Monday, November 30, 2015

"I Just Have To Finish My Cry"

When our daughter Josephine was four, she was struggling with some of her friendships. Specifically, she was feeling rejected by a girl who she adored. It wasn't anyone's fault. From where I sat, Josephine was being a little too pushy, a little too fast, while the other girl just tended to reject everyone until she had sufficient time to warm up. It's the kind of social misunderstanding we spend our lives having.

As her father, however, it broke my heart that she was coming home from school in tears. I did everything I knew how: consoling, coaxing, making suggestions, and offering philosophy. One afternoon, I had followed her into her bedroom where she was crying on her bed, face in her pillow. After a few minutes she lifted her head and through her tears said, "I want you to leave now! I just have to finish my cry!"

It was an empathy epiphany for me. She didn't want me to fix anything. From that moment I learned that my role when she cried, indeed, when anyone cried, was to just be there with them as they cried. And as a preschool teacher, you spend a lot of time just being with people who are crying. I might offer a hug. I've learned to repeat the exact words children say to me so they know I've heard them, that I understand. I've learned that the goal is not to "finish" the cry quickly, but rather to finish it completely.

Other people's strong emotions had always set me into action, but through that moment in our daughter's bedroom, I came to understand that the best thing I have to offer is simply my presence without judgement or advice. Fixing it can wait until another time. The other day, I came across this wonderful, short animated video on empathy from Brene Brown and wanted to share it with you.

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Friday, November 27, 2015

"Never In My Wildest Dreams"

I must say that I'm deeply disappointed these days with one of the people I had come to respect. When I learned that my own US Senator, Patty Murray, a former preschool teacher, was one of the lead authors of the reauthorization of the odious No Child Left Behind law, the one that ushered in our new era of punitive high stakes standardized testing and other ham-fisted federal sabotage of our schools and the teaching profession, I was elated. I guess Washington, DC does change people, because from where I sit there is very little new or better about the new law. As Carolyn Leith writes over on the Seattle Education blog, it's "a radical rebranding -- which tones down the rhetoric of failure, and adds just a hint of smaller class size," but is otherwise just the same pile of crap the Bush administration gave us fifteen years ago.

I don't give too many reading assignments on this blog, but on this holiday morning I urge you to take a look at Leith's full analysis of the proposed new law, making a special point of noting that Senator Murray's phone number is at the bottom of the piece. I've already used it to let her know how I feel.

It's bizarre and sickening how our elected officials and other "edu-crat" types seem hellbent upon policies, practices, and curricula that simply have no basis in research or science. This was a chance for thoughtful people to allow NCLB to quietly whither up and blow away as the failure it has been, or to at least re-write it based upon what we know about how children best learn and teachers best teach, but no, even Patty Murray is committed to bringing this zombie carcass back to life to devour what's left of public education in America.

Meanwhile, Professor and author Nancy Carlsson-Paige is one of the giants in early childhood education, a woman whose life's work is based upon the actual science and evidence-based practices of how to teach and learn. She has received many awards over her distinguished career, the most recent being the Deborah Meier Award from the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, and the speech she gave there is worth sharing, especially in the light of the betrayal of Patty Murray. Without further ado I give you this second reading assignment:

Thank you FairTest for this Deborah Meier Hero in Education Award. FairTest does such great advocacy and education around fair and just testing practices. This award carries the name of one of my heroes in education, Deborah Meier—she’s a force for justice and democracy in education. I hope that every time this award is given, it will allow us to once again pay tribute to Deb. Also, I feel privileged to be accepting this honor alongside Lani Guinier.
When I was invited to be here tonight, I thought about the many people who work for justice and equity in education who could also be standing here. So I am thinking of all of them now and I accept this award on their behalf — all the educators dedicated to children and what’s fair and best for them.
It’s wonderful to see all of you here — so many family and friends, comrades in this struggle to reclaim excellent public education for all – not just some – of our children.
I have loved my life’s work – teaching teachers about how young children think, how they learn, how they develop socially, emotionally, morally. I’ve been fascinated with the theories and science of my field and seeing it expressed in the actions and the play of children.
So never in my wildest dreams could I have foreseen the situation we find ourselves in today.
Where education policies that do not reflect what we know about how young children learn could be mandated and followed. We have decades of research in child development and neuroscience that tell us that young children learn actively — they have to move, use their senses, get their hands on things, interact with other kids and teachers, create, invent. But in this twisted time, young children starting public pre-K at the age of 4 are expected to learn through “rigorous instruction.”
And never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that we would have to defend children’s right to play.
Play is the primary engine of human growth; it’s universal – as much as walking and talking. Play is the way children build ideas and how they make sense of their experience and feel safe. Just look at all the math concepts at work in the intricate buildings of kindergartners. Or watch a 4-year-old put on a cape and pretend to be a superhero after witnessing some scary event.
But play is disappearing from classrooms. Even though we know play is learning for young kids, we are seeing it shoved aside to make room for academic instruction and “rigor.”
I could not have foreseen in my wildest dreams that we would have to fight for classrooms for young kids that are developmentally appropriate. Instead of active, hands-on learning, children now sit in chairs for far too much time getting drilled on letters and numbers. Stress levels are up among young kids. Parents and teachers tell me: children worry that they don’t know the right answers; they have nightmares, they pull out their eyelashes, they cry because they don’t want to go to school. Some people call this child abuse and I can’t disagree.
I could not have foreseen in my wildest dreams that we would be up against pressure to test and assess young kids throughout the year often in great excess — often administering multiple tests to children in kindergarten and even pre-K. Now, when young children start school, they often spend their first days not getting to know their classroom and making friends. They spend their first days getting tested. Here are words from one mother as this school year began:
“My daughter’s first day of kindergarten — her very first introduction to elementary school — consisted almost entirely of assessment. She was due at school at 9:30, and I picked her up at 11:45. In between, she was assessed by five different teachers, each a stranger, asking her to perform some task.
“By the time I picked her up, she did not want to talk about what she had done in school, but she did say that she did not want to go back. She did not know the teachers’ names. She did not make any friends. Later that afternoon, as she played with her animals in her room, I overheard her drilling them on their numbers and letters.”
The most important competencies in young children can’t be tested—we all know this. Naming letters and numbers is superficial and almost irrelevant in relation to the capacities we want to help children develop: self-regulation, problem solving ability, social and emotional competence, imagination, initiative, curiosity, original thinking — these capacities make or break success in school and life and they can’t be reduced to numbers.
Yet these days, all the money and resources, the time dedicated to professional development, they go to tooling teachers up to use the required assessments. Somehow the data gleaned from these tests is supposed to be more valid than a teacher’s own ability to observe children and understand their skills in the context of their whole development in the classroom.
The first time I saw for myself what was becoming of many of the nation’s early childhood classrooms was when I visited a program in a low-income community in north Miami. Most of the children were on free- and reduced-price lunch.
There were 10 classrooms – kindergarten and pre-K. The program’s funding depended on test scores, so — no surprise — teachers taught to the test. Kids who got low scores, I was told, got extra drills in reading and math and didn’t get to go to art. They used a computer program to teach 4- and 5-year-olds how to “bubble.” One teacher complained to me that some children go outside the lines.
In one of the kindergartens I visited, the walls were barren and so was the whole room. The teacher was testing one little boy at a computer at the side of the room. There was no classroom aide. The other children were sitting at tables copying words from the chalk board. The words were: “No talking. Sit in your seat. Hands to Yourself.”
The teacher kept shouting at them from her testing corner: Be quiet! No talking!
Most of the children looked scared or disengaged, and one little boy was sitting alone. He was quietly crying. I will never forget how these children looked or how it felt to watch them, I would say, suffering in this context that was such a profound mismatch with their needs.
It’s in low-income, under-resourced communities like this one where children are most subjected to heavy doses of teacher-led drills and tests. Not like in wealthier suburbs where kids have the opportunity to go to early childhood programs that have play, the arts, and project-based learning. It’s poverty — the elephant in the room — that is the root cause of this disparity.
A few months ago, I was alarmed to read a report from the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights showing that more than 8,000 children from public preschools across the country were suspended at least once in a school year, many more than once. First of all, who suspends a preschooler? Why and for what? The very concept is bizarre and awful. But 8,000? And then to keep reading the report to see that a disproportionate number of those suspended preschoolers were low income, black boys.
There is a connection, I know, between these suspensions and ed reform policies: Children in low-income communities are enduring play deficient classrooms where they get heavy doses of direct teaching and testing. They have to sit still, be quiet in their seats and comply. Many young children can’t do this and none should have to.
I came home from that visit to the classrooms in North Miami in despair. But fortunately, the despair turned quickly to organizing. With other educators we started our nonprofit Defending the Early Years. We have terrific early childhood leaders with us (some are here tonight: Deb Meier, Geralyn McLaughlin, Diane Levin and Ayla Gavins). We speak in a unified voice for young children.
We publish reports, write op eds, make videos and send them out on YouTube, we speak and do interviews every chance we get.
We’ve done it all on a shoestring. It’s almost comical: The Gates Foundation has spent more than $200 million just to promote the Common Core. Our budget at Defending the Early Years is .006 percent of that.
We collaborate with other organizations. FairTest has been so helpful to us. And we also collaborate with –Network for Public Education, United Opt Out, many parent groups, Citizens for Public Schools, Badass Teachers, Busted Pencils Radio, Save Our Schools, Alliance for Childhood and ECE PolicyWorks —There’s a powerful network out there – of educators, parents and students — and we see the difference we are making.
We all share a common vision: Education is a human right and every child deserves one. An excellent, free education where learning is meaningful – with arts, play, engaging projects, and the chance to learn citizenship skills so that children can one day participate — actively and consciously – in this increasingly fragile democracy.

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Thursday, November 26, 2015

And Just Be Thankful

I have so many things for which to be thankful. At the top of my list is our daughter (who is spending her first Thanksgiving away from us today) and my wife to whom I've now been married for 29 years, almost to the day (our anniversary was on Tuesday). I'm also thankful for my mother and father who I'll be seeing in few hours, along with my brother and sister and their families and every dog who has ever been my companion. And then there are the children and families that make up, and have always made up, the Woodland Park Cooperative School community, people who, in a very real sense, created the man I am today. I would not trade my life for any other: if I could do it all again, I'd do it exactly the same way, mistakes and all. 

Not long ago, I read about a survey in which it was reported that the average American, no matter our socio-economic station, felt we could be economically satisfied with about 10 percent more money. This was true of both billionaires and paupers. I suspect this is true about most of the good things in our lives. I know I could, for instance, do with about 10 percent more sleep, 10 percent more free time, and 10 percent more sex in addition to that 10 percent pay increase. So, as we gather today to reflect upon those things for which we are thankful, it's against a background of always wanting, or of thinking we want, more, a phenomenon that we will prove, as a nation, over the course of the month of consumerism that begins with so-called Black Friday.

Among the many other things for which I'm thankful is the fact that the adults in our family chose some two decades ago to step back from the sales and malls and cash registers. We capped our holiday spending at $5 per person and have placed an emphasis on gifts that are handmade. This means that our holiday experience is about arts, crafts, cooking, and baking, rather than just buying crap. I'm thankful that this is not a season of stress and anxiety for me, but rather one during which I take some time to sit down and meditate on my loved ones while manufacturing some little item that I think they might find amusing or tasty. Often, I'm inspired by things we're doing at school. Last year, for instance, I made melted crayon sculptures, each one created from an entire 64-count box of crayons.

It's probably an aspect of human nature to want more, whatever the percentage. It reflects our urge to strive, the engine of our progress as a species: to reach higher, dig deeper, run faster, and see farther. So I don't want to sound like I'm sitting here judgement of anyone else's striving. One man's trash is another man's treasure and all that.

This morning, I awoke about an hour later than I normally do, but lay there in bed thinking it must be 3 a.m. We live downtown and on normal days when I awake there are the sounds of traffic, construction, and people laughing on the sidewalk, but today even the city is quiet. Everything is closed. Everyone is getting a little extra sleep. I'm thankful to have a day like this to set aside my striving and just be thankful.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Star Wars And Superheroes

When I first started teaching, there were a lot of teachers who discouraged superhero play in preschool. There probably still are some, but for the most part, the pendulum seems to have swung back toward the idea that this sort of dramatic play is healthy for young children as long as it doesn't devolve into actual violence, which it rarely does. The arguments in favor of this sort of play are deep and various, but what swayed me was the whole "forbidden fruit" phenomenon and the memories of my own superhero play.

It's satisfying to me that most of today's superheroes are the same as the ones from my youth, like Batman, Spiderman, Green Lantern, and Ironman, characters from the DC and Marvel comic book worlds. These are characters I know even better than the kids because as thin as comic book characters can be, they're as rich as Anna Karenina compared to their movie variations. I enjoy sharing their origin stories or details from their backstories, and I've even been known to consult the remnants of my childhood comic book collection, mining them for fascinating tidbits for children who are deeply into, say, The Hulk or Wonder Woman.

A category of "superhero" that I know little about are those that come from the Star Wars movie franchise. I saw the original, like everyone did, back in high school and at least parts of a couple of the subsequent films, but as a young adult I found myself more drawn to other aspects of popular culture and I've never felt compelled to go back and fill in the gaps. Of course, relatively few of our preschoolers have actually seen the movies, but that doesn't stop them from pretending to be Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader, which means that we tend to rely on the few playmates whose parents have permitted them to view the movies as our primary source for important information like who are good guys and who are bad guys.

Whereas traditional superhero play requires lots of punching and action poses, Star Wars play revolves around light sabers, which means that I often position myself near the swinging stick action just to make sure I can step in should things get out of hand. The benefit is that I get to hear the conversation which is, by turns, comprised of accurate and what even I know is hilariously inaccurate information. I leave those sleeping dogs to lie, but I've sometimes felt compelled to interject my own two cents when one of our "experts" starts to push their lesser informed playmates around. I remember how it felt to be "on the outside" of important cultural trends and so I try to pick my moments to role model standing up for my right to play as I wish.

For instance, if an expert tells another child, "You can't be Chewbacca because he's a boy and you're a girl," I might say, "I'm going to be Princess Leia and pretend to be a girl." Indeed, I've even invented a few Star Wars characters of my own who I've trotted out when an expert becomes particularly domineering. My favorite of these is Darth Marcus. I want the kids to see that just because someone knows the movie script, it doesn't mean that everyone has to follow it. Sometimes the kids take my point, sometimes they stare at me blankly for a moment, then go on about their business.

The public schools have been closed for parent-teacher conferences this short week leading up to Thanksgiving, so, in keeping with our tradition, we've opened our doors to older siblings, many of whom are Woodland Park alumni. Lukas was one of the guys who loved to play Star Wars in preschool, but who had never seen the actual movies. When I saw him on Monday, however, it was clear that he has now seen them all and is perhaps one of the world's leading experts. Indeed, he informed me that he was preparing a "report" on Star Wars (not for school, just for fun) and was hoping that he could present it for his sister's class one day. When I said, "You can do it today if you want," he replied, "No, I'm not ready yet. I still have to do some more research. How about next Thursday?"

Later, his mom told me that he had been hiding out in his room preparing detailed notes for the presentation in tiny handwriting. She said he wasn't normally a big fan of writing, except, so far, in the case of Star Wars, one of his abiding passions. I can't say how proud I am of him.

As we chatted on the playground I reminded him of Darth Marcus. He had always been a Darth Marcus doubter, but now he was absolutely certain in his doubt. "There is no Darth Marcus, but," he added with a shrug, "you can always pretend to be anything you want to be." Exactly.

I said, "That report is going to be cool. I can't wait to learn more about Captain Kirk."

He looked at a point just over my right shoulder, lowering his eyebrows a bit as if thinking.

I feigned surprise, "What about Mister Spock? Dr. McCoy? Lieutenant Uhura? Not even Sulu?

He maintained his thoughtful gaze. I could tell he was wracking his brain, striving to figure out which esoteric tunnel into which I was delving.

I let him off the hook by saying, "Those are all pretty important characters in Star Trek."

That broke him out of it. His smile betrayed both humor and relief, "Oh, Star Trek is a different thing."

"I guess I got them mixed up."

He looked at me like only a benevolent expert can, "That's common."

I can't wait for the report. I might be inspired to do my own on the comic book superheroes.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Several years ago, our annual viral "scare" arrived in the form of hand foot and mouth disease (HFMD), a common childhood illness that causes discomfort in the form of blisters on the aforementioned hands, feet and mouth, but with very few real dangers attached to it. The fact that it only turned up in a single child doesn't mean it didn't spread throughout the community in the form of worry.

Like with the Swine Flu (H1N1) awhile years back, parents were understandably concerned, some overly so, but who can blame them? Most of us knew little about the illness and we're talking about our "babies." HFMD certainly sounded more exotic that a run-of-the-mill cold or flu. So, in spite of the relative harmlessness of this particular viral illness, we, as a community, spent a couple days in a bit of a tizzy as we learned what it was all about. And, as we do every year in the aftermath of our first virus, we settled back into a place where we were all talking about the importance of hand washing (if you click on this link, please make sure the read the excellent comments as well, especially the one from my sister Amy at the very bottom, whose take on preschool hand washing I agree with entirely).

You see, that's the genius of a virus like the one that causes HFMD. It takes advantage of one of our basic human drives: the need to touch one another with our hands. And while most viral illness can also be transmitted via airborne means, they are most often passed from person to person through our hands. You see, pure genius: taking advantage of one of the most beautiful parts of being human to make us sick.

This is a particularly vexing challenge for a preschool, where physical touch is central to the curriculum whether we like it or not. It's simply what young children do -- and it's what we adults do when we're with them.

At the end of our two year old class, the children always, without prompting from me, surge forward to give me a hug. The first time it happened, I was surprised and flattered, but I've come to learn that it really has nothing to do with me in particular: it's simply the children expressing a sense of connection or community or gratitude or love or whatever that thing is that drives us to lay our hands on other people.

Whenever I sit down for a moment, little hands are suddenly on every part of my body, instinctively caressing me, playing with my hair, fiddling with my fingers, poking, prodding, using me for support, sitting on my lap. Many of the children have learned I like to have my back scratched, so there's often quite a bit of that (a talent I hope their parents get to appreciate at home).

Their hands are always all over one another as well, holding hands, wrestling, sharing.

There is a lot research out there demonstrating the evolutionary basis for our need to touch and be touched. We all know, for instance, that if a baby isn't touched enough, even if its other basic necessities are handled, it will just roll over a die. But, I don't need any more evidence than what I receive every day in the classroom in the form of those little hands. Touching and being touched, I'm convinced, is as vital to our survival as food, air and water.

Of course, this is easy to remember when we're working with young children. Viruses be damned, we aren't going to stop because the benefits, even at the price of blisters on our hands, feet and mouth, far outweigh the cost.

As I move around the classroom, I often don't even notice that my hand is on a child's shoulder as she paints, or on the small of his back as he leans over a puzzle. In fact, being a cooperative preschool, with lots of the children's parents in the room working with me, I'm often startled to find my hand is unconsciously resting on one of their shoulders or backs. And in spite of how inappropriate that would be in most circumstances, no one has ever called me out on it at preschool.

And isn't in a shame that so many of us "outgrow" touching? I suppose as we become adults, touch becomes sexualized and many of us reserve it for that, or we fear that our hand on another person's shoulder will be misinterpreted as sexual, and often it is. So we grow cautious, not wanting to be misunderstood, reserving our hands for family and trusted friends, offering only handshakes to everyone else.

Maybe that's why I'm so proud of having helped to found the Superhuggers, our group of be-caped adults who boldly dispense hugs to strangers at public events, most notably the Fremont Summer Solstice Parade. And maybe that's why I'm so reluctant to give it up, even though its impact as performance art waned long ago. I recall the build-up to our first foray into recklessly laying our hands on strangers. We worried we'd get slugged, we worried we'd be groped, we worried we'd be sued, we worried we'd contract every virus known to man. We had no idea what we were getting into. We came up with all kinds of strategies for identifying the people who were "open" to a hug and avoiding the ones who might slug, grope or sue.

At the end of that first parade, we sat together on the slope of the grassy hill at the center of Gasworks Park, glowing from the experience of having hugged 12,000 strangers. And while there had been a certain amount of low-level groping, no one had been slugged, and there had only been a handful of people who declined our advances. And while those concerns had been the focus of our conversations prior to the parade, they were now mere incidentals to the stories each of us had about the connections we made with our fellow humans. Sharing physical touch with hundreds of strangers is a feeling like no other. It makes me feel bigger, stronger, and connected. There is no way anyone could go through that experience and not come away loving your fellow man.

And yes, several of the Superhuggers finished off June with runny noses and coughs, an exceedingly small price to pay.

I certainly don't wish blisters on the hands, feet and mouth of anyone. We will strive to be vigorous in adhering to Woodland Parks' common sense hand washing policies and procedures. But that's the best we can do, because not touching one another is simply out of the question.

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Monday, November 23, 2015

Like There's Nobody Watching

You've gotta dance like there's nobody watching.  ~William W. Purkey

We took a field trip to the Pacific Northwest Ballet rehearsal studios last week. As you can imagine, most of the girls were quite excited, arriving at school in leotards and tutus, while a few of the boys were dismissive, saying the word, "ballet" as if they were spitting it, but it was just for show. It's always exciting when we get out and go somewhere together.

It's a fantastic field trip, one I've taken with children several times in the past: a bus trip to Seattle Center, a short movement class in one of the studios, a chance to closely examine some of the fancy tutus, then a few minutes observing the professionals rehearse, in this case for the upcoming season of the new production of The Nutcracker, a show many of these kids will see every year throughout their childhoods. Then a snack on the fly followed by another bus trip back to the school.

It's a great field trip because it's "hands on" and includes a bus trip. Indeed, as far as I'm concerned, it hardly matters where we go on our field trips just so long as it meets those two criteria.

I don't expect any of the children I teach to become professional ballet dancers, even as many of them include that one their list of things they want to be when they grow up.

I do hope that at least some of them will be inspired, especially if they didn't initially think they liked ballet. The thing about teaching is that you'll probably never know.

Unless you get to see a boy dancing down the hallway like there's nobody watching.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

The Angel Usually Wins

M was playing with our baoding balls, a pair of those Chinese meditation balls that we keep nestled in a fancy box. They're special things by virtue of that box, of being shiny, and of being a scarce resource. I've written that exact description here on the blog before. Every day someone plays with them and almost as often we have some sort of conflict regarding them.

M was playing a game with herself, removing the balls from the box, shaking them in two fists to hear their chimes, then returning them to the box, closing the lid, and fixing the latch, a process she was recreating in a pattern.

Two-year-old E spied the balls in her hands and took them by force. M has an older brother and normally would have put up a fight, but E was too quick for her. Instead she shrieked her objection. As a cooperative, we have a lot of adults in the room everyday, but on this day we were hosting several grandparents in addition to our usual cohort of parent-teachers, most of whom seemed to be within a few feet of the incident.

As E made his escape, one parent-teacher went to M. I circled around to E who was joyfully shaking the balls he held in his fists. I bent down to his level and said, "You took those balls from M."

He looked at M, who was staring at him, not crying, but showing emotion in her wrinkled brow and the downturned corners of her mouth. I said, "M's face looks sad about that."

E shook the balls again, albeit less enthusiastically than before. She reached toward him with both hands. I said, "I think she's telling you she wants them back." Then I stood up and took a step back. I'd said what I could say, having stuck with the facts as I saw them. Now it was up to him.

E stood looking at M for several seconds, then walked over and handed them to M. I said, "E gave the balls back to M."

A grandmother said to me, "You could just see the little angel on one shoulder and the little devil on the other fighting it out."

I replied, "I've found that the angel usually wins as long as we don't try to tell people what to do."

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