Thursday, April 24, 2014

Mister Rogers And Darth Vader: A Conversation

As those who know me are aware, I admire Mister Rogers, so when gift giving opportunities come up, I'm often the happy recipient of some sort of related merchandise, like a t-shirt or book. One of these items is a device called "Mister Rogers In Your Pocket." There are six buttons, the pushing of which will bring up snippets of one of his songs or a catch phrase. It seems kind of campy out of context, but for those of us who grew up with him, and strive in our way to emulate him, it isn't a bad way to be reminded of what it's all about.

I don't know if this is true everywhere, but for some reason Star Wars is huge at Woodland Park this year in both our 5's and 3-5's classes. It begs the question, can Mister Rogers and Darth Vader co-exist in our classroom? It's been a sort of metaphorical tug-of-war all year long. I've even gone so far as to invent my own Star Wars character, Darth Marcus, by way of providing me a mouthpiece to counter some of the more sociopathic things that seem to come from the mouths of the various other Darths. It's my way of asserting the idea that love transcends.

My friend Liam received "Darth Vader In Your Pocket" in his Easter basket and we both had our pocket companions with us in class yesterday. As we played with our toys, Mister Rogers and Darth Vader had the following conversation:

"If you only knew the power of the Dark Side."

"Discovering truth will make me free."

"I am your father."

"Please won't you be my neighbor?"

"I find your lack of faith disturbing."

"I think I'll make a snappy today."

"The Force is strong with this one."

"It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for neighbor."

"The Force is with you young Skywalker . . . but you are not a Jedi yet."

"Do you ever talk about love with someone you care for? I hope you do."

"You have failed me for the last time."

"I like you just the way you are."

Is Darth Marcus really Mister Rogers?

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Value Of Hard Work

A while back, I read a post on someone else's blog about their version of a play-based curriculum. I'm sorry I don't recall where, but the first reader comment is what has stuck with me. It was from someone who purported to be a teacher and was quite critical, asserting among other things that "this is what's wrong with this country." The commenter's point was that we fail kids when we imply that everything should be fun, that in fact most things worth doing or learning weren't fun, that success in life comes from learning about working hard, especially when required to do things we don't want to do.

I teach very young children, of course, which kind of inoculates me against these critiques, but it's an argument that those of us who publicly advocate for play-based education hear a lot. This always strikes me as a kind of window into a particular world view, and I'm tempted to trot out the great philosophical bookends of the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, placing the naysayers in the "man is essentially evil" camp, while proponents of play-based education form the "man is essentially good" crowd. And I think that it does at some level drill down to these fundamental and opposed understandings of humanity, a debate that continues to be carried out today through our politics.

Usually, it's phrased as a question: Everything you say about the value and benefits of a play-based education sounds well and good, but how do the children ever learn about the value of hard work?

I see "hard work" every day in our classroom, even among the very young children I teach. Sometimes the work is so hard they break down in tears or flare up in anger, especially when applying themselves, through play, to learning to interact with the other people. I watch them struggle as they repeatedly address a piece of paper with scissors, brows furrowed in a display of concentration, or strive to slow themselves down to the pace of calm meditation in order to place a dot of liquid from a pipette on just the right spot. When a child sits down to assemble a puzzle, it's not all "joy," it's not all "fun," but it is all play, and if the puzzle is one of those "just right" puzzles, it is hard work.  

"Play" and "hard work" are not opposites: in fact, they can be seen as synonyms. Anyone who has ever played hard also knows how to work hard. There may be aspects of our play that we dislike, that are not "fun," but we do them because they are steps in the process we are teaching ourselves, the challenge we are undertaking. And young children tend to play hard, throwing themselves wholly into it, immersing themselves into it as they see fit, to the degree they feel comfortable, up to the point of their interest, until their driving questions are answered.

And this is where Hobbesians tend to interject: Ah, but what about the hard work of doing things they don't want to do? How do you teach them that through play?

The short answer is: you don't. 

There is only one kind of "hard work" we must do in life that we don't want to do: that is the hard work an external force imposes on us.

When it's not freely chosen, it's always "hard work," for everyone, all the time. When a man is, for instance, starving, he'll do almost anything for food, including the most degrading or routine work, including begging. The modern-day Hobbesians might say, "That's not work." Bull. It may be the most difficult work of all in our society, made even more excruciating by those who will heartlessly yell, "Get a job!" Those legions of children in third world countries who spend their days combing through landfills in search of something, anything, they and their families can use for survival are working harder than any of us have ever worked in our lives. The work of mere survival is the most grinding, soul crushing, hard work there is. And if this is what the critics are talking about, then god save us all.

Thankfully, most of us, most of the time are not merely surviving, yet most of us have found ourselves at one time or another working in jobs we hate, in which "superiors" tell us what to do. This is, I think, the kind of "hard work" many of the critics are talking about; this is the shut-up-and-do-it, nose-to-the-grindstone, mind-numbing future for which they would have us training children. This kind of hard work, in fact, is hardly different than the work of survival in that the only reward is the paycheck, perhaps a pat on the back, because it sure isn't the work itself. I'm here to tell you that if all you're in it for is the paycheck it better be one hell of a paycheck, which, not coincidentally is rarely the case with this kind of work.

And then there's the question of how one would go about teaching this kind of hard work. The only way I can see to do that is to turn oneself into that kind of boss-them-around superior. Sorry, I'm not taking part in that: I will not be part of pre-grinding those noses and pre-numbing those minds, just so some future superior has a more malleable underling to boss around. 

But no, they then say, that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the work ethic; the idea that you have to work hard to get what you want out of life. How will they ever learn that if all they do is play?

That requires no special effort on my part because it's built into play and simply cannot be taught through a system of external rewards and punishments.

The anonymous commenter wrote: "When something is challenging it ceases being fun, therefore they check out." Boy, that hasn't been my experience at all in a play-based curriculum. In fact, for most kids, most of the time, it's just the opposite. 

A child may not exactly enjoy the hard work of re-building the foundation of her block structure over and over again to get to the point where she can, say, attempt to create a cantilevered addition, yet she will repeatedly do it in order to make yet another attempt. And she may well ultimately reach a point at which it has all come crashing down so many times that she concludes her idea is impossible, at least for today, and walk away, not wanting to build that foundation one more time, but she has persevered until she has concluded her current efforts are for naught. That doesn't mean she's given up forever, only that she has acquired the wisdom to know that she needs to move on, to learn more before trying that again. This doesn't mean she hasn't learned the value of "hard work," only that she is figuring out that without "smart work," it's just work.

Tackling freely chosen challenges is what play is all about. What I suppose Anonymous is referring to is when children, all people really, are saddled with challenges they care nothing about, like a classroom assignment, or when the reason they have to "care" is the fear of some sort of punishment, like a bad grade. That's when it's not fun, that's when it's merely hard work undertaken for a "paycheck."

The "work ethic" is not about following orders; it is about following passions. What about the heavily tattooed skateboarder I watched the other day, repeatedly attempting to teach himself a trick, running full speed, dropping his board under his feet, then attempting to ride up the railing of a footbridge? I must have watched him attempt it 30 or 40 times before my dogs (who I was walking) insisted we move on. Each time he either fell or otherwise failed to live up to his self-imposed standard (although it all looked incredible to me). Yet each time he picked himself up and trudged back to his starting point again and again. I don't know if he ever satisfied himself, but I doubt he'd have ever worked so hard if the motivation was something as meager as a paycheck or avoiding punishment. In that case he likely would have stopped at "good enough." No, this was the work ethic writ large and no teacher taught it to him: he learned it through play.

I consider my time in the classroom with the children to be play. I could, I'm sure, earn more money doing other things, and I suppose there is in there somewhere the idea that I could, in fact, be punished by being fired by the parents for whom I work, but they hardly boss me around. Yet I feel I work quite hard, every day even without those external "motivations." I assure you that without the hard work, without the challenge, if this were to somehow become turnkey or rote, I would be miserable, even if my "superiors" offered me higher pay, even if they threatened to punish me. Sure, there are aspects of my daily routine that I approach with a kind of irritation, but like the girl building the block foundation over and over, I do it because I really, really want to see if I can make that damn cantilever work.

Play is always "fun," in the sense that it's freely chosen and freely engaged, but play is not the opposite of hard work. It teaches hard work and it does it so much better than neediness, rewards, and punishments, those external slave masters that ultimately suck the joy out of any endeavor. Play teaches hard work as an intrinsic trait, which is, after all the essence of any ethic, including the work ethic.

There is one line from that blog post commenter's criticism that I recall verbatim. It was his concluding remark: "If all I'd had to do at school was play, I would have loved school." 

That, my friends, is exactly the point: it's only when we play that we love to learn. 

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Discontented Man

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
He said to me, "You must not ask for so much."
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
She cried to me, "Hey, why not ask for more?
~Leonard Cohen (Bird On A Wire)

I know that I am a privileged person: a middle class white male in America. Most people in the world have a lower standard of living than me, often very much lower. Although it may still hurt like hell, I know the pains of my trials, tribulations, tragedies and losses pale in comparison to that suffered by my fellow humans. My loved ones are near and healthy, I live in a nice home with plenty to eat and a job that makes me happy. I've really nothing to complain about, and yet I do.

I have all of this, far more than I need really, yet I want more. I suppose I could just relax and write it up to the "human condition," but I know, or at least reckon, it's possible to be content. At least that's what I've been told by artists, gurus, and religion. What they say sounds good and makes sense, even though achieving it usually means giving up on wanting. That's the hard part.

I don't ask for much. I mean, just a little more money would be nice, right? A little more sex? Yes please. A little more free time? That's all I really want for myself . . . And then, once I have it, I'll finally be in a position to be content.

Ha, ha, ha, indeed.

Man, I'd love to move through life in perfect contentment and I really think I could give up on the selfish stuff. I could live more simply. I could definitely do that, and my family has moved in that direction over the past three years, giving up the big house and long commutes for a small apartment in the city and transportation by foot, bike, and bus. I think I could ultimately even go so far as to give it all away and live a life of blissful poverty, but even then, when I do the mental experiment, I'm certain I would still have things for which to ask.

I know people who are working to move their lives in the direction of bliss, but one thing they all have in common is that they've pretty much gone on a media fast, especially avoiding anything that has to do with politics, taking comfort it seems from a kind of selfish cynicism. As anyone who has read here for long knows, I'm not about to do that. There is too much idealism in me. I love democracy, the idea of democracy at least, with all its inherent imperfections. I want to pass a better democracy on to my child and the children I teach. And if that's going to have any chance of happening it's my responsibility to engage as sincerely as I can. How else do we ever expect self-governance to work?

For instance, I very much want to stop the Obama administration's corporate-sponsored Common Core curriculum because it's anti-child, created by amateurs, and completely unproven. (They insist it's not a "curriculum," but it is, complete with detailed, step-by-step instructions invented by non-professional educators on how to teach.) I think it's a huge mistake to turn our children over to corporately run schools or to plague children with batteries of high stakes standardized tests. I know that it's wrong to pit child against child, teacher against teacher, school against school, and state against state in a race to the bottom. How could I ever be content as long as there is that?

I want to instead see our public schools adopt a child-centric approach, one that takes into account the actual research that's been conducted over the past century, stemming from pioneers like Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and John Dewey. I want instead to see our schools employ the methods tested and proven through such approaches as democratic free schools, Reggio Emilia, Montessori, Waldorf, outdoor schools, and a host of other progressive models of education. I want this and even though my desire robs me of contentment, I don't want to not want this because it's the best thing for human beings.

Am I asking for too much? Could I ask for more? The answer is probably "yes" on both counts, but if we could only achieve this, I'd finally be in a position to be content . . . Ha, ha, ha.

I can think of a dozen other things about which I feel the same. And cynicism doesn't comfort me.

I think I'm doomed to be a discontented man and, frankly, I'm choosing to be content with that.

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Monday, April 21, 2014

Telling Stories As They Happen

Narration, or what Magda Gerber called "sportscasting," is at the core of how I teach. I spend my days at Woodland Park telling the children's stories as they happen, loudly enough that those nearby can hear. I try to not tell children what to do, but rather describe what they are doing. Narration helps provide context, expand vocabulary, and encourage cooperative behavior, the basis of community, the reason we come together in the first place. Over time, with practice, one can even learn to guide behavior not through commanding it, but rather simply through what you chose to narrate about a story as it happens and what you choose to leave out. 

River had already loaded the wagon once with rocks, pulled them to the top of the hill, then unloaded them onto some green boxes. He had returned for a second "run" when I started narrating his process. 

"River is putting a rock into the wagon. Now he's putting a big rock into the wagon. Now he's putting a smooth rock into the wagon . . . "

"He's bending down and picking up rocks and putting them into the wagon . . . "

"Now the wagon is heavy. It's harder to move. River's turning the wagon around using two hands . . . He is pulling the heavy wagon to the top of the hill. He's working hard . . ."

Liam had been listening and decided he wanted to be part of the story. "Liam is helping unload the rocks onto the green boxes. River and Liam are moving all the rocks out of the wagon and onto the box . . ."

"Luke and Ben are helping unload the rocks too. They are picking up rocks from the wagon and putting them on the green box. Ben is holding the wagon so it doesn't roll back down the hill. Everyone is working together unloading the rocks and putting them on the green box. Friends help each other. The wagon is almost empty . . ."

"River is turning the wagon around. It is heavier with Ben in it. He is pulling very hard to turn the wagon around. Ben is holding on tightly so he doesn't fall out . . . "

"River is pulling the wagon down the hill. It's easier going downhill than uphill. Luke is helping push the wagon. Ben is holding on tightly. Everyone is going to get more rocks to bring to the top of the hill and put on the green boxes . . . "

By now, there were lots of kids following the story I was narrating, many of whom wanted a part in the play. "River is holding the wagon so it doesn't roll. Ben and Laurie are helping pick up rocks and put them in the wagon. Liam and Luke and Marcus and Sylvia are putting rocks in the wagon too. Everyone is working together. Friends work together . . . "

"Now we are taking the wagon to the top of the hill. River is pulling the handle. Ben and Marcus and Luke and Sylvia are pushing the wagon. The wagon is heavy. Everyone is working together to move it up the hill to the green boxes . . . "

"River is pulling the wagon and Sylvia and Luke and Ben and Laurie and Marcus are all helping. Everyone is pushing the heavy wagon up the hill. We are taking the rocks to the top of the hill. We are going to put the rocks on the green boxes. Everyone is working hard . . . "

"Everybody is working together, helping River move those rocks to the top of the hill. We're doing it! We're moving the wagon together. We're a team. Sam and Liam are waiting at the top of the hill to help us unload the rocks. We're all friends. Friends work together . . . "

"We did it! We're at the top of the hill. I see Marcus unloading rocks, I see Ben unloading rocks. I see River holding the wagon so it doesn't roll down the hill. We're putting all the rocks on the green boxes. We're doing it together. We're a friend team. We're all helping. That's what friends do together . . . "

The End.

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Friday, April 18, 2014

The Time To Get Curious

When I was in college, way back in the 1980's, there were media stories that connected playing the fantasy game Dungeon's & Dragons with going insane, based entirely on the fact that one kid who did play D&D went insane. I think. I don't know. I was young then, and began playing D&D because I was actually attracted by the idea that a mere game could be that intense. I didn't go insane, but I found I really liked D&D, just as I had many of the things that mainstream culture insisted were dangerous. In fact, by then I'd figured out that most of the things they said were bad, bad, bad, were, in fact, bad, but also, equally, good. Drinking, socialism, and masturbation to name a few.

It was a revelation that really hit me as a teenager, as it does a lot of us when the cloud of fear clears and our critical thinking kicks in. Even as I knew they were doing it for my own good, I resented that anyone but me could determine my "own good." Just maybe I wanted to live fast and die young. Maybe that's the best idea out there, huh? Prove I'm wrong!

To this day, I can't prove myself wrong, but I'm still alive, so I can at least say that I've not been proven right either.

Maybe it's because of this essential orientation to life that I'm automatically doubtful of those who would use fear to motivate me.

On the morning of 9/11 I was with my wife Jennifer on a cruise ship headed to Alaska. I'd left our cabin to grab an early breakfast at the never-ending buffet. I was making small talk with fellow passengers when Jennifer came up to tell us that someone had flown jets into buildings in New York. We all laughed at her, telling her she must have had a bad dream, but as we all know something truly horrifying had happened.

I rushed back to the room, turned on CNN, and there I sat for the next several hours in disbelief. And then, like a call from reality, I heard it, from the White House, someone used the words "war on terror." I turned to Jennifer and said, "The terrorists have won." You see, while this was the worst, it certainly wasn't the first terrorist attack. Up until then, we'd treated them as mere criminals, not granting them the dignity of any special fear, but now . . . Now we were giving them the power of the hell of war complete with red alerts to keep the citizenry on its fearful toes. Then, because you can't fight a hot war against a tactic, proceeded to drain our treasury and deplete the ranks of our young men and women in a disastrous adventure in two countries halfway around the world that had nothing to do with anything. And we did it all based upon the cynical use of fear as a motivator.

Fear: as a person with a background in advertising, public relations, and marketing, I know it's one of the most effective sales tools out there. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee and the rest of the corporate education "reform" crowd are using it to sell us (and parents in particular) on Common Core, high stakes testing, and the rest of their money grubbing agenda. "We're falling behind!" "The Chinese are beating us!" "Our schools are failing!" "Children need more rigor!" Never mind that even a shallow examination of their claims disproves them, and critical analysis of their "solution" can't even be performed because there simply isn't a lick of reliable data to analyze. As I've written before, this is clearly the Shock Doctrine at work, the very strategy the big fools used to get us in over our heads in the Middle East.

Fear is how they're selling guns to the nuts like those who recently rallied around that criminal rancher and his welfare queen cattle down in Nevada. Fear is how they've convinced so many people to leave their children unvaccinated. Fear is at the core of sexism, racism, and homophobia. Fear drives much of our politics. The fear of hell stood at the core of my religious upbringing. 

Fear is a normal, adaptive human response, triggering an instinctive fight or flight response. There are real things of which to be afraid, but let's be clear, fear also makes critical thinking all but impossible and that is exactly what they are banking on.

This is a well-known phenomenon, one that is used exclusively by those who have agendas that simply cannot be supported by reason alone. Fear is how to get someone to do things against their own best interest. Fear is how to command obedience, compliance, or sell hogwash.

No, when someone tells us to be afraid, that's the time to get curious. And remember, while there is a kind of sick power in fear . . .

There is magic in boldness. ~Goethe

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Jesse Hagopian For President!

The entire Muskegon Heights, Michigan public school system is run by a for-profit "education management organization" called Mosaica Education, Inc. This charter school company was handed the reins by what is called an Emergency Manager, a blatantly anti-democratic idea that has been operating in the great state of Michigan for several years now. Essentially, this means the governor can summarily replace local elected officials with an appointed dictator should he determine that a municipality is in financial straits. It's an idea based upon the neoliberal economic fallacy that the private sector (i.e., for-profit business) can always produce a better "product" at a better price than can the public sector (i.e., government).

Now I know it's hard to ignore the fact that 80-90 percent of new businesses fail within the first 5 years, and many of those that do survive are hardly profitable, putting the lie to this core neoliberal argument. And in this case it's even harder to ignore the fact that this particular "for profit" savior is so mismanaged that it had to beg the state (i.e., taxpayers) for more than a quarter of a billion dollars in order to make payroll. And it's almost impossible to ignore the truth that quality education is simply not a product or a service and children are not human resources. Education cannot be measured via profit: indeed, a for-profit corporation must, by law, pursue profit above education, making learning, at best, a byproduct of the corporate process. But even if we make the outrageous stipulation for a moment that the neoliberals are right, and that Mosaica can somehow deliver a better product at a better price, we are still left with the hard fact that what's going on in Muskegon's schools (and the state of Michigan) is a bald-faced subversion of democracy. 

This isn't why Mosaica and Muskegon came to my attention, however, but rather that one of their schools recently decided to celebrate "Teacher Appreciation Week" with compulsory teacher humiliation. As the chief administrative officer (i.e., principal) wrote to her staff:

. . . we are conducting some fundraisers to ensure that faculty will be treated well. This means that whatever the students pay for you to do, you MUST do it.

This included male cross-dressing, teachers in bibs and sucking on pacifiers, pies to the face, hair and cosmetic make-overs by kindergarteners, and being forced to stand in the parking lot with picket signs begging to keep their jobs. This is how to ensure that professional teachers are treated well, dress them as babies?

Oh, and did I mention that one of the other "benefits" that privatizers see in for profit charter schools is that teachers are not unionized? In fact, knowing what I do, I suspect that union busting is their number one objective.

For whatever historical and emotional reasons, American business guys tend to hate unions, slurring them with labels of like "thugs," when the historical record shows that organized workers are much more likely to be the victims of corporate thugishness than the other way around. They hate these democratic institutions called unions set up in the heart of their corporate dictatorships. This is not true of all business people. The management of Volkswagen AG, for instance, embraces their unions, as witnessed in the ongoing kerfuffle in Tennessee in which anti-union elected representatives and business interests are pitted against the German corporate giant that actually prefers a unionized workforce. VW seems to have discovered that a well-paid, well-treated, involved (German unions have seats on the boards of their corporations) workforce actually makes for a healthier company, one that, in VW's case, has been much better able to bounce back from economic challenges than its American counterparts with their always contentious labor relations. In other words, VW has found that democracy works.

I support unions for this reason and I am a particular supporter of teacher's unions that fight not only for the rights and dignity of the teaching profession, but also, by extension our children. As historian and author Diane Ravitch points out, our teacher's working conditions are our children's learning conditions. We do not live in Germany, which is at a more advanced state when it comes to the relationship between capital and the human beings that are so often reduced to mere "resources," almost as if we exist to serve the economy rather than the other way around.

I write and speak a lot about democracy. It is important to me and important to my profession. It is my contention, one that was supported by our nation's founders, that an educated population is essential if self-governance is going to work. Citizenship, not vocational training, is the purpose for public education. Of course, it's easy these days to look around and feel that democracy has already been lost, especially when you consider the kind of oligarchic corporatism that has taken hold in places like Michigan and Tennessee. It's easy to feel helpless which is why it's important to stay focused on the things we can influence: like local politics.

Jesse Hagopian

This month, the Seattle Education Association, the state's largest teacher's union is electing a new president and it's time for a change. In an era in which public schools, students, and teachers are under attack, current union leadership has taken an unacceptably soft, conciliatory approach. I am joining newly elected school board member Sue Peters in endorsing Garfield High School history teacher Jesse Hagopian. As an activist teacher, Mr. Hagopian first came to my attention as one of the leaders of last year's walk out of the controversial standardized MAP test, a protest that made national headlines and brought teachers, students, and parents together in a stand against the corporate assault on public education. He is currently a union representative at Garfield, has served as the Black Student Union's faculty adviser, is an associate editor of the acclaimed Rethinking Schools magazine, the recipient of the 2012 Abe Keller Foundation award for "excellence and innovation in peace education," a 2013 Secondary Teacher of the Year nominee by the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences, and is a founding member of Social Equality Educators.

Hagopian is a well-informed, well-spoken, and clearly dedicated educator. He will make an outstanding union president, one who will not stand down in this time when standing up is the most important thing we can do. Below is an interview from last May with the great Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!

As institutions, our public schools are under attack from billionaires who would privatize the whole thing. As a profession, teaching is under attack from billionaires who would reduce teaching to low wage test proctors who are appropriate targets for pies to the face. And as a result, our children's future is under attack from billionaires who see them as their next crop of cubicle fodder. The only way to successfully and democratically push back against those with deep pockets is to come together as teachers, parents, and students: numbers beats money, but only if the numbers turn out. In Seattle, it's happening behind the leadership of dedicated teachers like Jesse Hagopian, and this is how it will happen across the country, one state, one school district, sometimes even one school at a time.

If there is a Jesse Hagopian where you live, support him. If there is not, find him or be him. To donate or to learn more about the campaign, click here or check out his blog, I Am An Educator.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Understanding Her Flowers

Last week, we were messing around with pipe cleaners and tissue paper circles. It's a craft-ish project in that most of the kids know, because I showed them, that you can make nifty little flowers by sliding the thin disks of paper onto their bendy stems one at a time, giving each one a gentle "crush" as you go. I don't have any pictures of them, but it's a common enough preschool activity that I'm sure most of my readers know what I'm talking about. (But if you want a look, here's a version from my friend Deborah of Teach Preschool fame using squares instead of circles.)

Some of the kids do their own thing with the materials available, creating "space ships" and "spiders" and "decorations," but there are always a handful who really, really want to master the flowers. "Sarah," I thought, was one of those kids. She plunked herself down at the art table and got to work, brow furrowed, her authoritative chatter letting us know she was on top of things. Since I'd already demonstrated my own technique, I moved on to other things, leaving the art station in the capable hands of a parent-teacher.

Later, while outdoors, I chatted with the parent-teacher, saying something like, "That art project was pretty popular today. Sarah seemed to really like it."

She answered, "It was, but you know, she didn't make a single flower. She couldn't figure out how to get the tissue paper on the stem without tearing it." A huge bouquet of flowers had been created at that table and Sarah had sat there, hands busy for a good half hour. How could it be possible that she hadn't produced a single flower?

"Nope, not one," was the answer, "But she worked really hard. Every time she tried to crush the tissue like you showed them, the paper came off."

I'd not been watching Sarah's production, but only, occasionally, her face and body language. Not once had I seen a sign of frustration or failure. No, the girl I'd seen was hard at work, concentrating, narrating her activities, deeply involved in what I assumed was a manufacturing process like that of the other kids around the table who were making one for "mom," one for "dad," one for "grandma," one for "my pet cat Simon . . ."

"I tried to help her, but she didn't want help. She told me she was already an expert flower maker."

I said, "I guess that means we'd better keep making flowers tomorrow."


The following day, I made the same materials available, not on the art table this time, but on another table, a place where there would be no dedicated parent-teacher. Sarah didn't go there right away, instead choosing a housekeeping game, but before long she was drawn in, taking up a spot, alone with the materials. I sat with her, taking up my own stem, not saying anything. I watched her slide a tissue paper circle onto her pipe cleaner, tearing a huge hole in it during the process. And as had happened the day before, when she crushed it, it came off the stem. This didn't seem to bother her at all as she tossed the wad of paper aside and reached for another. This time she worked more slowly, nudging it along carefully, still ripping the paper too much, but when she crushed it, it stayed, almost balanced in place. Gingerly, she added a second disk of paper, halfway up the stem, then a third. 

From an artistic perspective it was a pretty pathetic looking flower. She held it up, no extra pride in her expression, no sign that there was anything amiss, "That's just so beautiful," then stuck in in the glass vase where we were displaying our finished pieces. She then got to work on another.

I put a piece of tissue paper on my stem and in my best imitation of the way she had done it, tore the hole a little too big, then crushing it to keep it precariously fixed in place. Sarah watched me from the corner of her eyes. "No, that's not the way," she said. "You have to do it more gently. Like this," then she showed me on her own flower.

I tried imitating her as best I could. "Good," she said, "You're getting it. Now, do another one." I followed her instructions.

She made a second flower as pathetic as the first and called it good. Before starting on a third, she watched me for a moment, growing frustrated with my attempts, although I was doing my best to imitate her. She snatched it from me, her voice infused with a false cheerfulness, "Here, let me just do that for you." In her rush, she caused all the tentatively fixed tissue to drop from my stem. "See?" she said, "That's what's supposed to happen. Now you can start over."

I did not like the feeling of failure the exchange gave me, even as I knew I'd not failed. I knew that because I'm an adult and I had practically invented this damn process, yet here I was with the tables turned. This is why I'm not a big fan of crafts in preschool: I worry that we put too many children in this situation. I said, reflexively, "I don't want to start over."

She sighed, "Okay, but you'll never figure it out if you give up."

"That's true." I got back to work, this time making a flower the way I'd initially shown the kids two days before, quickly pulling together a nice, tidy white carnation. Sarah watched me work without comment, then got back to her own stem. When she was finished with yet another pathetic flower, she said, "I think we should plant these in the garden."

I answered, "They would be pretty," then joking, "But, you know, they're not real flowers."

"I know that."

"I think the wind and rain would destroy them."

"Yes, but real flowers always fall off, too," and even as she said it, one of her tissue paper wads fell from the stem she held. "Like that."

It was then that I understood Sarah's flowers. She was not making the perfect little imitation flowers the rest of us were making, but "real" flowers, the kind that we are seeing right now in Seattle, the kind that bloom, live, then fall away when the Spring winds blow. And in that flash, I was no longer in the presence of the pathetic attempts of a child, but rather what I saw before me were the godlike works of a creator.

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