Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Wild Places

Among my earliest memories are playing in "wild places." There was, for instance, an undeveloped lot in our suburban neighborhood over on Christopher Street with a stand of straggly pines and a bit of undergrowth. There were no wild animals there and it could hardly have qualified as wilderness, but it was a wild place nevertheless. We called it "the woods" and it was a place we could play without civilization, in the form of grown-ups, telling us what to do.

Normally, we played with the kids who lived on Wembley Street, but the woods were a place where you might meet kids from all over the neighborhood. I would often go there alone, but usually it was in the company of a friend. We didn't tell our parents we were going there. We didn't think we had to because although it was technically farther away than we were normally allowed to roam it was accessible by cutting through backyards which, without ever discussing it, we figured counted as staying on our street. Our parents may or may not have agreed.

I was probably four or five when I started going there and not much older than that when they bulldozed it to put up another house, but for a time it was a land of fantasy, a place outside of time where I could really be Tarzan or the Lone Ranger or Batman. With no adults to remind or scold us, we arrived in the woods with only the "rules" that we had internalized and left with only the rules to which we had all agreed. We could say the words we wanted to say, play the way we wanted to play, and interact with both friend and stranger as we felt appropriate. Politeness, something that was very important to adults outside the woods, held no value here. The woods was a wild place and we were its pioneers.

When the woods disappeared, we had to roam farther afield in search of wild places. Bicycles made that possible. We spent hours riding our Stingrays along rough trails, the original "dirt bikers," on what we called Hampton's Land, a large tract of undeveloped land that really deserved to be called "the woods." This was private property, owned by "Hampton" who was rumored to roam his property with a shotgun looking for trespassers. Like with the vacant lot, this was a place that was special for us in part because being there was somehow illicit. We had never actually known any kids who had been "caught" or shot. In fact, we never saw anyone else on Hampton's Land other than other kids who were doing what we were doing, riding bikes and imagining themselves in another world.

Or were we imagining? The truth is that Hampton's Land, like "the woods," really was another world. The things that were true outside didn't necessarily hold true here. We were adventurers exploring newly found land. It was our right to name the places we found: "The Clay Pits," "The Sand Pits," "The Big Tree," "The Hill." Sometimes we "fought" with the other kids we found there, usually with a few choice insults before running away, although sometimes there would be the hurling of pinecones or dirt clods (but never rocks or sticks; friend and foe apparently knew better than that). It was a virtual world that puts today's computerized ones to shame in it's complete immersive-ness. It was a real place, but separate.

In many ways, when I reflect on my childhood, I realize that I spent a lot of my youth hunting for these wild places, these lands in which we were testing out and honing our skills as independent human beings. With no one there to instruct or steer or command us, we forged our own temporary societies, based upon the shared values of whoever chose to be there. There was one amazing wild place in the suburb of Athens, Greece in which my family lived for a time. An American friend and I were exploring some woods near the American Club when we emerged into a clearing that we slowly recognized as an abandoned, overgrown, outdoor movie theater. The projection room and other buildings were ostensibly locked up, but we found our way indoors with no problem. It was like discovering genuine ancient ruin in this ancient land. As we played, other kids arrived, Greek kids who spoke limited English. Our Greek was probably even more limited. At first everyone was cautious: indeed when they first arrived we hid from them, spying from behind a counter over which concessions had formally been sold. Then, emboldened by the fact that they seemed younger than us, we began to toss pebbles at them, ducking before they spotted us, giggling as they shouted in confusion. Finally, we revealed ourselves and we were soon all astronauts exploring craters on the moon.

I now recognize that many of my explorations and experiments as a young adult were simply more grown-up versions of seeking a wild place, spaces where conventional wisdom, conventional norms, did not exist, places where we, the kids, got to invent it, together, as we went along, making mistakes, of course, but also discovering that there are perfectly valid ways to create friendships and community beyond the straight-and-narrow ones with which we were provided by the work-a-day world. They were places in which we discovered things we liked and didn't like; where we could fully explore the possibilities of who we wanted to be; where we chose to be, but only as long as it worked for us, then, when it quit being good, we walked away. We were true anarchists in the best possible sense of that word.

These wild places are much more difficult to access today. Many children will grow up their entire lives without having the experience and it's both sad and wrong. Every day I hope that our school can be, at least in part, the sort of wild place children need.

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Monday, January 30, 2017

Eye Contact

The New Year in Seattle has started off mostly cold and rainy, but Friday was suddenly and surprisingly summery. The sun shined and temperatures rose into the 50's. My teaching day is over by lunch on Fridays, my wife was on a business trip, my daughter is off at college, so I found myself footloose and fancy free with most of the day ahead of me. I had a few errands I wanted to run and decided to do them on foot.

I wasn't the only one out and about: indeed, the sidewalks were thronged with people. Back in my days as a junior executive at the chamber of commerce we noted that Seattle was possibly the only business center on earth that closed down for sunshine. Everyone I knew simultaneously had "a meeting out of the office right after lunch" and it was invariably too far away to make it back by the end of the day. I could see Freeway Park from my office window and when the winter sun came out it filled up with folks attending those far away "meetings."

I was feeling outright giddy like the rest of my neighbors and as I walked, I decided to play a game. I was going to try to make eye contact with each person I passed. I didn't really have a purpose for this game other than the fact that I enjoyed looking into those sunny day faces. Of course, I didn't stare them down: it was more a matter of keeping my head up and looking at them in a friendly way until they connected with me, then after a beat, as politeness dictates, I averted my gaze.

Many kept their gaze fixed on the distance or on their phones or on the ground at their feet, preoccupied or self-protective, never giving me a chance. Others whose eyes I caught looked away quickly, as if our eye contact was a sort of accident or even a possible affront. I know they say that certain animals see eye contact as a challenge; maybe there was some of that in there. Some seemed uncomfortable with my eye contact, probably worried that I was about to solicit them for a donation or sex or something. But the best, of course, were the people who smiled at me when our eyes connected; quick, friendly acknowledgments that we had indeed locked eyes. Naturally, I smiled back.

These were strangers in the city where making eye contact is a dodge-y business at best. Eye contact can be perceived as an invitation, one that many of us don't chose to send to every random stranger. They say the eyes are the window to the soul, so maybe at some level it's about privacy, an attempt to protect, or at least be judicious about those who would peer too deeply. Obviously, once we get to know another person we permit more and more eye contact, until we're friends or even lovers who notoriously gaze unblinkingly into one another eyes, connecting from the inside.

As preschool teachers, perhaps the greatest privilege is that we spend our days making eye contact with the children we teach. At least I do. Young children have not yet developed a need to "protect" themselves and they feel little shame or concern about status or affront or solicitation as they look back in our eyes. Nearly every conversation I have, every day, is one in which I am looking into their eyes and they are looking right back into mine. Sure, during the first weeks of school, many of them look away in shyness, but by now that is largely behind us. I don't have to play a game with them, nor them with me: our souls are wide open to one another in every interaction. They will look into you and you into them as they laugh or cry, as they're afraid or confident, as they're worried or excited. It's as if everything is better when connected.

What a gift that is to spend my days that way.

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Friday, January 27, 2017

The Magic Word

When I was a boy the word "please" was said to be the magic word, and I suppose it was when we were performing for adults in order to get something we wanted, but "let's" is the word with real magic in it. "Let's" is, of course, really two words that we speak as one, meaning "let us." It's not a command nor a question, but rather an invitation and in the mouths of children it's most often used as an invitation to play.

"Let's play trains."

"Let's be princesses."

"Let's pretend we're pirates and I fall off the boat into the water and you have to rescue me." Without the word "let's" cooperative dramatic play would hardly be possible.

It's not so common in our 2's class, but by the time the children are 4 and 5 you hear it a lot as they play together, often at the beginning of every sentence.

And that would be enough, if this magic word could do only this, but listen, it's a real magic word. You can use it for almost anything you need to do with the other people.

"Let's take turns."

"Let's make a rule."

"Let's try using a rock to open it."

Of course, there's always a dark side to every kind of magic, a way to misuse it.

"Let's take all the balls."

"Let's keep the girls out."

"Let's pretend we're pirates who push everybody else into the water."

But even so, even when we use it to experiment with the misuse of our collective power, there's no denying it's a magic word, one that brings us together, that creates room for other people, that makes our play better and our lives bigger. "Let's" is always an invitation, one that contains all of the open-ended possibilities of human beings together.

I don't worry about children who've learned the power of "Let's . . ."

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Meaningful Setting

Education is a private matter between the person and the world of knowledge and experience, and has little to do with school or college. ~Lillian Smith

The factory model of education, the one that seeks to make an assembly line of learning, presumes that similarly aged children, if exposed to the same lectures, worksheets, and exercises, will emerge at the end possessing the pre-determined skills and knowledge. In this concept of school, the adults in charge start by deciding what they want the children to know, by when, and according to what methods, then the children are brought in to be subjected to those manufactory pressures in the expectation that they will emerge "educated."

The great flaw in this concept, of course, is that education is like fingerprints or snowflakes, no two of us are alike in how or what we learn. No matter how systematic, rigorous, or standardized the curriculum no two turn out the same. That is the power of the education instinct at work, it can transcend most things we do to it, but that doesn't mean we aren't stunting, perverting, and even crippling it when we deprive it of the freedom it needs to flourish.

Real education starts with the individual who must begin not with what others want her to know, but rather with what she wants to know. A free human then sets out to answer those questions through his own unique process of exploration, experiment, and discovery. Given this, a good argument can be made for eliminating schools altogether, one with which I sympathize, even as I spend my days as a teacher in a "school."

Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. ~Ivan Illich

I often feel that as a teacher in a play-based school, one in which we strive to follow the lead of the children as their education instinct expresses itself, my workday is largely comprised of the time I spend there before the children arrive. I don't fret over what, when or how children are going to learn, but rather on preparing a meaningful setting in which children can explore, experiment, and discover the answers to their own questions. Adults, of course, are part of this meaningful setting, but we are not "teachers" in the conventional sense. We are more properly called facilitators and safety officers, there to help the children, minimally, when they need it and to deal with true hazards like shards of broken glass, jagged edges of rusty metal, sharp blades, and nefarious strangers (as opposed to just repeatedly cautioning, "Be careful!")

Once the children are on the scene, the most important element in a "meaningful setting," my job becomes standing back, watching, listening, loitering with intent, but otherwise leaving their play as unhampered as humanly possible, because this is the only way that education has ever really happened.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Turning It Into Treasure

Yesterday, Teacher Rachel and one of her kindergarten kids rescued some bubble wrap that was on it's way to the dumpster. It's the new kind of bubble wrap, the kind that's been manufactured so that it's impossible to pop the little bubbles. Indeed, it is isn't even bubble wrap, but rather sheets of long air-filled tubes, interconnected so that no matter how much you squeeze or poke, it won't pop. I'm certain that it's an improvement upon the old technology, and we still had fun playing with it, but I'm going to miss the satisfaction of systematically deflating an entire sheet of the old stuff, bubble by bubble.

Not long ago, I showed you some pictures that included old-fashioned clothes pegs, the kind that look like little armless, faceless people. Generations of preschool teachers and their students have used these pegs in their arts and crafts. Of course, there may still be some people who use them to hang clothing out to dry, but for the most part, even those of us who prefer air dried fabrics use more contemporary models of clothes pins. In fact, our collection includes a few pegs that may have at one time been used for their original purpose, but most of them came from a preschool supply catalog, intended from the start as children's play things.

The same thing has happened to the popsicle sticks from my youth. It used to take us an entire summer to collect enough to make anything worthwhile. Now they've been re-labeled as "craft sticks" to be purchased in boxes of 1000. Same goes for pipe cleaners. What was once a creative re-purposing of refuse or inexpensive functional items, has become brand new items never intended as anything other than art supplies.

I wonder if that's the direction in which bubble wrap is headed. I can imagine finding rolls of it for sale, at a premium, re-branded as "sensory bubbles" complete with sales copy claiming that it's an excellent way to exercise those fine motor muscles. 

I wonder the same thing about some of our other classroom staples. For instance, I used to have so many of those little film canisters stashed away in the storage room that I asked families to stop contributing them, but the digital revolution in photography has made them rare antiques. I'm genuinely surprised I haven't yet seen them advertised as "craft canisters." Not long ago, I read that at least one manufacturer is doing away with the cardboard tube at the center of its rolled toilet paper. I don't think we could run our school without those tubes. And then there is the phenomenon of screw top wine bottles and synthetic options, which is threatening our supply of traditional corks for which we've found a thousand and one uses: the supply is still steady, but I'm beginning to hoard them against the darker days ahead. And what would happen if they did away with bottle caps?

We use the store-bought craft sticks around our place and at one point we obviously purchased some of those faux clothes pegs, but I continue to have mixed feelings about the evolution of what was once garbage into manufactured goods. I've said it before and I'll say it again: one of the fundamental functions of preschools in our society is to finish using things that are on their way to the dumpster, just as Rachel rescued that not-bubble-wrap yesterday. And, of course, I don't foresee a break in the garbage flow in the near future, so there will continue to be plenty of other people's garbage from which we can choose, but there is a sadness is seeing any era end.

On the other hand, I find it magnificent that the prolific creativity of preschoolers has caused what was once pure waste to outlive the products that created that waste in the first place. It's what we've always done: give us your junk and we will finish using it, learning from it, and turning it into treasure.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

And She Is Perfect

I have spent my adult life trying to figure out why parents and society put themselves into a race -- what's the hurry? I keep trying to convey the pleasure every parent and teacher could feel while observing, appreciating and enjoying what the infant is doing. This attitude would change our educational climate from worry to joy. ~Magda Gerber

It seems to me that the greatest gift we can give to other people is to let them know we love them just as they are. That we've all heard this before in some version or other makes it no less profound and no less precious.

I think that's what we do when we simply let ourselves be with young children, without that sense of possession or protectiveness or responsibility that too often attends our interactions. It's in those moments of two humans simply being together that we convey this vital knowledge of unwavering love to even the youngest children, who themselves are then permitted to be, without the obligations that come with being possessed, protected, or a responsibility.

I'm grateful to such blog-o-sphere guides as Janet Lansbury and Lisa Sunbury who continue to educate me about the ideas of Magda Gerber, and it's this idea of sincerely and carefully observing (what I think I have previously understood incompletely as "waiting") that resonates the most with me. But this observation is an essentially academic act, I think, without our own appreciation and joy in what the infant is doing or what we are doing together. Not only do we ourselves come to a deeper understanding of the child, but it's only through this heartfelt appreciation and joy that we actually convey to children the unconditional love that is our gift.

It may seem strange, I suppose, for many of us to understand that we, at best, stand on the planet as equals with all the other people, including young children. We are each fully formed, fully valid, fully functional human beings no matter our age. Naturally, we have different lots in life, different blessings and challenges, and are on our way to different places, but we always remain, most of all, worthy of being loved for being exactly who we are.

Parents and teachers traditionally see our role as helpers, instructors or guides; agents for moving young children through the world from point A to point B along their developmental track, ticking off milestones in baby books or report cards like we might a shopping list, taking pride in each "accomplishment." We can't help but look ahead, to anticipating the next destination, worrying about the next bumpy patch, feeling guilty about our failings when we lose our way or fall behind schedule. It makes us impatient, lead-footed, prone to live outside the present moment as we move relentlessly toward a future. We forget to just be with our children as they are right now. That future child does not exist: this is the real child, the one before you right now, and she is perfect.

We are, in fact, at our best when we manage to successfully override those urges to help, instruct, or otherwise guide a young person and instead give him the space and time to struggle, to practice, to come to his own conclusions. This, not our superior experience or intellect, is the great gift we have to give to children: to stop, to really see who they are right now, and be with them in appreciation and joy, loving them just as they are.

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Monday, January 23, 2017


There's a joke I tell the kids: "The best part of being an adult is that I get to eat candy any time I want."

I told it for the millionth time last week as our 4-5's class gathered for circle time, which kicked off a general discussion of candy. The kids in this class have figured out the raising hands and taking turns thing.

"My favorite candy is gummy bears."

"Mine is all of the kinds!"

"Mine too, I like all the kinds the best."

There was a general conversation about favorites until someone said, "Candy isn't healthy."

I said, "It's true: candy is not healthy food. If you eat too much of it, you start growing side-to-side instead of up and down."

"And if you eat too much you get a tummy ache."

"If you don't brush your teeth after you eat candy they'll fall out."

"I'm lucky, my mom doesn't let me eat candy."

"I get to eat one piece every day. For dessert."

"On Halloween I get to eat all the candy!"

"Me too!"

"I ate too much candy at Christmas and had a bad tummy ache."

I asked, "Did you vomit?"

"No, I just got a tummy ache."

"I ate a lot of cookies at Christmas, but didn't get a tummy ache." There was a general consensus that cookies don't make you as sick as candy, followed by a round of "What about cake?" "What about ice cream?" "What about drinking candy?" which is what some of the families call soda. After some back and forth, we agreed that all of the sweet things taste good, but they can all make you feel sick if you have too much.

Then one of them joked, "All this talking about sweet things is making me want to eat a sweet thing!"

"Me too!"

I said, "Then let's eat something sweet. Everybody, close your eyes and breathe in through your nose . . . and out through you mouth . . . in through your nose . . . and out through your mouth . . ." We've done this before, circle breathing. They don't all do it, but most of them do, and the ones who don't follow along at least respect the rest of us by silently observing. "Think about your tongue. Get it ready to taste something sweet. Okay, now think about your favorite sweet thing and put it in your mouth." Several of the kids, eyes still closed, went through the motions of putting a pretend sweet in their mouths. "Taste it, feel it on your tongue, then when you're ready, swallow it."

"That was good. Mine was banana candy!"

"Mine was peppermint!"

"I ate a whole bowl of ice cream!"

"I ate all the sweet things in the whole world! And I didn't get a tummy ache at all!"

"And we don't have to brush our teeth either."

"I'm going to eat more!"

And that's how our candy curriculum emerged on that day, with each child contributing as we explored the yin and yang of it, looking at it from all sides, building a common understanding from the information and experiences each of us brought to the table. No one told anyone how to think or what to do, we simply gathered together with our information and shared what we know and, for this day, it was perfect.

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Friday, January 20, 2017

My Colleague Who Knows This And Many Other Things

Our sensory table was built decades ago by someone who really knew what she was doing. It's made from solid maple, held together by long, brass screws, and finished with a marine varnish. The two square basins are galvanized steel. It predates me at the school, where I found it languishing outdoors. One of my first orders of business was to bring it indoors and have one of our handyman parents drill out a pair of drains to make it easier to empty at the end of the day. It's a good sized table with lots of elbow room so as many as a dozen kids can play there at once. The heavy-duty castors screech when we move it and the basins tend to get rusty over the course of the school year. I deal with the rust by "re-gavanizing" the thing a couple times a year; the wheels could be quieted with lubricant, but it's never risen to a level of concern that I've done anything about it. In a way I think of those squeaky wheels as her voice.

We've been teaching together my entire career, always there, always reliable, and almost always fun. I expect she'll outlast me.

On most days I fill both sides of the sensory table with the same materials: water, rice, flax seed, beans, various "goos" and potions, or as in the case of the photos you're looking at here, a mix of un-roasted and over-roasted coffee beans. Every now and then I'll put different materials in each side of the table (e.g., corn meal and coffee grounds) which tends to guide children into a frenzy of mixing, until the balance of the universe is restored and both sides are filled with the same material.

The fact that the sensory table is divided into two parts is an important part of who she is. Sometimes, like with what happened yesterday in our 3's class, there will be a few kids who want to play more wildly with whatever is in there, while others are interested in more contemplative play, so we'll designate one side for each style of play. But most of the time, the influence of her divided nature is more organic and subtle than that.

For example, when we finished the day yesterday, all the coffee beans, tree part blocks, and model Pacific Northwest animals had been moved to one side, leaving the other barren. Indeed, this is how the sensory table ends on most days in our 4-5's class, be it water, grains or legumes, and it has stayed consistent throughout the years. Sometimes it shifts back and forth several times over the course of the day. The 2 and 3-year-olds don't do it, but the older children always do it, and it's rarely the project of a single child, but rather a team of 2-4 working together, usually telling a story about a world that is experiencing a "volcano" or "earthquake" or "flood" or some other natural disaster.

There was a time when it bugged me, but as I've learned to let go, I've come to understand how important it is that children at this particular developmental stage do this. I could speculate why it's important, but it doesn't matter why they do it: the fact that they do it, that the always do it, is enough for me to know that they need to do it, together, telling their story while moving it all from one side to the other. I could guess why, but the way we do things at Woodland Park, the only one who needs to understand is the sensory table itself, this teaching colleague who knows this and many other things about the ways and whys of children's play.

I try to not get too connected to stuff, especially around the preschool where the relentlessness of play accelerates the decay of everything, but our sensory table has become a colleague who does things I can't do and knows things I can't know. The zen part of me knows that she is already rusted and rotted away, but I hope every day that she outlives me.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

"I'm Going To Need The Black Eye"

It's funny because it happened to someone else.  ~Homer Simpson

I don't think anyone who knows me would say I'm a cruel person, but I can't help myself. When anyone falls or gets hit in the head by something, I laugh. Not a big, old, mean-spririted belly laugh, but it's still clearly a guffaw, one that explodes from my chest far too quickly to be stopped. My mom did it too, even when it was her own kids landing on the pavement, so I come by it honestly, but I suppose it's a reaction that could be considered a real liability for a preschool teacher who is responsible for other people's sweet, innocent lion cubs. I've never had the lioness take off my head for it, but, you know, I could hardly blame her.

Sometimes it comes in handy, of course, this knee-jerk reaction at the slapstick misfortune of others. It causes me a moment's pause, it means that when the child looks around the first thing she sees is a smiling face, and often in that moment the child decides she's going to laugh too, sometimes right through her tears. It is, I think, a much more productive response than rushing to her side with furrowed brow -- that usually just makes it hurt worse -- but I can see why it sometimes makes me come off as heartless, even if in the next second I'm holding her in my arms, cooing soft words, as her tears warm my shoulder. I can only hope that I've made enough deposits into my loving-caring-nurturing account that when this happens the balance is still in my favor.

A few years ago, one of the guys in our 4-5's class, almost by accident, discovered a "catapult" made from wooden blocks. Before anyone knew what was happening, he'd stomped on one end, launching a small block high into the air, where it came down directly atop his own noggin.

I laughed, then said, "You hurt yourself."

He laughed too, "No, I didn't. It didn't hurt at all." 

As he re-loaded the catapult for a second launch, I said, "This time you might hurt yourself."

"No I won't." He stomped again and ducked almost simultaneously, causing the block to just miss his head. He repeated the process several more times, sometimes avoiding the falling block, sometimes not. A couple other kids gave it a go, each of them hitting themselves in the head. The whole time I was making the informative statement, "The blocks are hitting people in the head," although chuckling all the while.

One of his friends said, "Cool! I want to try it."

I said, "You're going to hurt yourself. The blocks are hitting people in the head." He ignored me, forgetting to duck and shooting the block, with velocity, into his own eye.

Yes, I laughed again, even though this time it looked like it might have really hurt. As he held his eye, I said, "Let me see it." 

He uncovered his face to reveal a red mark just below his eye and a huge smile that covered for the pain. He said, "I guess you were right, Teacher Tom."

I said, "I think you're going to have a black eye. I'll get an ice pack."

He answered, "What's a black eye?"

"It's when you get hit in the eye by something hard and you get a big bruise. Check the mirror, you already have a red mark."

He looked into a classroom mirror. I said, "I'll get an ice pack."

He answered, "No thanks, I think I'm going to need the black eye to remind me not to do that again."

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