Wednesday, August 27, 2014


He was having a prickly day. Things were not going his way. He'd been in tears or enraged several times already, the toys with which he wanted to play were already being used, the other kids weren't doing what he wanted them to do, and the adults were failing in their attempts to make it all better.

He sulked up to the swings where he could be alone, hanging limply in one of them, using his feet to get a little momentum going, but without vigor.

I'd made various forays in pursuit of bucking him up: a hand on his back; chit-chat about the makes and models of cars, his hobby; an inside joke. I'd managed to get him to smile a couple times, to lean into me, to take me up on my offers of friendship, but we already like each other so it might have just been out of politeness. Right now, as he swung, I was keeping my distance, watching him deal with his prickly day in his own way.

After a few minutes of just hanging there, he tossed back his head and without volume or urgency, to no one at all, called, "Help."

I didn't move, nor did anyone else, and he didn't look around for a response either, lolling his head back to look up into the trees, tugging a little with his arms as if trying to get the swing going like that. Then louder, "Help!"

Still, I was the only one who heard him. The other adults were busy in other parts of the outdoor classroom. His closest friends were engaged in canal building in the lower half of our sand pit, an activity that for them usually involves lots of shouting out to one another, which makes it hard to hear cries of help from all the way at the top of the hill.

"Help! Help! Help!"

As his cry became more insistent I moved closer. I said, "You're calling for help."

"I want someone to push me." He wasn't asking me to do it. All the kids know I don't push kids in swings.

I nodded, "Like those kids over there?"

Sourly, "I don't care. I just want someone to push." Then, "Help!"

"I think you'll have to be louder."


That's when someone other than me finally heard him. 

"Oh no, someone needs a rescue!"

"Who is it?"

"To the swings!"

Most of the kids dropped their shovels as they swarmed in pursuit of his cries, "Help!"

Once there, they didn't need to be told what he needed. They got to work, helpers in a crisis, pushing their classmate who was now grinning ear-to-ear, still saying "Help," but with a laugh, the first I'd heard from him all day.

After awhile of being twisted, turned, pushed and pulled, all of which delighted him, he said, "Okay, okay, that's enough." When the kids ran back to their canal digging project, he ran with them.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I Love Nature

I love nature, I do, although I usually just call it outdoors. 

I sometimes envy teachers who work in forest schools or those who teach in places adjacent to bush or farm land or even just large wooded parks. I'd enjoy spending my time with children in those places, splashing in streams, hanging from branches, and learning to avoid the poison ivy.

But I don't. When we walk outside our gates the "nature" we find is the city and I wouldn't have it any other way.

I don't know when I became a city boy, but I am, right through to the tips of my toes. 

The children I teach didn't chose, but their parents did, opting not for suburbia or a rural life, landing like I have in the concrete jungle, a natural habitat for humans, a place where we have come together, packing ourselves ever more tightly, side-by-side and one atop another, sharing, growing upward instead of outward in the environment-killing habit of the urban sprawl that rings us. 

For me, cities are about hope, about loving and trusting our fellow man, places of cooperation and agreements and engaging with our differences.

This is where we have chosen to raise our children. And it's from this environment, these uniquely human communities, that our curricula must arise. 

"Nature" for us is air perfumed with restaurant food and exhaust, a terrain of pavement, stairs and curbs, and an underbrush hiding bottle caps, broken glass, and cigarette butts. It's cars, trains, buses, trams, bikes, and the two shoes upon our feet.

Nature is squirrels, crows, and the occasional raccoon, along with the rats we rarely see, but know are there. Nature is hum and rush and honks and grit.

And there are people, lots of people; people of every size, shape, background and color, sometimes thronging, sometimes misbehaving, sometimes loving, but always agreeing to somehow live together, close together, which is the true beauty of our outdoors.

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Obedience Is Not The Goal

(Note: This is a re-post. I wrote it back in 2011. It's one of my favorite posts of all time.)

I've been thinking a lot lately about obedience, prompted by being reminded recently of the Daron Quinlan quote:

Disobedience is not an issue if obedience is not the goal. 

And it made me ask myself again: is there ever a time when obedience should be the goal? So knee-jerk is our concept of the obedient child, I think, that it's difficult to imagine that the answer is "never."

Is there ever a time in your life as an adult when you are obedient? What do you think of obedient adults? If you're like me, the answers are, no and not much. And I assume that most Americans would answer the same.

We might quibble over special circumstances (e.g., my wife suggested, "What if you're in a concentration camp and they'll kill your child if you don't obey?", although I might put that more in the category of being forced). And I will stipulate to the necessity for military obedience (but since we have an all-volunteer military, I might put that more in the category of an agreement). Yes, I will usually do what the police officer says, but it's not from obedience, but rather from the understanding that we've hired him to do the job of keeping us safe and I trust he is acting in that capacity, but I will not obey if what he is asking is illegal or immoral. And sure we follow our laws, the agreements we've made about how we ought to live together; that is until we come across one to which our conscience says, "I will not obey."

No, the option of disobedience, and choosing instead to take the consequences, is necessary if we are going to live up to the promise of self-governance, and I suspect that if any of us found ourselves in a circumstance in which we are simply expected to obey without question, we would (to use the medical term) freak out.

So if we don't want, or even expect, obedient adults, why do we go out of our way to teach our children obedience? I'm more interested in children behaving in certain ways because they understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. People with the capacity for blind obedience are both dangerous and in danger, easy victims for those who would manipulate them. I want my child to know that she always has a choice; that choice is the space that's there to contain her conscience. 

And yes, there are consequences, natural consequences, for every choice. I want her to understand those too.

But what about the child who is too young to understand? Certainly we should expect that child to obey. If the child is too young to understand, say, something as manifestly dangerous as running out into traffic, that child is also too young to be expected to consistently obey your commands which have no such obvious consequence attached to them, but rather the abstract idea of punishment, which they are also too young to understand. And by the time we've finally taught them to understand punishment, they've long ago already understood the danger of running into traffic. It is not our role to insist on their obedience, but rather to protect them until they are able to protect themselves. As their parents, as an adult responsible for a child, that is our job. If children are too young to not know about running into traffic, then it's our job to keep them back from busy streets. We say, "I can't let you do that," and then we follow that up by not letting them do it.

No, obedience is an idea for people who would have control over you because they know otherwise you will not do it. When people call for obedience it's because they know that they are demanding that someone act in a way contrary to their own best interest or against their own judgment. Obedience demands that you either doubt or ignore what you know is right, which is how atrocities both great and small occur.

I'm afraid for children who have been taught obedience because we know that things learned in childhood last a lifetime.

I do not want a child who obeys. I want a child who understands. And when she must, I want her to say, "I will not obey."

I Will Not Obey
By Utah Phillips

The new ruling party is holding the aces;
The rest of the cards are all missing faces.
I'm sorry, I can't know you today.
What can one say?
I will not obey.

Give us your sons and give us your daughters;
No one is safe or immune from the slaughter.
How indifference makes them rage.
What can one say?
I will not obey.

National Guard or freedom fighters,
All houses belong to cigarette lighters.
But who hides in the smoke?
What can one say?
I will not obey.

Better perhaps to perish outside
Of the bunkers where our generals hide.
I turn away and spit.
What can one say?
I will not obey.

Give us the minds of your children to learn
The substance of books we have not yet burned.
But can they read the sky for rain?
What can one say?
I will not obey.

Soon all tyrants will feel our impatience;
We choose to create our own combinations.
I was always willing to agree.
What can one say?
I will not obey.

The essence of contract is agreement,
Not coercion or obedience.
And agreement is sacred.
What can one say?
I will not obey.

There are so few wars of people's liberation,
for the people have so seldom risen,
Only the armed faction. Listen:
The armed faction lies.
They recreate the state through their action.
When the people rise
It is not they
But the state
Which dies.

I sing this song for the prisoners' release,
Most of all now for the new state police.
You see, the guns have changed hands, again.
What can one say?
I will not obey.

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Reason To Celebrate: Motivation To Work Harder

It's impossible not to be encouraged. In the shadow of polls showing that the Obama Administration is losing public support for his anti-child, corporate-style, drill-and-kill education policies, education secretary Arne Duncan has announced that states will be granted the option of a one-year delay in the use of students' standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, saying, "(T)esting issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room . . ."

This comes on the heels of calls by the Gates Foundation -- financial backers and lead authors of many of the administration's education "reforms" -- for a two year moratorium on using these tests to make high-stakes decisions about teachers or students.

Think about this: we the people are succeeding in pushing back against a largely unified federal government and a cabal of many of the wealthiest people on earth. There is no way that this isn't good news, although it can by no means be considered a "win," but rather an encouraging sign that teachers, parents, and students united can make a difference. I have no illusion that this move means they are actually listening to critics or that they are giving up. I'm quite confident that they hope this delay will act as a sort of pacifier to calm us down before they redouble their efforts: a strategic retreat if you will, but not a capitulation. Anthony Cody has done a masterful job of dissecting Duncan's announcement.

These are photos from our Seattle march on the Gates Foundation from earlier this summer.

In fact, despite Duncan's apparently anti-testing rhetoric, none of the administration's policies have changed and the introduction of the federal Common Core curriculum along with it's tests will continue apace, albeit with the "high stakes" aspect put on hold for a year. Still, it's encouraging if only because we've caused Goliath to reel a bit. 

Instead of relaxing, this signals a moment to redouble our own efforts. Now is the time to take the little ground they've ceded and start pushing for a second year, then a third. Congressional hearings into the anti-democratic development of Common Core still needs to happen and Arne Duncan must resign. If you were planning to opt your child out of these tests, continue to do so. If you were planning a walk-out on testing days, still do it. If you intended to testify before your school board or picket it or run for it, now's the best time.

Children are still going to be in tears due to the undue stress and developmentally inappropriate expectations. The joy will continue to be sucked out of learning. Parents will still be panicked that junior is "falling behind." Teachers will still be expected to set aside their professional knowledge and experience in favor of the cruel experiments being performed by mad-scientist dilettantes. Children will still be laboring in the "rigor" and "accountability" mines for the purpose of lining the pockets of for-profit "education" corporations.

Anthony Cody

Still, this is reason to celebrate. There remains a long road ahead of us, but this morning it appears a little less long and together we can get there.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

How To Play With Rain

Several weeks ago I introduced the world to our inventive new playhouse, following that up with a report on how the children began to make it their own. I've been traveling ever since, so I've not seen her for some time, but just before I winged away to the land Down Under, we had a terrific opportunity to put her through her paces when the heavens opened and we enjoyed the rainiest single July day on record, most of which fell during the time we played outdoors.

The new playhouse provided excellent refuge as you might expect, but, you know, staying dry is not serious business for Seattle children, so it wasn't long before they were back out under the sky ignoring the liquid sunshine dumping down upon them. 

It's a game, you see, this seeking of shelter, one that mimics the behavior of adults they see in the world, but without the urgency of protecting hair styles or suede.

Case in point, the game moved on from our spacious new shelter to the place where a pair of large wooden crates have come to call home. These are special crates, one was built to transport a sculpture by the late Alexander Calder, while the smaller one was created to move a bronze by the even later Edgar Degas. 

Now they are cubbies or tables or trains for the kids. Today, they served as much more cramped and inconvenient shelters from the storm.

As the grand new playhouse stood empty the children crammed themselves inside, feigning fear of the fat drops that fell from the sky as if the angels spat upon us, twisting and tangling their bodies together, mashing one more in, making room, accommodating, negotiating, and breathing their steamy breaths, mingling them together in a happy, germ-y sauna. This is how to play with rain.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

I Fear They Are Right

The government is merely a servant -- merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn't. Its function is to obey orders, not originate them. ~Mark Twain

I was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1962, a fact of which I've been regularly reminded as I've regularly presented my passport at airports while traveling here in Australia and New Zealand these past 3 weeks. It's one of those bits of information used to identify me as me. If I remember my family history correctly, I celebrated my first birthday there, but was gone before the second, never to return except when current events take me there such as when a tornado devastated parts of my birth city back in 2011.

Missouri is in the news again, not Joplin, but a place called Ferguson across the state near St. Louis. If you've not been following the news, it's an easy Google search, but honestly, if you're an American who hasn't heard about this horrible story, please let this be a wake-up call: you need to pay more attention. It's an infuriating story about an unarmed teenaged boy named Michael Brown who was shot not once, not twice, but at least six times by a police officer. His crime was jaywalking and, quite likely, sassing the cop, offenses hardly worthy of a death sentence. All the witnesses who've come forward so far have said that he was shot once while trying to run away, which is bad enough, but the rest of the shots were apparently fired as he stood with his hands up in the universal posture of surrender -- even the three-year-olds I teach understand that. 

If this is all there was to the story, it would stand as a tragedy of "one bad apple," but what has since transpired, and what continues to transpire, should make it clear to all of us that America is broken and democracy is in disarray.

In the immediate aftermath, this cop stood by offering no help to the young man as he bled out. As his fellow officers arrived on the scene they prevented concerned citizens from helping, even a nurse who offered her assistance. As word got out, citizens of Ferguson emerged from their homes in protest as any loyal American citizen should, not everyone has been peaceful, of course, but most have been non-violent in their justifiable outrage, yet the police have responded by treating everyone as "bad guys." Instead of contrition, concern and transparency, instead of honoring their oath to protect and serve, the Ferguson police have behaved like a military in a war zone, armed with tanks, rubber bullets, tear gas, and an attitude that the American people are the enemy. This has, quite naturally, ratcheted up the tensions, increased the anger, and turned Ferguson into every American's war torn home town. 

Each man must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, which course is patriotic and which isn't. You cannot shirk this and be a man. To decide against your conviction is to be an unqualified and excusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may.  ~Mark Twain

The American people have not only the right, but the responsibility to protest, in the streets if need be. It is as American as apple pie; it is as American as it is un-American for cities to employ militarized police forces. I saw this first hand during my involvement in the Seattle version of the Occupy Wall Street protests. We had a few actions that drew thousands of participants, but most of the time we were groups of no more than a few hundred. I was shocked then at the militarism displayed by men and women who are supposed to protect and serve me, and outraged when they treated us as an enemy, pepper spraying almost at random, threatening, arresting journalists, and showing off large, military-style weapons, all clearly intended to intimidate law abiding citizens who disagreed with their government. One evening as we surrounded the downtown Sheraton Hotel where the banking crime boss James Diamond appeared as a speaker, a small group of large men emerged with giant rifles while wearing full body jungle camouflage in the middle of city. It was so ridiculous we started laughing, shouting, "We can't see you! You're camouflaged!" It was a moment of black humor in the midst of a clearly coordinated effort to quash Constitutionally protected democratic speech.

Yes, in Ferguson as in Seattle, there were a few, a tiny few, who take advantage of the situation to commit petty crimes. I just finished watching a press conference in which the police commander tried to blame these trouble-makers for their anti-American overreach. Any cop who needs tanks to deal with a handful of petty criminals has no business in law enforcement.

You might ask, what does this have to do with teaching and learning from preschoolers?

My job as an educator is to prepare children to assume the rights and responsibilities of self-governance, of citizenship, and this right to peaceful protest is one of them. I took my own daughter to some of the Occupy Seattle protests, but had second thoughts when I saw the vicious brutality implied in the garb, armaments, and attitude of so-called law enforcement. Those guys came prepared for a fight even when none was offered. They shouted, commanded, and threw their weight around like a pack of sociopathic thugs. Early on in the protests I tried to sidle up to cops and chat with them, but those days faded away as the weeks wore on. Soon my friendly comments were met with curses and threats. I had become their enemy simply by virtue of how I chose to exercise my rights and responsibilities as a citizen.

The police have no right to behave this way. None whatsoever. Indeed, what they are doing is intimidating people like me and making otherwise peaceful situations more dangerous. There is no way Ferguson would have erupted as it has without the cops showing up like an occupying military force. They are supposed to be peace officers, but they have, as they did with Occupy, made the world far more dangerous, far more violent, and far less democratic than it would have otherwise been.

Yes, petty crimes have been committed by a few people in Ferguson, but major crimes, including murder and assault have been committed by the police, not to mention their flagrant violations of our Constitutionally protected rights of speech, assembly, and the press. How can I prepare children for this? I suppose they want me to teach them to obey. That, I will not do. I will not be a traitor.

It's particularly eye-opening to have this happening while I'm overseas. Most have responded with a shrug and comments that amount to, "That's just the way America is, isn't it?" I've tried to explain why they are wrong, but I fear they are right.

I hate that I feel I must protect myself from the police, but when I exercise my democratic rights it's clear they have been trained to consider me their enemy. And I'm chilled by this bottom line message from a former cop, now a "professor of homeland security" writing for the Washington Post: "(I)f you don't want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you." Obey, or else.

The protestors of Ferguson are patriots and their names ought to be remembered by those who write our history, that is, if we've not already lost our democracy.

(Update: The police have admitted that Michael Brown was shot while running away, the rumor that the officer had broken bones in his face has been disproven, the so-called "witnesses" who have alternative versions of what has happened have all done so anonymously or are not actual witnesses, the store owner has said that Brown did not rob him, and the FPD has apparently not released an incident report because no one ever wrote one. In other words, every one of the attempts by FPD and their supporters to smear the poor kid appear to be lies. Despite all of this, I have very little faith that justice will be served. The deck is usually stacked in favor of outlaw cops. I have written this, in part, because the court of public opinion is likely the only court in which justice can possibly be served when it comes to police brutality. I hope I'm wrong.)

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Life Is Hard

"This life's hard, man, but it's harder if you're stupid!"  ~from the movie The Friends of Eddie Coyle

This is a line I think of a lot, usually addressed to myself in those moments of frustration, when I've done something stupid, and my life is now, naturally, harder. This is a universal truth. Ignorance is not bliss. Knowing stuff makes life good, and knowing how you best get to know the stuff you want to know makes it even better. For me, deep knowledge, the kind that shapes my life, usually comes from a process that involves those moments of stupidity, moments that are often accompanied by a sense of despair or futility, and then pushing just a little farther, sometimes in a kind of rage at just how stupid I am, and it's usually only then, just behind that moment, where I find Eureka! has been hiding.

I've known other adults who share this penchant, but very few preschoolers, although maybe it's just because they've not yet learned to label life as hard or themselves as stupid. I've certainly seen frustrated preschoolers, ones who are in tears over their inability to do whatever it is they're trying to do. And I've known many who, after a long struggle, will, once they've finally figured it out, say, "That's easy" and immediately set about demonstrating to the next kid who comes along just how easy it is, a sort of good natured way of acknowledging their own previous stupidity.

I've also known both adults and children who don't push a little farther, who stop at the frustration, who give up. I've done it before. I stopped taking math classes after my sophomore year in college, for instance, not because I'd decided I was too stupid or even because it was too hard, but rather because I'd lost interest in the actual knowledge and had come to recognize that I'd been sticking with it simply for the bragging rights that went with being enrolled in higher level math classes. No, if I was going to work my brain that hard, to deal with that frustration, it was going to be while learning the things I wanted and needed to know.

Most of our classroom day is spent in free play. There are a dozen or so planned activities to go along with the everyday stuff like play dough, stuffed animals, and the sand pit, but children are not expected to engage with them. Most rotate from activity to activity as their interests dictate, plunging their hands in when it looks like something they want or need to know, or edging past when something seems, say, too messy or challenging or tedious. Some kids only want to be where the action is, never picking up a paint brush unless there's a friend at the adjacent easel. Others want the field cleared for themselves as they explore, preferring to wait until the initial wave of excitement has receded before stepping up to the plate. This is why it's important to let certain activities run for a day or so beyond their "hey day."

I often say that my business is not to decide what a child learns, but rather that they learn, but that's actually taking more credit than is due. In a play-based curriculum it really is all up to the child because what they are ultimately doing is figuring out something they can only figure out for themselves. By playing in an environment in which exploration and experimentation are the highest values they are teaching themselves not just how to learn, but how they learn. And as frightening as that is to the control freaks out there, this isn't something you can do to or for someone else. It's something you can't judge or measure or test because it's a process that you are simply too stupid to understand. The only expert is the one doing the learning.

As Albert Einstein famously said, "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." That is why life is hard.

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