Monday, August 31, 2015

I Just Need To Play With Them

As I sat down with 8 of of the 9 children I expected that day, I asked if anyone was missing from class. Some of them immediately started counting the people around the table. Others seemed to be studying the faces, playing a kind of memory game within themselves to determine which friend was missing. A couple launched into a trail and error method of calling out the names of the people who ought to be there, hunting for the one who wasn't. There was discussion around and across the table, a sharing of information, speculation, and data, a discussion of strategy, until it was determined by consensus that Orlando wasn't there. 

So how many are here today? They all started counting at once, the volume rose rapidly, then without any intervention by adults the sound fell again as each boy took a turn counting. Some ended with 8 others with 9. There were re-counts, which resulted in the same discrepancy, until Isak noticed that some of the kids were including Teacher Tom in the count, while others were only counting children. A debate erupted over whether or not Teacher Tom should be included, until they finally came to the agreement that there were 8 kids, but if you included Teacher Tom it was 9.

And Orlando was still missing; he was traveling with his family.

A reader recently wrote asking about how, in a play-based curriculum, the children in Woodland Park's Pre-3 class learn to count, recite their A-B-C's, and other "conventional things."

I know parents worry about these things, especially with this insane "Tiger Mom" talk that has recently been injected into an already emotional conversation. Let me assure you right here that the only children who are genuinely at risk for not acquiring literacy and basic math skills are those whose parents lack them, who do not speak English, or who have a learning disability. I'm sure there are isolated examples of the contrary, but by far the number one determinate for actual illiteracy or mathematical illiteracy are illiterate parents. Everyone else always learns these "conventional things" almost in spite of what we do as teachers. And there is no correlation between learning these things early and future academic attainment. 

None. Zip. Forget about it.

I tell the parents when they register at Woodland Park that "we never bring letters or numbers into the classroom, except as they naturally occur in the world." By that I mean, we have books, we wear name tags, there are labels on things, and useful signs, but there is no drilling or "teaching" about literacy or numeracy; no games specifically designed to learn letters, sight words, or counting. For one thing, Pre-3's are generally thought to be developmentally too young to have to worry about such things. For another, there's no rush.

Letters and numbers are abstractions from the real world: they represent something real, but they are not real and are therefore too artificial for the concrete brains of most young children to really comprehend. I could, of course drill them to memorize their ABC's but that's not the same as learning them. I'd much prefer to work with young children on language development, which is something for which they are genetically programmed. And there's no better way to do that than by having lots of conversations with them on a variety of topics, which is simply fun. I like to toss in new words when appropriate to expand vocabulary, practice silly rhyming, and encourage them to tell me stories -- anything to get them using their language "muscle." I've never met a child who did not enjoy this because it is simply what the human animal is designed to do at this age. It is play. That said, I've never taught a Pre-3 who didn't come in already knowing the alphabet song, which is a fun way to at least learn what to call the letters, even if it may take a few more years to really understand what letters are and what they do. They learned this song by playing with their parents.

As far as counting goes, I don't expect the Pre-3's to make it much farther than 10, although many can, but consistently identifying numbers doesn't typically start to happen until around 4. Again, however, I'm not worried about it. It always happens as they need to know it to be able to communicate about and understand the things they want to do as part of their play. Instead of drilling, we again focus on things that Pre-3's are designed to learn like sorting and patterning, which after all, is all math really is no matter how far you go in the field. When a child fills one basket with blue buttons and one with yellow, or when they make a basic A-B-A-B stripe pattern on a tiger they're drawing, that's "real" math as opposed to the digits, which are an abstraction and won't make much sense to them until they get older. 

As they get older, they naturally start working on one-to-one correspondence, which is what children demonstrate when they, say, count beans or pennies. When young children play board games, they are matching, taking turns, counting, making patterns, all of which are "conventional things." Yes, you can drill a young child to memorize numbers, just as you can letters, but that isn't the same as comprehending what they mean. The meaning has to come first -- the numbers are just a way to communicate about the "real" thing. 

I've been teaching preschoolers for well over a decade employing nothing but play as our curriculum. Not play "with a purpose," but simply creating an environment in which children play according to their passions and interests. They all head off to kindergarten either reading or right on the verge of reading, which is right where kindergarten teachers around here expect them to be. They all have a solid understanding of what numbers mean and can even, as our Pre-K class did last week, carry on a meaningful, sophisticated conversation about mathematical concepts. These are things that naturally emerge from play. 

I don't need to "teach" them. I just need to play with them.


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Friday, August 28, 2015

In Real Life, I Assure You, There Is No Such Thing As Art

In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra. ~Fran Lebowitz

For me, the moment of despair and frustration tended to come upon me while sitting in the hot circle of a high intensity desk lamp, alone and blurry-eyed. Why do I have to do this? I'll never use it in real life. And indeed I know I am not the only one who hasn't factored a quadratic equation since high school, yet I do employ some of the philosophy, the hard logic, of algebra nearly every day. I was right about the specifics, but wrong about its usefulness.

No one ever pretended to explain to me how algebra would be applicable to real life, yet no one, even me, ever doubted that there was value in studying it. We chuckle at the Fran Lebowitz joke because for most of us it's true, but we never once consider stripping algebra from the curriculum.

Usefulnessapplicabilitypracticality: these are tricky words when it comes to education. Many of the things we learn in school are not obviously useful, applicable, or practical in the vocational sense, but we rarely doubt they are essential.

Art (and in that I include music, dance, theater, etc.) of all our academic pursuits, stands virtually alone when it comes to having to defend itself in terms of usefulness.

Not long ago, a reader wrote:

. . . the school our kids are going to has a big emphasis on art but by the end of the 6 years all the kid's artwork looks the same.

I don't know anything about that specific school. I'm sure it's a fine school, but when the art classes are producing cookie cutter art, it's likely because the curriculum has been tainted with the curse of usefulnessapplicability, and practicality. These things should not be the starting point for education, but viewed rather as its inevitable bi-products, just as the hard logic of algebra remains with me long after I've forgotten how to solve for x.

As a preschool teacher in a progressive cooperative school, I don't generally feel the pressures to teach "useful" stuff. Everyone in my protected little world seems to embrace the notion of an open-ended, exploratory art process, one in which the end result is secondary to the act of creation. My colleagues teaching older children, however, especially as they approach middle school, feel intense pressure to demonstrate usefulness in everything they do, particularly when it comes to art.  Art for art's sake is all well and good for preschoolers, but now it's time to knuckle down and get serious. It's an attitude that often forces art teachers to focus on artistic technique over actual creativity. Art students in this environment often find themselves learning more about "useful" things like composition, brush work, and color theory, than about their own creative process.

Artist, teacher, and rattle snake wrangler Anna Golden from over at Atelierista once expressed her frustration in having to defend art education:

Sometimes I have to justify art education to people as a tool for getting into college, or something . . . but really, what's wrong with art, anyway? What if we all drew things and danced and sang? Would that be so bad? And why can't these rigid thinkers see that artists don't see what they do as genres or labels? It's just making stuff, or being who you are, or exploring. I so wish people could see art the way young children see it. It makes me want to think of a new name for this thing we do. Let's call it creative thinking, or fun, or learning, or Fred. That'll fool them! 

She really touched the right note when it comes to my own artistic endeavors. More often than not, when I get to work on something, I start with the question, "I wonder if I can even do this?"

When I made the piece in the picture below, for instance, it started with the idea of a saw embedded in the stack of books.

If you want to see more of my art click here for my online gallery.

There's a part of me that wants to make up a story about this piece of art after the fact, one that demonstrates my deep thinking on the relationship of humans to their knowledge, tools, and the creative process, but the honest truth is that I just thought it would look cool.

I carried the idea around in my head for weeks, not necessarily planning to make it, but one day as I killed time in a thrift shop (not an unlikely hang out for a middle class bag lady) I spotted this incomplete set of the The Complete Handyman Encyclopedia. I was struck immediately with the corny joke about an incomplete complete encyclopedia and liked the idea of my saw slicing into these particular books. While standing at the cash register forking over $7, I thought it would look particularly cool to sink four long bolts through them as well. I had no idea if it was even possible to do what I was thinking about doing. Or rather, I had no idea if it was even possible for me to do it. It was exciting to finally fire up the circular saw and lay into those books. Would the spinning blade cut properly or just shred the cardboard and paper? Would it be a nice clean cut like I envisioned or would it be a mess? How deeply should I cut? Is it dangerous to be using this tool for this purpose? Will the cut be too wide to hold the hand saw securely? Would I have to resort to glue? What kind of glue? These and dozens of other creative questions and challenges raced through my head even while I was in the process of angling into the tops of those do-it-yourself manuals. Everything about getting those bolts installed was a struggle. I cursed and sweat. I regretted that I didn't have a drill press, but only the measly 3/8" hand drill I've been using since I was in college. The paper dust kept getting impacted in the holes, and the holes refused to line up through the entire stack. I had to stop frequently because the pages kept smoking, threatening to burst into flames -- at least that was my fear. Would some scorch marks add or detract from the finished piece? I sweat and I cursed and I nearly gave it up several times. At one point there were tears of frustration in my eyes, and as I tightened down the last of the nuts, cinching the entire thing into a flexed muscle of kinetic energy, I experienced a wave of relief and joy and "I did it, you stupid m----r f-----r!" that can only come from being on the other side of the creative process.

Just making stuff. Being who I am. Exploring. 

Not long ago, I was out to dinner with a businessman who was going on about his idea that every child, whatever they plan to do with their lives, should have the experience of being "on the line for making a profit." I don't disagree, but the same argument applies to making cool stuff (which is what I think we ought to rename "art" if that's something we need to do). 

When a child approaches our art table, easels, or work bench, she most often just gets right to work, although sometimes she'll ask, "What are we doing?"

The right answer is, "I don't know," or simply to start listing the materials at hand, "I see tape, paint, scissors, pipe cleaners . . .

. . . and trust them to explore, curse, sweat and struggle their way through their own creative process on the way to making cool stuff.

In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as art. But knowing how you make it can change your life.

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Thursday, August 27, 2015


Yesterday's post showed the kids playing with a building set called Magna-Tiles, which is something of an anomaly at Woodland Park, especially outdoors, where we are, more often than not, found playing, quite literally, with garbage.

A more typical example is the boy, barely two, who approached me earlier this week with a single plastic vehicle wheel attached to an axel. He showed it to me saying, "Broken."

I echoed, "Broken."

He held it up higher and said again, "Broken."

I repeated, "Broken."

We have a lot of broken toys out there, some of which are out there because they are broken. Stuff rarely gets thrown out at our school, but rather becomes part of a process of moving toward the trash, over time, until it's just gone, probably buried in the sand or wood chips. I often ask the children if they're ready for me to toss items. Usually they aren't, then proceed to incorporate whatever it is into their play. The other day I found a chunk of what's left of a ceramic souvenir figurine that was once an Inuit mother holding her baby. All that remains is the mother's face and a bit of her arm. When I said it was broken and asked if it should go in the trash, the kids told me they needed it as an ingredient for the "soup" they were making, and so it's still out there somewhere, a shard of ceramic still not finding its way into the landfill.

Among our still fully functional items is a small collection of ancient yellow construction vehicles of various gauges, although, to be honest, this "broken" wheel and axel didn't necessarily come from any of those. As the boy toddled off, he headed toward where we generally pile those trucks at the end of the day. He then proceeded to pull the vehicles out one-by-one, checking each, no matter how big or small, until he finally found one with a pair of missing wheels. He then dropped to the ground and spent the next 15 minutes attempting to repair the broken toy: playing.

As much as I like the Magna-Tiles and their built-in capacity for being assembled into aesthetically, mathematically, and engineering-ly appealing structures, this, what this two-year-old did, finding something that is broken then trying to fix it, solving a real world problem, much better represents what a proper education ought to be about. As the great educator John Dewey said, "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself."

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

First They Need Their Childhood

Why are so many of us so afraid to just let children play? 

Yesterday, we got out our boxes of Magna-Tiles. These are cool, popular building toys. If your classroom doesn't have a set or two, I recommend them. As I watched the children build, I noticed a battered page of instructions at the bottom of the box that bore the headline Magna-Tiles "where math, science & creativity meet." The text then goes on to discuss Pythagoras and the history of mathematics. To their credit, they do recommend that children be allowed to explore their toys through open-ended creative play, but the very fact that this needed to be emphasized at all is a bad sign.

It's as if we've become convinced that young children are just wasting their valuable time when they "just" play, that every minute spent not exploring math, science and creativity leaves our kids another minute behind those Chinese kids who, legend has it, never rest. The fact that all play is educational, that all toys are educational is beside the point: when did we lose sight of the fact that play is what children are supposed to do?

I reckon we can, at least in part, blame the corporate education reformers who have intentionally sewn seeds of doubt about the efficacy of our educational system, selling the story that our schools are failing, causing parents to fear that junior is fall behind, that even those precious evenings and weekends when their kids aren't engaged in homework or extracurricular enrichment activities must be chock-a-block with things like Pythagoras. 

When did we forget that all play is educational and because of that all toys are educational? Maybe we never knew it, of course; maybe our grandparents just sort of intuited that kids needed play, that they didn't need adults hovering over them drilling them with stupid questions or "teaching" them this or that. Maybe they just understood that without play, and lots of it, there is no childhood.

As I watched the children using Maga-Tiles to create castles and cars, squares made of squares and triangles made of triangles, as I heard them negotiate for blocks and tabletop space, as they chattered about their thoughts and discoveries, it didn't occur to me that they were doing anything other than playing, having fun, until I spotted that sheet of instructions telling me about Pythagoras. We were outdoors, on the playground. No one was making them sit at these tables to build with these plastic, magnetized blocks: they were choosing it, freely, and they could just as freely walk away which many of them did the moment it stopped being fun. Or rather, the moment something else looked like more fun.

And even as I write that, I can see the fear-mongers wagging their fingers, I can hear them tut-tutting: "Where's the grit? Where's the rigor? How will they ever learn about hard work?"

Anyone who has spent any time watching young children play knows that grit, rigor, and hard work are at the heart of all true free play. What they really mean to ask is "How will the children ever learn to do the rote tasks that others demand of them?" Or perhaps, "How will they learn to obey?"

That isn't what childhood is for, although that's what adulthood sometimes teaches us, and no amount of practice makes it any easier, unless what they're talking about is "breaking them." What kind of Dickensian villain would take away childhood in exchange for the work house?

At the end of the day, after the families had left, the Magna-Tiles packed away in their boxes, I reopened them to remove that sheet of instructions and threw it in the recycling. Play is its own reward; the kids don't need that piece of paper around encouraging adults to make it "educational." First they need their childhood.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Stopping The Coal Trains

Last summer, a couple hundred of us gathered at Westlake Center in downtown Seattle, listened to speakers warn us about the dangers of fossil fuel pollution as well as speakers who pumped us up about alternative energy, after which we marched down to a waterfront railway crossing where we successfully blocked a coal train making its way to one of our region's ports where it was to be shipped, I think, to China. It was quite exhilarating to actually force one of those trains to back up.

On Saturday, I met a friend at the Olympic Sculpture Park, which is at the same railway crossing, and we found ourselves waiting for several minutes as a long coal train passed us by. Business as usual.

That's the thing about fighting against big business. They don't have the moral high ground and we can make them back up on any given day, but they know that when the sun goes down we citizen activists have lives, families, and jobs to attend to. They know that if they just back up, hunker down behind a well-crafted press release, and wait, we will go home and they can go right back to hauling that coal in open cars, right through the heart of our city. They are relentless in their pursuit of a greasy buck.

A similar thing is happening with the corporate sponsored Common Core federal public school curriculum (yes, it is a curriculum). Last year, we bruised and battered the corporate reformers, with well-publicized test boycotts, many states withdrawing, and polls showing a rapid deterioration of support among teachers, parents, students, and the general public. I've declared it dying, if not dead, on these pages and I'm not the only one, but even as I wrote it, I knew I was really just engaging in some hyperbolic celebration of our progress, because even I am not naive enough to think that Bill Gates and his profit hungry crew would back their coals trains up for good.

Today, I want to draw your attention to a couple of important posts on other blogs. The first is from the incomparable Anthony Cody writing under the title Common Core PR Offensive Rewrites History to Ignore Failure, in which he details the slick efforts of corporate reformers to regroup and begin once more driving their coal train through our city. For instance, they are now attempting to claim that it wasn't just an ivory tower coalition of businessmen and politicians who created Common Core, but rather that "teachers were involved," an assertion that only avoids being a lie based upon a technicality:

The statement that "teachers were involved in the creation of Common Core" is like saying that the seamstress who hems your trousers was involved in making your suit. In reality, the Common Core was originally drafted behind closed doors by a small group of people what included only one teacher . . . At the time these folks seemed almost proud of the fact that the work was being done in secret.

And that one teacher was a college professor. There were no early childhood educators involved at any level. There wasn't even any field testing.

Cody takes apart the current PR spin piece by piece and it is well worth the read because I expect the hype will only ramp up as the new school year begins and it's important to know how to listen to these charlatans.

Another piece to which I want to draw your attention is by Peter Greene of the Curmudgucation blog fame, writing for Alternet, in which he addresses one of the most pernicious and, frankly, disappointing aspects of these PR efforts. They have managed to persuaded many well-intended teachers that the Common Core standards would actually be "just fine" without the high stakes tests. It's pure crap, of course, because Common Core is really all about the tests and simply can't be separated, just as the standards themselves are written in stone and cannot be changed:

(T)he (Common Core State Standards) are part of a coordinated, interlocking machine, and its creators will never let you take only a piece of it home. The testing regimen is not its own separate thing that can be just thrown out, any more than it was its own thing when it was the engine of (No Child Left Behind). If you want only one cog, you can't extract it from the machine.

Or as Cody concludes:

Common Core tests take the flaws of No Child Left Behind and magnify them, and the test scores project forward a thoroughly false image of a student's ability. I am sorry that people who know better (or ought to) think that we can "work together" to make this system work. Any system that uses these standards and tests as its engine will take our students and schools into a deep ditch.

If you are involved in public education in any way, and likely even if you're not, you will be targeted with these corporate reform PR messages. It will be worth your time to read these two posts to prepare yourself because the train may have backed up last year, but they've refilled their cars with coal and they'll only stop if we get down there again and block the railway crossing.

Update: If you are looking for more deconstruction of the corporate education reform PR spin, here is a recent op-ed from the New York Times in which the author tackles the zombie lie told by people like US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that Hurricane Katrina "was the best thing that ever happened to the education system in New Orleans." Corporate reformers took advantage of the disaster to replace the entire school system with privately run charter schools. They claim success, but not only are those claims dubious, they have come at the expense of the most disadvantaged children.

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