Friday, October 24, 2014

"That's What's Cool, Teacher Tom"

The social event of our preschool season is our annual all-school Halloween party, a typically raucous affair attended by most of our 65 or so students, their parents, siblings, and often grandparents. All three classes have been "practicing" our Halloween songs at circle time, which are mostly variations on songs we've been singing together for as long as I've been at Woodland Park.

Easily the most popular, for all ages, are a pair of ditties that involve holding up jack-o-lantern faces to our own, then removing them as a surprise ending.

The first I sell as a song for the "babies," one we sing gently and sweetly while thinking of the "little kids" who will laugh and laugh when we sing it for them:

Someone is hiding, hiding, hiding
Someone is hiding
Who could it be?
Peek-a-boo, I see you!

The second, however, is for the grown-ups and "big kids" who we intend to scare:

Halloween is coming
And this is what I'll do
I'll hide behind this pumpkin face
And then I'll say, "Boo!"

We practice this over and over in all the classes, getting louder and louder (which we all equate with scarier and scarier) with each successive iteration, until we're frightening the aliens in outer space.

I have a small set of 25 practice pumpkin faces that were created years ago, but for the big event, what with all the siblings, we're going to need at least 125, which requires a manufacturing process. We use paper plates for our pumpkin faces, with eyes, noses and mouths precut, and each class takes a turn cranking out as many as they can.

Teachers often complain about the challenge of getting older boys to the "art table." Well let me tell you, I've found that manufacturing processes are a great lure, especially if they involve glue guns, although in this case we were just using tempera paint in the colors we all agreed were "Halloween colors": orange, black and yellow. I've found that one of the key parts of making an art project into a manufacturing project is to say, "We won't have time to put your name on any of them. You're making them for everyone."

As a swarm of boys descended on the table yesterday, I had to wait awhile for a chair to open up for me. When I finally took a seat, the first thing I commented upon were the stenciled pumpkin faces the kids were leaving behind on the table top.

"Hey, there are pumpkin faces on the table."

Wyatt said, "Yeah, you make them like this, Teacher Tom," and he showed me by quickly painting a plate solid black, then lifting it up for the big reveal.

"Thanks for showing me," I said, then got to work painting orange outlines around some triangle eyes.

"No, Teacher Tom," said Yuri, "You have to paint right across the eyes . . . Like this," and he showed me on his own pumpkin face.

I said, "But I just want paint around the eyes."

"That's what's cool, Teacher Tom . . . Look." He picked up his plate and held it into my face, "The paint that's in the eyes stays on the table. Only the paint that's around the eyes stays on the plate."

I thanked the boys for their help, then got to work manufacturing my pumpkin face, employing the scientific magic of the simple stencil, chatting with the guys about making babies laugh and grown-ups quiver.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

If We're Serious About Transforming Education

Recent research simply confirms what most people know: talented teachers help their students tremendously. They also help realize democratic society's highest potential by educating students to ask how to live and what to live for, not just how to make a living. In the words of educational analyst and former teacher Pasi Sahlberg, they make and protect the place where children are encouraged "to know, to create, and to sustain natural curiosity." In this capacity, teachers are models of a commitment to values that extend beyond expediency, narrow self-interest, and the present moment. ~from the report, A  Life of Consequence, a Profession of Status: Enhancing Respect, Recognition, and Retention of Talented Teachers

I've done some college level education coursework, but most of my "training" as a teacher came via what I consider to be my period of cooperative preschool apprenticeship combined with my experiences coaching both youth and adult baseball.

I'd previously thought off and on in about teaching, but it was more in the vein of a process of elimination as I approached the end of my high school career and was looking forward at what was next for me. I saw some appeal in the profession, but since nothing was really exciting to me at the time, I chose to major in journalism because the degree pretty much let you pursue your intellectual interests for two years as a "pre-journalism" student before having to commit. That's why I found myself sitting in courses like "The Byzantine Empire," "Mann, Kafka, and Hess In Translation," and "The Sociology of Leisure," classes that were emphatically not vocational; that opened for me new ways of thinking, new paradigms for how to see myself in the world, and lead me to pursue interests about which I'd previously had absolutely no inkling. I was not at all excited about the prospects of a job, but rather by the idea of spending my life just learning about interesting things, hanging out with smart people, and holing up in libraries like a kind of academic monk.

Seriously, had that been a realistic option I'd probably still be there today, the opportunity cost of course being the life I have today. So, you know, no regrets, but that's what was going on with me, really, even as I cobbled together a career that included being a junior business executive, a PR flack, a baseball coach, and a freelance writer, before landing in the apprenticeship that taught me where I belonged.

I intend to teach at Woodland Park until they wheel me out on a gurney, and even so I hope that by then someone has invented a Teacher Tom robot that I can operate in the classroom from my hospice bed. You see, this is where I get to spend my life learning about interesting things and hanging out with smart people, without all that monkish austerity. 

I understand that this is not the path most of my fellow teachers have taken. Most of them were far more decisive and idealistic than I. A recent study conducted for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which works to recruit and prepare teachers found:

Many new teachers in the United States are committed to values that extend beyond expediency, narrow self-interest, and the present moment. These are precisely the kind of people who can help young people learn, not just how to make a living, but how to live and what to live for.

That's certainly the kind of teacher I strive to be, as well as the kind of teacher I wish for my own child and the children of Woodland Park as they move out into the academic world beyond our walls. And, indeed, the teachers I know fit this description. Sadly, as the report points out:

(T)he system almost forces these new teachers toward other occupations.

Even while we as a society look at teaching as "a profession whose influence on individual lives is more significant than that of nearly any other occupation, whose role in society is universally acknowledged to be among the most critical to the future, and whose practitioners are often described as "heroic," "beloved," and "admired," we "cannot recruit and retain the best people because (the profession) is seen by many as a dead end, neither financially remunerative, nor socially and creatively fulfilling."

The perceived low status of teaching is . . . a serious obstacle to keeping teachers in classrooms. So, of course, are compensation issues and questions of how teachers' effectiveness is evaluated, the subject of frequent and corrosive headlines that often reduce teaching to test scores . . . many new teachers reported a phase where they felt disillusioned, defeated, and a deep sense of having failed. Teachers who have been academic high-achievers often cannot deal with this sense of failure; they have been hard-working, motivated, and successful in virtually everything they have done. They blame themselves for not better overcoming the shortcomings of the system and soon begin to believe they they are not good teachers.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, therefore, that a third to one-half of all teachers, despite entering the profession with the most noble of intentions, wind up leaving the profession within the first five years. In any other profession, especially one considered as vital as teaching, this would be considered a national emergency, yet it appears to me that many of those who hold the purse strings and are in positions of the most power over our educational system, view this not as a problem, but as a feature of the system.

It started with the Bush administration's primary education initiative No Child Left Behind and has continued with the Obama administration's identical twin Race To The Top, programs heavily supported by corporate lobbyists. As Lois Weiner, professor of eduction at New Jersey City University puts it:

(These initiatives are) part of this global project to deprofessionalize teaching as an occupation . . . the thinking is that the biggest expenditure in education is teacher salaries. And they want to cut costs . . . that means they have to lower teacher costs. And in order to do that, they have to deprofessionalize teaching. They have to make it a revolving door, in which we're not going to pay teachers very much. They're not going to stay very long. We're going to credential them really fast . . . We're going burn them up. They're going to leave in three, four, five years. And that's the model they want. So who is the biggest impediment to that occurring? Teachers' unions. And that is what explains this massive propaganda effort to say that teacher's unions are an impediment to reform. And in fact, they are an impediment to the deprofessionalization of teaching . . . It's a disaster for public education.

This, in fact, is the whole idea that underpins such corporatist initiatives like Teach for America, a program that recruits young college graduates, and in exchange for a mere two-year commitment, with the promise that it will be a stepping-stone to a more lucrative career in some other profession, gives them five weeks of summer training, then for rock-bottom prices, sends them into schools with just enough knowledge to coach kids up to do well on standardized test. 

It's a model that treats teaching, this profession that most consider vital to both our democracy and economy, as a kind low level turn-key operation, something like a stint in the Peace Corp with burger-flipper pay and no room for advancement. In fact, these Teach for America grads aren't even encouraged to consider teaching as a longterm profession -- it's about putting in the time, then moving on to greener pastures, like a kind of educational mercenary.

That's certainly not the kind of teacher I strive to be, nor the kind of teacher I wish for my child or the children who pass through Woodland Park.

And that's not the only way corporate education reformers are attempting to dismantle the teaching profession. Union busting (both overt and through the advocacy of low paying non-union charters) is another of their attack fronts, as is the bizarre idea to pit teachers against one another for promotions and raises by using their student's standardized test results as a kind of scoreboard that determines who gets to keep their jobs and who gets fired. Quality teaching has always been about collaboration, sharing ideas, and supporting one another. It's about an ongoing quest, over years and even decades, to improve and perfect our skills. I would not be here today without those three years of apprenticeships in cooperative preschool classrooms. And let me tell you, I'm a much better teacher today than I was a decade ago.

There are many good young teachers, don't get me wrong, but as in any profession, what we learn in school is only a starting point. It's experience that makes for great teachers, those who not only teach the children, but also mentor and support their less experienced colleagues so they don't burn out and leave after only a few years. I would assert that the greatest challenge facing American education is this high teacher turnover.

Teachers are the single most important part of our educational system. The answer can't be to further devalue what we do. The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation report's authors recommend going in the opposite direction, calling for a teacher education model that institutionalizes mentoring and apprenticeship, that emphasizes creating a culture of achievement and support (as opposed to competition) within schools, and that heightens the status (and thus the appeal) of the teaching profession by creating opportunities for growth and distinction. I urge you to read the report for yourself.

I got lucky, I think, to land in a place where I, whether by accident or design, received, and continue to receive, the kind of support, training and education I needed to continue to grow and achieve as a teacher, where I feel respected and challenged every day. It's why I've not burned out despite being exhausted at the end of each day. I'm proud that today several of the parents who have come through our school are now working as teachers themselves. I think that means they've felt supported and encouraged as well. We're all in this together. If we are serious about improving education, this is what what we need to do.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Using Just The Right Amount

During my first year teaching preschool, I was appalled at the amount of glue kids were squirting from our little Nancy bottles. It just seemed so wasteful. Committed to not bossing kids around, I tried using informative statements like, "That's a lot of glue," "It only takes a dot of glue to hold a googly eye," and even the usually more powerful, "I think that's too much," but to no avail. I attempted role modeling and narrating my own "proper" glue usage with similar results. I even purchased new bottles, snipping the tips to create extra tiny holes in the hopes of limiting the flow. The kids just handed the bottles back to me saying it was "too hard," causing me to make the holes a little larger and little larger until the good white stuff was flowing freely again.

It was only after many months that I finally gave up my obsession with waste, introduced the glue table, and started just buying gallons of the least expensive glue I could find. I no longer think of glue as an adhesive, but rather as a stand-alone art medium.

This was the beginning of my journey into the deep philosophy that "waste" is in the eye of the beholder. It's not just glue. All kids some of the time, and some kids all of the time, will use the materials at hand to what adults perceive as excess, sometimes with spectacular results (bubble printing is a classic example), but more often with spectacular messes, both of which are valid results of a trail-and-error scientific process.

One of my favorite lines from all of literature is this one from Goethe:

In limitations he first shows himself the master.

More often than not, we interpret this to mean the limitations imposed from above or without, forgetting that most of our limitations in life are of the self-imposed variety. Playing with extremes is how we learn about self-limitation, which is at the heart of self-regulation or self-control. When we're not permitted the opportunity to explore limits, it means we are under the control of others, leaving us with two choices: rebellion (the natural human response to external control) or obedience (the unnatural one), neither of which tend to contribute much positive to our self-identity or our ability to think for ourselves.

I've often boasted that our school runs upon garbage, using for one last time those things heading off to the landfills and recycling centers, not using stuff as much as finishing using stuff. The fact that this is good for the environment is truly an unintended consequence: it really came about because we value managing our budget and value exploring the extremes. You just can't waste stuff that is already waste. Garbage and cheap materials are one of the ways we accommodate these seemingly opposing values.

This is why when a child dumps an entire bowl of googly eyes into a lake of glue then empties a shaker of glitter onto it, I no longer see waste. In fact, I know she is using just the right amount.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"That's What Pirates Do"

A few of the guys were playing pirates yesterday, a game that lead them to build a "hideout" or "trap" depending on who you consulted. This wasn't an argument between two factions, but rather people of differing opinions, working together, choosing to simultaneously tolerate, if not accept, an alternative point-of-view, without seeing it as a threat to his own. It's something one doesn't see enough of in the world. I wished I'd been witness to the process by which they'd arrived at this place because it might have presented a formula for world peace. I resigned myself to the awareness that it would have to be enough just knowing it's possible.

Meanwhile, Grace was in the new playhouse, alone, "selling things" from her shop. Her merchandise consisted of a pile of lose parts she'd amassed, but that alone wasn't enough to lure customers. I only learned of her enterprise because one of our parent-teachers had earlier tried unsuccessfully to promote her venture with a little word-of-mouth advertising.

I'd taken up a seat on a stump near the playhouse, not thinking about her shop, chatting with Grace about this and that, when a marauding band of pirates stormed through. They were so wrapped up in their game, I'm quite confident they were unaware they had entered a going concern, especially since Grace was outside with me, no longer actively playing her game.

There was cry of, "We need this!" and Grace and I watched as several pairs of unclean hands grabbed hold of a set of old-syle snow tire chains to drag them away, shouting and exhorting as they went.

Grace called out, "Hey!" but it was too little too late and they were off to add this vital piece to their hideout/trap.

When they had gone I asked, "That was part of your shop, wasn't it?"

"Yes." She had a right to be upset, even if their violation had been unintentional. I saw in her face the shadows of her internal debate over how to respond. Sadness or some version of despondency would be appropriate here. Also, there was a place for righteous anger or helpless frustration. And all of that flashed through her features as she watched them recede up the concrete slide in joyful oblivion over what was transpiring in their wake.

She knew that she could have those chains back. It would have required an assertion of ownership on her part, something she's fully capable of doing, and perhaps some arguing. She knew she could assert the agreement we've made with one another, "No swiping things," and even knew that I was there to support her should she need it. I suspect all of this was also present in her deliberations. 

A lot went on in her head and heart in the seconds before she turned to me and said, "That's okay. They're pirates. That's what pirates do: they steal things."

This time, I'd witnessed it happen. One person making space for the others, even when worlds were colliding. She could have retained those chains, but instead she let them go, one might even say "cast them off." 

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Monday, October 20, 2014

When Do The Children Spend Time Learning?

In Friday's post on a City of Seattle ballot measure that would inflict high-stakes standardized tests on 4-year-olds, I linked to a Christian Science Monitor article entitled, As Overtesting Outcry Grows, Education Leaders Pull Back On Standardized Tests, that quoted President Obama as saying:

I have directed [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan to support states and school districts in the effort to improve assessment of student learning so that parents and teachers have the information they need, that classroom time is used wisely, and assessments are one part of fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools.

He was apparently responding to an effort by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the people who literally own the Common Core State Standards brand (something the reporter does not reveal) and exist solely for the purpose of ramming this untested, faith-based, anti-democratic public school curriculum down our throats, to distance themselves from the onerous testing regime they've created. Apparently, these drill-and-kill salesmen have finally figured out that high-stakes tests are widely despised by teachers, parents, students, and just about anyone else who cares about public education. Instead of admitting that there is a fatal flaw in their product, however, instead of taking it back into the shop for a fix, these education hucksters are now engaged in a marketing campaign to convince us that they're listening while still peddling the same old snake oil.

Now, I don't really see any sort of concession in Obama's words, but apparently the CSM reporter does, and it wouldn't be the first time in recent months that the high-powered politicians and businesspeople who are flogging Common Core and high-stakes standardized testing have pretended to be backing off, just a little. I'm confident that these are merely marketing words, because these high-stakes tests are too firmly embedded in the Common Core/No Child Left Behind product to ever be removed. This is another sign, however, that corporate "reformers" are concerned that the grass roots "opt out" movement is seriously damaging their brand and could potentially kill it. In other words, little by little, we are succeeding.

As it now stands, the average American public school student is being tested once a month (a number that I've had recently confirmed by a local Garfield High School teacher), with many being subjected to these tests twice a month. Good lord, between test preparation and actual testing, when do the children spend time learning?

Of course, the goal is no longer learning, if it ever was: the goal is winning. If it was genuinely about improving pubic education, these guys would be giving more than lip-service to the mountains of evidence that these tests measure very little of importance, are unreliable, are unfair and discriminatory, are incapable of measuring most of what a well-rounded education is all about, eat up valuable classroom time with drill-and-kill rote learning, narrow the curriculum, are unhealthily stressful for young children, and have only managed to cause American students to perform worse on the standardized measures they seem to care most about, such as the international PISA tests

That's right, since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, which was the beginning of this high-stakes federal government intrusion into our schools, US student scores in math have fallen dramatically, from 18th in the world to 36th in the most recent tests. There has been a similar drop in science scores and no change in reading. I personally put no stock in these tests (nor, coincidentally, does the Chinese government which is withdrawing from PISA testing in the name of providing better education), but the corporatists do. So by their own "accountability measures" corporate reformers have failed in dramatic fashion. If they were a school they would have long ago been shut down, the teachers fired, and the kids sent off to for-profit charter schools where their test scores would be no better than before, but, you know, they're private sector so they needn't be held to the same standards as public schools.

When Arne Duncan's office was recently asked by Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss if they were aware of a pair of recent studies that slam the use of high-stakes tests to evaluate teachers, one of his pet projects, they said they were aware while in the same breath doubling down on their commitment to using these tests to evaluate teachers. Until now, this is pretty much how they've responded to all the research about the crap-fest that is high-stakes standardized testing. This tells me they have no interest in improving their product, but rather are committed to foisting it upon us consumers "as is."

Of course, if the folks who brought us the Common Core and the attendant testing fetishism had been interested in honest input from teachers, parents, and students they would have, at a minimum, built feedback mechanisms into the system. They did not. This is a finished, copyrighted product, owned by a cabal of what CSM calls "education leaders," being forced upon teachers, parents, and students. What I'm doing right now -- complaining loudly in public -- is the only avenue for change.

When I write these posts, there are always a few readers who, with good intentions, suggest that we would be better served to put our heads down and strive to make "change from within." I appreciate the sentiment, and god bless those of you who are subversively giving your students an opportunity for a real education "between the cracks," but this is not a legitimate alternative to engaging in the political fight before us. You don't have to be the sort of hair-on-fire radical that I've become, but democracy only works if people engage in it. These guys like Bill Gates and Arne Duncan are individually more powerful than us, but we have the numbers and they know it. Their lip-service tells us this.

This is not about education. The curtain has been pulled back and we can see it for what it is. This is quite simply about making it possible for corporations like Pearson Education and Microsoft to make money off the labor of children, breaking their spirits in the test score coal mines in the process.

This is what I think needs to happen:

  • We must continue reading, writing, and talking about the dangers of Common Core and high-stakes standardized testing, yelling louder and louder, including spreading the word about the movement to "opt out" of these tests. This is clearly having a positive impact. 

I'm doing my best on the first one. You can too by opting out and telling people why. Please share this video via email and social media and take the time to engage in discussions with people who do not agree:

As for the second, I've been regularly writing and calling my senators and congressman. They may not respond to you personally, but if they get enough messages like this, they will have to pay attention:

Dear Senator Murray,
As a teacher and parent, it has become increasingly clear that the Common Core national curriculum being promoted by the Department of Education was developed in an anti-democratic and possibly un-Consitutional manner, and it is beginning to look as if it was devised simply as a way to line the pockets of education business people. There is very little research or data to support this approach to education and mountains of research and data against it. Children, parents, and teachers are being hurt. The only ones who seem to be benefiting are for-profit corporations. I'm joining those who are calling upon you to advocate for Senate hearings into the development of Common Core and the constitutionality of how it is being implemented. Please pay attention. Our children are being damaged. 
Tom Hobson

As for transforming public education: that has become part of my life's work. So far, I've proposed a large table with room for everyone who wants a seat. For the rest I need you. What's next? Please help.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Vote "No" On Seattle Proposition 1B

Here it comes Seattle. The corporate "reformers" are after our preschoolers with their developmentally inappropriate curricula and abusive high stakes standardized testing. Just as we've begun to enjoy the minor, but nevertheless motivating success of pushing Arne Duncan and the US Department of Education to at least agree to temporarily slow down their educational abuse of our young children and even as President Obama himself is calling for a reduction in high stakes standardized testing, the forces of evil (and I use the word "evil" in a non-hyperbolic sense) have apparently redirected their relentless efforts to the local level. 

These people must be stopped.

Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess' "Preschool For All" plan is now Proposition 1B on the November ballot and if it passes it's going to be a Dickensian hell for many of our youngest children, who will be subjected to the drill-and-kill, test-prep coal mine. Please help us get the word out to vote "No" on this hideous thing, that like the Bill Gates-developed and funded federal Common Core national curriculum, has been developed almost exclusively by corporate profiteers without any meaningful input from child development experts or education professionals. The whole cast of bad actors is involved in this one from the Gates Foundation and Teach for America, to the KIPP charter chain, standardized testing monolith Pearson Education, and Head Start privatizer Acelero.

Oh, and Seattle Public Schools, which will be required to provide space for these programs, is being entirely cut out of the process, which is championed by the aforementioned Tim Burgess, a former Seattle Police detective and journalist, a man with absolutely no educational background.

I'll be honest and apologetic. I've had my head on other things these past few months, traveling Down Under, launching into our school year, and working to get our new Woodland Park developmentally appropriate, democratic kindergarten up and running. This has snuck up on me. Thankfully,  Dora Taylor, founding member and president of Parents Across America has kept her finger on the pulse of what's going on. I'm sure I'll be writing more about this in the coming weeks, but in the meantime I refer you to her post, "11 Reasons Why Seattle's Preschool for All Proposition 1B is a Bad Idea," over on the Seattle Education blog.

This cannot happen in our backyard. Please help. Tell everyone you know to vote "No" on Proposition 1B.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

"They Won't Fall"

Yesterday, we were playing with our large wooden blocks, long cardboard tubes, and tennis balls.

It was the kind of cooperative engineering play I've come to expect from this group, with a dozen or more kids playing together in a small space at any given moment. And for whatever reason, the play was getting a bit wild, with many of our boys in particular seeming to vibrate with barely contained energy.

There was a time in the not too distant past when I would have been right there amidst them, attempting to somehow settle things down, to subtly direct them, in what I now would understand as a misguided attempt to reduce the chance of injury and conflict. On this day I sat off to the side, keeping a close eye on things, loitering with intent, but saying little and allowing the kids' collective executive function space to develop.

Most of them were playing in stocking feet and after hearing several of the heavy blocks slam onto the carpet, I did interject, "If those heavy blocks land on your toes it's going to hurt." Moments later, Gio dropped a block on his foot. He limped over to me, tears in his eyes, where he took a seat on the bench beside me. I said, "You dropped a block on your foot." He answered, "I wasn't careful." I asked, "Do you want me to do anything?" He replied, "No, I'm waiting for it to stop hurting."

Later, Henry pounced on a long tube that several of the kids were attempting to maneuver into place. There were a few shouted cries of, "Hey!" Henry was clearly right on the edge with his wildness, just barely containing himself. He got off the tube, which, in this case, was a sociable response to "Hey!" but for good measure punched the tube quite hard with his fist. As the boys hoisted the tube into place, Henry fell to the floor beside the tube, wincing in pain. I said, "That hurt when you punched the tube." He replied, "I shouldn't have done that."

After a few more incidences like this, most of which were self-inflicted minor bumps and bruises, all in a day's work, the wildness began to subside, almost like a tide turning. 

I noticed a tall stack of these heavy wooden blocks, balanced uncertainly in the midst of what was still very active play.

It loomed over their heads. I said, "When those blocks fall on someone, it's really going to hurt." Three of the boys paused to examine the stack. Ket said, "It won't fall on me." I took it for bravado, but I was wrong. He helped his prediction become true, by removing the top block from the stack. Another of the guys removed the second one. And a third said, "Teacher Tom, they won't fall."

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