Friday, February 12, 2016

The Triumphant Return Of The Compliment Chain

I've written about our "compliment chain" circle time activity before, but not for awhile. That's because we had more or less stopped doing it.

The way it works is that I'll ask, "Who wants to make a friend feel good?" hands will go up, then one by one I call on them, "Sally wants to make someone feel good. What can you do or say that will make a friend smile?" Then the child will pick a friend, go over to her, and say something like, "I like your shirt," or "I want to have a play date with you." With each "compliment" I add a link to the chain (a plastic manipulative toy we own), which we then hang from the ceiling, adding to it after each session. One year we ran through the entire box of 500 links, then continued by adding paper clips until we had encircled the entire classroom, finally running it out the door into the hallway.

It was always a popular activity, at least as popular as making rules, but a couple years a go, a few parents began to complain that it bugged them, that it was too "artificial," and I could see their point. I mean, more often than not, the children were landing on a single, generic "compliment," like "You're my best friend," then each of them would repeat it to their classmates over and over. I understood the argument that the children were just going through the motions, that what they were saying weren't actual compliments, but rather the repetition of rote lines. And in response I guess I just sort of let the compliment chain fade away, which it did as children moved on and the "institutional memory" of the compliment chain moved on with them.

Earlier this year, however, a child in our 4-5's class spontaneously offered a genuine compliment to a friend and I commented, "That's a compliment." That sparked a memory for one of the kids whose older sibling had attended our school during the compliment chain's reign, "Remember the compliment chain?" I said that I did and he asked, "Can we do it?"

We are now a couple weeks into the compliment chain's reemergence and I'm regretting having ever let it go. This year's group, perhaps because it's nearly Valentine's Day, has settled on the rote compliment, "I love you," followed by a hug. After each "compliment" I say something like, "That made your friend feel good; I can tell because he's smiling." Sometimes I'll say, "Saying nice things to other people is a super power." Yesterday, we spent ten minutes giving one another hugs and saying "I love you," followed by a timed free-for-all in which the kids gave as many "compliments" as they could in one minute. We already have over 200 links in our chain.

It may be artificial, at least to our adult perceptions, and even the smiles of the recipients are often forced, but at the same time, there is no denying that this is something the children at Woodland Park, at least, genuinely love to do. And, in all honesty, I've begun to think of it as a kind of calisthenic exercise, one designed to strengthen a specific muscle or develop a healthy habit. During the rest of the day, I listen for authentic "compliments," those every day moments when children do or saying something that makes a friend smile, then remark, "That was a compliment," or "You sure made Johnny smile," and invariably the kids will turn to me and ask, "Can we do compliments at Circle Time?"

From here on out, my answer will always be an unequivocal, "Yes."

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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Being Near To Pick Them Up If They Fell

When I first saw this, I had to fight the instinct to put a stop to it. In a flash, I'd done my adult risk assessment:

  1. Plastic trucks not designed to be sat upon, especially by these large 5-year-old bodies
  2. Concrete slope
  3. Short runway with a raised planting bed made of wood at the bottom
  4. Even if these competent kids could manage it, their success might lure less competent friends to try it
  5. Tender flesh and precious heads

I made it to the scene before anyone had put themselves at the mercy of gravity saying the first thing that came to my lips, "That doesn't look safe to me."

He looked at me, then down the slope. "It's safe."

"I'm worried you'll get hurt."

He gave the scene another once-over, then spoke from the perspective of a 5-year-old boy sitting on a plastic digger at the top of a concrete slope, thinking about his own life and limb, "I won't get hurt." 

This is a boy who tends to look before he leaps, usually not the first in line for a risky venture, but rather more typically third or fourth, peering around those in front of him to observe what's going on, learning from their mistakes. In that moment, I tried to imagine what he saw, returning me briefly to my days as a 5-year-old boy who had made similar risk assessments. In the backs of both of our minds, I think, was the much longer, steeper concrete slope in our outdoor classroom, the one we both felt would be too big a risk. Daredevils might try it, but not us.

"Okay, I'll be here to pick you up if you fall."

With that he let himself go down the short ride, stopping so abruptly against the planting bed that the rear wheels were lifted of the ground. There was a little triumph behind his smile.

When he started dragging his truck back up the slope, I stopped worrying about him, turning my attentions to the safety of the planting bed and the second boy who, having witnessed the success, was now steering a truck of his own into place.

I said, "Wait! I don't want you guys to wreck the garden." The boys waited one behind the other as I dropped a car tire on the ground. "You can run into this."

As the boys took turns in this game of speed, slope, and impact, I began to worry again as other kids stopped by to check things out. I was sure that this was the time for physically less capable children to want their turns, emboldened beyond their reason by the success of these first two. But one after another they watched, then moved on to other things, the monkey-see-monkey-do chain reaction I'd feared not in evidence.

I might have let my fears over-ride the superior risk assessment capabilities of the boys. Instead, I trusted their judgement, while being near to pick them up if they fell.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Just Being Friends

M, a two-year-old, was carrying around the entire box of our "every day cars," a plain-Jane collection of identical wooden vehicles that are available all the time just the way we have every day dolls. A classmate, S, reached into the box to take one, which caused a silent struggle over the car. Neither is a boy who tends to react vocally and the tug of war drew no one's attention but mine.

Indeed, neither boy seemed particularly upset so I sat where I was only making the informational statements, "Both of you want that car," and "There are a lot of cars in the car box."

M finally wrested control of the car and put it back in the box. I said, "Now M has all the cars and S doesn't have any cars."

Neither boy took obvious notice of me, but almost immediately, M reached back into the box and produced a car; not the one S had originally taken, but a different one, one that for all intents and purposes was identical to the one over which they had fought.

I said, "M gave S a car. Now they both have cars."

They smiled at one another, connecting through the eyes, then they dropped to the floor, the box of cars forgotten. M grabbed a single car and began driving them side-by-side. They followed one another into a corner where they drove their cars into one another, a slow motion head-on collision. As they pushed their cars together, I wondered if they were going back to conflict, but then they smiled, then they laughed, and they stayed there enjoying their mutually created traffic jam for several minutes, just being friends for as long as it lasted.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Window To That Future

At the end of the school day, we come in from outdoors and gather on the checker board rug to read a story together. Some of the kids make a contest of it, vying to be "first," "second," or "third." Others are prompt without the competitive edge, and then there are others who dawdle. This leaves us with time to kill while waiting for the full group to assemble. Over the course of the last couple years, I've started vamping on the phrase, "You snooze, you lose," threatening to start reading before everyone is there:

"I'm just going to start reading and those other kids are going to miss it: you snooze, you lose. That's right, this book is called Mooncake and it's about this bear who goes to the moon and eats cake and those other kids are going to be sad because they're snoozin' and losin'. I'm just going to open this book up to page one, start reading and the snoozers will be losers . . . "

It goes on an on and I don't actually start reading until all the kids are there, so no one actually loses. The kids who are habitually the first on the rug know it's a game, often collaborating in the riff: "Teacher Tom, they're snoozin' and doozin'!" or "I'm not snoozin' and I'm not losin'!"

I just think of it as a goofy way to kill time, but, you know, they're always learning. On Sunday, a parent sent me a message during the Super Bowl. "Sam just said, 'the Panthers are snoozing and losing.' Thank you for that one." It made my day.

I was reminded of a similar unintended moment of teaching from a few years back. We sometimes sing Malvina Reynold's great song Little Boxes in class, and while many artists have, over the years, taken liberties with her original lyrics, I like to stick with what she wrote, not altering it for a preschool audience. I don't expect the kids to fully understand the message, but my hope, I tell the parents, is that their children internalize it and one day, when someone is trying to put them into a little box, the words will come back to them as a kind of internal warning system.

Ava, who was always particularly fond of the folk music we sing in class was responsible for helping set the table for family dinner. Her mother told me that as she brought water to each family member she had started saying, "Here's your martini dry." I reckon the rest of those lyrics are in there somewhere and I expect they'll come to her when she needs them, just as Sam recognized that the moment was ripe for "snoozin' and losin'."

They're always learning and the only control we have over what they learn, really, are the things we say and the examples we set. We don't know what young children will chose to imitate, but they will never fail to imitate us because their job, as granted by god and nature, is to figure out what they need to know in this world and the adults in their lives are the biggest window to that future.

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Monday, February 08, 2016


Persuading others to do things we want them to do is one of the fundamental ways we exert power in the world. Even before arriving in our classroom, all of the children have already learned how to convince the important adults in their lives to see the world their way, at least some of the time. Persuading the children we find in school, however, is a different animal.

Our older kids typically votes on decisions that impact all of us. It's a challenging idea, even for 4 and 5 year olds. Heck, it's a challenging idea for me, especially when things I care about don't go my way.

A couple years ago, we were trying to come up with a title for a play we had written and were going to perform together. We had narrowed it down to either "Mysterious, Haunted, Spooky House," or "House Full of Hearts." (The fact that the script doesn't in any way feature a house is apparently immaterial.) When we took the vote, it was a straight gender split and since there are more girls than boys, "House Full of Hearts" won out.

I pointed out the gender divide to the kids and suggested that perhaps we could satisfy everyone with the title "Mysterious, Haunted, Spooky House Full of Hearts." The kids seemed to like this idea and we agreed to take another vote, the result being that all but one child voted in favor of the blended title.

The sole child in opposition had a strong reaction, objecting, "But that ruins the whole thing! The hearts make it not spooky any more!" He proceeded to vent himself in tears, loudly, throwing himself into his mother's lap. I said things like, "I know how you feel," "You're disappointed with the title we chose," and "I'm sorry, but that's just how voting works." This didn't console him. Thankfully, his mother was there to care for him and so I attempted to plow forward. It was difficult, both because of the crying, and because all of the other kids were focused on the crying. 

After a few long seconds, I thought I detected a softening of hearts among the children and wondered aloud if there was anything we could do about the title, you know, to make everyone happy. I was wrong. Indeed, they still felt good about their compromise title and were sticking with it, despite the opposition, who, quite frankly, through his tears, was raising what I thought was a solid creative objection. Amidst the hubbub of general consensus I heard one of the kids say, "There are more of us," uttering the great central truth of democracy.

Again I tried plowing forward, hoping that he would be able, with mom's help, to work his way through it, but if anything he ramped it up.

I have a rule of thumb when it comes to children expressing their emotions like this: If they can continue to argue their case while crying, they are, at least in part, engaged in a persuasive endeavor. I'm absolutely sure he was genuinely upset, but the fact that he was repeatedly saying things like, "That can't be the title -- it doesn't make sense like that!" let me know he was also still attempting to sway the crowd. At the same time, while he was certainly succeeding in getting, or at least dividing, their attention, it was equally clear to me that he was failing to persuade the people he sought to persuade.

That's when I just stopped what we were doing, turned to him and said, "Listen, I hear that you don't like the title we voted on. I felt just like you do after the 2004 election. Let me tell you something I've learned about persuading people. Crying and shouting might work to get grown-ups to change their minds, but it doesn't work on kids. If you want to persuade your friends, you're going to have to try something else. Like talking to them." I didn't say it with any particular emotion, going for a frank, matter-of-fact tone.

He stopped crying almost instantly and sat up, looking at his classmates, who were looking back at him. As his mom said later, "That really seemed to give him something to think about." As he studied his friends, he must have realized they were not going to budge and settled in as we again moved forward with our day.

I was stunned. It seemed to have worked. Of course, it's also possible that he had just reached his "saturation point" on the issue and was simply ready now to move on. Nevertheless, this was something I was going to have to try again and fortunately the opportunity arose yesterday.

One of the girls had incorporated all of our every day cars into her block construction and one of the boys wanted one, a desire he expressed by trying to snatch one. She defended the cars physically and verbally, saying, "I'm using them!" He threw himself on the floor and began to rant and cry, "I want one! I want one!" 

I gave him a moment, then said, "Crying might work to get what you want from a grown-up, but you'll probably have to do something else if you want her to give you a car . . . You know, because she's a kid, not a grown-up."

He continued to toss about on the floor. I turned to the girl, "When he cries does it make you want to give him a car?"


It was like a button had been pushed. He stopped writhing about and stood up. I said, "You might want to try talking to her. That's what I'd do."

"Can I have a car?"

"You can have this one," and she handed him one.

Most of us, I hope, are able to recognize when a child is in the midst of a genuine emotional moment and when it's an attempt at persuasion. And most of us have also developed ways to counter these attempts at "manipulation" (a negatively charged word that makes me cringe whenever I hear it). Maybe we ignore it. Maybe we say, "I can't understand whining." Maybe we tell them we'll be ready to talk about it when they're done crying. These are all ways in which we are, perhaps unconsciously, attempting to teach our children more socially acceptable ways to be persuasive. But children are not interested in "socially acceptable." They are, however, deeply concerned with effectiveness. Say what you want, crying works when it comes to persuading the important adults in our lives, at least often enough that it's worth giving it a try. And it's no wonder they try it out on the wider world.

Crying, however, is not usually effective when it comes to persuading peers. A lot of kids, when they see their best "tool" isn't working resort to the ham-fisted methods of compulsion, like just taking what they want, but that's against our community rules and adults step in when that happens. 

Most of the time I intervene in conflicts by trying to get the kids talking about the "problem" and looking for "solutions," with varying degrees of success. That's still where I want them to end up, I suppose, and I still need that tool for most conflicts. But sometimes it's about persuasion and persuading friends takes more than tears.

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Friday, February 05, 2016

Lifelong Learner

I recently had the opportunity to have it pointed out to me that I'm imperfect. Indeed, that's a sentence I could write at any moment because, to my never-ending chagrin, I'm wrong or behave badly or screw things up at least once a day . . . And that's a good day. In this case, I actually hurt someone's feelings, so it was a big deal, but most often, thankfully, the flaws that are revealed to me are of what most people would consider to be of the more petty variety, the things that reveal some aspect of my personality I thought I had hidden too well for others to notice or, sometimes, things about which I was previously completely unaware.

For instance, one of our school's parents told me recently, over a beer, as an aside in a larger discussion, that I sometimes "bark" at the parent-teachers working as my assistant teachers in our cooperative school. In all honesty, I completely lost track of what else she said as I processed that "bark." Do I do that? Why would any parent put up with sending their kids to a school where the teacher barks at the parents? When she was done making her point which may well have been a compliment for all I know, I said, "I'm really sorry. I don't mean to bark at anyone." She laughed, said it was okay, that she understood, that she knew I was just trying to make the classroom function more smoothly, that she knew I was so focused on the children that I sometimes neglected the adults, that if she ever took it personally, she didn't any longer.

I had almost given upon on the classic preschool "art" project of scissors, glue, blank paper, and old magazines, the sort of thing that is supposed to turn into a collage. I've put these materials out dozens of times over the years, only to watch the children avoid them like the plague. Last week, however, a parent brought in a fresh stack of magazines, so I gave it another go with very low hopes and, indeed, it immediately became a dead spot in the classroom. In frustration, I sat myself down at the table and began cutting pictures, while saying, "Once upon a time . . ." as if telling a story. I don't know why this has never, over the course of 15 years, occurred to me before, but of course children started gathering around as I put my story together piece by piece. Soon every seat at the table was full of children making their own stories. Not only that, but several of them demanded that we "read" their story to their classmates at circle time. When the older children arrived in the afternoon, I tried the same technique with similar results. Even now, even with something so simple and ubiquitous, there is still so much for me to learn.

I wanted to continue grilling her for specifics, but I held back because the whole barking thing had nothing to do with the larger point she was making. 

I don't doubt that I sometimes express myself briskly, perhaps even brusquely, during the course of the preschool day and this parent, as well as the others at whom I've apparently barked, returned the following day despite my barking, so my good points must still outweigh this bad one, but it's a wake-up call nevertheless. I don't want to be a guy who barks at his colleagues: petty to this parent perhaps, but not me.

When I first started teaching, I told the parents that I was clay for them to mold, that as a new teacher I recognized that I was as malleable as I would ever be, that this was their chance to shape me into the teacher they most wanted for their children. I also noted, simply because I'd found that it's the way most humans work, that their opportunity to shape me would diminish with each passing year as I got older, more experienced, and even "calcified." Well, I reckon I now have some evidence of my calcification. Barking, from where I sit, is just one step removed from shaking my fist and yelling at the kids to "get off my lawn."

We always say we want the children we teach to be "lifelong learners." I guess this is part of what it looks like, there are special things we need to learn at each stage. I'm not going to promise to never bark again, but I'm going to work on it.

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Thursday, February 04, 2016

That Is Why 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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