Monday, March 31, 2014

Getting Close To The Edge

I've written before about having spent several childhood years living in Greece. In the spring and summer, our family, sometimes in the company of other families, would get away for weekends, or even longer, the central attraction of which was playing on a beach. Of course, having grown up with Atlantic Ocean beaches, these mild Mediterranean ones, with their warm, shallow water, and gentle wave action, while undoubtedly beautiful, didn't really hold our interest as long when it came to swimming, and we'd outgrown collecting seashells, so we had to find other things to do.

Once, when I was about 11, we discovered a nice horseshoe shaped beach, framed on either side by rocky cliffs. Naturally, the older children soon lost interest in the surf and ranged toward the rocks, clambering up and over them. To one side we found a natural archway, through which we spied topless women sunbathing, a fact that startled us into running away. Around the other side, however, we found ourselves alone. At the top of one particularly steep incline we discovered a kind of cave outside which was a fig tree heavy with ripe fruit. Sadly, our previous experience with figs had consisted exclusively of fig newtons, so we used them as missiles to hurl at one another. Not all of us were able to scale the height to the cave at first, so we had to coach the younger kids up, but once we'd all made it to the top, we did what all children do when exploring outdoors, unsupervised: we explored some more.

It turned out that the "cave" was made of rocks that were sort of leaning against one another, probably as a result of a previous avalanche, and we found a small exit through which we had to crawl. We were all in our bathing suits, barefoot, and those of us with larger bodies came away from this part of the adventure with bloody scrapes on our sides. Together on the other side, we imagined we'd found a sort of path along the face of the cliff, a way, we told ourselves, others had used before us to get to the "top," whatever that meant. To this day, I'm not certain we were following a path or just imagining one, but it was on the face of a cliff. At one point I recall putting my full weight on a ledge only about half as wide and long as my foot, and as I looked below, realized that I was a misstep away from a 30 foot fall into rocky sea below.

I was born in 1962. I've lived to tell you that this was far from the only time that my play took me close to the edge, and I was, by the standards of my time, a rather cautious child, or at least not the one to leap first.

I first heard of "The Land" about a year ago, a UK playground being made famous by the attentions of Erin Davis, a Vermont-based documentary film maker, when I learned about her successful Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the project.

The Land, Promo from Play Free Movie on Vimeo.

When I first saw footage from "The Land," I recognized it right away as what people call an "adventure playground," but what I think of as a "real" place for children. The fact that children play with fire here is the part that grabs our attention, and that is a challenging aspect to get one's mind around, but otherwise I see kids doing the things I remember doing.

The boy sawing cardboard in the video clip? I've done that. Of course, living in a suburb, we didn't have a concentrated playground of junk like this. Instead, we had our entire neighborhood as our "land," a place that opened to us more and more as we got older and bolder, a place connected by the paths we wore through the neighbors' lawns connecting one street with the next. We hopped fences, made enemies, then friends, with the kids from Christopher or Winston Streets, and got "lost" in the remnants of woods we explored on undeveloped lots. Our bicycles allowed us to range for miles, even into "Hampton's Land," a tract of private woods, where we discovered secret places we called "The Sand Pits," or "The Clay Pits." And yes, sometimes, one of us would be carrying a book of matches and we would play with starting and stomping out fires.

The Land (both the documentary and the playground) has lately received a renewed burst of publicity (in my circles, at least) when both were featured in a recent article from The Atlantic by Hanna Rosin entitled The Overprotected Kid. In it, Ms. Rosin discusses her own childhood memories that, while differing in the particulars from my own and from The Land, share the common theme of unsupervised play, outdoors, with friends, the  holy trinity of free play. She worries, as do many of us who work with children, that this has been lost over the course of a single generation. Seriously, once folks my age are gone, there won't be a lot of people left with any kind of first hand experience with this sort of childhood. That is troubling. It's a well-written, thoughtful piece and I urge you to read it.

Adventure playgrounds have obviously informed our outdoor classroom at Woodland Park, which people have both slurred and praised with the phrase "junkyard chic." Our place doesn't have quite the abandoned lot aesthetic of The Land, but we do share many of its elements, including mud, things that are slowly decomposing, and a lack of anything that smacks of the out-of-the-box, cookie cutter playgrounds that have come to dominate the outdoor lives of most American children. As with The Land, families and friends of our school are forever dropping things off, junk really, things that are on their way to the dump, asking, "Can you use this?" and we most often can. Of course, The Land is mostly a place for older children, while we're set up for the 2-6 year old crowd, but the basic concepts of child-lead play with loose parts, "real" things (as opposed to toys), and a healthy relationship with risk-taking rule the day.

Yes, we're a cooperative, so there is quite a bit of adult supervision, but like the professional play workers who "loiter with intent" at The Land, we try to stay out of the way, allowing the children to explore their physical social world through their instinct to play. And yes, to take risks. Perhaps what I like the most about what we are doing is giving parents an opportunity to get to know both their own and other children in the context of "risky" play, of challenging themselves, of performing their own risk assessments, of learning lessons, and gaining confidence through natural consequences.

Yesterday morning I ended my bike ride at the new South Lake Union Park, where I sat on a bench looking out over the water. Between me and the water was a wooden dock where one can temporarily moor a boat. Right at the edge of the dock, they've installed a kind of metal plate with tread on it for traction to, I suppose, make it a little safer for those who are tying up. There were no boats there yesterday, just me and a few other landlubbers enjoying a cool, clear, breezy spring day. A young family was there with their little girl, probably not much older than one. The drop to the surface of the cold, deep water of Lake Union at that point is about three feet and there is no railing or anything to prevent a person from toppling in. The parents were letting the girl run along the dock.

As the girl made her way toward where I sat, the metal plate caught her eye and she veered suddenly toward it, continuing to run a mere inches from the water's edge. If she fell in, someone would have to jump in after her and as the closest adult it was going to have to be me. Her parents started running toward her even as I lurched to my feet. The girl, of course, continued running on the metal plate, un-intimidated by being so close to the edge, confident in her new-found ability to run. She was little and lurch-y and clumsy in the way all new walkers are. She could very have easily found herself in the water, but didn't. When her mom caught up, she instructed the girl to stay on the "wood part," not the "metal part." Naturally, the moment mom let go, the girl was drawn back to the metal plate. Time and time again I saw the mom try to "teach" her child this particular safety point, and time and again the girl was drawn, like steel to a magnet, back to the precarious edge.

We can't remove all risk from our children's lives if only because they are children and are driven to it. There are clearly fundamental educational benefits to getting close to the edge, to exploring those things that at least seem risky. We can either make those opportunities available to our children or they will wait until we aren't looking and take them anyway, in secret, where the stakes tend to be much higher. 

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Where We Spend All Our Time

During the go-go 80's, I was for a time one of those junior businessmen who wore braces (suspenders, for the initiated) and matching bow ties. It was my small rebellion. It even got me noticed by a few of Seattle's business royalty, one of whom kindly pulled me aside one day to compliment me on my "look," which he thought was an homage to himself, and to warn me that the attempt to also match my socks was a step to far. "Some people will think you're . . . " he sought for the right word a moment, before saying, ". . . frivolous, and I've learned that you're not. The chamber of commerce will always be a black and navy blue sock type of place."

This was an era during which many of the up-and-coming business types were, shockingly, wearing t-shrits to the office, but I was in an eddy of conformity, a place where grown men discussed such stupidity as the advantages of "cordova" colored shoes over mere brown. Going in, I'd imagined myself rising to the top of a pyramid by virtue of my sharp mind and breath-taking creativity, obviously not understanding how hierarchies work.

One day, while wasting time chatting in a colleague's cubicle, I noticed a sign he'd pinned to his wall:

If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there.

Something about it made me angry and sad at the same time. Maybe it was because the place I'd figured I was going was just down the hall, to sit in a bigger office. Maybe it was that I realized that one of the prerequisites for getting there was dark colored socks and all that implied. Maybe it was simply the idea that I needed to know where I was going. I remember that day because it was a big one for me. The following morning, I didn't shave which was the beginning of the beard I wear to this day.

You see, the goal of being a businessman, no matter how successful, had never been my dream. It had, however, seemed the responsible goal, the one I ought to chose because, after all, I could self-evidently no longer dream of being a superhero or a cowboy or, as I had as I got older, an archeologist or artist.

A few months ago, I wrote about my 3-year-old friend Yuri, who told me, "I don't like when my mom and dad tell me what to do . . . I like to think of it by myself, then do it," a stance in life that his father has since confirmed as bedrock in the boy. Yesterday, as I watched him meticulously sweep up some spilled flax seed, unprompted, I said to him, "You thought of sweeping up by yourself and you're doing it."

He nodded acknowledgement without missing a beat. His father has also informed me that Yuri regularly cleans up around the house, unprompted.

For weeks now, Jonah, another boy who is often down on his knees cleaning up after himself because that's what he's thought of for himself, has been using one of our child-sized push brooms on the wood chips outdoors. For several days running, he set up shop at the base of our lesser concrete slope where he spent large chunks of time, on his own, pushing chips to the top, only to have most of them slide back down. But lately, he's branched out and is now carving out long, winding paths in the wood chips. 

Several times I've said to him things like,  "You're making a road," or "I'm going to walk on your road." Like Yuri did while sweeping, he acknowledges me without letting it interrupt his flow.

At the time, I gave my colleague grief for his cubicle sign, saying something like, "I happen to know we're all going to the same place: I'm going to choose the scenic route." I long thought that I'd been quite a wit, but kids like Yuri and Jonah have let me understand my feelings differently as I stand where I am today a quarter of a century removed. It wasn't the idea of a goal-setting that bothered me, but rather that I was expected to follow someone else's road to get there.

It's the same feeling I get today when I hear someone talk of five-year-olds as needing to be somehow "career-" or even "college-ready." How is a well-travelled road different than a mere assembly line, a journey perhaps, but one of rote and conformity; where those who match their socks to their braces are rejected as frivolous.

No, I'm not that lazy, and I'm no longer that afraid. I won't just do what mom and dad tell me, but I will clean up after myself. I'll nod in acknowledgement at the roads others have prepared for me, but I'll be making my own road, thank you very much. It's not the goal, but the road that matters: it's where we spend all our time.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

It's Starting To Work

Another veteran public school teacher has left her profession in despair over Common Core State Standards and the high stakes standardized tests that are increasingly coming to dominate the lives of her students. This is not big news, of course, veteran teachers are quitting their jobs every day over this. Indeed, it has become something of an epidemic as demoralized teachers walk away from their profession. The reason I'm writing about this teacher is that her heartfelt resignation letter made the pages of the Washington Post, which then landed her on NBC's Today show and elsewhere, bringing much needed national attention to the ongoing Common Core train wreck that is currently underway in our public schools. 

I tried to embed the video here, but failed, so you'll have to visit the Today website to see it, but what I saw was the kind of teacher that I'd want for my child: dedicated and committed, a woman who is clearly in the profession for the right reasons, unlike the "lazy union teacher" meme being sold by the corporate "drill-and-kill" education reform crowd, the folks pushing for both Common Core and high stakes testing, with the endgame of the complete privatization of public schools. And speaking of these folks, you will notice that the piece finishes on an interview with the infamous Michelle Rhee, the Teach for America poster child who failed upward as a teacher to become the head of the Washington DC public schools where she again failed upward, leaving a district in scandal, but not before being adopted by the "reformers" as their spokesperson. It's aggravating to watch her twist data and pretend that she isn't one of the nation's leading proponents of the very high stakes testing that is gutting our schools of experienced teachers, outraging parents, and reducing children to tears. It's encouraging to see Matt Lauer pin her down when she tries to fear monger with the tired "jobs of tomorrow" canard, while pointing out that visitors to the Today show Facebook page are against high stakes standardized testing to the tune of 5,692 to 41.

I try to keep up with what's going on in the Common Core debate, but honestly, and encouragingly, it's been almost impossible these past few weeks. The word is getting out, parents, teachers, and even students are getting mad, and they aren't taking it lying down.

We continue to see stories like this one from The Daily Caller about the plague of confusing, obtuse questions found on Common Core tests and worksheets. If you want to see more, check out this article.

Of course, we have also learned in the past few weeks that the very fact that these questions have seen the light of day is probably against the law as teachers are forbidden to discuss or in any way disseminate the contents to these copyrighted tests, a restriction that probably prevents teachers from legally even discussing specific questions among themselves. Teaching is a collaborative process: how can they do their jobs under this sort of gag order? It's outrageous that no one, not parents or taxpayers, are allowed to see the contents of tests being used in public schools. On the flip side, the corporations who created these tests are permitted to collect, manipulate and sell the data generated by our children unfettered.

But more importantly, we are increasingly learning about the nasty business of how Common Core was developed in the first place. In this incredible piece that originally appeared on Huffington Post (I've stopped linking to HP because it has so many moving parts that it tends to seize-up my computer), researcher and historian Diane Ravtich explains how the Gates Foundation and the rest of the Common Core State Standards developers violated every one of the globally accepted principles for professional standards development.

And speaking of Bill Gates, the North Denver News is reporting that a Georgia State University professor has estimated that the famous education dilettante, buggy software developer, and venture philanthropist has spent upwards of $2.3 billion on the creation and implementation of Common Core.

And, of course, most tragically of all, actual children continue to be reduced to tears by the cruelty of these developmentally and pedagogically inappropriate tests and curriculum, an idea hatched secretly, in back rooms by billionaires and politicians without the input of teachers, parents, or taxpayers.

It's time for Congressional hearings on Common Core.

It's hard and slow, but our pushback is starting to work.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

As Plentiful As They Need To Be

We either make ourselves happy or we make ourselves miserable. The amount of effort is the same. ~Carlos Castenada

I do not want what I haven't got. ~Sinead O'Connor

We like to think of young children as living in the moment. Indeed, I've written a number of posts here in which I assert that this is why I most love working with them: they are a constant reminder that Now is the only thing that exists. And they are much, much better at it than are adults with our wizened brains that spend too much time dwelling in the dream worlds of the past and future. This is not to denigrate the warm fuzziness of nostalgia nor the hot excitement of anticipation. And only a fool doesn't learn from the past and plan the future, but you can't live there for long and avoid the twin plagues of regret and worry, the seeds of all misery. 

Now is the dwelling place of happiness. I think that's what we see when we watch children play and wish to be like them. We've all sat in awe of a child immersed in an art or sensory or dramatic play project.  If it's concentration we're witnessing then it's of the deepest and broadest variety, one that makes a universe from painting on paper or the process of repeatedly letting flax seed drain from between our fingers. These are moments around which religions and philosophies are spun. It's called bliss or nirvana or heaven or love.

Now is also the dwelling place of the other people, not just the speculative ones that may or may not exist in the past or future. As teachers and parents we spend much of our time, and even more of our energy, helping children learn appropriate ways to settle disputes, treat friends, and participate in a group, be it a family, classroom or larger community. We're at our best in this when we ourselves are able to enter into the universe of these actual, albeit smaller, people, to fully engage in the flax seed draining from between the fingers of Now. It's not always pleasant, it's an emotional place sometimes, and it's often hard to remember that feelings only exist for right now, not as eternal amplifications of our own emotional history.  It's through the ability to become fully present that we are able to see that their feelings are not our feelings, that their conflict is not our conflict, that their friendship is not our friendship: that is the reality of Now. We are not there to fix things, but rather to help them find their own course through their emotions and conflicts and back toward the blissfulness that is the heart of Now.

We have a few large, sturdy wooden vehicles: only four train cars and two busses, making them, on some days, a scarce resource, invitations to conflict over "turns." They're fun for pushing and riding: on this day we were riding in circles on a raised track made of large blocks. As others moped over having to wait for their turn I spied one guy playing with one of the two strange apparatuses that we store on the same shelves as the vehicles: they're lengths of wood hinged together in four sections, items of unknown purpose or origin.

I said, "You're playing with that thing."

He answered, "It's my truck."

While the rest of Now was rife with unsatisfied desires, disappointment, and conflict, he had, in the midst of it, satisfied himself from within. I left him then, stepping back to watch from a distance. As he manipulated this thing that looked nothing like a vehicle, I wanted to be where he was, a universe in which trucks were exactly as plentiful as they needed to be. He made gentle motor sounds with his lips as he guided it from one end of our blue rug to the other. Once there, he inadvertently set up shop for a time right in the path of the vehicles going around and around.

"Hey! Get out of our way!"

He didn't hear it, although it had been unnecessarily shouted.


"He won't get out of our way!"

He continued to make those soft motor noises, while carefully watching his truck go through its machinations.  Finally, one boy leaned right down into his face and said, "You better move or I'll be mad at you!"

His bliss was broken then. He looked at the children lined up on their vehicles waiting for him to make way.

I probably should have stayed out of it still, but I said to the boy who had threatened his anger, "I think it works better to ask people politely."

He relaxed his eyebrows, "Will you move, please?"

There was a long moment as this question hung. Finally the boy with the imaginary truck responded by scooting backwards a bit.

As the children filed past, each of them said, "Thank you," as a kind of toll.

Somehow in this process the boy wound up in sole possession of one of the coveted "real" vehicles, although he had never asked for it, and had, in fact, only laid a hand on it to move it out of the way as well. He sat back with it in his lap, not possessing it, but merely being with it. I'm certain that had another child asked for it, he would have handed it over as easily as it came to him.

And that's how we all achieved nirvana, a place where trucks are exactly as plentiful as they need to be.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Butts Are Hilarious

Let's face it, butts are hilarious.

Yesterday, Liam's mom Abigail donated a pair of costumes that her boy had outgrown, one of which was a gorilla suit featuring an anatomically correct butt. And it was hilarious.

The first child to wear it was a bit too big and had to pour himself in, resulting in a butt emerging from his lower back, and it was still hilarious. The second to try it couldn't take the pointing and laughing, so gave it up within seconds. The third to wear the gorilla butt, despite having previously been a leader in the pointing and laughing, grew testy and offended, finally squelching any demonstrations of amusement except those that occurred quietly behind his back.

This isn't the first time we've found butts to be hilarious, nor will it be the last. In fact, butts are right up there with underpants and "knock knock" jokes with non sequitur punch lines.

When we do the Hokey Pokey, putting our butts in and taking our butts out is hilarious, while shaking them all about is the topper.

Last year, we witnessed the acme of butt-based humor as we prepared to end our day. I always sing a song in which I ask the children to "curl up tight," then when I tap them it means I've seen their grown-up and it's time for them to go. Marcus had curled up at my feet. He looked up and a classmate's butt was directly in his face, temptingly, as it turned out. As I sang, I saw a devilish smile possesses his face. In a flash, he'd pants-ed the poor boy, then chomped down on the full moon he'd revealed.

Even the boy with the pinkish bite marks ultimately found it hilarious, although we did subsequently all agree to make future butt biting against the rules.

And, naturally, for the rest of the year, every time I read the rule aloud, "No biting other people's butts," it was hilarious.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

Parents, Teachers, And Students In Common Cause Against Common Core

When a 3rd grade student became confused and left a question on his Common Core-aligned homework blank, his teacher responded with a red question mark. His father then replied on his behalf:

Common Core Frustrated Parent

In case you can't read it, I've transcribed the key part here:

Dear Jack, Don't feel bad. I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Electronics Engineering which included extensive study in differential equations and other higher math applications. Even I cannot explain the Common Core Mathematics approach, nor get the answer correct. In the real world, simplification is valued over complication . . .

This is not an aberration as students, parents, and teachers across the country are becoming increasingly outraged by the disaster that is the Obama Administration's "Common Core State Standards," a vanity project more or less bought and paid for by Bill Gates via the Gates Foundation. 

Here is part of a letter from a frustrated teacher published yesterday on Diane Ravitch's Blog:

Last year during the first year of the Common Core testing, I had students who were crying because they did not understand the questions, did not have time to finish under the allotted time, or were just simply overwhelmed by the complexity of the test. Is that why I became a teacher? No, it is not! I teach because I want to see my students learn, but as more and more pressure comes down on us as teachers so too does it on our students . . . There has to be a time when we stop thinking about the race to the top and start thinking about the children we are supposed to be encouraging to want to learn! The only thing we are doing with these common core state tests is setting them up for failure and in the same process making teachers look like they are not doing their jobs . . . I'm tired of people who have never stepped foot into a classroom telling me that I am not "effective" because my 8 year old student can't pass a test that even a college graduate as difficulty completing!

And then there is this, a brilliant, concise exposition on everything that is wrong with Common Core, from a student. The Chair of the school board refused to give him an extra minute, so he had to speak fast, but man does he speak well:

Mr. Ye's comparison to the Chinese school system is an apt one. For years, students and parents in China have complained about how the extreme pressures of their drill-and-kill system has left children burnt out, with no joy for learning, clinically depressed, and at a greatly elevated risk for suicide. This seems to be the model our government, both political parties, and their corporate partners are pursuing.

Parents, teachers, and students are pushing back against the monied and powerful who are treating children as guinea pigs in their cruel experiment in "shock doctrine" capitalism. Alone, they can treat us with the cool dismissiveness this school board did Mr. Ye, but together . . . Well, I don't have a crystal ball, but at least we have a chance.

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Friday, March 21, 2014

"Make Your Soul Grow"

I recently came across this letter written by the novelist Kurt Vonnegut. It was in response to a student written letter, an assignment, inviting him to visit New York's Xavier High School. Apparently, they wrote to several authors, but he was the only one to respond. It's so perfect I wanted to share it . . .

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:
I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don't make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.
What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.
Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you're Count Dracula.
Here's an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don't do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don't tell anybody what you're doing. Don't show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?
Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals [sic]. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what's inside you, and you have made your soul grow.
God bless you all!
Kurt Vonnegut

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Econ 101

We've been leaving sidewalk chalk outdoors overnight, which means it's wet in the morning, so it's nice and creamy and we've been smearing it all over the place.

On Monday, the kids in our 5's class got things going, a group of them coming to an unspoken agreement to completely cover a plank and several tree rounds. Much of it had washed away by Wednesday morning, but enough remained to inspire the 3-5's class to take it up a notch. I joined the the fun by writing the names of RHYS and DEACON by way of delighting the two boys who go by those appellations. Young children take universal pleasure in recognizing their own name in writing.

When the older children arrived in the afternoon, a group of us imagined we were looking at a secret code. Gus said, "Read it, Teacher Tom. What does it really say?" I answered, "Rhys Deacon," to which he replied, "What's that? Rhys Deacon? What's that?"

Audrey took credit, "I wrote the code. It's in Audrey language," which is a special brand of gibberish in which she takes great pride.

"Well, what does it mean?"

"It tells us where the treasure is."

"Where's the treasure?"

"It's somewhere around here," Audrey answered, inflecting her voice with mystery.

"Around here . . ." Gus considered it. Then suddenly, "It means the treasure is right here!" pointing to ground at his feet. He moved the plank out of the way, grabbed a push broom and began excavating the area. Calmly, but persistently, Audrey talked him out of his plan, convincing him that "Rhys Deacon," in Audrey language, meant the treasure was some distance away and they headed off together, only to return a few minutes later empty handed.

I asked, "Did you find the treasure?" and Gus answered, "Just one piece, but somebody else grabbed it. Then, "What is that code over there?" He pointed to an area featuring five hues smeared side by side like color samples.

I said, "Those look like colors."

"No, they're a code!" Then taking a page from Audrey's playbook, added, "I wrote that code!"

"Then you should read it to me."

"You have to guess it."

A group of children had gathered around the color code as I attempted to decipher it by picking phrases out of the air.

"There is a magic rock in the playhouse?"


"Audrey is a real fairy?"


"We're all going to Disneyland together?"


"Gus is an astronaut?"

"Well, you got part of it right."

I celebrated by collecting high fives.

"What part did I get right?"

"I'm not telling."

"Gus is?"

"That's the part."

"You told!"

"No, you guessed it."

"Gus is a pirate?"


It went on like this with other kids making their own guesses, until I hit on, "Gus is in love with money."

"That's it!"

"You're in love with money?"

"Well, I don't love money, but I want some."

"Where are you going to get money?"

"I need a job."

A few minutes later, at circle time, we continued the conversation, this time including the brains of the entire class.

"Maybe he could get a job at Domino's Pizza."

"What about that, Gus?" I asked, "I noticed a lot of young people delivering pizza."

"I don't know how to drive."

"Maybe he could work at a store at the place where people give all the money."

A classmate clarified, "It's called a register."

"Yeah, Gus could get a job at a register."

"I don't know how to use a register. I need a job a kid can do."

"Maybe Gus could clean up our school."

"I could do that!"

"He could clean the toilets."

Gus thought for a moment, "Do we have one of those long brushes."

"No," I answered, "Just rubber gloves and sponges."

"I don't want to clean toilets, but I could wash off the snack table."

We offered several more classroom "jobs" Gus could do, but he kept bringing it back to washing off the snack table, so I asked, "Okay, so how much money would you want to get paid?"

"Five dollars."

There was general agreement that this was too much for cleaning the snack table. A few of the parent-teachers even chiming in that they would do it for $5. Xander suggested that it should be more like $3 or $4.

"Would you do it for $3 or $4?" I asked Gus, who agreed. Then I asked, "Where are we going to get the money to pay Gus?" because by now this was a community project.

Lilyana suggested we go to a store and get cash back, to which I replied, "Do stores just give you money?" She looked a little confused and turned to her mom. I said, "That money you get at the store already belongs to your mom."

Anders said, "I know, we can get money at the bank."

"Banks give you money?"

Gus has already checked into this because being a banker is one of his life's ambitions, "They give you money because they already have your money."

I clarified, "Banks are supposed to keep your money safe until you need it, then they give it to you when you need it?"


"So that money already belongs to your parents, too."

Then Gus said, "Teacher Tom, you could just get the money out of your wallet."

"Oh, so you want me to pay you to clean our snack table?"


"It's not worth $5 or $4 or $3 to me. Tell you what, I'll pay you a nickel to clean the table."

"A nickel. I won't do it for a nickel. That's not much money."

"I know, but we usually get the table cleaned for free."

And thus ended our self-constructed lesson in basic economics.

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