Friday, December 02, 2016

Telling Jokes.

Back in my junior executive days, a colleague and friend, a young man with whom I shared a wall and a secretary, was offered a sweet new job. He was a great guy, even if he was a bit full of himself. When he announced at a staff meeting that he was moving on, I quipped, "Wow, you're leaving one big hat to fill!" There was a beat of silence as the room took it in, then an explosion of laughter. I still think of it as the best joke I've ever told, although looking at it here in black and white perhaps it was one of those for which you had to have been there.

My jokes tend to be hit or miss, and often my best ones are funny only to myself. For instance, I'm more likely to get an argument than a laugh when I say, "The difference between your neuroses and mine is that mine make sense," but I think it's hilarious and 100 percent true.

I'm not a "funny guy." I think I have a decent sense of humor, but I can also assert, unequivocally, that I'm simultaneously the most hilarious man in the world . . . if the only audience that matters is the kids I teach. Oh, it does wonders for the ego, indeed it does, when I get the whole crowd screaming with laughter by making a silly face, or pretending to get mixed up about the lyrics to a song, or engaging in some simple slapstick. One of my best bits is one I learned from my father. He would walk toward a doorway, then pretend to bump his nose on the door frame, creating a realistic sound effect with a well-timed kick to the wall. That one always makes them laugh; a beat of silence and then an explosion of laughter when they see I'm not really hurt.

Anyone who has ever worked with young kids knows that if you want a laugh, all you have to do is start a conversation with, "Knock, knock . . ." Pretty much anything you say, so long as it matches the rhythm of the joke, will get a laugh.

"Knock knock."
"Who's there?"
"Table who?"
"Table chair!"

Then everyone laughs. It's collaborative poetry, the Knock-knock Joke, a duet that ends in laughter. It never bugs me, it never bores me, because in the end we laugh, forced perhaps, even phony-sounding, but communal: we're laughing together and that's the point. We spend entire circle times just taking turns telling these nonsensical jokes, laughing harder and harder as we go.

Even though I'm not a funny guy, humor (or at least silliness) stands at the center of my relationship with children. When a kid says, "You're silly, Teacher Tom!" I answer, "Silly is a complement around here! Thank you for saying that!" I like that "silly" is part of my reputation.

There's another "joke" of which I'm proud, this one having occurred on the streets of Manhattan. Our family was living in Soho for a month because my wife had business there. I was walking the dog early one morning, when a car alarm went off. The street wasn't NYC crowded, but there were still a lot of us out there. I stopped and loudly asked, "What's wrong with you people? Can't you hear that car is being stolen?" There was a beat of silence, then an explosion of laughter. I guess you had to be there.

There is nothing that brings people together more than laughing with them and you do, in fact, have to be there.

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Thursday, December 01, 2016


A couple years back I taught a boy who would, upon the completion of just about anything, turn to me and ask, "Is that a good job?" I would answer, "You worked hard on that," or "You sound proud of it," or something else that I hoped would help turn his search for validation inward instead of outward. I wouldn't say that he was a praise junky, however, given that he was generally a very internally driven boy, but he had apparently come to expect the automatic "good job" the way the rest of us expect the automatic "Thank you" or "You're welcome." In fact, he would in turn offer his friends a hearty "good job" whenever one of them completed something or seemed particularly proud.

Most of us know by now to avoid the sort of empty praise of "good job," "well done," or any of the other regular ways adults misguidedly attempt to bolster self esteem. If we want children to be self-motivated, the general rule of thumb is to avoid external rewards and punishments, verbal or otherwise, and instead focus on observable things like a child's effort (e.g., "You worked on that for a long time"), feelings (e.g., "You look happy about that"), or simply remarking on observable facts (e.g., "You pried the lid off that can"). 

During their three years at Woodland Park, this boy's family tried to pull back on "good job," even as they found it a hard habit to break: it can become so woven into how we interact with our kids that it's almost impossible to eradicate entirely. There are a lot of semi-conscious things like that in how we speak to not just our children, but with the rest of the world as well. When I lived in Germany, my German friends would return from travels to the states, every single one of them complaining that Americans were obsessed with telling everyone "Have a nice day," something about which I'd never given much thought. It irritated them, however: "They say it, but they don't mean it," or "Who are they to tell me what kind of day to have?" Of course, Germans have their own automatic niceties that I found every bit as grating. And that's what most of these things are for us adults, conventional courtesies that we rely upon to make our public life run more smoothly. I think that's where "good job" had migrated for this boy.

Earlier this week, I was hanging out with a group of kids, most of whom had just created various kinds of weapons from construction paper and masking tape. As they showed me their handiwork, explaining, often in detail, how it could defeat a villain, I was responding by saying "You worked hard on that." I like to think I've become quite good at avoiding the empty praise. Then one boy pushed to the front to show me his creations. He shoved them into my face, beaming with pride, saying, "Teacher Tom, look at my hard works."

It appears that "You worked hard on that" has become my own personal "good job," an automatic nicety, at least for this kid. It's a risk whenever we find ourselves interacting with others without being fully conscious or present. Sigh. I guess I'll need to work on that.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

For That Purpose Alone

Our playground is built on a sloping piece of land that is about one quarter sand pit, while the rest is covered in a layer of wood chips. As will happen with erosion, both the sand and wood chips migrate from the top of the yard to the bottom. A couple times a year, the adults, as part of our regular work parties, take on the Sisyphusian task of counteracting the results of gravity, weather, and playing children with shovels and wheelbarrows, hauling it all back to the top of the slope again.

We're between work parties and it's been bugging me that some of our raised planting beds are about to be overwhelmed by wood chips, so I grabbed a shovel and wheelbarrow and started digging as the children in our 4-5's class were arriving. The kindergarteners were already out there playing and their teacher, Teacher Rachel, said, "It looks like Teacher Tom could use some help."

Soon I was surrounded by shovel-wielding five and six-year-olds asking me what I was doing. I showed them that the planting beds on the downhill side of the garden were four boards high, while the one beside which I was digging only had the top board showing above the chips. "There's over a foot of wood chips here that needs to be moved back under the swing set."

As a half dozen kids fell to the task of digging, there was no longer much room for me, so I stepped back. Other kids retrieved wagons and other wheeled conveyances and we soon had a line-up of "trucks" waiting to haul our loads.

When the kindergarteners were called inside, their places were smoothly filled by a second shift of preschoolers, bending their backs to the task.

In the beginning, each newcomer had asked me, "What are you doing?" and I had explained, but by now the children were expert enough to answer one another, effectively and efficiently conveying the idea of erosion to their friends, who in turn leapt into the hole to dig.

Whenever there was a gap or a lull in the digging, I plunged my shovel blade into the ground and within seconds there were smaller people replacing me. Sometimes we thought we had hit a rock, the ground was so hard, but usually it turned out to just be wood chips mixed with sand that had become compacted. We did unearth two large logs that we had at one time used as benches. We found dozens of "jewels" (florist marbles), and several small toys (like the leg of a plastic elephant). We found that the roots of some of our garden plants (our raspberry bush in particular) had pushed between the planter boards.

Occasionally, a kid or two would start goofing around in the hole, but they were quickly and firmly informed, "Hey, we're working here! A couple kids rounded up several of our orange caution cones and created a visual "work zone."

I helped out with the wheelbarrow loads, but the kids managed the wagons and smaller carts on their own, dumping them under the swing set.

In Leo Tolstoy's short story The Three Questions, the hermit answers the king:

"Remember then: there is only one time that is important -- Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are . . . and the most important affair is to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!"

I had started to dig, the children had seen they could help me, and they did. The rest of eduction -- and society and religion and everything else for that matter -- is mere bells and whistles: this is why we're here.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

More Hard, Messy, Emotional Work

Last week, I illustrated a post about the hard, messy, emotional work that the children in our school are doing every day using a story about a girl who wanted to join a game in progress, but who was unwilling to agree to actually play the game already in progress, and was therefore excluded. Yesterday, a group of younger kids, 3-year-olds, found themselves in a similar situation.

Two boys were playing in the top of our loft. I have no idea what they were playing, but each of them was holding one of our classroom baoding balls, which I've written about before. What I haven't shared, and what I've only discovered within the last couple of months is that we, in fact, have three of these balls, an extra one having appeared from who knows where. It's a fact that may have eluded me for weeks, but one of which the children have long been aware seeing that these shiny, metal balls with the gentle chimes inside are valued loose parts.

A third boy, a regular playmate, began to ascend the stairs into the loft when the boys with the balls said, "You can't come up here unless you have a ball," causing their friend to break down in tears. He threw himself into his mother's lap to bawl. The boys in the loft appeared confused. I said, "He's crying because you told him he couldn't come into the loft."

One of the boys replied matter-of-factly, "He can come in the loft. He just has to have a ball," showing me his silver ball. His companion's attention, however, was fully on his crying friend.

I answered loudly enough that the upset boy could hear me, "Oh, so if he has one of those balls, he can come up?"


"Well, there's another ball right over there," I answered, still loudly enough for all to hear, pointing. I waited a few seconds, then took it upon myself to retrieve the third silver ball and put it on a table near the crying boy, who ignored it.

I had done what I could, I felt, so backed off, while still keeping an eye on things. As I watched, the boy who had shown the most concern descended the loft, not once taking his eyes off his crying friend. He stood on the floor for a moment, holding his ball. I thought I saw his throat spasm as if fighting down tears of his own. The other boy descended the stairs as well and they stood there together for a moment. They might have spoken, although I didn't see it, then crossed the room to where we generally keep the box for those balls, put the balls away, and closed the lid.

The boy finished his cry, then all three boys went about their day

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Monday, November 28, 2016

Rocks That Shape The River

When I was a child, I thought that all I needed to change the world was to wait, to grow older.

As a young man, I thought that all I needed to do was to set forth, engage, and wrestle it into a new shape.

And there are those who've done it that way, conquering this or that, making a mark here and there, blazing their trails through forest, field and city.

But there is also the force of change that is a rock that simply stays in the flow of the river, bending it, shaping a rapid, swirling an eddy, or causing the stillness of a reflecting pool.

That's the way teachers change the world, at least if we stay there long enough, being there to guide the course of events through the passage of children rushing by, creating shared experiences through years and generations.

Those rocks, over time, are in turn shaped by the river, made smoother, more accommodating, yet in the end it's the rocks together that make the shape of the river.

That's why there are those who fear teachers, I suppose. They know the power of the rock to teach each child that passes through those simple lessons, like the patience of waiting your turn . . .

. . . or the power of working together.

And if your purposes are not served by the things we all teach, year after year, like the joy of free expression . . .

. . . or the importance of critical thinking . . .

. . . or the excitement of intermingling our imaginations . . .

. . . I can see how it might make you rail at teachers who, by being rocks, are thwarting plans that call for people who will not question too much, nor think too creatively. You might blame the teachers when the grown up people wind up not being the way you want them to be . . .

. . . and are instead who they want to be, doing what they know is right, demanding fairness, sharing, and cooperation, insisting that you are the one standing outside the flow.

Unlike parents, whose role is to be along for the ride, teachers stay where we are, deploying our dried pasta necklaces . . .

. . . our soapy water . . .

. . . our blocks . . .

. . . and our puzzles . . .

. . . year over year, again and again, making our part of the river flow into channels it might not have otherwise known to flow . . .

. . . not teaching people what to think, but how. 

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Friday, November 25, 2016

Someone Comes To Save The Day

Who wants to be responsible? Whenever anything goes wrong, the first thing they ask is "Who's responsible for this?"  ~Jerry Seinfeld

One recent afternoon, our kindergarten teacher, Teacher Rachel, was hauling the big wooden blocks a few at a time from the preschool classroom where they're stored, to her classroom down the hall where the big kids were going to be building with them the following day. I said, "It looks like Teacher Rachel needs help," and without hesitation, indeed with alacrity, a half dozen four and five year olds came to her aid.

It didn't surprise me. Despite common parent complaints about how difficult it is to get kids to pitch in with household chores, I've found that the young children I teach are generally always ready and willing to help. That is, there are always some who are ready and willing. At any given moment, of course, there are always some who are too engaged to pull themselves away from their own pursuits, but when I say, "I need help," that help always arrives.

The other day, S was sitting on a swing. As I passed, he said, "Teacher Tom, push me." I answered, "I won't push you, but I'll bet someone will," then louder, "Hey, S needs a push on the swing!" Within seconds a friend was there to push him. I watched for a minute, then said, "See? We're like super heroes around here. All you have to do is ask for help and someone comes to save the day!" 

And it's true, we are super heroes. The difference between helping out at school and helping out at home, I think, comes down to choice. At school, the call goes out for help and one can either assume that responsibility or not; at home, generally speaking, someone (usually an adult) is attempting to impose a specific responsibility on a specific kid, and in all honestly, that's when we all balk. Maybe we adults have learned that sometimes we have to stick our noses up against the old grindstone whether we like it or not, but no one is happy when we feel compelled. Responsibilities are not something that can be placed upon us -- those are called obligations. Responsibilities are things we assume of our own free will.

We have an old dog crate on the playground right now. An older sibling was visiting for the afternoon and he got the idea of trying to get it to the top of the concrete slide. He tried, but it it was too heavy for him to do alone. He said, "Help!" and within seconds a team of eager helpers had assembled. While some pushed, others tied ropes to the crate and pulled from the top. It was a struggle, but they finally managed it, then, when they let it go, it plunged back to the bottom of the slope. Then they did it again, each of them assuming responsibility for getting the project done, gladly, because that's what human beings in a community do unless and until someone comes along and turns it into an obligation. Then we fight it.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

What Was In Those Boxes

A large school supply order arrived last week.

On Thursday, I brought one of the boxes to our 4-5's circle time and put it at my feet. Naturally, the children wanted to know what was in the box. We looked for clues. We noticed the mailing label, so I read it aloud. It had been sent to the home of one of the parents in a different class named Jennifer, who lives in Seattle. Several of the children said they knew grown-ups named Jennifer and we took turns telling one another about the Jennifers we know. Many of them, however, lived in places other than Seattle. We then took the time to confirm that we all lived in Seattle, each child chiming in with the information, "I live in Seattle." Some seemed struck by the coincidence.

We read the return address label. It said "Discount School Supply." We ignored the word "discount," focusing instead on the words "school" and "supply." We were definitely a school, so maybe the box was for us after all. There was some back and forth about what "supply" referred to. Some of us thought it might be supplies like ropes and tools. The speculation became hyperbolic as we jokingly wondered if maybe they were astronaut supplies or camping supplies. A few kids rejected the hype, insisting instead that it was school supplies, "like paint and stuff." Others began to demand that we "just open the box."

There was then a brief discussion about how to go about doing that. When one of them mentioned a tool their family had at home called a "box cutter" I said I just happened to have a box cutter right there in a drawer behind me. I showed them how sharp it was and how the blade retracted into the handle for safety. I then cut the box open under the watchful eyes of a hushed crowd.

I had imagined the children surging forward as the box was opened, but they remained in place, backed off, I guess, by some of the wilder speculation that the box could be full of poison or a dangerous animal. As I pulled out items like bags of beads and bundles of pipe cleaners, the children cheered for each one, many excitedly informing the rest of us what they were going to make with this or that. We agreed that we were going to be able to use all of the stuff in the box.

On Monday, the next day we got together, I brought the rest of the dozen or so boxes into the room. I said, "We need to unpack the rest of these boxes." When one of the kids suggested they would need the box cutter, I showed the sharp blade to them again. Some of them thought they could use it safely, but there were others who said they would rather that their classmates not be wielding sharp knives around them. "We'll just use our hands." And that's what they did, tearing into the boxes in groups of two and three, using their fingernails, teamwork, and ingenuity.

As they struggled with the boxes they talked and giggled. Some of them called out for help. Some leapt to their aid, while others remained focused on their own tasks. Some turned to one another for advice, "How did you get that open?" while others offered advice, "If you pinch the corner of the tape -- like this -- you can just peel it right off.

As each box revealed its contents there were shouts, "It's paint!" "It's paper!" "It's crayons!" each revelation a cause for celebration.

I'd told the children that I'd like the supplies to be "organized" on a bench.

When the last box was empty, there was several minutes of wild play as they put the boxes on their heads, tossed them in the air, and stepped in and out of them. Then as that died down, a calmer group took over, working together to build an airplane.

They then used some of the new markers to decorate it.

On Tuesday we took a few of the boxes outside and painted them with our new paint.

Yesterday, we cut some of the boxes into smaller pieces to be used for glue gun constructions.

It'll be awhile before this story is over because we're still discovering what was in those boxes.

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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