Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Pegasus Babies; Pegasus Mommies



"It's time to go to bed now, little pegasus babies."

"Night-night mommy pegasus."

"I'm going to turn off the lights now pegasus babies."



They've been playing this game for a couple weeks now, these four-year-old girls. It's not unlike mommy-baby games children have played in the past, here at Woodland Park and indeed at every preschool everywhere. What makes this game different than the ones I've seen in the past is that instead of setting their game under the loft where we generally keep our pillows and blankets, these girls have moved their game out of the shadows and onto our checker-board rug which is typically dominated by groups of boys building castles and forts and bad guy traps. They have been carving out about half of the largest open area in the classroom for their game, sharing a space that is not normally shared.


"It's time to wake up now, pegasus babies."

"We're hungry, mommy pegasus."

"That's because it's time for your breakfast. I'll get some food for you."

As the pegasus babies wait for their mommy pegasus to return, they build their story, giving themselves pegasus baby names, discussing their relative ages, figuring out new ways to arrange their beds. When their mommy returns to feed them, they pretend to take bites, chewing, swallowing, and remarking on how good it tastes.

"Finish your food now, pegasus babies. It's time for your nap."

"Okay, mommy pegasus."

"I'm going to turn off the lights now. Sleep tight, sweeties."


Their game has attracted a few boys, two of whom want to be babies. They are shown to their beds. Two of the boys, however, are acting tough, hands on hips, saying, "These are our bad guy traps," pointing to their complicated structure. I see an implied threat and prepare myself to intervene, to protect their game, but the girls don't take it that way, diffusing the situation with diplomacy, "Oh, that's good. We don't want any bad guys around here," and "You can be the pegasus daddies." They don't want to be pegasus daddies, but they agree that they are there to protect the babies, which they do by becoming watchers of the game, saying nothing, doing nothing, just standing there in their commanding poses and stern faces.


Meanwhile the babies wake up, the babies go to sleep, the babies eat food, then the babies sleep again. The game doesn't include time for play, but then again it's all play. They are, in fact, playing with the cycles of life, around and around and around. In real life I know they aren't always so cheerful about eating and sleeping, but in this game they are all happy. In this world, there are no conflicts between mommies and their babies, nor with outside forces, there is just the cycle of mommies and babies and eating and sleeping in contentment. It's a game these girls own, right there in the middle of the room, making peace with it, making common cause with it, taking up as much space as they need, turning the lights off an on, simulating the cycle of night and day as they simulate the cycle of mommies and babies. It's all right there if you look for it, the past, present and future of every life ever lived.


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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

I Believe You




The first person that I saw post "Me too" yesterday was a close female relative. The second was also a close female relative. And then, as the day progressed, it seemed that every woman I know posted "Me too," indicating that they had been sexually assaulted or harassed. These are women from all walks of life: young and old, wealthy and poor, liberal and conservative, and of every racial, religious, and ethnic background. I believe them.

I've not been ignorant of the problem, of course, I know the statistic that nearly one in five American woman have been raped in their lifetime, and I have no doubt that when one includes harassment the numbers approach five in five. My female relatives and friends have sometimes shared their stories of harassment with me, some ridiculous enough to laugh at, many terrifying, but most conveyed with a kind of world-weary shrug, as if it was just some commonplace inconvenience around which one must navigate, like puddles on the Seattle's sidewalks in mid-winter.

This means that a lot of men have assaulted or harassed women; men I know, men I might even call friend. As a mature adult, I have had the courage and morality to stand up to men who speak of women in sexually degrading ways. I have even intervened when I could tell a woman was feeling intimidated. I doubt that I've changed anyone's minds, but at least I've temporarily shut them up or shut them down. The disheartening truth, however, is that I haven't always done so, especially as a younger man. For that I apologize to every woman I know. 

And as hard as it is to confess, I have no doubt that some of my own behavior during my days as a single man crossed the line. For that I apologize to every woman I know.

Most of the people reading this are women. Most of the people I work with on a day-to-day basis are women. I have heard your "Me too" and stand both chastened and re-committed to doing everything I can to stand with you. As a preschool teacher, I work every day to help the children understand the importance of speaking up. We practice saying, "Stop!" when others are doing things that hurt us or make us uncomfortable. We make agreements to treat one another not as we would like to be treated in the spirit of the Golden Rule, but rather how they would like to be treated, which requires really listening to them, a habit that is obviously alien to far too many men. We talk about bullying and we talk about consent.

I hope I am sending these children into the world with the tools and attitudes that will protect them from being victims or victimizers, but even if every preschool teacher consciously does what we do, we still cannot expect the children to change the world. As with anything, the world must change first and that is the responsibility of us adults.

This morning, I'm finding even more "Me too" posts on my social media feeds: it's overwhelming as was intended. I am not offering solutions this morning, and I am not expressing my anger or sadness even as I'm feeling it, but rather waiting now for women to tell me what they want me to do. I'm not writing this for thanks or praise. The goal of the "Me too" effort is to raise awareness and I am writing with that intention as well.

But mostly I'm writing to let you know that I have heard your "Me too" and I believe you.


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Monday, October 16, 2017

"Neigh! Neigh! Neigh!"



They were following one another around the playground, astride stick ponies, chanting, "Neigh! Neigh! Neigh!" Around and around they went, stopping periodically to create agreement among themselves.

"Let's pretend we're fire fighters, okay?"

"Yeah, these are fire fighter ponies."

"There's a fire right over there!"

And off they rode, "Neigh! Neigh! Neigh!"


These games that three-year-olds play are touching to me. They've played together before, of course. Some of them found one another last year, playing in pairs, side-by-side, but this is new for them, banding together in a larger group to play stories together. Most of them have older siblings, so they've seen it done, and now it's their turn to start their sentences with "Let's pretend . . ." and see where it goes.


It's touching because there's the promise of paradise in their play, a peek at a world we all know ought to exist, one in which free humans of goodwill come together in search of common ground; a world created by agreement rather than obedience or competition, the two-headed Frankenstein's monster we've built in it's stead. Some argue that this monster is likewise an aspect of human nature, but I'm not so sure. Anthropologists tell us that there is little evidence that our hunter-gatherer ancestors expected obedience or valued competition. Indeed, they tell us that these are artifices that came into being alongside the invention of agriculture as a way for some humans to "own" land and, by extension, the labor of others. For a good 90 percent of our time on the planet, we were free people of goodwill, coming together to agree rather than compel or defeat.


The girls rode their stick ponies around and around, "Neigh! Neigh! Neigh!" I was sitting on a table just watching them play their ancient game. At one point they came to surround me, their faces red with their game, their hair wild, their eyes lit from within.


"My pony is a girl pony."

"How do you know?"

"It has a girl face."

"Mine's a boy pony. Look!" She turned to show them the stick protruding from between her legs, "It has a penis."

"Mine has a penis too!"

"They all have penises."

"None of them have vulvas so they are all boy ponies."

And they all agreed before riding off to fight another fire, "Neigh! Neigh! Neigh!"


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Friday, October 13, 2017

Sacred Time




Ninety percent of our days at Woodland Park are spent in "unstructured" play, which is to say that the children are responsible for choosing what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. They make their own decisions, set their own goals, negotiate and collaborate with the other people, and learn how their own behaviors and emotions, and those of others, impact upon their results. When children are engaged in "structured" activities, adults are responsible for choosing what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. Adults make the decisions, set the goals, dictate rules and determine acceptable behaviors and even emotions.

Most schools are not like Woodland Park. Most children spend their school days engaged in structured activities, moving from this pre-determined thing to the next. I attended a "play-based kindergarten" as a boy (or what we used to just call "kindergarten"). When I hit first grade, however, the structure set in. I was good at school, even enjoying most of it, but we all lived for recess, the one time of the day where no one was telling us what to do. Indeed, we did what we could to avoid inviting adult intervention, settling our own disputes, managing our own behaviors and emotions because we all intuitively knew that once an adult was involved, our fun was at stake. The boys would organize themselves into huge kickball games, complete with negotiated rules which were self-enforced. There were adults around, in the distance, supervising, but even if one was injured, our ethic was to avoid involving them unless there was a lot of blood.

At the end of the day, we went home without homework to our lives of unstructured play. Today, that isn't the case for far too many children, who are instead shuttled off to music lessons, sports teams, and other "enrichment" programs after school and on weekends, structured activities intended to make them smarter or more well-rounded or perhaps just to occupy them while parents finish their work days. But at what cost?

According to a study conducted by psychologists at the universities of Colorado and Denver, "Structured time could slow the development of self-control":

When children spend more time in structured activities, they get worse at working toward goals, making decisions, and regulating their behavior . . . Instead, kids might learn more when they have the responsibility to decide for themselves what they're going to do with their time . . . they found that the kids who spent more time in less-structured activities had more highly-developed self-directed executive function.

Traditional schools have always been places that are largely dominated by structured activities. What has changed since I was a boy is that so many of our children spend their non-school hours bent over homework or participating in adult-directed environments, following instructions rather than thinking for themselves. Executive function, that part of our mental process that allows us to work productively toward achieving goals and manage our behaviors and emotions, is largely developed in childhood and the surest way to develop that is through practice, yet too many kids get precious little of it. If we want our children to grow into self-directed and competent adults, then we must set them free to play.

As children, we considered Saturdays and that time between the end of school and bed time as sacred, our time, resenting every imposition on it. We played in our garages and backyards, in the street and in our bedrooms, with others and alone, practicing being self-directed humans, which is ultimately every parent's goal. The only way we'll get there is to help our children take back that sacred time.


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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Resisting Betsy DeVos




Tomorrow, I'm going to be joining what many expect will be the largest single protest to date against US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Hundreds if not thousands of us will be in the streets outside the Bellevue Hyatt Regency protesting her destructive, divisive, and dangerous education policies.

DeVos is just the latest public face of the corporate-style education "reform movement," those monied interests that seek the end of public education in favor of turning our children over to private corporations, an agenda that has been well-documented in Diane Ravitch's incredibly well-researched book Reign of Error. (If you need more background, you might also like to read here and here.) These are the folks who are trying to hoodwink us into the false belief that our current public education system is failing. As Ravitch writes:

Public education is not broken. It is not failing or declining. The diagnosis is wrong, and the solutions of the corporate reformers are wrong. Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation. But public education as such is not "broken." Public education is in a crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has destabilized it. The solutions proposed by the self-proclaimed reformers have not worked as promised. They have failed even by their own most highly valued measure, which is test scores. At the same time, the reformers' solutions have had a destructive impact on education as a whole.

They are engaged in a classic "Shock Doctrine" campaign, one in which they have manufactured a "crisis" by way of creating an opportunity to impose so-called "free market" solutions, ones that would turn our children from young citizens being educated for the purpose of participating in democratic self-governance, which is the proper role of public education, and turning them into laborers in corporate test score coal mines. It is an agenda that is widely supported by neoliberal titans like Bill Gates as well as hedge fund managers and other money-grubbing Wall Street types. Private corporations already make billions off the backs of our children, but under the leadership of DeVos, they expect even more. It is an agenda that is widely opposed by professional educators, parents, and children, the people who know the most about education in American and have the most at stake, although I would argue that should these people succeed, we will all suffer.

Seattle high school teacher and author Jesse Hagopian has penned an open letter over at The Progressive in which he details our objections to the policies of DeVos, pointing out that the only real difference between her and her predecessor Arne Duncan is one of degree:

To be fair, I want to acknowledge that the destruction of public education didn't begin with you (DeVos). When your predecessor Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came to town, we protested him as well. Like you, he was also committed to privatizing education; he just didn't have your zeal for the voucher approach. But Duncan was even more motivated than you to reduce an individual student's intellectual and emotional learning to a single number on a test that could be used to punish a child, a teacher, or a school.

This is not a partisan issue: both parties have become acolytes for the schemes of Wall Street. I acknowledge that public education can and should be improved, but what they are proposing isn't reform: it's a hostile take-over.

They are fighting a long game in their quest to privatize and profit-ize public education, but so are we. They might have the money, but we have the numbers and no one can stand against teachers, parents, and children when we are united. That is why I will be on the streets of Bellevue tomorrow (Bellevue Hyatt, 5 p.m.) joining my voice with my fellow teachers, parents, and other concerned citizens, resisting the corporate scheme to dismantle public education and throw our children to the money-grubbers. I hope to see you there.


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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A Real Magic Word



When I was a boy the word "please" was said to be the magic word, and I suppose it was when we were performing for adults in order to get something we wanted, but "let's" is the word with real magic in it. "Let's" is, of course, really two words that we speak as one, meaning "let us." It's not a command nor a question, but rather an invitation and in the mouths of children it's most often used as an invitation to play.


"Let's play trains."

"Let's be princesses."

"Let's pretend we're pirates and I fall off the boat into the water and you have to rescue me." Without the word "let's" cooperative dramatic play would hardly be possible.


It's not so common among our two-year-olds, but by the time the children are four and five you hear it a lot as they play together, often at the beginning of every sentence.

And that would be enough, if this magic word could do only this, but listen, it's a real magic word. You can use it for almost anything you need to do with the other people.


"Let's take turns."

"Let's make a rule."

"Let's try using a rock to open it."

Of course, there's always a dark side to every kind of magic, a way to misuse it.

"Let's take all the balls."

"Let's keep the girls out."

"Let's pretend we're pirates who push everybody else into the water."

But even so, even when we use it to experiment with the misuse of our collective power, there's no denying it's a magic word, one that brings us together, that creates room for other people, that makes our play better and our lives bigger. "Let's" is always an invitation, one that contains all the open-ended possibilities of human beings together.


I don't worry about children who've learned the power of "Let's . . ."


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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Happy Accident



We have a set of Cuisenaire Rods that pre-dates my arrival at Woodland Park 16 years ago. I reckon most preschools have a box of them around the place, but for those who are unfamiliar, these "hands-on" manipulatives have been a staple of elementary school mathematics education since the 1950's. These colorful rectangular prisms of varying lengths are designed to allow children to discover basic mathematical concepts.


It's unlikely that I would have ever purchased them myself, because I have no particular mathematics agenda for the kids, but I've been living with them as long as I've been teaching, trotting them out once or month or so, watching children goof around with them, then packing them away. In other words, they have been gently enough used that they will likely still be with me when I finally retire. I've never attempted to coach kids through any of the exercises or drills or games detailed in the instruction manual (indeed, entire books have been written on their use), but those who choose to engage with them generally wind up talking about foundational concepts like "longer" and "shorter," "biggest" and "smallest," and often discover that different colors represent different lengths. Many kids use them like small unit blocks, carefully constructing castles and parking garages. They've been used as currency, treasures, and pretend piano keys. Most kids most days, however, just pause to push them around for a few minutes while on their way elsewhere.


I have mixed feelings about Cuisenaire Rods. On the one hand, they are attractive, well-made items that feel good in one's hand. On the other, they represent for me the vanguard of "educational toys" or the infuriating notion of "play with a purpose," as if other sorts of play are purposeless. I appreciate that they can help some children achieve a better grasp of the elementary math concepts that we've decided we must foist upon children, but I also increasingly find myself rejecting the whole notion of adults self-importantly picking and choosing what children must learn, even if they are these nearly "holy" fundamentals of math which most of us would learn simply by living personally meaningful lives. No, there is a reason I'm a preschool teacher where it is still possible to be a play purist, someone who views play as an intrinsically good thing, like love, something that needs no justification beyond it's existence. That there are a host of collateral benefits that result from play, just as there are with love, is a happy accident.


I often comment that our school runs on garbage, which means that we are forever receiving donations from the recycling bins and attics and garages of people who know me. I walked away from my doctor's appointment last week with a bag full of wine corks, tiny medicine sample bottles, and a collection of small, square, shallow cardboard boxes that are apparently part of the packaging from 4-packs of Trader Joe's brand of pineapple juice. I put them on the table alongside the Cuisenaire Rods and the children quickly discovered that the longest rods fit perfectly, which told me that the interior of these boxes is 10 cm X 10 cm, which ought to make perfect little trays in which to arrange the colorful bits into tidy mosaics. I recognized immediately that this was precisely the sort of thing that Cuisenaire Rod advocates would point to as "play with a purpose." Indeed, while researching this post, I discovered that someone is manufacturing trays just like these boxes as companions to the rods.


I did not coax, cajole or even role model filling these boxes, but I did sit with them, which is usually enough to attract a few children. The three-year-olds tended to pile the blocks into the boxes fairly randomly, but the four and five-year-olds, those that paused to do more than push the blocks around, all discovered the base ten truth of the boxes, paving the bottoms of their trays with rainbows of tidily arranged blocks. It occurred to me that "play with a purpose" advocates would be crowing about the "math learning" that was taking place. Meanwhile I, a play purist, was celebrating the fact that the children who had chosen to play here were simply doing so in a personally meaningful way, discovering what they were developmentally ready to discover, asking and answering their own questions without the imposition of an adult agenda.


I will likely always include our Cuisenaire Rods in our rotation of classroom toys, and for the next few days I'll make them available alongside these boxes, not for any learning purpose, but rather because they seem to have made the rods into something with which the children are more likely to play. And play is a pure good. Anything else is a happy accident.


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Monday, October 09, 2017

Cultivating Our Gardens




In Voltaire's satirical novella Candide, we follow the protagonist, a young boy, who travels the world. The boy starts as a coddled innocent, but as he's exposed to the various evils of the world, he becomes increasingly less optimistic about humanity. In the end, Voltaire, while not outright rejecting optimism, finds what I always considered a pragmatic middle ground in which Candide concludes that the best way to live in this imperfect world is to surround ourselves with friends and "cultivate our garden."

On Friday, I shared a small story about a group of kids playing together. They were working on a common project, negotiating, asking questions, taking turns, agreeing. It was one of those beautiful moments from the preschool of which there are many, every day. Sure, we fight and cry and even hit sometimes, but most of what we do, when we do it together, has the savor of Candide's garden, a place neither a hell nor paradise, but rather one in which we work together to make good things grow. As I wrote the piece, which mainly involved transcribing the overheard words of the kids, I mused as I often do upon why we adults struggle so much with this.

I immediately thought of our political leaders in particular and I wasn't the only one. Several readers commented along the lines of "I wish our politicians would read this." And wouldn't it be wonderful if our elected representatives, those we ostensibly charge with the sacred task of representing us in this project of self-governance, could manage to negotiate and question and agree the way the children do here in our little garden? It would be both wonderful and impossible, at least as long as we reward them with the root of all evil: money and its co-joined twin of power.

And that is the difference. The children playing together at Woodland Park are doing it strictly for the purpose of cultivating our garden, this little community of families that have come together primarily for the purpose of cultivating it. That is all. That is our highest incentive: to create a place to which we can return and create it some more. No one is here for money or power or (to include the greasy buck of education) grades. That's why the kids can do it and the adults cannot.

Or rather, parts of the adult world cannot, the parts that grab headlines in the evening news. Most of us, most days live our lives very much like the kids. We come together each day with our friends, neighbors, and colleagues, and strive to make this day a peaceful and productive one, cultivating our gardens. Perhaps we ultimately do it for the paycheck, but that isn't what we set our sights upon day-after-day the way the politicians and businesspeople and criminals do, the ones who make the headlines and make us despair of humanity.

I'm not making the case for retreating from the wider world: it's important to know what's going on and to make our opinions heard. But change of any kind starts with us, each day, as we cultivate our gardens. That is the lesson I learn from the children.


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Friday, October 06, 2017

This Is It



When I arrived on the scene, I found a group of a half dozen four-year-olds who had rigged up a large black pipe to the cast iron pump. They had buried the downhill end under sand. When they pumped the water, after a moment's anticipation, it then would erupt from their sand hill as they shouted and squealed. They were calling it a volcano.

"Pump the water!"

"It's erupting!"

"Block it, guys!"

"Okay, I'll work up here. You work down there."

"Stop pumping!"

"I want to make the water stop."

"I'll help you."

"We have to have the water everywhere on the playground. Right guys?"

"Yeah!"


"My turn. I wanna have a turn."

"After me?"

"Yeah."

"Are you trying to make the water stop or go?"

"I'm trying to make it go."

"I'll pump."

"Don't push me!"

"I didn't mean to."

"Hey, you kicked over the pipe."

"I'm sorry, I'll fix it. I was just trying to jump over it."

"What are you doing?"

"We're making a volcano stop and go."

"I wanna play."

"Get a shovel!"


I sat on a stump not far away, but I might as well have been on another planet. They dug and pumped and talked the conversation of projects, no one in charge, everyone in charge, each one alternatively in charge; a beautiful flow full of assertions, persuasion, questions, invitations, and agreements. Most of these kids have been playing together on this playground since they were two, building toward moments like these, living the journey of getting there.

As I sat there on my stump I realized that I was witnessing the pinnacle of humans living together. In every religion and every mythology there is a garden to which humans aspire to return. This is it.


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