Friday, June 23, 2017

The Proper Thing To Do With Power

I don't have the right to tell other people what to do, even if those people are children. I make mistakes, of course, I've lived my whole life in a society that tends to feel otherwise, but each day I strive to remember that no matter what my role, even if it's one that implies power over others, such as teacher or father, I have no right of command, even as I have plenty of responsibilities.

That said, our world seems to be full of people who desire to exert control over their fellow humans, not just in early childhood, but across the spectrum. I don't get it: forcing others to do as I say doesn't give me any satisfaction. Indeed, whenever I do it, I walk away feeling like a failure. Yesterday, for instance, as we sat down to sing songs, several children began playing with the fine, dusty gravel on a nearby walking path. Not a big deal until they started throwing the stuff. It was a day of gusty wind, which carried it into the faces of other children, getting in their eyes and mouths, stinging their eyes and making them cough. I interrupted our song to say, "Stop! You're getting dust in people's eyes!" It was effective, but the chastened expressions on the kid's faces have been haunting me ever since. While I may have succeeded in protecting those eyes and throats, I failed in my manner of achieving it.

No, I don't get it at all, yet it's clear that there are others for whom the power of command brings, if not pleasure, at least a sort of gratification. History is full of examples of political leaders for whom this is true and everyone knows of parents who rule their houses with iron fists. Each day, the news brings us stories of humans abusing their power over others, from celebrity comedians who drug and rape women to cops who resort to violence when they don't feel that someone has been sufficiently compliant. That some have power over others is probably an unavoidable fact of our competitive, hyper-capitalistic society, but few things make me more angry than those who abuse their power, even if they claim they are doing it for their victims' own good.

In 1986, I read Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, the horrific cautionary story of a near future America that has fallen under the control of religious fundamentalists who have taken full control of the reproductive lives of women, using religious justifications backed by the threat of brutality to force women into lives of complete submission. I've just revisited this dystopia over the past few weeks as I've viewed the new television series based upon the novel. This is fiction, of course, but there is nothing in Atwood's story that is without historical precedent and it's hard not to see parallels to the world in which we live today. For instance, the state of Missouri is on the verge of passing a law (it has already passed both houses of their state legislature) that would give employers and landlords the power to fire or evict a woman simply because she uses birth control, something that 99 percent of all sexually active, reproductive-aged women have done, according to the Center for Disease Control. This could leave women with a Catch-22 of choosing between being forced into child birth or being jobless and homeless. I understand that abortion is a hot-button issue, but contraception? This is about exerting power over others, pure and simple, and it's entirely appropriate that protesters have been showing up in the garb of Atwood's handmaids.

I am a middle-class, middle-aged, white male. As I go through my day-to-day life, I am relatively immune to those who would command me. Indeed, by virtue of the accidents of my birth and my longevity, I possess power beyond what I deserve. It's power that I don't want, which is in part why I am forever trying to give it away, to return it to those who are too often subject to the abuses of others, who more often than not are my fellow middle-aged, white males. This is the attitude with which I attempt to enter my classroom each day, seeking to empower the young children in my care, to let them know that ultimately, "I am the boss of me and you are the boss of you." I want them to know that because I want them to be as free as possible, but even more importantly, I expect that many of them will one day find themselves possessing power: I want them to know that the proper thing to do with power is to give it away.

(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 22, 2017

A "Joke-y" Teacher

I've not sat down to do the math, but I've sent hundreds of kids off into the world from the Woodland Park Cooperative School. For most of them, I was their first and only teacher, which means that, for better or worse, I've had both the responsibility and opportunity to shape children's expectations for what's to come. Some of that is conscious, like our curriculum of questioning authority, but most is just an unconscious manifestation of my personality and the pedagogy I've been developing over the years.

I often say that after my wife and daughter, all of my best friends are five-years-old. After all, these are the people with whom I've been hanging out, daily, for the better part of three years. We've been together through highs and lows, made life stories together, share inside jokes, and trust one another: the stuff from which best friends are made. That said, I know the friendship will fade, at least from their side, once they've moved on, but I hope the feeling of that relationship stays with them as they encounter their future teachers. 

Few things gratify me more than when alumni return to visit and enthuse about the wonders of their new teacher, and most of them do, even sometimes telling me that they like their new teacher "better." It doesn't hurt because I know that this new relationship is built upon the one we had. I want them to like their current teacher. By same token, there are few things that hurt more than when one of these children tell me they don't like their new teacher or, worse, that they wish they could return to preschool.

The whole subject matter is bitter sweet, of course, and my feelings would be just the opposite were I being told these things by their parent, but it's a central part of every teacher's job (or should be) to provide an experience for children that is right for them right now. I've tried to do that when the children were preschoolers and that's all I can do. When I speak with children who have moved on, that moment has passed for us. It's now someone else's job to provide that "just right" experience and if they're doing it right, they've earned the title "favorite."

One of my former best friends is enrolled in our current summer session. Yesterday, as we were re-discovering our friendship, talking about our year apart. He told me that he liked kindergarten. I asked, "Was your teacher nice?"

"Yes, really nice."

"That's good," I joked, "because you had a really mean preschool teacher."

It took him a beat to realize I was talking about myself, but when it clicked, he laughed. "You're not mean!"

"Thanks for saying that. I try to be nice."

He thought for a second, "You're not that nice!" It was his turn to tell a joke.


We laughed. He was then quiet for a moment, a smile still playing on his lips, eyes rolled up as if looking into his brain, then, "You're not mean or nice, you're more of a joke-y teacher. That's why I like coming here!" Best friends tell you the truth, especially when they know it will make you glow. His future teachers are the luckiest people on earth.

(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 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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