Friday, April 18, 2014

The Time To Get Curious

When I was in college, way back in the 1980's, there were media stories that connected playing the fantasy game Dungeon's & Dragons with going insane, based entirely on the fact that one kid who did play D&D went insane. I think. I don't know. I was young then, and began playing D&D because I was actually attracted by the idea that a mere game could be that intense. I didn't go insane, but I found I really liked D&D, just as I had many of the things that mainstream culture insisted were dangerous. In fact, by then I'd figured out that most of the things they said were bad, bad, bad, were, in fact, bad, but also, equally, good. Drinking, socialism, and masturbation to name a few.

It was a revelation that really hit me as a teenager, as it does a lot of us when the cloud of fear clears and our critical thinking kicks in. Even as I knew they were doing it for my own good, I resented that anyone but me could determine my "own good." Just maybe I wanted to live fast and die young. Maybe that's the best idea out there, huh? Prove I'm wrong!

To this day, I can't prove myself wrong, but I'm still alive, so I can at least say that I've not been proven right either.

Maybe it's because of this essential orientation to life that I'm automatically doubtful of those who would use fear to motivate me.

On the morning of 9/11 I was with my wife Jennifer on a cruise ship headed to Alaska. I'd left our cabin to grab an early breakfast at the never-ending buffet. I was making small talk with fellow passengers when Jennifer came up to tell us that someone had flown jets into buildings in New York. We all laughed at her, telling her she must have had a bad dream, but as we all know something truly horrifying had happened.

I rushed back to the room, turned on CNN, and there I sat for the next several hours in disbelief. And then, like a call from reality, I heard it, from the White House, someone used the words "war on terror." I turned to Jennifer and said, "The terrorists have won." You see, while this was the worst, it certainly wasn't the first terrorist attack. Up until then, we'd treated them as mere criminals, not granting them the dignity of any special fear, but now . . . Now we were giving them the power of the hell of war complete with red alerts to keep the citizenry on its fearful toes. Then, because you can't fight a hot war against a tactic, proceeded to drain our treasury and deplete the ranks of our young men and women in a disastrous adventure in two countries halfway around the world that had nothing to do with anything. And we did it all based upon the cynical use of fear as a motivator.

Fear: as a person with a background in advertising, public relations, and marketing, I know it's one of the most effective sales tools out there. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee and the rest of the corporate education "reform" crowd are using it to sell us (and parents in particular) on Common Core, high stakes testing, and the rest of their money grubbing agenda. "We're falling behind!" "The Chinese are beating us!" "Our schools are failing!" "Children need more rigor!" Never mind that even a shallow examination of their claims disproves them, and critical analysis of their "solution" can't even be performed because there simply isn't a lick of reliable data to analyze. As I've written before, this is clearly the Shock Doctrine at work, the very strategy the big fools used to get us in over our heads in the Middle East.

Fear is how they're selling guns to the nuts like those who recently rallied around that criminal rancher and his welfare queen cattle down in Nevada. Fear is how they've convinced so many people to leave their children unvaccinated. Fear is at the core of sexism, racism, and homophobia. Fear drives much of our politics. The fear of hell stood at the core of my religious upbringing. 

Fear is a normal, adaptive human response, triggering an instinctive fight or flight response. There are real things of which to be afraid, but let's be clear, fear also makes critical thinking all but impossible and that is exactly what they are banking on.

This is a well-known phenomenon, one that is used exclusively by those who have agendas that simply cannot be supported by reason alone. Fear is how to get someone to do things against their own best interest. Fear is how to command obedience, compliance, or sell hogwash.

No, when someone tells us to be afraid, that's the time to get curious. And remember, while there is a kind of sick power in fear . . .

There is magic in boldness. ~Goethe

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Jesse Hagopian For President!

The entire Muskegon Heights, Michigan public school system is run by a for-profit "education management organization" called Mosaica Education, Inc. This charter school company was handed the reins by what is called an Emergency Manager, a blatantly anti-democratic idea that has been operating in the great state of Michigan for several years now. Essentially, this means the governor can summarily replace local elected officials with an appointed dictator should he determine that a municipality is in financial straits. It's an idea based upon the neoliberal economic fallacy that the private sector (i.e., for-profit business) can always produce a better "product" at a better price than can the public sector (i.e., government).

Now I know it's hard to ignore the fact that 80-90 percent of new businesses fail within the first 5 years, and many of those that do survive are hardly profitable, putting the lie to this core neoliberal argument. And in this case it's even harder to ignore the fact that this particular "for profit" savior is so mismanaged that it had to beg the state (i.e., taxpayers) for more than a quarter of a billion dollars in order to make payroll. And it's almost impossible to ignore the truth that quality education is simply not a product or a service and children are not human resources. Education cannot be measured via profit: indeed, a for-profit corporation must, by law, pursue profit above education, making learning, at best, a byproduct of the corporate process. But even if we make the outrageous stipulation for a moment that the neoliberals are right, and that Mosaica can somehow deliver a better product at a better price, we are still left with the hard fact that what's going on in Muskegon's schools (and the state of Michigan) is a bald-faced subversion of democracy. 

This isn't why Mosaica and Muskegon came to my attention, however, but rather that one of their schools recently decided to celebrate "Teacher Appreciation Week" with compulsory teacher humiliation. As the chief administrative officer (i.e., principal) wrote to her staff:

. . . we are conducting some fundraisers to ensure that faculty will be treated well. This means that whatever the students pay for you to do, you MUST do it.

This included male cross-dressing, teachers in bibs and sucking on pacifiers, pies to the face, hair and cosmetic make-overs by kindergarteners, and being forced to stand in the parking lot with picket signs begging to keep their jobs. This is how to ensure that professional teachers are treated well, dress them as babies?

Oh, and did I mention that one of the other "benefits" that privatizers see in for profit charter schools is that teachers are not unionized? In fact, knowing what I do, I suspect that union busting is their number one objective.

For whatever historical and emotional reasons, American business guys tend to hate unions, slurring them with labels of like "thugs," when the historical record shows that organized workers are much more likely to be the victims of corporate thugishness than the other way around. They hate these democratic institutions called unions set up in the heart of their corporate dictatorships. This is not true of all business people. The management of Volkswagen AG, for instance, embraces their unions, as witnessed in the ongoing kerfuffle in Tennessee in which anti-union elected representatives and business interests are pitted against the German corporate giant that actually prefers a unionized workforce. VW seems to have discovered that a well-paid, well-treated, involved (German unions have seats on the boards of their corporations) workforce actually makes for a healthier company, one that, in VW's case, has been much better able to bounce back from economic challenges than its American counterparts with their always contentious labor relations. In other words, VW has found that democracy works.

I support unions for this reason and I am a particular supporter of teacher's unions that fight not only for the rights and dignity of the teaching profession, but also, by extension our children. As historian and author Diane Ravitch points out, our teacher's working conditions are our children's learning conditions. We do not live in Germany, which is at a more advanced state when it comes to the relationship between capital and the human beings that are so often reduced to mere "resources," almost as if we exist to serve the economy rather than the other way around.

I write and speak a lot about democracy. It is important to me and important to my profession. It is my contention, one that was supported by our nation's founders, that an educated population is essential if self-governance is going to work. Citizenship, not vocational training, is the purpose for public education. Of course, it's easy these days to look around and feel that democracy has already been lost, especially when you consider the kind of oligarchic corporatism that has taken hold in places like Michigan and Tennessee. It's easy to feel helpless which is why it's important to stay focused on the things we can influence: like local politics.

Jesse Hagopian

This month, the Seattle Education Association, the state's largest teacher's union is electing a new president and it's time for a change. In an era in which public schools, students, and teachers are under attack, current union leadership has taken an unacceptably soft, conciliatory approach. I am joining newly elected school board member Sue Peters in endorsing Garfield High School history teacher Jesse Hagopian. As an activist teacher, Mr. Hagopian first came to my attention as one of the leaders of last year's walk out of the controversial standardized MAP test, a protest that made national headlines and brought teachers, students, and parents together in a stand against the corporate assault on public education. He is currently a union representative at Garfield, has served as the Black Student Union's faculty adviser, is an associate editor of the acclaimed Rethinking Schools magazine, the recipient of the 2012 Abe Keller Foundation award for "excellence and innovation in peace education," a 2013 Secondary Teacher of the Year nominee by the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences, and is a founding member of Social Equality Educators.

Hagopian is a well-informed, well-spoken, and clearly dedicated educator. He will make an outstanding union president, one who will not stand down in this time when standing up is the most important thing we can do. Below is an interview from last May with the great Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!

As institutions, our public schools are under attack from billionaires who would privatize the whole thing. As a profession, teaching is under attack from billionaires who would reduce teaching to low wage test proctors who are appropriate targets for pies to the face. And as a result, our children's future is under attack from billionaires who see them as their next crop of cubicle fodder. The only way to successfully and democratically push back against those with deep pockets is to come together as teachers, parents, and students: numbers beats money, but only if the numbers turn out. In Seattle, it's happening behind the leadership of dedicated teachers like Jesse Hagopian, and this is how it will happen across the country, one state, one school district, sometimes even one school at a time.

If there is a Jesse Hagopian where you live, support him. If there is not, find him or be him. To donate or to learn more about the campaign, click here or check out his blog, I Am An Educator.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Understanding Her Flowers

Last week, we were messing around with pipe cleaners and tissue paper circles. It's a craft-ish project in that most of the kids know, because I showed them, that you can make nifty little flowers by sliding the thin disks of paper onto their bendy stems one at a time, giving each one a gentle "crush" as you go. I don't have any pictures of them, but it's a common enough preschool activity that I'm sure most of my readers know what I'm talking about. (But if you want a look, here's a version from my friend Deborah of Teach Preschool fame using squares instead of circles.)

Some of the kids do their own thing with the materials available, creating "space ships" and "spiders" and "decorations," but there are always a handful who really, really want to master the flowers. "Sarah," I thought, was one of those kids. She plunked herself down at the art table and got to work, brow furrowed, her authoritative chatter letting us know she was on top of things. Since I'd already demonstrated my own technique, I moved on to other things, leaving the art station in the capable hands of a parent-teacher.

Later, while outdoors, I chatted with the parent-teacher, saying something like, "That art project was pretty popular today. Sarah seemed to really like it."

She answered, "It was, but you know, she didn't make a single flower. She couldn't figure out how to get the tissue paper on the stem without tearing it." A huge bouquet of flowers had been created at that table and Sarah had sat there, hands busy for a good half hour. How could it be possible that she hadn't produced a single flower?

"Nope, not one," was the answer, "But she worked really hard. Every time she tried to crush the tissue like you showed them, the paper came off."

I'd not been watching Sarah's production, but only, occasionally, her face and body language. Not once had I seen a sign of frustration or failure. No, the girl I'd seen was hard at work, concentrating, narrating her activities, deeply involved in what I assumed was a manufacturing process like that of the other kids around the table who were making one for "mom," one for "dad," one for "grandma," one for "my pet cat Simon . . ."

"I tried to help her, but she didn't want help. She told me she was already an expert flower maker."

I said, "I guess that means we'd better keep making flowers tomorrow."


The following day, I made the same materials available, not on the art table this time, but on another table, a place where there would be no dedicated parent-teacher. Sarah didn't go there right away, instead choosing a housekeeping game, but before long she was drawn in, taking up a spot, alone with the materials. I sat with her, taking up my own stem, not saying anything. I watched her slide a tissue paper circle onto her pipe cleaner, tearing a huge hole in it during the process. And as had happened the day before, when she crushed it, it came off the stem. This didn't seem to bother her at all as she tossed the wad of paper aside and reached for another. This time she worked more slowly, nudging it along carefully, still ripping the paper too much, but when she crushed it, it stayed, almost balanced in place. Gingerly, she added a second disk of paper, halfway up the stem, then a third. 

From an artistic perspective it was a pretty pathetic looking flower. She held it up, no extra pride in her expression, no sign that there was anything amiss, "That's just so beautiful," then stuck in in the glass vase where we were displaying our finished pieces. She then got to work on another.

I put a piece of tissue paper on my stem and in my best imitation of the way she had done it, tore the hole a little too big, then crushing it to keep it precariously fixed in place. Sarah watched me from the corner of her eyes. "No, that's not the way," she said. "You have to do it more gently. Like this," then she showed me on her own flower.

I tried imitating her as best I could. "Good," she said, "You're getting it. Now, do another one." I followed her instructions.

She made a second flower as pathetic as the first and called it good. Before starting on a third, she watched me for a moment, growing frustrated with my attempts, although I was doing my best to imitate her. She snatched it from me, her voice infused with a false cheerfulness, "Here, let me just do that for you." In her rush, she caused all the tentatively fixed tissue to drop from my stem. "See?" she said, "That's what's supposed to happen. Now you can start over."

I did not like the feeling of failure the exchange gave me, even as I knew I'd not failed. I knew that because I'm an adult and I had practically invented this damn process, yet here I was with the tables turned. This is why I'm not a big fan of crafts in preschool: I worry that we put too many children in this situation. I said, reflexively, "I don't want to start over."

She sighed, "Okay, but you'll never figure it out if you give up."

"That's true." I got back to work, this time making a flower the way I'd initially shown the kids two days before, quickly pulling together a nice, tidy white carnation. Sarah watched me work without comment, then got back to her own stem. When she was finished with yet another pathetic flower, she said, "I think we should plant these in the garden."

I answered, "They would be pretty," then joking, "But, you know, they're not real flowers."

"I know that."

"I think the wind and rain would destroy them."

"Yes, but real flowers always fall off, too," and even as she said it, one of her tissue paper wads fell from the stem she held. "Like that."

It was then that I understood Sarah's flowers. She was not making the perfect little imitation flowers the rest of us were making, but "real" flowers, the kind that we are seeing right now in Seattle, the kind that bloom, live, then fall away when the Spring winds blow. And in that flash, I was no longer in the presence of the pathetic attempts of a child, but rather what I saw before me were the godlike works of a creator.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

But What About Discipline?

There are a lot of reasons to drive less, but perhaps the most important for me is that when I get behind the wheel of a car I often become a person I don't like very much, especially when I'm in a hurry. I like to think that I'm a man of peace, a thoughtful guy with a capacity to remain calm in stressful situations, a fellow who can disagree without being disagreeable, a live-and-let-live type. That is not always who I am when I drive, however.  Then, I often feel right on the edge of being emotionally out of control, especially when the other drivers do things like cut me off, fail to use their turn indicators, drive too slowly, drive too quickly, talk on their phones, block intersections, or do anything else that is contrary to what I want them to be doing. 

I sometimes yell at the misbehaving drivers, from behind my closed windows and doors, cursing them, and occasionally I even honk at them punitively, thinking, I guess, that I can shame or startle them into "right driving." If traffic conditions allow me to pull up beside the offensive driver, I've been known to glower at them.  It seems that in these moments of temporary insanity, that I have the idea that I can somehow cause them enough shame and fear that they will in the future correct their misbehavior.

And for all I know, it works, right? People see me shaking my fist at them and think, for instance, Whoa! I'd better work on staying in my own lane. Then I put my feet back on the solid ground and realize how incredibly stupid that is. At best, all I've done is to make other people feel intimidated or angry, which does nothing to change their behavior, and in all likelihood makes road conditions worse as they are now driving while frightened or mad.

Awhile back, Dr. Laura of Aha! Parenting fame shared an excellent post from Mum In Search on her Facebook page, along with these words:

When I first began my work with parents, my focus was on connection, and regulating our own emotions. Parents kept asking me, "But what do I do about discipline? . . . What's the right consequence for bad behavior?"  Since I had never disciplined my children, and had never seen a need for it, I was confused about how to answer . . . 

That used to confuse me too, when parents asked me about discipline, and for years I simply answered, "I'm not a parenting expert," and referred them to our school's parent educators. In fact, it still throws me when people ask about discipline. I've only twice in 15 years attempted to "discipline" my child, and in both cases I quickly reversed course when I saw that the results were comparable to glowering at the other drivers. I'd managed to re-direct my child's focus away from the troubling behavior into being angry at, or intimidated by, me, which might have caused her to temporarily stop doing whatever she was doing, but did nothing to resolve the matter at hand, while increasing the likelihood of defiance and secretiveness in the future, calling for yet more discipline: the famous cycle in which parents and children too often find themselves.

Yes, I understand that the word "discipline" comes from the Latin word disciplina which means teaching or learning, but that is not how the word is most commonly used.  The number one definition provided by The Oxford English Dictionary is: "To subject to discipline; in earlier use, to instruct, educate, train; in later use, more especially, to train to habits of order and subordination; to bring under control." The number one definition give by Merriam-Webster online is "Punishment." 

And that's what most people mean when they use the word discipline, to punish someone in order to bring them under control, with our without anger.  I have no interest in reclaiming that word for common use: teaching or guiding are a good enough words for me.

The good doctor continues (the emphasis is mine):

. . . Until I realized that the reason we didn't need discipline was precisely because I focused on connection, and on regulating my own emotions. That was many years ago, and I've seen so many families transform when they shift their focus.

It's never my job to bring others under my control or to train them in the habits of order and subordination, even if they're children in my care.  My job is to be in a relationship with them, what Dr. Laura refers to as "connection," just as it should be with all the other people in my life.  Not long ago, I pulled up beside a "misbehaving" driver and was possibly on the verge of showing her my middle finger, when I realized that I knew her, a parent from our school, someone I've known for a couple years, a recognition that turned my glower into a smile and my rude gesture into a friendly wave. I didn't have to struggle to get myself under control either: the moment I recognized her, the moment a genuine relationship was present, my urge to control and subordinate her went away. A few days later, I told her, jovially, that she had cut me off in traffic.  She was, of course, mortified, apologetic, then we chuckled about it as I admitted that I'd almost flipped her off.

I'm as sure as I'll ever be about the future behavior of another person that she'll be a more conscious driver going forward, at least along that particular stretch of road. There had been no need for me to discipline her, to subordinate her: I'd just continued to be in a relationship with her and this exchange, I believe, made it stronger.

I sometimes say to children, "Hey, I'll be the boss of me, you be the boss of you," an attitude that serves me well in all my relationships. This doesn't mean that I don't try to persuade the people in my life when I think they're wrong or in danger, it doesn't mean that I don't tell the people in my life when they've hurt or frightened me, but it would never cross my mind to bring them under my control or attempt to subordinate them by way of regulating their behavior. When we approach our child as a fully-formed human being, we see that it is not our job to "correct" her behavior; that's her job. When we are in relationship with our child we see that we are not there to compel or trick him into doing our bidding, but rather to help him figure out a better way. When we focus on discipline we teach the subordinating skill of obedience; when we focus on connection, we teach our child self-regulating skills that they will use for the rest of their lives.

In both instances when I started down the road of discipline with my daughter, I wound up trading out punishments for conversations (not lectures) that involved her doing most of the talking, that wound up with her in tears as she processed the natural consequences of what had happened, and what she had done to bring them upon herself. In both cases, the behavior never happened again, the lessons were learned, and my role was not to bring her under control, but to instead love and comfort her as she experienced a hard truth about being the boss of herself.

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Monday, April 14, 2014


There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreampt of in your philosophy.
~Shakespeare (Hamlet)

We play around with rhyme all the time in preschool. In fact, it's one of those things we do without even thinking much about it. Most of our songs feature end rhymes, as do many of the books we read and even the "jokes" we make up often rely on rhyme more than reason to get a laugh. For instance, here's an actual one from last week:

"Knock knock."

"Who's there?"

"Teacher Tom."

"Teacher Tom who?"

"Teacher Tom . . . Bomb!"

Maybe you had to be there, but it brought down the house.

I recall the joy of figuring out how to write a poem that rhymed. I must have been around 6 or 7 because I was actually writing them down on paper to show mom. It amazed me that I could create such things, like learning I could perform a kind of magic. As a young man I continued to horse around with writing poetry, sometimes under the guise of "song lyrics" that never got set to music because music is a related type of magic that leaves me on the outside. As a writer, however, even though I don't write much poetry any longer, knowing how it works has been invaluable. One of the most important courses I took in college was a poetry workshop in which we read our work aloud to our classmates. How often does a writer get to literally see an audience respond to his work, the looks on their faces as they hear something they've never heard before? I came to understand the power of writing succinctly, densely, and how to rely on metaphor, which is the fulcrum over which most human communication takes place.

And although we all now know the two great practical truths about poetry -- all poems don't have rely on end rhymes and don't plan to earn a living from writing it -- this art form remains central to the human experience whether we know it or not, if only because of all those popular music lyrics we have stockpiled in our heads, the ones that come to us like messengers of epiphany, hope, warning, or doom when the time is right. 

In times of panic and pressure, Neil Young's Powderfinger takes over my brain: They left me here to do the thinking.

In times of despair, I hear Pete Townsend: My life's a mess/I wait for it to pass/I stand here at the bar/I hold an empty glass.

And we all want to shriek the pure joy of Alice Cooper: School's out for summer/School's out forever.

Some say that poetry is dead, but then how does that explain the continued popularity of Shakespeare, by far the world's most produced playwright, year in year out, a man who wrote almost exclusively in verse, usually iambic pentameter? You might not even know it, but you probably quote him every day:

A sorry sight
A tower of strength
Vanish into thin air
Love is blind
Set your teeth on edge
There's method in my madness
What's done is done
Up in arms
A foregone conclusion
Too much of a good thing
Wild goose chase
Make your hair stand on end
A fool's paradise
All of a sudden

All of these are direct quotes from the poetry of a man who was writing four centuries ago, and it only scratches the surface of this poet's enormous influence not only on our language, but on how we perceive the world. In fact, the great critic Harold Bloom argues, convincingly, that Shakespeare did not just create the modern English language and eloquently and incisively portray human beings, but in fact, invented the modern human in that our contemporary idea of "personality" was created by this poet. I will not go into the full argument here, but rather point you to the 700 page book Bloom wrote to defend his thesis. Whether you can be convinced or not, there is no denying the vital importance of Shakespeare's "dead" poetry.

But let's not let the eminence of Shakespeare lessen the importance of other poets. Many assert that the poet Walt Whitman invented America, that Emily Dickenson redefined the meaning of life and death, and that Rumi discovered the connections between religion, science, and love. The dismissive joke is that everyone writes poetry, but no one reads it, yet there can be no doubt that we all live poetry, written by both large and small poets every day of our lives. And none of us can predict which poet will move our soul today, let alone still be read four centuries in the future.

My own teenager discovered Shakespeare while still in elementary school and looks forward to a life as a Shakespearean actress. From the time she could speak it was with great music and poetry, her inborn sense of metaphor and rhythm often staggered me. I could not believe that my three-year-old said, "Nothing is perfect, except everything." No poet has ever written a line more dense with truth and beauty. I say to anyone who will listen that she is an artist to the core of her being. She writes songs that make me cry. After recently writing a sonnet, she said, "I decided to write it in iambic pentameter because that's how people naturally speak." And I realized she was right.

Poetry, I think, is far more central to our human experience than most of us realize, but you wouldn't know it by looking at our public schools. I recently came across this short piece from a high school English teacher that appeared in The Atlantic. I admire his attempt to defend the teaching of poetry as a practical thing, but came away depressed. 

In an education landscape that dramatically deemphasizes creative expression in favor of expository writing and prioritizes the analysis of non-literary texts, high school literature teachers have to negotiate between their preferences and the way the wind is blowing. That sometimes means sacrifice, and poetry is often the first head to roll.

Poetry is so much more than a clever way to teach grammar and spelling, yet this is essentially where this teacher winds up in answering the question of why poetry is "so important." I don't blame him, however, but this is what it's coming to in an American educational experience that continues to become ever more narrow, pinched between the mandibles of Math and Literacy. Increasingly, all that matters is what can be easily tested. There is no longer room for the magic and mystery which, I would argue, is the primarily stuff from which the universe is made.

The Los Angeles Times has long been, from an editorial perspective, a staunch supporter of the high stakes testing regime that is the source of this minimizing of education, which is why it is significant that their main education editorial writer, Karen Klein, recently announced that her own high schooler will be opting out of the tests, a choice that more and more parents are making. She gave a much more detailed rationale than this, but it's all I needed to understand her decision:

The scores have risen impressively in our district, but I can't honestly say that I have noticed an improvement in actual learning over the years. What has been noticeable: more teachers who don't feel they have time to do the creative projects with their students that they used to do. There was an elementary school teacher I particularly wanted my youngest to be taught by; she conducted poetry tea parties with her students, nurturing a love of writing, listening to writing and some good old-fashioned manners. But by the time my daughter was lucky enough to be assigned to that teacher, the poetry teas had disappeared in favor of covering everything in the curriculum that would be on the test.

Mankind without poetry is an animal without a soul, without mystery, without magic. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, a world without poetry is one of petty men ciphering the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Opt out, children, and instead read the collected works of Emily Dickenson or Rumi or John Donne or Marianne Moore or just spend some time with the lyrics printed on the back of your parents' old Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band LP . . . or the lyrics to any song for that matter. In fact, wouldn't that be the greatest, most joyful pro-education protest of all? A roomful of children pulling out their copies of Leaves of Grass instead of taking that damned test.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Motivated Math Learners

She was playing with the Hoberman Sphere, a toy I purchased years ago for my own preschooler. 

The packaging asserted that Hoberman, the inventor, was the "Buckminster Fuller of the 90's," a bit of marketing trivia I continue to pass on to the children, usually to blank stares. Whatever the case, it is a sturdy thing, having survived over a decade in our classroom, still functioning as it did the day it came out of its box.

She bent down to get a grip, then stood to expand the sphere, before squatting down to cause it to return to its resting state. She did it again and again, each time faster, calling out to me, "Teacher Tom, it's bouncing!"

I responded by smiling. 

"Teacher Tom, say it!" she commanded. "Say it's bouncing, bouncing, bouncing," wanting to share her joy of epiphany with me, so I did, "Bouncing, bouncing, bouncing."

I feel like I've written a lot lately about math learning in the early years, maybe because one of the primary areas about which the corporate drill-and-kill Common Core crowd is fear-mongering is that America is falling behind in mathematics, basing their assertions upon deeply flawed, standardized testing that primarily tests the socio-economic background of the test takers.

But it seems that another part of the problem is that they have no idea what real math looks like when it comes to young children. This girl, for instance, found a simple A-B-A-B pattern in our Hoberman Sphere and her discovery delighted her. Children this age are designed for concrete, hands-on learning, yet the yahoos with the clipboards persist in abstracting it onto paper or screens, confusing things, making them hard, creating stress, doubt and fear, with absolutely no understanding of the natural development of human beings.

If the goal is "motivated learners," as they insist, then free play is demonstrably the way to go about it. We needn't motivate them, they are already motivated: we just need to get out of their way.

Of course, teachers know that this is how math learning happens. We know that free play underpins motivation because we see it every day as the children in our charge explore mathematical concepts without ever knowing, or needing to know, that what they are doing is math. It's just something they enjoy because, after all, math is something the human animal is driven to understand, and our drive to understand is manifested in the urge to play.

This second girl, a year older, has arranged some of our classroom giraffes into a more complex pattern, three in a row, each larger than the last. Why did she add the elephant to the end? I don't know, and I don't need to know, but I'm guessing, knowing the girl as I do, that the elephant is an important part of the story she is telling in her head about the daddy, mommy, and baby giraffes.

The next thing she does, without missing a beat, is scoot over a few feet and pointedly assemble four curved blocks into a circle. I don't say, "What shape did you make?" the way so many of us do, a question that, in an instant, turns the child from her proper role as a tester of the world, into a test taker, responding to my very narrow understanding of the exploration she is undertaking. If this was a younger girl or one I didn't know well, I might say, "You made a circle," providing a vocabulary word, but in this case, I am fully aware that she knows what to call the pleasing shape she's made.

She then retrieves her giraffes, and only the giraffes, and arranges them on a rectangular blocks, which she uses to transport them to the circle. It's a story problem she has devised and solved on her own.

This is what motivated math learners look like in preschool. The only thing we can hope to do with our tests and screens and ivory tower assessments is to suck the joy out of learning, compelling children to blankly parrot things they cannot truly understand, like my joke about how some no-name hinge-designer named Hoberman can be compared to the great Buckminster Fuller.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Laughing As We Play

Play is the answer to how anything new comes about. ~Jean Piaget

Most of the actual work I do is in preparing for the arrival of the kids, and by "work" I mean the kinds of things I'd rather not be doing: the stuff for which I'd wave a magic wand if I could. Once the kids arrive on the scene, however, it's pretty much all play for me, the part of my day I'd not wish away for anything. 

Indeed, sometimes we adults need to deal with certain aspects of cleaning or snack prep or bodily functions that we might identify as "work," but really, if we're going to be a play-based classroom worth its salt, everyone in the room should be playing, children and adults. A roomful of shoulder-to-shoulder learners is one of the key features of a full-on play-based curriculum -- at least the way we do it here at Woodland Park.

Much of what play-based learning is about is making connections, discoveries that come from putting things together then comparing the results to the things we thought we already knew. This is why the exact same environment, the exact same classroom set-up, serves as a learning environment for humans of all ages. We might be starting with the same stuff, but we're not all starting from the same place. A tool, a shovel for instance, may be used by a 2-year-old to make discoveries about the properties of corn starch mixed with water. That same tool may be used by an adult to make discoveries about the properties of that child or children in general or interactions between children and herself in relation to them.

As a child struggles to pull, say, a dinosaur from a cornstarch and water muck, she's experiencing adhesion, leverage, angles, emulsion, tension, moisture, suction, and the flexing of muscles. This is like the mud she found in the same place last week -- damp, gooey, possessing properties attributable to both liquids and solids -- but different as well. And as she plays, connecting what she knows with what she doesn't yet know, the adult makes her own connections between this child and the others she's known. This is like the child she found in the same place a few minutes ago -- persevering, testing, talking -- but different as well. And these connections, these examinations of similarities and differences, the interplay between what is known and unknown, shake the foundations of our metaphors, creating new ones, opening our eyes to mysterious places within ourselves, other people, and the physical world.

We discover there are always new connections to be made: that the more we know, the more there is to know.

When a child crosses the ground from the art table where he's been driving cars through paint and down ramps, hands slimy with red, he shows us all a newly connected world, opening up avenues into the very things we just thought we'd figured out. And as children begin to run back and forth to carry their own fists full of paint to where we're playing, we adults laugh with them from the joy of our own epiphanies, wondering at their wonder. They, the adults, look up at me, their eyes sometimes more than the children alight with the joy of connection, of discovery, "He made pink! We're making pink! Now the dinos are pink!"

And the kids are saying, "Ghost dinos! Pink ghost dinos!" as metaphors take shape, new scaffolding erected, the world changing before our very eyes.

Then someone else comes over from the work bench, still clutching the Duplos he found over there, drawn by the sounds of discovery, and from that curiosity, we then all learn what happens when we drop a block in the pink goo.

I think about connections as I go through the "work" part of my day, trying to anticipate the paths it will take, and every now and then I get to experience the euphoria of being right, of having my best guesses proven in the real world of play-based learning. But that's a rare treat, one I enjoy, but no more so than the ones we all share when we play here together, connecting. Discovery is always unexpected. It's why we laugh when we play.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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