Tuesday, July 28, 2015

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 crime 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, July 27, 2015

Thank You TV!


"Everybody Loves Raymond" promo shot of Doris Roberts, Peter Boyle, Patricia Heaton, Ray Romano, Brad Garrett, Madylin Sweeten, Sawyer Sweeten & Sullivan Sweeten


I'm convinced that television is, on balance, a negative thing for young children and, to the degree it has become our national hobby, I bemoan it's mind-numbing, fear-mongering, couch-potato influence on adults as well. I haven't owned a TV for the past five years and the only time I miss it is when there are sporting events I'm eager to view or when something historic is happening. But as for regular programming . . . Well, there was Mister Rogers Neighborhood, perhaps the greatest single argument in favor of serial television, and we would all be poorer, I think, without Mythbusters, Bill Nye the Science Guy, or Cosmos. And then there are those magnificent comedies like M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Everybody Loves Raymond . . . 

Everybody Love Raymond? Okay, so it really doesn't belong on any list, but it was while watching this program that I had one of the most significant parenting epiphanies of my life. I was in Santa Monica, staying in a hotel while working with the good people at Kid's In The House (if you're interested in viewing all of the videos I made, click here) to shoot a series of "parenting tips" videos. Since I don't have a television at home, one of the "treats" of staying in a hotel, alone, is to imbibe in the narcotizing effects of the medium by unwinding with some mindless programming before dozing off. I was not surprised, of course, to discover that there were a 150 channels and nothing on, so I settled on sitcoms.

This particular episode (season 7, episode 15, The Disciplinarian) was about disciplining the children with punishment and as the twin boys sat out a particularly irrational one, the adults debated. As they did, they each, one-by-one, wound up confessing their own youthful indiscretions, carried out despite punishments or the threat of them. In fact, they realized, that the main things punishment had taught them was how to be sneaky in order to avoid or get around them. In the penultimate scene, Raymond says to his boys, "We know that you're going to get older and you're going to do things and we know that there's nothing we can do about it."

There were some jokes and schmaltz after that, but that confession, on a stupid sitcom, was so full of truth that it blew my mind. When Raymond's wife Debra sighs in the final wrap-up scene, "All we can do is love them and set a good example," I realized that my life as a parent had changed forever.

Ultimately, no one can control the behavior of another person. No one has ever stopped another person from doing something they really want to do short of putting them in a cage. Our children are going to rip off their tops at Mardi Gras and sneak peppermint schnapps from the liquor cabinet, and even if we stop them today or tomorrow, there will come a day when we turn our backs or they get too sneaky for us, and that day will always be sooner than we want. We might stop them today or tomorrow, but if a person, even a child, really wants to do something, they will.

I'd rather my child be honest with me, to know that we can discuss anything without histrionics, lectures, or reproach. And the way to do that is to be honest with her and to fortify her my best advice. I won't get that opportunity if I've forced her to be sneaky.

Other than that, all we can do is love them, and strive to set a good example. And we keep doing that no matter what.

Thank you TV!


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Friday, July 24, 2015

I Still Have A Lot To Learn




I teach at a school just north of downtown Seattle and our student population is primarily drawn from the surrounding neighborhoods, which are largely comprised of middle class people of northern European heritage, although there is a sizable population of people of Asian ancestry living here as well. I don't think about race a lot in my day-to-day life and that's because I'm a white male and have that luxury.

I've taken part in several #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations and protests over the past couple years, where I become immersed in the subject of race, where I try to shut up and listen, and where I become filled with the sadness and anger that are the natural human response to injustice, both overt and institutional. Then I get to go home and not think about it.

As a third grader in Columbia, South Carolina, I was bussed to a school in a black neighborhood as part of court ordered school desegregation. Most of the kids from my white suburban neighborhood were enrolled in private schools as a response to bussing, so when I arrived at Atlas Road Elementary School, I found myself a member of a racial minority, and had experiences that I imagine are somewhat similar to those experienced by every racial minority. Then I went home and returned to my unconscious life as a white boy in a world in which being white is considered the norm.

Scientifically speaking, race is not a real thing, but racism is. I am aware of my own prejudices, those knee-jerk assumptions I make about people I don't know based upon superficialities like skin color. I wish that I could always be color blind, but I live in a society that is obsessed with race, and I've spent my life marinating in it. As much as I intellectually object to racism, I know that I am, at least in part, a product of my surroundings. I don't think I continue to harbor those prejudices once I get to know a person, because then I have deeper, more concrete things upon which to hang my judgements, but until I do, I strive to guard against allowing my pre-judgements to slip into my behavior.

Of course, I make a fool of myself sometimes in my white liberal guilt, dancing around the subject of race, pretending it's just not an issue for me.

     Me: "You need to talk to that guy over there, the tall one with the earring and mustache standing beside the counter."

     The person I'm talking to: "You mean the black guy?"

     Me: (pretending I just noticed the only black guy in the room): "Yes, I guess so."

It makes me cringe to write it down, but I do this kind of thing all the time, just as I often find myself being overly friendly or solicitous when first meeting a black person. I so want them to know that I'm not one of the bad guys that I don't act like myself, which is an act of racism all by itself. I know this about myself and I'm working on it.

I don't think I'm self-deluded when I tell you that I believe I am truly color-blind when it comes of people of other racial groups, such as Hispanic or Asian or Arabic. Of course, I could be wrong -- there may be a whole new epiphany awaiting me in the future -- but my struggle right now is in overcoming my knee-jerk prejudices about my fellow African-American citizens. I am ashamed to admit it, and even if I am a product of my culture, that's not an excuse: it's on me, it's my responsibility.

I'm also ashamed that our nation is, in 2015, debating the Confederate flag, racial profiling, and the institutional racism that leads to black Americans being grossly over-represented in our prisons, unemployment lines, and soup kitchens. And that's also my responsibility.

My role in this is to listen and reflect, and as ashamed as I am, I am also grateful for our national conversation about race, one that I have too often danced around in my white, male liberal privilege. This doesn't mean I'm ashamed of being a white male, it just means that I know I still have a lot to learn. And learning this will make me a better teacher by making me a better representative of the human species.




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Thursday, July 23, 2015

This Is Progressive Education



The single greatest influence on me as a teacher was my own daughter's preschool teacher and North Seattle College parent educator Chris David. No matter how many books I read or classes I took, I learned most of what I started out knowing by working as a parent-teacher apprenticing in her 3-5's class for two years. Our daily schedule, our songs, our stations, our over-arching philosophical approach to working with young children are all rooted in what I learned from Chris. For my first year or so as a teacher, I spent a lot of time consciously trying to be her. I found myself constantly searching my mental files for not only the exact words I thought Chris might say or thing she might do, but even trying to reflect her body language, her cadence, and her vocal tone.


Over time, of course, while I believe I've remained true to the core principles I learned from Chris, my teaching style has become my own to the point that I doubt there are many people who would observe the two of us and find similarities beyond the superficial ones of schedule, songs and stations. And that's how it ought to work, of course, Chris and I are different people. It is only natural to expect that we would form different kinds of relationships with the people in our lives. Yet we are both progressive educators.

The biggest challenge in communicating about how progressive education works, I think, is that it really can only be discussed and understood "in context." When guys like Bill Gates (who is the poster boy for a cookie cutter model of education) promote their versions of education, it's a much easier task because it's a one-size-fits-all theory with a pot of gold (in the form of a "job") as a reward. And like all "beautiful" theories (e.g., Marxism, libertarianism, neo-liberalism) it may be made to work in a small scale, well-funded, incubator-like setting, but it will always fall apart when tried out in the context of actual humans behaving like actual messy, wonderful, diverse human beings, and not the theory's concept of how human beings ought to behave.

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. ~Internet proverb*

Progressive education, by it's very nature, means different things to different people. To me, it starts with relationships among the people involved: the kids, the teachers, and the parents. Alfie Kohn writes, "Progressive education is marinated in community," and that has been my guiding principle since before I'd heard of Kohn, or indeed, ever really thought about progressive education. The factory approach to education that has been largely in vogue since the Industrial Revolution relies heavily on a hierarchical model of a boss-teacher to fill all those empty vessels with the information deemed important by those higher up the chain of command, which more often than not meant the guys who own the "factories" in which these kids were presumed destined to be employed. Up until this point in Western society, education had been a much more free-form, community-based (what we today might call "progressive") endeavor, but people educated in this way simply don't do so well in the mind-numbing repetitious factory jobs industrialists were creating. So even more important than the information they sought to pour into those kids, they shaped schools to reflect what they saw as the "realities" of the modern workplace, making it more about things and specific skills, and less about people and their relationships.


As it turns out, most of us don't spend our lives working in factories, but this rather radical (in the context of history) educational model has stuck with us, serving businessmen, but not necessarily children or our wider community. 

They tell us that public education is in crisis, a gross "Shock Doctrine" exaggeration, but even if it were true, the solution would not be to double down on the factory model, making school more competitive, more standardized, more hierarchical, which is what the Gates-lead reform movement seems to be all about. But, of course, what can we expect from these guys? As reader once pointed out: "Microsoft is just a couple of geniuses and a whole lot of worker bees." In this new age of technology, they still need all the "trained" cubicle drones they can get.

As I see it, we need to return to the traditional models of placing relationships at the center of education which had far more in common with progressive education than not.

When I look at progressive schools, no two are alike. We are Reggio Emilia and Montessori and Waldorf and forest and outdoor and alternative and free and cooperative and every permutation and mixture imaginable. My own school, Woodland Park, is even different from year to year, depending on the relationships that form between the children, the parents, and with me. As a teacher, I play to my strengths, as we all should. I learn from other teachers and other programs, of course, but ultimately there is no "progressive template," no one-size-fits-all. Progressive education is not an off the rack endeavor, but rather a community sewing bee in which everything is custom made. And there are no bosses, only relationships between people, who have equal rights and responsibilities even if some of them are "just kids."


That's the context in which progressive educators teach. When I write about putting children in charge of their own education, I'm writing about the struggle all of us have to "forget" our industrial education backgrounds and treat children not as underlings, but as fully-formed people; not as incomplete adults, but rather equal and free humans with whom we form genuine relationships. From those seeds we grow community, and from that a progressive education.

(*Note: Most progressive educators are familiar with this quote, or something like it. Versions of it are variously attributed to W.B. Yeats, Plutarch, Socrates and others. I've tried to find the proper source many times without success. In the days before the internet, we simply attributed common wisdom like this to "the universe," which is what I've decided to do here.)


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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Transition Songs: Marking The Rhythm Of Our Days Together




A reader recently asked me about transitions, and specifically about the songs we use.

I've already written about how we prepare ourselves for transitions in a post entitled, What We Do Together, so here I'm only going to address the songs.

When I was twelve, I was the quarterback of my football team. For those who don't know, before each play starts, the quarterback, while under center, begins the play by calling out something like, "Down! Set! Hut one! Hut two! . . ." and the ball is hiked on a certain count. My coach then had me continue calling out the count, " . . . Hut three! Hut four! . . ." as the play ran its course. He said it was by way of creating a rhythm for the whole team, the way a drummer might for a band or a conductor for an orchestra.



I've never heard of any other football coaches teaching this technique, and Coach Donahue may have either been a genius or a nut, but I'm often reminded of those football days in my current role as preschool teacher where I find myself working to create a rhythm for our day, with our transition songs being a central part of that.

After laying the ground work I described in that previous post (same link as above), I often then stand with my drum for a moment, often several minutes, allowing the children to find me holding it. Some of them always say, in anticipation, "Bang the drum!" This then attracts more children. Then I goof around a little, perhaps saying, "This isn't a drum . . . It's a banjo," then I pretend to "play" a little Dueling Banjos. "It's not a banjo, it's a trumpet," and I pretend to play a revelry the drum stick. I don't do this every time, but quite often, pretending it's a trombone, a tuba, a harp, a piano, until a critical mass of children has gathered around of their own according, most of whom are saying something like, "It's a drum!" or "Bang it!" Other times I might pretend I can't figure out how a drum works, missing my target, attempting to stir instead of hit, just generally clowning around until I have a crowd calling for the transition to begin.



You see, the kids know what's next because this is simply what we do together and most of them are on board with it, especially since we've given them the agency to take part in how it works. Every now and then a child will object, but when they see their friends preparing for it, calling for it, even demanding it, they tend to set their objections aside.

The reader who wrote me, worried that she didn't have a particular large repertoire of songs, but I've come to understand that it's actually better that way. These songs, along with helping to create a rhythm for our day, also become a sort of tradition or ritual that bonds us together, especially in these times of transition. We really only have three transition songs, and we only need two, I just keep the extra one around, I guess, out of sentiment or habit.

This one is the classic "clean up" song we all know, I use this in our 2's class:


As you can tell, one needn't be a particular good singer to do this. This next one, is the clean up song I use in our other classes. I learned it from my daughter's kindergarten teacher:


As I did on my pee wee football team, I usually continue singing these songs throughout the time it takes to make the transition, sticking with the tune, while vamping on the lyrics. I might insert silly rhymes such as:

Clean up, clean up
Everybody, everywhere
Clean up, clean up
Everybody is a bear (jump in the air, do it with flair, sit and stare, etc.)

Other times I insert informative or descriptive commenting, while maintaining the tune:

Sally's picking up some blocks
And Andrew is hanging up the costumes.
Jane is really strong, I see.
And Franky is as well.

I don't worry about rhyming, as you can see, and it can make for some awkward phrasing, but no one cares but me. The kids just care about hearing their names in my song.

Our other transition song is used when I'm calling the group together for circle time. This is the basic "tune" (and I use that term loosely when referring to what I've recorded here):


The "checker board rug" is obviously where we sit together. I've developed a number of silly variations on this song as well, which I've previously written about in this post entitled, "Everybody Sit On Some Broken Glass."

Last year, the kids in our 4-5's class took this song over from me, rushing to take my place, all of them clutching together around my stool, arm in arm, singing this song to an empty rug, sounding like a classic hobo chorus:

Come on over to the checker board rug
Come on over to the checker board rug
Come on over to the checker board rug
And have a seat on the floor.

Over and over they sang it, most of whom had been hearing me sing it for the preceding three years as I marked the rhythm of our days together. Some days last year, singing that song together like this, was all we did for circle time.


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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

More About "I Don't Know"



Last week, I posted a piece entitled "I Don't Know," which sparked a Facebook exchange with John Green, the man responsible for the excellent early childhood blog Papa Green Bean, about the power of the phrase "I don't know."

Back in the 1980's, I worked in public relations. Part of my job was talking to reporters on behalf of the Seattle business community, or at least those who were members of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. I felt I needed to know all the answers and got myself in trouble a few times because I tried to slickly answer questions even when I wasn't sure. Fortunately, I got to work with many of the highest paid PR executives in the area, one of whom pulled me aside after an embarrassing mistake to tell me, "One of the most important things to learn about this profession is to say 'I don't know, but I'll find out for you.'"

Of course, there was cynicism baked into that counsel because he was suggesting I use it as a kind of catch-all response to anything that made me uncomfortable or when I wanted to buy some time, but the core of the advice is something I've carried with me ever since. It was a real epiphany for this young man to realize that saying, "I don't know," especially when it's the truth, is not a sign of weakness, but rather of strength.

But it wasn't until I became a father that I really began to understand the power of "I don't know." Instead of just winging it, instead of just providing knee-jerk know-it-all responses to the questions my little girl would ask, I answered, "I don't know," often followed by, "But we can find out." 

"Why is the sky blue?" "I don't know, but we can find out."

"Do worms hatch from eggs?" "I don't know, but we can find out."

"How many days until Christmas?" "I don't know, but we can find out."

Of course, what makes this particularly powerful is to then actually find out, which becomes the process of learning about atmosphere and color, biology, and calendars. The best education always follows the children's questions.

Sometimes the questions are about opinions or other things that are not so easy to "find out." To those I learned to append the question, "What do you think?"

"Are there people on other planets?" "I don't know, what do you think?"

"Why was she mean to me?" "I don't know, what do you think?"

"What happens when people die?" "I don't know, what do you think?"

Yes, we have our own opinions and thoughts about these things, but because they're not provable, at least not given our current state of scientific or psychological or spiritual knowledge, our responses are, at best, educated guesses. These are questions that can only be answered through the thought experiments of conversation. "What do you think?" opens the door to the kind of free and honest exchange of ideas that form the basis of critical thinking, of thinking for oneself. As both a parent and as a teacher, I've heard many answers to this question that jar, puzzle, or even outrage me, but I strive to remain calm, to not freak out, to not launch into a scolding lecture, because there is no surer way to shut a child down, both now and in the future, than to cause them to fear that their honestly held opinion or theory will be declared "wrong." Better, I've found, is to continue to inquire, to continue to listen, and, as a peer in this exploration into the unknowable, I can then offer my own opinions or theories, not by way of "correcting" her, but by sharing, the way she is sharing with me.

My daughter and I have discussed religion and sex in this way, race and drugs, social dynamics and politics. She has said many things that caused my heart to race and my mind to seeth, but I've tried to fight the urge to shut down the conversation by being right or righteous, because I know that I didn't come to my own ideas about the world through being lectured or scolded, but rather by thinking for myself. I may really want her to believe as I do, to share my opinions, but I can't command her to do it. I can only help her along her journey, listening, and honestly sharing my own thoughts and experiences. 

Today, I find I agree with my teenager on the most important things even if that hasn't always been the case. We got there through the dialog that opens when we're not afraid to say, "I don't know."


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Monday, July 20, 2015

Charter Schools Are Stepping Stones To A Grim Future




I've been writing here about federal education policy for the past six years, mostly as a critic of the Dickensian corporate-style standardization of public school curricula, the scrounge of high stakes standardized testing, the ineffectiveness and punitiveness of "accountability" and "rigor," the de-professionalization of teachers, and the corrosive influence of big money. My views and opinions, at least judging from the feedback I receive from the people who choose to read here, are shared by many, but the one place I tend to receive pushback is when I write about the efforts to privatize our public schools, and specifically charter schools.

As Daine Ravitch details in her book Reign of Error, the endgame for many of the corporate reformers is to destroy public education as we know it, to be replaced by a competitive marketplace of privately run education enterprises, funded by taxpayers, but free from democratic control, in order to unleash "powerful market forces" (to quote Bill Gates, one of their leaders) on our children who will provide free child labor for what will be primarily for-profit businesses. As Ravitch points out, charters are seen as a stepping stone on the way to the grim educational dystopia they've planned for our children.

The pro-charter pushback comes largely from people who have first hand experience with a charter school they love. And admittedly, there are some good ones out there, few and far between, and usually of the small, non-profit variety, embracing the sort of progressive principles I write about here. The problem is that the way powerful market forces work is that the game is always eventually won by those with the deepest pockets, which is why these progressive gems are getting increasingly rare as giant charter school chains, with their greater efficiencies and marketing muscle, and despite their failure to outperform traditional public schools, come to dominate the marketplace, taking over entire school districts in some cases (see New Orleans or the state of Tennessee).

If you're still not sold on the downfalls and dangers of what has become the charter movement, I'll point you to Peter Greene's "Privatization Primer" over on his Curmudgucation blog, where he details what is happening, how it is happening, and why it matters.

And Greene's piece doesn't even touch on the con games, the racism, and corruption that have characterized far too many of these unaccountable schools. Powerful market forces are fine, I suppose, if the goal is simply to make money, but they also bring out the worst in people. And of all the horrifying examples of how public education is being perverted by private operators in the name of a greasy buck, perhaps the worst news is that one of our nation's largest charter chains admits that its approach is grounded in the theories of a psychologist whose work inspired the CIA's torture program . . . I want you to let that sink in for a moment . . . The guy whose work was used to justify things like water boarding, sleep deprivation, and forced feeding, is also one of the guiding lights of the KIPP charter school chain. It says so right there on their website.

The relentless Dora Taylor who writes on the invaluable Seattle Education blog, quotes from a post on Schools Matter:

Dr. Martin Seligman is the man to see if you have questions about how to turn human beings into compliant automatons with persistent positivity. His experiments torturing dogs in the late 1960s was seminal to the development of "learned helplessness," whereby subjects are pacified by repeated and unpredictable electric shocks that cannot be avoided . . . The subsequent "learned helplessness" exhibited by torture victims is countered by another Seligman invention, "learned optimism," which turns compliant human subjects into persistent, self-controlled, and gritty go-getters who will not let any amount of abuse or degradation interfere with beliefs in self-heroic capabilities . . . The Seligman treatment has been used by David Levin at KIPP to behaviorally neuter children and then to have the same children self-administer heavy does of No Excuses positivity in order to maintain high test scores regardless of children's home life marked by pathological economic conditions.

Seligman's work was central in the CIA torture program, a program, by the way, that didn't work.

So, you may know of a good charter school. You may teach at one or your child may attend one. When we write about charter schools and the plan to privatize public education, we are not talking about you. But please know that you are extraordinarily lucky and those schools are unlikely to survive for long in the dog-eat-dog free-for-all future that charter advocates envision. And also please know that your experience is not indicative of what the hundreds of thousands of American children who are now being "educated" by these soulless corporate chains must endure, many under the guidance of a man who taught America how to torture.


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