Voting

I’ve been introducing voting to young children for as long as I’ve been teaching. With all its imperfections, with all its potential to leave some people perpetually holding the short end of the stick, I still view voting as a hallmark of community decision-making. Sure, we strive to reach consensus before moving on to a vote, but that’s not always possible, and voting, especially voting that follows a discussion in which the entire community is heard, is as transparent and fair a way to make group decisions as humans have yet concocted.
A few days ago, I wrote about how we used a series of more than a half dozen votes to cooperatively build a new birthday throne for the school. And this was just on a Tuesday. Our 4-5’s class has adopted voting as a major part of it’s identity. Whenever multiple voices rise up with ideas or opinions, I’ve come to count on other voices calling for a vote. We vote on something almost every day. We vote on what book to read, on where to sit, on what song to sing. I am responsible for introducing voting, but the kids have chosen to make it part of their identity. It’s really quite remarkable.
Often we vote by raising our hands, although there are a few kids who still vote twice for everything, just raising their hand when they see their friends doing it, which kind of works as a reverse abstention in that it doesn’t change the outcome. Sometimes we vote with our “whole bodies,” which means the kids actually sit on one side or another to indicate their preference. Most of our votes are of the either/or variety, but when there are multiple “nominees” on our ballots, we employ a process of elimination model with those receiving the least votes being eliminated before the next round. Or sometimes we allow ourselves to vote as many times as we want.
Everything about our voting process is transparent. There are no secret ballots. Everyone can see everyone’s vote. Everyone sees how the votes are counted. There is campaigning, with kids trying to persuade friends. Sometimes chants erupt, “Red, red, red!” countered by “Green, green green!” And sometimes there are tears, although not as often now as at the beginning of the year as we began to learn that fairness doesn’t mean we always get our way in this process of determining what the larger we wants.
We’ve already returned to our voting ways here in the first week back to school after our holiday break, but that, I suppose, is to be expected as we ended last year with one of our most personally meaningful and entertaining votes: we voted on what we, collectively, were going to call our “bottoms.” That’s right, a few of the kids were concerned that referring to bottoms or butts or bummies or tushies was too close to potty talk, which we earlier in the year agreed to ban outside of the toilet (we don’t vote on classroom rules; those are made by consensus because they are too important to be left up to voting). I argue that body parts are not potty talk, but I’ve not swayed everyone, so the subject comes up quite often, as that particular body part does in preschool.
We received seven nominations:
Kadoodly boppers
Honkers
Bammers
Slammers
Chips
Construction paper
Snowflakes
The winner, by a single vote, was “snowflakes.” We now sit on our snowflakes. The kids returned from the break remembering this and insisting upon it. It doesn’t snow in Seattle every winter, so it may not happen this year, but I can imagine there will be great joy if we get to talk about snowflakes falling from the sky.


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Naming Ourselves

I know a lot of teachers have foregone circle time in the name of giving children “choice.” Not me; not us. 
These community meetings are vital to how we function as a community. This is the one opportunity during the day for us to come together to discuss matters of consequence to all of us, such as making agreements about how we want to treat one another, or planning what we’re going to do together. It’s when we get to share important news with one another, such as the name of our new baby or that we’ve decided to be a ghost for Halloween this year. Without these meetings in which we listen to one another, it’s hard for me to imagine how we become the kind of community that fosters the sense fairness, compassion, and cohesion necessary for any good democracy to function.
I’ve heard teachers say that the children get bored or that they’d rather be doing something else. Certainly, a child will occasionally wander off in search of “greener pastures,” but it’s quite rare for any of them to get out of earshot because what we’re discussing is just too important. A couple years ago River and Connor got in the habit of stealing off to the loft during circle time where they flipped through the pages of books, but it was quite clear they were listening intently from afar because the moment matters turned to subjects of significance, they were back in a flash to get in their two cents. A couple weeks ago, one of our three year olds thought he had a better idea only to find himself lured back by a debate over a proposed rule to which he had objections.
I’ve simply never found that most kids on most days would rather be doing something else. And I think that’s simply because our circle time is, by-and-large, a child lead activity, or perhaps more precisely, a community lead activity. As the facilitator of these meetings, I rarely have any sort of plan when we sit down together. I usually start vamping a little, making jokes, singing silly songs, looking for a theme to get things going. Last week, for instance, the first child who entered the room from outdoors was wearing a Seattle Seahawks shirt. I shouted, “Go Seahawks!” to which the reply was, “Go Seahawks!” When the next child scampered in we did it again, “Go Seahawks!” adding a voice to our cheer with each subsequent child, until some asked, “What about the Mariners?”
So we started cheering, “Go Mariners!” until someone mentioned the Sounders. “Go Sounders!”
Then we added the Storm. “Go Storm!”
Someone asked if we had a hockey team. We’re not an NHL city, but after some discussion, we remembered our junior team is called the Thunderbirds. “Go Thunderbirds!”
Then we got into the rich vein of university mascots. “What about the Huskies?” “Go Huskies!”
“Go Cougars!”
“Go Ducks!”
“Go Beavers!”
I said, “Those are the mascots of schools.”
“We’re a school.”
“Do we have a mascot?” 
“We should.” And we were off, with nearly every child offering up a suggestion:
Stadiums
Sneaky Beans
Medium Sneakies
Awesome Sneakies
Flower Princess Disneys
Flowers
Orcas
Katillidians
Police Stations
Tornados
Five Feet
Rocket Ships
18 Feet
People Grown-Ups
Super Awesome Sneakies
Catapults
Shark Fire Rockets
600 Feet
As you can see, we inspired each another with regard to things like “sneakies” and “feet.” And I’m pretty sure that Abigail was attempting to say an actual word, but I couldn’t understand her attempt, so I did what parent educator Dawn Carlson suggests, simply repeating exactly what I thought I heard her say in the hopes of either understanding or being corrected, but she laughingly agreed that “Katillidians” was better than what she was trying to say.
“Those are a lot of ideas,” I said, “How are we going to just choose one?”
“Voting!” So we undertook a method with the ones receiving zero or only one vote were eliminated in the first round, which pared our list down to a manageable handful of finalists. To my relief, Flower Princess Disneys barely lost out to Tornados.
This was a meaningful, community process that took the better part of a half hour. The 4-5’s class has now named itself: we’re the Woodland Park Tornados. And as usual, not a single child felt compelled to get up and walk away. Circle time is just too important.


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Charter Schools Are Stepping Stones To A Grim Future

I’ve been writing here about federal education policy for the past six years, mostly as a critic of the Dickensian corporate-style standardization of public school curricula, the scrounge of high stakes standardized testing, the ineffectiveness and punitiveness of “accountability” and “rigor,” the de-professionalization of teachers, and the corrosive influence of big money. My views and opinions, at least judging from the feedback I receive from the people who choose to read here, are shared by many, but the one place I tend to receive pushback is when I write about the efforts to privatize our public schools, and specifically charter schools.

As Daine Ravitch details in her book Reign of Error, the endgame for many of the corporate reformers is to destroy public education as we know it, to be replaced by a competitive marketplace of privately run education enterprises, funded by taxpayers, but free from democratic control, in order to unleash “powerful market forces” (to quote Bill Gates, one of their leaders) on our children who will provide free child labor for what will be primarily for-profit businesses. As Ravitch points out, charters are seen as a stepping stone on the way to the grim educational dystopia they’ve planned for our children.

The pro-charter pushback comes largely from people who have first hand experience with a charter school they love. And admittedly, there are some good ones out there, few and far between, and usually of the small, non-profit variety, embracing the sort of progressive principles I write about here. The problem is that the way powerful market forces work is that the game is always eventually won by those with the deepest pockets, which is why these progressive gems are getting increasingly rare as giant charter school chains, with their greater efficiencies and marketing muscle, and despite their failure to outperform traditional public schools, come to dominate the marketplace, taking over entire school districts in some cases (see New Orleans or the state of Tennessee).

If you’re still not sold on the downfalls and dangers of what has become the charter movement, I’ll point you to Peter Greene’s “Privatization Primer” over on his Curmudgucation blog, where he details what is happening, how it is happening, and why it matters.

And Greene’s piece doesn’t even touch on the con games, the racism, and corruption that have characterized far too many of these unaccountable schools. Powerful market forces are fine, I suppose, if the goal is simply to make money, but they also bring out the worst in people. And of all the horrifying examples of how public education is being perverted by private operators in the name of a greasy buck, perhaps the worst news is that one of our nation’s largest charter chains admits that its approach is grounded in the theories of a psychologist whose work inspired the CIA’s torture program . . . I want you to let that sink in for a moment . . . The guy whose work was used to justify things like water boarding, sleep deprivation, and forced feeding, is also one of the guiding lights of the KIPP charter school chain. It says so right there on their website.

The relentless Dora Taylor who writes on the invaluable Seattle Education blog, quotes from a post on Schools Matter:

Dr. Martin Seligman is the man to see if you have questions about how to turn human beings into compliant automatons with persistent positivity. His experiments torturing dogs in the late 1960s was seminal to the development of “learned helplessness,” whereby subjects are pacified by repeated and unpredictable electric shocks that cannot be avoided . . . The subsequent “learned helplessness” exhibited by torture victims is countered by another Seligman invention, “learned optimism,” which turns compliant human subjects into persistent, self-controlled, and gritty go-getters who will not let any amount of abuse or degradation interfere with beliefs in self-heroic capabilities . . . The Seligman treatment has been used by David Levin at KIPP to behaviorally neuter children and then to have the same children self-administer heavy does of No Excuses positivity in order to maintain high test scores regardless of children’s home life marked by pathological economic conditions.

Seligman’s work was central in the CIA torture program, a program, by the way, that didn’t work.

So, you may know of a good charter school. You may teach at one or your child may attend one. When we write about charter schools and the plan to privatize public education, we are not talking about you. But please know that you are extraordinarily lucky and those schools are unlikely to survive for long in the dog-eat-dog free-for-all future that charter advocates envision. And also please know that your experience is not indicative of what the hundreds of thousands of American children who are now being “educated” by these soulless corporate chains must endure, many under the guidance of a man who taught America how to torture.


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This Is Progressive Education

The single greatest influence on me as a teacher was my own daughter’s preschool teacher and North Seattle College parent educator Chris David. No matter how many books I read or classes I took, I learned most of what I started out knowing by working as a parent-teacher apprenticing in her 3-5’s class for two years. Our daily schedule, our songs, our stations, our over-arching philosophical approach to working with young children are all rooted in what I learned from Chris. For my first year or so as a teacher, I spent a lot of time consciously trying to be her. I found myself constantly searching my mental files for not only the exact words I thought Chris might say or thing she might do, but even trying to reflect her body language, her cadence, and her vocal tone.
Over time, of course, while I believe I’ve remained true to the core principles I learned from Chris, my teaching style has become my own to the point that I doubt there are many people who would observe the two of us and find similarities beyond the superficial ones of schedule, songs and stations. And that’s how it ought to work, of course, Chris and I are different people. It is only natural to expect that we would form different kinds of relationships with the people in our lives. Yet we are both progressive educators.
The biggest challenge in communicating about how progressive education works, I think, is that it really can only be discussed and understood “in context.” When guys like Bill Gates (who is the poster boy for a cookie cutter model of education) promote their versions of education, it’s a much easier task because it’s a one-size-fits-all theory with a pot of gold (in the form of a “job”) as a reward. And like all “beautiful” theories (e.g., Marxism, libertarianism, neo-liberalism) it may be made to work in a small scale, well-funded, incubator-like setting, but it will always fall apart when tried out in the context of actual humans behaving like actual messy, wonderful, diverse human beings, and not the theory’s concept of how human beings ought to behave.
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. ~Internet proverb*
Progressive education, by it’s very nature, means different things to different people. To me, it starts with relationships among the people involved: the kids, the teachers, and the parents. Alfie Kohn writes, “Progressive education is marinated in community,” and that has been my guiding principle since before I’d heard of Kohn, or indeed, ever really thought about progressive education. The factory approach to education that has been largely in vogue since the Industrial Revolution relies heavily on a hierarchical model of a boss-teacher to fill all those empty vessels with the information deemed important by those higher up the chain of command, which more often than not meant the guys who own the “factories” in which these kids were presumed destined to be employed. Up until this point in Western society, education had been a much more free-form, community-based (what we today might call “progressive”) endeavor, but people educated in this way simply don’t do so well in the mind-numbing repetitious factory jobs industrialists were creating. So even more important than the information they sought to pour into those kids, they shaped schools to reflect what they saw as the “realities” of the modern workplace, making it more about things and specific skills, and less about people and their relationships.
As it turns out, most of us don’t spend our lives working in factories, but this rather radical (in the context of history) educational model has stuck with us, serving businessmen, but not necessarily children or our wider community. 
They tell us that public education is in crisis, a gross “Shock Doctrine” exaggeration, but even if it were true, the solution would not be to double down on the factory model, making school more competitive, more standardized, more hierarchical, which is what the Gates-lead reform movement seems to be all about. But, of course, what can we expect from these guys? As reader once pointed out: “Microsoft is just a couple of geniuses and a whole lot of worker bees.” In this new age of technology, they still need all the “trained” cubicle drones they can get.
As I see it, we need to return to the traditional models of placing relationships at the center of education which had far more in common with progressive education than not.
When I look at progressive schools, no two are alike. We are Reggio Emilia and Montessori and Waldorf and forest and outdoor and alternative and free and cooperative and every permutation and mixture imaginable. My own school, Woodland Park, is even different from year to year, depending on the relationships that form between the children, the parents, and with me. As a teacher, I play to my strengths, as we all should. I learn from other teachers and other programs, of course, but ultimately there is no “progressive template,” no one-size-fits-all. Progressive education is not an off the rack endeavor, but rather a community sewing bee in which everything is custom made. And there are no bosses, only relationships between people, who have equal rights and responsibilities even if some of them are “just kids.”


That’s the context in which progressive educators teach. When I write about putting children in charge of their own education, I’m writing about the struggle all of us have to “forget” our industrial education backgrounds and treat children not as underlings, but as fully-formed people; not as incomplete adults, but rather equal and free humans with whom we form genuine relationships. From those seeds we grow community, and from that a progressive education.
(*Note: Most progressive educators are familiar with this quote, or something like it. Versions of it are variously attributed to W.B. Yeats, Plutarch, Socrates and others. I’ve tried to find the proper source many times without success. In the days before the internet, we simply attributed common wisdom like this to “the universe,” which is what I’ve decided to do here.)


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Counting Wooden Blocks And Everything

I was rushing around one morning last week before the children arrived, working with our “third teacher,” and began to worry I’d not allowed enough time to do all the things I wanted to do, when I was reminded of a lesson I’d learned from my admittedly shallow readings of the Waldorff (Steiner) approach. Namely, that it is important that children see adults doing their “real” work. It is something that has stuck with me over the years and one I don’t employ often enough as I too often strive to have the complete stage set when the children come through our doors.
 
In this case, I wanted to cut a couple dozen lengths of 2″X2″ (because that’s what we had available in our lumber pile) to use to create starting points for what we call “tall paintings.” If I sound like I’m writing in code, please click the link for a translation, but suffice it to say that it’s a typically engaging and often meditative process art activity we’ve been perfecting over the past several years.
 
 
As children came through our gate in ones and twos I set myself up at the workbench with our power jigsaw. With the first pull of the trigger, children, as they typically do when adults engage in real work, gathered around to ask, “What are you doing, Teacher Tom?”
 
“I’m cutting this wood.”
 
After watching me saw off a couple pieces, “Why?”
 
“I’m getting them ready for an art project.”
 
And then after a few more cuts, “Can I try it?”
 
I knew this request was coming and I was prepared with the irritating truth, “I’m sorry. I can’t let you. I used to let kids use this tool, but our insurance company told me I can’t let you any more.”
 
“Why?”
 
“Because they think you’ll get hurt.”
 
“I won’t. I’ll be careful.”
 
“I know, but it’s a rule I have to follow.”
 
 
We then had a brief discussion about insurance companies and their irrational fears which ended when one of the kids lost interest, more accepting of the fates than I, and began to pick up my cuttings from the ground where they had fallen and arranged them on the workbench. I stopped working for a moment and watched him lay them in a row, side-by-side. I said, “I want to cut 25 of them.”
 
He began to count the ones I’d cut so far, “Nine.” Another boy confirmed the count, then said, “If you cut one more, there’ll be ten.”
 
Someone else said, “If you cut two more, there’ll be 11.”
 
And another child, “Then 12.”
 
Then someone joked, “Then a hundred!”
 
There were several shouts of, “No!” followed by, “He’s only cutting 25: that’s less than 100,” “Then 13!” and “A hundred would take too long!”
 
So many mathematical concepts being tossed around like any other loose parts on the playground, there to be used for our play rather than, as so often happens in school, as a replacement for play.
 
I was working slowly, readjusting my wood in the vice after each cut. Had I done this before the children arrived it would have been the work of a few minutes, but I wanted to role model safe and proper woodworking procedures even if I don’t always practice them when working on my own.
 
 
As I cut more blocks of wood, the children kept track, as a group, debating, frequently recounting, always rearranging, stacking, building, making patterns. When newcomers joined our group and asked, as children always do, “Can I try?” they replied with sad voices, “The insurance company says you can’t,” then explained what that meant in the way they understood it, usually with a shrug, sharing their knowledge freely.
 
When someone then inevitably asked, “Why?” they didn’t ask me, they asked a friend who replied with the knowledge he had, “We need 25 for an art project.”
 
They wanted to know more, so I explained the whole process: later we would use the paper guillotine to cut rectangles of cardboard, then glue guns to stick the wood to the cardboard, then we would mix paint into glue and pour it over the top of the wood to make tall paintings.”
 
 
Later we did all those things, real work that a teacher might seek to do in advance by way of setting the stage. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. We all prepare for the children. In many ways, that’s the main responsibility of the teacher in our kind of school. In this case, I had chosen to use my preparation time on something else.
 
In the meantime, the children continued counting, debating, discussing, confirming, calculating, estimating, anticipating, and accepting the realities of a world that too often makes it impossible for us to try the things we want to try even if we know we won’t get hurt.
 
When I finally cut the 25th block, they cheered, knocked over the tower they had been building, then ran off to other things.
 


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Adventures We Shared

There’s always sadness mixed into this time of year; the melancholy of approaching the end of the school year, knowing that some of these kids, these families, many of whom I’ve known for 3 or more years (in some cases many more) are moving on. I take comfort, of course, in knowing that every year, most of the kids are returning or that younger siblings will guarantee I stay in touch, but there are always a few of them I’ll never see again.
It’s in the nature of being a teacher to be a rock in the stream, standing in one place while the river races by, tumbling over and around you, shaping you while you’re shaping it.
Our 4-5’s class started our final parent meeting by going around the circle remembering, reflecting on the year, what our children learned and what we, the adults, learned as well. There were some tears, as there ought to be, and we laughed too, especially when thinking back to who we all were back then and comparing that to who we are now.
One of the themes of Thomas Mann’s greatest novel The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg) is the passage of time: how when one lives life “horizontally” (reflectively, disengaged, in repose) the time may seem long as you live it, passing slowly, yet when you look back, you see a largely empty blur of sameness that, in fact, passed in flash. When, on the other hand, you live “vertically” (active, engaged, moving forward) the time passes in a flash as you live it, yet seems impossibly rich, full and long in retrospect. As we pass the hopes and dreams torch around our little circles, I can’t help but recognize that we’ve definitely lived a vertical year together. September was just yesterday, but from the perspective of May, I can’t believe all that we’ve been through together. How could we possibly have done all that?
I may, on another day, wind up pulling out some purple-tinted prose to finish writing a sappy piece about all of this, but what I mainly want to do is bask on the best and most concrete reward of being a teacher in this community: the kind words and acts of appreciation that come my way as we wind down for the year. I’ve had a few other jobs over my half century — baseball coach, salesman, junior businessman, writer — none of which provide, like teaching does, this natural, emotional, even cathartic moment in May when we’re all still together, but knowing the time is short. 
I’m looking forward to summer, but I’m also clinging to these people and their children for a few more days; and I know I’m not the only one who looks forward to the future, but wishes that the next week and a half would pass as slowly as it passed for Hans Castorp as he lay, horizontal, in his sanatorium bed running the mildest of fevers.

But that isn’t who we are. We are always vertical together and it will be behind us the next we blink. But oh it will be a time to look back upon and think what fantastic adventures we shared.


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One Person At A Time

When I walked out on my first morning in Athens last week, I was drawn to very loud, angry hip hop music a few blocks from my hotel. I found myself in front of a building that I was later to learn was the University of Athens. There were several black banners hung on the building bearing the anarchist “A,” one of which was in English saying “Solidarity With Political Prisoners” and “On Hunger Strike.” I took a few pictures, like any good tourist.
A trickle of people were coming and going between the columns that flanked the door. Generally speaking, I think of myself as a guy who is opposed to political prisoners and I favor the idealism of anarchy. I decided to find out what those guys were up to. I mounted the stairs, saying, “Hi,” to the first people I came to, a young man and woman who greeted me, then said, “Come.” I followed them inside where they handed me a flyer containing their demands in English. They apologized for their English, something I found oddly touching given that Greek is the national language, then left me to peruse the document, which contained a list of laws and other things with which they disagreed with the government, and included demands for the closing of certain prisons and the release of certain prisoners. I thanked them and walked back out into the sunlight. 
It was only then that I noticed the large contingent of police dressed in riot gear. They had likely been there when I went in, but in my travel weary state I guess I hadn’t noticed them. My heart racing, I decided it was in my best interest to get out of the way.
Of course, it’s hard to get out of the way of political protest in Athens. Two years ago, there were giant street protests numbering between 10,000-20,000 every day I was there. Mine workers tied up traffic for a day while I was there this time, protesting for their livelihoods. Every conversation, even about early childhood education, at least touches upon the state of politics and the economy. These are interesting times, indeed.
It is within this environment that the incredible, play-based Dorothy Snot Preschool, founded by my friends John Yiannoudis and Daniela Kralli, has thrived, at least in part, riding this wave of disenchantment with the status quo. For Greece, I’m told, this school is a radical concept, with its underpinning idea that children are fully formed humans, capable of directing their own learning. Of course, it’s a radical notion for many Americans as well.
The only constant is change, as they say, but I’ve never spent time anywhere where the change is more in your face than right now in Greece. What is Greece changing into? That’s impossible to know, which is what makes it both frightening and exciting. The new government is an ideologically radical one, but from what I’ve gathered it is steeped in a radicalism from the middle of the last century. Still, the people elected it as an act of protest against the status quo, banking on the notion that change, any change, will be an improvement. This is not guaranteed, of course.
I heard both the doubt and the hope in the discussions I had with teachers and parents during my week with the Dorothy Snot community. As a visitor, I found myself feeling both guilty and envious. For every person who expressed despair that things could never change, there was someone else confident that something more beautiful could arise from the turmoil.
On my final day in Athens, I took part in a public discussion on the future of education in Greece, hosted by Dorothy Snot. This was a sunny, Saturday morning. More than 200 people jammed themselves into our venue. John told me that hundreds more had been turned away. Our theme was “De-educate Re-educate.” Judging by the questions and comments from the audience, the de-education part is already well underway: these people, at least, are ready for change, ready to undertake the challenge of reshaping the Greek educational system into the best in the world. The elephant in the room, of course, is “Now what?”
Most of us, I think, imagine that we need a strong, benevolent leader to step forward with a detailed, multi-step plan, but democracy has never worked that way. No, democracy more often works like it’s happening in Greece right now. More often than not, it looks like directionless turmoil, not so different than what’s occurring now in American education with hundreds of thousands of students engaged in the civil disobedience of opting out of high stakes standardized testing. The strong, benevolent leader is a myth. He is anti-democratic.
History happens one person at a time, each of us making up our own minds and speaking our truth with friends, families and neighbors. History is the story of parades made up of every day citizens who find themselves marching together. This is what we did together in Athens. Our parade is small now, but growing. It’s a neighborhood parade, it’s a city parade, it’s a national parade, it’s a global parade. Soon our “leaders” will find it’s in their best interests to rush to the front and pretend they are leading. That’s how democracy works.


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Transition Songs: Marking The Rhythm Of Our Days Together

A reader recently asked me about transitions, and specifically about the songs we use.

I’ve already written about how we prepare ourselves for transitions in a post entitled, What We Do Together, so here I’m only going to address the songs.

When I was twelve, I was the quarterback of my football team. For those who don’t know, before each play starts, the quarterback, while under center, begins the play by calling out something like, “Down! Set! Hut one! Hut two! . . .” and the ball is hiked on a certain count. My coach then had me continue calling out the count, ” . . . Hut three! Hut four! . . .” as the play ran its course. He said it was by way of creating a rhythm for the whole team, the way a drummer might for a band or a conductor for an orchestra.

I’ve never heard of any other football coaches teaching this technique, and Coach Donahue may have either been a genius or a nut, but I’m often reminded of those football days in my current role as preschool teacher where I find myself working to create a rhythm for our day, with our transition songs being a central part of that.

After laying the ground work I described in that previous post (same link as above), I often then stand with my drum for a moment, often several minutes, allowing the children to find me holding it. Some of them always say, in anticipation, “Bang the drum!” This then attracts more children. Then I goof around a little, perhaps saying, “This isn’t a drum . . . It’s a banjo,” then I pretend to “play” a little Dueling Banjos. “It’s not a banjo, it’s a trumpet,” and I pretend to play a revelry the drum stick. I don’t do this every time, but quite often, pretending it’s a trombone, a tuba, a harp, a piano, until a critical mass of children has gathered around of their own according, most of whom are saying something like, “It’s a drum!” or “Bang it!” Other times I might pretend I can’t figure out how a drum works, missing my target, attempting to stir instead of hit, just generally clowning around until I have a crowd calling for the transition to begin.

You see, the kids know what’s next because this is simply what we do together and most of them are on board with it, especially since we’ve given them the agency to take part in how it works. Every now and then a child will object, but when they see their friends preparing for it, calling for it, even demanding it, they tend to set their objections aside.

The reader who wrote me, worried that she didn’t have a particular large repertoire of songs, but I’ve come to understand that it’s actually better that way. These songs, along with helping to create a rhythm for our day, also become a sort of tradition or ritual that bonds us together, especially in these times of transition. We really only have three transition songs, and we only need two, I just keep the extra one around, I guess, out of sentiment or habit.

This one is the classic “clean up” song we all know, I use this in our 2’s class:

As you can tell, one needn’t be a particular good singer to do this. This next one, is the clean up song I use in our other classes. I learned it from my daughter’s kindergarten teacher:

As I did on my pee wee football team, I usually continue singing these songs throughout the time it takes to make the transition, sticking with the tune, while vamping on the lyrics. I might insert silly rhymes such as:

Clean up, clean up
Everybody, everywhere
Clean up, clean up
Everybody is a bear (jump in the air, do it with flair, sit and stare, etc.)

Other times I insert informative or descriptive commenting, while maintaining the tune:

Sally’s picking up some blocks
And Andrew is hanging up the costumes.
Jane is really strong, I see.
And Franky is as well.

I don’t worry about rhyming, as you can see, and it can make for some awkward phrasing, but no one cares but me. The kids just care about hearing their names in my song.

Our other transition song is used when I’m calling the group together for circle time. This is the basic “tune” (and I use that term loosely when referring to what I’ve recorded here):

The “checker board rug” is obviously where we sit together. I’ve developed a number of silly variations on this song as well, which I’ve previously written about in this post entitled, “Everybody Sit On Some Broken Glass.”

Last year, the kids in our 4-5’s class took this song over from me, rushing to take my place, all of them clutching together around my stool, arm in arm, singing this song to an empty rug, sounding like a classic hobo chorus:

Come on over to the checker board rug
Come on over to the checker board rug
Come on over to the checker board rug
And have a seat on the floor.

Over and over they sang it, most of whom had been hearing me sing it for the preceding three years as I marked the rhythm of our days together. Some days last year, singing that song together like this, was all we did for circle time.

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Experimental Dance

    

Children know it’s play. They know what play is, even if they typically can’t define it with anything other than anecdotes, usually about whatever it is they’re doing at the time. Play is swinging! Play is making trains! Play is trying to make a sand catapult!

I could regale you with a longwinded definition of play, one I’ve been honing in my public speaking appearances for the past three years, but at bottom, when it comes down to it, the core of play is experimentation. Perhaps not the rational, step-over-step experimentation of the scientific method, but an individualized approach unfettered by the strict rules of peer reviewable science.

In a very real sense, almost everything we do in our school is an experiment of some sort: physical, psychological, emotional, intellectual, artistic, or even spiritual. And I’m not just talking about the children. This goes for me, the teacher, as well.

For instance, some months ago I came across the term “pallet swing” and immediately envisioned the device you see in these pictures. I had just acquired a new pallet, smaller and with wider slats than is typical, which seemed like a good candidate to hang from the spot where we had previously hung other experimental swings (rope, tire, ladder, etc.). I used rope I had at hand: 150 lb. test, cotton wrapped in a colored nylon. I tied it through a pair of metal loops that had, years before my time, been used for the chains of a more traditional swing. The children’s experiments with this original design resulted in a broken rope by the end of the first day.

 
That sent me to the hardware store for 450 lb. test nylon rope. Determining that the metal loops, due to the children’s assertive experiments, had more or less “sawed” the previous rope to the point of breaking, this time I cut four individual lengths of rope and tied each one directly around the overhead bar which would reduce the friction that had caused the initial equipment failure. It took some doing to get the whole thing level and nylon rope is slippery enough that I had to explore several knot-tying techniques before settling on one that I thought would hold up to the children’s play.

By now, most children, of all ages, have tested the pallet swing, the youngest often just pushing and twirling it while remaining firmly planted on the ground, but the older kids, especially a group of girls, have made a concentrated study of it.

One of the reasons it had struck me as such a good idea, was that with only two traditional swings and one trapeze bar, our limited resources had made the swing set a focal point of regular conflict and this innovation seemed like it could offer four new seats in one go, which is why I’ve attempted to label it “the sharing swing,” implying that it’s suitable for more than one kid at a time.

In the beginning, however, the individual members of our team of girl scientists stared at me blankly when I used the term, waiting for me to stop talking before going back to their solitary experiments, each of them exploring the possibilities of sitting, standing, and asking for others to push them while others awaited their turn. It frustrated me, but now that a couple months have passed, I can now see that this was a necessary process, as the girls needed to acquire knowledge in order to share it with one another as they have now begun play together. This sharing is crucial to children’s experiments, just as it is with real scientists who are always building upon the work of colleagues.

The girls have discovered, for instance, that while they can cram as many as a half dozen bodies onto the “sharing swing” at once, four seems to be the correct number. This number was arrived at over a period of experimentation and negotiation. They have also discovered that while any of them can set the swing into motion on their own by standing, it’s virtually impossible to sit and swing without help. Since we discourage adults from pushing the children on any of our swings, that means that one of them must take the role pusher.

Here’s the problem, however: resting, the swing hangs about chest high on most of them, which means that when it is freely swinging the arc carries it through the same altitude that is most often occupied by their heads presenting a hazard what with it being made of wood with sharp corners and all. No one wants to take that to the head. It has taken some time, but to solve this problem, a problem they would not have had to solve had adults been doing the pushing, they have devised a method whereby the pusher never actually releases the swing, but rather keeps two hands on it as it moves through its back-and-forth arc. (Sadly, my pictures here only reveal the feet of the pusher as she does her job.) They have developed their own method of turn-taking, the intricacies of which are a mystery to me.

A second avenue of experimental exploration with the pallet swing by this team of scientists has been what they call “spinning.” As the name implies, this involves one or more children sitting in the pallet, while someone turns the apparatus around and around, twisting my four lengths of 450lb. test rope together, then releasing it, giving the passengers a wild, spinning ride. They have now been engaged in these experiments for a couple months, growing increasing knowledgeable, both as individuals and as a group, and as their knowledge has grown, so has their courage.

As the adult responsible for creating the pallet swing in the first place and, more importantly, as an adult responsible for the children’s safety, I’ve been watching carefully. In the beginning I tried to always stay nearby. I noted that there is a point, just as the ropes fully release their twisted embrace that the entire thing lurches suddenly. I worried that if a child was not prepared she might lose her grip and fly off, so I took to giving a verbal warning just before it happened, “Aaaaand whomp!” I still do it for the younger children who are not as far along in their experiments, but for these girls, the need for it, if there ever was one, is long past.

Lately, they have been twisting themselves up so high that the passengers must lie almost perfectly flat in order to fit under the ropes. They’ve determined that it takes two of them to wind the thing up that high and they have, importantly, also learned to be wary of the pallet as it spins, saying, “Ready? Let go!” before ducking out of the way. These were mental experiments they performed to figure this out: no child has been injured in the process.

Seeing the stresses they are putting on my ropes and pallet, I’ve been checking everything two or three times a day, often retying my knots when they look like they’ve slipped a bit. It’s become a kind of experimental dance we are doing together, all of us learning to do things that have never been done before on the face of the Earth.

The children just call it play.



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Why I’m Voting “No” On Seattle Proposition 1B































This one is for my Seattle readers. If you don’t vote in Seattle, you can still help by passing this along to anyone you know who does.

Everyone wants high-quality preschool for all, but the preschools envisioned by Seattle Proposition 1B are emphatically not “high-quality,” at least not if judged by what professional early childhood educators know about what young children need and how they learn.


As a preschool teacher, I can tell you that a high-quality preschool gives children the opportunity to learn in the way humans have evolved to learn: through inquiry, experimentation, and to generally investigate the world through free play in a safe, loving environment. The opportunity to explore our world and the people we find there lays the groundwork for the development of vital academic and social skills. This is what all of the research tells us about how young children learn.


In the fashion of a dilettante, however, City Councilman Tim Burgess, a man with no experience in early childhood education, has teamed up with the cast of characters that brought our public schools misguided corporate-style education “reform” initiatives like No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and their attendant regime of high-stakes standardized testing. If it passes, Proposition 1B will be a serving of Dickensian swill for our city’s four-year-olds. This is a scripted, drill-and-kill factory model of early childhood education of the sort that has been widely maligned by teachers and early childhood experts: not only is it developmentally inappropriate, but it causes young children to hate school at an age when most can’t wait to get into the classroom.


In fact, Proposition 1B pointedly excludes education professionals. Seattle Public Schools have not been consulted and the input of preschool teachers has been ignored (with the exception of the anti-union group Teachers United). The measure will create a new preschool education bureaucracy to be supervised by city hall staffers and run, apparently, by for-profit corporations according to the dictates of billionaires like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and others who are committed to the wholesale privatization of public schools, removing them from democratic control and turning them into supply side vocational training centers paid for by taxpayers.


Perhaps the sickest part of Proposition 1B is that four-year-olds in this corporatized program will be subjected to high stakes standardized tests of the kind that have been widely discredited, especially when used to evaluate our youngest citizens. Time and again, researchers have demonstrated that these tests fail to gauge anything meaningful about what children have learned, while subjecting them to brain-damaging stress. In my years of teaching, I’ve never met a teacher who supports the sort of scripted rote-memorization methods and testing envisioned by 1B. Its supporters are largely education dilettantes and, of course, private for-profit corporations such as Acelero, the KIPP charter school chain, Pearson Education and others that stand to reap millions off the bent backs of preschoolers as they labor in their test score mines.


Proposition 1B is a cruel experiment (and it is purely an experiment since there is no data to support it), the kind that middle class people have too often been eager to foist upon the poor “for their own good.”


Childhood should be a time of play and exploration, which is exactly what the brains of young children are designed for. Childhood should be a time of discovery, a time to embrace the joy of learning in our own way and at our own pace. This is what all the great early childhood pioneers like John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Jean Piget, and Lev Vygotsky knew about “high quality” early childhood education. This is what all the current researchers continue to confirm today. And this is what those of us who teacher preschoolers see every day. Yet Proposition 1B specifically excludes the programs like Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia that are based upon this knowledge.


All children deserve high quality preschool education, but Proposition 1B will deliver nothing like “high quality” because it is not about children, it is about profiting off the sweat of our youngest citizens. Please vote No.

If you would like to read more, the Seattle Education blog has been doing some outstanding reporting on Proposition 1B, here and here.


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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