Wednesday, August 20, 2014

I Fear They Are Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Life Is Hard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Build It Up And Knock It Down

I met the late, great Tom Hunter back in 2002 when we were both invited to promote our respective books at the now shuttered All For Kids Books in Seattle. Mine was a mere tour guide of the city for parents written at the beginning of my journey into the world of early childhood. Tom's, however, was a book called Build It Up and Knock It Down, based upon his classic song of the same name. He sang that song for us that day.

Build it up and knock it down and build it up again.
Knock it down and build it up and knock it down again . . .

The song goes on like that, exploring the everyday rhythms of a child's world -- saying "hello" and "goodbye," standing up and sitting down, nodding yes and nodding no. It's sold as a book for children to learn about opposites, but for me, starting from the first time I heard it, it's song about the cyclical nature of the universe.

I sing it nearly every day in our Pre-3's class, typically whenever a child constructs something with blocks, then knocks it down, as all two-year-olds do, starting as a scientist, studying, then later more joyfully, accompanied by a predictable Eureka! of laughter. I sing it when a child is filling something up and dumping it out, climbing up and climbing down, crawling into a box and then back out, matching the words to this cyclical play, an acknowledgement of the universal truths being explored. A bit of background music if you will.

A group of educators were yesterday discussing online the nature of "destructive" play, or if we can even categorize destructiveness under the heading of play. I'd say absolutely. Knocking down those buildings is play. Painting a picture, then smearing it all together with your hands is play. Creating an elaborate spaceship from loose parts then crashing it into a wall is play. It's the sort of "what if?" play in which scientists are always engaged.

And yes, it is even play when it comes to knocking over someone else's building, even if one of the consequences of this experiment is making a friend cry. This is where we've crossed the line into our wider community. Maybe daddy lets you topple his towers, indeed he may build them for that purpose, but when it comes to other kids, your pleasure is, in this case, someone else's pain. This is where adults often have to get involved, although not right away, because we want to leave the space for the "victim" to say, "Hey! That was my building!" We want to leave the space for the children to negotiate their own solution, but we live in a time when most two-year-olds haven't had the opportunity to develop the experiences or the skills to know they can say, "Hey! That was my building!" so we often need to be there to give voice to their tears: "Hey, that was her building."

Or perhaps you would rather say, "She worked hard on that building. That was her building. She is crying because you knocked it down." As long as you're making informational statements about the situation, you're on solid ground.

It's remarkable how often that statements of fact, whether they come from the child herself or the adult by proxy, elicit tears of apology. But even if it's only met with a blank stare, the facts are out there with which to be dealt, a dialog is opened, and even if it's not a lesson anyone is ready to learn, we've acknowledged that a line has been crossed. That's where we start on our journey into exploring the freedom of the individual in the context of community.

In our Pre-3 class we usually wind up with an ethic based upon the idea of "knocking down buildings" vs. "not knocking down buildings," a gateway concept into the world of living in a world of other people.

Many years ago, the New Yorker ran a cartoon that I've always regretted not clipping. A boy was building a sand castle and another boy stood nearby. The caption read: "You can help me build it, but you can't help me knock it down." Just as Tom Hunter did with his songs, it expressed, quite simply, one of the grand, universal truths.

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Friday, August 15, 2014

My Wonder Is The Evidence

Among the many things I want for the children who pass my way is that they continue through life capable of wonder, if only because they help me live my life that way. Each day after the children have left, or more often the following morning when I arrive on the premises, I take a tour of our "grounds," performing a basic safety check, making sure things are as they should be, and on most days I find reason to wonder.

Often it's a stash of treasure, collections of both like and unlike things squirreled away in corners or hidden behind something or hanging in a bucket from the branches of our lilacs. Sometimes they're not hidden at all, but rather evidence of a game interrupted or abandoned or left to return to when we reconvene the following day. What makes me wonder is that I can't know what it means and I'm left to speculate about the child or children who have created these mysteries.

Recently, I arrived in the morning to discover a large crate, turned on its side made into a diorama. I wondered what it was all about. I wondered about who had made it. Was it one child working alone or a pair or a team?

There is a kind of organizing at work here -- sorting, matching, collecting. Maybe that's what this was, an attempt to make order of a disordered world, children taking pleasure in the beautiful perfections of mathematics.

Or perhaps it's a work of art, fashioned from found objects, arranged to evoke eternal questions or express abstract ideas.

It could, of course, have been a game of commerce, a shop where precious things were bartered for, or a warehouse where those things were stored away.

I see stories here as well, tales of adventure, longing, homemaking, discovery, and loss. Maybe a tale that was shared by a small group of friends negotiating, agreeing, and inviting one another with sentences beginning with the magic word "Let's . . ."

I don't pretend to know what the children will learn when they come here to play, but I do know they're learning. My wonder is the evidence.

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

"Falling Behind"

What would you think if you saw a mother hovering over her two month old infant drilling her on vowel sounds? Or how about a father coaching his five month old on the finer points to walking? I expect you would think they were at best wasting their time: two month olds can't talk and five month olds can't walk, let alone be taught. Talking and walking are things children just learn. Now imagine that when these babies failed to acquire these capabilities that are clearly beyond their developmental grasp, these parents began to fret that their child was "falling behind." You would think they were crazy. If a doctor told these parents their child was "falling behind" we would think he was either incompetent or cruel.

Sadly, there are actually people out there doing things like this. I've written before about hucksters who assert that babies can be taught to read and there are devices on the market that purport to help babies learn to walk. The good news is that while there are some naive parents who fall for such gimmickry in the misguided attempt to somehow one-up nature's long, successful history of "teaching" talking and walking according to well-established developmental timelines, most of us know better than to worry about these things that virtually every child stressless-ly learns without any special interventions.

My own daughter spoke her first word at 3 months old, consistently saying "Papa" when I played and cared for her: she was putting together full sentences before 6 months. This same "advanced" child didn't crawl until her first birthday and wasn't walking until close to 20 months, a full lifetime "behind" some of her peers. Today, as you might expect, she talks and walks like the rest of the teenagers: if she was ever behind she caught up, and if she was ever ahead, the others caught up with her.

This unsavory practice of taking advantage of new parent insecurities in the name of profit is one that deserves to be called out where ever it rears its nasty head, and it's borderline criminal when they play the "falling behind" card, which is why I'm writing today.

I'm not here in Australia to talk to teachers about this bizarre notion of "school readiness," but every place I've been the subject has cropped up in the discussion. "School readiness," often translated in the US as "kindergarten readiness," is essentially code for reading. It seems that the powers that be in our respective nations have decided to sell parents on the snake oil that if your child isn't starting to read by five-years-old she is "falling behind." They are doing this despite the fact that every single legitimate study ever done on the subject recommends that formal literacy education (if we ever even need it) not begin until a child is seven or eight years old. They are telling parents and teachers that children are "falling behind" despite the fact that every single legitimate study ever done finds that there are no long term advantages to being an early reader, just as there are no long term advantages to being early talkers or walkers. In fact, many studies have found that when formal literacy instruction begins too early, like at 5, children grow up to be less motivated readers and less capable of comprehending what they've read. That's right, if anything, this "school readiness" fear-mongering may well turn out to be outright malpractice.

But the worst thing, the unforgivable thing, is the cruelty of the assertion that five-year-olds are "falling behind." It's one thing when commercial interests attempt to move their crappy merchandise by playing on fears, but when schools are doing it, when teachers are doing it, that's unconscionable. Listen, I'm a staunch supporter of my fellow teachers here on these pages, but I am calling my colleagues out on this one. Teachers should know better than to help these guys sell this stuff: it's bad for kids, it's bad for families, and it's bad for society. We are the professionals. Teachers need to put our collective foot down, point to the research, rely on our own experience, and if we can't refuse to subject young children to developmentally inappropriate, potentially harmful "readiness" garbage for fear of losing our jobs, the least we can do is refuse to take part in the crass abusiveness of "falling behind." If we can't do that maybe we don't deserve to call ourselves professionals.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Something New Under The Sun

When was the last time you invented something new under the sun? If you're a child with the time and space to play according to your own passions it was probably today.

This girl found a chunk of sidewalk chalk amidst the wood chips that carpet our outdoor space. After drawing on the walls of our new play house for a time, she made her way through the sandpit where she discovered a section of some old mesh shelving.

Normally, we use the shelving sections for sitting on as a way to speed ourselves up, and protect the seats of our clothing, when we launch ourselves down the concrete slide, an invention from a year ago.

She tested the chalk out on the mesh surface, an experiment that resulted in a fine grind of orange powder. This all by itself was something new under the sun, but there was more.

Carrying her invention to the top of the hill, she found a spot alongside a length of gutter that other children had positioned to carry the water that cascaded from the cast iron pump, and as the water passed, she grated her chalk into the flow.

Her friends shouted, "Orange water! Orange water!" our version of Eureka! by proxy. Every day, when we play, we invent something new under the sun.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Finding Our Way Back Home

As I did last August, I've had the opportunity to spend some time with the wonderful Niki Buchan here in Australia, much of it in the process of getting from one place to another. We talk about children and learning and teaching, of course, but we've also had the time and space to ramble far afield. For instance, as we discussed the sky being blue Niki wondered if what she sees as "blue," if she were to see it through my eyes, would appear to be what she calls "red," "purple," or "yellow." I reckon there is a scientist who can answer that for us, but I don't think there is any doubt about the larger question: no one sees the world as it really is. We all see the world according to our brain's unique best guess, which means, in a very real sense, that we are in this alone as the only one who sees our unique reality.

As I've traveled through Australia these past couple weeks, alternating between standing at the center of attention speaking with groups of educators in their schools, centers and living rooms, then spending longer stretches of time on my own in airports, hotels, and train stations making my way from here to there, I've inevitably been left to contemplate journeys, both mine and those of others. We all, of course, understand that life is, at bottom, a journey, even while it's an easy thing to forget in the rush of going about our day-to-day lives.

A couple days ago I was to catch a train from Beerwah into the Brisbane city center where I was going to stay for the night. I arrived early at the two-platform station to find myself alone with one other traveler, a young woman who appeared overwhelmed by luggage. She was on Platform 1 across from where I stood. The machine meant to tell passengers where they were to wait was out of service, so I called across to her, "Are you going to Brisbane?" When she answered she was, I crossed the tracks using the overhead bypass. When I tried to make small talk, I discovered that she struggled with English, although she communicated a part of her particular view of the world: the signage over on Platform 2 across the way read "Brisbane," but she had waited there the day before and had been left behind as the train had instead stopped here on Platform 1, which is why she waited there today. Her youth, language challenges, and admitted failure on the day before made me lose some confidence in the validity of her judgement. I mean, I was a foreign traveler as well, but that sign across the way did, indeed, read "Brisbane." I now had doubts that we were waiting in the right place.

After a few minutes I noticed three rowdy young men making their way toward us. I could tell even at a distance that they were inebriated. Two of the men, their reality impaired, or perhaps enhanced, by alcohol crossed the tracks by jumping down into the rail bed, ignoring both safety and legality to cross the tracks. The third man, lagging behind, paused on the platform clearly wondering where his companions had disappeared. I figured he was at least a local, so despite his state I asked him if he knew on which platform we ought to await the train to Brisbane. It took him a moment to focus and his knees appeared like rubber, but he responded, in a clear Aussie accent, "Usually it comes in over there, mate," pointing across the way to Platform 2 where the sign read "Brisbane." My brain saw this as decisive.

As he staggered off, I consulted with the young woman, convincing her that we ought to cross back over to the other side. I helped her with her luggage and we traveled together up the stairs, across the overpass, then back down to the other side. She still clearly had her doubts about taking the advice of a drunk, as did I, so when a pair of what I will lovingly call geezers showed up to cross the tracks, I asked them for their council. One of them merely shrugged, but the other said, "Usually the Brisbane train stops at this platform," meaning where we were now waiting, "but sometimes there's a freight train or something and then it stops over there," pointing across the way. Apparently, he could tell it wasn't an entirely satisfying answer so he added, "They'll make an announcement as the train pulls in. They'll wait for you to cross if you're on the wrong side." Then he added in the spirit of a joke, "It's Australia, after all!" I laughed because he did, although my reality didn't permit me to understand the humor.

As we waited, a couple more locals, also traveling to the other side of the tracks, told us they would wait where we were waiting, so I, and I think my companion, were starting to feel more confident.

There is a well-known zoo in Beerwah and as time approached for the train to arrive, a zoo shuttle bus pulled up and let off a handful of tourists who promptly crossed over to the other side of the tracks, which placed me back into my doubts. I called across to them, "Are you going to Brisbane?" When they answered they were, I asked, "Are you sure that's the right platform?" And they replied, "Yes." I looked at the young woman with all the bags and I could tell that she really wanted to join them, so I helped her carry her bags back to where I'd originally found her. By now, there was an unspoken agreement that we were in this together, and we were agreeing to join others who were traveling our way.

Once back on Platform 1, I asked again, "Are you sure this is the right platform?" And this woman answered, also in an accent that wasn't Australian, "The zoo bus driver told us to wait here." This didn't give me full confidence I sought, but now there were eight of us waiting on Platform 1 for a train to Brisbane and no one waited on the other side. As the time for departure grew closer a couple more people joined us, bolstering the ranks of those of use whose reality included getting to Brisbane on the next train.

This is when a young man with a bicycle appeared on Platform 2 across the way, the side with the sign that read "Brisbane." He called out to us, "Are you going to the city?" I answered for everyone, "Yes," and he replied, "It usually stops over here," in a clear, non-drunk, non-geezer Aussie accent.

I said, "We were told the train was stopping over here." When he didn't reply, I added, "We've democratically decided to wait here."

He bounced his bike a couple times, then said, "Tell you what. If the train stops here, I'll hold the door while you cross over and you do the same for me, okay?" I agreed, presuming to speak for my fellow travelers. After a few more minutes, however, the young man crossed over to wait with us. When the train arrived, there was no announcement, but it did pull up to Platform 1 where we all waited together. There was still some doubt, however. Even as we boarded the train, I heard a woman ask another passenger, "Is this train going to Brisbane?"

Yesterday, as I made my way from Brisbane to Perth, I came across an Australian aboriginal proverb: 

We are all visitors to this time and place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, and then we return home.

Our inability to see objective reality leaves us alone with our brains' best guesses and that practically limits our capacity to observe, learn, and grow. It's when we travel together, when we share our journey, that we can find our way: it's in the company of fellow travelers that we can find our way back home.

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