Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Collective Intellect

A while back, I wrote about a new (to me) metaphor to explain an alternative theory of addiction. In a nutshell, the predominate addiction theory is based upon experiments in which rats in cages were given the option between, for instance, plain water or water laced with narcotics. The rats drank the narcotic water until they died prematurely, leading to the conclusion that narcotics themselves addictive. One scientist, however, began to wonder about the design of the experiments. Instead of putting his experimental rats in traditional cages, he designed a kind of rat paradise with a lot of varied space, play-things, good food, play-mates, and sex partners, along with the narcotic option. In this experiment, none of the rats showed addictive behavior (although most of them occasionally used the drug recreationally) leading the scientist to conclude that addiction has more to do with the cage in which we live than the mind-altering substances themselves.

Since learning about this research I've spent a lot of time thinking about "cages," both mine and other people's, and how our "misbehaviors" are almost always the direct result of those cages.

It's hard, for instance, not to reflect on the cage that is school for many kids. In the play-based model we employ at Woodland Park, our goal really is to create a kind of "kid paradise," full of a lot of varied space, with play-things, play-mates, and the freedom to explore the physical, social, and emotional world as they see fit. Traditional schools, however, are more like the cage in the addiction experiments: freedom is restricted and their days are strictly controlled; children are expected to learn certain things at a certain time according to a predetermined schedule, and if they don't, or if they rebel in any way, they are labeled, condemned, punished, and often even drugged. This does not happen in play-based schools. This does not happen in democratic free schools. This tells me that school children's "disruptive" or "uncooperative" behavior has little to do with them and everything to do with the cage in which they find themselves.

Peter Gray, researcher and author of Free to Learn, a man who wrote, "children hate school because they love freedom," recently posted at Psychology Today about a study in which researchers found that the "inclusion of a person with ADHD greatly improved the problem-solving ability of groups, even though it led to more off-task behavior." Now to be clear, ADHD is generally considered by traditional schools to be a disruptive condition, one that often requires medication, yet this experiment in which groups of middle school students were tasked with solving problems found:

The groups including an ADHD student were far more likely to solve the problems than were the control groups! In fact, 14 of the 16 groups (88%) containing an ADHD student solved both problems, and none (0%) of the 6 control groups did. This result was significant . . . meaning that there is less than one chance in 10,000 that such a large difference, with this many groups, would occur by chance.

In other words, in a problem-solving setting, kids with ADHD make the group more capable, yet they show up as a "problem" within the cage of traditional schools. Gray then, as he does, dug more deeply into the ADHD research:

Taking all of the research together, the studies indicate that ADHD symptoms correspond with improved performance on tasks that involve diverged, or "out-of-the-box" thinking, but interfere with tasks that involve convergent, or "in-the-box" thinking. ADHD students generally perform poorly in school, because school involves almost entirely in-the-box thinking. In fact, thinking out of the box can get you in trouble in school.

We live in a world in which schools have arbitrarily decide that they are in the business of educating individuals in their unnatural cages, rather than humans in their natural habitat which is, after all, playing in community with one another. We have spent trillions in both treasure and hours attempting to educate individuals when history shows that problems are rarely solved by the lone wolf, no matter how much of a brainiac she is. No, problem solving, going back to the darkest reaches of our hunter-gatherer ancestry has always been, as my wife often calls it, a "group grope," each of us bringing our unique cognitive capacity to the effort.

(H)istorically, intelligence was the product of a network of minds working together, sometimes at odds with one another. And, in many if not most cases outside of school, that is still true today.

Traditional schools are indeed an anomaly historically and in the contemporary world, most similar institutionally to actual prisons: cages in which we shove all the kids, commanding them to keep their eyes on their own papers, to stay indoors, to shut up and listen, to be still in their chairs. In fact, in many regards, convicts have more freedom than our school children. This is the kind of cage I'm talking about. I paint the picture here in extremes, of course, many kids plow through just fine, some even excel, but far too many don't, and they react to their cage in completely predictable ways, what we usually call misbehavior. And all too often we blame the kids when they react to their cage with distraction, anger, rowdiness, shyness, and other strong emotions, not to mention manifestations of what we call "special needs," a population for which traditional schools simply are not a good fit, even as I acknowledge the dedicated work their teachers are doing. Just as rats -- intelligent, social animals -- can be expected to react self-destructively when confined to a cage with only food and cocaine, we can also expect intelligent, social children to react to their deprivations.

We call them disruptive or unfocused or misbehaving. We call it ADHD, autism, or label it as a syndrome or disorder, from sensory processing to, my favorite, oppositional defiant. Of course, I understand that these diagnosis have helped people, and the conventional treatments, including drugs, have helped kids live "happier" lives. I get that. It's true. But please consider that these conditions would not exist outside the cage that is traditional schooling, that the cage is, indeed, the only reason these behaviors show up as problems.

No, outside that cage it is all nothing more or less than a vital part of our collective intellect, and if we are going to solve our problems, we're going to need all of us.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"Then You Can Have Some Ice Cream"

The two-year-old said to me, "If you eat this food you can have some ice cream." She placed a plate in front of me on which she had positioned a glob of play dough. 

I said, "What is it?"

"It's healthy food."

"What kind of healthy food?"

"You just have to eat it."

"I'll need a fork."

"I'll get one for you, Teacher Tom." She dug around on the shelf until she found a plastic one. "Here's your fork, now eat your food."

I pretended to take a bite. Sometimes when kids want me to taste their imaginary food, I make a comical face and say, "It's yucky" or "It's too hot!" but this time I said, "That is so good! I'm going to eat it all!" I stabbed the play dough with my fork pretending to shove the whole thing in my mouth, then hid it on my lap while mimicking chewing and swallowing. "Now I'm ready for my ice cream."

The "ice cream" was more play dough she held in a container. For a moment I thought she was going to serve it to me, but then she said, "First you have to take your bath, then you can have some ice cream."

"I don't want to take a bath."

"You have to take a bath if want to have some ice cream."

"I'll need a wash cloth."

"I'll get one for you, Teacher Tom." She found a small blanket in our cradle of baby dolls. "Here's your wash cloth."

I mimed bathing, then said, "All clean and fresh, now I'm ready for that ice cream."

"No, first you have to put on your jammies."

"I don't want to put on my jammies."

"You have to put on your jammies, then you can have some ice cream."

It went a couple more rounds like this. It was clear that I wasn't going to get any ice cream.

It was all pretend. The food wasn't real, the bath wasn't real, the pajamas weren't real. Even the ice cream wasn't real. Nothing about this was real, it was all a child's game, yet as she dangled that reward always just out of reach, I found a thread of growing annoyance and helplessness underneath my play. I felt manipulated and controlled. I'd jumped through her hoops, yet there was always another placed before me. The game was pretend, but the emotions it evoked were real.

Just think how much stronger those emotions would be were I the child, she the adult, and it was not a game, but rather a part of my day-to-day reality. 

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Monday, April 24, 2017

The Team

I was 14 when I landed my first non-baby sitting job. The City of Corvallis, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department hired me, along with another teenager, to coach the experimental "Snoopy League" baseball team, which was comprised of four-year-olds. We didn't exactly play baseball, it was more of a baseball-themed summer camp, and the program was discontinued the following year, but it was my foot in the door. For the next three summers I worked as a baseball coach, first as an assistant, then as a "head" coach, responsible for teams of boys and girls ranging in age from five to 14.

It was a nine to five job. One summer I even added a second "shift" as scorekeeper for adult league softball which meant I was turning in time sheets claiming 12 hours a day, a practice that was banned when one of the secretaries complained that I was making more than her. For a kid like me, it was glorious: baseball all day long, every day, outside, in the sun, with all those kids, some of whom were girls quite close to my age, looking up to me. Even at the time, I knew I was living a dream.

I coached other teams at other times, but those three years were foundational for me, and to this day you can hear echoes in the halls of Woodland Park of what I learned on the dusty fields at Avery and Chintimini Parks. 

To this day, I would say that my "teaching style" is more coach than teacher, at least when compared to the stereotypes that go with each discipline. As a coach, I would show up each morning, get out the gear, install the bases, then wait for the kids to show up, much the way I do it today as a teacher. I must have planned some drills and activities, but what we primarily did was what most baseball teams do, practice the skills we were going to need for games: fielding ground balls, judging pop flies, throwing, running bases, pitching, catching, and, of course, hitting. I reckon I gave the kids some tips and strategy here and there, but mostly I counted on repetition and their own motivation to "teach" them how to play. My job, as I did it, was to "chatter" our way through our drills and games, give pep talks full of phrases like "Come on, everybody!" and "Let's do our best!" and generally keep it fun.

There was no pressure to win or lose, our bosses didn't care and the parents were sanguine. (There was another baseball league in town, Boys and Girls Club, that wore proper uniforms instead of just matching t-shirts, that attracted "those kinds" of parents.) No, more important was balancing playing time so that everyone more or less played the same amount. We were happy when we won and philosophical when we lost. And we cheered for one another, loudly and a lot, because whatever happened we were all in this together.

As a teacher, I've become more focused on individual children, more aware of them as individuals than I ever did as a coach, for whom "the team" always comes first, but much of what I do each day can be traced back to those years coaching Parks and Rec baseball, helping those individual children come together. And truth be told, that's still the main focus for me as a teacher, the team, although today I'm more likely to refer to it as "our community," because without that, we as individuals are lost.

I'm still living the dream.

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Friday, April 21, 2017

As It Always Should Be

A few weeks ago, a team of parents installed what we're calling "the stage" in a corner of our playground. Essentially, it's a small deck from which emerge four upright metal poles left over from a little-used climbing structure that had previously occupied the spot.

One day I brought in a waterproof wireless speaker that I use in my shower and began playing music from my phone to which the children danced. As I explained in my post about it, we've never used much recorded music in our school and I had assumed that this would be a one-off activity or, at best, only an occasional one, but that's not how it turned out.

It wasn't long before the children started making musical requests such as "the Frozen song," "Paw Patrol," and "Star Wars." I don't have any of those in my music collection, so I wound up, under pressure and on the spot, signing up for a music service that allows us to pretty much play any song ever recorded on demand. This means that I've spent the last couple weeks playing DJ as an ever-changing collection of kids have taken the stage to physically and communally interpret whatever song is coming from the speaker.

If I started with mixed feelings, I don't have them any longer. There are a pair of "best friends" in our 3's class who perform "Let It Go" with a heart-felt, full-body passion that surpasses anything I've ever witnessed. One of their mothers described their faces as looking as if they were "in pain, in love, and constipated all at the same time."

There's a group that performs "Step in Time" (from the movie Mary Poppin) with an enthusiasm that rivals Dick van Dyke and crew. There are few things more entertaining and inspiring than seeing those kids link their elbows and flap like a birdie. 

I've never seen anyone rock out quite as hard as our "Paw Patrol Theme Song" band. And I've seen the Rolling Stones live a half dozen times.

Then there's the "Imperial March" and other music from the magnificent Star Wars sound track accompanied by increasingly synchronized marching and light saber battles.

And just as our Elsa and Anna showed their emotions in their features, there is something about "Everything is Awesome!!!" that makes it impossible to not smile as you dance.

Maybe I should have expected it, but this is very good stuff, because, except in a few cases, it isn't performing as much as letting music fill their collective bodies and souls. There is almost always an audience, although those on stage rarely turn toward us, but rather toward their stage-mates, forming loose circles to dance at one another or sing into one another's faces. Children who have not often played together the rest of the school day are finding one another through their shared passion for this or that song. And each time I move from one song to the next, the cast changes with it, insuring that no one group dominates the stage.

I was concerned that we would fall into a rut, that we would quickly find ourselves repeating the same damn songs over and over, and there has been a bit of that, but yesterday one boy introduced us to Elvis Presley's "Ready Teddy," another to Rachel Platton's "Fight Song," and our Mary Poppins fan is walking us through the entire soundtrack. The one person who apparently cannot chose a song is me. Every now and then I try, hoping to get them bopping along to one of my favorites, but whenever I do, the stage remains empty until I let them pick their own music.

And that's has it's always been and always should be.

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

"You Always Wear Your Purple Shirt"

"Teacher Tom, you always wear the same shirt."

It isn't entirely true, but I understand why a kid might say that. "I wear different shirts."

"No, you always wear your purple shirt."

Again, not entirely true, but I do always wear something from my by now extensive Woodland Park logo t-shirt collection, and among them are three purple ones. "I do wear a lot of purple shirts."

"And you always wear the same jeans."

This is true, although I'll switch to shorts when the weather permits it. I have one pair of threadbare jeans I think of as my "work pants." They get washed every weekend whether they need it or not. "Fair enough."

"And you always wear the same shoes."

By now, I was starting to feel a little defensive. I have several pairs of shoes I wear to school, but I have to admit that I've gone with the same old (mostly) waterproof boots during this long, wet winter. "I don't always wear the same shoes. I just mostly wear the same shoes."

"You don't even change your hairstyle."

"It gets longer and shorter, but yes, you're right about that."

Up to this point he had taken the posture of an earnest prosecutor, laying out the bare facts as if from notes. I appreciated his honestly and was flattered that he had apparently given my appearance a good deal of thought, even as I wasn't exactly thrilled with the portrait he was painting of me. But now he smiled as he came to the conclusion toward which he had been working, "You never change."

In a flash I recognized that while I do change, while I do continue to grow, in this boy's eyes I am a man upon whom one can rely day after day, a man that he saw as solid, predictable, stable, and safe, like my father had been for me. That isn't the kind of man I have always been. I liked what I saw in this unexpected reflection of myself. I said, "Thank you for telling me that."

"You're welcome."

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

"What Does That Sign Say, Teacher Tom?"

There has been a poster on the classroom door for the past few weeks promoting our annual Spring Garden Festival, a fundraising event that is open to the general public. It's posted high up on the door at adult eye-level. Yesterday, for the first time, one of the kids asked me about it.

"What does that sign say, Teacher Tom?"

"Let's find out." I removed it and carried it to our checker board rug where the four and five-year-olds were gathering for circle time. I asked, "Can any of you read?"

"I can read some words, but not all of them."

"Me too."

"I can read my name."

"Well, then I'll read it and we can figure out what the words mean." I started at the top, "Woodland Park Co-op. What's that?"

"That's our school." There was general agreement about that so I moved on, "Spring Garden Festival." There was some squealing and cheering. "What's a garden festival?"

"It's like a party at school in the spring."

"Oh, I know about this. My mom told me there are going to be games, like a cake walk. You might win a whole cake!"

"And treats!"

"And there will be things to buy!"

I said, "That sounds fun." Then I read the date. There was a pause before one girl said, "I think that means that's when it's happening."

I answered, "Me too. That's next Saturday." This brought down the house. They might not have identified with the date, but they sure understood "next Saturday." As they cheered they looked at each other, beaming and clapping, and making plans. "I'm going!" "Me too!"

When things died down I read, "From 2 to 5 o'clock . . . That's right after lunch." More cheering.

They weren't so certain about the "silent auction," although the boy whose mother is organizing it shared that someone had donated a really cool tea set that "somebody gets to take home." More cheering. He shouted over them, "There's other things too!"

They were enthusiastic about the idea of "carnival games" several of them offering up their idea of what kinds of games we might be playing. The "plant sale" was likewise well-received. When we came to "book fair" there was some confusion about what that meant, but we finally decided that it must mean that there would be books for sale. When I read "refreshments" they were quite certain that it meant we would be drinking "lemonade with bubbles in it." We interpreted "WP gear" to mean either raincoats or those "little gears you can play with." When I pointed out that "gear" could also refer to the school logo t-shirt and sweat-shirt I was wearing, they doubted it. "Free activities" got them cheering again as did "community fun." When I asked, "What does 'community' mean," a girl replied, "That means all of us."

Things got really raucous when I read, "Evan the Magician! Professional Magic Show." A couple of them had seen magic shows before and assured us that it would be "so cool." 

Then I read, "Bring cash."

"That means bring money." A few were disappointed because they didn't have any money, but they were re-assured by their friends that they would share some of theirs or, alternatively, their parents could bring some money. But everyone relaxed when I read, "Free, free, free . . . Story time with Teacher Rachel and craft stations." One of them said, "You don't need any money for that!" and that evoked another cheer. I added, "And you don't need money to play on the playground."

Teacher Rachel, our kindergarten teacher, happened to be sitting in for part of this discussion and she let the kids know that one of the carnival games was to throw a pie in her face. This lead to a discussion about what that meant. Would it hurt? Would it taste good? Would there be whipped cream? I said that I might join Teacher Rachel as a target for a pie, but only if I got to lick the whipped cream off myself. I asked if any of the kids would like a pie thrown in their faces. Only one boy offered himself up, even when I reminded them about the whipped cream. I remain on the fence, but can probably be persuaded on Saturday.

So if you or someone you know are looking for a good time in Fremont on Saturday, come on by. It's the kind of fun that includes "all of us," both inside and out, there may or may not be gears, you can get your vegetable garden started or maybe win a whole cake, and the magic show promises to be cool. Maybe you'll even get to throw a pie in my face, but there is no question that you can throw one into Teacher Rachel's.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Hardly Worth Worrying About

He had always been a perfect fit for our school, a kid who needed to move his body, who learned best not by watching or listening, but by doing. From the moment I met him, he had something in his hands, fiddling with it, testing it, bouncing it off of things. As a two-year-old, he was fascinated with our classroom hamster wheel, which he played with in every way imaginable, trying to fit it into places where it belonged and where it did not, spinning it, turning it over and rolling it, dismantling it, and sometimes going so far as to hide it so he could find it the following day in order to continue his experiments.

Even when it came to social skills, he was a hands on learner. Most of his interactions involved some sort of physical contact, like a friendly bump, a shove, actions that were often misinterpreted by others. He would sometimes take a friend's face in his hands, his palms cupping their cheeks as he smiled at them, just to show them how much he liked them. Some children objected to this, not understanding, but the ones who "got it," and there are plenty, found in him a pal for the ages.

During his fourth and final year with us, he spent his mornings in a public school kindergarten and his afternoons with us at Woodland Park. He was not a fan of his kindergarten's use of worksheets or the long stretches of sitting indoors, and when they inflicted the cruelty of an academic standardized test upon him, he ranked near the very bottom, bringing his mother to me in tears. This is a mom who knew better, who knew that some perfectly normal kids have brains developmentally ready to read at two, while many others don't get there until seven, eight, or even later. Much of the rest of the civilized world doesn't even try to start teaching children to read until they're seven. What the hell does it mean: a reading test for five-year-olds? Only someone with no knowledge of child development, or a complete jerk, would use such a tool as anything more than, perhaps, a research benchmark. But to share the results with parents, along with rankings? What is that about? Is it supposed to be some sort of motivation? Only a sociopath would think this is a good idea: I suppose the same ones who punish kids who have trouble sitting still in their chairs by taking away recess time.

This is the great crime of the standardized, assembly line curricula found in public schools. It simply cannot make allowances for children who aren't ready to learn something when they "ought to," according to arbitrary timelines, ranking them, slapping labels on them, driving them with threats and punishments, causing inappropriate anxiety for both the child and his parents.

Based on his academic performance, Winston Churchill's father was convinced that he would never be able to earn his own living. Likewise, Walter Scott's father found his early attempts at poetry so humiliating that he discouraged him because he feared it would reflect poorly on the family. Einstein and Darwin were such poor students that their teachers felt they would amount to nothing. Louis Pasteur's teacher called him "the least promising boy in the class." 

This isn't a race, folks. I've taught many children who were, say, precocious readers, puzzlers, or artists, kids upon whom adults glibly slap the label of "genius." In fact, in every class I've ever taught, there are one or two children like this. They're delightful to teach, a joy, but their early years accomplishments are no better indicators of their future successes than the less notable accomplishments of their peers. Some of our great geniuses showed themselves early, of course, like Mozart, Orson Welles, or Picasso. We are impressed by such greatness at such a young age, but often fail to recognize that the rest of their careers, while still worthy, never approach the genius of their youthful work.

And then there are "dull" children like Churchill, Scott, Einstein, Darwin, and Pasteur, people who needed time for their genius to ripen.

University of Chicago economist David Galenson took a look at this phenomenon, especially as regards creativity. He argues that there are really two methods of genius at work here. Prodigies, like those kids who are sounding out words as two-year-olds, tend to approach their "work" with a clear idea of what they want, then set about doing it. "Late bloomer" genius, however, is of the sort that comes from the experimental approach characterized by a kid who, say, spends hours and days horsing around with a hamster wheel. "Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental," according to Galenson. From his book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses

The imprecision of their goals means that these artists rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. These artists repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, and gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trail and error. Each work leads to the next, and none is generally privileged over others, so experimental painters rarely make specific preparatory sketches or plans for a painting. They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings. Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods.

Of course, most children, are not destined to become geniuses of either sort, but Galenson's work is to me a clear illustration of the broad range of what can be considered developmentally "normal," something that is confirmed by every expert in the fields of eduction and brain science. We know this, teachers should know this, as should administrators, school boards, and education policy-makers, yet they are increasingly throwing their lot with the crazy idea that education is a competition with winners and losers and rankings.

One day I watched this boy who ranked near the bottom according to a standardized test spend a half hour on our "concrete slide" with a piece of chalk, sliding down while dragging the chalk behind him, trailing lines on the concrete surface. As he slid, he studied the chalk in his hand, the colors, and the shape of the lines he was making. When another child dumped a bucket of water down the slope, he discovered that he could create more intensely colorful lines with wet chalk. He slid again and again and again, sometimes joined by other kids, sometimes all on his own, gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trail and error, each time down leading to the next, and none generally privileged over others. It was a process of searching, a process in which learning was a more important goal than passing a stupid test.

This is education and it's not a race that will necessarily be won by those first out of the gate. Education, like life, is a long game, one with a finish line so far away it's hardly worth worrying about.

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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