Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Space For Children To Do Their Own Thinking

My university rhetoric professor once asserted that "language creates reality." I was convinced of its truth then, but have become even more so as a teacher.

If there is one thing I concentrate on more than any other as a teacher is the language I use with children. Of course, the tone, context, and emotional content are also central, but equally so are the actual words, phrases, and sentences we use, the language we choose to express ourselves. And this creates reality, both for ourselves and others. 

For instance, if I go through life speaking mostly in directive statements, those that command others ("Come here," "Sit down," "Don't do that.") a certain reality grows around me. If I ask a lot of questions to satisfy my curiosity about the world, then one reality will emerge while if my questions are of the argumentative or quizzing or jealous or passive aggressive variety then, well, I will live in other realities. And if I tend toward informational statements, striving to communicate things that are true about the world, including my own opinions and emotions, yet another world is mine.

As a teacher, I try to avoid directive statements and questions, both of which tend to strongly shape reality according to my preconceived notions, and instead focus on making informative statements, those statements that have the virtue of being true, because they tend to leave more space for children to do their own thinking, and that, after all, is what education is all about.

Directive statements, commands, the ones that fill our children's lives (some studies have found that as many as 80 percent of the sentences said to young children are commands) leave children with only two choices: obey or disobey. There is no room in there for thinking for oneself, just obedience or rebellion.

Questions asked out of any motivation other than genuine curiosity, put children on the spot, forcing them to think about the adult's agenda instead of their own, which is, at least, their proper pursuit in a child-lead, play-based environment.

Informative statements, however, create a space in which children can do their own thinking.

For instance, when a child approaches a table upon which there is a bowl of fruit and finds there also paper, brushes, and paints, the reality of those materials are changed if I declare, "Today, we are making still life paintings," rather than, "Here is a bowl of fruit, paper, bushes, and paint." In the first case the child lives in a world in which he can either try to paint that still life or not. In the second instance, the one in which I simply listed the materials, a whole world of possibilities is open: he can indeed paint a still life, but he can also use the brushes to paint the fruit; he can eat the fruit while painting; he can use the fruit as brushes; he can finger paint, make prints, or simply mix colors. When I use directive language I make his world narrow, while informative statements open it up.

When it's clean-up time and I command a child, "Pick up that block," she can either do what I say or not. When I make informative statements like, "It's clean-up time," "I see a block on the floor," "The costumes go on the hooks," or "I see Sally putting the puzzles on the shelf," I create a world in which she can think for herself, where she makes her own decisions about how to best engage in clean-up time.

Likewise, I strive to avoid questions unless I'm genuinely curious about the answer and I have a reasonable expectation that this particular child can answer it. Too often we use questions to control or test children, to shape them to our agenda: "What color is that?" "How many marbles am I holding?" "Does that look safe?" Informative statements, in contrast, simply provide potentially useful information that the child may or may not use: "That color is red." "I'm holding three marbles." "That doesn't look safe to me."

None of us, of course, can ever completely eliminate directive statements or questions, they have their place and are, besides, simply too ingrained in us by now. But we can, with conscious effort begin to replace them with more informative statements, and when we do, even a little, we begin to create a new reality, one in which there is more space for children to do their own thinking.

(I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!)

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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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Something We Do

School is officially out for the summer, but we continue to run our summer program, a series of two week sessions with an ever-changing community of children, although to be honest, I'm using the word "community" more out of habit than anything else. Of course, any time humans come together one can use the term, but for me, the word is more a verb than a noun: community is something we do together, not just something we are.

As we wrapped up our school year at the end of May, I was working with communities of children that we had been building together for months and even years. Through the process of coming together day after day, we had practiced handling conflict, balancing the needs of individuals, and creating agreements, traditions, and even what one might call rituals that shaped who we were together. And while our small, democratic societies came to an abrupt end, the hope is that as the children of Woodland Park go out into the wider world to begin creating new communities, they carry with them the skills, habits, and attitudes they learned while playing together.

During any given summer session, about half of our enrollment is comprised of families who are a part of our regular school year community, while the remainder come to us from other places. Two weeks of half day sessions is really not long enough for a robust community to take shape, but it's inspiring nonetheless to watch the children strive toward it as they bump up against these other people with whom they are suddenly sharing space and resources. There is joy and conflict as they strive to shape this neophyte community, each working to satisfy her own needs while accommodating those of the others.

I find myself stepping in more quickly than I do during the regular school year, if only because we have not had the time to establish community standards around violence and force. I'm responsible for everyone's safety, but I'm not there to solve their problems, because it is largely from solving their own problems, together, that a community can grow. My job, as I see it, is to remind the children to listen to one another. When they do that, magic happens.

Yesterday, a girl, seeing that someone was already using our cast iron water pump, whined to me, "Teacher Tom, I want to pump!"

I pointed out that someone was already using it, but that if she wanted a turn she should tell him, not me. She said to him, "I want to pump." He answered, "Let me finish." She smiled from ear-to-ear, "He said I could pump when he's finished!" saying it the way a cartoon scientist says, "Eureka!" Then moments later he stepped aside, making way for her. Within minutes another child was standing at her shoulder saying, "I want to pump." And she replied, "Let me finish."

This instinct to form community, it seems to me, is the lifeblood of education. Indeed, I would say it is the purpose of not just education, but life itself. Community is an action word and every second children spend hunched over a desk filling out a worksheet or taking a test or listening to lecture is a second lost in this great and grand human project.

(I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!)

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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Monday, June 19, 2017

Adults At Play

The summer solstice is a couple of days away and we're still experiencing June-uary weather here in Seattle, but our annual Fremont neighborhood Summer Solstice Parade filled the streets on Saturday as it has for the past 28 years. My family has taken part in the most recent 14 parades and we plan to keep doing it because it's fun! Kicked off by some 1500 cyclists, most wearing little more than body paint, it's our own, homemade art parade, a celebration both of the season and who we are as a community. The parade rules stipulate that there are no recognizable words, logos or signage: if you have something to say, you have to say it through your art. And no motors are allowed (other than wheelchairs) so everything must be human powered.

This year I joined an ensemble called the Rodent and Robot Revolution. Conceived by local artist Balou De la Rosa, our float featured a giant, functional hamster wheel that we took turns walking in along the parade route. We costumed ourselves as various types of rodents and robots, equipping ourselves with chunks of prop cheese and large-scale pet water bottles. The idea, as I interpreted it, was that if you don't watch out, the rat race will turn you into a robot.

Most of what I write here is about children and play, but this parade, while children are certainly included, is really about adults at play. Sadly, outside our play-based preschool bubble, most adults no longer know how to play. I think it's safe to say that the modern adult's number one free time activity is watching TV and that can hardly count as play. A lot of us have hobbies with playful aspects, like collecting or knitting or woodworking, but at their core, those activities are more pastimes than the kind of play we see when we watch children.

It's impossible to talk about play without talking about risk. Much of what we do as adults has been made risk-free, both physically and psychologically, which are key elements of what puts play at the center of children's learning. Our hamster wheel, for instance, was based on an acrobatic device known as a Rohn Wheel, which was set in a wheeled track we bolted to the float. Balou had no idea if it was going to work. In fact, she confessed that up until about a week before the big day she was convinced that she was going to have to cancel the whole thing because it was simply too dangerous. I mean, this is a device that trained acrobats use, mounted on a moving parade float being pushed along a pot-holed city street, and the plan was for a bunch of us amateurs to manage it. Over the last week, at least a dozen people warned us that "someone is going to get hurt on that thing," predicting broken legs and concussions. I myself, after my first crazy attempt, arrived at the build site on the following day prepared to tell Balou that I was opting out, a sentiment that I think was shared by every member of our ensemble at one time or another.

In fact, right up until the parade began, we were telling ourselves that we would only attempt to walk the wheel when the float had come to a complete stop. Balou and the rest of us, although we didn't fully express it to one another, were preparing ourselves for a complete belly flop, both literally and figuratively. And I honestly don't know what I feared the most: a physical injury or the humiliation of a dramatic failure in front of the tens of thousands of people who had turned out to watch us. We were all taking a genuine and entirely "unnecessary" risk. It would have been easier to just sit on the curb and watch the parade go by.

I've been a part of many ensembles over the years and this is the way it always feels. We're doing something we've never done before and will likely not do again. We were all asking ourselves, "Can I do this?" We were all aware that public failure was an option. We all shared the thrill of taking this risk, of asking this question of ourselves, and then going out there and answering it.

I'm happy to report that not only did no one get hurt, but we had someone walking that wheel the entire time, even as the float was in motion. We played, we danced, we cavorted with the audience. I stole a joke from Lily Tomlin, that I told over and over again as we made our way slowly and joyfully through the streets of Fremont: "The trouble with the rat race is that win or lose, you're still a rat!"

We were adults at play, living an afternoon outside our comfort zone, outside the rat race, taking risks and learning about ourselves and our world. This is what children do all day. If we are really going to be life-long learners, this is something we need to know.

(I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!)

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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Friday, June 16, 2017

A Proud And Grateful Cowboy

I've been writing here, almost daily, for eight years. When I posted on Teacher Tom for the first time, I don't think I'd ever even read a blog before. As most of you know, the word "blog" is a shortening of the term "weblog," and the original bloggers tended to treat theirs as a kind of online, public diary, which is how I started out as well. And in most ways, it's how I still use this platform.

You would think, by now, I would have run out of things to say, and it is true, that when I go back through the archives I see a tendency to repeat myself, hitting on the same themes over and over, even phrasing things in similar ways. If I dig deep enough I can find contradictions, of course, because part of any diary is to record one's personal journey and I'm certain that I would have dropped this project long ago if I weren't always in the process of evolving as both a teacher and a man.

Over the years I've found that most bloggers start strong, then as the weeks and months pass, tend to leave longer and longer spaces between posts, finally petering out. As part of attempting to promote my new book, Teacher Tom's First Book, I've been seeking out those early childhood education blogs I've lost track of over the years only to find a lot of dead ends. I doubt their demise had anything to do with running out of things to say: my guess is that the self-imposed "pressure" of posting on a regular basis became too unpleasant, because I simply can't imagine anyone in our business ever running out of things over which to ponder, enthuse, advocate, or grow.

Probably the main reason I continue to blog is that I continue to be a full-time, classroom teacher, which means there is always something to write about. I tried other jobs and professions prior to becoming a preschool teacher and left every one of them largely because at some point I ran out of "things to say." In other words, those other jobs tended to become routine and predictable, and if there is one thing for which I'm temperamentally unsuited, it's the tedium of rote. No one could ever say that about teaching preschool, at least the way we do it at Woodland Park, where the children lead the way. When kid's play, they are turning the world over and over, examining all it's facets; they are opening it up to look inside; they are discovering it's great beauty and grotesque ugliness for the first time. Almost daily, their explorations reveal views into the world that I've never glimpsed before, usually revealing it as more lovely than I previously thought, sometimes even shaking my soul. These are the things I try to write about.

I would be lying to say I'm not proud of the blog. I am proud of how long I've done it. I am proud that people read it. And I am proud that even as I may tend to repeat myself, I have continued to grow as a teacher and human: the evidence is in the archives. I am grateful to everyone who reads here, past, present, and future. I am grateful for the families of our Woodland Park Cooperative School who continue to support me. And I am grateful for the unexpected opportunities this platform has given me.

In less than a month, I'll be winging my way to Australia, where I look forward to spending time with my colleagues Down Under. I'd love for you to join me.

In the fall, I'll be flying to the UK, then to Iceland for the International Play Iceland Conference. I'd love for you to join me.

Indeed, I've had the opportunity to travel the globe in my role as Teacher Tom, having been all over the US and Canada, as well as Greece, New Zealand, China, and England.

And of course, I've now published a book.

It might sound glamorous, I know it would have looked that way to me eight years ago when I first sat down in my PJ's to post here for the first time, and sometimes it is. There is nothing like the thrill of standing before an audience of several hundred enthusiastic early childhood educators, peers and colleagues who have come together in the expectation of continuing to evolve as both teachers and humans. But it's also exhausting, challenging, even frightening. And above all, there is a part of me that regrets every second I'm away from the classroom, which is the source of every bit of professional success that has ever come my way.

If there is one thing that blogging has taught me it's that I'm blessed. I've found something I love, that rarely feels like rote, and that feeds both my pocketbook and soul. As Johnny Cash sang, "I'm no slave to whistle, clock, or bell/Nor weak-eyed prisoner of wall or street." That's his version of a line from Badger Clark's poem "A Cowboy's Prayer."

As a boy I learned to dream a lot of dreams, none of which were to become a teacher, although I did often dream of being a cowboy.

(I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!)

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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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Ignorance And Wisdom

I was passing a pair of five-year-olds on my way to something else when I overheard one of them saying, "When you get older you forget more stuff." It was one of those comments that is either full of great ignorance or great wisdom, so I slowed down to hear more.

The girl with whom he was speaking answered, "No, that's not right. When you get older you go to more school then more school then more school. The more you go to school, the smarter you get."

"Well, my grandpa is old and he went to lots of schools and he forgets everything."

"My grandpa doesn't forget anything. And my grandma doesn't either. And my mom and my dad."

"Maybe they're not old enough. When you get to be 70 you start to forget."

They stood in silence for a moment, then, "I don't forget anything."

"Me either . . . Like I know everything about Star Wars when I'm little. When you get tall and old you forget everything about Star Wars."

This time the girl nodded in agreement, "My grandpa doesn't know about Star Wars. He calls it the wrong name."

"That's because he's old."

"Or maybe his mommy didn't let him watch Star Wars. I can't watch it until I'm eight. It's too scary."

"It's not scary for me."

"It's not scary for me, either, but it's scary for my mom and so we can't watch it until I'm eight."

There was a short pause while the children let the conversation sink in. Then, "How old is your mom?"


"When you get old things are more scary. I know everything about Star Wars and it's not scary."

"I know everything too, because I watch animal shows on TV. I know about lemurs and all other kinds of animals."

The boy shook his head sadly, "Then when you get tall you'll forget it."

She replied brightly, "But I remember it now! That's good! I'll just forget it when I'm old, but I'll remember it now."

"Yeah, you'll remember it now because you're not too old."

"And, you know, I'm a girl so one day when I get big, I'll just get a baby and my baby can tell me all the things I forget!"

They nodded their agreement at their great ignorance and great wisdom, which is, of course, the human condition, then went back to their play.

(I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!)

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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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

That's How To Share

If there's one aspect of our outdoor classroom that consistently provokes conflict, it would be our swing set. With only two regular seats and 20 or so kids, there's almost always someone waiting for a turn, or, more precisely, someone who is upset with how long the current swinger is taking to get finished.

Generally speaking, our policy about sharing is that we inform the person currently using an object, "When you're finished, I want a turn," (although more often than not it's expressed as, "I'm next!") then let the person with possession decide for her or himself when it's time to give way, which always happens sooner or later, if only because they can't resist the "pressure" of a friend just standing there waiting for them. It's not a perfect system, prone to abuse, but I think it's better than the alternative which is for an adult to arbitrarily decide when it's time to give it up, robbing children of an opportunity to practice working things out for themselves.

When I paused to listen in to these two girls, I heard one of them counting while the other took a turn.

And while the swing set is where much of our turn-taking and sharing practice takes place, they are skills easily transferable to other endeavors. For instance, we once had our old Fisher Price "record player" out, a wind-up device with 5 tough plastic records. A group of us were in the other room, leaving the field clear for Finn, who loved figuring things out, to master the thing. When we returned, there were suddenly a half dozen kids in his space, demanding a turn. Finn let out a howl as the other kids turned to the adults, loudly, saying things like, "He won't give us a turn!" and "He's taking too long!" Emotions were high.

I said, stating the facts as I understood them, "Finn, your friends want a turn when you're finished."

He answered, "I have to play these records first." Everyone backed off a pace. Finn then methodically selected a record, placed it on the turn table, wound it up and turned it on. With the first few notes of Camptown Races, children began to call out, "Now it's my turn!"

When she'd counted to 20, they traded places, and the count to 20 began again.

"No," said Finn firmly, "I have to play all the records." That's when it dawned on me that his plan was to not only play each of the 5 records, but to play each of them until they'd exhausted the wind-up. This was going to be a 15 minute proposition. I asked, "So you're going to play all of those records?"


A couple kids shouted, "That's not fair!"

I said, "It's his turn. When he's done someone else gets a turn."

As the records played, the number of children waiting dwindled, but not by much: four of them remained crowded around. With London Bridges in the air, they began to sort themselves out. Rex was standing directly behind Finn, using that to support his claim that he was next. Charlotte objected at first, but after a couple rounds, relented, stating, "Then I'm after you." She then pointed across the table at Cooper, "And you're after me," to which he agreed, although that left Ben "last," which didn't seem at all fair to him.

This was a system they worked out on their own: no obedience necessary, just agreement among peers. I said nothing, no "Atta girls" necessary, because the reward, as it always is when we are left to work things out for ourselves, is built into the solution.

As Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star played, Rex took a crack at things, pointing as he spoke, "I'm first, she's second, he's third, and you're fourth." This use of ordinals was stroke of genius on Rex's part, leaving Ben feeling much better about being fourth rather than "last." 

By now Finn had played 3 of his 5 records. With the turn-taking sorted out, everyone's attentions now returned to him. There were a couple grumbles of, "He's taking a long time," and "When is it going to be our turn?"

As he placed Clair de Lune on the turntable, he said, "This is the last one I'm going to play. I don't like that other one." Playing 4 records instead of 5 was his concession to the group. He then declared himself "finished" a couple notes in, vacating his chair for Rex.

Rex, Charlotte, Cooper, and Ben, their sharing plan already agreed upon, then rotated through in a matter of minutes without a hitch. That's how to share.

(I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!)

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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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Things We Did Together

I've been married for 30 years . . . All to the same woman. (Rim shot! Thank you very much. I'll be here all week. Tell your friends!)

We were in our 20's when we started dating. One of our late night hang outs was a place called The Dog House. It was on the fringe of downtown, located in a sort of no-man's land that didn't really have a name. Open 24 hours, it was a dive-y piano bar by night and a dive-y breakfast anytime place by day. It had been in that location since the 1950's, although The Dog House itself pre-dated that in a slightly different location since the 1930's.

It closed it's doors in 1994 with a sing-a-long, followed by the bartender apparently announcing, "It's time folks. Get the f*** out of my bar. I wanna go home; they quit paying me." We were sad to see it go and I remember people moaning that it was yet another piece of evidence that the Seattle we all knew and loved was gone forever. Shortly after they took down their iconic "All Roads Lead to The Dog House" bar-backing mural, a new place opened in the location called The Hurricane. It was a also a 24-hour bar/greasy spoon, but for almost two decades it was dead to us. That is, until our daughter and her friends adopted it as one of their after-hours haunts and although my wife and I had by now aged out of the all-nighter phase, it became our family's go-to weekend breakfast spot, where we would often dine alongside still-drunk patrons and after-hours prostitutes who were grabbing a bite after a hard night's work.

A couple years ago, The Hurricane announced that the building had been purchased by Amazon, which was going to tear it down to build more offices. We joined the crowd of distraught old-time Seattleites bemoaning its demise. When we shared our sadness with our waiter, who had been serving us for at least a decade, he shrugged, saying, "He's not saying it to the newspapers, but the owner is thrilled. He got a great lease buy-out and he's moving to San Diego." That made us feel a little better, at least it wasn't a small business person be forced out, but it did little to satisfy those of us being left behind. The crappy old building has now been torn down and construction is about to begin on a brand, spanking new office tower.

I've considered this city my home since I moved here in 1984, right out of college. The demise of The Dog House, then The Hurricane, isn't the first thing I've seen make way for something new. Indeed, when I walk around downtown, it seems that most of what was once here has been replaced. In fact, I can remember when many of the "beloved" places being torn down today, like The Hurricane, were themselves soul-less Johnny-come-latelys.

That's what cities do, of course, the old is forever making way for the new. Only when our beloved Hurricane closed did I learn that our beloved Dog House had been pre-dated by another 24-hour place in that same location called The Bohemian Continental that had operated during the 1920's. I expect people mourned that as well. If it's in the nature of cities to forever re-make themselves, it's human nature to regret the losses, even if it was really just a string of seedy bars. It's tempting to, as William F. Buckley wrote, "stand athwart history yelling "Stop," and that's what most of us do, at least once in awhile, especially as we get older.

People sometimes refer to it as progress, but that implies moving forward toward something better and I'm not sure if that's accurate. Most change is simply different, not better or worse, but rather a reflection of the times, of our collective and contemporary needs and desires. It's a perspective I've learned from working with young children, who are today just starting to create the memories that will cause them to mourn the loss of their own icons. When our school moved from our location on Phinney Ridge down into Fremont, an objectively better location for us, we strived to make the classroom feel as much like the old one as possible, right down to painting the walls the same color, but I'll never forget our four and five year olds crossing the threshold for the first time. Many were appalled, a few even cried. They remembered The Dog House and this was The Hurricane.

But they got over it quickly, most never mentioning it again. As they launched into their play during those first days, weeks and months, they were beginning the work of making this new place as special as the old because what was important about our old place, of course, was not the four walls and a ceiling, but rather the things we did there together. By the same token, each time I sit down with my wife and daughter over an omelette, hash browns, and a side of pre-buttered toast which we then spread with the jam from those little packets, we return to The Hurricane, not the building, but the actual place, the one that lives within us as a warm memory of doing things with people we care about.

(I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!)

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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Monday, June 12, 2017

That Has To Be Enough

I don't make lesson plans, at least not in the traditional sense. I've certainly reflected upon what the kids were doing and talking about yesterday, then made my best guess about where they might want to take it today. Based on these reflections, I might make sure certain materials are available, but even after all these years I still get it wrong more often than not and spend much of my day running back and forth to the storage closet, which is my real lesson planning. That's because there is no way to predict play.

Play makes its own "plan," one that emerges as motivated learners come together to create, invent, and explore. In fact, it's that unpredictability, at least in part, that makes a play-based curriculum such a powerful and motivating way for children to learn. Predictability is one of the the hallmarks of rote and no one is motivated by that. No one is motivated by being told what to learn and by when, which are the hallmarks of a typical lesson plan. No, humans are at their intellectual best when they have the time and space to both individually and collectively pursue their own interests within the context of a community, and it's impossible to know beforehand what discoveries they will make, no matter how much planning the adults have done.

Indeed, even after the fact, even as I take a moment at the end of the day to ponder what we have done together, I've come to recognize that I still have no idea what the kids have learned on any given day. I can tell you what I thought they might learn going in, I can describe their behavior and make a record of their words, I can speculate about what they might now know or not know, I can even directly ask them, "What did you learn?" but at the end of the day, the only ones who can ever know what they have learned are the kids themselves, and more often than not it's so fresh and exciting and still "in process" that they simply aren't capable of put it into words in a way that we can understand.

This is why, in the same way I don't see value in making a lesson plan, I also don't see the point of tests: they don't reveal what a child has learned, but rather what they are able to regurgitate in the form demanded by that particular test. And besides, most of what is learned from any given experience is extracurricular and falls beyond the scope of any test.

Sadly, lesson plans and tests form the backbone of what most teachers do. They are expected to make their plans, complete with learning "goals." They then execute their plan, which may or may not engage the children. If children begin to pursue their own interests, to follow their own light, they must be coaxed or scolded or otherwise guided back to the plan because later, as everyone knows, the children will be tested on a narrow, narrow range of trivia, rather than on the big picture of what they are actually learning. What incredible hubris to think that lesson plans or tests or complicated "frameworks" can allow us to know the unknowable.

The truth is that no one can ever know what another person has learned and no amount of planning or testing or evaluating will change that. In fact, most of us don't even know what we've really learned until much, much later in life, when we look back, perhaps from our therapist's sofa, and realize, "A-ha!"

No, I don't pretend to know what the children I teach are learning on any given day, nor is it any of my business. That I know the children are learning is enough for me, and I know they're learning because they are playing as members of a community where we strive to provide time and space enough for them to ask and answer their own questions. We don't need lesson plans or tests because the children I teach cross our doorstep each morning with their own personally meaningful plans and they engage the world by conducting their own personally meaningful tests. I will never know what they are learning, but I can see them striving, persevering, and experimenting; I can see them figuring out the other people and working with them toward common goals; I can see they are motivated every day because there is nothing rote or compulsory about it. That has to be enough for all of us.

(I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!)

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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Friday, June 09, 2017

"School Readiness" Fear-Mongering

Yesterday, my friend Denita Dinger from Play Counts! shared a post from a year ago on Facebook entitled Five-Year-Olds "Falling Behind." I agree with her that it's a message that bears repeating, so I thought I would re-publish it here this morning. Thanks Denita!


What would you think if you saw a mother hovering over her two month old infant drilling her on vowel sounds? Or how about a father coaching his five month old on the finer points to walking? I expect you would think they were at best wasting their time: two month olds can't talk and five month olds can't walk, let alone be taught. Talking and walking are things children just learn. Now imagine that when these babies failed to acquire these capabilities that are clearly beyond their developmental grasp, these parents began to fret that their child was "falling behind." You would think they were crazy. If a doctor told these parents their child was "falling behind" we would think he was either incompetent or cruel.

Sadly, there are actually people out there doing things like this. I've written before about hucksters who assert that babies can be taught to read and there are devices on the market that purport to help babies learn to walk. The good news is that while there are some naive parents who fall for such gimmickry in the misguided attempt to somehow one-up nature's long, successful history of "teaching" talking and walking according to well-established developmental timelines, most of us know better than to worry about these things that virtually every child stressless-ly learns without any special interventions.

My own daughter spoke her first word at 3 months old, consistently saying "Papa" when I played and cared for her: she was putting together full sentences before 6 months. This same "advanced" child didn't crawl until her first birthday and wasn't walking until close to 20 months, a full lifetime "behind" some of her peers. Today, as you might expect, she talks and walks like the rest of the teenagers: if she was ever behind she caught up, and if she was ever ahead, the others caught up with her.

This unsavory practice of taking advantage of new parent insecurities in the name of profit is one that deserves to be called out wherever it rears its nasty head, and it's borderline criminal when they play the "falling behind" card, which is why I'm writing today.

I've had the opportunity these past few years to travel around the world to talk to teachers and parents. Every place I go I find myself discussing this bizarre notion of "school readiness." Often translated in the US as "kindergarten readiness," it is essentially code for reading. It seems that the powers that be in our respective nations have decided to sell parents on the snake oil that if your child isn't starting to read by five-years-old she is "falling behind." They are doing this despite the fact that every single legitimate study ever done on the subject recommends that formal literacy education (if we ever even need it) not begin until a child is seven or eight years old. They are telling parents and teachers that children are "falling behind" despite the fact that every single legitimate study ever done finds that there are no long term advantages to being an early reader, just as there are no long term advantages to being early talkers or walkers. In fact, many studies have found that when formal literacy instruction begins too early, like at 5, children grow up to be less motivated readers and less capable of comprehending what they've read. That's right, if anything, this "school readiness" fear-mongering may well turn out to be outright malpractice.

But the worst thing, the unforgivable thing, is the cruelty of the assertion that five-year-olds are "falling behind." It's one thing when commercial interests attempt to move their crappy merchandise by playing on fears, but when schools are doing it, when teachers are doing it, that's unconscionable. Listen, I'm a staunch supporter of my fellow teachers here on these pages, but I am calling my colleagues out on this one. Teachers should know better than to help these guys sell this stuff: it's bad for kids, it's bad for families, and it's bad for society. We are the professionals. Teachers need to put our collective foot down, point to the research, rely on our own experience, and if we can't refuse to subject young children to developmentally inappropriate, potentially harmful "readiness" garbage for fear of losing our jobs, the least we can do is refuse to take part in the crass abusiveness of "falling behind." If we can't do that maybe we don't deserve to call ourselves professionals.

(I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!)

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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Thursday, June 08, 2017

Every Day In The Sandpit

It was the sort of conflict that comes up almost every day in the sand pit. As one child operated the cast iron water pump, a group of kids were working downhill in an effort to manage the flow of water.

I was sitting nearby watching the play. The kids had dug a hole into which the water flowed and were from there directing it onto either side of our sand pit row boat.

"We need it open so that the water can go in all directions."

"Well, we're trying to stop it in this direction."

"But we need it open so it can go all ways."

"No, we're not doing that. We're stopping it here with a dam."

Up to this point, all was calm, a group of engineers discussing their project, but as the debate continued, with each side essentially asserting their own unchangeable vision for their collective work, voices began to rise.

"Yes we are!"

"We are not!"

One girl said, ineffectually, "Stop fighting!" but judging from the other voices chiming in, it was clear that the majority favored the dam, a fact that neither of the original debaters could notice because they were too busy advocating for their own points of view. Although I was right there, at their level, no one appealed to me and why would they? They were doing what adults do all the time, engaging in debate over matters of importance. 

One could, as the girl did, call it arguing, and indeed it was arguing, but even when that makes some of us uncomfortable it is a part of life: good people argue, sometimes emotionally. But as I listened I didn't hear any of the name-calling or other kinds of ad hominem attacks one so often finds in adult discourse. No one was calling anyone "stupid" or even "bad." No one was behaving violently or otherwise attempting to impose his will on the other. They were simply restating their assertions about what "we" want, albeit with ever increasing volume and intensity.

I've been involved in these sorts of debates among adults: people who are working together, like the parent community that owns and operates our cooperative school. Setting internet political debate aside, I reckon we grown-ups usually do a better job of varying our arguments, adding rationale, nuance, and background by way of being more persuasive, rather than simply restating our views louder and louder as was so far happening in this case. But we have decades more experience with this sort of thing. We've learned, for instance, that it will typically come down to the rest of the group. It will come down to them to either choose sides or suggest a compromise, so we strive to make the best case we can. We know as well that in most debates among adults of good will, the one who loses her composure or who makes it ugly tends to wind up with the short end of the stick.

Up to this point, I didn't figure there was anything for me to do. I could see the tempers were rising, but that in and of itself doesn't mean they needed me. I was, of course, ready to leap in should violence seem imminent or the words turn ugly, but I was curious about where it would go and so remained on the sidelines. 

Then, in a flash, the dam was destroyed with a shovel, "We need the water to go through here!"

This was my moment to step in. I would have said something like, "You can disagree, but you can't destroy another person's things," or something like that. I would have then put myself between them and repeated, calmly and clearly, where I thought matters stood between the primary opponents: "You want a dam and you do not. There is only one stream of water. What can we do?" I would not have expected the more emotional kids to have made cogent suggestions (although I've been pleasantly surprised in the past by some children's ability to think clearly through their tears) but rather relied on the views of the other children involved, the engineers who had been working on the project as well, but who had not yet had their voices heard.

The group would have come to some sort of compromise, I'm sure. Perhaps not the one that we adults would have proposed, but one of their own devising, made perfect by their agreement. Unfortunately, the shovel-wielding boy's mother was on the scene and she stepped in and scooped him up before I could do anything, removing him from the scene. I can hardly blame her, of course. She could see as well as I could that he had been the one to "cross the line," and I'm sure she was either feeling embarrassed or frustrated or perhaps worried that things would just continue to ramp up and was simply, from her perspective, saving us all the headache.

And it might well have been a headache. I've taken part in debates like this that go on and on and on, both on the playground and in the adult meeting room, so her actions might have saved us from that, but at the same time we lost an opportunity to really hear everyone, to authentically engage in a process that lead to true community agreement.

As the kids went happily back to work, their conflict abruptly ended, I sat there feeling the loss, wondering what might have been, but I bucked myself up with the knowledge that it was only a matter of time before we would get another chance. Such is the nature of humans living together: it's the sort of conflict that comes up almost every day in the sand pit.

(I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!)

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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