How It Should Be And How It Isn’t

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting of a jaywalking teenager by an out-of-control cop in Ferguson, Missouri, an event that understandably lead a neighborhood to protest in the streets, I wrote a post decrying the extreme, militaristic, anti-democratic police response, one that unnecessarily made the streets of a small American town into a war zone.
I was living in downtown Seattle in 1999 when the World Trade Organization met here. At the time, I had just returned from living in Germany with my wife, we had a two-year-old daughter, and, frankly, my attentions were turned almost totally inward, focusing on this new life our family was creating together. In other words, I wasn’t at all politicized in those days and, in fact, knew little if anything about the WTO. But obviously, others did. As tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets to exercise their First Amendment rights, the police turned out in full-on military gear, with military weaponry. 
My initial instinct was to side with the cops. After all, world leaders had honored our city by choosing it as a venue for their important talks and these gnarly protesters were wrecking the chamber of commerce opportunity. But that all changed when I decided to walk around to see what was happening. What I found were lines of tense, threatening cops, men and women literally dressed to kill standing across from people singing, chanting, and waving signs. At one point, I got caught up in some sort of aggressive “corralling” maneuver, whereby the police were marching upon a clutch of protestors, riot shields raised, guns ready, apparently attempting to drive everyone away from some central location. Tear gas was launched at us. I ran to avoid the affects. At times the entire downtown area seemed to be under a fog of tear gas.
I’d been a part of a few protests and rallies in my past, but had never experienced anything like this. The police had always been around, but these cops were aggressively fighting against American citizens rather than supporting them in their exercise of free speech. Yes, a few petty criminals used the cover of the protesting crowd to commit acts of vandalism and theft as happened in Ferguson and during the Occupy protests, but from my position as a truly “innocent” bystander, the police had abdicated their role to catch law-breakers and were simply holding everyone responsible for the acts of a few. The assumption of collective guilt is always wrong: and they were doing it as an occupying army. It does not get any more undemocratic than this.
It’s not just Ferguson or Seattle. Policing right across our nation is out of control: I’ve come to think of them as just another “gang,” one that is armed to the teeth. I wanted to start with the idea that it was just a matter of the proverbial “bad apples,” because, after all, I didn’t want to be responsible for the same sort of guilt by association I’d seen from the police, but as long as cops continue to protect their own, as long as they continue to close ranks behind a “blue wall,” they are participating in a criminal conspiracy to cover-up crimes. This makes them all bad cops. The reason I support the people of Ferguson, who are still in the streets, is that the courts have proven totally incapable of convicting these “bad apples” even when it gets that far, largely due to the fact that their fellow gang members refuse to honestly testify against them. We already know that internal investigations will result in, at worst, a slap on the wrist (although in their “defense,” one cop was forced to resign, presumedly with full benefits, for pointing a rifle into a journalist’s camera and threatening to kill him). It’s with a truly heavy heart that I confess that I have no faith whatsoever that there will be justice in the death of that Ferguson teenager. 
These days, it appears that the court of public opinion is the only court we have when it comes to bad cops. 
It’s gotten so that I no longer counsel my teenager to seek out an officer if she feels threatened in downtown Seattle, in part because I’m worried she’ll wind up getting shot (I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be the parent of a black teen). I instead tell her to duck into the nearest shop because, at least, I know the police are committed to protecting commerce.
It’s gotten so that foreign governments are warning their citizens traveling in America about the criminality of our police forces. That’s right, they are being warned about our police, rather than our criminals.
It’s gotten so that the use of police SWAT raids, military-style invasions of homes and businesses, have increased from about 3,000 a year in the 1980’s, to over 50,000 a year today, often to arrest unarmed, petty criminals, causing death and injury to hundreds of innocent people including young children.
And it’s getting worse:
The nation gaped at the sight of a military-grade Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle trundling through Ferguson, but it turns out that was relatively restrained policing. Relative, that is, to San Diego, where police will use a similar steel behemoth for the city’s schools. The San Diego Unified School District Police Department has acquired its own vehicle, known as a MRAP, and expect it to be operational by October.
That’s right: now even school police have tanks. I’ll bet that will make the teachers think twice before complaining about pay or working conditions or, well, just about anything. I’m guessing this takes going on strike off the table. I reckon we won’t be hearing about any San Diego high schoolers engaging in any sort of righteous civil actions like the kids sometimes do in Seattle
This militarization of America’s police forces, both in terms of weaponry and mentality, must stop. It is an undemocratic, un-American development, one that should outrage all of us. Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, the man in charge during the WTO protests, hardly a bleeding-heart, is one of the few cops courageous enough to step out from behind the blue wall and tell the truth about what is going on. Of course, he had to resign to do that. He’s been making the rounds lately, promoting his new book Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Expose of American Policing (which I’ve not read), regretting the mistakes the SPD made in 1996, and calling for the de-militarization of American police forces. I chose to embed this clip because it’s the most entertaining, but you can find much more serious discussion with a quick Google search.
The Colbert Report
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As I wrote in my former post on this topic:
You might ask, what does this have to do with teaching and learning from preschoolers? My job as an educator is to prepare children to assume the rights and responsibilities of self-governance, of citizenship, and this right to peaceful protest is one of them. I took my own daughter to some of the Occupy Seattle protests, but had second thoughts when I saw the vicious brutality implied in the garb, armaments, and attitude of so-called law enforcement. Those guys came prepared for a fight even when none was offered. They shouted, commanded, and threw their weight around like a pack of sociopathic thugs. Early on in the protests I tried to sidle up to cops and chat with them, but those days faded away as the weeks wore on. Soon my friendly comments were met with curses and threats. I had become their enemy simply by virtue of how I chose to exercise my rights and responsibilities as a citizen. 

I’ve heard that some of my readers don’t care for these “political” posts. I’m sorry. I sometimes wish I didn’t write them, but in all honesty I see no difference between these posts and the cute anecdotes from the classroom: these are all stories of democracy, both how it should be and how it isn’t.

UPDATE: I had to add this video clip of a news report about a 70 lb. teenage girl who was wrestled to the ground by three cops, not for breaking the law, but for violating a school policy about mobile phones. It’s unbelievable to me that grown-ups can’t figure out a better way to deal with a little sass than through pure brutality. This is not a funny one. This is what militarization and lack of accountability looks like:

Sadly, I couldn’t get the clip to embed, but here’s a link.


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“I Have A Present For You”

This is the time of year when children, and their families, bring me gifts. 
More often than not the children hand me their gifts without a word. Or maybe they’ll say, “It’s a present.” I ask, “Is this a gift for me?” When they indicate it is, I ask, “Do you want me to open it now or wait until Christmas?” Most of our students’ families celebrate Christmas. A few have wanted me to wait, but most expect me to unwrap it instantly, often doing it for me, often announcing what it is before it’s unwrapped.
“It’s chocolate!”
“It’s a gift card!”
“It’s a picture I made!”
It clearly gives them great pleasure to give their gifts to me, so much so that they can hardly contain themselves.
During the week leading up to the holidays we usually fill our sensory table with cheap bows, a few bits of ribbon, a collection of boxes, and some jingle bells. Yes, it is a “theme” table, and what the children do, two-year-olds to five-year-olds, year-after-year, is put bells and bows in boxes and give presents to me, to our parent-teachers, to other kids. 
“I have a present for you!”
Each one is opened, even when we already know what’s inside, with anticipation and joy.
This year, we also broke out our collection of purses and loose change. Paying for merchandise is a topic that tends to also come up during the holidays and dramatic play around economics predictably emerges in December. Many of the hundreds of gifts we gave to one another last week included loose change and small purses. Some gifts were play dough. Some were . . . Well, anything that would fit into one of the boxes. We got creative, as they say, searching far and wide for just the right thing. And “just the right thing” is anything that fits in a box, because when we give we are only superficially giving stuff, we’re really giving joy, which the children fully understand.
I tried to keep up. I tried to give more than I received, but it was impossible. The children overwhelmed me with their generosity last week. I finally resorted to simply being grateful, saying, “Thank you! Getting a gift from you makes me feel good!” which was a true statement, even if I made it a thousand times.
When we give a gift, a real gift, one not burdened with the commercial tit-for-tat of obligation, be it a gift card or a jingle bell in a box, what we are giving is the unique joyfulness of gratitude. I disagree with those who claim that it’s “natural” for children to want to get more than give. The big “we,” our culture, teaches them that. When left to their own devices, the young children I know always choose giving over getting. No one stands around moping because they don’t receive, no one waits in anticipation of the gifts they will receive. No, if a child wants to play, she fills a box with bells and bows and says, “I have a present for you.” There is no question: it’s the giving that matters most.


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I’m Just Really Curious

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the fact that our 4-5 year olds have engaged in very little superhero or princess play this year, usually hallmarks of the age. Even as Halloween approached, even as many of them prepared to dress as superheroes and princesses, I didn’t notice an uptick in this classic sort of preschooler dramatic play, and it hasn’t markedly changed since. Alongside, and probably as part of, this phenomenon there as been virtually no gun play.
In that earlier post, I speculatively linked this to our experiment in equipping our “third teacher,” our environment, exclusively with what I’ve been calling “unscripted” costumes, but there’s definitely something else going on with this group. Typically, by this point in the school year, we are deeply engaged in negotiating, and reminding one another about, a complex web of agreements about gun play, a category of play in which I include “wand play” as it’s essentially the same thing. We would, for instance, be talking a lot about making sure those of us who don’t want to be “shot” can say “stop” and be respected.
Maybe it’s just timing. This year, what has been a 5’s class, was converted into a 4-5’s class, meaning we’ve lowered the average age of the children. It’s quite possible that it’s just a matter of time: maybe gun play simply emerges at Woodland Park at five, although I tend to think it’s deeper than that.
I can’t say that we’ve been entirely gun free at Woodland Park. A few of the boys have made guns from Legos or by sticking odds and ends together with our glue guns, and we did have a day when a couple of the girls were freezing people with their magic wands, but these have been isolated, one-off incidences, nothing like the sustained, day-after-day gun play from prior years.
I thought maybe we were seeing the beginning of it last week as we were using our “builder boards,” and after creating a basic fort, a couple of the guys assembled an arsenal of what they were calling guns by attaching the boards side-by-side, projecting menacingly from the ramparts. Normally, when I discover that I’m the target of anything, I say, firmly, “I don’t want to be shot,” both as a statement of personal autonomy, but also by way of role modeling this stand-up-for-yourself behavior for children who, for whatever reason, don’t want to be caught up in a gun fight. In this case, however, when the boys began boasting that they were shooting me, I instead teased them by pointing out that they couldn’t aim their guns because they were fixed into place. All I had to do was step slightly to the side and “all your bullets miss me.” 
Chagrined, they attempted to track me, but found it impossible to pivot their guns, so they instead pivoted their game, insisting that what they were really all about was using their guns as tracks for rolling our silver Chinese meditation balls, which then turned into a game of “catch” in which they would roll the balls out to the rest of us and we’d return them by rolling them under a gap in the walls.
One of three toilets in this fort
The following day, another fort went up and I was anticipating more guns, but instead they built toilets, a project that had them in stitches. This isn’t the first time we’ve giggled about poop and pee and underpants and toilets. The potty humor is right on schedule, so where is the gun play? Is it something we’re doing or is it just this particular group of kids? Maybe it’s coming, but what if it doesn’t? I’m not wishing for it, but I’m not wishing against it either. I’m just really curious.


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We Live In A World . . .

We live in a world in which playground swing sets are becoming a thing of the past, in which merry-go-rounds are disappearing, in which sledding in snowy parks is an act of civil disobedience.
We live in a world in which young children are increasingly made to spend the bulk of their days indoors, being drilled in developmentally inappropriate ways, on developmentally inappropriate material, just so they might pass developmentally inappropriate, yet high stakes tests. 
Five-year-olds are down to two 15 minute recesses per day, and then when they get home there are more hours of homework.
We live in a world in which weekends and evenings are full of soccer and piano lessons and tutoring sessions. 
We live in a world in which summer holidays are getting shorter while school days are getting longer.
We live in a world in which nearly half of Americans believe that it should be illegal for children under 12 to play unsupervised in a public park.

I’m not the first to ask, When to they get to have a childhood? 
It’s driven by fear, of course: fear of lawsuits, fear of falling behind, fear of strangers, fear of the children themselves. That fear is robbing children of their childhoods and it is criminal.
Children need to scrape their knees and bump their heads.
No one needs to be reading by five, or seven, or even ten. Homework does little to advance learning and lots to create strife between parent and child. 
And it’s inhumane to deny anyone their childhood quota of endless hours of aimless outdoor play.
We owe our children a childhood. We can’t be afraid. They are counting on us to be brave on their behalf. Our fears are destroying childhood.


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We Won’t Get There Through The Coal Mine

Have you ever wondered why public schools are the way they are? As Peter Gray shows in his book Free To Learn, it’s mostly just pure habit. There’s been a ton of investigation into how children learn best (the answer is always some version of play), but no one has ever taken a systematic look at what and how our schools attempt to teach. Nor has anyone ever even attempted to draw a correlation between the specific trivia found in a typical pre-packaged curriculum or textbook or worksheet or standardized test and a child’s future prospects. The research that has been done indicates that “successful” lives are the result of some combination of being sociable, working well with others, and motivation: the trivia has never been shown to matter, while the skills learned through playing with others is everything.
No, our entire school system is simply based upon what’s been done in the past, with adults telling children what and how to learn and play being increasingly, and even intentionally, eliminated. What meaningful learning that does take place seems to primarily be the result of talented teachers who know how to work with children between the cracks, and the children themselves, who are born as highly tuned learning machines and are pretty much capable of making at least a minimal level of education happen whatever we do to them.
Oh sure, there are changes around the edges, “innovations” that come down the pike, like the famous “new math” from my youth that required schools to toss out all their old text books and purchase new ones, or, more recently, Common Core State Standards, a completely untested set of mandates that require billions of dollars in spending for new “compliant” materials. Maybe this year’s kids memorize more of their trivia, or learn it a little more efficiently than last year’s kids, but the question that is never asked is: Why have we decided that we must subject all of our children to this specific material in this specific manner? And because we don’t ask that question, I don’t think it’s an accident that Americans have, as Diane Ravitch details in her book Reign of Error, fretted that our schools are failing since the inception of public schools. We just don’t know, and not knowing is the medium in which fear best grows.
According to the Education Industry Association, education is on the verge of becoming a $1 trillion a year “market,” representing 10 percent of our nation’s GNP, second only to the health care industry in size. “Education companies” are currently enjoying annual revenues of over $80 billion and growing. I don’t think anyone can deny that this explosive growth has been driven largely by corporations seeking to cash-in: this is the engine of the corporate education “reform” movement. Teachers are not driving this, parents are not driving this, children are not driving this, and the only “data” involved are numbers found on the bottom line of corporate P&L statements. Pure and simple, Wall Street types, entrepreneurs, and opportunistic politicians have taken advantage of our not knowing and ramped up the hand-wringing over our public schools, disguised themselves as Supermen, and rushed their untested, over-priced products to market, chasing after those No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top dollars, and Common Core.
Left out in this equation are the children and what is best for them, and frankly, what’s best for our society, which relies upon well-educated citizens in order to function. 
This isn’t to say that these education corporations aren’t able to point to numbers that have the scent of research-iness about them, collected like scientists studying orcas at Seaworld then trying to claim they understand orcas. They can show you how the software and textbooks and worksheets they manufacture and sell, if used according to their directions, will lead to higher scores on the tests they also manufacture, sell, and grade. It’s a perfect little self-sustaining system designed to produce steady, predictable profits. But, of course, like any manufacturer worth his salt, “new and improved” models are always in development, which, if purchased, are “guaranteed” to raise those test scores (and profits) even higher . . . At least until we have another generation of “new and improved” tests, which will lead to a new round of hand wringing, Superman disguises, and slapping another “new and improved” label on yet another untested, over-priced product
And, of course, they are always working on new and improved tests because they are essential to maintaining the vicious cycle, which is something a class of 6th grade students in Ipswich, Massachusetts discovered when they were required to take a full week out of their lives to “help” the manufacturer trail-run a standardized test. The kids had no choice, so when a teacher joked they ought to be paid, the kids took her up on it. They petitioned to get paid for their labor.
Of course, it was treated as a sort of joke, but it’s no joke. Until we start asking and answering the big questions about our educational system, until children and their parents can be assured that what is happening in schools is based upon the actual research and not just habit, as long as the only measures we use are those produced by these vicious cycles designed for profit, not education, then the kids have a valid a point. As education works today, it’s big business generating billions in profits off the unpaid labor of children. Teachers are at least getting a paycheck, but the real work is being done by the kids who did not volunteer for this any more than the kids “volunteered” to work in Victorian era coal mines. 
And like with those juvenile coal miners, the work is unnecessarily hard and the meager “pay” comes in the form of a scrip that can only be used in the company store to purchase test scores. Our schools can be so much better, but we won’t get there through the coal mine.


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Demanding Truth

(Fairy tales) tell children what they unconsciously know — that human nature is not innately good, that conflict is real, that life is harsh before it is happy — and thereby reassure them about their own fears and their own sense of self.  ~Arthur Schlesinger

Not long ago I posted here about how, in our play-based curriculum, I came to be reading William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury to 4 and 5 year olds. We’ve continued reading it, off and on, since then, always at the request of children. We are now up to page 10, the slow going necessitated by the discussions we’re finding necessary after nearly every line. I’m certain they aren’t following the plot any longer and the dialog is clearly beyond them. I suspect that they keep requesting it mostly because they enjoy the experience of sitting with me, outdoors, being read to. 
After my last post a couple readers wrote me questioning the wisdom of reading this novel to young children, warning me that Faulkner’s grim view of humanity and the human condition was too much for such young children. 
When my daughter Josephine was 6-years-old she reacted strongly to learning that the catastrophe of 9/11 had happened during her lifetime: “You mean it happened since I’ve been alive? Why didn’t you tell me?” I explained that she had been too little, just 3-years-old. She scolded me, angrily, “I want to know these things! I want you to tell me the truth about these things!” This would not be the last time she’s demanded truth from me when I thought I was keeping something from her for her own good.
It’s a story I’ve told before, and one I’ll certainly tell again. It was a moment that changed me forever; my wee, innocent baby demanding truth. Up until then, I thought I’d been the epitome of an honest parent, never shying away from her questions, but that moment, a moment that occurred as we approached the hole in the ground where once the towers of the World Trade Center had stood, caused my own conceit of integrity to collapse within me.
I hadn’t told her about it, I thought, because I hadn’t wanted her to be afraid of the horrors of which humans are capable. And now not only was she afraid three years removed, but feeling betrayed by her own father. I’m just glad she had the fortitude or courage or whatever it was to call me on it. I don’t want to ever again be in that position, not with my child, my wife, or anyone for that matter. It’s one thing when the world is crap. It’s another to make it crappier.
When we lie, either overtly or by omission, especially to a loved one, we might tell ourselves it’s altruism, but at bottom it’s almost always an act of cowardice. It’s us who don’t want to face truth. When we say, “She’s too young,” we’re really saying, I’m not ready to face the pain or the shame or the fear
We skip pages in books. We fast-forward through the scary parts. We distract their gaze from road kill.
I’m not saying that we should, unsolicited, lay out the whole unvarnished horrible mess before them, if only because we don’t need to. And fortunately, much of the true horrors of human nature, just as the true grimness of Faulkner’s southern gothic tales, goes right over their heads. But it will always reveal itself to them when they are ready to understand it. Our job is neither to distract their gaze nor draw their attention to it. It is rather, out of our love for them, to answer their questions, to speak the truth as we know it, and to say, “I don’t know,” when that’s the truth.
What anchors our children is not a sense that the world is perfect. They already know it isn’t. They don’t need more happy endings. They need to know we love them enough to tell them the truth, and to accept their emotions, to hold them or talk to them or just be with them. 
It’s adults, not children who worship the false idol of childhood innocence. It’s only adults who don’t want to grow up.


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The Children Take It From There


The bones of young children tend to be quite flexible, and even when they do break, they heal far more quickly than those of adults. 
Their bones are no match for their skin, however, which mends itself astonishingly quickly. 
While bloody owies tend to linger on my flesh for months, theirs often heal overnight.
Their skulls are not fully fused, leaving room for their brains to safely jiggle and swell when they’ve bumped their heads.
Their teeth replace themselves.
They cry passionately into their pain, unashamed, no concern for what the others might think, an act that not only draws aid, but also, on a basic physiological level, reduces the actual pain.
Both their bodies and memories are short. The former keeps them close to the ground meaning they don’t have far fall, while the later makes it possible for them to get right back up again.
We do not encourage risky play at Woodland Park. 
We don’t even encourage play for that matter. 
We simply provide a slice of the world: space, a variety of interesting materials, and, of course, other kids.
The children take it from there.
They are designed for this.

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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.


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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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.


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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