Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Without Hesitation, Beaming




He was playing with our classroom baoding balls, a pair of those Chinese meditation balls that we keep nestled in a fancy box. They're special things by virtue of that box, of being shiny, and of being a scarce resource.

A young three-year-old, he was delighting in opening the box, fondling the balls, shaking them to make them chime, then returning them to their velvety nesting place.

She is also a young three-year-old. Spying the boy playing with the balls, she made a grab for them saying, "I want that." It wasn't an aggressive act as much as an assertive one, a direct, impulsive, logical way to cross the bridge between her desire and its attainment.

He reacted instantly in defense of his treasure, slamming the lid of the box with one hand while fending off her outreached one with the other.

In a flash, their hands were in one another's faces, him a silent defender, her shouting, "I want it!"

I moved my body between them in such a way to end the fisticuffs, placing a hand on the box, while allowing each of them to keep their own hands on it. Just the day before, the children had begun making their own classroom rules, one of which was "no hitting." I said, "I saw you hitting each other. We all agreed, no hitting."

"I want it."

"We also all agreed, 'no taking things from other people.'" I nodded toward the list of rules we've taped to the classroom wall, drawing both of their attentions toward it. I then added, "He had the balls in his hands. I saw you try to take them."

She removed her hand from the box, saying, "But I want them."

"If you want them, you can ask him for them, but we all agreed you can't just take them."

"I want them."

"If you want them, you can him ask for them."

"I want them."

"If you want them, you can ask him for them."

Meanwhile, he was clutching the box tightly, shooting a rather severe face in her direction.

After three repetitions, she got it, finally speaking directly to her colleague, "Can I please have one?"

Without hesitation, he opened the box and handed her one of the balls. Without hesitation, beaming.

Another girl who had been observing the interaction asked, "Can I please have one too?"

Again, without hesitation, he opened the box and handed her the second ball. Without hesitation, beaming. Then he turned and without a word, only a smile, showed everyone his empty box.

I walked away then, wanting to just get out of their way, almost overwhelmed by the epiphanous dawn I felt growing within me. What had I just been a part of? When commanded, he fought with ferociousness; when asked, he gave in joy. It was as if I'd been standing with the soul of mankind or something.


I've been reflecting hard on this moment for the past week or so. You don't need to read here long to know that when commanded or demanded or coerced I tend, as this boy did, as most of us do, to react in opposition, to put my hand in the face of my perceived tormentor. But what has happened to the other side? Living in the city, for instance, I'm asked every day, often dozens of times a day, for one of my metaphorical meditation balls, yet I too rarely hand it over, and even when I do it's not usually with the fully open-heart I saw at school last week. I'm sure I once had it because I can find vestiges of the emotion within me. Where did it go?

I want to blame "society," of course, that convenient scapegoat for all the world's ills, telling myself it would be much easier if everyone could just become enlightened at the same time. There's a fear there that stops me, I guess, one that makes me recoil at that idea of scarcity, of that empty box: that if I give it away I'll wind up with nothing. Yet here was this boy, joyful in his empty box, beaming, a true possessor of everything, while I suffer in my lack of faith in my fellow man, myself, and the universe.

Is this simply part of the curse of growing older and wiser? In having developed the capacity to worry about more than the immediate future, am I robbed of the profound joy of an empty box? I reckon so, to a certain extent, although I'm also aware that this is not the end of my road, at least I hope it's not. There is even greater wisdom ahead, I'm sure, and I'm thinking I'd be served for the time being to keep looking for it in that empty box.


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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"I Guess You Were Right, Teacher Tom"



































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. No, 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 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. 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 couple years back, one of the guys, 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 great 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 by something hard by your eye 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 the 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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Monday, September 29, 2014

Students Protest Anti-Protest Curriculum



































In many respects US history can be understood as one long, uninterrupted act of civil (and often not so civil) disobedience, from the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution, to abolition efforts and Civil War, right through to more contemporary suffrage, civil and economic rights movements.

So when members of the Jefferson County, Colorado school board recently attempted to replace their high school AP history curriculum with one that "promotes citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights" and that doesn't "encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law," teachers and students have reacted like any good American citizens: they walked out in protest.

"Our entire history, things that changed America for the better, were acts of civil disobedience," said Debbie Velarde, a junior at Wheat Ridge High School. "The Declaration of Independence was an act of civil disobedience."

I've written before about students walking out in protest. Watching the videos and listening to their words always puts a lump in my throat. In the words of Arvada High School senior Leighanne Grey:

"As we grow up, you always hear that America's the greatest, the land of the free and the home of the brave. For all the good things we've done, we've done some terrible things. It's important to learn about those things, or we're doomed to repeat the past."

This is the core purpose of public education in a democratic society, not vocational training, not math and literacy, but to provide our children the opportunity to acquire the skills, knowledge and experience to fully participate as citizens in the ongoing project of self-governance. I'm proud of these kids and proud of their teachers and parents for supporting them. So in that regard I reckon I agree with the school board's attempts to promote citizenship and patriotism, but there are two sides to capitalism, respect for authority is always conditional upon deserving that respect, and without a healthy amount of civil disorder, social strife, and disregard for the law, our nation simply would not exist.

The school board has already put the proposal on hold for a month, but this battle isn't over in Jefferson County. The Koch family foundation affiliated anti-democracy organization Americans for Prosperity is supporting the school board's actions and they have deep, deep pockets. This is far from over.

My question now is who is going to stand up for the elementary school kids when this school board starts reviewing it's health education curriculum as they've announced? It will have to be their parents. I hope they take inspiration from the teenagers.


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Friday, September 26, 2014

Rediscovering The Concrete Slide


































Our 3's class discovered the concrete slide yesterday. Or rather, since most of them have known about the concrete slide for at least a year already, I should say they rediscovered it yesterday.


It started with Alexa wondering how to "get up there."

I said, "Maybe we could go straight up there," pointing up the face of the concrete slide.

"No, Teacher Tom, I don't think I can go up that way. It's too steep for me."

I said, loudly enough that others could hear me, "We're wondering how to get up there."


"I'll show you!"

"I'll show you!"


They took one of the side routes, remembering it from last year, up through the lilacs where years of little feet have moulded stairs from soil and roots. Others went around the other side with it's similar pathway. There was a real charge for the top, with at least 10 of them making the ascent.

Romi was the first to slide down, finding it quite unpleasant in her tutu and bare legs. She winced, but didn't complain, nor, understandably, did she try the slide again.


I had some wisdom to impart. Picking up a square of old metal mesh shelving, I said, "Some of the big kids like to sit on these to slide down so they don't hurt their bottoms or tear their clothes." We have a half dozen or so of these squares.

"I want one!"

"I want one!"


I made a game of tossing them up to where the children stood in a row at the top of the slide, with the squares sliding right back down, until Acadia got the idea of stomping on one to keep it up there with her. After some maneuvering, she managed to perch atop the square and zip down. I've tried this before, it's a short, rapid ride, that ends with a solid thump as the square is stopped suddenly by the sand at the bottom, often tossing the rider forward, headlong into the sand. This happened to Acadia who popped up and declared it "fun." This motivated her friends to employ the stomping technique to secure squares of their own.


Not all of those who ascended slid back down. Some, like Alexa, were content to watch, perhaps acquiring knowledge to be used at a future date, taking satisfaction in simply being able to climb up there, then climb back down. Others decided they weren't ready for the first-hand knowledge of a speedy slide, so instead carried their squares to the top just to let them slide down on their own, following them on the seats of their pants, a slower, surer way to go.


There were two significant emotional scenes that rose to the level of adult involvement. Two children fought over a rope, each claiming to have had it first. I more or less stood there holding the middle of the rope, echoing the words of each child until, after a good five minutes, they started talking about something else, their tears dried up, letting the rope drop to the ground, not resolving it as much as just letting it go. Some of life's conflicts must be resolved like that.


In the other instance, Cecelia, who had managed to get herself in a position to slide, found herself intimidated by the prospect and cried for her mother who took the position that she wouldn't help her, but also wouldn't let her get hurt. Still crying, Cecelia finally let herself go, hitting the bottom still in tears. Still crying she picked up her square and made her way back to the top, where, still crying, she did it again. Letting her feelings flourish and getting on with her life of doing until she wasn't crying any longer.


A few of the kids, like Kai, have been climbing up here for a year or more, but for most of them, this was one of the first times they've managed it, let alone to slide back down. They taught one another how to do it, a hive-mind protect if there ever was one. All we, the adults, did was wonder loudly, help with emotions, and introduce the mesh squares. Like the older kids with their game of tires earlier this week, these children mostly managed themselves, negotiated space and timing, developed a mutually satisfying, if informal, code of conduct, shared the limited resources, and got about the hard work of creating their place in their community.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Right Number Of Bloody Owies




People think I'm joking when I say this to kids, but I'm not, and the kids know I'm not:

"If you have no bloody owies, then you are being too careful. If you have three or more bloody owies then you're not being careful enough. The right number of bloody owies is one or two. That means you're not being too careful or too careless."

At least once a week I find myself in a group of kids comparing bloody owies. Sometimes we count bruises, but there's a general consensus that they don't count nearly as much as scabs.

Charlotte disagrees with my bloody owie-to-carefulness ratios. She claims to always have more than three bloody owies and feels that my standards are too low. She once complained, "It's impossible to not have at least three bloody owies. I have three just on this arm!" She once insisted that "eleven" is actually the right number of bloody owies.


Because of all this, I'm often very aware of the status of the scabs, cuts, and other assorted abrasions that have mangled the flesh of my charges (most of which, incidentally, don't occur on my watch). And what impresses me the most is how quickly they vanish. I mean, I might go two or three weeks showing off the same damn bloody owies on my own skin, while kids like Charlotte, it seems, can show me a fresh one every day without actually increasing the total number of bloody owies on her body. It's almost as if young children are designed for bloody owies.

And indeed they are. Otherwise healthy children heal remarkably fast. They have no knee caps so falling on them is rarely worse than a flesh wound. Their bones are flexible and everything about them is low to the ground. Their teeth grow back. Their skulls aren't even fully fused, for crying out loud, which means they have a greatly reduced risk of concussions. In other words, young children are designed to fall down, hard, and often.


And likewise they are designed to learn from falling down. 

This is why I'm so despondent about the changes currently taking place at my local playground. Up until a week ago, two of the main features of the place were four large rocks that kids used as "stepping" stones, that would more properly be called "leaping" stones, and a large, slippery steel dome that really could only be ascended by taking a pell mell running start, then hoping you could stop yourself right at the top or else it was down the other side with you, often on the seat of your pants. The city is replacing it all with, yes, yet another boring climber under which they are currently installing a good three feet of wood chips. At least they kept the zip line.

How do you learn about bloody owies from that? Nope, all those injuries, all that learning, will have to wait until they're older, out in the world with knee caps to break, greater heights from which to fall, brittler bones, and fully formed skulls so that their jostled brains have no space in which to swell. 

No one wants children to get hurt, but at the same time every injury you prevent in childhood is just an injury pushed off into the future because as we say at Woodland Park, the only way to learn about asphalt is to fall on it.

You might think I'm joking about this, but I'm not.


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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

How To Be Part Of Something Bigger Than Ourselves


































When your playground has a slope and children are free to play, they will roll things downhill. We've rolled all manner of things, but in this case it was tires. It could be anything, it could be our own bodies, and the point really isn't the rolling, it's the doing it together.


That is the purpose of school at Woodland Park, figuring out the complexities of community, of friendship, of giving, and of taking. We do things together not because someone has lectured us on teamwork or cooperation or being kind, or because someone has imposed rules to that effect, but rather because it's simply what human beings do when left to our own devices.


This is when I know John Locke and Jean Paul Rousseau were right: human's are essentially "good." The essential "evil" that Thomas Hobbs postulated only emerges when we're in circumstances that suppress what is natural in us.



No one told these children to help one another, but they did, pitching in, sharing ideas, leading a hand, leaning into the work of the moment, the challenge we've set for ourselves.


No one told these children to be careful, but they were, giving one another space, taking turns, stepping out of the way.


We often ask ourselves, How do I be me in a world of we? And it's a good question, but probably not the one that gets at the heart of things. The question we ask as we roll tires together down and back up the hill is, How do I find my place within this world of we? And we answer it by doing it, by choosing to roll those tires up and down the hill together.


The adults are here for our wisdom, our greater knowledge, a product of experience, about things like schedules, responsibilities and safety, but otherwise we stand back and stand ready. I often say it's a little like playing softball: you may stand there all day without a single ball being hit in your direction, but when it comes it helps to be on the balls of your feet.


Otherwise it's up to the children, these essentially "good" humans to see what needs to be done and to do it because that's what we do when I am part of we.


I joke sometimes that our little cooperative preschool is proof that communism is the best way to organize humans, but only if everyone volunteers to be a part of it. And indeed not all the children bent their backs to the project of rolling tires downhill. They were off pursuing community elsewhere in their own way.




If this is the only thing we do at Woodland Park, rolling tires up and down the hill, then we've done our work. Being together, playing together, figuring out how to be part of something bigger than ourselves.


Without this, the rest is meaningless.


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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ignoring Tuesday



























He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday -- no matter what happened on Tuesday. ~Stephen Colbert

Among the most egregious aspects of the corporate education "reform" movement enthusiastically embraced by both the Obama and Bush administrations is the faith-based notion that teacher should be largely evaluated based upon the high stakes standardized test scores of their students.

Let's forget for a moment that these tests are an enormous time, energy, and resource suck: in many places, testing and test prep is pretty much all the kids and their teachers do while in school. And let's also set aside the fact that every study ever done on these tests demonstrate that they fail to test actual knowledge, but rather the socio-economic status of the test takers. And let's also forget about the incredibly narrow slice of education that is even addressed by these test, usually focusing on math and literacy to the exclusion of the entirety of humanities, science, arts, physical, and social education. 

I know that's a ton to set aside, but US Education Secretary Arne Duncan's continued insistence upon using student test scores to pay and fire teachers, no matter what happened on Tuesday, may be the most insane aspect of the entire federal effort. Specifically "reformers" are enamored of using a voodoo statistical trick called "value-add measures" (VAM) which is a formula that purports to take student test scores, then calculate the contribution individual teachers make. It sounds like it might be a good idea, except that time and again, it has been shown to be an unreliable measure of anything. In fact, it's quite common for teachers with outstanding VAM scores one year to wind up near the bottom the next. 

From Valerie Strauss writing in the Washington Post:

The American Statistical Association, the largest organization in the United States representing statisticians and related professionals, said in an April report that value-added scores "do not directly measure potential teacher contributions toward other student outcomes" and that they "typically measure correlation, not causation," noting that "effects -- positive or negative -- attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model." This month, two researchers reported that they had found little or no correlation between quality teaching and the appraisals that teachers received using VAM.

Of course, teachers are aware of this, while dilettantish economists and politicians continue to plow-forward with their faith-based guesses about how education works. Teachers know that teaching children is not something that can be reduced to factory floor methodology and efficient turnkey operations. Every classroom of children is different, every child is different, and the circumstances and events that shape their educational attainment are largely outside of our control. Yes, good teachers can and do make an enormous difference in children's lives, sometimes even in ways that show up on high-stakes standardized tests, but much of what we do cannot be measured by a test taken by someone else. Children are not a delivery of blueberries that can be sent back if they don't measure up. To use VAM and other accounting gimmicks to fire teachers and deprive children of dedicated, experienced professional educators is the kind of craziness that comes from ignoring what happened on Tuesday.

When Ms. Strauss asked Duncan if he was aware of the overwhelming research against using VAM to evaluate teachers, he responded that he was. And then, in the same breath, took that opportunity to double down on his support for VAM. Why? I don't think he's evil or crazy, so there must be another explanation.

I've written before that I've come to an understanding this cabal of "reformers" are clearly no longer in this for the purpose of improving public education. It's about competition. Their goal is now simply to win. That's why they are ignoring Tuesday. How else can one explain it?


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