Thursday, May 05, 2016

Spot-On, Developmentally Appropriate Lessons

Earlier this week, on the bus ride home from a field trip, a couple of us got into telling jokes. One guy was taking particular delight in some of the corny ones I recalled from my own childhood, so the following day I pulled out the classic, Bennet Cerf's Book of Riddles, a copy of which I've retained since my own childhood.

I brought it to the playground and read it to whatever kids chose to gather round, then handed it over to our resident riddle master, who proceeded to re-read it to his classmates. Most of the children in our 4-5's class, of course, don't read, nor do we expect them to, but there are always a few who have taught themselves because that's how learning to read usually works: everyone figures it out at his own pace, just like walking and talking. Most are still a couple years away from hitting what we must learn to consider a developmental stage (as opposed to something that needs to be drilled into them), but there are always going to be outliers on both ends of what can still be considered normal. Many researchers, for instance, put the "normal" window for starting to reading between 5 and 10 years-old.

As I stood back and watched the children politely surround their friend who was reading to them, I noticed that they were following along on the page, focusing far more intently, it seemed to me, than they do when I read to them. Another of our early readers stood over his shoulder, occasionally helping out with a word. It was team reading, with children of all abilities participating at exactly the right level, each taking from the experience what she needed to take from it.

Of course, in traditional school we're so often scolded to "do your own work," but in a play-based curriculum, this is how learning is meant to happen: children coming together of their own volition to pitch in where pitching in is needed. And shouldn't it always be this way? Indeed, it's what most of us spend our lives doing whenever something needs to be done, be it at work, church, neighborhood, or home. When CEOs of corporations are surveyed, they always place "teamwork" and "collaboration" at the top of their list of attributes they look for in employees. When something needs to get done in our neighborhoods, concerned citizens come together to make it happen. When political change is necessary, we the people come together, each doing our part. It might not always work that way, but we all know it's the way it should work.

Even as one clutch of children gathered around our book of riddles, there were others collected around a girl who was not afraid to pick up a spider, holding it gently, but in such a way that her friends could see it. As they let their "brave" friend handle the arachnid, they shared their knowledge of spiders with one another, telling stories of other spiders they had known, discussing plans for this particular spider, spontaneously putting together a spot-on, developmentally appropriate lesson on spiders.

This is the way learning looks when we allow it to happen according to our god-given education instinct, which is, after all, made manifest in our urge to play. It's how we are made to learn: I wish we could just trust that.

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Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Our New Library

I don't know if this is going on where you live, but for the past decade or so, little curbside lending libraries have been popping up all over the north Seattle neighborhoods. 

As a man who loves books and spent many years as an avid collector (my catalogued collection once topped 3000 books), I highly approve, even if I've not always been willing to release my own books into the wild. But that's what should happen with books: they need to be read not curated on dusty shelves.

I don't know if the day of the book is coming to an end or not. I still see plenty of folks reading them and while the small independent bookseller is almost non-existent and even the large national chains are shutting down due to the competition from online sellers like Amazon, I find it difficult to believe that the book will ever really go away. Yes, I know that some of you enjoy your e-readers, but it's hard for me to see how they're an improvement over a technology that already exists in a perfected form. Sure, I appreciate that one can carry a virtual library with you on your morning commute, but you can only read one book at a time, TSA doesn't require you remove a book from your luggage to go through airport screening, and leaving an electronic device behind on the train is a much bigger deal than a paperback.

But that's neither here nor there. What I do know for certain is that used books have become a cheap and plentiful natural resource. It's one of the reasons that many of us have taken to using them to make art because otherwise they are heading for the recycling center or landfill.

But even better is when used books can be put back into circulation, so it was a no-brainer for the Woodland Park Cooperative School to have its own curbside library and what a library it is! Lisle's dad Jared created this wonderful piece to stand by the street and hold a couple dozen children's books. He finished it on Saturday, just in time for our annual Garden Festival fundraiser. I filled it with what I call "junker books." It's not that they are junk books, per se, but rather books that show up as "excess," getting lost on the shelves and therefore never being read. Worse, I often feel that they are just in the way as I'm searching for the books I tend to read with the kids again and again.

It was a joy to see clusters of children sitting on the lawn reading those books even during a sunny day party with dancing, treats and games. Even more delightful was Sunday afternoon when I stopped by the school to putter around in the green house. During the two hours I was there, at least a hundred people stopped to check it out. Those with children almost all took a book with them. I refilled it at least five times.

These are books that were destined to never be read again, but now they're back out there in the world. Maybe they will only be read once more, but that's something, and I'm proud we've become part of it.

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Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The Things We Most Want To Know

"Hey, Teacher Tom! Guess what? I can whistle!"

I remember arriving at that milestone myself. I was older, nearly in first grade. I'd been able to make a whistling sound between my teeth for some time, but everyone knows that it's not really whistling until you can pucker up and blow.

"Hey, Teacher Tom! Look! I'm pumping!"

Figuring out the forward and backward rhythm of swinging is another of the timeless achievements of childhood. We might claim, before figuring it out, that we are swinging by ourselves while enjoying the ever-slowing momentum of a push, but it isn't until we can make ourselves go higher and higher that we're really swinging.

"Hey, Teacher Tom! I can snap my fingers!"

"Hey, Teacher Tom! I can make a bubble!"

"Hey, Teacher Tom! I rode my bike!"

"Hey, Teacher Tom! I climbed this tree!"

These are the important things for kids to accomplish this summer, all of which are the sorts of things that children, for the most part, teach themselves when left with plenty of unstructured time in which to perform their own experiments. Not only were these important milestones for me, but for my parents as well, and theirs before them. I recall all of them vividly, far more so than those other achievements, the ones where adults set hoops before me through which to jump.

Last night parent educator Katie Becker lead a year-end meeting of the parents of our 3's class in which she left them with two main messages for summertime: allow your children plenty of unstructured time, preferably outdoors, and, perhaps even more importantly, let them get bored, because more often than not, it's within the vacuum of our boredom that we are most free to teach ourselves the things we most want to know.

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Monday, May 02, 2016

The Language Of Our Collective Psyche

From an introduction to a collection of Grimm's Fairy Tales written by W. H. Auden in 1952:

Miss Margaret Mead tells me the the traditional stepmother, which in Europe is a psychological euphemism for the mother in a malevolent aspect, is here (in America) a source of misunderstanding because there are too many actual stepmothers; one suspects, too, that in a society where the father plays as minor a role as he plays in America, the fairy-tale giant is a less frighteningly important figure than he was to those of us who grew up under the shadow of a paternal discipline . . . Broadly speaking, and in most cases, the fairy tale is a dramatic projection in the symbolic images of the life of the psyche.

I own a nice edition of the fairy tales Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm collected as part of their research into old German and Scandinavian languages, mythologies, and literature. Among them are such well-known stories as "The Golden Goose," "Cinderella," "Rumpelstiltskin," "Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Rapunzel," "The Sleeping Beauty," "Hansel and Gretel," "Tom Thumb," "The Bremen Town Musicians," and "Little Red Riding Hood." Most of us are familiar with at least some version of these European folk tales, especially the ones that have been made into animated Disney films.

The Grimm brothers, who were meticulous in their effort to produce the definitive versions of the old stories, insisted in 1812 that they were thousands of years old, a notion that was dismissed by contemporary critics, but recent phylogenetic analysis suggests that the Grimms were correct. At least some of these fairy tales can be traced back to the Bronze Age (around 3000 BCE).

Nearly every day, children in 21st century Seattle evoke the ancient names of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Every one of them knows that a girl in a read hood is Little Red Riding Hood. We all know not to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. These fairy tales, these myths, come right out of the dawn of human kind and are still as fresh today as they have ever been. I mean, there's even a weekly drama on TV called Grimm. These stories are in a very real sense the closest connection we have with our most "primitive" ancestors.

I sometimes debate with the children, telling them that they don't know the real story of, say, Cinderella. I sometimes threaten to bring in the "real version" and read it to them, but I never have. I considered it a few weeks back, but then took an evening to remind myself of the original Grimm brothers' text. Cinderella is a story of incredible cruelty, with a truly wicked stepmother (and stepsisters), bloodletting, and an ending in which the magical birds who came to poor Cinderella's aid exact revenge on her behalf by pecking out the eyes of the stepsisters "because of their wickedness and falsehood." The other stories are similarly raw.

And despite that, to my mind, any human thing that survives 5000 years must be important, even if there are aspects our modern minds find less that savory.

These stories are not, nor have they ever been, intended for children. Fairy tales, like all mythology, are true folk art in the sense that they belong to the folks and they are about the nature of life: and that includes wickedness, blood, and revenge alongside goodness, love, and forgiveness. This, I reckon, is why we still tell these stories five millennia later. And the truths found inside our myths are for all humans, children included, but perhaps not yet, at least not just because their teacher is motivated to know how they would respond to the original tales. In this case, mine is a researcher's curiosity, I think. Would they defend their better-known versions? Would they like this one better? What kinds of conversations would we have? But, my own curiosity is not enough to subject the children to experiment and so I'm not going to read the Grimm versions to them unless they ask for it. And for now they seem happy with their familiar versions.

I have often let the children know that there is a "real" version, but none have taken me up on it. Until and unless they do, it's not up to me to expose them to the awful truths. They will reveal themselves on their own, all in due course, believe me. I'm not interested in rushing it unless I come across children who let me know they are passionate about exploring the darker things. My own child was one such seeker.

I hope, however, that when the children are ready, they will remember a teacher who told them that there is a "real" version, and that they seek it out, and read it, and that they then come to understand the wisdom of what playwright Mary Zimmerman calls our "mythic side":

It has been said that the myth is a public dream, dreams are private myths. Unfortunately we give our mythic side scant attention these days. As a result, a great deal escapes us and we no longer understand our own actions. So it remains important and salutary to speak not only of the rational and easily understood, but also of the enigmatic things: the irrational and ambiguous. To speak both privately and publicly.

I like the idea of these ancient stories, these tales that we tell to understand our own actions even when they are irrational and ambiguous. Having survived for 5000 years, these stories are clearly important; maybe that's because they are the language spoken by humanity's collective psyche.

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Friday, April 29, 2016

"Where To Invade Next" Finland?

Unless you've continued to be super busy living under your rock for a good part of the last decade, you're probably aware that Finland has the best schools in the world, at least as measured by the standardized test that is used to rank such things. Now, you would think that the US policy-makers and corporate education dilettantes who place such a high value on standardized test scores that they are subjecting American students to hundreds of such tests over the course of their academic life would be seeking to emulate the Finns.

But no, instead of learning from them, the corporate-style "reformers" have created schools with longer days, more homework, more paperwork, more high stakes standardized testing, and a federally mandated standardized curriculum, all of which has, according to the New York Times, resulted in lower math scores and exactly zero improvement in other areas. They are failing, they know they are failing, and instead of looking around and seeking to learn from those who are succeeding, they are doubling-down on their vision of public schools as test score coal mines.

Why aren't we learning from the Finns? Probably because what the Finns are doing in their schools (i.e., basing education on science) doesn't match their neoliberal nose-to-the-grindstone narrative of how to make America great again: you know, the one where carrots and sticks and "grit" are the primary tools of the trade. And, probably even more importantly, outside private corporations aren't growing rich from Finland's methods. No, the children are just growing up smarter, healthier, and happier. How does anyone turn a greasy buck from that?

It's quite clear that our political and business leaders have no interest in actual education. The evidence could not be more clear that these so-called "reformers" are only about imposing their will upon our schools and banking money from the labor of our children. It doesn't make sense any other way.

Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore has taken a look at Finnish schools as part of his new movie "Where to Invade Next." Here is a clip from his visit with teachers.

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Thursday, April 28, 2016

"I Don't Like That Idea"

I've written about a few of these sorts of tug-o-war conflicts lately (for instance, here and here). I hesitate to call each one a "gem," because they are, after all conflicts, but there is something both perfect and real about each one. Perhaps if they are gems, they are of the uncut variety.

We were cleaning up, when a pair of boys, found themselves in a conflict over a wooden truck.

W: "I'll help you put it away."

M: "I want to put it away by myself."

W: "I'll help you."

M: "No, I want to do it by myself!"

In fairness, as an adult judges it, M's hands had been on the toy first, but that isn't the point he was arguing. The boys appeared to be equally resolute, but there was more emotional energy on M's side. There was some tugging so I put my hand on the toy, a technique I like to use to help shift physical conflict into a conversation. Usually, the advent of my hand releases some tension, allowing them the space for dialog, but in this case it didn't work in that way they continued to pull on the truck.

I said, "M wants to put the toy away by himself."

W answered, "I want to help you." He was directing his comment directly at M, rather than through me. He was the calmer of the two, really making an effort to persuade his classmate.

M wasn't having it. He was on the verge of tears. With a sudden yank, he attempted to wrest control of the toy from both of us. I said, referring to the list of rules that hangs on the wall, "We all agreed that we couldn't take things from each other. That means we'll have to talk and not tug."

"But, I want to put it away by myself."

"I will help you."

By now the classroom was tidied up and the children were assembling on the checkerboard rug for circle time. S offered his idea, "You could both put it away together." When neither boy responded, I said, "S thinks you guys can put it away together."

W: "I like that idea."

M: "I don't like that idea."

After a few more rounds of stating their bedrock arguments, a calmer disagreement that allowed me to release my grip on the toy, R suggested, "Maybe one of you can take it some of the way and one of you can take it the rest of the way."

W: "I like that idea."

M: "I don't like that idea."

By now the two boys were in the middle of the rug while the rest of their classmates were more or less watching. I said, "Everybody is ready for circle time. We just have one more truck to put away and M and W are both holding it." At this point one of the other children made a loud joke about an unrelated topic, clearly ready to just get circle time started. I turned my attention toward laughing, just for a second, and when I looked back, W was putting the truck on the shelf while M sat on the rug looking defeated.

My first thought was that W had simply snatched it while my attentions were divided. I said, "W is putting the truck away by himself. M, is that okay with you?"

M nodded, "It's okay with me," his face a study in glumness. A parent-teacher later told me that there had been no snatching, that M had simply, without comment, released his grip.

My wife and I are currently dealing with a loved one who is in rapid physical and mental decline. We are having to make a lot of decisions on her behalf. We feel that there are no "good" choices. Indeed, we feel that in many cases there are not even any "less bad" choices: damned if we do and damned if we don't. I expect M felt a little bit like this as he was faced with the equally bad options of continuing to fight or giving up.

Resolving conflict isn't always pretty nor is it always "fair." Sometimes it's enough to just live to fight another day.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Broad Education

We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character -- that is the goal of true education.  The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.

If we are not careful, our colleagues will produce a group of closed-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, brethren! Be careful, teachers!  ~MLK

It's a small wonder, a miracle indeed, when they discover an aspect of "we," often at first stumbling across it like over a super cool toy left in the middle of the living room floor.

Even if it's as simple as saying, "We are going up here now." Even that gives me confidence about our future.

The ones with siblings just a little bit older tend to learn it first, the joy of connecting with another child, and find their classmates a little slow sometimes. These are the ones who might take the lead, practicing the sentences that begin with the invitation of "Let's . . .," working their human power to bring themselves together with those other suns around whom the universe so recently revolved.

This is the work we're here to do: to make me into we, because otherwise it makes no sense. 

There are things, so many things, over which to disagree. It's hard enough learning how to do that without having to also overcome closed minds that reject the universal language of objective "scientific" truth in favor of illogical propaganda. The same is to be said for that set of moral values we must share if we're to make this democracy work, let alone our day-to-day lives: non-violence, equal opportunity, fairness, the values without which the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness simply cannot be fulfilled.

It's true we attempt in school to transmit our "accumulated knowledge," but without also working diligently to transmit the "accumulated experience of social living," we risk creating sociopathic monsters, people rendered less human in their inability to join us in our work of making me into we. They instead seek to exploit, to use up, to devour their fellow man in a dangerously misguided attempt to fill up that abyss that opens inside each of us when we stand all alone in the world. If we don't fill it with love, it becomes a vacuum for wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.

When a boy and a girl and a tiger find themselves together and one of them says, "Let's go up there," and then they all pick up, still together, and go up there, sitting once more together I see the work of we being done and I don't worry about our world so much.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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