Thursday, September 28, 2017


The four and five year olds are working hard here at the beginning of the school year, striving to figure out who we are going to be as a community. Our list of agreements, our self-created rules, is already quite long. We've agreed, for instance, to not hit one another and to not snatch things from other people, essentials, I think for any society in which I would choose to live.

There has been a lot of legislation about throwing things. Indeed, we have already banned the throwing of wood chips, sand, rocks, sticks, toys, and "anything that's hard." We've specified, in particular, that these things not be thrown at faces, heads, or eyes. Some of these agreements come straight out of experience, but most derive, thankfully, from extrapolation or mental experiments. 

We're also learning that agreeing to rules doesn't necessarily mean everyone will always abide by them. We coach the children to stand up for themselves, to say, "Stop!" when someone is harming or frightening them, and it comes naturally for some kids, while others either forget in the heat of the moment or feel intimidated. These children will have plenty of opportunity to practice, however, as we steer our way through the long school year. The ultimate goal, one that we will always be working toward, but never fully attain, is a truly self-governing community, one in which the children know to remind one another about their agreements. I expect we'll come closer to that ideal than many adult communities, but for now they still need, or at least think they need, quite a bit of adult support when conflict arises.

Yesterday, at least a dozen kids approached me at different times to report rule violations by this or that child. Most of the time, especially when they didn't appear particularly emotional, I simply sent them back into the fray with my best advice, which most of the time is to say something like, "You pushed me. I didn't like that," or "You threw sand in my hair!"

One boy, in particular, was having a tough time of it. At least a half dozen kids reported minor rule violations on his part within a matter of minutes, so I had a one-on-one chat with him, reminding him of the agreements he had made, telling him what the other children had said to me, asking if there was anything I could do to help him remember his agreements. He seemed concerned and contrite.

Later in the day, he threw an old watering can and it hit the ground with such force that it broke into pieces. It was one of those moments when everything around him grew silent. I stepped in, saying, "You broke the watering can." His face was ashen. He said, "I forgot," and without prompting began to pick up the pieces, collecting them on his lap. I then said more than I should have, "We all agreed, no throwing hard things. You threw a hard thing and it broke."

He said, "I'll fix it," to which I replied, "We can't fix broken plastic, but you can throw it away."

"I will." As he gathered the rest of the pieces, I could tell he was fighting down tears. I helped him gather the remaining bits, saying things like, "You didn't mean to break it." As he ran down the hill toward the garbage can he began to cry, hard, tears of genuine and painful remorse. He felt awful and I did too. My tone had been harsher than I would have liked, my words too many. He ran into the playhouse and threw himself into a corner, bawling. I followed him, saying, "It's alright," but he didn't want me there, "Go away!"

I asked a parent-teacher to sit with him in case he needed an adult. It was near the end of the day so the rest of us went inside to read our story, while he remained outside with his remorse. He was not alone, but I expect he felt that way. The parent who sat with him said that he had spoken aloud to himself, processing what had happened, bemoaning the broken watering can and other things.

I could have handled it better. I went home feeling my own remorse and I will return today committed to doing better. I expect that's true for him as well.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

I Will Not Permit Children, My Friends, To Be Turned Over To Machines


"Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came." ~Cheers Theme Song

I typically wait by the door or gate to greet the children as they arrive, "Hi Sarah! I'm happy to see you!" I say it because it's how I would like to be greeted. In a way, I guess, you could consider it my version of shouting, "Norm!" the way the Cheers regulars did each time their beloved friend walked through the door.

I also say it because it's true. I am happy to see each child walk through the door. I'm grateful they've come back. I'm grateful that their parents continue to trust me with their baby. I'm grateful that we are going to now spend hours together, just farting around, making stuff, imagining stuff, thinking about stuff and generally just goofing off. I'm even grateful for the times we get sad or angry, because those conflicts are a part of our friendship.

And that's the thing, that's the part that people who don't do this job will never understand: the friendship. These kids are my friends, especially those who are back for a second or third year with me. We're not even two weeks into the new school year and we're already finishing each other's sentences and cracking inside jokes. This is what I will remember from the too short time we spend together. It is also what they will remember. And we've got nine months of that ahead of us. Norm!

There's an article making the internet rounds these days about a British academic who is predicting that "extraordinarily inspirational" robots will be replacing teachers within the next decade. Not only do I hope he's wrong, I expect that reality will prove the whole idea a disaster, but we won't know until real damage has been done to real children who will be guinea pigs in an experiment where they won't have a friend like me at school, but rather a machine that pretends. For instance:

This fall, parents in a California school district discovered at a sixth grade open house that their child would no longer have a teacher . . . Instead, the district had invested in an "exciting new way of learning" -- a "personalized learning program" called Summit, designed by Facebook.

That's a lot like having a robot for a teacher. If I were one of those parents I'd be running like the wind. Inspiration no matter how extraordinary, is a poor substitute for love and friendship.

Come on, really? Are we that stupid. People need other people, not just for procreation or telling stories or being happy or forming a team, but also for learning anything worth learning. We will figure out how to read and write and cipher as we always have: virally, by hanging out with other people, which is a system that has worked for most people throughout history. It's been a largely successful system so why the hell would we mess with it? And that's also, not incidentally, how we learn everything else: virally, by hanging out with other people. And that requires friendship, deep down real friendship. That, ultimately, is the source of extraordinary motivation.

Read their own documents, and you'll see that they are planning to turn live, face-to-face teaching into a "premium service." . . .  Meaning that they know face-to-face instruction is a better way to learn, and they have no intention of having their own children learn from machines.

I am not laughing about this academic's predictions. I'm girding myself because billionaires are behind this and they, despite their philanthropic BS, care primarily about making a killing at the expense of our kids. I will not permit children, my friends, to be turned over to machines. I want them to come to a place where everybody knows their name and where they're always glad they came.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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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Tuesday, September 26, 2017


Play-based preschool teachers often use the word "flow" when describing those times when it's all clicking, when the kids are fully engaged in the hard work of exploring, testing, and discovering their world, challenging themselves with the questions that arise in their minds, or those of others, not needing the adults at all.

One afternoon, we dragged a plank over beside the sand pit boat and after some negotiation, made one of Woodland Park's patented seesaws by using a log as a pivot. We've been making these for three years now, a piece of institutional knowledge that continues to be passed down among the children.

As part of the process of acquiring the plank, we unearthed an old-style snow tire chain.  

After taking his turn on the seesaw, one child started monkeying around with the heavy, unwieldy chain.

He discovered there were a pair of hooks and began attempting to fit them into the small cylinder mounted on the inside edge of the boat for the purposes of holding the oar in its oar lock, which someone else had removed moments earlier, for purposes known only to him.

His project attracted a couple friends who started by watching, then became partners in this thing that had never been done before on the face of the planet.

Finally, after several minutes of intensive scientific research into the results of hooking a snow chain to an oar lock, one of the guys dragged the chain into the sand and dropped it there.

The chain project had been so engaging that it had outlasted the seesaw game.

Finding an abandoned plank, another kid commandeered it and, as the chain project had been ongoing on the port side, created a gangplank that bridged the distance between the boat and the small, steep slope on which our lilacs grow.

At first he was going to try to walk across it, but after a little testing, decided he felt safer crawling.

As other children dug the sand, creating a canal that flowed from the cast iron water pump and under this newly erected bridge, he inched his way across.

When he was up in the trees, he turned around and came back.

By that time, the river was flowing under him as the water play team had managed to direct the flow of water into a path it never took when left to its own devices.

It had taken them a long time and a lot of cooperation to achieve this engineering accomplishment.

It involved not only digging, but also gutters, a length of black pipe, and a lot of conversation to get the water to go on the side of the boat opposite of where it normally flows.

Meanwhile, a couple of kids had pulled the tire chains from the path of the water and wrangled it to the top of our concrete slide.

These children had not been part of the former tire chain play, but had spent some time observing, apparently taking mental note of those hooks.

They used the hooks to attach it to the safety rope we've installed across the top, then used it to pull themselves up.

As this happened, both the water play team and gangplank crawler had moved on to other projects, leaving the field to another kid who had the idea of lifting and carrying a heavy wooden apparatus that had once been the base of a rocking horse.

The gangplank was in his way, so he knocked it down with the help of a friend.

The friend also tried, unsolicited, to help him carry his load, but they wound up dropping it, to which the first boy said, "When you help me it makes it too hard," so he finished the challenge on his own.

When he had finally accomplished his mission, he started loading more heavy pieces onto the boat.

Meanwhile, the friend he'd rebuffed, was reinstalling the plank, although this time across the boat itself, more bench than gangway.

He liked that idea so much he got another plank, as yet another project involving ropes began to take shape up in the prow.

For this project, the oar needed to be found, then refit into its lock.

The ropes were being used to tie the boat to a tree.

All told, it took three ropes and three kids.

By now, the pile of heavy stuff in the boat had grown and was being referred to as "cargo."

When they reached their destination, it, of course, had to be unloaded, a project that included everything being tossed over board, including the planks . . .

. . . which made a terrific place to practice balancing and bouncing . . .

. . . and the day flowed on, one thing to the next, a current of curiosity and the freedom to satisfy it.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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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