Thursday, September 21, 2017

Genius




Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will . . .  ~Charles Baudelaire

According to the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, 98 percent of kindergarteners qualify as "creative geniuses." By age 25, only three percent can make that claim.

To me, that 98 percent seems a bit low. I have never met a preschool aged child who is not, in her or his own way, a genius. The three percent rate for adults, however, seems about right. Until I read about the Torrance Test, I figured that my observation and interpretation of this phenomenon likely had more to do with my own prejudices than anything else. I mean, certainly there is genius within each adult as well, left over from childhood, but now simply hidden beneath the layers of normalcy and averageness that come to form the shell of what we call being "grown up."

Every parent of every preschooler I have ever met, knows that her child is a genius. Sometimes they are proud of early-onset "academic" skills, but more often they are astonished by genius of the creative, social, emotional, or physical variety. "She can climb to the top of anything!" they might enthuse or, "He cries when another child gets hurt!" or "She makes friends everywhere we go!" You hear genuine astonishment in their voices, the way one always does when one is discussing genius.


Cynics might say that I'm not writing about genius as much as the doting adoration of parental love, but from my perch as a teacher in a cooperative school, I've spent decades listening to parents being equally astonished at the genius they see in other people's kids. Indeed, I've long felt that one of the most powerful aspects of the cooperative model is that it gives parents front row seats to not only their own child's genius, but also that of others.

The sad truth, however, is that the adult world tends to only reward certain types of geniuses, those we typically file under "academic" in school settings, then "economic" in the years afterwords, but even then only after pounding it into more traditionally useful shapes. That, I expect, is why genius is so rarely seen in adults: it's there but relegated to the ashcan of uselessness because it serves neither academics or commerce.


As havens set aside for the preservation of genuine childhood, places like the Woodland Park Cooperative School (where I teach) are free to celebrate genius in all its forms whether or not it can pass through the infinitely fine sieve that sorts useful from useless. This is perhaps the greatest sin of our tradition of schooling: it is in many ways a decades-long process of pounding down the nails that stick up as we increasingly value conformity, order, and normalcy. The child with a genius for whistling or comedy or climbing onto the roof of the school is typically shut up or shut down as we seek to force their genius into the molds of usefulness, of averageness.

Genius is quirky, unusual; it may seem insane or even dangerous. Most of the time it is "useless" because we can't grade it or pay for it, but it is genius nevertheless. We all have it, then we outgrow it. I don't think Baudelaire was wrong: the genius is the one who has remained passionately connected to her childish self.

I sometimes try to imagine what it would do to the world if we raised an entire generation that could recapture childhood at will. It would be a world in which our institutions, like schools, would exist not to create standardized products as if off an assembly line, but rather to fill the world with one-of-a-kind humans free to pursue their highest potential according to her or his own genius. It would mean that we spend our lives playing because that is obviously soil in which genius best grows. I suppose a world of genius would present it's own problems, but in a world in which play stands at the fore, I like our odds of being able to solve them.


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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Train Track Back




His mother left and he didn't like that. He stood at the hallway door crying while I sat with him, although he soon made it clear that he would rather that I give him space so I did. Earlier, a couple of his three-year-old classmates had spontaneously tried to comfort him with hugs, but he had rejected those as well.

I remained near, however, and as the intensity of his emotion began to ebb, I went back into the classroom to retrieve a couple train cars. I put them on the floor beside him, saying, "When you're finished crying, here are some trains to play with." He stopped to look at the trains. I said, "I'll get you some tracks too." I returned moments later with a couple pieces of train track, putting them on the floor with the trains. I wasn't trying to distract him, but I wanted him to at least have some options.


A classmate, one of those who had earlier offered him a hug had been watching me and, I guess, found my efforts inadequate because the moment I stepped away, she stepped in, assembling the tracks for him. She then said, "I'll get more," returning to the classroom for additional railway sections. As the boy whimpered at the door, she began assembling a track, one piece at a time, down the center of the hallway. By the time she was finished, she had built a track from him back into the classroom. She said to him, "I finished your track," then went back inside to play.


He was finished with his cry by now, squatting to examine the train cars, an engine and a cargo car. Over the course of the next twenty minutes then, he slowly engineered his train along the track until he arrived at the classroom doorway where the track his friend had built came to an end. The rest of the way he was on his own. From there he could see his classmates playing with the rest of the trains and tracks. He sat there fiddling with his two train cars for a long time until finally he crossed the threshold and joined the rest of us.


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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Let's Just Let Children Play




Why are so many of us so afraid to just let children play? 


Not long ago, we got out our boxes of Magna-Tiles. These are cool, popular building toys. If your classroom doesn't have a set or two, I recommend them. As I watched the children build, I noticed a battered page of instructions at the bottom of the box that bore the headline Magna-Tiles "where math, science & creativity meet." The text then goes on to discuss Pythagoras and the history of mathematics. To their credit, they do recommend that children be allowed to explore their toys through open-ended creative play, but the very fact that this needed to be emphasized at all is a bad sign.


It's as if we've become convinced that young children are just wasting their valuable time when they "just" play, that every minute spent not exploring math, science and creativity leaves our kids another minute behind those Chinese kids who, legend has it, never rest. The fact that all play is educational, that all toys are educational is beside the point: when did we lose sight of the fact that play is what children are supposed to do?


I reckon we can, at least in part, blame the corporate education reformers who have intentionally sewn seeds of doubt about the efficacy of our educational system, selling the story that our schools are failing, causing parents to fear that junior is fall behind, that even those precious evenings and weekends when their kids aren't engaged in homework or extracurricular enrichment activities must be chock-a-block with things like Pythagoras. 


When did we forget that all play is educational and because of that all toys are educational? Maybe we never knew it, of course; maybe our grandparents just sort of intuited that kids needed play, that they didn't need adults hovering over them drilling them with stupid questions or "teaching" them this or that. Maybe they just understood that without play, and lots of it, there is no childhood.


As I watched the children using Maga-Tiles to create castles and cars, squares made of squares and triangles made of triangles, as I heard them negotiate for blocks and tabletop space, as they chattered about their thoughts and discoveries, it didn't occur to me that they were doing anything other than playing, having fun, until I spotted that sheet of instructions telling me about Pythagoras. We were outdoors, on the playground. No one was making them sit at these tables to build with these plastic, magnetized blocks: they were choosing it, freely, and they could just as freely walk away which many of them did the moment it stopped being fun. Or rather, the moment something else looked like more fun.


And even as I write that, I can see the fear-mongers wagging their fingers, I can hear them tut-tutting: "Where's the gritWhere's the rigor? How will they ever learn about hard work?"


Anyone who has spent any time watching young children play knows that grit, rigor, and hard work are at the heart of all true free play. What they really mean to ask is "How will the children ever learn to do the rote tasks that others demand of them?" Or perhaps, "How will they learn to obey?"


That isn't what childhood is for, although that's what adulthood sometimes teaches us, and no amount of practice makes it any easier, unless what they're talking about is "breaking them." What kind of Dickensian villain would take away childhood in exchange for the work house?


At the end of the day, after the families had left, the Magna-Tiles packed away in their boxes, I reopened them to remove that sheet of instructions and threw it in the recycling. Play is its own reward; the kids don't need that piece of paper around encouraging adults to make it "educational." First they need their childhood.




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Monday, September 18, 2017

None Of Us Wants To Be Told What To Do




My wife and I have had four dogs over the course of our three decades together. Whenever I have made the mistake of pulling on any of their leashes, they pull in the opposite direction every time. Believe me, left to their own devices, they always want to go where ever I go. I know this because when there is no leash involved they follow right on my heels, hot breath on the backs of my legs, tripping me up when I turn around unexpectedly, but if they sense I'm compelling them, their instinctive response is to rebel.

I've found this to be true in humans as well. No one likes to be told what to do, even when we know it's for our own good, even when it's something we want to do. Imagine being commanded, "Eat your dessert!" I might still eat that dessert, but there will be a moment of reluctance, of rebellion, even if it's chocolate ice cream. And I know if I do, it's not going to taste as good after being bossed into it. And depending on who says it and how they say it, there's about an equal chance I won't eat that damn ice cream at all.


Rebellion is built into us, and ultimately it is an adaptive trait. We all pull back against the leash because we are designed to act according to the pull of our own instincts and the tug of our own knowledge. Of course, we've all found ourselves in circumstances when we've decided that we must stuff our rebellious urges, but we always grow to despise those dictatorial bosses or teachers. If we do well it's usually "in spite" of them. And, of course, we wriggle out of those particular leashes as soon as we possibly can.

Parents know the truth about rebellion all too well. We set limits and rules and our children always test them. Even the most patient and progressive among us know, from the inside, that teeth grinding spiral of commands and refusals, until we finally resort to either physical force or the heavy hand of punishment. It leaves everyone feeling angry, resentful, and abused. And if we're not careful, if we're not conscious parents, these smaller spirals become part of a larger whirlpool of ever escalating rule breaking and punishments because every pull on the leash, every punishment, leads to a pull in the opposite direction.

Some of us have decided that this rebellion is a bad thing, at least when it's directed at us, and it must be quashed at all costs. We're the parents after all. We will not have our authority challenged. If that's your approach, your future will likely be either one of temporary, savorless victories followed by frustration, or a regime that involves punishments of increasingly extreme severity. Every study ever done on the subject of punishment (both parental and societal) winds up concluding that punishments only work under two circumstances:

  1. when the punisher is present; or
  2. when the punishment is debilitating (e.g., so disproportionately severe that one will never again risk it.)

Most of us are unwilling or unable to play the role of ever-present punisher. And I hope that none of us are the type to inflict debilitating punishments on our child.

The alternative is to accept rebellion as a demonstration that our child is healthy and normal, that it is not a sign that she is on her way to a life of crime and ruin, but rather evidence that she thinks for herself, trusts her own instincts, and will not be pushed around. When we accept this, we see that our job is to guide rather than command our children, to help them come to the understanding that behavior has its own rewards and consequences. I've written before about "natural consequences" and they apply here.

A parent taking away a boy's dessert because he hits his sister isn't the natural consequence of hitting. The consequence is that his sister is hurt and the evidence of that is the crying. That's where our attention ought to be. "You've hurt your sister," keeps the focus on the boy's behavior, allowing everyone to explore the consequence and potential remedies. "No dessert for you," turns the boy's attention on the "unfairness" of the parent who is pulling on that damn leash.


Rebelliousness is not a synonym for "anti-social" or "uncivil," it's merely a reaction to the leash. We all want to do the right thing and none of us wants to be told what to do.


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Friday, September 15, 2017

Lord Of The Flies



One of the great "lies" in all of literature is William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies. For those unfamiliar with it, and I can hardly believe there are many over the age of about 35, it's the story of a group of British school boys who find themselves castaways, without adults, on a tropical island. Their efforts to form a society, however, fall apart as they succumb to their essential evil natures becoming brutish murderers, saved when adults in the form of the British navy arrive, drawn by the smoke from a fire the boys have set that is consuming the island.


I'm not saying it isn't a good book, but rather that it takes an exceedingly grim view of human nature, one based in the ideas of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who argued that without strong control from government, religion, and other social institutions, life among humans is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." 


I mention this book because it is quite regularly brought up to me by those who have objections to the child-centered, play-based approach advocated on these pages. There is a strain of thought that what we do leads to a sort of law-of-the-jungle free-for-all that will ultimately end in tears, chaos, and worse.


This, of course, is the opposite of the truth that I have found in the world, and is why I call it a lie.


Not long ago, inspired by a couple of our classmates who brought their new skateboards for show-and-tell, we broke out our classroom "scooters." There were ten wheeled vehicles for 20+ kids. In the first few moments there was a mad, competitive scramble, with a few children complaining loudly, "I want a turn!" Conditioned by a world that tends to buy into Hobbes whether we like it or not, we adults girded ourselves to manage the negotiations, assuming they would need our strong control.


Of course, as anyone knows who works with young children the way we do, that's not what happened.  After an initial flurry of back-and-forth amongst the kids, some of it angry, some of it sad, they settled into their play. 


Despite racing about at high speeds in randomly chosen directions, there were few accidental collisions, as the children instinctively knew when to brake and how to steer in order to avoid harming one another. This isn't to say there weren't collisions, but those were most often encountered by mutual consent, one that was typically forged by making eye contact, smiling, and then slowing down to create a controlled contact. A few felt it necessary to fortify this agreement by announcing, "I'm going to crash you!" just to make sure everyone was on the same page. Indeed, the children, even while speeding across the floor, were in constant communication, talking, scolding, warning, objecting, listening, and agreeing.


After a time, rather than breaking up into "civil war" as Golding and Hobbes would predict, the opposite happened. The longer they played the more they joined together cooperatively, creating games of catch, and trains of kids on wheels, each grabbing hold of the one in front, laughing until their cheeks were red.


After our initial forays into adult control that generally only made things worse, we found ourselves stepping back, sitting off to the sides, joining the games when invited, but otherwise observing that the law-of-the-jungle, at least our jungle, is actually one from which a great society could be built. I'm not saying there weren't conflicts and tears along the way, but instead of steps toward a burning island in need of rescue, those moments were part of a general movement of the children in the contrary direction, toward one another rather than away; they were instinctively exploring a path toward a cooperative existence, the way human nature tends when the "adults" seek to support rather than control.


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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Talking About A Pretend Real Bad Guy Trap




There was a "bad guy trap" being built on the corner of the rug. The builder commanded, "Teacher Tom, watch me!" so I watched him. I said, "I'm watching you."

He explained how the trap worked which involved the bad guy following a complicated, yet deviously enticing, obstacle course, which ultimately brought him to a room in which saws cut him in half.

I said, "That's would be a bad thing for a bad guy."

He answered, "Yes."

I was lying on my stomach, the box of plastic farm animals at my shoulder. There was a rather fierce looking bull right on top so I grabbed it, saying, "This bull is also watching you," positioning it appropriately.

"I'll show you." He picked up a small cow figurine and walked it through the obstacle course right through being sawed in half.

I said, "That must have hurt the cow."

He answered, "Yes."

I shook my head, "I don't like to get hurt."

There was a long pause as we both sat with our thoughts. Then he perked up, "But bad guys like to get hurt!"

"Oh! So they like it when they're cut in half?"

He answered, "Yes."

"Well then I guess that's not so bad, although I don't really like the idea of anyone getting cut in half."

He answered, "It's not a person, it's a cow."

Bam! He had me. I said, "Yeah, I guess you're right, cows have to get cut in half if we're going to eat hamburgers."

He answered, "Yes." Then, "And they're bad guy cows, so they like to get ate."

I took a model sheep from the farm animal box. I said, "This sheep is also watching you," placing it beside the bull.

"Teacher Tom," he said, "But we can't play yet because my bad guy trap isn't finished."

I told him that we (referring to both the plastic farm animals as well as the small clutch of kids who had become interested bystanders to our conversation) would have to wait until the trap was finished, adding, "And now this pig is watching you," as I put it alongside the other animals. He answered, "Yes."

As we waited, the other children began adding farm animals. By the time he declared the trap finished, we had recruited a formidable line-up of livestock to watch him.

He said, "Watch me, Teacher Tom!"

I said, "We are all watching you," gesturing toward both the animals and the gathered children.

He then showed us how the bad guy trap worked, a more elaborate version of the original, still ending in a room full of saws.

I said, "I sure hope there aren't any bad guys around here because if there are that trap would sure hurt them!"

He answered, "Yes."

I said, "We're good guys. Everybody here's a good guy, right?" There was general agreement that all present fell into the more virtuous camp. "Good thing there aren't any bad guys around," another comment that was greeted with general consent.

Then our trap builder said, "But there are real bad guys! Like zombies and ghosts."

I said, "Zombies and ghosts aren't real."

He said, "Yes," adding for clarification, "but they're pretend real."

The expression delighted me, so I repeated it, "Pretend real!" Several of the other children then echoed me, "Pretend real!"  I said, "The animals are pretend real watching you."

"But you're real real watching me, right?" When I answered yes, he replied, "Then watch what happens when this pretend real bad guy cow goes in my pretend real bad guy trap."

I said, "We're all watching," to which he replied, "Yes."


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