Monday, January 15, 2018

"A Strong, Demanding Love"

Free Photo: MLKWhite Photo of MLK, Martin Luther King JR

And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. ~MLK

What I'm saying to you this morning is that Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated. ~MLK

And I say to you, I have also decided to stick to love. For I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind's problems. And I'm going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn't popular to talk about it in some circles today. I'm not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love, I'm talking about a strong, demanding love. ~MLK

On this Martin Luther King Day many of us will listen to snippets, perhaps all, of his great "I Have A Dream" speech, and we should, but civil rights was not the only cause this great American championed, and it is not the only reason we celebrate his life today. He was also a great advocate for ending the war in Vietnam and on August 16, 1967 he gave what many consider his finest speech on poverty in America at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta.

Usually entitled "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community?" this is long, powerful, and to this day controversial speech that reminds us that we have, perhaps, made strides in race relations, but almost nothing has changed when it comes to poverty. Millions of our citizens of all races remain poor, but people of color bear the greatest burden. One in five black children lives in poverty. And while the powerful in our nation are engaged in a misguided, punitive approach to reforming our educational system, they are turning a blind eye to the core issue with education in America: poverty. Let this speech be a reminder that whatever we do in the classroom, until we address the debilitating societal sickness of poverty, we will, as a nation, ultimately fail.

This is a magnificent, thoughtful and inspiring speech, one that taken in its entirety is guaranteed to make you think, make you sad, and may even make you angry. MLK calls here, for instance, for a "guaranteed national income." I know that's a non-starter for many people, but so was civil rights, so were at one time most of the great things humans have ever done. One reason we celebrate this man today is that so much of what he stood for has proven to be prophetic. If nothing else, we must think about what he has to tell us.

If you'd like to read the entire speech, you'll find the text here.

If you're interested in listening to the entire 1 hour, 8 minute speech, here it is broken into 7 parts.

I've included here the concluding 16 minutes of the speech. I hope it inspires you to listen to the rest.

Martin Luther King - Where Do We Go From Here? (Conclusion) from MLK Speeches on Vimeo.

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Friday, January 12, 2018

Through That Second 15 Minutes

One of the things Seattle's teachers won in their most recent strike was a commitment from the school district that elementary school students would receive a minimum of 30 minutes of recess per day. In fairness, some schools were already providing more than that, but there were several, apparently, that were limiting their youngest students to a meager 15 minutes, but even so, it's actually disheartening to this play-based educator to learn that a half hour is considered a victory.

The ostensible reason for such pathetically restricted recess is that longer recesses cut into that all-important "classroom time," but I also heard that some administrators favor limited or non-existant recesses because when children freely play they are more likely to wind up in conflicts.

Let me be the first to say, "Duh."

As a teacher in a school that engages in no direct instruction, but rather bases its curriculum on the evidence of how children learn best, which is through their own self-selected free play, I'm here to tell you that conflict stands at the center of how learning happens. Our entire school day is, for all intents and purposes, recess, and yes, much of what the children are doing while playing both indoors and out is bicker.

For adults interested in eliminating bickering, I would say that 15 minutes is about right: it usually takes the children at least that long just to figure out what they're going to do, which, in a robust classroom like ours, with lots of kids with lots of agendas engaging with shared and limited resources, is typically followed by a period of often intense negotiation, which often shows up as conflict.

For instance, a group of four and five-year-olds, mostly boys, found themselves playing together with a collection of cardboard tubes and tennis balls. For the first 15 minutes or so, they engaged like independent agents, each arranging tubes, and collecting balls for their own personal use. That time passed relatively quietly, with each of them exploring and experimenting. 

The next 15 minutes was characterized by physical and emotional chaos, as they began to bump up against limitations of space and resources, but the real impetus for the conflicts were their divergent ideas for how they were going to play. Most of the kids were setting their tubes up at angles down which they were rolling balls, but at least one guy was more interested in using the tubes as a way to practice balance, rolling them the way a lumberjack might. The resulting spills and his lurching body, of course, tended to upend his classmates' carefully constructed efforts and there were a lot of things said about it, like, "Hey! You're knocking over my tube!" which was followed by a round or two of argument, sometimes even accompanied by shoving and other physical attempts to solve their impasse. 

Others began to collect balls, "all the balls," which lead to complaints like, "Hey! You have all the balls!"

Some objected when friends would block up the end of the tube so their balls couldn't pass through, robbing them of the satisfaction of witnessing the end result of their experiment.

By the end of this 15 minutes, there was one boy crying, several flush with frustration, and a couple who found themselves wound up into a slightly hysterical state by the hubbub. This is where I did my work for the day. I stepped in several times to help cool tempers and encourage conversation, which I did by reminding the children of the rules they had made together the previous week, the agreements we had made about how we wanted to treat one another. Among those rules were such classics as "No taking things from other people," "No hitting," "No pushing," and "No knocking down other people's buildings," along with an agreement that if someone tells you to "Stop!" you must stop and listen to what the other person has to say.

Most of the conflicts I let run their course as the kids were talking, sometimes loudly, sometimes heatedly. As long as they were heading toward resolution I stayed on the sidelines, but when things became physical or the emotions turned intense, I dropped to my knees in the midst of it and said things like, "I saw you take that tube from him. We all agreed, 'No taking things from other people,'" and "He's crying because he worked really hard building that and you knocked it down." But mostly what I did was encourage the children to listen to one another by simply saying things like, "I want you to listen to what he has to say."

This is the period of recess play that those administrators want to avoid. I know that many schools consider recess to be a time for the classroom teachers to catch a little break, leaving the school yard in the hands of a few "monitors." One kindergarten teacher told me that they often have 40 or more children per adult on their playground. I know I wouldn't want to face that second 15 minutes without all hands on deck.

So why do we put up with that second 15 minutes? To get to the third 15 minutes. That's when all that bickering begins to pay off. That's when all the conflict and talking and listening start to bring those ideas and agendas together. 

For the next half hour I more or less sat on a bench and watched the children play, together, saying sentences to one another that began with the invitation word, "Let's . . ." 

"Let's connect all the big tubes!"

"Let's put all the balls in this bucket!"

"Let's move it over here!"

There was still a bit of bickering, but it was of the productive variety, with children actually listening to their friends' thoughts and ideas, sometimes disagreeing, but mostly finding ways to incorporate it within their own agenda. This is the gold standard of a play-based curriculum: creative, cooperative play, and sometimes the only way to get there is through that second 15 minutes.

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Putting What They Had Learned To Use

We arrived in the morning on Monday to find that someone had rudely used our parking lot to dispose of their Christmas trees, a pair of Nobel Firs.

The trees, naturally, evoked memories of the recent holiday, with children being inspired to share about their own trees, their decorations, their gifts, their relatives, their family traditions, and the ultimate fate of their own trees, some of which are still standing in their living rooms. We had obviously talked about a lot of those things in the run-up to the big day and it was interesting to hear the differences between what they had anticipated and what had actually transpired. In other words, these illegally discarded trees, showed me a snapshot of some of what the children had actually learned about their family and the holiday: they had previously expressed their theories about what was to come and now I was hearing what had actually transpired kind of like a pre- and post-test without, you know, the intrusive irrelevance and stress of an actual test.

The conversation then turned to whether or not the trees were alive. After some debate, they came around to the consensus that they were dead, despite the still-green needles, because they no longer had roots. But could they plant it and make it come back alive? That question generated more disagreement, with most coming around to the reality that these trees would never grow again, just as the ones that had decorated their homes would never grow again.

But that didn't mean they weren't going to try, if only to attempt to prove themselves wrong the way real scientists do. They began by choosing a spot, then digging a hole. They had no problem making their hole deep enough for a trunk, but with all those diggers, it turned out to be far wider than it was deep, which, of course, meant the tree would not stand on its own. Someone said, "We have to dig a down hole, not an out hole," a description that needed no further explanation, although it took them some trail and error to figure out that digging such a hole is a one-person job.

Even so, once the "down" hole was dug, the tree wouldn't stand on its own, so as one boy held the tree, the others bent their backs to the task of backfilling around the trunk, then packing the sand down. When the boy holding the tree ceremoniously let go, the tree remained standing, provoking impromptu cheering. Then, employing more of the Christmas tree knowledge they had acquired over the holiday break, they went back and forth about whether or not it was "straight," looking at it from various angles, then adjusting it accordingly.

When they were done, someone said, "We have to decorate it."

"But we don't have any ornaments."

One of the diggers hung his shovel from a branch, "That could be our ornament." And so the kids finished by decorating the tree with whatever wasn't nailed down.

They had learned about Christmas trees over the break, adding to the knowledge they had been accumulating on the subject over the course of their five years on the planet, an important subject. They were motivated, sociable, and worked well together, testing their theories, putting what they had learned to use in the real world. And when they stepped back they had done it: they had their very own decorated tree around which to celebrate.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Universal Truths

I was just standing back, watching the kids in our 4-5's class on the playground when she approached me, "Pretend I'm a baby."

I said, "Okay. Hi baby."

"No, pretend I'm baby me." Then she said her name, "L-."

"Hi baby L."

She snuggled up against my legs, sucking her thumb. "And pretend you're my mommy."

"I'll try," I said, "but your actual mommy is right over there." As a cooperative school, the kids' parents are often at school with them. I pointed to where her mom was working with other kids at the work bench. "I mean, I don't really look or sound like your mom at all."

She found the idea funny. "Yes you do. You look just like my mommy."

"Okay, but don't tell her you said that."

"Why not?"

I'd been joking, but her question was genuine. I tried to explain, "I just think that she might not want to be told she looks like me. I'm an old man and she's a young woman. I mean, I have a beard and I doubt she would want to have a beard. I guess I'm worried it would hurt her feelings if you told her she looked like me."

L thought about it for a moment, looking down the hill at her mother. "I won't tell her she looks like you. I'll tell her she looks pretty."

"That would probably make her feel good."

I try to avoid direct instruction, but there are some universal social and cultural truths that I want the kids to know, and when the opportunity presents itself, I take advantage. One of those truths is to not tell your mother that she looks like a bearded man who is twenty years her senior. If a kid snatches my hat, pulls on my hair, or messes with my glasses, I tell them that "no one" likes people to mess with their hats, hair or glasses, a universal truth if there ever was one. If someone shouts in my ear I tell them that "no one" likes that either. These are the social and cultural things that we usually only learn from experience, but for which I sometimes resort to a kind of direct instruction/persuasion.

The other day, a boy's mother arrived at school with a dramatic new haircut. Later, as I chatted with him, he let me know that he "hated" it.

"Really? I like it."

"I do not like it. It's too short. I told her to grow it back."

We spent some time talking about change, how maybe he will grow to like it, about how she is still the same person, even with different hair. He was thoughtful, not exactly agreeing, but also not disagreeing. I thought maybe I'd helped him turn the corner, but then he said, "When I see her I'm going to tell her I hate her hair."

I replied, "Oh, I don't think you should do that."

"Why not?"

"Because it might hurt her feelings. When someone gets a new haircut, I always tell them it looks good because I want them to feel good not bad. I think you should tell her you like it."

"I will not tell her that."

"Really? But then she might feel bad."

He thought about that for a moment, then said, "I hate her hair."

"I know, but you don't have to tell her that. Maybe just don't say anything at all. I told her I liked it and I could tell it made her happy because she smiled."

He answered thoughtfully, "I hate her hair, but I won't tell her."

The following day, we returned to the subject of his mother's hair. "I told my mom that I hated her hair."

"I'll bet that made her feel bad."

"It did. Today I'm going to tell her that I like her hair!"

"I think that's a good idea. Everybody with a new haircut likes to hear that."

Later when his mother arrived to pick him up, I whispered to him in passing, "Don't forget you were going to say something to you mom to make her feel good." As I walked away, I heard him say, "I do like your hair!" I saw her smile as she said, "Thank you!"

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Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The Meaning Of Life

Man is nothing else, but what he makes of himself. ~Jean-Paul Sartre

Among the founding principles of our American democracy is the ideal that we each be free to pursue "happiness." That's not a guarantee of happiness, but rather an aspirational statement, one that envisions each of us having the opportunity to choose our own course in life; whether that leads to happiness (however that is defined) or not is up to each individual. I don't think anyone believes that we have, as a society, fully achieved this particular freedom of pursuit, but it's an ideal that has the virtue of being nobel.

I think about the "pursuit of happiness" nearly every day, my own and that of the children I teach. Indeed, I consider it my highest goal on most days, to do what I can to create a bubble within which we are all free to ask and answer our own questions, which is, I think, the key aspect of anyone's pursuit of happiness. Answering other people's questions simply makes you a tool of their pursuit. It's only through finding answers to our own questions that we come a little closer to our personal truth, and as Mister Rogers sang, "The truth will make me free."

As adults we tend to take a longer view, pinning our future happiness on a set of circumstances that, when achieved, will, we believe, cause us contentment and satisfaction, that will fill us with joy in the morning, love during the day, and peace at night. Children are more focused on their immediate futures and they typically don't spend a lot of energy contemplating even that, choosing to rather apply themselves to the pursuit, to their self-selected path, the one that is paved with their own curiosity. They understand better than we do that the word "pursuit" is best understood as a synonym for "search."

What I see children doing each day as they play, is search for nothing more or less than the meaning of life. As sophomoric as that sounds, I've come to understand that this what education in a democracy must always be about and the degree to which we lose sight of that is the degree to which we rob others of their right to their pursuit of happiness. Discovering the meaning of life, our own life, our one unique life, is what we're here to do. It's a question that we were born to ask and one that only we can answer for ourselves. And we can only do that when we are free to seek our own answers: in that direction lies the meaning of life.

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Monday, January 08, 2018


During the time of the Occupy Wall Street protests, Jamie Diamond, the CEO of banking giant Morgan-Chase, came to speak here in Seattle at an event in the Downtown Sheraton Hotel. Our protest managed to effectively surround the building, blocking all exits, trapping Diamond inside. At one point I was near a side door when a half dozen cops(?) emerged, dressed head-to-toe in military-style camouflage and wielding large weapons. The knot of us near the doors grew quiet for a second, anticipating something bad, when someone shouted, "You're wearing camouflage. We can't see you!" And we all started laughing, calling out, "We can't see you!" until they went back inside.

Today, I tell a version of that joke almost every day at the preschool. For instance, when a child arrives in camo pants, I might say, "Hey, I can't see your legs, they're camouflaged!" The younger kids tend to take me literally, pulling up their pant leg to show me that they, indeed, have legs, while more experienced children just give me that look, the one where they smile slyly while looking at me out of the corner of their eyes. They might add, "You're joking" or "You're silly," but the look pretty much says it all.

I suppose it qualifies as what are often labeled "dad jokes," but you know, I'm a dad so I come by it honestly. I tell quite a few of them, especially around the school, and kids rarely outright laugh at them, even if some of the parents do. In fact, side-eye is probably the perfect response to a dad joke.

When we're using hand tools at the workbench, I always manage to work this one into the conversation: ""I see," said the blind man as he picked up his hammer and saw."

When I'm proven wrong about something, I typically respond with: "I thought I was wrong once, but I was mistaken."

When the subject of princesses comes up, I have a tryptich:

"I know Cinderella's brother. His name is Cinderfella."

"I know Snow White's sister. Her name is Rain Black," and

"I know Sleeping Beauty's brother. His name is Wide Awake Ugly."

When a child mentions he was "dropped off," I say, "That must have hurt to be dropped." When one starts with "But Teacher Tom . . . " I respond, "Hey, did you just call me Butt Teacher Tom?" When a child says she's going to "change," say into a different costume, I reply, "Don't change too much, I like you just the way you are." I've told these jokes so often to so many kids that they are hardly jokes any longer, stripped as they are of the unexpectedness that normally triggers laughter. I'm actually slightly surprised when someone does laugh.

I've been telling these and other dad jokes for years. I think of them as part of my curriculum for teaching children to question authority, to really listen to me, the supposed authority, and when I say something that doesn't sound right, to call me on it. Kids show me that side-eye almost every day, a look full of both humor and doubt. There is wisdom there, a look that says, You'll have to do better than that, you can't fool me. I've been around this particular block.

A parent once told me that he felt that part of his job was to help his kids develop their "BS detectors" and I certainly think that's part of what's happening with dad jokes and that side-eye tells me they get it.

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Friday, January 05, 2018

No One Wants To Escape From Freedom

Children don't like school because to them school is -- dare I say it -- prison. Children don't like school because, like all human beings, they crave freedom, and in school they are not free.  ~Peter Gray

On my first day as the teacher at Woodland Park, a parent warned me about her child, "Paul is an escape artist. He's quick and he's clever. You'll need to keep an eye on him all the time."

My throat was immediately blocked by my leaping heart. I envisioned Paul slithering under the gate or getting lost in the dark, off-limits, back hallways of the building in which we leased our space, a prospectively inauspicious beginning to what I was hoping would be a long teaching career. 

Paul did not try to escape that day, nor in the days ahead. In fact, and I suppose I ought to be knocking on wood as I write this, in my 17 years during which I've been daily coming to this preschool, we've not once had a kid even attempt to make a break for it. Oh sure, there are the occasional two-year-olds who simply want to go where mommy is going, following her to the door or the gate, and perhaps standing there for a time to miss her, but that's not the same thing as trying to escape. Indeed, according to parents of the children I teach, most kids are disappointed to awake on weekends to learn that it's not a school day.

I still think of Paul's non-escape quite often. It had simply not occurred to me that a child would want to escape our school. But isn't that the stereotype? Kids hate school. Around our place that isn't the case. In fact, I've not found it to be true in any of the progressive, play-based cooperatives with which I've been associated. And honestly, I've not found that to be generally true with kids pretty much up through elementary school. In fact, I had several of my former students who are now K-2 come to visit with their younger siblings during the days both before and after the holidays, and they all still "like" school. They like their friends and their teachers, they enjoy showing off the things they're learning. It's going well for them, it's clearly engaging, and over the years I've found this to be true with most of my former students . . . until they hit about middle school.

A few years ago, I was talking to a former student who was just finishing sixth grade. She had recently figured it out and it pissed her off. I can't recall her exact words, but she was quite cynical about the whole thing: tests, and studying, and learning about stuff you don't care about and will never "use" just for grades, and all so you can do it over again the next year. I've heard similar rants from other middle schoolers. My own daughter hit it at about 11-12 years old as well. Me too. It's around this age that children begin to see it for what it is. They've gained the wisdom to understand that they have no choice about if and where they go to school, nor what and when and how they're going to learn. And I have no answer for them when they ask, "What does this have to do with my life anyway?" It's a valid question, one that is not sufficiently answered by saying it builds character.

Some kids thrive, of course, while most make some sort of peace with it, but some want nothing more than to escape, be it under the fence or into the back hallways, if only because they crave freedom, the freedom to learn what and how they learn best. I might suggest that much of what we ascribe to adolescent surliness is largely attributable to this: they've had this epiphany about school and, like my former student, this whole school thing looks like a huge sham. Even the kids who do well in school come to see that it's all a game they're playing, a series of hoops through which they have to jump to satisfy their teacher or the administration or the school board or their parents. When do they get to satisfy themselves?

It's surprising how few of them actually do make a break for it.

It's a pity because children are born passionate about learning. That's what play is, at bottom, the drive to learn. That drive doesn't go away when they hit kindergarten, but we slowly begin to take it away by our insistence that learning is work. This system of education that we've been using for hundreds of years isn't backed by centuries of research, it isn't a product of careful testing and tweaking. It is, rather, a mere product of history and habit, just as is our assumption that many children will hate it. Even the kids who came to visit me over the last month at Woodland Park, those who report they still "like" school, told me they were excited to have "ten whole days off." They didn't feel that way in preschool. 

One of the legacies of Paul's mom sharing her fears about him with me is that I am rigorous about making Woodland Park a place from which they will not want to escape. I want the children to feel free, free to learn what and how they will, to play without coercion or a sense of "duty" imposed from without. No one has ever wanted to escape from freedom.

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Thursday, January 04, 2018

What Neuroscience Tells Us

Yesterday, someone tried to pull me into an online debate that involved several people authoritatively evoking "neuroscience" in defense of their favored pedagogical approach. These are the folks that once scolded us about things like "learning styles" and before that the "right-brain left-brain" myth. I didn't even take the time to try to figure out what they were asserting, but rather clicked away to a happier place.

I have nothing against neuroscience, but it is science, a branch that is still in its infancy with much more that we don't know than we do. These scientists are pioneers, exploring new territory with new tools, and with each new discovery a whole new world opens to them, which explains why it is both exciting and ever-changing. Most of us are not neuroscientists, so what we "know" about the science tends to be the dumbed down version that one finds in publications written for lay audiences, information that is filtered through journalists, refined by editors, and pumped up by marketing departments interested in eyeballs. The work neuroscientists do is interesting and important, but when we non-professional scientists attempt to apply it to our day-to-day lives we invariably get it wrong.

I have nothing but respect for professional scientists, but they are not professional educators. In most cases, they have never spent a day in a classroom. To their credit, they typically admit as much in their conclusions which are most often couched in phrases like "there is a possibility" and "likely" and "seems to indicate." And they always, when interviewed, admit that there is a lot more research to do. We amateurs, however, not being neuroscientists, tend to overlook those qualifiers as we leap to apply what we now "know" only to later find that we were wrong. Just look at the whole Common Core fiasco, which was supposedly "science-based" and promoted by dilettantes like Bill Gates, even as professional educators have overwhelmingly rejected it because it doesn't match what we know from our experience working in actual classrooms.

As I scrolled through the debate comments, I found myself cringing as these self-proclaimed "science-based" advocates kept insisting that they were talking about "learning" when really they were talking about information retention. Information retention, which is something scientists can sort of measure through testing (although every teacher knows the flaws in testing), but that is only a small sub-set of what comprises education which is a social-emotional-psychological-biological-anthropological-physical-philosophical process, one that is unique for each unique individual. There will never be a neuroscience breakthrough that explains it all: it will always just be a small piece of what we "know."

So I head off to school this morning, a professional educator who is aware of a few new ideas about how human brains retain certain types of information. I may or may not find the opportunity to test those ideas out today, like experiments, but probably only if it doesn't get in the way of what I know as a professional. What I'm thinking more about this morning is how these pro-science dilettantes are partly responsible for the widespread mistrust too many Americans have about science: they grab hold of the small glimpse that they understand, a moment in time, then trumpet it authoritatively, even scoldingly, only to find that the professional scientists, doing what scientists do, which is to attempt to prove their theories wrong, not right, have already moved on.

I love science, but I'm not a scientist. Most of my information comes from publicans like Popular Science and Scientific American. I sometimes get insights by thinking about the small parts of what scientists are doing that I think I understand, but when it comes to the core of what I'm going to do in the classroom, my pedagogical approach, I'm going to follow the lead of professional educators, just as I expect scientists to follow the lead of professional scientists and not some half-cocked, blowhard teacher on the internet.

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