Friday, July 03, 2015

Protecting Everyone



There are no off-limits topics at Woodland Park. The subjects we push underground, only become more glamorous in their mystery, so when the subject arises naturally, we have frank and honest conversations about body parts, babies, sex, violence, race, or whatever comes up in our play. I try to stick to facts and stating my own opinion without judgement. I've learned to stay calm, even when the things said inflame me. The following dialog was really quite light despite the subject matter. We do this all the time, negotiating our agreements with one another. I could have made this an emotionally charged situation, I could have become scold-y, but I'm glad I managed not to. I think we wound up in a good place without anyone feeling ashamed of "mistakes" they may have made while exploring something dark.

This story may also sound sexist in that everyone assumed stereotypical gender roles. I suppose there was some of that, but mostly it was about friends sticking up for friends. The girls had done their own share of scheming against boys and they often played heroic roles both with their girlfriends as well as alongside their boyfriends, and in turn, many of the boys had played the role of being rescued. On this day, however, it happened like this:



*****


One day, a group of boys got outside first. They had been spending a lot of time figuring out their "teams" ("I'm on your team," "Are you on my team?" "Are we bad guys or good guys?") usually eventually settling on everyone being on the same team which is what was happening as I approached.

"What does our team do?"

"We're going to catch the girls, then we're going to kill them."

I know it looks shocking here in print, but it was offered as a kind of joke. I said, keeping an even tone, "I don't think the girls will like that. I don't think anybody wants to get killed."

"We're just going to chase them and pretend to kill them."

"Do you think the girls will like that?"

"Don't tell them."

"We have to tell them. We have to ask them if they want to be caught and killed. Those are our rules."

"Teacher Tom, you'll ruin our trap."

"I don't think they'll like being trapped either. I think I should ask them."

Usually, I send the kids to do their own asking, but most of the girls were still inside, eating a snack together. The kids don't always divide themselves up by gender, but today they had. "Hey," I said, "The boys outside want to know if the girls want to be caught and killed."

They answered, "No!" together.

"I didn't think so. Do you want to pretend to be caught and killed?" 

Only one of them thought that might be a fun game.


"So, I'll tell them you don't want to be caught and killed and only one of you want to pretend to be caught and killed. Do you want to be trapped?"

They answered, emphatically, that they didn't want to be trapped.

As I started toward the door to carry the message back outside, one of the boys at the snack table called out, "I want to protect the girls."

Then another, "Me to, I want to help protect them."

In fact, all of the boys at the snack table agreed they wanted to be on the girl's team and protect them.

When I returned outdoors, the boys were still scheming. I reported what I'd learned: "The girls don't want to be caught and killed and only one of them wants to pretend to be caught and killed. None of them want to get trapped . . . Oh, and you should know that all the other boys have decided they're going to protect the girls."

For a moment we all stood in silence, then one of the boys said, "I want to protect the girls too."

"Me too."

By the time we were done, all the boys agreed they were going to protect the girls.

When the girls came outside, the boys chased the girls chased the boys, wildly, around and around our outdoor space, all flushed and breathing hard, chasing without catching, everyone protecting everyone.



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Thursday, July 02, 2015

The Jobs Of Tomorrow



The schools we have today evolved alongside, and many say as a part of, the Industrial Revolution. The assembly line was all the rage and it's efficiencies were brought to the classroom where (to borrow from Sir Ken Robinson) incomplete humans are sorted by "manufacture date," then sent on their straight-line journey from chapter to chapter, from text book to text book, from grade to grade, until, at the end they were stuffed full with education and ready to assume those "jobs of tomorrow" which would mostly involve standing at a factory assembly line performing the sort of repetitive, rote task for which they had been prepared.

Business efficiencies continue to be the enemy of education today, although the "jobs of tomorrow" are no longer assumed to be in factories (those are being shipped overseas), but rather service sector employment where "standardization" is the buzzword. They're attempting to standardize it all, from teacher evaluations to high stakes tests and curricula, with the ultimate goal of turning as much of the process as possible over to for-profit corporations because they will, in the mythology of neoliberalism, manufacture that education even more efficiently.

The idea of efficiency in education is an absurdity. The core idea is that if we subject children of the same age to the same information in the same manner at the same time, and if we are sufficiently rigorous, we will produce the kinds of workers they imagine they'll want two decades from now. It's all based on a sort of sociopathic fallacy. Children are not incomplete humans; they are already fully formed just as they are. Children are not primarily on this planet to fill job vacancies; they are here to create the future. Children cannot be standardized; each of them is a unique and wonderful person on a unique and wonderful journey. And anyone who claims to know anything about those "jobs of tomorrow" is blowing smoke; by the time our children assume their adult roles, those guys will be in nursing homes baffled by a world that has passed them by.

The purpose of education, particularly of the public variety, has nothing to do with jobs, but it has everything to do with tomorrow. Children don't follow in our footsteps, but rather walk along beside us so that they are prepared to carry on the journey when we give out. We help them along the way, teaching them what we know, sharing our experiences, not manufacturing them to some sort of specifications based upon yesterday, but supporting them as they become the human they need to be today. As they get older, they begin to show us a future that we can't imagine, seeing both farther and wider than us, just as we saw farther and wider than our elders.

We should not be preparing our children for the jobs of tomorrow. We should be preparing them to create their own future.


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Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Listening Is Where Love Begins



Mister Rogers:

"More and more I've come to understand that listening is one of the most important things we can do for one another. 


Whether the other be an adult or a child, our engagement in listening to who that person is can often be our greatest gift. Whether that person is speaking or playing or dancing, building or singing or painting, if we care, we can listen.


In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.


Listening is a very active awareness of the coming together of at least two lives. Listening, as far as I'm concerned, is certainly a prerequisite of love. One of the most essential ways of saying, "I love you" is being a receptive listener.


Listening is where love begins: listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors.


(And) when we love a person, we accept him or her exactly as is: the lovely with the unlovely, the strong along with the fearful, the true mixed in with the facade, and of course, the only way to can do it is by accepting ourselves that way."


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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Always Bending Toward Justice


 

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. ~MLK


When I was born in 1962, interracial marriage, abortion, and same sex marriage were all illegal in large parts of the United States. In 1967, the Supreme Court held in Loving v. Virginia that laws forbidding marriage between people of different racial backgrounds were unconstitutional. In 1973 the Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal across the country and now, with Independence Day approaching, we are celebrating Obergefell v. Hodges, the decision that made marriage equality the law of the land.

The court's decision last week felt to me both like a foregone conclusion as well as a miracle. Even ten years ago, the idea that same sex couples might legally marry was a scoff-worthy concept. Some of us thought that maybe we could get to civil unions or another contractual arrangements that would provide the legal protections and benefits of marriage, but the idea of marriage was one that lived in the realm of impossibility. 

I've been told by my elders that both Loving and Roe felt the same, impossibilities suddenly, almost magically, becoming real. I imagine people felt that way in 1920 when the 19th Amendment passed giving women the right to vote. I don't mean to in any way minimize the hard work and individual sacrifice that went in to making these social changes happen, but in a very real sense, these are victories of democratic self-governance.

Bloomberg Business has recently updated its collection of charts (I would embed them, but I don't know how) entitled "This is How Fast America Changes It's Mind." I came across these many months ago and bookmarked them so that I could revisit them in the aftermath of Obergefell, or whatever event eventually signaled the beginning of marriage equality. Just imagine, it was only in 2004 that Massachusetts courts ruled that their same sex marriage ban was unconstitutional. Honestly, at the time, even as a supporter of gay rights, I was certain that opponents would find some way to get around that court ruling, but that decision turned out to be the trigger, even though it was a long four years before Connecticut finally joined them. Then a year later it was Vermont and Iowa, then New Hampshire in 2010, then New York in 2011, then Washington and Maine in 2012. The floodgates had been opened. In 2013, eight more states joined them, then 19 more in 2014. With Florida legalizing same sex marriage earlier this year, there were 36 states already on board and the Supreme Court decision was, frankly, a foregone conclusion even as many of us waited on pins and needles for the announcement.

It's a familiar pattern, one that most major social change seems to follow in America. For centuries it's unthinkable, then some event gets us all thinking and talking until a tipping point is reached, and then we the people make it happen. Even if Obergefell had been decided otherwise, last week was still a foregone conclusion given that expanding majorities of us, and particularly among younger generations, wanted this to happen.

In Leo Tolstoy's great novel War and Peace, the Russian general Kutusov demonstrates a deep understanding of this concept of historical inevitability. As Napoleon's army advances, he embraces a strategy of retreat, choosing to fight only when absolutely necessary: that is, only when the soldiers, of their own accord engage in battle. His army retreats in this way until the French walk into Moscow. He alone knows that his army has already fatally wounded the French army, the trigger, in a seemingly minor battle and that the pendulum, as pendulums must, was poised to return and the Russians then, more or less, simple followed the French forces as they return to France. Tolstoy's idea is that "leaders" have little to do with history and that it is inevitably the people, the troops in this case, who decide when and where great things will happen, and the role of leaders such as himself is to serve simply as a cog in the machine of history.

I see this phenomenon very clearly in the major social changes that have taken place and continue to take place in America, and indeed, around the world. I remember the utter shock I felt when the Berlin Wall came down after a lifetime of Cold War fear mongering, yet a part of me always knew it was coming. South African apartheid was a fact of life until, in a flash, it wasn't. Again, I don't want to discount the struggle, but in historic terms, these changes were like one day to the next. There are leaders, of course, and heroes, often of the reluctant variety, but at best they serve as cogs in our inevitable democratic moral arc of justice.

This is why it is so important to me that the children I teach learn to think critically, to think for themselves, to question authority, and to, perhaps most importantly, speak their minds. As long as we have this, we're going to be okay.

This is how democracy works, indeed, this is how human beings in all societies work. The people always lead. We may retreat and retreat and retreat, we may lose and lose and lose, but it is a foregone conclusion that we will ultimately win because we the people always bend toward justice.


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Monday, June 29, 2015

They've Created It For Themselves


We don't have a water spigot near our playground garden, so we've semi-permanently installed a garden hose that we use to fill a pair of 5 gallon buckets that we use for watering the plants. The idea is to fill smaller watering can from the buckets. I call it "garden water," a term a repeat whenever I'm in the area, by way of emphasizing my intent for the whole set up. I talk about how the plants need water, along with sun, soil and time, to grow. I role model watering the plants: all the adults do. Most of the kids take our cues and make sure to splash water on most of the beds most of the days.

Across the playground and up the hill, we have a cast iron water pump set in the sandpit. This is the place officially designated for water play, where children can fill and pour and splash and flow to their hearts' content. We say to the kids, especially the ones who tend to be particular about getting wet or dirty, "If you play near the pump, you'll probably get wet."

Yet every day, at least one two-year-old, and often several, methodically use their watering cans to empty our 5 gallon garden buckets anywhere but on the plants, often just dumping it onto the ground beside the buckets. I say to those kids, "Hey, if you want to play with water, you can go over to the pump. This water is for the garden."

Older kids generally take me up on my suggestion, but the younger kids usually look across the way to where I'm pointing, then return to methodically emptying those 5 gallon buckets onto the ground, or, when they get tired of that, into any other empty container they find to fill -- a wagon, the inside of a tire, another watering can -- but rarely the garden.

One day, I tried to manipulate things by moving all the "empty" things away from the garden in the belief that they would then, in their search for something to fill, have no choice but to water the plants. Within minutes several of them had removed their boots and were filling them with water before then emptying their boots onto the ground beside where the plants grow. Another time, I tried pre-filling all the empty containers in the area with water in the same mistaken belief. Instead, they spent their time putting fistfuls of wood chips into the containers until they overflowed onto the ground beside where the plants grow.


Maybe the big kids are too rowdy up by the pump or their water play too sophisticated or it's too crowded or whatever, but I've finally come to understand what the younger children are telling me; that they need their own water play area in this particular spot with these particular materials. Indeed, they've created it for themselves, collectively. 

I'll keep attempting to engineer things toward my own ends, and the garden is hardly dying from neglect, so it's not of great importance, but it's become one of those things with which I feel an urge to keep on tinkering.

One of the ways the older kids play with water is to create dams or holes or canals in the lower level of the sandpit. They then fill our large muck bucket with water and dump it down the hill, running alongside the water flow, making a study of how their theories hold up to the real world. I guess that's kind of what I'm doing over by the garden except with two-year-olds instead of water.


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Friday, June 26, 2015

Pastor Gay's Men



It surprises me in a way that I've written so much over the years about the homeless population, and in particular the "street homeless" population, that comes into contact with our school. Seattle has a particularly large number of people in this situation, but it's a subject for every urban preschool.


Many of these men, and they're mostly men, appear to suffer from some sort of mental illness, often exacerbated by alcohol mostly, but probably other drugs. Because of this, I'm wary of the guys who I've not seen before, although I'm familiar with the regulars who come to visit the Fremont Baptist Church's Pastor Gay. They come for prayers, advice, work, money, and food. She takes care of them to the best of her ability. She calls them "my men."


Years ago, in our former location up on Phinney Ridge a man slipped into our school as we sang our closing circle songs and stole several purses. We became more security conscious after that, and our best security measure is a commitment to being friendly and solicitous to all strangers, asking how we can help them, asking friendly questions. We're a cooperative and there are a lot of us around, that's our greatest strength, so there are plenty of adults available to greet newcomers. When I invite people to visit the school -- my parents, prospective new families, teachers paying us a visit -- I warn them to expect us to be overly solicitous when they cross our threshold.


This attitude of safety through friendliness has greatly informed how I interact with Pastor Gay's men. It started because I made eye contact wanting them to know they had been seen, saying "Hi" and asking how I can help them. It started as a security measure, but over time it has changed who I am with these guys and through that it's changed who they are to me.


Pastor Gay's men are the types of people away from whom I'd habitually averted my eyes when I came across them on the street, but now I know many of them by name. We exchange pleasantries. Sometimes I listen to their stories or thoughts or ideas. Sometimes I even share some of mine. There are some who have crawled so far inside their protective shells that it doesn't seem possible to break through, but I find they acknowledge me in their own way. Willie, a man who I believe is alone on the street and severely autistic, won't lift his head as he passes me, but I hear him muttering, "That's the school teacher. That's the school teacher," over and over as he passes me.


It seems to me that Pastor Gay's men are on their best behavior when they come to visit her. And that makes sense: they're coming to a church to ask for help of some kind. I've come across some of them in other places, drunk or in the midst of some sort of episode, and their wild eyes tell me they don't recognize me out of context. Pastor Gay has a rule that they aren't allowed to panhandle from preschool families and it's a rare occurrence, but one of them once solicited me as I waited for my bus. When I spoke to him by name he locked eyes with me for a moment. His expression went from blank to recognition. He took my money, but then apologized the next time we crossed paths at the school.


Sometimes I talk to Pastor Gay about her men. They aren't all mentally ill and they aren't all addicts, but they all live very hard lives. There was a time when I would see apparently healthy men begging for coins and begrudge them. I would think they should pull themselves together, get jobs, learn to take care of themselves, but that doesn't cross my mind any more. These aren't lazy people: indeed living on the street must be one of the most difficult, grinding, humiliating jobs there is. No sane person would choose to live this way. They live this way because this is apparently the best we can do for them and they for themselves.


We've had gorgeous weather in here in Seattle for the past month or so. A couple days ago, I found myself in the Ballard neighborhood with the rest of the afternoon to kill so I decided to walk home, a trek that took me along the Lake Washington Ship Canal, a feat of industry and vision, completed some 80 years ago, connecting the fresh water lakes with the salt water Puget Sound. The Fremont Cut defines the southwestern edge of our school's neighborhood of Fremont, which is connected to the Queen Anne side by our blue and orange bridge with a neon Rapunzel forever yearning in her tower.


As I arrived in Fremont, walking in the shade of the tall trees that grow from the greenway that separates the paved Burke-Gliman Trail from the water, the canal sparkling between the trunks, I noticed one of Pastor Gay's men curled into a fetal position on the grass. Not right out in the open, but tucked way where the grass grows taller, partially hidden from view. The phrase "out of sight, out of mind" came to me. I slowed down to look at him, leaving the paved trail to get closer. He's a tormented soul even under the best of circumstances, but today, lying here in his bed of leaves, by the water, on this most benign of days, he looked peaceful.


There's another informal trail right there along the trees, separated from the paved trail, worn there by the passage of human feet, and I started walking it. From here, you can see down to the water's edge. There are no walls or fences to prevent people from falling into the canal, one of the reasons I'm always so nervous when we bring the kids down there. And as one might expect, every few yards my trail branched downward toward the water. From here I could see other men sleeping, curled into themselves, their life's possessions heaped up around them: backpacks and plastic bags stuffed to the breaking point. Some of them had even rolled out their sleeping bags, but it was warm enough that they slept atop them. A few tents were pitched.


I spotted other groups of men gathered socially, talking, complaining, laughing, tossing pebbles in the water. There were a few women mixed in, tough and leathery like the men. If it's hard to live on the street as a man, just imagine how hard it is for a woman with all the extra pain and humiliation they must endure. But this moment, this moment in the sun by the water, out of the sight of the rest of us, was a good one, maybe as good as it gets.


I understand that there are challenges of public drunkenness and hygiene, and I've no doubt that there are people in Fremont scheming to move these men along, but today, for these golden moments they were being left alone, to simply loll in the sun. Sadly, there are those who are scheming to take this away from them too.


The children and I periodically talk about Pastor Gay's men. When you live in an American city, you live with these men whether you like it or not. I don't need to educate the kids, honestly, because their parents have already been forced into those conversations. What we tend to talk about are solutions. I don't steer them there: it's where they go on their own. The children always say we should give them money, give them food, and give them homes.

And I agree. In the meantime I'm proud of the work being done by Pastor Gay and the small part we get to play in it.

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Living In Cooperative Societies



Yesterday, one boy started banging on the "thunder drum" with a longish stick. He was soon joined by a younger boy who picked as his drum stick a short pieces of tree bark. Like a dinner bell, the banging drew other children who took up their own utensils of varying lengths, some even brandishing the blank end of stick ponies. 


I was watching the game up close because, after all, these were young children swinging sticks in a tight formation. The noise was loud while the children were silent, focused on their target. Hands and even heads got close to the action, and there were close calls. The youngest children, the two-year-olds, appeared for the most part to be oblivious; a couple of them flinched protectively when a stick came close to their hands, but it was the older children who were keeping this game safe, taking responsibility not just for themselves, but for the younger children as well.

As play-based educators, we start from the premise that children, even very young children, are fully formed human beings with all the rights that that implies, and education is, in part, the process of coming to assume the responsibilities of being a citizen and person, a lifelong endeavor. 


Among the most evolutionarily necessary of these responsibilities is to care for one's own well-being, followed closely by caring for the well-being of others just as the older cared for the younger in our thunder drum game. The species does not survive otherwise. The popular thinking is that looking out for oneself comes naturally because it is based in self-centeredness, but that caring for others, altruism, must be learned. Scientists, however, are finding that this is not the case. Altruistic behavior, the core of the philosophical assertion that "man is essentially good," selflessness, appears to be at least as natural as selfishness.


A couple weeks ago, I posted on this topic, including a video of German scientists demonstrating this point. A few days ago, the New York Times published a piece linking to another vein of research:

Children as young as age 3 will intervene on behalf of a victim, reacting as if victimized themselves, scientists have found.

The researchers found that this sense of justice, of responsibility for others, was something that emerges in humans rather than something that is learned or taught. Said one of the researchers:

"The take-home message is that pre-school children are sensitive to harm to others and given a choice would rather restore things to help the victim than punish the perpetrator . . . Rather than punish young children for wrong-doings, children might better understand harm done to the victim and restoration as a solution."

This is, of course, is what we do at Woodland Park, and what play-based practitioners everywhere have done forever. It's nice to see that science is finally catching up with what we've known all along. 


And it's not just humans who are naturally prone to developing a sense of fairness and justice. Biologists have learned, for instance, that crows do, and dogs and monkeys do as well. In fact, scientists are coming to understand that this is a key aspect of all animals who live in cooperative societies.

That's what we do at Woodland Park: practice living in a cooperative society. It's what a play-based education is all about.


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