Thursday, August 31, 2017

Talking About Deeper

The girls had dug a depression in the sand to attract the water that flowed from our cast iron water pump, then dammed it off to create a pool of their own.

One of them asserted, "It's deep."

The other replied, "It's not so deep." She stuck the blade of a shovel into the water, "See? It's just half a shovel."

"But look," her playmate responded, sticking her hand into the water, "it covers my whole hand."

"It's as deep as your hand, but only half as deep as the shovel."

"Yeah . . . But look!" She bent her wrist so that her palm now lay at the bottom of the water, "If I do it like this, it comes part way up my arm!"

"That's pretty deep."

"But if I hold my hand like this," she continued, bending her wrist so that only her fingertips touched the bottom, "It only covers my hand."

They messed with the water in silence for a moment, then, "We should make it deeper."

"How can we do that?"

"Maybe if we open our dam right here, we can let water in, but if we keep the other side closed, the water won't get out on that side." With that she knocked down a small section of their dam. The water flowed in as she had predicted. "Hey! See? It's coming in here, but not going out there."

"And it's getting deeper! Look, now it covers my whole hand."

"And it covers more than half of the shovel."

"Let's close it now." They closed off their dam, capturing the water inside their hole.

"Maybe we should make our hole bigger."

"We could, but if we make it wider it won't be deep any more."

"But if we make it bigger up and down, then it will be deeper. Way deeper."

They got to work digging, removing sand from the bottom of their hole. After several minutes of silent work, "Hey, it's not deeper. Look it's just less than half the shovel."

"And it doesn't cover my hand any more, either."

"I think some of the water sunk down in the sand."

"Yeah, because we were digging deeper, the water went deeper."

"We need to open up the dam for more water." They breeched their dam to let it fill. They stood leaning on their shovels as their hole filled, then without speaking blocked it again.

"It's deep now."

"Yeah, really deep."

"We could make it deeper."

"I know!"

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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!
Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

This Unhealthy Focus On Success

Not long ago, as some of us chatted in the aftermath of an all-school board meeting, the mother of a school-aged boy brought up parent-teacher conferences. "The teachers always want to talk about academics. I assume the academics are fine. What I want to know about is how he is doing socially."

That's how Woodland Park parents are and it echoes my own experience. When I sat down for those parent-teacher conferences, my first and only questions were: "How does she treat her friends?" and "How do her friends treat her?" It often threw the teachers a bit who had prepared detailed subject-by-subject reports, complete with examples of the work she had been doing, because that's what parents usually expect, I guess: more information piled atop those test scores and grades. I often lay the blame at the feet of the corporate education reformers for what is happening in our public schools, and that's where most of it lies, but there are always a few teachers among my readership who point out that much of the pressure they feel comes from parents who do not, under any circumstances, want junior to fail.

Failure, not success, stands at the heart of a good education. All those straight-A's and top scores are not only meaningless, but even detrimental to learning how to think, how to struggle, how to figure things out for oneself. And worst of all, I think, is how this unhealthy focus on all success all the time, is destroying our children's joy of learning.

The truth -- for this parent and so many others -- is this: Her child has sacrificed her natural curiosity and love of learning at the alter of achievement, and it's our fault.

At Woodland Park, we're all about failure. At any given moment, when you look around our classroom or playground, you see almost all of the children in the midst of failure, starting over, trying again.

Marianna is a very smart and high-achieving, and her mother reminds her of that on a daily basis. However, Marianna does not get praised for the diligence and effort she puts into sticking with a hard math problem or a convoluted scientific inquiry. If that answer at the end of the page is wrong, or if she arrives at a dead end in her research, she has failed -- no matter what she has learned from her struggle. And contrary to what she may believe, in these more difficult situations she is learning. She learns to be creative in her problem-solving. She learns diligence. She learns self-control and perseverance. But because she is scared to death of failing, she has started to take fewer intellectual risks. She has trouble writing rough drafts and she doesn't like to hypothesize or think out loud in class. She knows that if she tries something challenging or new, and fails, that failure will be hard evidence that she's not as smart as everyone keeps telling her she is. Better to be safe. Is that what we want? Kids who get straight As but hate learning? Kids who achieve academically, but are too afraid to take leaps into the unknown?

This is why we strive at Woodland Park to avoid praise altogether, and especially the empty praise of "Good job!" or "Way to go!" that has become epidemic in our country. We instead focus on the important part, the failure, the struggle, the process, and if we adults must say something it's more along the lines of, "You worked hard at that."  That is where the learning takes place. Without the work, without the failure, success is meaningless.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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!
Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, August 29, 2017


Several years ago, I was passing a table at which four boys were eating snack. They were discussing a classmate, a boy with sensory challenges that often manifested in ways that disturbed and even hurt his classmates. One of them said as I passed, "He's a bad guy." That stopped me in my tracks.

"Yeah," a friend replied, "He's a real bad guy."

And another, "He hurts me all the time."

The poor boy had one defender in the group who added, "He never hurts me," but his opinion was overwhelmed by the prevailing sentiment. As I stood there, they came to an agreement that they weren't going to pay with him any longer.

As a teacher, it was upsetting to hear. Yes, he had hurt these boys and others. They had every right to be wary of him, even to shun him. That said, this was a preschooler with a diagnosed condition, one that caused him to behave impulsively. He wasn't a "bad guy," of course, but there was no doubt that he frequently did bad things, things that hurt and frightened other people.

I went home that day knowing that we adults needed to do something. There is always going to be a little hitting and shoving around the preschool, but obviously, despite our best efforts, we had not succeeded in keeping the other children safe from this particular boy. Because of that, the kids, or at least the four boys I'd overheard, had decided to take matters into their own hands, labeling and then shunning, "natural" consequences that come right out of our hunter-gatherer past. But obviously, this was a natural consequence we could not allow to stand, not in a school setting and not amongst children.

Ultimately, our "solution" involved the kind of transparency that is one of the hallmarks of a cooperative school. Since all the parents work in the school as assistant teachers, all of them were already aware not only of this boy's behavior, but the underlying condition that caused it. We had already been attempting to mitigate things with a plan of action, but it was clear we were falling short, so after much discussion, some of it tense and tearful, we decided the best thing to do was to extend our transparency to the children, to share this boy's challenges with them, to explain how he wasn't a "bad guy," but that his brain sometimes made him do bad things, like hurting other people. And instead of having these discussions at school where we feared they would have the affect of shaming the boy, we placed the responsibility upon each family to talk about this boy and his challenges with their own children at home. We provided resources as a fallback, but we left it to each family to find their own way of discussing it.

This was, to say the least, a challenging emotional process for the parents of the boy who was not a "bad guy." His mother shared some of her feelings with us, but I can only imagine her private anguish. It was often crushing for her to sit in those parent meetings where we discussed her son's behavior hearing from her peers what the other children had experienced and what they were saying at home. It was almost unbearable to hear her own beloved child being labeled "bad guy." Yet, she understood it too, he had done "bad" things to those other children. She later shared with me, however, that the process had also been cathartic. She had often worried about what others were saying about her family behind closed doors, but now, with it all out in the open, she had found compassion where she had feared accusation.

As the weeks passed, families had their discussions at home, helping their children understand and how they could help him. Things got a little better. We coached them to be firm with him, even proactive:

"I don't like that!"

"You can play with me if you don't hurt me."

"You are hugging me too hard!"

"Don't knock down my building."

The hurting still happened, although perhaps not as much as before. But more importantly, the children began to show more compassion toward him when he was impulsive because we had helped them actually understand their classmate beyond the cookie cutter label of "bad guy." Sure, they still yelled at him, got angry, and cried, but they were far less prone toward shunning. I'll never forget one girl saying to him, "I know it's hard for you to do, but if you don't stop pinching me, I'm not going to play with you." It was a kind of perfect balance between compassion and self-preservation.

This process would be a difficult, if not impossible, thing to do in a traditional school where "privacy" concerns override those of transparency, but that doesn't mean that parents' hands are tied. The school may not be able to be transparent, but parents can be. We found that one of the most powerful tools at our disposal was one-on-one play after school, at homes where a calmer atmosphere made the boy less inclined to his impulsivity, where the children could form a different kind of bond than was possible at school, where they had the opportunity to make deposits in the "good time bank," so that when problems arose there was a balance to fall back upon. But perhaps most importantly, it gave the parents a chance to get to know one another which is where compassion grows best.

In other words, it all came down to relationships and it started with adults of goodwill because that's where community begins.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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!
Bookmark and Share

Monday, August 28, 2017


I've recently returned home from a month long "business trip" around Australia. Under the auspices of Inspired EC, I spent four weeks traveling from state-to-state, from city-to-city, from town-to-town, speaking with audiences of teachers and parents. It's something I've done before and will do again: it's fun meeting people as passionate about play-based education as I am, sharing stories, and connecting over them. But realistically, that only consumed a small part of my time Down Under. Much of my time was spent in hotels alone, airports alone, train stations alone, and restaurants alone, often surrounded by people, but still alone. When I didn't have an event, I would sometimes go entire days without speaking more than a few dozen sentences, mostly of the functional variety, to order food or give an address to a taxi driver.

During my normal life, in contrast, I talk a lot, probably more than I ought to, chattering away with children and their parents, trying to be friendly, to express warmth, to be supportive, or to be communicative, conveying information, opinions, or asking questions. Whether I like it or not, and I usually like it, I'm one of the "leaders" at Woodland Park, someone to whom others turn to for instructions or guidance or precedent or whatever, and that role requires a lot of talking.

In contrast, I did a lot of not talking while in Australia. And I liked that too, my own silence, for the most part. The words still scrambled around my head they way they do, but without the obligation to string them together for public consumption, I was better able to just listen to them. I took many long, long walks in unfamiliar places, speaking little and listening a lot, not just to myself, but to the world that is full of useful and interesting information that I can perceive at my will, but that is not part of the give and take obligations of communication. In my day-to-day life there are always loved ones or colleagues or news stories or even advertisements commanding my attention, insisting on communication, but being on the road like this, far from home and alone, their claim on me was so distant as to leave me largely free for long swaths of time to pick and choose where my attention would fall. Even the advertisements made no claim on my attentions, selling me alien products, services, and destinations for which I was not the target audience. In fact, that stood at the core of my spells of silence: I was rarely the target audience of any but the most rudimentary, utilitarian communications, like "Check out time is 11 o'clock," something to which I need only respond, "Thank you."

In the beginning days of the trip, my silence felt like an absence. The sound track of my own voice, of give and take with loved one and colleagues and news stories and even advertisements, was gone, but I soon recognized that it had been replaced by my sensations and observations unburdened by the necessity, real or imagined, to communicate about them. I sat with a crowd of tourists, for instance, in the shadow of the renowned Sydney Opera House, nursing a beer, as the sun set, the harbor at my shoulder, alone. I did not enthuse about the beauty or opine about the building's use of negative space or even nod in agreement at the enthusiasm or opinion of someone else. I was merely there, in that spot, at that moment, silent. Indeed, I didn't even want to take a photo, knowing that my primary reason for doing so was to eventually show it to someone else: it felt like a shout in the midst of my silence.

We live in the age of communication, the more and faster the better. We're all connected and interconnected, always plugged into the conversation, our attentions less and less our own as we attempt to divide it infinitely to attend to all that chatter. But here's the thing: our attentions are not infinite. Indeed, our attention, even more so that time, is perhaps the most valuable resource we possess, limited, rare, the one thing we have to give, yet we too often expend it willy nilly, giving it away, bit by bit, talking, listening, talking, listening, then talking, talking some more. I don't always want to answer the phone when it rings. I don't even want to know it's ringing most of the time. It often frustrates people in my life, but I've only now, after my month of silence, come to realize that that is me, intuitively saving my attention for the things upon which I chose to turn it.

Of course, none of us will ever be fully in control of our own attention. Sirens will always make us turn our heads, but that just makes it even more of a precious personal resource.

I discovered this in my month of silence, another under-valued resource. In my silence I was freer than I've ever been to attend to only that which struck me as useful or interesting. Early on, I caught myself habitually converting my experiences into stories that I would tell my wife or a friend or write about here on the blog the way I normally do, but as the weeks passed I found myself content with not talking, with not turning my experiences into words, but rather just being there, silently with them.

From an essay entitled "The Value of Silence" by Marina Benjamin appearing in the latest issue of New Philosopher (online version not yet available):

As we grow, we progressively lose our aptitude for silence -- both for being silent and for tolerating it. It doesn't help that teachers and parents alike discourage it. Speak up, they say. Say something for yourself. Cat got your tongue? Don't snatch. Ask nicely. What's the magic word? We tell children to get their noses out of books, or tear themselves away from their screens. We ask them to narrate their day at school. We teach them to emote and opine and express themselves, volubly. Children seldom get to learn about those exquisite moments when inner and outer silence can come together and produce a feeling of perfect contentment or understanding -- an appreciation of one's sense of just being, that's tantamount to an existential epiphany. Children may not have words for this, but they can apprehend it nonetheless.

I often think of the girl I taught years ago who rarely spoke, who we suspected of having "selective mutism." We tried so hard, her parents and I, to "help" her stop not talking, celebrating her every utterance, teaching her our prejudice against silence. Today, she is a regular, chatty teenager who, like the rest of us, now needs to re-learn the importance of silence.

When people ask me about my trip to Australia, I tell them, as a courtesy, that I had a good time, and I did. I tell them of the things I saw and the people I talked to. I usually gloss over all that time, that silent time, spent in hotels, airports, train stations, and restaurants, alone. I don't tell them about that part of my journey, not because it wasn't important, but because I can't, because for brief moments, in my silence, I discovered for myself the sense of "just being," with my phone turned off, my attentions my own, not turning any of it into words.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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!
Bookmark and Share

Friday, August 25, 2017

Gray Area

Exclusion is a type of power play that comes up every year. It's a hard one to discuss with children, I think, largely because there's so much gray area in there. I mean, we exclude people every time we close and lock the door to our homes, when we don't pick up that hitchhiker, when the bathroom is occupied, when there simply isn't enough physical space, when we have a girls' or boys' night out. Children know that sometimes we do exclude one another from time to time and figuring out the nuances between appropriate and inappropriate exclusion is the work of many years -- for some the work of a lifetime.

In a larger sense, I would assert that what we value as a society is freedom from arbitrary exclusion, such as that based upon things like religion, skin color, gender, and sexual orientation, while we all also have the right to exclude people who hurt us, who damage our property, who will not play by the agreed upon rules, and engage other "anti-social" behaviors. But even within that there is so much gray area that it's difficult to talk about, especially when we consider that we also value our right to freely associate with whom we choose. One person's righteous rebellion is another person's crime against society. Some see great value in, say, a "women only" club, while others see it as discriminatory. Some find unity through associations based on religion or ethnicity, while others see these same affiliations as nefarious. I have my opinions about these things, and you have yours, but whatever the case we all know that it's an ongoing discussion that, at bottom, is about fairness.

Awhile back, a group of nursing students visited our classroom as part of their coursework, for the purpose of presenting to us about the importance of hand washing. As part of demonstrating the proper technique they wanted to ask for four volunteers. I knew this would be a problem. One of the unspoken, yet bedrock tenants of our community sense of fairness is that everyone who wants a turn gets a turn. I'm glad they prepared me. I didn't want these poor nursing students to bear the brunt of the children's disappointment so I offered to do the selecting. I had made a set of cards, each of which bore the name of one of the children. The plan was to put put the cards behind my back and randomly choose one. I explained, "Everyone won't get a turn, but everyone has the same chance to get a turn."

As I expected, several kids objected, although we plowed forward for the sake of the nursing students. I later made a point of returning to the topic, however. I explained as best I could why I felt I'd been fair. One boy in particular disagreed. At first I thought he was basing his opinion on the classic preschool argument that it wasn't fair simply because he had not been selected, but as we dug deeper it was clear that he felt it was unfair that I'd held the cards behind my back. He would have felt better about it had I fanned the cards in front of me, face down, then let everyone see how I'd randomly selected the cards: in other words, more transparency. Fair enough.

Most years, the kids democratically adopt some version of the Vivian Gussin Paley rule experiment from her book by the same name: You can't say you can't play.  I usually have to suggest this particular language, but I try to wait until the children have expressed, in their own words, a desire for some sort of agreement around the powerful ideas of exclusion and inclusion. We wind up with the rule most years, although agreeing to it by no means ends the discussion about what it all means: indeed, it usually marks the beginning of the discussion.

One day shortly after they and their friends had agreed to "you can't say you can't play," a group of boys gathered in a remote corner of the outdoor classroom, a place where children rarely stray, a tight little space up amongst the laurels, steep enough that it's difficult to stand, hemmed in on two sides by a fence. When a younger boy tried to join them, they told him, "You can't come in." I saw it happening, but one of our parent-teachers was closer at hand and she stepped in by reminding everyone of our newish rule. The older boys let the younger boy attempt to fit his body into the tiny, crowded space, but when he found no room, he, on his own, chose to play elsewhere.

I had a brief chat with the older boys myself, re-iterating the rule. One of them said, "But, there's no place for more people."

I answered, "Yes, it does look like your bodies are already taking up all the space."

They huddled up there for quite some time in their tiny, out-of-the-way space. No one else made any effort to join them. Then I heard them chanting, "Please don't enter. Please don't enter. Please don't enter." It made me, from a distance, laugh. Their stern command had become a polite request. It's as good a compromise as I've ever seen. It's an ongoing discussion. Fair enough.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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!
Bookmark and Share

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Rivalry Play

On Monday, a five-year-old girl complained that some boys were being "mean" to her and a friend.

I answered, "Oh no, what did you do?"

"I told them to stop it, but they didn't stop."

I looked across the playground at the "mean" boys in question. "It doesn't look like they're being mean right now."

"No, they're not being mean now, but they were."

"And you told them to stop."

"I did."

"And they stopped."

We stood looking at the boys for a moment, then she said, cheering up, "They did." Then the clouds returned, "But they might be mean again."

"They might. Then you'll have to tell them to stop again."

We are still running our summer sessions at Woodland Park, so this is a collection of kids that have just come together for the first time. Sure, some of them know each other from the regular school year, some from previous summer sessions, but others are with us for the first time. I've known the so-called "mean" boys for the past couple years, neither of whom have a mean bone in their bodies, but I can well imagine that whatever game they were playing may have come into conflict with the game of someone else. I've just met the girl and her friend, a boy. Despite the tattling, however, it's clear that they are both sufficiently practiced in the playground arts. I didn't think they really needed me, but I nevertheless kept an eye on the four of them for the rest of the morning.

There was definitely a "them vs. us" dynamic. The boys were messing with the newcomers in a way that was meant good-naturedly, even if it wasn't being received that way. At one point a toy was mischievously taken, then returned sheepishly when it resulted in an uproar. The newcomers were firm in establishing their rights, even as the others seemed driven to test them. By the end of the day, things were more or less settled with the pairs opting to play distinct and separate games. The good news for me was that after that first exchange none of them sought my intervention. This is what they worked out on their own.

On Tuesday, we started with a bit more friction, although the negotiations tended to be carried out in conversational tones rather than the raised voices from the day before. At one point I overheard the girl say, "Okay, if you don't be mean to us, you can come in here, but only for three minutes," a conditional invitation that the boys accepted with glee.

Yesterday, Wednesday, one boy from each of the vying parties arrived on the scene earlier than their respective friends. They immediately fell into play with one another, the rivalry of the past two days set aside for the time being. As I watched them put their heads together like old buddies, I wondered about rivalry play. This is far from the first time I've seen it. Indeed, it crops up every year with our four and five-year-olds, kids banding together "against" one another, sometimes along gender lines, but usually along some other fracture like "good guys" and "bad guys." Sometimes there are taunts. Thefts are common. And, of course, there is conflict, which I sometimes think is the real driving force behind this kind of play. Many of us adults have learned to be conflict averse, but the kids who involve themselves in these games, and at one time or another most of them do, seem to crave the conflict, almost as if they know they need the practice. I'm there to prevent violence, to coach if necessary, and to step in when the strong are victimizing the weak, but every time I impose my adult-ness onto these games I worry that I'm preventing them from learning what they crave to learn, so my goal is to stay out of it, while loitering with intent.

After a few minutes of playing together, the boys came up to me to announced, "Guess what, Teacher Tom? He told me that they aren't going to be mean any more!"

I said, "Right on!"

The boys stood face to face, holding one another's hands. They began to giggle while jumping up and down. When their friends arrived, they informed them of the agreement they had forged. To an outside observer the games they played for the rest of the day may have been indistinguishable from the games they had been playing on the previous two. There was still plenty of bickering, badgering, and bossing, but now it was conflict amongst friends and no one was being "mean."

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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!
Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

In Rhythm

Two two-year-olds were at the cast iron pump, accidentally taking turns, filling their containers, then dumping the water into the sand. They were using plastic jars that they were calling "cans," each holding about a cup or so of water. The turn taking was accidental because they weren't intentionally making space for one another, but had rather simply gotten into a mutual rhythm of pumping, dumping, and studying the results that left room for both of them to go about their similar business. There was a little jostling now and then, but they were mostly just peacefully playing the same game, side-by-side, while in sync.

Then one of them discovered a larger container, a red bucket that held at least twice as much water. Trading his "can" for the bucket ruined the rhythm, leaving the boy with the smaller container in the position of waiting, reluctantly, as the larger container was filled. There was some fussing, some insistence upon "mine," and the jostling began to look more like shoving.

There were several of us adults around and we chirped the usual things one says about taking turns and waiting and not shoving. Then the boy with the larger bucket, perhaps by way of putting space between himself and his rival, walked away from the pump to dump his water, which happened to be into a channel that had been carved out the day before by older kids making a proper "river."

The water flowed better here where the sand was more packed down, with one finger of it reaching all the way to the drop off between the upper and lower levels of our sand pit. I narrated its flow, "You made a river . . . It's flowing . . . I think it's going to make it all the way to the edge . . . It did! . . . You made a waterfall."

Meanwhile, his companion had been filling his smaller container at the pump. He said, "I'm going to make a river too." With that, he dumped his smaller volume of water into the sand at his feet, which didn't flow at all, but rather simple absorbed into the sand, just as it had done every other time he had tried it.

The cycle of play then came back around. The boy with the smaller container watched as the other boy filled his bucket, there was no fussing about the wait this time, because now he was making a study. He continue to watch as the other boy carefully carried his bucket to the old "river bed" to dump it. This time he narrated what he saw, "River . . . Waterfall!"

With that, he dropped his small container, exchanging it for a larger one. He waited for his turn. He filled the bucket, then carried it to the proper place where he dumped it. The water flowed into a waterfall. He watched until the water was no longer flowing, then returned to the pump where the other boy, the boy from whom he had learned how to do it, was just finishing filling his own bucket, and the rhythm, for the time being, was restored.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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!
Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Not As A Mere Test Taker

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. ~James Baldwin

"I wonder if the blocks will fall down again."

I made this statement the other day as a group of kids were attempting to build a tower to the ceiling. They paused in what they were doing.

"I think they will because they get too high."

"Somebody keeps bumping them."

"The ones on top get too heavy."

I often think I'm at my best as a teacher when I'm saying the least, and especially when I'm only saying certain, well considered things. Instead of pondering aloud, for instance, I could have asked a direct question like, "Why do the blocks keep falling down?" a question to which I already know the "right" answer. It may seem like a difference without a distinction, but when we ask questions like this, ones to which we already know the answer, even if we do it with a gentle high-pitched voice, we've made ourselves into testers and our children into test takers.

"What color is this?"

"What letter do you see?"

"How many marbles are in the bowl?"

I know it's a fun game for some kids, just like some of us adults enjoy taking tests, but for others, this kind of ad hoc grilling adds an entirely unnecessary level of stress, not to mention the fact that it often rips an engaged child right out of her own process of scientific testing, turning her in a moment from tester into test subject. Instead of following his own inquiry, he's the focus of someone else's.

It's usually best to say nothing at all, and the longer I've been teaching, the more my mantra has become, "Shut up, Teacher Tom," but when I do decide to verbally interject myself into the children's play, I really like the "I wonder . . ." construct. For one, it's not a question demanding an answer: children can choose to respond to it or not. Those who enjoy the give-and-take of Q&A will hear it as a question anyway, while those less inclined to performing on my cue can take it or leave it. 

But more importantly, I think, is the space that "I wonder . . ." leaves for children to take up the wondering on their own. 

Particularly satisfying is when I remember to make more philosophical, open-ended statements. 

"I wonder why squid live in the water."

"I wonder what will happen if I knock over that building."

"I wonder if I could climb onto the roof of our school."

Sometimes it sparks remarkable conversations, speculations about nature, social dynamics, physics, and physicality. Sometimes not. The underlying point I think is not the specific things we say after the words "I wonder . . ." but rather the role-modeling of the inquiry itself. When we make these statements aloud, children hear us engaging the world as life-long learners, as critical thinkers, as philosophers, as people who still don't have all the answers. It reveals us in our proper role in this world that is far more often gray than black or white: it teaches the habit of taking a stance in life not as a mere test taker, but rather as a tester, which is what lies at the heart of a true education.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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!
Bookmark and Share
Related Posts with Thumbnails
Technorati Profile