Thursday, April 30, 2015

Talking, Listening, And Thinking

Several weeks ago, I told a story about a small group of boys who wanted to play "bad guys" and a larger group of children who wanted them to stop. After much discussion, the "bad guys" finally proposed that they would still play bad guys, but they wouldn't act like bad guys. This didn't satisfy many of the anti-bad guy faction, but it's where we left matters for the day. There was no apparent bad guy play that afternoon, and now, more than a month later, there still has been no return of bad guy play.

There's a kicker to this story.

A couple days after our classroom discussion, the mother of one of the leaders of the bad guys, said to me, "He told me he wasn't going to play bad guys any more because Francis doesn't like it." He had gone home and thought about himself, his classmates, and his relationships with them. He had thought about his reputation and the kind of boy he wanted to be, and from that, made a difficult decision. At the time, we were both proud of him, but wondered if he would be able to stick to it.

Here we are six weeks later, and still no sign of bad guys.

Two nights ago, after our big all-school spring orientation meeting for parents, I went for a drink with his mom. I brought up the story. She said, "That has become a real turning-point moment for us. I asked him how he felt about giving up being a bad guy. He told me it made him sad, but he was going to stick to his decision because he didn't like scaring Francis. He's holding these two ideas in his mind and choosing one of them even though he doesn't want to."

No one told him to stop playing bad guys. No adult stepped in with threats or artificial consequences or promises of ice cream. Had we done that, had we attempted to impose or cajole a solution, we would have really only left him with the choices of obedience or disobedience, which is where young children so often find themselves. By instead stepping back, we left a space in which deep, reflective thinking could actually take place, and learning to think for ourselves is why we come to school.

This has been, and continues to be, a democratic process. Too often we act as if democracy is merely a ham-fisted exercise in majority rules, but that's not it at all. The heart of democracy, of self-governance, are processes like this, based upon talking, listening, and thinking. Obedience has no part in it.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings

Parenting isn't about what our child does, but about how we respond.  ~Dr. Laura Markham

I've been going to preschool classrooms daily now for the past 17 years. I know a lot about working with other people's kids, but I'll be the first to admit, I'm no parenting expert, which is why I'm so happy to work in a school where we have three brilliant parent educators to whom I can refer parents who come to me with their parenting concerns. Among the most common questions from parents in our community are ones about siblings.

When someone from outside our little cooperative preschool community asks for parenting help, however, one of my go-to educators is Dr. Laura Markham of Aha! Parenting fame. And the best news is that she's now published her second book Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, a follow-up to Peaceful Parent, Happy Kid, which means you can find that Dr. Laura goodness all in one place.

If you're a regular reader here, you'll know that I don't accept advertising, I don't do give-aways, I'm not in the business of helping other people sell stuff, but when Laura asked me to promote her new book, she didn't have to ask twice simply because I'm convinced that if every parent took the time to read her books, the world would be transformed. Seriously. I'm not exaggerating, her peaceful parenting concepts are transformative.

Dr. Markham's approach is about being the parent you want to be: about raising happy, responsible, emotionally healthy children; and about the revolutionary idea that love and relationship are at the heart of parenting.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

From There To Here

We've all thought, "It's too hard," or even, "It's impossible." I know I have, stopping myself before I even begin. If I tell the truth, however, I know that what I really mean is that I don't want to work that hard or that long. Maybe I'm lazy. Maybe I'm too impatient. Maybe I can't see a way from here to there. Whatever the case, "It's too hard" is a calculation, one that determines whether the reward is worth the anticipated effort.

But it's a false equation, or at least one falsely applied. The reward of a grand effort is not so much found in its results as much as in the effort itself and when I began to understand this, it's when I began to understand that no one really knows how to get from here to there: we can only see now and our imagined future. The journey must be lived.

It must have been a decade ago that I got turned on to Jamie Oliver's food education outreach. At the time, our outdoor space was little more than a slab of asphalt and a muddy area we called "the garden," in which a few hearty specimens thrived, but was otherwise our primary digging space. Inspired by Oliver's message, I remember wishing we could have a cool preschool gardening curriculum, but thought it "too hard." I've never had a particularly green thumb, young children tend to trample small plants, and we really needed a place to dig. 

Still, we started doing little things like planting radish seeds along with a bed of various "experiments," things we put in the ground to see if they would grow. We tried all kinds of seeds as well as a few non-seed items like sticks, rocks, and jello. That wasn't too hard. We grew bean sprouts in baby food jars and one day Dennis ate so many he puked. That's where we started and it really wasn't too hard at all.

The other thing I did is talk about food and gardening with any of our community parents who would listen, just sharing my vision of a real-deal urban gardening curriculum and admitting I had no idea how to make it happen. Later that year, at least in part due to my talking, our garden got an upgrade as part of an overall outdoor overhaul: mainly we repaired and rebuilt our raised beds and chose a few plants to stick in there. It wasn't too hard, but it did serve as a sort of declaration of intent to at least think a little bit more about gardening.

When we moved to our current location in Fremont we located our raised bed garden at the heart of our outdoor space. One parent built it in a weekend, reusing much of the wood from our old place. Then a year later, a couple of industrious parents moved it to a place with better sun, which was even more at the bullseye of our space. This year, another team of parents, rebuilt the whole thing, adding much-needed height, a nice little vine trellis, and some built in seating. No one asked any of these parents to do this. They simply bought into the idea of a garden at the heart of our school and because we're a cooperative, they figured it was on them to make it happen. They did what they could with the time they had and it wasn't too hard.

We've tried a number of gardening experiments, over the years. I once tried propagating dandelions as a way to give kids an unlimited crop of "picking flowers," but they wouldn't grow. We once "bagged" our entire garden space over a pvc pipe skeleton in the hopes of creating a cheap greenhouse, but it blew down with every wind. Most of them were the kinds of failures from which you learn a few lessons while having a little fun: not too hard.

To our credit, we've done a decent job of keeping something growing in the garden for the past few years. We've learned that children will devour every leaf of kale or bud of broccoli that dares show its green head. We've learned that children will eat raw green beans: they will, in fact, wait as I cut one green bean into 20 pieces so everyone can taste it. We've learned that children will devour raw baby beets as a group of boys did a few weeks ago, obliterating our entire crop. We've learned that the obliteration of an entire crop is a predictable part of gardening with preschoolers. Several weeks ago I spied a two-year-old carrying a tidy bouquet made up of most of our strawberry blossoms. Last summer our raspberries were picked green by a girl making "berry soup." We've learned quite a bit, I think, just by having lived with a preschool garden for a number of years now. 

This year, we re-organized how our school is managed. Part of this process resulted a three parent team responsible for "the garden." Our gardeners have been gangbusters, giving us a garden with all kinds of well-labelled things sprouting. We've designated one bed our "foraging bed," which features some battered examples of leafy green veggies, and an herb bed from which the children also graze. We've upped our vigilance about berries, root veggies, and vines, attempting to explain the difference. We've also managed to teach the children how to pick leaves without uprooting the entire plant, "Two hands, carefully, so we don't kill them." It's been a lot of work, but far from too hard.

For the past few years, I've been talking about the idea of having such a robust gardening program that our children, every day, eat something they've grown themselves. That would, in our climate, probably require a greenhouse. I've mentioned to anyone who would listen: "Wouldn't it be great . . . ?"

Last year, Clara's mom Isabelle asked if we would be interested in working with a graduate level design-build program from the University of Washington. She knew the professor who felt a greenhouse would be exactly the sort of thing his class takes on. We had to raise money and wait until they could get us on their schedule. This was a lot of work, especially from Isabelle, but we easily surpassed our goal and she seemed cheery throughout. Still, as it turns out, not too hard.

And now the date of our groundbreaking approaches. The students are already doing much of the assembly in their studio. The drawings and models I'm showing you here will be a reality in just a few weeks.

If you had asked me ten years ago, I'd have told you this was too hard, impossible, but here we are having journeyed from there to here, not yet the destination I envisioned, but it's in sight. And now we have so many more places to go.

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Monday, April 27, 2015

"What A Healthy Thing That Is!"

Back in 2007, when Barack Obama was running for president, I showed up at my local Democratic party caucus for the first time. I'd always voted, of course, but this was my first exposure to the unruly, messy sausage-making that is grass roots democratic politics. I had no intention other than to talk to my neighbors, cast my vote, then go home, but when it came time to select delegates I found myself standing in a circle, expressing my frustration with the No Child Left Behind Act. It was the first time I ever spoke publicly about my opposition to the corporatizing of our public schools. My fellow citizens thought enough of what I had to say that they elected me as a delegate to the state convention.

The values we care about the deepest, and the movements within society that support those values, command our love. When those things that we care about so deeply become endangered, we become enraged. And what a healthy thing that is! Without it, we would never stand up and speak out for what we believe. ~Mister Rogers

In New York, nearly 200,000 families have opted out of the most recent round of Common Core standardized testing. A Florida school district, the fourth largest in America, has drastically slashed its use of high stakes tests. The entire junior class at Nathan Hale High School here in Seattle stayed home on test day.

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has responded threateningly, warning that state's may be punished by the federal government if they don't meet the Common Core testing goal of 95 percent participation. Chancellor of the NY State Board of Regents Merryl Tisch implied that families who were opting out were just poor little puddin' heads who accidentally got caught up in a "union dispute." Seattle Public School Superintendent Larry Nyland threatened teachers with a loss of their teaching certificates, while State Superintendent Randy Dorn is attempting to scare parents with lies and half truths.

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. ~Mahatma Gandhi

It appears our corporate-aligned opponents are done ignoring and laughing at us. They are now on to phase three of Gandhi's famous four step plan for democratic victory: they are starting to fight us. I reckon it could get nasty. They have the deep pockets of billionaires and powerful political operatives on their side. We, however, are an unstoppable alliance of parents, teachers, and students. It's a classic democratic showdown: the wealthy and connected versus a mass movement. The goal will be to divide us, which they are already attempting to do along racial and economic lines. Several times, Duncan has implied that middle class whites, and in particular "housewives," are opposed to the "civil rights community" (i.e., blacks), clumsily playing the race card. Tisch is clearly attempting to drive a wedge between parents and teachers unions. Our state officials are threatening teachers and parents.

So far it's not working. What I love so much about the Nathan Hale High School story is that when the school district threatened the teachers who were considering refusing to administer the SBAC test, parents and their children protected them by opting out en masse, taking matters into their own hands. As long as we stay together, we will win. No one can stand before students, parents, and teachers united in this good fight.

We are winning in America because we have the best interest of our own children at heart. We're winning because there are more of us than there are of them. We are winning because we've stuck to it for a long time. And we're winning because we are right: Common Core and it's regime of high stakes standardized tests is a disaster. We have made our parade. And right on cue, political leaders, from both parties and all parts of the nation, are putting their fingers to the wind, and rushing around to march in the front:

Teachers shouldn't be forced to teach for the test, they should be allowed to teach for the student. Students shouldn't be forced to learn for the test, they should be allowed to learn for life. ~Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.)

(The) unintended negative consequences that have arisen from mandated, annual testing and its high-stakes uses have proven testing not only to be an ineffective tool, but a destructive one as well. ~Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.)

My experience as a social worker in Arizona schools for nearly a decade taught me the importance of empowering teachers and parents. Teachers should focus on the content they want their students to master -- not simply material for an upcoming standardized test. ~Rep. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.)

(Students) have been failed by the current system. ~Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ken.)

Congress is prepared to de-fang the No Child Left Behind Act I spoke out against eight years ago, and which ushered in our current high stakes testing mania. The re-authorization will greatly curtail Arne Duncan's education department's ability to follow through on its threats to withhold our education funding.

I'm willing to let them take the glory, but we will always know that we are making this happen by speaking up, opting out, and sticking together. This is restoring my faith in democracy.

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Friday, April 24, 2015

"You Need A Bandaid"

We were talking about bloody owies and I showed them mine, one I'd acquired last week when I walked too far in shoes that weren't up to the task.

He said, "That's a bad owie. You need a bandaid."

I said, "I had a bandaid on it, but I took it off because it's starting to heal."

He said again, "You need a bandaid," and walked off down the hallway.

As a young two-year-old he was a boy we had to keep an eye on, always opening every door and gate, always pressing at the edges of our physical boundaries, curious about the dark hallways and rooms that are off-limits to the kids or the places outside our fences. Now, as a three-year-old, he's all about informing his classmates, "That's closed," demonstrating his mastery of those necessary limits.

When he returned he was carrying a bandaid. Ordinarily, we keep them in our first aid kit, which is one of those places that is "closed." I couldn't quite imagine that he had gotten into kit, but there he was, concentrating on peeling the wrapper, letting the bits of paper flutter to the floor. He said, "That's garbage," then threw them it the trash.

As he tended to my wound, I remembered that we recently stocked up on bandages, too many to fit in the kit, so we had left several boxes on the shelf beside the kit. Naturally, he had known about that, as his curiosity has lead him to know everything about our school, especially those shelves and corners that are not intended for children.

He tenderly cared for me, knowing exactly what to do. When he was done he said, "You're better now." He then picked up the rest of the garbage and threw it away.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

One Person At A Time

When I walked out on my first morning in Athens last week, I was drawn to very loud, angry hip hop music a few blocks from my hotel. I found myself in front of a building that I was later to learn was the University of Athens. There were several black banners hung on the building bearing the anarchist "A," one of which was in English saying "Solidarity With Political Prisoners" and "On Hunger Strike." I took a few pictures, like any good tourist.

A trickle of people were coming and going between the columns that flanked the door. Generally speaking, I think of myself as a guy who is opposed to political prisoners and I favor the idealism of anarchy. I decided to find out what those guys were up to. I mounted the stairs, saying, "Hi," to the first people I came to, a young man and woman who greeted me, then said, "Come." I followed them inside where they handed me a flyer containing their demands in English. They apologized for their English, something I found oddly touching given that Greek is the national language, then left me to peruse the document, which contained a list of laws and other things with which they disagreed with the government, and included demands for the closing of certain prisons and the release of certain prisoners. I thanked them and walked back out into the sunlight. 

It was only then that I noticed the large contingent of police dressed in riot gear. They had likely been there when I went in, but in my travel weary state I guess I hadn't noticed them. My heart racing, I decided it was in my best interest to get out of the way.

Of course, it's hard to get out of the way of political protest in Athens. Two years ago, there were giant street protests numbering between 10,000-20,000 every day I was there. Mine workers tied up traffic for a day while I was there this time, protesting for their livelihoods. Every conversation, even about early childhood education, at least touches upon the state of politics and the economy. These are interesting times, indeed.

It is within this environment that the incredible, play-based Dorothy Snot Preschool, founded by my friends John Yiannoudis and Daniela Kralli, has thrived, at least in part, riding this wave of disenchantment with the status quo. For Greece, I'm told, this school is a radical concept, with its underpinning idea that children are fully formed humans, capable of directing their own learning. Of course, it's a radical notion for many Americans as well.

The only constant is change, as they say, but I've never spent time anywhere where the change is more in your face than right now in Greece. What is Greece changing into? That's impossible to know, which is what makes it both frightening and exciting. The new government is an ideologically radical one, but from what I've gathered it is steeped in a radicalism from the middle of the last century. Still, the people elected it as an act of protest against the status quo, banking on the notion that change, any change, will be an improvement. This is not guaranteed, of course.

I heard both the doubt and the hope in the discussions I had with teachers and parents during my week with the Dorothy Snot community. As a visitor, I found myself feeling both guilty and envious. For every person who expressed despair that things could never change, there was someone else confident that something more beautiful could arise from the turmoil.

On my final day in Athens, I took part in a public discussion on the future of education in Greece, hosted by Dorothy Snot. This was a sunny, Saturday morning. More than 200 people jammed themselves into our venue. John told me that hundreds more had been turned away. Our theme was "De-educate Re-educate." Judging by the questions and comments from the audience, the de-education part is already well underway: these people, at least, are ready for change, ready to undertake the challenge of reshaping the Greek educational system into the best in the world. The elephant in the room, of course, is "Now what?"

Most of us, I think, imagine that we need a strong, benevolent leader to step forward with a detailed, multi-step plan, but democracy has never worked that way. No, democracy more often works like it's happening in Greece right now. More often than not, it looks like directionless turmoil, not so different than what's occurring now in American education with hundreds of thousands of students engaged in the civil disobedience of opting out of high stakes standardized testing. The strong, benevolent leader is a myth. He is anti-democratic.

History happens one person at a time, each of us making up our own minds and speaking our truth with friends, families and neighbors. History is the story of parades made up of every day citizens who find themselves marching together. This is what we did together in Athens. Our parade is small now, but growing. It's a neighborhood parade, it's a city parade, it's a national parade, it's a global parade. Soon our "leaders" will find it's in their best interests to rush to the front and pretend they are leading. That's how democracy works.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"That's Okay, Teacher Tom"

By the time I realized I was just a prop in her play, I was already helping by adding yet one more piece to her very tall tower. I don't do this kind of thing, help kids do things beyond their capabilities. I don't push them on swings or lift them onto high places or even help them out of a physical jam unless it's moral support or if I see panic starting to set in.

But there I was, holding her tower, mostly because she just assumed I would.

"I can't reach any more. Here," handing me yet another piece to fit on the top. "Now, I'll turn it back down to the ground."

She fit together several small curved pieces, shaping a U-turn, which she handed to me. "This connects to the top."

I tried to get out of my predicament, "I can't do it while holding the tower with my other hand. I think you'll need to get a chair to stand on."

"No, that won't work. I'll hold it for you." Okay, okay. I tried to fit the U-turn onto the tower, but it was all too flimsy and the entire top broke into pieces.

"Hey, that almost hit me, Teacher Tom!"

"Sorry. I don't think this will work."

She gathered up the pieces that had fallen. "It will work. But you put these pieces back on."

I tried to claim that I couldn't do it, but she assured me that it would work if I just tried it, so I did. It fell apart again.

She calmly picked up the pieces that had formed the U-turn, reassembled it, then said, "I guess I'll just have to build from the bottom."

"From the bottom?"

"Yes, you hold your part, and this part," handing me the U-turn, "then when I build my part tall enough, we'll connect the two towers with the curvy piece." When she got to the point that the second tower was too tall for her reach, she began handing me pieces again.

I said, "My hands are already full."

"You'll have to put down the curvy piece." I placed the U-turn carefully on its side, then, no longer seeing anyway out of my role in this project, began taking the pieces she handed me, and, according to instruction, clicking them atop the second tower. When they were the same height, she said, "Now it's time for the curvy part."

She waited for me to pick it up. I said, "I'm already holding two towers. I can't reach the curvy part."

"That's okay, Teacher Tom, I can help you." She handed me the U-turn. This tubular building set is actually pretty crappy. It doesn't click together solidly enough. Any structure of size, which this was, is going to be flimsy. 

When the whole thing came crashing down, she reassured me, "That's okay, Teacher Tom, you did your best," then walked away.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Maybe We Should Send Them To The Gypsies

There have always been gypsies in Greece. When I lived there as a boy in the 1970's they were there. The stories people told about them are awful, about how they lie, cheat, steal, and worse. There had been an encampment just through the fence of the school I attended. They left us alone and we left them alone. Mostly they just seemed poor. A couple years ago, I became obsessed with a television program called The Riches, which followed the lives of a family of Irish Travelers, sometimes referred to as "white gypsies." Indeed, they lied, cheated, and stole, the whole family, working together, treating the rest of us like trees in an orchard from which they harvested their bounty. They weren't portrayed as "noble," but they had a strong, loving loyalty to family and tribe, and the fascinating part of the series was not just seeing their brilliant scams from the insides, but seeing our middle class American life from their perspective as worthy targets for their petty criminal activity.

For the past several months I've been engaged in a personal ritual here at home. Living downtown Seattle as I do, a city ranked near the top in terms of our homeless population, I've been filling my pocket from our change jar and making a point of giving something to everyone who asks. It's not an act of altruism, but rather a self-improvement ritual in which I challenge myself to not sit in judgement. If they have been reduced to begging on the street, be it the fault of society or self, be their attitude contrite or combative, it's none of my business. They are asking me for money and I have money to give them so I do, with eye contact, but usually without comment, unless they thank me, to which I reply appropriately.

I told my host John that I had spent my first morning wandering around downtown Athens giving away my change. He laughed and said, "You're ruining it for the rest of us." He understood what I was doing, but warned me that many of the people on the streets in Athens weren't necessarily homeless beggars, but professional con artist types, usually gypsies. It was the first time I'd thought about gypsies in years, my most recent exposure having been that television program.

As I sat drinking coffee one morning amongst tourists in the Plaka, I noticed a delightful girl who appeared to be around 10-years-old, a child-sized accordion across her waist. She was up on her toes, almost dancing as she moved, her eyes and smile bright. I was impressed by how boldly she approached tables, playing a few chords, beaming, standing perhaps a little too close, full of confidence, oozing charisma. When people waved her away she persistent, playing more chords, flirting with men and women alike, not taking only one "no" for an answer. Some gave her a coin or two just for moving on.

Between gigs, so to speak, she moved like a sprite among the tables. When a waiter attempted to chase her off she danced away, giggling, sometimes knocking silverware or napkins on the ground as a kind of prank, stopping to play a few notes and collect a few coins, even while chased. I watched her for several minutes, charmed by her girlishness, moving seamlessly between harvesting coins from tourists, taunting her tormenters, and stopping to (literally) sniff the flowers, play with dogs, and peer through shop windows. I've never seen anyone go about their work with more joy. She never came to my table, but had she, as charmed as I was, I'd determined I'd wave her off, not wanting to allow myself to be harvested by this obviously talented professional. I was later told she was probably a Romanian gypsy.

On my last evening in Greece, a group of us were eating sandwiches at a table on the sidewalk when a mother carrying a small child approached our table for alms. This is quite common in Seattle as well. We gave her a few coins, but when she persisted, we thought it might be fun to have one of our palms read. This was all taking place in Greek, so I didn't understand what was being said, but it was an amiable exchange. I began to watch the boy who was probably not yet three. While his mother predicted the future, the boy began to wordlessly point at our table top, struggling in his mother's arms. She lowered him to the ground without missing a beat. Our table top was bestrewn with the remnants of our meal: silverware, plates, glasses, bottle caps, napkins, and a few stray coins. It was the coins he was after, grabbing them in his tiny fist, ignoring the rest, harvesting.

The friendly exchange turned into a quarrel as our palm reader attempted to reject the five Euro note we tried to give her, insisting that it must be ten as five was bad luck. Meanwhile the boy had moved away from our table and was working to push the coins into his pocket. That done, the argument intensifying, he came back to our table, this time attempting to harvest the phones from our table. These were professionals at work, Turkish gypsies I was told, and this boy, not even three was already a master of his trade. At one point, a table mate said to me, "That boy is good. You'd better check your wallet."

I'm as against lying, cheating, and stealing as the next guy, but, you know, I'm also aware that these are professional talents used by business people in every country, everywhere. I'm aware that it was the lying, cheating, and stealing by the world's largest banks that were behind both the Great Depression and our more recent Great Recession. You can say what you want about these gypsies, but at least they don't compound their sins by hoarding houses, cars, yachts and cash the way those corporate gypsies do, those men in office towers who look upon the rest of us as something to harvest. If anyone deserves my anger it's them.

Corporate gypsies like Bill Gates, a man who started with a good idea, quickly built his market share on being first, not best, and who has now used his market muscle, governmental lobbying, and other bully-boy tactics to secure his business rather than the creativity and innovation of neoliberal legend, would now have our schools dedicating themselves to getting our children "college and career ready." They would have us ignore the finer purposes of educating our youth, to instead focus almost exclusively on vocational training, on competition, on "market forces."

If that was truly our goal, to get kids ready to assume their role in the economy, to chase after coins, then perhaps we would be better off sending them to learn the lessons of the gypsies. I mean, the gypsy children I saw will never starve, they have the skills and focus to be professional money makers already, even as two-year-olds. And on top of it, they really seem to be enjoying themselves, which is more than we can say under our current educational regime.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Fourteen Hours In Nowhere

I will tell you stories about my trip to Greece last week and the work I had the privilege to do with my friends John Yiannoudis, Daniela Kralli, Spyros Kasimatis, Angelos Patsias, and the Dorothy Snot Preschool community, but I'm still processing the trip and my jet lagged brain isn't ready to put my thoughts together in a cogent manner. For a flavor of what we did there, I've shared some of what others have posted on the Teacher Tom Facebook page, but today I wanted to share some thoughts about being nowhere.

I'd not really studied my itinerary, at least not the return part, and found myself on Saturday night landing at the Frankfurt am Main International Airport with a 14 hour layover. This is not just one of the biggest airports in Europe, but the world, a massive, modern facility, featuring restaurants, retail and other services that make it a city unto itself, with concourses instead of roads and travelers instead of residents. There's even a full service supermarket in there. I've passed through this crossroads village, and others like it, many times before. There's something both appalling and comforting about their clean-cut sameness: places where you can always find the latest edition of the New York Times, a colorful collection of Swatch wristwatches, giant bottles of perfume and bars of chocolate, and quiet places to sit, plug in, and snooze to the lullabies of conversations being spoken in languages and dialects from around the globe.

In his song "If Jesus Drove a Motor Home," Jim White wonders:

Now if we all drove motor homes, well maybe in the end,
With no country to die for, we could just be friends.
One world as our highway, ain't yours or my way.
We'd be cool wherever we roam if Jesus drove a motor home.

Replace motor homes with jets and highways with skyways and one can get a glimpse of this vision in places like Frankfurt am Main International, especially when laid over, not rushing to make a connecting flight. I always look forward to a few hours of peaceful anonymity in these places, walking slowly through the world's rainbow, it's business suits and turbans, it's crying babies and hobbling grandmas, it's families and loners and freaks. There is no official language or currency (or at least there's always a place to buy the currency you need), no national costume or custom or culture. These places are nowhere.

In the morning I'd been part of a panel discussion on education in downtown Athens before an enthusiastic, angry, frustrated and excited standing room only crowd of Greek parents and teachers. This had been somewhere. At the other end of my journey was home. That was also somewhere, but for 14 hours, I was here, nowhere.

I'd not made any plans for my 14 hours and as I slowly walked along the concourse upon deplaning my flight from Athens I contemplated just stopping. I would set myself up at one of the gates, spread out over a half dozen seats and just be amidst my fellow nationless people, my fellow travelers. Maybe some of them would stop with me in this world where there is no yours or my way, we would chat, cobbling together our own language, being cool wherever we roamed. Then I started getting to the restaurants and I considered grazing my way through them, one or two hours at a time, yo-yoing through the familiar routine of starting with a drink, perusing the menu, ordering, eating, whipping my mouth with a napkin, settling up, then doing it again and again all night long. 

When you're nowhere the only time is the one printed on your boarding pass and there is no one there to judge or question what you do in this timeless space.

I ground to a stop and sat with crossed legs to phone my wife for the first time in a week, having not wanted, until now, to incur international roaming charges. During her days as an executive with Volkswagen she had several times stayed at a hotel right there in the airport: that's what she thought I ought to do. Her argument about a good night's rest made sense.

When you're nowhere, there is no weather. On the tarmac, through tinted windows, it looked sunny and mild, perhaps a little breezy. 

I took my time. As I passed a Lufthansa frequent flyer lounge, I stopped to ask the hostess about the hotels. She said there were two, but quickly added that I could save money by taking a "hotel shuttle" to a place nearby, but not actually attached to, the airport. In any event, she directed me through a maze of hallways and escalators to the large "Fraport Information" counter where they would be able to tell me about my options. They are very helpful in nowhere, or at least they've set up systems that travelers might find helpful. For one thing, there are signs everywhere, there are announcements, there is cording set up to help us form those first-come, first-serve lines. There are golf carts and wheel chairs and car rental desks. There are train stations right there in the airport, moving walkways and escalators. Maybe all this systemic helpfulness is because this is nowhere and we need help finding our way.

It's impossible to get lost for more than a few minutes. As a traveler in nowhere, I find that comforting.

It turned out that one of the airport hotels was featuring rates that seemed fair. The friendly woman at the "Fraport Information" desk booked the room for me, making the call, locking in the rate, assuring me that if anything was amiss I could come back and she would handle it, taking care of me. She would have done the same for any hotel I chose or for any traveler. It really is very easy being in nowhere.

I walked in glass tunnels tinted against the roadways and parking lots of outdoors, and raised above them. I passed through the bahnhof, then continued into another raised tunnel toward the hotel. The farther I walked the quieter it got. I found the hotel behind a towering wall of glass. One would think the soaring ceilings and glass walls would make an echo chamber, but the effect was nevertheless hushed. There was a likewise hushed bar. I figured I'd come down and eat dinner there once I got settled in, which wouldn't take long because my life's possessions had been condensed into a backpack.

The glass elevator was smooth, noiseless. Doors opened automatically as I approached. No other guests were evident as if I had the place to myself. I really was nowhere. I imagined myself in a space station, tenuously connected, but essentially apart from the sound and fury of Earth. I have to admit, I liked it. 

There were two single beds in my room, a room business partners might share to spare a few bucks. The headboard was backlit.

At the bar, I talked to a Tesla engineer and ate from an "international tapas" menu, the official conversation and diet of nowhere.

In my room, before going to bed, I watched CNN International, the official news source of nowhere.

I found myself moving more efficiently than a normally do, not wasting motion, not hurrying. I still had 12 hours to get where I needed to be. Mostly what I did for 14 hours was wait for 14 hours to pass. And it was enough. That's what nowhere's all about.

I let myself wake up without an alarm. It didn't feel like I hurried, but I was out the door with several hours still to spare. I tried to maintain my pace from the day before. I had a nice, slow motion breakfast, chewing each bite completely, and read every article in the paper. I ate a small piece of chocolate. I thought about buying a new magazine, but didn't.

Then I queued up and boarded a plane back to somewhere. My section was full of giddy Italian teenagers in matching t-shirts, traveling to Seattle for a student exchange program, one that I'm sure has "international understanding" as part of its mission.

I'm happy to be home now, but, as always, I enjoyed my cool stay in nowhere.

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Friday, April 17, 2015

Counting Wooden Blocks And Everything

I was rushing around one morning last week before the children arrived, working with our "third teacher," and began to worry I'd not allowed enough time to do all the things I wanted to do, when I was reminded of a lesson I'd learned from my admittedly shallow readings of the Waldorff (Steiner) approach. Namely, that it is important that children see adults doing their "real" work. It is something that has stuck with me over the years and one I don't employ often enough as I too often strive to have the complete stage set when the children come through our doors.
In this case, I wanted to cut a couple dozen lengths of 2"X2" (because that's what we had available in our lumber pile) to use to create starting points for what we call "tall paintings." If I sound like I'm writing in code, please click the link for a translation, but suffice it to say that it's a typically engaging and often meditative process art activity we've been perfecting over the past several years.
As children came through our gate in ones and twos I set myself up at the workbench with our power jigsaw. With the first pull of the trigger, children, as they typically do when adults engage in real work, gathered around to ask, "What are you doing, Teacher Tom?"
"I'm cutting this wood."
After watching me saw off a couple pieces, "Why?"
"I'm getting them ready for an art project."
And then after a few more cuts, "Can I try it?"
I knew this request was coming and I was prepared with the irritating truth, "I'm sorry. I can't let you. I used to let kids use this tool, but our insurance company told me I can't let you any more."
"Because they think you'll get hurt."
"I won't. I'll be careful."
"I know, but it's a rule I have to follow."
We then had a brief discussion about insurance companies and their irrational fears which ended when one of the kids lost interest, more accepting of the fates than I, and began to pick up my cuttings from the ground where they had fallen and arranged them on the workbench. I stopped working for a moment and watched him lay them in a row, side-by-side. I said, "I want to cut 25 of them."
He began to count the ones I'd cut so far, "Nine." Another boy confirmed the count, then said, "If you cut one more, there'll be ten."
Someone else said, "If you cut two more, there'll be 11."
And another child, "Then 12."
Then someone joked, "Then a hundred!"
There were several shouts of, "No!" followed by, "He's only cutting 25: that's less than 100," "Then 13!" and "A hundred would take too long!"
So many mathematical concepts being tossed around like any other loose parts on the playground, there to be used for our play rather than, as so often happens in school, as a replacement for play.
I was working slowly, readjusting my wood in the vice after each cut. Had I done this before the children arrived it would have been the work of a few minutes, but I wanted to role model safe and proper woodworking procedures even if I don't always practice them when working on my own.
As I cut more blocks of wood, the children kept track, as a group, debating, frequently recounting, always rearranging, stacking, building, making patterns. When newcomers joined our group and asked, as children always do, "Can I try?" they replied with sad voices, "The insurance company says you can't," then explained what that meant in the way they understood it, usually with a shrug, sharing their knowledge freely.
When someone then inevitably asked, "Why?" they didn't ask me, they asked a friend who replied with the knowledge he had, "We need 25 for an art project."
They wanted to know more, so I explained the whole process: later we would use the paper guillotine to cut rectangles of cardboard, then glue guns to stick the wood to the cardboard, then we would mix paint into glue and pour it over the top of the wood to make tall paintings."
Later we did all those things, real work that a teacher might seek to do in advance by way of setting the stage. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. We all prepare for the children. In many ways, that's the main responsibility of the teacher in our kind of school. In this case, I had chosen to use my preparation time on something else.
In the meantime, the children continued counting, debating, discussing, confirming, calculating, estimating, anticipating, and accepting the realities of a world that too often makes it impossible for us to try the things we want to try even if we know we won't get hurt.
When I finally cut the 25th block, they cheered, knocked over the tower they had been building, then ran off to other things.

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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