Friday, June 28, 2013

Smooth And Magical

I enjoy teaching our summer sessions, but it's not like teaching regular school. It's challenging, I suppose, in that most of the kids who show up are children I didn't previously know, or who I only see during the summer, but at the risk of sounding cocky, that's one of my strengths: getting kids on my bandwagon (or maybe it's the other way around). What makes it most unlike the regular school year is that the enrollment turns over every couple of weeks, leaving us with an entirely different mix of kids. It's like the first weeks of school, over and over again.

Parents use the word "magical" a lot when talking about our summer sessions, enthusing about how "smoothly" things are going, how well everyone seems to get along, how few tears there are. And all of this is true, but not because of anything I do, although I continue to get credit which people won't let me deflect, so I've stopped trying. You see, we never really get to the hard part of being together, the part where agendas and personalities and expectations start clashing, and maybe that's what summer ought to be about, but a key part of what makes our school our school is missing during these lazier months.

Yesterday, I posted a piece on teaching individual children, on meeting them where they are, meeting them as who they are, and how we, as teachers, try to connect with them. That's the stuff I've been up to this last month, but since 2 week sessions are hardly long enough to build a real community, it all gets to feel smooth and magical because no one really get comfortable enough for the icky stuff to come up.

Community is always forged through conflict, or rather by working through those conflicts and coming to agreements about how we're going to live together. Two weeks, six 2-1/2 hour sessions really, is simply not enough time to create conventions, a culture, a common history, and the bonds that motivate us to work through the tears and pain, to make it not just a place for us, but for all of us. It takes that long just to get your sea legs under you, to get to figure out this silly man named Teacher Tom, to learn a few of the other kid's names, to understand what we do when the drum sounds or someone calls, "Last call for snack!" Sure, we bump up against the other people, or they use the things we want to use, or they stand or sit where we want to sit, but without a community it's just conflict, something to handle, then from which to move on.

Coming off of our very first slate of summer sessions four years ago, a project that was largely run by a core group of committed parents, we entered the regular school year on a kind of high. It had all been so smooth and magical that we, I think, assumed we'd turned some sort of corner as a community, that from now on  things were going to be smooth and magical. Then we ran smack into reality. Our October parent meeting was tense as it was becoming clear that divisions had arisen between the "summer parents" and another group who, at bottom, I think, felt left out. It took us a lot of hard work, tears, the rest of the school year to pull our parent community back together. Since then, we've made a point of taking a little break between the end of our summer sessions and the regular school year to give the summer parents a chance to slow down a little because the process of building a community -- be it adults or children or both -- is one that takes the kind of time that we don't have in the summer.

So yes, I'm enjoying this summer so far, engaging children, playing with them, maybe helping with a little separation anxiety, then sending them off a few days later to other things. I'm not complaining about things being smooth and magical, of course, but I know it's a vacation from the real work that begins again next fall.

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Thursday, June 27, 2013

I Wish We Could Tell The Truth

I wish we could tell the truth about teaching, that it's really the simplest, most natural thing in the world.

I've had these large pieces of non-slip material you put under rugs to hold them in place for quite some time. I was saving it mostly because I had a lot of it, which is one of my primary criteria for saving anything. I've had a vague idea of using it at the art table, but figured, as I often do, to see if the kids had any better ideas of how to use it.

I wish our profession wasn't in a fight for its life against deep pocket foes with a political or economic agenda, because this simplicity is really its beauty and joy.

Our main idea on the first day was to play under it together, making a kind of tent into which to crowd ourselves.

We've learned to protect ourselves with an armor of jargon like every other profession as a way to sell ourselves in this sell-or-be-sold world.

Cooperating enough to fit all of our bodies under there isn't easy when you're two.

But teaching is not every other profession. I'm not even sure it is a profession as much as a calling. Because when we strip all that "professionalism" away, we see that the core of teaching is to love the children: every one of us knows that. And when you love, you listen. That's what teachers do.

It's especially hard when one of those bodies is that of a grown man, taking up far too much of the space, but we managed.

It's when we listen with our ears and eyes and hearts that we can access not only their genius, but our own.

Teaching greatness is not a rare thing, I don't think, but it's hard for others to see because it takes place in intimate moments when we're down on our knees, face to face with the children, ears, eyes, and heart wide open. And then to try to talk about it after the fact, to try to satisfy the demands to make learning "transparent," we wind up wraping the moments of genius in words that detail techniques and strategies that describe only the surface manifestation of what happened because to say, "We connected," sounds too hippy dippy and namby pamby.

Teaching is not a complicated thing, but it does take practice, lots of it, every day with lots of different kids, and even after ten or twenty years there's still a new thing to learn every day, its profundity often lost in its simplicity.

When we play with children, we engage them as they engage with their passions and curiosities, and when we listen with our whole selves, we notice instantly when that moment comes around, and then it's just a simple matter of making a statement of fact, or asking just the right question, or sitting quietly in the knowledge that that is what this child needs right now. How much better that is than to assume they are all ready for this particular knowledge at this particular time delivered in this particular manner by virtue of being more or less the same age -- what Ken Robinson calls their "manufacture date" -- then bang heads against the wall in frustration that many of them just don't get it.

To be a "gifted" teacher is really just possessing the knowledge that children are people and then proceeding to treat them like people, loving them, and listening.

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Kids In The House: Honoring A Child's Unique Voice

When I first started teaching, my approach to circle time was to let kids speak out at their own pace. I'd ask for hands to be raised, we'd take turns talking, if someone was struggling with the whole hand raising business, I'd remind them that the way to get a turn was to raise your hand, then reward that child the second the hand flickered over her head. As for the kids who never spoke, I didn't want to put pressure on them. When they had something to say to all of us, I theorized, they would let us know. I took a great deal of pride in the fact that every child, even if some did so very eventually, at one point or another, contributed to our group discussions over the course of the year.

I think it was during my third year teaching that one boy's mom said to me, "Colin really wants to talk during circle time, but he doesn't understand raising his hand." I explained my theory to her. She nodded, "Still, I think he would like it if you just called on him." So I tried it, and sure enough, he had something to say.

It was one of those small epiphanies for me. While we still favor hand raising at circle time, it's the way you know you're going to get a turn to speak, it's not the only way to be heard. You see, as I've increasingly come to understand the importance and power of a democratic classroom, I've sought to expand what I learned through Colin to help children who are either unwilling or not yet able to assert themselves in our community meetings.

During our discussions these days, I'm constantly looking for the tale-tell signs of engagement beyond a hand raised high in the air. It might be a smile or a scowl. Maybe it's how her body is leaned forward or  her jaw is set, as if fighting the urge to speak. Sometimes it will be the fact that his head is on a swivel, closely following the verbal ebb and flow. I might say something like, "Frank doesn't look like he likes that idea," or "Betsy looks excited about that." Sometimes it's all that's needed to unlock their words for us all to hear. I try to avoid the pressure of a direct question, something like "Cindy, do you have something to say?" but I've done it, sometimes to be answered with a bashful shrug, but just as often our community benefits from the gush of words the question has uncorked.

If we're really going to be a democracy we need to hear from everyone. Where I once took pride in entire school years during which everyone contributed during circle time, I now feel like we've somehow failed when we go a week without hearing every voice at least once.

And with that preface, I'll leave you with one of the short videos I made with Kids In The House. This is the third I've shared here on the blog. The others are here and here. If you want to watch all of the 18, you can always view them over at Kid's In The House: just search for "Tom Hobson." But before you head over there, make sure to pour another cup of coffee because with more than 8,000 videos from some 350 early childhood experts to choose from, you might be there awhile.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Whispers Of The Angel

From across the room I heard the wailing cry go up and in the midst of it was a boy who struggled all year with being physical in dealing with conflicts. They were in the loft, a venue frequently visited by conflict. I didn't see what happened. My notice was drawn by the sound: it could have been caused by a fist or a word or simply by accident. As the crying child turned to remove himself from the loft, the other boy said, "I'm sorry," calling him by name.

The crying immediately stopped. The offended child accepted the apology by turning to re-climb the short flight of stairs to rejoin his friends. For a brief moment the "offender" attempted to block the stairs, using his knee to physically impede his friend, almost as if by habit, then suddenly he stopped himself and stepped aside, saying, "Come up," again calling his friend by name.

This is an important thing to remember when you're an adult who works with young children: just because something was easy for you to learn, or for your child, or even for most children, that doesn't mean it's an easy thing for everyone. We've all struggled to learn something important and this was a boy who was challenged by the urge to use his superior strength or assertiveness or what some might call aggressiveness to impose his will on other children. The fact that he so quickly offered his apology, that he stopped himself from physically blocking his friend, that he pointedly and repeatedly used his friend's name, in those behaviors I saw that he was listening to the whispers of the angel on the shoulder opposite the one upon which was perched his devil.

We had been working together all year, often in tears, sometimes physically, not commanding him, but rather trying to give that angel a louder voice. We had talked often, for instance, in both good and bad moments about his desire to have lots of friends and about how no one, not even he, would play with someone who hurt or scared the other people. We strategized in both good times and bad moments about other ways to let his friends know about his frustrations, his wants, his sadness.

Things were more or less settled by the time I was amongst them. As the other three boys dropped back into their game, our struggling friend stood silently, standing over them, separate, watching. I like to think he was still thinking about what had happened, reviewing not only how things at first went wrong, but also how they then again went right.

I tried to imagine myself saying something, but I had nothing to add to his imagined internal dialog, so I just stood nearby, not certain any of them even noticed my presence.

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Monday, June 24, 2013

Something Else I've Found To Be True

Several years ago, we had a Pre-K class comprised of eight girls and one boy, the kind of demographic quirk that happens in a small school like ours. I like to really go with the flow with this small class of oldest kids, following their energy and interests, letting thing ramble and rumble from one thing to the next. It was getting near the end of our day, when I noticed Sam sitting on the corner of the rug on which we tend to convene for discussions. His body was twisted into a sort of awkward pretzel, muscles tense with the effort, his face clenched in concentration, although he wasn't focused on what we were doing, but rather, it dawned on me, on the effort of staying seated on the rug.

Holy crap! I realized, we'd been more or less sitting on the damn rug all day. As the girls intensely engaged whatever process in which we where involved, Sam was engaged in willing his body to sit quietly. I forced a wrap-up of the discussion and we spent the final 30 minutes basically running in circles, an activity that Sam engaged with the joy of a freed prisoner.

I was reminded of Sam yesterday as I was taking part in dismantling, disposing, recycling and reusing the floats that were part of the Fremont Summer Solstice Parade on Saturday. I was chatting with a guy who asked, "How many of your students would you say have ADHD or something like that?"

I answered, "None I know of. Of course, the way our school operates it would be impossible to tell because the kids almost always have the option to be on their feet and the freedom to pretty much do and go where their interests taking them."

He said, "I'm just asking because I read that something like 10 percent of kids have ADHD and for boys it's closer to 15 percent." (I've checked and these numbers are more or less accurate, although some studies have the percentages being higher.)

"Oh, I'm sure there are some at our school, but since the symptomatic behaviors don't show up as problems, there's no way for me to know."

He grumbled, "You know ADHD is adaptive for the human species. It's part of our past as hunters. If we didn't have ADHD, we probably wouldn't have survived."

I've heard this before. In fact, it's an hypothesis first proposed by author and radio host Thom Hartmann in which he suggests that the hyper-focus, distractibility, and other aspects of the condition were necessary traits in the hunter societies that preceded agrarian ones, a theory that has a growing body of scientific support. In many aspects of our lives, such as the Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool, these traits don't turn up as problematic, although they are maladaptive in some contemporary environments such as traditional schools. The fact that the incidence of ADHD is higher in boys, according to this theory, is linked to the tendency in most of these ancient societies for the males to be the hunters.

I was reminded of Sam not because I think he has ADHD, but because he is a boy, and boys tend to need to move their bodies more when they are learning. I use the word "tend" here purposefully. Of course, girls need to move their bodies too, and of course there are boys who would have had no problem with hanging out on our rug for most of the day. We're all on a continuum when it comes to all human behaviors, but there is no denying that there is something going on with boys when it comes to traditional schools:

Boys get expelled from preschool nearly five times more often than girls. Boys are diagnosed with learning disorders and attention problems at nearly four times the rate of girls. They do less homework and get a greater proportion of the low grades. Boys are more likely to drop out of school, and make up only 43 percent of college students. Furthermore, boys are nearly three times as likely as girls to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Considering 11 percent of US children -- 6.4 million in all -- have been diagnosed with a ADHD, that's a lot of boys bouncing around US classrooms.

I was reminded of Sam simply because he was a boy amongst girls in a preschool environment in which ADHD behaviors don't usually show up as problems; where it's impossible to tell the difference between a typical 5-year-old boy and one with a learning disorder.

Last year was my first teaching our new 5's class, which, as is true of almost every 5's program of which I'm aware, was "boy heavy." By design, we were almost constantly on our feet, spending more than half our days outdoors even in the depths of winter. Yes, we did sit down together at least once each day for circle time, but it became clear from the start that no one was going to sit still for a teacher-lead approach. If this was going to work, it would have to be a collaborative effort, one that involved us doing something together, often with a common objective of some sort. Our daily "Show and Tell" sessions, which was not something I had ever planned on, was an idea that came from the kids (one of the girls actually). As it evolved (becoming known, alternatively, as "Show and Smell" or "Show and Yell") all I had to do was make sure there was a big box by the door and the kids took care of the rest. Together, they would carry the box down the hallway and onto the rug, usually chanting, "Make way for the Show and Tell box." Together, they came up with conventions such as "The Demonstration Zone," which was a strip of un-carpeted floor better suited for showing off things like wheeled vehicles; "Everybody to the borders!" which meant that we needed to leave the center of the rug clear for a performance of some kind; limiting each child to one show and tell item per week, an innovation that came about when our daily sessions were getting far too long for our attention spans; and, for the same reason, saying, "You're losing your audience," by way of letting someone know it was time to wrap things up.

We figured out many other things we liked to do while sitting on the rug such as "going on adventures," which involved me managing stories we created together by raising our hands and taking turns coming up with plot twists. We enjoyed taking turns using our karaoke machine to "top" each other with made-up jokes. We could spend a great deal of emotional and intellectual energy on debating our classroom rules or discussing classroom problems like when we were trying to figure out what to do about our burglar. When there was something about which I wanted to instruct them, such as when we were dissecting squid, I had to leave lots of space for them to share their own knowledge about the topic. And believe it or not, I would often look at the clock and realize that this roomful of mostly 5-year-old boys had been "sitting" on our rug (which for this class I interpreted as simply remaining on the rug) for 45 minutes. I want to repeat that: 45 minutes! That's as long as most of my college lectures.

The Atlantic article from which I quoted above provides a nice list of ideas for how to structure "lessons" so as to be more successful with teaching boys, all of which I can say are true from my own experience. I encourage you to take a look at it. The conclusion of the piece is a call to teachers:

Educators should strive to teach all children, both girls and boys by acknowledging, rather than dismissing, their particular and distinctive educational needs.

Here's the thing with which I quibble about the article, which is mostly spot on: this is not about girls v. boys. As David Katz, then the director of the alternative Giddens School here in Seattle, once said to me, "Most progressive schools have a waiting list of boys, but not for girls. It's a real prejudice that only boys need this kind of education. Girls tend to look like they're sitting down and doing the work wherever they are, but that's just because they don't fidget around so much. Girls just tend to be better at behaving -- that doesn't mean that they learn better by sitting in chairs, shutting up, and facing forward." This is something else I've found to be true.

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Friday, June 21, 2013

"We Oppose The Teaching Of Higher Order Thinking Skills" . . . What?

Although I've been a critic of the propaganda organization National Council on Teacher Quality on this blog, and have even exchanged pointed emails with staff members, they seem to think I'm someone they should include on their mailing list, even contacting me not long ago to "confirm" that I am, indeed, Teacher Tom, before sending me a press release about their latest bald-faced attack on the teaching profession wrapped up to look like research. I'm not going to share the press release with you today, although news media around the country have run with it, further fanning the flames about how everything that's wrong with our schools is the fault of those horrible unionized teachers, which is one of the key points of the corporate education reformers' plans to turn our public schools into privately run, high-stakes testing factories. I hope to write a direct response to this "research" in the coming days, but since it's Summer Solstice Friday, I thought I'd share something I wrote on the topic last year. At the bottom of the post, I've included a few links in case you're interested in reading more about how corporate interests are using smoke, fear, and mirrors to "sell" their ideas of reform.


The Texas Republican Party recently released it's 2012 party platform. Under the "education" part of the document they called for an increase in the use of corporal punishment, opposition to mandatory preschool and kindergarten, and support for legislation that would ban the children of undocumented residents from public schools, all of which flies in the face of scientific evidence and common sense, but perhaps the craziest thing of all:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills . . . critical thinking skills and similar programs . . . which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

The Center for American Progress, a major progressive think tank, recently released a report entitled Increasing the Effectiveness and Efficiency of Existing Public Investment in Early Childhood Education, in which they seem to be calling for us to double-down on the corporate reform education policies of the past two presidential administrations by bringing standardized testing, the de-professionalization of teaching, and federally mandated curricula, all with an economic focus, into kindergarten and preschool classrooms. It's a report written by two economists and the "money quote" (pun intended) is from yet another economist named James Heckman, this one with a Nobel Prize no less, who warns us once more, breathlessly, that the Chinese are beating us! The report writers say that they "assembled a number of highly respected experts in the early childhood education field, who are listed in the front of this report," but this reporter has been unable to locate said list anywhere on their website. I really would like to see which "experts" signed off on this nonsense.

There are few things upon which the right and left agree in this country, but one of them is to be dead wrong about education policy.

But, you know, we keep hearing how both sides are working hand-in-hand on this, in a bi-partisan manner, to bring us schools with lots of tests that focus on "trivia" instead of critical thinking skills, a top-down curricula that mandates what children learn rather than on teaching them how to learn, young, cheap teachers who could have just as easily have been "trained" to flip burgers, and a carrot-and-stick approach to keeping everyone in line.

Oh, and spankings will be administered until teh children haz learned.

None of this, from either the left or right can be supported by what research tells us about how children learn, brain development, or best practices. None of this supports the purpose of public education in a democracy, which must be civic, not economic. None of this serves children.

The good news, I think, is that our political system is so dysfunctional right now that the two sides, even though they seem to agree on all their key points, will still cancel one another out. The bad news is that this means yet another generation of students, parents and teachers stuck making lemonade from lemons. I could almost live with this situation, one in which those of us most invested (those same students, parents, and teachers) are sort of left alone to cobble together a high quality education for our kids, but now that corporate interests have focused in on the pot of gold represented by the nation's collective education budgets, I don't think they're going to stop, unless we stop them, until they've privatized the whole thing, turning our children into "human resources" in their for-profit education schemes. Money, as it usually does, might well trump ideology in this case. Check out what US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's chief of staff Joanne Weiss had to say in the Harvard Business Review about proposed new national education standards, which she admits will do nothing to improve learning:

"(Common Core) radically alters the market . . . Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale."

So as you can see, it's a sort of win-win for right, left and corporations, leaving students, parents and teachers with even smaller, harder and more sour lemons with which to work.

To take a survey of the media landscape, you would think there is very little opposition to what's going on in the nation's capitol or in state houses around the country, but you would be wrong. You rarely see "our side," the side not championed by either of the two political parties, represented in the mainstream media exactly because it is a well-known "fact" that if a point of view is not held by Democrats or Republicans, then it is too fringe-y for serious discussion.  

Diane Ravitch, an education historian and author, who was appointed to high level education department positions by presidents of both political parties, is one of the few voices regularly included in the national debate. I admire Ms. Ravitch immensely, as I do other champions for real education reform such as Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss, EdWeek bloggers Anthony Cody and Nancy Flanagan, founder of Parents Across America and Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson, director of Race To Nowhere Vicki Abeles, teacher and blogger Dave Reber, and the good folks at both the Rethinking Schools and Shanker Blogs.

There are hundreds of other voices out there as well, many probably more worthy of my list, doing the good work even if we rarely hear their voices outside the blog-o-sphere. And it's adding up. Arne Duncan has complained about the "bloggers" who are opposed to his plans. Bill Gates (the most prominent of the corporate reformers) has called us his "enemies." Despite our invisibility on the national stage we are being at least somewhat effective in pushing back as a grassroots movement outside the confines of the two-party system, but so far they see us as more of a nuisance than a real political force.

There are a lot important issues that need our attention, I know, but this is a biggie. Without higher order thinking skills we're lost. This is a call to get involved, not just for your children, but for the future of America. Read these writers, write those letters, run for office, let your representatives know you will vote on education issues. We can't let the spankers and the testers win.

Other posts about the "marketing" of corporate education reform:

If you want to read even more, there are many links within those posts, and I'm a little shocked to see that I've written over 100 posts with the "education reform" tag (see the links under "Teacher Tom's Topics" in the right-hand column).

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Thursday, June 20, 2013

So That's What We'll Do

From a teacher's perspective, the primary difference between our regular school year programs and our Summer Program is that we are an ever-changing collection of children, most of whom attend other schools during the rest of the year. There are other differences, such as the schedule, a wider age range, and being an entirely outdoor enterprise, but this is the one that makes what I do a bit of a different challenge.

Normally, I like to let things emerge, slowly if necessary, from the children, organically, following their lead, but frankly, the Summer Program simply doesn't allow for that. By the time the kids are really getting comfortable enough to feel their oats, they're off to the rest of their warm and lazy days beyond our outdoor classroom. So, for better or worse, I find myself sometimes forcing things a bit.

One of the challenges we've experienced through these first few weeks is not having enough swings, which is a situation I'll admit to having forced. We normally have two regular sings and a trapeze bar, but by the end of our most recent school year, we'd added a tire swing and a swinging rope ladder to the mix. Before our summer sessions started, I removed the the extra stuff, which is, I think, why we've had a lot of kids waiting around for their turn.

During the second half of our day, we engage in what we quite unimaginatively call "Activities." Essentially, we "close" 3 of our regular stations (art, garden, and workbench) and open 3-4 new stations, from which the children, as always, are free to chose any or all. Yesterday, I introduced one of our stations by saying, "We've had a lot of people complaining about not having enough swings. Today we're going to build a new swing." If you want to work on that project, I said, you should hang out with me, naturally, near the swings.

Five of our 25 or so kids chose this over making baking soda and vinegar bombs or working wooden puzzles.

I said, "We're going to build a new swing. What do we need?"

"Someplace up high to hang it."

"Is our swing set high enough?"

"I don't think so."

There was then a brief discussion about the merits of the swing set. As the children contributed their best thinking, I noted that our crew included one five-year-old, two four-year-olds, and two three-year-olds. Most of the younger kids had chosen puzzles, most of the older ones were working on bombs, while a certain number of all ages had gone back to the games they'd been playing when we took our break for circle time. This is why a play-based curriculum is so powerful: the children get to choose what they wanted to learn.

After examining a few trees, we finally decided that the swing set would have do for hanging our new swing.

"What else do we need?"


"Yes, we'll probably need tools. What else?"


So I forced things, "What about chains or ropes or something?"

"Yes! We need chains or ropes."

"And a seat!"

I asked, "Tools, chains or ropes, and a seat . . . Anything else?"

After a moment of silence, "We have to get up high."

"Yes," I said.

"We could stand on a tree."

"Yes, on a tree."

We sat for a moment looking at the row of cedars that divides our space.

"A tree is too high."

We were stumped. During the regular school year, I'd have likely let it stop there, hoping it would come up again on another day, but given the special nature of summer I prompted, "I wonder if there's a tool that would get us up high."

"A ladder."

"Do we have a ladder?" I asked, suddenly realizing that the step ladder we usually lean against the fence was gone.

"This is a ladder," referring to our homemade ladder which has become a sort of semi-permanent installation leading from the wood chips into the sand pit. We decided to try it. It's around 10 feet long so I was a little worried I'd actually have to climb it, but fortunately it didn't quite reach the cross bar.

I said, "It's not long enough. I think there's a ladder down by the work bench." So we all went down to the workbench where we found a tall step stool. "Will this work?"

"If you stand on it, Teacher Tom. I think your body is long enough to stand on it and reach."

We carried the step stool together, then a couple of the older kids figured out how to set it up, which they did several feet away from the swings. I asked, "Shall I try it?"

"Yes," so I climbed to the top step, then reached for the cross bar. "I can't reach it."

"Try stretching."

I strained, but couldn't reach it."

"We need a taller ladder."

"No, a taller grown-up."

"Maybe we could move the ladder closer."

I said, again steering things more than I normally would like, "I think if it was closer, I could reach it."

The kids shifted the ladder into a better position. I climbed to demonstrate I could now reach the cross bar, then said, "Okay, then let's find a rope."

We keep a collection of ropes in the outdoor classroom. Soon we had a half dozen options. I asked, "Which one is best?" The kids started playing small games of tug-o-war to test their strength, ultimately choosing a rope that was probably the most decrepit of the bunch. Fortunately, it is quite short, so when I hung it up, we could all readily see that we needed a longer rope, which turned out to be the very rope we'd used to hang our tire swing during the regular school year: a thick, sturdy length of rock climbing rope.

I hung the rope, which dragged onto the ground. There was some discussion about it being too long, but after taking turns hanging from it to prove it was strong enough to support our weight we decided to try it anyway.

I said, "Now we need a seat."

We started with a log. I tied it to the end of the rope, assuming it would be unworkable. Kind of amazingly, the kids figured out a way to stand on it and sort of spin around. Each of them gave it a go, proclaiming it fun, but it really wasn't a swing.

"Is this a good seat?" I asked.


The kids then dragged over a long plank. I tied it onto the end of the rope. This was more fun than the log, if only because several kids could climb on it at once. After goofing around on it for a while we discovered that it had a tendency, especially with only one child on it, to lurch about rather wildly which was hazardous to standers by. We decided it made a better teeter totter than a swing.

Our next candidate for a seat was where I was anticipating us winding up, a tire, but after trying it out for a while, the kids wanted to test a couple more ideas.

We tried a small board, which was about the size of a typical swing seat, but had the same challenges as we'd had with the log.

By now we were starting to break up as a group. While we'd been working on our swing, one of the 2-year-olds, inspired I think by all our heavy lifting had arranged several long planks and our homemade ladder into a very precarious, yet at the same time very inviting, climbing structure that sort of cantilevered out from the tree rounds that line our raised sandpit.

Before the work group broke up entirely, however, we tested one last "seat," tying a short wooden ladder to the rope. By now we were really down to two kids. They each took a turn, one feeling like it was a winner, the other convinced that someone would "get hurt very badly" if we left it up.

Before removing the ladder then, I asked, "So which seat was the best?"

There was a kind of shrug.

I forced things one last time, "The tire?"

No response.

I asked, "So nothing?"

"Yeah, nothing! Just leave the rope!"

So that's what we'll do.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Process Of Learning About Relationships

One of the aspects I like most about teaching in a cooperative preschool is that parents directly witness their child's processes: creating art, building with blocks, exploring sensory materials, assembling puzzles, and working with others. As a teacher, I don't need to be constantly "documenting" a student's work and reporting to parents about how and what their child is doing. As a parent I saw this as a primary advantage as well, not having to rely exclusively on the teacher for information about my child, but rather seeing with my own eyes, or the perspective of my fellow parent-teachers, how my child was doing in her process of getting along with the world.

Practicing working together is the most important thing we do in preschool.   This artwork won't be going home with the kids as a kind of "product report" on what they did today. In fact nothing of this will go home other than the experience gained from the process.

We usually talk about process v. product in relation to art, but in preschool it really applies to everything we do. I know that conscientious teachers strive to include process in their documentation and reporting on a child's work, attempting to show or demonstrate, for instance, not just that a child built an elaborate castle from blocks, but how it came about. The reality, however, of a teacher or two with a classroom full of children quite often means that what parents are left with are progress reports on product. This is especially true as report cards and 30 minute parent-teacher conferences come to dominate what is typically a one-way flow of information about the results of tests, homework, and grades.

I suppose I drove my daughter Josephine's kindergarten teacher a little crazy at times in the way I almost dismissed her official reports, preferring frequent, casual hallway conversations about how, not what, she was doing. In fact, when I sat down for parent-teacher conferences, I always let the teachers know that I was far more interested in discussing how she was getting along with her classmates than anything to do with grades. After all, social skills have far more to do with success in life than do academic ones, and that's information that awfully hard to package up into a report.

Some of the kids negotiate a process that involves "covering all the white parts."

It continues to be incredibly valuable to me as a parent, even as Josephine is now a young woman, to have been an eye-witness to her preschool trials and struggles, especially in the area of exploring relationships. As any psychologist will tell you, this is where you need to go for therapy to work, and many of our issues in adult relationships can be traced right back to those earliest ones. I can't tell you how often, over the years, that I've found myself reminding Josephine of events and friendships from our cooperative preschool days as we've discussed her current social challenges.

Some teams are find themselves more interested in the patterns they can make together with the tracks made by the golf balls as they roll through the paint.

It might sound odd at first, but I often discourage parent-teachers from reading books (or at least, reading book after book) to kids during class. Of course, I have nothing against books, but our classroom time is relatively short and sitting on a lap, in a corner, listening to a story tends to be a rather isolating activity, even if you're sitting in a cluster of other kids. Plus, I know that the kids I teach are being read to at home, so there isn't that concern. As I see it, the primary reason we're at school in the first place is to practice our relationship skills, to experiment with ourselves amidst the other people: that is something one really can't do at home, or at least not nearly as well as we can at school where the playmates aren't hand selected, where there are dozens of individual agendas and personalities to be accommodated, where one must constantly strive to find one's place, to learn to assert oneself, and to know when and how to join right in. 

While for others, they are more interested in the contact they make with their friends across the way, all part of the process of learning to get along with the other people.

The only way to learn these things is to practice, which is a the sort of lifelong process in which most of us find ourselves engaged, both socially and in our jobs. This is why process is always more important than product, and process is something best understood with one's own eyes.

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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