Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Occupying Their Brains With Our Stupid Questions

They say there's no such thing as a stupid question, but I beg to differ. We hear stupid questions almost every time adults and young children are together. 

For instance, a child is painting at an easel, exploring color, shape, and motion, experimenting with brushes, paper, and paint. There is an adult watching over her shoulder who points and asks, "What color is that?"

This is a stupid question. 

Here's another example: a child is playing with marbles, exploring gravity, motion and momentum. An adult picks up a handful of marbles and asks, "How many marbles do I have?"

The adult already knows the answer. The child probably does as well, in which case, the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies in order to reply to a banality. Or she doesn't know the answer, in which case the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies to play a guessing game.

In a moment, these stupid questions take a child who is engaged in testing her world, which is her proper role, and turns her into a test taker, forced to answer other people's questions rather than pursue the answers to her own.

If it's important that the child know these specific colors and numbers at this specific moment, and it probably isn't, then we should do the reasonable thing and simply tell her,"That's red," or "I have three marbles." If it's not new information, and it probably isn't, she's free to ignore you as she goes about her business of learning. If she didn't know, now she does, in context, as she goes about her business of learning.

This is probably the greatest offense we commit against children in our current educational climate of testing, testing, and more testing. We yank children away from their proper role as self-motivated scientists, testing their world by asking and answering their own questions, and instead force them to become test takers, occupying their brains with our stupid questions.

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Monday, March 19, 2018

"Always Be Closing"

Last week, a parent began to ask me, "Can you use . . ." and I answered "Yes" before she had finished. In this case it turned out to be a box full of a dozen retired office phones and some computer keyboards, junk that has been sitting in a garage or storeroom or cellar for weeks or months or years. We run our school on garbage like this, accepting it to finish using before it is finally swept up in the endless flow of waste headed toward the landfill or recycling center or toxic waste dump.

I arranged the phones around our red table and the keyboards on the blue table before the kids arrived, knowing that despite a roomful of blocks, stuffed animals, and other toys, that they would make a beeline for them the moment they entered the room. And sure enough, that's where the kids collected as they arrived, knowing without being told to lift the receivers to their ears and begin mashing buttons. Few of them have these sorts of phones at their homes, the kind with coiled cords connecting them to a console, yet they have somehow absorbed enough information about the recent past to know that these large, awkward, desk-bound things are telephones.

As they stood around the table, pretending to phone one another, we adults joked that we were getting them ready for their future jobs working in call centers, evoking the famous line from the play Glengarry Glen Ross, "Always be closing." The kids took to the keyboards in the same way, often shushing us adults when we tried to play along with a curt, "I'm working on my computer right now." We joked, but the truth was that these kids, as kids always do, really were preparing themselves for their futures, not necessarily as high pressure salespeople, but as grown-ups in a world of technology.

Children have always been attracted to "real things" over toys. If I put a toy lawnmower side-by-side with a real one, most children, most of the time, will opt for the real one. We used to have small brooms around the classroom for the kids, but they used those as light sabers or ponies or baseball bats. When it came to actually sweeping up, they always wanted the "real," adult-sized brooms. Same goes for hand tools or kitchen utensils or anything else in a child's world: they are attracted to the real stuff because they are, invariably, driven to prepare themselves for the future they see for themselves: a real world full of real stuff and not the multi-colored plastic replicas we so often foist upon them.

When you make a study of children's play, their self-selected activities, one can almost always understand it in the context of preparing for the real world they see before them, practicing skills or behaviors or habits that they perceive they need in the world. Often, the connection is obvious, like with these retired telephones, but sometimes, especially when their play behavior is confusing or upsetting, it's less obvious, but it's there. When I find myself stumped as to the cause of problematic behavior, I often ask myself, For what part of the future is this child preparing? and my answer is often as much a revelation about our adult society as it is an insight into the behavior of children.

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Friday, March 16, 2018

Looking Forward To Our Days

When I tell myself the truth, I can't fail to recognize that part of the vision for childhood that I lay out on these pages stems from the vision for the life I seek for myself: one in which I rise in the morning looking forward to the day. That's what I want for the kids I teach. A life of anticipation beats a life of dread any day. 

I've grown enormously these past couple decades as I've tried to become proficient at serving as an important adult in a child's life, in my case in my role as their teacher. But one thing that has never changed is that I've always, from my very first day, tried to make our school a place where children want to come. I've not always been successful, not with every child, but by and large, from what I'm told, the kids wake up on school days anticipating the day ahead, which is to say, their lives.

I'm proud of that even if it's a dream destined to be revealed as, at best, temporary and full of compromise, and at worst, a complete fraud. That's okay because I prefer to live out of my good intentions, however naive, than my worst fears. I think I owe it to children to try, at least for a few years, at least for a few hours, to give them that gift, the experience of knowing that their time with me is going to be a good part of their day, at least most of the time, not as a product of mere optimism, but rather as a conclusion they draw themselves from the preponderance of evidence.

Of course, I don't always wake up looking forward to the day. My seasonal allergies are at their peak right now, for instance. I've been living for a week with swollen sinuses, sneezing and snot. If I've been able to sleep at all, I haven't been rising with anticipation as much as a determination to, nevertheless, get up and make a place where children want to come. I'm not promising a place where bad things don't happen, because only a god can do that, but I am, every day, trying to keep the promise to set the crap in my life aside in order to pay loving attention to what the children are doing and help them when they need it. And so in that sense, even on my bad days, I can still awake in a kind of anticipation, if only because I know I'll be temporarily forgetting my toils as I live in the moment with the kids, the gift I receive in return for my own.

As the children get older, it will in large measure be up to them to create the life to which they awake, but for these few short years, for the short hours they are with me, I try to do what I can, everyday, even on my worst days, to help them. And for me, I get to wake up knowing that whatever else is going on, I'll spend those same hours in a place and with people who arrive looking forward to their day, which is in many ways my dream for myself come true.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Making Transitions

Most kids I've known, most days, are eager to come to school, but some kids drag their feet every day and all of them have mornings when they would rather not. I get it and I don't take it personally. After all, I love my job, but I'm not always a happy camper about getting dressed and getting out the door either.

It's typically not about school, but rather about the transition. We've all known kids who struggle with transitions and it isn't really something we necessarily outgrow. I mean, that's what Monday mornings are all about, right? Or returning from vacations. On the final night of this most recent mid-winter holiday break, I found myself wishing for just one more day and I have the best job in the world.

Children have their adults to push back against and they do. They don't want to transition from the playground to go back home, they don't want to leave home to go to school, and nearly every day I hear kids whining at their parents that they don't want to leave school, even as their mother's are telling them that their next stop is the playground. As adults, there is typically no one but ourselves to push back against, so we play games like hitting the snooze alarm, but ultimately it's our sense of responsibility rather than another person's scolding that gets us out of bed.

We all want our kids to be the sort who jump out of bed, dress themselves, make short work of breakfast and are waiting at the door in plenty of time, but it's not in human nature to be eager to stop having fun in order to have fun. Indeed, one could argue that a strong resistance to transitions is part and parcel with feeling contented with how things are right now, which is a state of enlightenment. For instance, I love when I tell the kids that I'm thinking of banging the drum (our signal for clean up time) and they call out for "five more minutes!" It means they are fully engaged. By the same token, I often feel like a bit of a failure when a kid prompts me, "Can you bang the drum now?"

Life is a series of transitions. Rarely are we in a position to let it just flow from one thing to the next, so all of us, whatever our natural temperament regarding transitions, learns our own way to handle them. And young children, more often than not, start by targeting the obvious "villain," which is the adult who is telling her she must move on, which then turns into a power struggle that leaves no one feeling happy. If our goal is to give our kids the opportunity to develop their own sense of responsibility about life's necessary transitions, then it's important that we work to take the focus away from "mean mommy" ("Because I said so!") and onto the schedule itself and our own responsibilities and feelings about that schedule:

"It's time to go."

"I wish we didn't have to go either."

"Our friends are counting on us."

"I don't want to be late."

Many parents find it useful to, in non-transitional moments, talk to their children in advance about the transitions they can expect in the coming hours, days or even weeks, depending on their age, and then regularly remind them of the full schedule, including the unscheduled parts, throughout the day. All of us tend to do better when we know what to expect because it gives us the opportunity to prepare ourselves and develop our own philosophical approach to moving on from one thing to the next. Perhaps most importantly it allows children to begin to see that it's not mommy or daddy, but rather the schedule that makes the transition necessary.

And until we have the revolution, that's the way it's going to be. In the meantime, we learn our schedules, acknowledge our emotions, and hit the snooze alarm until our sense of responsibility gets us out of bed.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Toy That Fell From The Sky

There have been a couple of windstorms around here lately. Yesterday we discovered a fairly good sized branch that had broken away from what I think is a hemlock hanging precariously over the playground, it's jagged end pointing directly downward, like, the kids said, "a spear."

It was going to come all the way down at some point, probably the next windy day, so the adults decided we should see if we could make it come down on our schedule. One of our fathers balanced atop the fence and used a long-handled shovel to wrangle it loose and down it came, not with a thud, but with a dramatic rustle of fir needles. The kids were instantly around it, in it, and on it.

There was chatter about making it a "bird nest" or a "fort." Then they discovered the thousands of tiny cones still attached to the ends of the many branches. Eventually, together, they came around to the idea of moving it and, after some discussion, decided on the bottom level of our sandpit, near our row boat.

"We need more kids! We need more kids" they shouted, turning it into a kind of a chant. The team assembled, but struggled to get everyone working together. Some pulled, while others pushed; some quit, while others were just getting started; some stood on it, while others got under it. In that way it was a bit like any new, leaderless community project, everyone involved bringing their ideas, expertise, and abilities to the table in a willy-nilly fashion.

On Monday, I had cut off a dozen or so new lengths of rope. At some point, someone said, "We need to use ropes" and the kids scattered to round up what they could find. Some of them managed to tie their ropes to the branch on their own, while I offered my services for those who haven't yet mastered the skill. In all honesty, it wasn't the most practical of ideas. In my judgement, they would have had better luck attempting to lift and carrying it, but it was a unifying idea, with each child grabbing the end of a rope and pulling. The dragging was slow, difficult work, their path impeded by a variety of obstacles, but at least they were going downhill.

At some point it became clear to me that they weren't going to wind up in the sandpit and, unnecessarily and intrusively, I mentioned it. Thankfully, they ignored me as they managed to squeeze the branch through the narrow gap between the garden planting beds and the tables and chairs in our outdoor art area. They got stuck on the unicycle merry-go-round and got unstuck with a little bit of help from me. By the time they arrived at the workbench, they were done, all of them. Someone said, "Let's leave it here," which was agreed upon by the wordless consensus of everyone dropping their ropes.

There are still a couple of old Christmas trees around the place and those were soon added to what was being alternatively referred to as a "fort," a "nest," and "our house." As the children played in, around and under the pile of trunks and branches, I was taken back to my own childhood when we would play among the refuse of our neighbors' major pruning jobs. They would pile the limbs along the curbside where they often sat for weeks waiting for the city to haul them away and we, the neighborhood children, would play there in our fort or nest or house. I recall sometimes imagining that this must be what it was like to be a squirrel or a robin, living amongst the branches, a world into which I'd been magically transported.

I don't know if we'll be able to keep our new branch in that spot for more than a day or two, but I have no doubt that it will be with us for some time, becoming part of our story, a versatile, new playground toy that fell from the sky.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

To Wonder About Giants

Years ago, our family took a vacation to Palm Springs with a group of other families, all of whom had children about the same age. We were in a big resort with a number of swimming pools and tennis courts, we had bikes and scooters, and everyone brought a few board games. The idea was that the adults would rotate keeping an eye on the kids, creating lots of room for everyone else to enjoy more adult recreations. I played a round of golf, but my main "me time" motivation was to hike in the desert. I love few things more than awaking in the dark in order to get a cup of coffee and bit of breakfast in me in time to hit the desert in the cool morning, just as the sun begins to peek over the mountains. One morning I awoke extra early and drove over to the Joshua Tree National Park.

I'm not going to try to describe this special place to you, but hiking among the Seuss-ian trees and unlikely rock formations opened me up to the universe, calming and exciting me in equal measure, taking my thoughts away from the petty concerns of day-to-day life. When I returned to our group, I persuaded them that they must return with me on the following day. The children were not exactly thrilled with this idea, especially my own daughter Josephine, then about six-years-old, who simply could not understand why she should be expected to leave her Spring Break paradise for "a desert." As we drove through the park looking for a place for our group picnic, she griped, "What's so great about this place?" Then sarcastically, "Oh look, there's a tree. And another tree. And a rock. And a rock . . ."

People often praise me for my patience, but this was one of those times when I was approaching the end of it. The kids piled out of the cars shouting, complaining, and fighting, our late-ish start meaning we'd arrived as the heat was mounting. No one was anywhere near reveling in the mystical wonder of it all. We found a patch of shade with picnic tables and while the others began to set things up, I took my girl by the hand, a little testy, and said, "Let's go for a walk." We followed a barely there trail around the corner of the abrupt rock formation against which they'd built the parking lot and suddenly we were alone in this magnificent place. 

We walked in silence for a time. Tension ebbed away as we became two people, both now alone with the person with whom we had spent most of our waking hours during the past six years. When Josephine finally spoke, she asked as if continuing a conversation, "Do you ever think that maybe we're just tiny specks?"

I said I had thought about that.

"Maybe there are giants and we're so small they can't even see us."

I told her about the Bowl of Soup Theory: the idea that our entire universe is just an atom at the bottom of a bowl of soup in another, larger, universe.

"Maybe the giants will eat us." She wasn't bothered by this idea. In fact, she smiled as she said it, the way one does at a bright idea.

I said that our whole universe might be born, live, and die long before the giant even came close to getting to the bottom of his bowl, let alone getting it into his mouth.

She thought about this and nodded. We walked some more in silence. We had been following the base of the rock formation along a track that was leading us back around toward our friends. I've always enjoyed what I call, "scrambling," which is to sort of clamber up and down rocks. I jumped on top a boulder, bounded to a larger one, then stair stepped down the other side. Josephine had never been a climber, but she followed me and we scrambled our way back to our friends.

My formal study of philosophy is limited: most of what I know of it comes from what I've gleaned through secondary sources like novels and biographies. This does not mean that my philosophy is not profoundly meaningful to my own life: it is, just as yours is to you, and just as our children's is to them. Don't doubt that children have a philosophical life just because they're little. Indeed, most early learning is of the philosophical sort: we have experiences and we try to make sense of them, attempting to fit them together in a reasonable and systemic way, to create and test theories about the big questions.

When my brother-in-law died two-year-old Josephine asked, "What happens when people die?"

I told her that some people believe in heaven, then sketched it out a little for her.

She said, "Uncle Chris is in heaven drinking coffee, playing his guitar and bouncing a basketball . . . And getting it ready for us."

A couple years later she announced from her car seat over my right shoulder, "I don't believe in heaven any more."

I said that some people don't.

"I think you come back alive as your favorite animal. I'm going to be a bunny, because that's my favorite animal."

It's tempting to answer children's philosophical questions with certainty, to let them know it's all taken care of, when that's by no means the case. We have the same open questions we've always had about the nature of existence, of reality, of logic, of values and morality, of war and peace and life and death. Oh sure, some of us have it figured out, and I don't mean that sarcastically. I know many people who are quite certain about their own philosophies, and I don't for a moment doubt them, even when I think they're wrong. One could even argue that all of us are, at any given moment, certain about our philosophies. They may not be satisfying philosophies, ones that are wrecking our lives even, but it hardly seems that we can behave in any way that does not jibe one-hundred percent with our core beliefs. That they may not jibe with our purported or aspired to beliefs is another matter. Changing one's most deeply held beliefs, ones we've been forming since before emerging from the womb, is often a gargantuan task, one that is only possible in the context of philosophical investigation. 

The children of Woodland Park spend their days playing, and it's important that our playground be a world in which we are all free to engage in philosophical investigation. This is why we sometimes have long, hand-raising discussions on the subjects like the Easter Bunny or the Sugar Fairy. This is why we talk about the dead things we find or the animals we accidentally kill, which is the occasional fate of the worms in our compost or lady bugs in the garden. This is why we spend so much time talking about our rules, our agreements about how we as individuals will live together. This is why we wonder aloud about unanswerable questions, like "What is play?" 

I know that many of the readers here are folks who have very firmly held religious, political, and social beliefs. Those are our beliefs, ones we hold based upon our own philosophical investigations. But no matter what I believe, one thing I cannot do is tell you what to believe. I can share my own beliefs with you. I may be able to make you behave the way I want you to behave, but I'll never get another person to believe what I want them to believe, even if that person is a child. Our beliefs only arise from our own, uniquely conducted philosophical investigations. 

I want the children who come to Woodland Park to know they have the scope and space to engage on their own and with each other in these philosophical investigations, to explore the meaning of existence without the fear of being wrong, or the judgement of others, to take a hike amongst the Joshua trees and wonder about giants in the universe:

Studying philosophy cultivates doubt without helplessness, and confidence without hubris. I've watched kids evolve to be more rational, skeptical and open-minded, and I've seen them interact in more fair-minded and collaborative ways. As one 10-year-old said, "I've started to actually solve arguments and problems with philosophy. And it works better than violence or anything else."

When Josephine and I got back to our friends, they joined us in our scrambles. As we re-rounded the corner, putting the rock formation between us and the rest of the world, the children began to discuss the Bowl of Soup theory.

"If there were giants, we would see them."

"Maybe they're so big that we fit between their atoms."

"If they eat us, we would get digested, then pooped out."

"Maybe that's where these rocks came from."

"Maybe we're inside of poop right now!"

It was a raucous, free-form conversation that bounced from the sublime to the ridiculous the way all the good conversations do.

People tend to assume that adults, by virtue of our longer time on the planet, have an inside track on this sort of wisdom, but I'm here to tell you that this simply isn't true. I've found that we are all, always, equals when it comes to our philosophical investigations. In fact, one of the greatest truths of all was made clear to me in my own three-year-old's musings.

We were in the car and she was griping about something.

I lazily replied, "You know, Josephine, nothing is perfect."

She rode in silence for sometime before saying, as much to herself as to me, "Nothing is perfect . . . except everything." It doesn't get deeper than that.

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Wants, Interests, And Needs

I spent ten years reading almost exclusively Dickens and Eliot and Bronte and Hardy. I consider Austen to be the greatest of them all; some say that Emma was the first truely Victorian novel. I find Trollope to be a bit thin and Stevenson to be underrated. I'll bet that I know more about these novels than any preschooler alive.

It's a boast that won't impress anyone, of course, because even the few preschoolers who are already reading are certainly not reading 150-year-old English fiction. In the same fashion, the typical American preschooler is far more expert than I on the works of Disney (at least since 1970). The same goes for things like Minecraft and Star Wars. Every human alive, including all the children, have areas of expertise in which their knowledge surpasses my own.

Of course, many, maybe even most, adults would assert that knowledge of the Victorian novel is of a superior sort, but they're not only wrong, they're missing the point. No one made me read those novels, I read them because I wanted to read them, because I was interested, because it was knowledge that I felt I needed (albeit for reasons I'm still not able to fully explain). Likewise, as a boy I was variously absorbed with baseball cards, Batman, and the Hardy Boys, none of which were considered "serious" pursuits, yet I made myself an expert nevertheless. Looking back from my perch as a middle aged man, I can see that those baseball cards were an important part of my lifelong fascination with statistics, Batman influenced my sense of humor, and the Hardy Boys inspired me in my quest to be an independent young man. When those Victorian novels were being written, many very serious critics considered them a complete waste of time, at best, while some labeled them a dangerous influence on young minds, much in the way that Disney, Minecraft, and Star Wars are critiqued today. Perhaps history will prove the critics right, but then again, any one or all of those subject areas may become the Victorian novel of our grandchildren's grandchildren's generation. In other words, we'll never know and to pretend to know is hubris.

When it comes to modern early years education there is a kind of unofficial hierarchy of knowledge at work, with mathematics and literacy at the top. Subjects like science, history, literature, and the humanities fill out the second tier, with physical education and the arts (dance and theater in particular) occupying the basement. Yes, there are schools that emphasize things differently, but the point is that Disney isn't on there at all, nor is popular music or baseball cards or Batman. Instead, we have prepackaged knowledge capsules of "learning objectives" for the kids to swallow. For many it's a bitter medicine, one they would rather hide under their tongues to be spit out the moment they are no longer under adult supervision. That's the way it usually is with "knowledge" for which we have neither want nor interest nor need. Oh sure, hard working teachers do their best to smooth that over by striving to persuade their proteges, and sometimes it works and the children come to embrace the adult approved want, interest, or need, but more often than not it's a struggle for everyone.

It's should be obvious to everyone that education would be a lot easier if we simply let the children pursue their own interests. Then there would be no need for "teaching" at all, at least when it came to the acquisition of specific bits of knowledge like the Victorian novel or Star Wars, because everyone would be self-motivated, and nothing beats self-motivation. The main role of the "teacher" would then be to merely keep up with the kids and help them find the information or tools they need. I suppose it would also be nice if that teacher could play the role of coach, confidant, and cheerleader as well.

So what of the math and literacy? Would kids grow up ignorant of those things? Would any of them ever read a Victorian novel? What kind of jobs will they get with their encyclopedic knowledge of, say, Beyonce, and little else? Good questions, all. I'll try to address them in order.

As things are now, math and literacy are treated as core subjects, yet in real life, for most of us, calculating and reading never stand at the center of our endeavors, but exist rather as tools that allow us to pursue those things for which we have want, interest, or need. My own experience with baseball cards is a case in point: I spent hundreds of hours ranking, ordering, and grouping my cards based on the lines and lines of statistics on the back. I came to an understanding of fractions and averages and percentages long before I came across them in a text book. But it was never about math. It was about baseball. The math was just a tool I used to pursue something for which I had want, interest, and need.

Reading works the same way. I didn't read all of the Hardy Boys mysteries because I was working on reading skills, it was because I was acutely interested in these two brothers, my elders, but still boys, who were free to roam the world, having adventures without some grown up telling them what they need to know and by when they need to know it. The only reason we believe that most humans must be "taught" to read (or do math or understand basic science) is that we've been using school to "teach" them to read for generations. It's a habit. Believe it or not, people learned to read long before we started teaching it in schools. The advent of the ability to mass produce printed material is what really boosted modern literacy. It was the internet of its day, full of information, ideas, and entertainment for which people had wants, interests, and needs. People were highly motivated to figure it out and so they did. In today's terms we would say that reading went viral. By the beginning of the American Revolution in 1776, literacy rates were about what they are today (even a bit higher) and they've pretty much stayed there ever since, whether we were teaching it in schools or not. Reading is just a tool we use to pursue something for which we have want, interest, or need and most of us learn it because of that.

So no, I don't think kids would grow up ignorant of math or literacy or science or history. Indeed, I expect they would grow up to view these things as useful tools rather than study chores, because they would have learned to use them in the context of something for which they had want, interest, or need.

As for the second question, most of them probably never would read a Victorian novel, but that's really no different than things are now. Sure, many of us have been forced to read one or two, but most of us will never in our lifetime voluntarily read another. This is true of much of what we "learn" in school because humans typically don't respond well to being told what to learn because, to capsulize the eternal complaint of the sixth grader, most of it is "irrelevant." Most of it is stuff for which we have no want, interest, or need so we forget it as quickly as we can, freeing our brains for more important stuff.

And to reply to the third question about how being an expert on Beyonce (or Disney or baseball card stats) helps you "get a job," my response is it that it might. Maybe the skills we acquire researching our pop idols will serve us economically. It's far less likely that the historical dates we were compelled to memorize will help fill the coffers. Maybe the knowledge we gain about how the entertainment business works will give us a leg up. Maybe our fan participation in Beyonce's social media marketing outreach will allow us to understand how marketing works. All of which might be useful when it comes to earning a greasy buck, but for me that's kind of beside the point. If the primary purpose of education is to train future employees, then I say let's give the whole project up and let the corporations train their own damn workers.

I hope we all, first and foremost, want our children to be educated in the art of self-governance, and while part of that may be vocational learning, that is far from the primary goal. That is the promise and demand of democracy. And there is nothing more fundamental than the freedom to pursue one's own wants, interests, and needs because that's how we find our own place amongst our fellow self-governing citizens. That is the pursuit of happiness and it runs through our own unique wants, interests, and needs.

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

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