Thursday, December 31, 2015

Look Beneath The Facade

There is an article in the most recent edition of The Atlantic entitled The New Preschool is Crushing Kids in which the author tackles a subject very familiar to those of us who live in work in the play-based education bubble. 

. . . (B)y the time (children who had attended academic preschools) were in first grade their attitude toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that over reliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who'd been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

It's what we've been saying for years: the corporate-style transformation of our schools with its emphasis on what we call "academics," high stakes standardized testing, standardized curricula, direct instruction, "seat work," and accountability is, objectively, making our children less well-educated:

The shift from an active and exploratory early-childhood pedagogy to a more scripted and instruction-based model does not involve a simple trade-off between play and work, or between joy and achievement. On the contrary, the preoccupation with accountability has led to a set of measures that favor shallow mimicry and recall behaviors, such as learning vocabulary lists and recognizing shapes and colors (something that a dog can do, by the way, but that is in fact an extraordinarily low bar for most curious 4-year-olds), while devaluing complex, integrative, and syncretic learning . . . The academic takeover of American early learning can be understood as a shift from what I would call an "ideas-based curriculum" to a "naming-and-labeling-based curriculum."

It's always fantastic to see well-written articles like this out there in the popular media, reaching a wider audience than any one of our little play-based education blogs. 

One detestable thing I learned from this piece is that in some places, children are actually being forbidden entry into first grade because they are not reading or have failed to attain certain other academic skills in kindergarten. The other thing I "learned" (or rather knew but didn't want to know) is that, for the most part, parents are on board with this crap. They've been made to fear a play-based childhood because they've bought into the college and career-ready nonsense being promoted by policy-makers and corporate education dilettantes. 

As I reflected on this article, I was reminded of another one I read this summer from New Republic entitled Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League, in which the author convincingly argues that the so-called "elite" universities that so many parents aspire to on their children's behalf, and from which a huge percentage of our policy-makers and corporate education dilettantes matriculated, provide a very narrow, formulaic type of education, one that mirrors what's going on in our public schools:

Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think, but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions. Everything is technocratic -- the development of expertise -- and everything is ultimately justified in technocratic terms.

This is exactly the sort of technocratic education they are now pushing into our preschool classrooms. And the result?

These enviable youngsters (those admitted to elite universities) appear to be the winners in the race we have made of childhood. But the reality is very different, as I have witnessed in many of my own students and heard from the hundreds of young people whom I have spoken with on campuses or who have written to me over the last few years. Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they're doing but with no idea why they're doing it.

The article goes on to point out that there are still plenty of colleges and universities, often considered to be of the second and third-tier variety, that offer a true liberal arts education, one that challenges students to actually think, and indeed, how to fail, get back up and try again, something entirely lacking in "elite" education.

Most of our policy-makers attended these elite schools. Not only that, but they also attended elite prep schools, elite elementary schools, and even elite preschools, all of which are designed to create the sort of all-success-all-the-time students who get admitted to elite universities, then go into business or the professions. This is all they know, but . . .

Look beneath the facade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.

This is what they really are pushing into elementary, kindergarten, and now even preschool classrooms. I would not wish this sort of elite education on my worst enemies.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Gross National Happiness

The small, landlocked South Asian Kingdom of Bhutan uses an index called "Gross National Happiness" to guide all of it's economic and development plans. They take it very seriously and the success or failure of every governmental policy is measured according to this index. One must even submit a GNH impact statement for review before undertaking any new endeavor, public or private, that may impact on the general well-being of the nation.

I just mention that by way of pointing out that there are ways other than money, perhaps even better ways, to assess the real value of an economic activity, just as there are ways other than test scores and grades, perhaps better ways, to assess the real value of education.

For instance, I've never come across a standardized test that measures the ability and willingness to take turns, but everyone knows that it's one of a happy life's most essential skills.

And you're sure not going to get very far if you don't work well with others, but you don't see that on any of the corporate academic assessment matrixes.

Or how about curiosity? I'll take curiosity over knowing the capital of Bhutan any day. (It's Thimphu. I was curious and looked it up.)

And anyone who has studied what it takes get what you want out of life knows that boldness . . .

. . . and the willingness to take risks . . .

. . . and the ability to fall down . . .

. . . and get back up is far more important than the ability to diagram a sentence or deduce that the answer is "none of the above." What meager things we've come to expect from our schools.

A well educated person is skeptical and often full of doubt.

She looks at things closely and doesn't necessarily take my word for it.

An educated person tries new things . . .

. . . and plays dramatically with his friends, practicing the complex interpersonal skills that will ultimately get him through life.

When I'm assessing students, I want them to be able to stand on their own two feet.

And to invent new things (at least things that are new to them) . . .

. . . and to feel proud of their accomplishments.

I'm looking for kids who help others . . .

. . . and can work well on their own . . .

. . . concentrating . . .

. . . and persevering . . .

. . . and just being silly.

I want to see that they are full of awe and wonder.

And ultimately, like the King of Bhutan, I'm always looking out for our Gross National Happiness.

Because in this world if we are to be truly happy, we are to be happy together. No one can call himself educated unless he understands this. And therein lies the most important academic skill of all -- the capacity for unmitigated . . .

. . . unbridled joy.

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Monday, December 28, 2015

What Hillary Clinton Said

In the lead up to Christmas, Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton reverted to form, not just for her, but for all politicians, when she said:

"Now, I wouldn't keep any school open that wasn't doing a better-than-average job. If a school's not doing a good job, then, y'know, that may not be good for kids."

Of course, I don't think for a second that she has revealed her secret plan to close over half the public schools in America, which is obviously where her math takes her, but this is the sort of thing we've grown accustomed to hearing from politicians of all political stripes. I'm guessing she wanted to make sure no one could accuse her of "coddling" lazy, entitled, union thug teachers. And if you read/watch the fuller context of what she said during her campaign event in Iowa, you'll find that she was actually speaking on how she would, as President, support rural schools that are struggling with funding due to governmental policies and shrinking tax bases. With this comment, however, she was more or less saying, We'll work to keep your school open, but we're kicking those incompetent jerks two districts over to the curb

It's essentially the same communications strategy that Ronald Reagan used to sell his neoliberal welfare reform ideas, ginning up the mythology of wide-spread graft and corruption, which he embodied in his "welfare queen" straw man, much the way today's politicians (supported by their venture philanthropist corporate allies) have created the mythology of the wide-spread failure of our public schools. It's been well-documented that when it comes to test scores, the main thing holding America's students back is poverty. The corporate reformers have been attempting for decades now to boost test scores through their tough love measures of "rigor," "accountability," and "privatization," but despite their best efforts, their precious scores haven't budged. Meanwhile, schools that serve middle and high income populations continue to produce "world class" test results, while those serving lower income populations produce low ones. It has become quite obvious, if it wasn't before, that the most effective way to fix so-called "failing" schools is to fix poverty: this is not a problem with schools, but with our wider society.

But no, the neoliberal idea, the one embraced by every politician, left, right, and center, including Clinton, is that poverty can be magically fixed by fixing our broken schools according to their ideologically driven notions of "reform." You see, in this world view, poverty is the fault of those who are poor, rather than economic policies that we've enacted over the past three decades that have caused 100 percent of income growth to go to those who are already in the top 10 percent. The poor are just too uneducated to figure it out, so we'll drill and kill their kids in the hope that test score results will somehow lead to economic prosperity for all . . . Or something like that.

This is the narrative that lead Clinton to wave around the big stick of shutting down those welfare queen schools. And in their place? Publicly funded private schools, charters, the darlings of the Wall Street set. Forget the fact that charters have failed to deliver those higher test scores. That doesn't really matter because these guys merely view them as a transitional step between today's public schools and the corporate reformers' ultimate goal of a privately owned and operated for-profit school system paid for by our taxes.

There are few things more dear to corporate reformers than the idea that schools with low test scores should be closed . . . On the ideological front, the possibility of closure . . . is seen as an essential element of accountability . . . According to this way of thinking, people are not properly motivated without the threat of unemployment hanging over their heads . . . The other big reason school closures are so precious to corporate reformers is that the chief vehicle for privatizing public schools has become charter schools. Closing down schools with low test scores gives the state the power to forcibly shift students from public schools to semi-private charter schools . . . So far in all the explanations of what Clinton meant to say I have yet to hear anyone suggest that school closures will no longer be a major vehicle for reform.

We're now a couple decades into this cruel experiment in tough love rigor and accountability, high stakes standardized testing, and privatization without budging the needle. We're trying to use our schools to solve the wrong problem, using the wrong tools, and our children are suffering. We need to stop it. The strongest option parents have right now is to opt their kids out of the testing.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton said this:

I'm also going to do everything I can to defend education, and to make it clear that the best way to improve elementary and secondary education is to actually listen to the teachers and educators who are in the classrooms with our students and not scapegoat them and treat them like they don't have any contribution to make.

Classroom teachers right across the country are speaking quite loudly on this, we have been for some time, and we are saying that the corporate reform agenda is destroying public education. She's right, the best way to improve public education is to actually listen to professional educators. She's at least listened to us enough to know to say that, which puts her ahead of most. But as for actual listening, I'll believe it when I see it.

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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Someday You'll Understand What That Means

For the first six years of our daughter Josephine's life, the two of us were pretty much inseparable. For the next six years we continued to be one another's most constant companions. As she became a teenager, her friends began to supplant me, which is the way it should be, but she was still there on the mornings, evenings, and weekends.

For the past four months, she has lived in a different city on the opposite side of the country, attending university.

She is now home for five full weeks before once more winging away to her life apart from us, and I wouldn't have it any other way, but I'm sure going to cherish the diddly-o-dandy out of the next month.

Over the course of the past couple weeks, as the children have discussed their holiday plans, they've all spoken of the gifts they expect to receive, but that's something we do to them, I think, with all our talk about Santa or eight presents in eight days or whatever. It hasn't taken much digging to learn about the truly exciting thing: the travel and the travelers. 

"We're going to Colorado to see Nana and Papa!"

"Grandma is going to be sleeping in my bedroom!"

"I'm going to Sacramento see my California cousins!"

And I shared with them, "My little girl is coming home from New York!" The kids, of course, don't really get it -- the idea of living apart from mom and dad is too much for them. I spoke with several of their parents, many of whom told me about their own first holidays home from college, unconsciously assuming the perspective of the child.

I've been cooking breakfast for my girl. If you don't already, someday, far sooner than you think, you'll understand what that means.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

When There Is Pain, We Swarm

When humans are injured, our bodies release endogenous opioid neuropeptides, otherwise known as endorphins, a type of neurotransmitter, a morphine-like substance that is produced in times of stress, fear, or pain to suppress the transmission of pain signals to the brain, even creating a state of euphoria as one might expect from an opioid.

When invaded by foreign objects like bacteria or viruses, our bodies produce proteins called immunoglobulins, or antibodies, that neutralize the invading organisms, killing them and removing them from our bodies.

When I think of endorphins and antibodies I always imagine them swarming to the scene.

On Monday night, I attended the 27th annual Feast of the Winter Solstice, hosted as always by our very own Fremont Arts Council, an event I've written about before (here and here). As I mentioned yesterday, this is the dark season for these festivals of light, times when we "swarm" together with our friends and families to love one another through the long dark nights. 

Between the performances, dancing, rituals, and feasting, we talk. At one point during the evening I found myself with Denise (scroll down to the second profile), a woman who I call a friend if only because we've now been crossing paths for nearly two decades. She is a miracle, this woman. The reason I've not gotten to know her better over the years is because she is a political performance artist who has in recent years become one of our region's leading environmental activists and when I see her she's usually right up to her elbows in her life's work, not available for chit-chat. Monday night was unusual in that she wasn't operating a giant puppet or organizing a kayak flotilla or building a parade float. I knew that she had just returned from the United Nations climate summit in Paris where she had, as she always does, engaged in creative, peaceful activism. 

I told her she was one of my heroes and she shared the stories from her trip. She always seems flush with life, but now she seemed even more so, euphoric even. She explained that as a troupe of artists they had enjoyed access to places and people from which "protesters" and more traditional activists were barred. She was one of thousands of regular citizens who swarmed to Paris along with the politicians and public figures. 

On her final day in Paris, she and her fellow travelers made a pilgrimage to one of the sites of the recent terrorist attacks. She described the makeshift memorials that were "everywhere," of how people where treating one another better in the aftermath of the tragedy, with more civility, more compassion. As she spoke, Mister Rogers' words came to me:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."

In that moment I imagined how it had happened. People had swarmed there, and were still swarming there, like endorphins or antibodies, racing to the scene of the tragedy to be helpers, to suppress the pain, to kill the virus, replacing the horror with the euphoria of human love. We see this phenomenon over and over, and while our news media focuses on the scary things, the rest of us are swarming to the scene. Forget the cynics and fear-mongers, this is the greatest truth about human beings: when there is pain, we swarm. You will always find people who are helping.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Standing Still

I've been cycling home in the dark at 4 p.m. for the last couple weeks. I’d have to say that the short winter days are one of the most challenging aspects of life in the northern tier, but things are turning around. Yesterday, the Winter Solstice occurred in Seattle at 8:49 p.m., marking the end of our ever-longer nights and the return of light.

Not to lessen the significance of Christmas, Hanukkah or any of the other festivals of lights, but this astrological event is the original reason for the season. The Earth is tilted on its axis at, on average, a 23.5-degree angle and today is when the North Pole is farthest from the sun, causing it to appear to rise and set in the same place. We call it the first day of winter, and while the days will now grow longer by increments until the Summer Solstice in June, the average temperature of the “top” part of the globe will continue to drop as the oceans slowly lose the heat they still store from the warm summer months.

Humans can hardly think without resorting to metaphor and there is none more profound than this. It’s not an accident that this is a time for reflection as well as celebrating new beginnings. It’s not an accident that we seek out the people who mean the most to us, family and friends, those we love and without whom we live in perpetual winter. It’s not an accident that Christians retell the story of the birth of a child, the son of God, the light of hope in a darkened world. It’s not an accident that we give one another gifts and wish each other merriness, happiness and cheer – the darkness is passing, buck up, light is returning, have hope.

Winter is often used as a metaphor for death, but the comparison is superficial. The trees may not have leaves, the forests may have been temporarily emptied by hibernation and migration, there may be fewer children on the play grounds and at the beaches, and it may stay that way for some months to come, but we shouldn't mistake stillness for death.

The word “Solstice” comes from the Latin phrase for “sun stands still.” We spend the rest of the year in motion, moving forward, making progress. But if we can hold still long enough to listen, we hear winter whispering to slow down, take stock, cut back, rest, tend to the core of what makes life worthy of its name. All is calm. All is bright.

Even the sun stands still.

(Reprinted with edits from the last five Winter Solstices. I keep thinking of writing a new one, but this one still says everything I want to say.)

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Monday, December 21, 2015


Whenever I write about the technology of treating children as fully formed human beings like I did last week, there are some who complain that the technology doesn't work for them or, more specifically, that it doesn't work all the time or that they don't like the way it works when it does. I'm here to tell you that it always works, albeit if near term peace and joy is your measuring stick, it will almost always appear to come up short. It's a technology that works over the long haul, but how it get there isn't always pretty.

I think one disservice I do here on the blog is that I tend to focus on examples that demonstrate the moments of "success," those times when light bulbs have gone off, when a child who has struggled finally "gets it," even if only for a moment. What I don't spend a lot of time on is the day-after-day struggle, which is, after all, where we spend a good deal of our time and where most important learning takes place. Like with all things in a play-based curriculum, this technology is more about progress than product.

I've written before that the longer I do this, the more I come to the understanding that much of what we call "play" looks for all the world like bickering. And often that bickering explodes into full on conflict with yelling, tears, and even physical violence. This is when we adults tend to step in, often quite emotional ourselves, either on our own account because we have some sort of vested emotional interest in the conflict or because we empathize so strongly with the emotions of the children. We strive to quite the yelling, sooth the crying, and stop the violence, and we generally succeed in doing that, but rarely without feeling that things got out of hand, that we have somehow failed, that the technology is not working. But this is the way it's designed to work.

This treating children as fully formed humans is a technology, not a magic trick. It's not a manufacturing technology, one designed to repeat the same process over and over along an assembly line, because each fully formed human is different from the next. It's not a computer technology in which one can program everything to come out in a predictable manner. It's not a transportation technology that reliably takes us from one place to another in a straight line or upon a set schedule. No, this is the technology of how to support other people through their struggles and there is no button to push to make that happen.

It's important to keep in mind that not every child experiences a play-based curriculum in the same way. Some children, for instance, are blessed with more easy-going temperaments which permits them to better shrug off the slings and arrows of the day, while others feel every prick, bump or social slight as a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare. My own daughter came home from her play-based preschool in tears several days a week for a time, sobbing over her perception of being excluded or rejected. Some experience genuine fear over the rowdier kids and their games of weapons and bad guys. These are real, emotional struggles, clashes between temperaments and the real world, and sometimes it can feel like too much for both the child and the adults. I understood when my children insisted that she didn't want to go to school. I even had to fight down my own sense of outrage about the behavior of the "mean girls" who tormented her, but I also knew that the one way we were going to learn about this was to struggle with it, and struggle, by its very nature, is uncomfortable. So we got up each day and went to school to continue our struggle, one that carried on in one form of another far beyond those preschool years.

The alternative, of course, is to shield our children from conflict, to help them withdraw when they are sad or frightened. To seek out environments for them that are kept calm, quiet, and relatively conflict free through the command and control of adults, with our rules and our schedules so chock-a-block that the kids don't have the time for conflict. Of course, then they get little practice in anything other than compliance and withdrawal, tactics that rarely leads to longterm satisfaction.

This is the mentality of those teachers who object to longer recess time for kids because anything longer than 15 minutes leads to "fights." And they are right: free play always leads to conflict. Freedom itself always leads to conflict, and if we expect our children to grow up to be free human beings they are going to need lots of practice in order to figure out their own way to deal with it. We can't do it for them: it's their struggle, not ours. For some, it seems to come as second nature, while for others it takes years to find their own way through to a place among the other humans they can call their own.

As adults we help them by putting hard stops to physical violence when it crops up, being with them empathetically as they cry, turning them toward one another as they argue, and supporting them in their efforts to adhere to the agreements they've made with one another. It's a messy business, this learning to get along with the other people, and I'm sorry that I sometimes make it seem like magic here on these pages by highlighting those moments of epiphany.

The reality is that it's a struggle for everyone, some more than others, and it goes on for a lifetime. 

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Friday, December 18, 2015

"Maybe That's How Dinosaurs Got Extinct"

I was sitting in a circle of three-year-olds playing with our classroom dinosaurs. There was, as usual, a lot of roaring and a lot of talk about who was going to eat whom.

There are always one or two dinosaur experts in every Woodland Park class and as we roared we debated which were plant eaters and which were meat eaters. Those with some knowledge insisted that we stick to the science while others advocated for pretending whatever they wanted. It got a bit heated, punctuated by attacking T-Rexes, which were being fended off by spiky tails, spines, and heads.

At one point, a T-Rex predator said, "I'm going to make your dinosaur extinct!"

The prospective prey replied while swinging a tail at his tormentor, "You can't make me extinct! Only space rocks can make me extinct!"

There were plastic dinosaurs being pushed into everyone's faces and lots of roaring. I was watching the children's faces for signs of distress. I just assumed that this would end with someone in tears and was looking for an opportunity to naturally draw attention to that possibility with something like, "Rina's face looks worried," but the opportunity didn't present itself because the kids paused on their own, focusing on the more interesting verbal parry and thrust.

"Space rocks don't make dinosaurs extinct! Volcanos make them extinct!"

Another player chimed in with, "Dinosaurs turned into birds," a comment that drew long confused stares from the primary combatants, who, not knowing what to do with this information, turned back upon one another.

"A space rock is called an asteroid and they fell from outer space and crashed the dinosaurs extinct. That's really how it happened."

He considered this and seemed to find it at least partially convincing. Shrugging, a T-Rex in each hand, he replied, "Well, there were volcanos too."

The debate had brought several of the kids to their feet, but with this concession everyone settled back on their knees. Changing the subject, one of them picked up a smaller scale dinosaur and shoved it into his T-Rex's mouth. "I'm eating a baby dinosaur."

They all did is for awhile, eating baby dinosaurs, meat eaters and plant eaters alike. Then Rina said, "I'm eating my own baby!"

"Me too! I'm eating my own baby!" And there was a mad scramble to find "babies" that corresponded to the larger scale "adults" they held in their hands: Triceratops mommies eating Triceratops babies. Stegosaurus daddies eating Stegosaurus babies.

A boy stood outside the circle, watching the infanticide. "You're eating your own babies? Maybe that's how dinosaurs got extinct." It was one of those comments like the one about dinosaurs evolving into birds that caused everyone to pause a moment. As one, they removed the babies from the mouths of the larger dinosaurs.

But it was only a momentary lull as one meat eater then turned on another, "My T-Rex is going to eat another T-Rex," and we carried on.

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