age retirement insurance -- and not only that but that there would be also insurance benefits for the wife, the window, the orphan children and even dependent parents? Who would have thought a generation ago that people who lost their jobs would, for an appreciable period, receive unemployment insurance -- that the needy, the blind and the crippled children would receive some measure of protection which will reach down to the millions of Bob Cratchits, the Marthas, and the Tiny Tims of our own "four-room homes."

In these days of strife and sadness in many other lands, let us in the nations which still live at peace forbear to give things only for our good fortune in our peace.

Let us rather pray that we may be given strength to live for others -- to live more closely to the words of the Sermon on the Mount and to pray that peoples in the nations which are at war may also read, learn and inwardly digest these deathless words. May their import reach into the hearts of all men and of all nations. I offer them as my Christmas message:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
"Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
"Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
"Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

From Pope Francis' Christmas message:

My hope is that everyone will feel God's closeness, live in his presence, love him and adore him . . .

Peace to mankind. True peace is not a balance of opposing forces. It is not a lovely "facade" which conceals conflicts and divisions. Peace calls for daily commitment . . . 

Looking at the Child in the manger, our thoughts turn to those children who are the most vulnerable victims of wars, but we think too of the elderly, to battered women, to the sick.

From Dr. Suess' How the Grinch Stole Christmas:

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?"
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
"It came without packages, boxes or bags!"
And he puzzled three hours, 'till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.
"Maybe Christmas . . . perhaps . . . means a little bit more.

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Tokens Of Love

My extended family strives to stay out of the commercial frenzy part of the holidays. Long ago, we agreed to limit ourselves to a strict $5 per person budget, with a special star being placed on handmade gifts. For the past several years, I've taken this a little further by trying to do my holiday shopping on foot. It started the year Seattle was hit with a rare, large snowstorm, followed by a freeze that turned the roads into ice for a week. That year, the family hiked to our little Columbia City neighborhood shopping district and found something for everyone. While the news was full of gloom and doom about how all the large retailers were going to really suffer, those small, family-owned retailers told me that business for them was through the roof. What we lost in having access to this year's trendy gifts and deeply discounted prices, was more than made up for by knowing we were part of keeping our Main Street businesses around for another year.

If you've read more than a handful of posts here, you've probably sussed out that I really don't like to be told what to do, I don't like to be tricked, and I especially don't like being told to worry or fear or panic for no good reason. I don't really mind that holiday decorations start going up right after Halloween, we live in the northern tier, it's nice having the extra lights, but few things get under my skin more than advertisements and articles that start hyperventilating about "Last Minute Shopping Ideas" a month out. I despise the whole countdown business: "Only 17 more shopping days until Christmas." I might sometimes start working on my handmade gifts well in advance, but it's a conscious act of rebellion that I leave the shopping until December 23. Yesterday, I left home without a list, started at the local independent hardware store, wandered up to Belltown to the market area, cut up through the crowded retail core to Capital Hill, then down through the Cascade neighborhood where I stopped in at REI, all the while thinking of my loved ones. When my back pack was full I went home.

The temperatures were seasonable, the skies were clear, yet there was a gusty wind that made the tails of scarves whip about behind people. I love the yellow color and stark angle of the light in Seattle this time of year as the sun passes it's noontime position and arcs toward the horizon. I poked my nose into shops I'd never seen before and many more that have been there forever. I chose the places that I like to shop like the Army-Navy surplus and the Pike Place Market stalls. I bought chocolates at the venerable  Bavarian Meats and lunched on one of their brats on a bun with kraut and mustard. I avoided all lines, several times returning merchandise to the shelves when I saw the wait would be more than a couple people: queuing up to spend money is one of those things that remind me of the brevity of life, a worthy topic, but an aggravation I was choosing to forego.

Given the amount of terrain I covered, there were long gaps of time during which I was walking on sidewalks without storefronts and with few other pedestrians, time I spent pondering the people for whom I was hunting and gathering, reflecting on the ways they have made me the man I am today, thoughts that easily drifted to those other people, outside my family who have shaped me. I thought of teachers and old girlfriends, buddies and bosses, colleagues and neighbors. Then I began to make a list. Could I come up with 5-10 of the most influential people, family aside, who have come into my life?

I thought of a lot of folks who were there during periods of evolution and moments of epiphany, who were with me as I became more of this and less of that, who assured me when I was down, and cheered for me when I was up. I started by thinking it would be a short list, but it grew exponentially as I walked in that bright yellow late afternoon, late winter light, sweating with the weight of the gifts in my backpack and the effort of trudging up our famous hills. Thoughts turned to myself as a preschool teacher, the role for which I'm now best known, Teacher Tom, and I wondered if my students would one day include me in their own list, but knowing they would not, although their parents might.

Every year, sometimes every day, parents will thank me for what I've done for their child or their family, an outpouring that often comes during this season of gifts and gratitude. Some give me credit for incredible things, things that I know their children were born to do or become in spite of, not because of, me, because they are the things most children finally learn. I want to tell them, "No, your child would have overcome his shyness all on his own," or "She was already going to learn to stop excluding her friends," or "Every child learns that, with or without me," but I don't. There was a time I tried, but it wound up hurting their feelings, robbing them of the joy they derived from thanking me. I've learned that I ought not correct them because what they are thanking me for isn't that I taught them or steered them or lead them, but rather that I had the patience to simply be with them and their children as they went through their periods of evolution and arrived at moments of epiphany. 

My list of people who truly shaped me wound up very short, and in fact, may only honestly consist of members of my family who really did serve as role models, guides, and teachers. The rest gave me a different gift, the one of their presences and patience, of being there with me as I explored and floundered and finally discovered, of being a part of my life as I went from one place to another, growing in ways I was destined to grow, not shaping me, but supporting me, and, as I see now, growing along with me until our paths diverged. And that's all we can ever do for other people, be there with them, and occasionally remind them to not panic, to not be afraid, the journey is long, and for now I'm with you and you are with me.

That's what the commercialism really robs us of this time of year. The drum beat of the season creates a kind of panic or mania, one that consumes us even as we are driven to consume. I wrote a couple days ago about the metaphorical purpose of winter, which is to reflect and to dream, something that simply cannot exist in shopping malls and parking lots. 

For a time I will be with you and you will be with me, and while we are together we will become who we are. And in between we walk alone, backpacks full with the tokens of love we have collected on our journey.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Innovation And Creativity

Believe it or not, there was a time when Microsoft was an innovative technology company. It was the early 1980's and Bill Gates' and Paul Allens' exciting start-up was everyone's darling. They were succeeding in their mission of putting a mirocomputer on every desk, everyone in business wanted to be like them, and their initial public offering was the talk of the town. Those were the days when Microsoft changed the world.

Now, not so much. Today, no one thinks of Microsoft as a place of innovation or creativity. Even back then, people who worked there would quietly tell you that the competition had superior technology, but that Microsoft's "genius" was its market share, which they attained by cut-throat business practices. 

Today, everything they touch turns to crap. Of the few people I know who still run Microsoft's operating systems on their home computers, most are using older versions because the newest ones are buggy, unreliable messes. Oh sure, Microsoft still makes money, but not nearly as much, and it isn't because they deliver high quality products or create great customer satisfaction: they do it by being a giant, bureaucratic, monopolistic enterprise, that "wins" through market dominance, either buying or burying the competition. Yes, it's a business model, but not one anyone wants to emulate any longer. Yes, they employ a lot of people; as dispirited and cynical a bunch of sad sacks as you'll find anywhere. If Microsoft was actually subject to a true market economy we would all be stepping back to get a view of the impact the giant makes when it finally falls to the ground. But since our economic policies (brought to us in no small measure by Microsoft's relentless political lobbying) are designed to prop up these giants, Microsoft is now a sluggish, flabby, process-bogged weight around the neck of American industry: a clot in the veins of innovation and creativity.

Gates is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the company he founded, and to his credit, is keeping a promise he made in his 30's, by committing billions to philanthropic endeavors like public health, fighting poverty, and education reform. Unfortunately, as most powerful people do, he obviously lives in a bubble, surrounded by hand-selected sycophants, who don't or can't tell the truth when the "boy genius" has one of his bright ideas. Or rather, when he recycles his old ones, like his idea that what American education needs is a dose of Microsoft's medicine.

For those of you who don't know, Gates is the leader in the corporate-backed push to "reform" education by making it more like Microsoft. He is the spokesperson for those who are pushing for more high stakes standardized testing and curricula, larger classes, de-professionalized teachers, wholesale privatization of public schools, and a host of other reforms based on the lessons he supposedly "learned" in his life building the behemoth that only a money grubber could love. He has no evidence or data or research to support this approach. Indeed, most professional educators tell him he is wrong, but he doesn't listen to educators, because, I guess, we're just self-interested union thugs who can't possibly know what it takes to brutally dominate a marketplace.

One of his big ideas, in fact, is to fire a lot of teachers, the way he fires a lot of people at Microsoft. And the way he's going to do this is by using a method called "stacked ranking," a model that the Obama administration has adopted by withholding Race To The Top federal funds from states that don't employ it. The basic idea is that employees are ranked by a statistical model, requiring that a certain percentage be given bonuses, while another pre-determined percentage be fired. It's the kind of misanthropic idea that business people come up with, based upon the idea that there are always lazy slobs in any group, with no credence given to things like teamwork, cooperation, growth, improvement. It's all about ranking and firing with a kind of doomsday efficiency.

This idea is at the heart of the corporate "reform" drive to put high stakes standardized testing at the core of our educational system, and this is how teachers are being rewarded and fired right across the country. Forget about the well-documented problems with these tests which focus almost exclusively on math and literacy, ignoring most of what a high quality education is all about. Forget that even the test creators warn that their tests should not be used to evaluate teachers. Forget that children are increasingly spending their days in memorizing test answers, rather than learning to think. Forget that these tests are a much better measure of the socio-economic background than of student knowledge or a teacher's ability. All that matters is the creation of data because stacked ranking needs standardized testing to create data points that can be used to get teachers competing against each other.

So Gates has succeeded in pitting state against state, school district against school district, teacher against teacher, and student against student. Then this:

And now, just as public school systems have widely adopted the Microsoft model in order to win the Race to the Top, it turns out that Microsoft now realizes that this model has pushed Microsoft itself into a Race to the Bottom . . . In a widely circulated 2012 article in Vanity Fair, award-winning reporter Kurt Eichenwald concluded that stacked ranking effectively crippled Microsoft's ability to innovate. "Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed -- every one -- cited stacked ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold number of employees . . . It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies" . . . This month Microsoft abandoned the hated system.

Thanks for nothing, Gates. Of course, we told him that teaching is a collaborative, cooperative process; that it takes teamwork, that experience matters. We warned him that while competition might be a good way to turn a profit, it's a terrible way to deliver anything that can't be measured in cold hard cash. But since no one inside of his bubble was willing or able to tell him the truth, he instead decided to label us his "enemies," which is, after all, the way business guys traditionally view their competition. No one thrives in a world full of enemies, but that's the world of education that the boy genius has forced upon us. It has now taken Microsoft a decade to figure out what those of us in education have known all along: innovation and creativity come from cooperation, not competition. 

Of course, it makes me wonder if innovation and creativity is really something guys like Gates care about when it comes to education. After all, critical thinking isn't really going to be a valuable skill in the work place they envision for tomorrow. I mean, take a look at the kinds of charter schools the Gates Foundation supports. For instance, there's Rocketship, a Silicon Valley school in which non-certified instructors making $15 per hour oversee classrooms of 130 or more, sitting in cubicles staring into computer screens, learning to do the kind of work that will prepare them to fill the sort of mind-numbing, soul-sucking jobs increasingly found in corporate offices, like those of Microsoft. But, of course, it could be worse, at least these kids have desks, unlike students who attend the charter schools of the nation's largest corporate chain, KIPP, where their spirits are broken by being forced to sit on the floor in rooms crammed with up to 100 kids. This is all part and parcel of the Microsoft model of education, one that even Microsoft now rejects.

It's not just Bill Gates, of course, but he's their leader. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is his mini-me, even going so far as to identify his enemies as "white suburban moms," patronizingly characterizing legitimate, thoughtful opposition to the corporate reform agenda, as emotional, petty, and selfish. They insist that they are data driven, candid, and pragmatic, yet even a cursory examination leads to the conclusion that their approach is supported by nothing but emotion and ideology, and a self-fulling, dystopic vision of our children's future as drones in cubicles.

The evidence and experience is on the side of teamwork and cooperation, something even the corporate blob called Microsoft has come around to realizing. But the boy wonder can't hear it because he's so obsessed with fighting enemies. The only reason anyone listens to him is because he has money, which is a poor replacement for innovation and creativity.

And for those who question my standing to write about business, I only ask that you also question Bill Gates' standing to speak about education. I'd be happy to have him as a teammate because I'm sure he has some great things to bring to the table. I'd happily work shoulder-to-shoulder with him, but he's going to need to step outside of his bubble in which he is the boy genius, roll up his sleeves, and return to the man he was in Microsoft's glory days when innovation and creativity were actually happening.

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Longest Night

I've been cycling home in the dark at 4 p.m. for the last couple weeks. I’d have to say that the short winter days are one of the most challenging aspects of life in the northern tier, but things are turning around. Today the Winter Solstice occurred in Seattle at 9:11 a.m., marking the end of our ever-longer nights and the return of light.

Not to lessen the significance of Christmas, Hanukkah or any of the other festivals of lights, but this astrological event is the original reason for the season. The Earth is tilted on its axis at, on average, a 23.5-degree angle and today is when the North Pole is farthest from the sun, causing it to appear to rise and set in the same place. We call it the first day of winter, and while the days will now grow longer by increments until the Summer Solstice in June, the average temperature of the “top” part of the globe will continue to drop as the oceans slowly lose the heat they still store from the warm summer months.

Humans can hardly think without resorting to metaphor and there is none more profound than this. It’s not an accident that this is a time for reflection as well as celebrating new beginnings. It’s not an accident that we seek out the people who mean the most to us, family and friends, those we love and without whom we live in perpetual winter. It’s not an accident that Christians retell the story of the birth of a child, the son of God, the light of hope in a darkened world. It’s not an accident that we give one another gifts and wish each other merriness, happiness and cheer – the darkness is passing, buck up, light is returning, have hope.

Winter is often used as a metaphor for death, but the comparison is superficial. The trees may not have leaves, the forests may have been temporarily emptied by hibernation and migration, there may be fewer children on the play grounds and at the beaches, and it may stay that way for some months to come, but we shouldn't mistake stillness for death.

The word “Solstice” comes from the Latin phrase for “sun stands still.” We spend the rest of the year in motion, moving forward, making progress. But if we can hold still long enough to listen, we hear winter whispering to slow down, take stock, cut back, rest, tend to the core of what makes life worthy of its name. All is calm. All is bright.

Even the sun stands still today.

(Reprinted with edits from the last four Winter Solstices. I keep thinking of writing a new one, but this one still says everything I want to say.)

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Friday, December 20, 2013

Paradise Has Come A Day Early

I love being a preschool teacher and I especially love my unique circumstance here at Woodland Park. I love all our supportive families and their incredible kids. When things are challenging or upsetting or otherwise hard, it only takes a few moments of reflection to bring me to the recognition that despite everything, I cannot imagine myself doing anything other than being this teacher at this time in this place. We've grown to fit one another quite well over the past decade or so, the school, the children and their families shaping me, as I've shaped them. I will never find a better thing to do with my time and I hope I never have to. I sometimes say my final lesson for the children will be the day I keel over during circle time.

That said, I'm a little ashamed to admit that I look forward to our school breaks, especially the extended ones like the two weeks we'll be closed for the December holidays. As the line from Manfred Mann's Earth Band goes, "Life passes slowly just this side of paradise," and that's how it's felt these past couple of days. I don't think I've delivered less as a teacher, but I have done a bit of clock watching and, man, the time has passed slowly even if "paradise" in this case is just sleeping in for a couple weeks.

Most days, time at school passes in a flash. Often I'm only aware that the end of the day is approaching because parents are arriving to pick up their kids. Hours feel like minutes. That's how time passes when you're living in the moment, which is the place young children always take you if you follow them rather than insisting upon leading. As I stand behind the closed door each day at 4 o'clock, the children and their parents on the outside, that's when I have the luxury of feeling tiredness as my brain is suddenly relieved to travel back over the long day and all that we've done, a day that seemed to have passed almost before it began.

But these last couple of days have not been like that. I won't say that they've dragged, because that suggests an impatience on my part, but the clocks have seemed to have conspired to move with a definite syrupy-ness. I guess that means I've been standing a little outside of the flow of the play, anticipating paradise at least unconsciously. 

In Thomas Mann's greatest novel, The Magic Mountain, he writes about this phenomenon of how time is not the consistent, universal thing we tend to think it is, but rather something that is shaped by the orientation of those experiencing it. When one lives life "horizontally" (reflectively, disengaged, in repose), for instance, the time may seem long as you live it, passing slowly, yet when you look back, you see a largely empty blur of sameness that, in fact, passed in flash. When, on the other hand, you live "vertically" (active, engaged, moving forward) the time passes in a flash as you live it, yet seems impossibly rich, full and long in retrospect. A full life, then, is one lived in balance between the two.

Most of my life as a teacher is of the vertical nature, but I seem to have slipped into a horizontal posture these past couple of day, perhaps beginning the break a little early. It's been an interesting experience to live this way amidst the children who are remaining vertical right up until the very end, active, engaged, moving forward. On Wednesday, as I paced our outdoor classroom as a kind of outsider, I took in the scene in a way I don't normally see it. My slow motion impression of time created a sense that the world was standing still and for a moment I was aware that time and space, as physicists tell us, are in fact the same thing. I was awed by all that I saw happening in that moment of pure horizontality: the whole world was happening. Everywhere I looked I saw children engaging their world with their full beings, negotiating, racing, leaping, painting, building, shouting, pretending, swinging, laughing, crying, reflecting, hating, loving, feeling.

And there amidst it all, I spotted Audrey, lying flat on her back in the wood chips, eyes closed, fully horizontal. She sat up slowly, opening her eyes, still barely moving. She was watching the world as I watched her. Other children came up to her, but whatever she said to them caused them to move on. Finally, I decided to join her in this place where time eddied. I sat down beside her without saying a word. She said, "I'm a spy. If I stay really still no one will notice me and I can watch everyone."

I said, "I'll be a spy too."

It seemed like we were there for a long, long time, but when she returned to the vertical world, a check of the clock told me that only a few minutes had passed. And yet so much had happened and continued to happen. I've never been more aware of how much we play in our short time together, cramming every minute with everything. It passes in a flash and it stands as still as the sun on the solstice.

This morning, Friday morning, we've awoken to enough snowfall that schools are closed. Paradise has come a day early.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

"I Like To Think Of It By Myself"

Yesterday, there were several three-year-olds at the snack table, including some girls costumed in our fancy dress up clothes, a couple with baby dolls on their arms. Normally, we have a policy of not bringing toys to the table, but it's not strictly enforced. Clara handed me her doll, the baby she had been breast feeding all morning, and asked me to be the babysitter while she ate. Naturally, I agreed, asking, "Is this a girl baby or a boy baby?"

There was moment of what I took for confused silence before Cecelia laughed, "Teacher Tom, it's a girl baby because it's wearing a dress."

Callie replied earnestly, "Boys can wear dresses."

There was then a short, general discussion around the table on the important topic of boys and dresses.

At some point I said, "I'm a boy and I've worn dresses before."

"Teacher Tom, you can't wear a dress!"

I answered, honestly, "Oh, I really don't like when people tell me what I can and can't do."

Yuri, who had stayed out of the conversation up to this point, replied, "I don't like when my mom and dad tell me what to do . . . I like to think of it by myself, then do it."

And Yuri answered, "Right."

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Highest Form Of Research

Play is the highest form of research. ~Albert Einstein

There are easier ways of getting from here to there, but all day long children choose to cross this narrow, springy plank they've set between a pair of stumps.

Why do they do this? It requires more focus than merely walking across the ground. There is a heightened risk of injury, something even the 2-year-olds know going in: you can tell by the caution with which they approach it. There are easier, safer ways, so why do they consistently choose the way that is hard?

One of the arguments used against a play-based curriculum is that it doesn't teach children rigor, that there is no incentive to tackle things that are difficult, but every day, all day long I see evidence to the contrary. In fact, it's often hard to find a child who is not applying herself, rigorously, to her play.

In every corner of the classroom, at any given moment, we find children striving in their play to do things that are hard: making the scissors cut the paper, shaping the play dough into a sphere, negotiating over a toy with a classmate, balancing across a narrow plank. When we think of play we usually think of smiles and laughter, but look around and you'll find brows wrinkled in concentration, jaws clenched in effort, bodies tense in anger, and eyes filled with the tears of frustration. This is also true of a rote-based curriculum, the difference being the smiles and laughter.

If it were true that children are inherently lazy, that without the firm hand of teachers executing standardized lesson plans filled with things a committee has determined they ought to know, and by when they ought to know it, that they will only play and never learn to apply themselves -- if this were true then there is no explaining this plank between two stumps. No, what those who doubt play fail to realize is that what they see as laziness is really boredom. If a child appears lazy, it's because you're doing it wrong.

When we understand that play is, indeed, research, then it all makes sense. They see the smiles and laughter as evidence of sloth and distraction, whereas in a play-based curriculum we know it as evidence of Eureka! 

Children are not lazy. They are also not empty vessels that now need to be tediously crammed full of things that others believe they ought to know. No, more often than not, when left to their own devices, children chose what is hard over what is easy. Why? Because humans are flames to be ignited: we are born to research, born to explore, born to cross that plank even when it is the way that is hard. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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