Thursday, June 22, 2017

A "Joke-y" Teacher

I've not sat down to do the math, but I've sent hundreds of kids off into the world from the Woodland Park Cooperative School. For most of them, I was their first and only teacher, which means that, for better or worse, I've had both the responsibility and opportunity to shape children's expectations for what's to come. Some of that is conscious, like our curriculum of questioning authority, but most is just an unconscious manifestation of my personality and the pedagogy I've been developing over the years.

I often say that after my wife and daughter, all of my best friends are five-years-old. After all, these are the people with whom I've been hanging out, daily, for the better part of three years. We've been together through highs and lows, made life stories together, share inside jokes, and trust one another: the stuff from which best friends are made. That said, I know the friendship will fade, at least from their side, once they've moved on, but I hope the feeling of that relationship stays with them as they encounter their future teachers. 

Few things gratify me more than when alumni return to visit and enthuse about the wonders of their new teacher, and most of them do, even sometimes telling me that they like their new teacher "better." It doesn't hurt because I know that this new relationship is built upon the one we had. I want them to like their current teacher. By same token, there are few things that hurt more than when one of these children tell me they don't like their new teacher or, worse, that they wish they could return to preschool.

The whole subject matter is bitter sweet, of course, and my feelings would be just the opposite were I being told these things by their parent, but it's a central part of every teacher's job (or should be) to provide an experience for children that is right for them right now. I've tried to do that when the children were preschoolers and that's all I can do. When I speak with children who have moved on, that moment has passed for us. It's now someone else's job to provide that "just right" experience and if they're doing it right, they've earned the title "favorite."

One of my former best friends is enrolled in our current summer session. Yesterday, as we were re-discovering our friendship, talking about our year apart. He told me that he liked kindergarten. I asked, "Was your teacher nice?"

"Yes, really nice."

"That's good," I joked, "because you had a really mean preschool teacher."

It took him a beat to realize I was talking about myself, but when it clicked, he laughed. "You're not mean!"

"Thanks for saying that. I try to be nice."

He thought for a second, "You're not that nice!" It was his turn to tell a joke.


We laughed. He was then quiet for a moment, a smile still playing on his lips, eyes rolled up as if looking into his brain, then, "You're not mean or nice, you're more of a joke-y teacher. That's why I like coming here!" Best friends tell you the truth, especially when they know it will make you glow. His future teachers are the luckiest people on earth.

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

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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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Space For Children To Do Their Own Thinking

My university rhetoric professor once asserted that "language creates reality." I was convinced of its truth then, but have become even more so as a teacher.

If there is one thing I concentrate on more than any other as a teacher is the language I use with children. Of course, the tone, context, and emotional content are also central, but equally so are the actual words, phrases, and sentences we use, the language we choose to express ourselves. And this creates reality, both for ourselves and others. 

For instance, if I go through life speaking mostly in directive statements, those that command others ("Come here," "Sit down," "Don't do that.") a certain reality grows around me. If I ask a lot of questions to satisfy my curiosity about the world, then one reality will emerge while if my questions are of the argumentative or quizzing or jealous or passive aggressive variety then, well, I will live in other realities. And if I tend toward informational statements, striving to communicate things that are true about the world, including my own opinions and emotions, yet another world is mine.

As a teacher, I try to avoid directive statements and questions, both of which tend to strongly shape reality according to my preconceived notions, and instead focus on making informative statements, those statements that have the virtue of being true, because they tend to leave more space for children to do their own thinking, and that, after all, is what education is all about.

Directive statements, commands, the ones that fill our children's lives (some studies have found that as many as 80 percent of the sentences said to young children are commands) leave children with only two choices: obey or disobey. There is no room in there for thinking for oneself, just obedience or rebellion.

Questions asked out of any motivation other than genuine curiosity, put children on the spot, forcing them to think about the adult's agenda instead of their own, which is, at least, their proper pursuit in a child-lead, play-based environment.

Informative statements, however, create a space in which children can do their own thinking.

For instance, when a child approaches a table upon which there is a bowl of fruit and finds there also paper, brushes, and paints, the reality of those materials are changed if I declare, "Today, we are making still life paintings," rather than, "Here is a bowl of fruit, paper, bushes, and paint." In the first case the child lives in a world in which he can either try to paint that still life or not. In the second instance, the one in which I simply listed the materials, a whole world of possibilities is open: he can indeed paint a still life, but he can also use the brushes to paint the fruit; he can eat the fruit while painting; he can use the fruit as brushes; he can finger paint, make prints, or simply mix colors. When I use directive language I make his world narrow, while informative statements open it up.

When it's clean-up time and I command a child, "Pick up that block," she can either do what I say or not. When I make informative statements like, "It's clean-up time," "I see a block on the floor," "The costumes go on the hooks," or "I see Sally putting the puzzles on the shelf," I create a world in which she can think for herself, where she makes her own decisions about how to best engage in clean-up time.

Likewise, I strive to avoid questions unless I'm genuinely curious about the answer and I have a reasonable expectation that this particular child can answer it. Too often we use questions to control or test children, to shape them to our agenda: "What color is that?" "How many marbles am I holding?" "Does that look safe?" Informative statements, in contrast, simply provide potentially useful information that the child may or may not use: "That color is red." "I'm holding three marbles." "That doesn't look safe to me."

None of us, of course, can ever completely eliminate directive statements or questions, they have their place and are, besides, simply too ingrained in us by now. But we can, with conscious effort begin to replace them with more informative statements, and when we do, even a little, we begin to create a new reality, one in which there is more space for children to do their own thinking.

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

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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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Something We Do

School is officially out for the summer, but we continue to run our summer program, a series of two week sessions with an ever-changing community of children, although to be honest, I'm using the word "community" more out of habit than anything else. Of course, any time humans come together one can use the term, but for me, the word is more a verb than a noun: community is something we do together, not just something we are.

As we wrapped up our school year at the end of May, I was working with communities of children that we had been building together for months and even years. Through the process of coming together day after day, we had practiced handling conflict, balancing the needs of individuals, and creating agreements, traditions, and even what one might call rituals that shaped who we were together. And while our small, democratic societies came to an abrupt end, the hope is that as the children of Woodland Park go out into the wider world to begin creating new communities, they carry with them the skills, habits, and attitudes they learned while playing together.

During any given summer session, about half of our enrollment is comprised of families who are a part of our regular school year community, while the remainder come to us from other places. Two weeks of half day sessions is really not long enough for a robust community to take shape, but it's inspiring nonetheless to watch the children strive toward it as they bump up against these other people with whom they are suddenly sharing space and resources. There is joy and conflict as they strive to shape this neophyte community, each working to satisfy her own needs while accommodating those of the others.

I find myself stepping in more quickly than I do during the regular school year, if only because we have not had the time to establish community standards around violence and force. I'm responsible for everyone's safety, but I'm not there to solve their problems, because it is largely from solving their own problems, together, that a community can grow. My job, as I see it, is to remind the children to listen to one another. When they do that, magic happens.

Yesterday, a girl, seeing that someone was already using our cast iron water pump, whined to me, "Teacher Tom, I want to pump!"

I pointed out that someone was already using it, but that if she wanted a turn she should tell him, not me. She said to him, "I want to pump." He answered, "Let me finish." She smiled from ear-to-ear, "He said I could pump when he's finished!" saying it the way a cartoon scientist says, "Eureka!" Then moments later he stepped aside, making way for her. Within minutes another child was standing at her shoulder saying, "I want to pump." And she replied, "Let me finish."

This instinct to form community, it seems to me, is the lifeblood of education. Indeed, I would say it is the purpose of not just education, but life itself. Community is an action word and every second children spend hunched over a desk filling out a worksheet or taking a test or listening to lecture is a second lost in this great and grand human project.

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

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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Monday, June 19, 2017

Adults At Play

The summer solstice is a couple of days away and we're still experiencing June-uary weather here in Seattle, but our annual Fremont neighborhood Summer Solstice Parade filled the streets on Saturday as it has for the past 28 years. My family has taken part in the most recent 14 parades and we plan to keep doing it because it's fun! Kicked off by some 1500 cyclists, most wearing little more than body paint, it's our own, homemade art parade, a celebration both of the season and who we are as a community. The parade rules stipulate that there are no recognizable words, logos or signage: if you have something to say, you have to say it through your art. And no motors are allowed (other than wheelchairs) so everything must be human powered.

This year I joined an ensemble called the Rodent and Robot Revolution. Conceived by local artist Balou De la Rosa, our float featured a giant, functional hamster wheel that we took turns walking in along the parade route. We costumed ourselves as various types of rodents and robots, equipping ourselves with chunks of prop cheese and large-scale pet water bottles. The idea, as I interpreted it, was that if you don't watch out, the rat race will turn you into a robot.

Most of what I write here is about children and play, but this parade, while children are certainly included, is really about adults at play. Sadly, outside our play-based preschool bubble, most adults no longer know how to play. I think it's safe to say that the modern adult's number one free time activity is watching TV and that can hardly count as play. A lot of us have hobbies with playful aspects, like collecting or knitting or woodworking, but at their core, those activities are more pastimes than the kind of play we see when we watch children.

It's impossible to talk about play without talking about risk. Much of what we do as adults has been made risk-free, both physically and psychologically, which are key elements of what puts play at the center of children's learning. Our hamster wheel, for instance, was based on an acrobatic device known as a Rohn Wheel, which was set in a wheeled track we bolted to the float. Balou had no idea if it was going to work. In fact, she confessed that up until about a week before the big day she was convinced that she was going to have to cancel the whole thing because it was simply too dangerous. I mean, this is a device that trained acrobats use, mounted on a moving parade float being pushed along a pot-holed city street, and the plan was for a bunch of us amateurs to manage it. Over the last week, at least a dozen people warned us that "someone is going to get hurt on that thing," predicting broken legs and concussions. I myself, after my first crazy attempt, arrived at the build site on the following day prepared to tell Balou that I was opting out, a sentiment that I think was shared by every member of our ensemble at one time or another.

In fact, right up until the parade began, we were telling ourselves that we would only attempt to walk the wheel when the float had come to a complete stop. Balou and the rest of us, although we didn't fully express it to one another, were preparing ourselves for a complete belly flop, both literally and figuratively. And I honestly don't know what I feared the most: a physical injury or the humiliation of a dramatic failure in front of the tens of thousands of people who had turned out to watch us. We were all taking a genuine and entirely "unnecessary" risk. It would have been easier to just sit on the curb and watch the parade go by.

I've been a part of many ensembles over the years and this is the way it always feels. We're doing something we've never done before and will likely not do again. We were all asking ourselves, "Can I do this?" We were all aware that public failure was an option. We all shared the thrill of taking this risk, of asking this question of ourselves, and then going out there and answering it.

I'm happy to report that not only did no one get hurt, but we had someone walking that wheel the entire time, even as the float was in motion. We played, we danced, we cavorted with the audience. I stole a joke from Lily Tomlin, that I told over and over again as we made our way slowly and joyfully through the streets of Fremont: "The trouble with the rat race is that win or lose, you're still a rat!"

We were adults at play, living an afternoon outside our comfort zone, outside the rat race, taking risks and learning about ourselves and our world. This is what children do all day. If we are really going to be life-long learners, this is something we need to know.

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

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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Friday, June 16, 2017

A Proud And Grateful Cowboy

I've been writing here, almost daily, for eight years. When I posted on Teacher Tom for the first time, I don't think I'd ever even read a blog before. As most of you know, the word "blog" is a shortening of the term "weblog," and the original bloggers tended to treat theirs as a kind of online, public diary, which is how I started out as well. And in most ways, it's how I still use this platform.

You would think, by now, I would have run out of things to say, and it is true, that when I go back through the archives I see a tendency to repeat myself, hitting on the same themes over and over, even phrasing things in similar ways. If I dig deep enough I can find contradictions, of course, because part of any diary is to record one's personal journey and I'm certain that I would have dropped this project long ago if I weren't always in the process of evolving as both a teacher and a man.

Over the years I've found that most bloggers start strong, then as the weeks and months pass, tend to leave longer and longer spaces between posts, finally petering out. As part of attempting to promote my new book, Teacher Tom's First Book, I've been seeking out those early childhood education blogs I've lost track of over the years only to find a lot of dead ends. I doubt their demise had anything to do with running out of things to say: my guess is that the self-imposed "pressure" of posting on a regular basis became too unpleasant, because I simply can't imagine anyone in our business ever running out of things over which to ponder, enthuse, advocate, or grow.

Probably the main reason I continue to blog is that I continue to be a full-time, classroom teacher, which means there is always something to write about. I tried other jobs and professions prior to becoming a preschool teacher and left every one of them largely because at some point I ran out of "things to say." In other words, those other jobs tended to become routine and predictable, and if there is one thing for which I'm temperamentally unsuited, it's the tedium of rote. No one could ever say that about teaching preschool, at least the way we do it at Woodland Park, where the children lead the way. When kid's play, they are turning the world over and over, examining all it's facets; they are opening it up to look inside; they are discovering it's great beauty and grotesque ugliness for the first time. Almost daily, their explorations reveal views into the world that I've never glimpsed before, usually revealing it as more lovely than I previously thought, sometimes even shaking my soul. These are the things I try to write about.

I would be lying to say I'm not proud of the blog. I am proud of how long I've done it. I am proud that people read it. And I am proud that even as I may tend to repeat myself, I have continued to grow as a teacher and human: the evidence is in the archives. I am grateful to everyone who reads here, past, present, and future. I am grateful for the families of our Woodland Park Cooperative School who continue to support me. And I am grateful for the unexpected opportunities this platform has given me.

In less than a month, I'll be winging my way to Australia, where I look forward to spending time with my colleagues Down Under. I'd love for you to join me.

In the fall, I'll be flying to the UK, then to Iceland for the International Play Iceland Conference. I'd love for you to join me.

Indeed, I've had the opportunity to travel the globe in my role as Teacher Tom, having been all over the US and Canada, as well as Greece, New Zealand, China, and England.

And of course, I've now published a book.

It might sound glamorous, I know it would have looked that way to me eight years ago when I first sat down in my PJ's to post here for the first time, and sometimes it is. There is nothing like the thrill of standing before an audience of several hundred enthusiastic early childhood educators, peers and colleagues who have come together in the expectation of continuing to evolve as both teachers and humans. But it's also exhausting, challenging, even frightening. And above all, there is a part of me that regrets every second I'm away from the classroom, which is the source of every bit of professional success that has ever come my way.

If there is one thing that blogging has taught me it's that I'm blessed. I've found something I love, that rarely feels like rote, and that feeds both my pocketbook and soul. As Johnny Cash sang, "I'm no slave to whistle, clock, or bell/Nor weak-eyed prisoner of wall or street." That's his version of a line from Badger Clark's poem "A Cowboy's Prayer."

As a boy I learned to dream a lot of dreams, none of which were to become a teacher, although I did often dream of being a cowboy.

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

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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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Ignorance And Wisdom

I was passing a pair of five-year-olds on my way to something else when I overheard one of them saying, "When you get older you forget more stuff." It was one of those comments that is either full of great ignorance or great wisdom, so I slowed down to hear more.

The girl with whom he was speaking answered, "No, that's not right. When you get older you go to more school then more school then more school. The more you go to school, the smarter you get."

"Well, my grandpa is old and he went to lots of schools and he forgets everything."

"My grandpa doesn't forget anything. And my grandma doesn't either. And my mom and my dad."

"Maybe they're not old enough. When you get to be 70 you start to forget."

They stood in silence for a moment, then, "I don't forget anything."

"Me either . . . Like I know everything about Star Wars when I'm little. When you get tall and old you forget everything about Star Wars."

This time the girl nodded in agreement, "My grandpa doesn't know about Star Wars. He calls it the wrong name."

"That's because he's old."

"Or maybe his mommy didn't let him watch Star Wars. I can't watch it until I'm eight. It's too scary."

"It's not scary for me."

"It's not scary for me, either, but it's scary for my mom and so we can't watch it until I'm eight."

There was a short pause while the children let the conversation sink in. Then, "How old is your mom?"


"When you get old things are more scary. I know everything about Star Wars and it's not scary."

"I know everything too, because I watch animal shows on TV. I know about lemurs and all other kinds of animals."

The boy shook his head sadly, "Then when you get tall you'll forget it."

She replied brightly, "But I remember it now! That's good! I'll just forget it when I'm old, but I'll remember it now."

"Yeah, you'll remember it now because you're not too old."

"And, you know, I'm a girl so one day when I get big, I'll just get a baby and my baby can tell me all the things I forget!"

They nodded their agreement at their great ignorance and great wisdom, which is, of course, the human condition, then went back to their play.

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

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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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

That's How To Share

If there's one aspect of our outdoor classroom that consistently provokes conflict, it would be our swing set. With only two regular seats and 20 or so kids, there's almost always someone waiting for a turn, or, more precisely, someone who is upset with how long the current swinger is taking to get finished.

Generally speaking, our policy about sharing is that we inform the person currently using an object, "When you're finished, I want a turn," (although more often than not it's expressed as, "I'm next!") then let the person with possession decide for her or himself when it's time to give way, which always happens sooner or later, if only because they can't resist the "pressure" of a friend just standing there waiting for them. It's not a perfect system, prone to abuse, but I think it's better than the alternative which is for an adult to arbitrarily decide when it's time to give it up, robbing children of an opportunity to practice working things out for themselves.

When I paused to listen in to these two girls, I heard one of them counting while the other took a turn.

And while the swing set is where much of our turn-taking and sharing practice takes place, they are skills easily transferable to other endeavors. For instance, we once had our old Fisher Price "record player" out, a wind-up device with 5 tough plastic records. A group of us were in the other room, leaving the field clear for Finn, who loved figuring things out, to master the thing. When we returned, there were suddenly a half dozen kids in his space, demanding a turn. Finn let out a howl as the other kids turned to the adults, loudly, saying things like, "He won't give us a turn!" and "He's taking too long!" Emotions were high.

I said, stating the facts as I understood them, "Finn, your friends want a turn when you're finished."

He answered, "I have to play these records first." Everyone backed off a pace. Finn then methodically selected a record, placed it on the turn table, wound it up and turned it on. With the first few notes of Camptown Races, children began to call out, "Now it's my turn!"

When she'd counted to 20, they traded places, and the count to 20 began again.

"No," said Finn firmly, "I have to play all the records." That's when it dawned on me that his plan was to not only play each of the 5 records, but to play each of them until they'd exhausted the wind-up. This was going to be a 15 minute proposition. I asked, "So you're going to play all of those records?"


A couple kids shouted, "That's not fair!"

I said, "It's his turn. When he's done someone else gets a turn."

As the records played, the number of children waiting dwindled, but not by much: four of them remained crowded around. With London Bridges in the air, they began to sort themselves out. Rex was standing directly behind Finn, using that to support his claim that he was next. Charlotte objected at first, but after a couple rounds, relented, stating, "Then I'm after you." She then pointed across the table at Cooper, "And you're after me," to which he agreed, although that left Ben "last," which didn't seem at all fair to him.

This was a system they worked out on their own: no obedience necessary, just agreement among peers. I said nothing, no "Atta girls" necessary, because the reward, as it always is when we are left to work things out for ourselves, is built into the solution.

As Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star played, Rex took a crack at things, pointing as he spoke, "I'm first, she's second, he's third, and you're fourth." This use of ordinals was stroke of genius on Rex's part, leaving Ben feeling much better about being fourth rather than "last." 

By now Finn had played 3 of his 5 records. With the turn-taking sorted out, everyone's attentions now returned to him. There were a couple grumbles of, "He's taking a long time," and "When is it going to be our turn?"

As he placed Clair de Lune on the turntable, he said, "This is the last one I'm going to play. I don't like that other one." Playing 4 records instead of 5 was his concession to the group. He then declared himself "finished" a couple notes in, vacating his chair for Rex.

Rex, Charlotte, Cooper, and Ben, their sharing plan already agreed upon, then rotated through in a matter of minutes without a hitch. That's how to share.

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

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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