Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Tomorrow's Gonna Be A Better Day

Once again, I was listening to the radio.  Like my fellow Americans, I find moments to muse in my car, when I am alone.  My morning drive to work is a little island of time in a constantly rolling sea.  Once in a while, I actually stop going over my mental To Do list and, as my boss would say, I "reflect."  

First, a couple weeks ago, I was listening to music, a song by Billy Bragg.  And then this morning, I was listening to the news.  This news had a human interest-y story about electronic gaming, and how game designers and companies are actually targeting specific demographics to enhance what game makers call "fun pain."  Apparently, games, especially the initially free ones, are designed to hook kids good, and then make it extremely painful to stop playing the game, so painful that the player is willing to buy his way into continuing or improving.  The games are designed to bring players, particularly young, male players to the brink of devastation by threatening the loss of all the material created so far, all the points earned or the death of their character if they so much as think about turning the game off.  The games are designed to addict and frustrate kids in the pursuit of the addiction so that they will do anything to get a continuance of the game, including buying more power or time within the game.  So a player can ka-ching right inside the app to buy more resources for his character, or to just continue playing.  And the gaming companies, as well as the big computer and phone makers are gathering real time data on young players as they play in order to enhance this "fun pain" principle.  I hear this and I feel a bit sick.  Parents are quoted right there on the radio, saying things like, "it's a real addiction," and "I hate those games more than anything else" and "He can play for twelve hours straight.  Tennis, hockey, all those fun things, they can't complete with the games."  I think:  smash the device, go outside.

As a teacher in a place that is dedicated to land-based learning, I am especially susceptible to looking for the evil in technology-- or society, or really, anything to do with the world that people have constructed out of this earth.  I feel guilty about every plastic bag, about the stuff that runs my phone that kids in Africa are digging out of pits with their fingernails, about fracking and pipelines and driving my car.  But, remember, I said I was also listening to Billy Bragg.  Before you jump on my bandwagon of doom, please consider Billy Bragg.  

Okay, Billy's a bit of a sad sack, a rambling romantic rake, but I like his music, and I like his world view. The guy generally stands up for people and ideas who don't always have a voice.  He's political and unapologetically so, but here's the thing:  Billy Bragg is an optimist.  Time and again, the guy speaks out about the worst of the worst ills of society, but he has faith that we people, the ones screwing things up, also have the power to fix the screw ups, the power to change things for the better.  He has faith in us.  Consider his song, Tomorrow's Going to be a Better Day:

To the misanthropic misbegotten merchants of gloom,
Who look into their crystal balls and prophesy our doom,
Let the death knell chime, its the end of time,
Let the cynics put their blinkers on and toast our decline.

Don't become demoralized by this chorus of complaint,
It's a sure sign that the old world is terminally quaint,
And tomorrow's gonna be a better day,
No matter what the siren voices say,
Tomorrow's gonna be a better day,
We're gonna to make it that way.

To the pessimistic populists who harbor no doubt,
That every day we make our way to hell in a hand cart,
And the snaky set, who's snapping to get,
Anyone who sticks their head above the parapet.

Oh don't become disheartened baby, don't be fooled,
Take it from someone who knows the glass is half full,
Tomorrow's gonna be a better day,
No matter what the siren voices say,
Tomorrow's gonna be a better day,
...We're gonna make it that way.

Nice writing.  Big idea.  But what does this have to do with land-based education for young children?  A day ago a friend of mine, and a parent of one of my students said to me, "When does play end?"  She read my previous blog and was thinking about her older son, a graduate of Dodge.  I know she felt like she was crying in the dark, calling out in the wilderness.  For her school-age son it seems like play is over.  She related a story about a kindergartner who returned from winter break to discover that the play kitchen, once residing in the classroom, had disappeared.  Playtime was over.  Seems dire, right?  Here we are at Dodge, standing on our lovely, ivy-covered soapbox, telling you how great all this outdoor play is and then you have to send your kid to kindergarten where all they get is twenty minutes outside (if they are lucky) and a lousy play kitchen that evaporates mid-year.  There seems to be a disconnect here, right?  

So, if the glass is half empty, we see the terrible impact of all that structured time inside of a nearly barren utilitarian school.  My daughter's first grade class did not have windows.  I went home and cried.  The students bend to the will of a system that is organized around standardized curriculum supplied by big publishing business.  Teachers seem to teach to tests and learning seems codified to a degree that we would not have recognized as late as the late eighties.  

But, if the glass is half full, we see kids enter a broader social arena that seeks to meet the needs of an incredibly diverse population.  Each public school class, kindergarten and beyond, includes every kind of child you can imagine.  Kids learn to cope and get a long with each other.  In elementary school, most learning, indeed the focus of learning, seems to be social and emotional.  Can you get along with all of these people?  Can you control your impulses when they should be controlled?  Can you listen to the teacher and try to ascertain and meet her needs, and yours a little bit too (this is a neat trick!).  Can you make yourself known and heard?  Can you discover what kind of a person you are in this wider community?  Can you jump through societal hoops and still be yourself?  Can you see the value of going to school with all of these different kinds of people (including your teachers)?  These are questions that arise for students and parents in elementary school and I think they are meaningful.  I learned the most the year that my daughter had a teacher who just plain didn't understand her.  I learned about myself and my issues around tolerance.  I learned that I had choices too.  I could get mad at the teacher (I did).  I could stay at home and complain about my district and my school (I did that for a while too).  Or I could participate in this new system and join the community, with my voice and actions (I eventually arrived at this).

But what of play?  I couldn't change recess in elementary school, but I talked to the teachers about it, and discovered that most of them were also frustrated about the lack of outside time, and the lack of hands-on learning.  Most of the teachers I got to know at our neighborhood school were working with the system they have in order to create opportunities for physical activity and project-based learning.  And, I believe, project-based learning is where play goes as kids mature.  At least it is where older kids should go, and it is where good teachers take them.  There was the teacher who dissected eyeballs and owl pellets and grew crayfish with the kids.  There was the teacher, who, when the kids read, "The Indian in the Cupboard," hauled in an old cupboard, let the kids paint it and populate it with their own mysterious bits and bobs.  There was the teacher who insisted the kids go outside at least twice a day, and snuck the kids out to race or sled during that last hour each day.  Another did yoga and let the kids make murals and read on their tummies in the hallway.

In elementary school, there seemed to be a heavier emphasis on learning routines and developing habits of organization.  Could you read independently for twenty minutes and then at precisely twenty after close your book at transition to spelling?  Learning in discrete boxes of time seemed ludicrous to me.  But, in retrospect, I see this as more about developing habits of control and social skill rather than developing cognitively.  Now, as my kids enter middle school, I hear a lot more about project-based learning.  I see kids in the school making things with their hands, moving outside for activities whenever they can and having fun.  I see kids laughing, playing in the halls socially right in the midst of science lessons.  Our kids have recently joined the Science Olympiad team and, come to find out, they are having fun, literally playing with scientific concepts as they create and prepare to compete.  I have come to realize that most interested, invested teachers know that kids need to have ownership of discovery if they are to learn about the world and succeed.  And most teachers, once you take the time to talk to them, seem to recognize and to value creativity and thinking "outside the box."  And, when you come across the occasional dud teacher who doesn't recognize or value creativity and hands-on learning, who can't get her head out of the workbook, you have to either live with him or her, or speak up.  This too, after all is a learning opportunity.

So, here at Dodge, we may be tempted to think that "out there" is a pretty bleak place.  Time and again, though, when I tell public school teachers where I work, they smile and say, "I love that place.  Our kids have such a good time there."  See?  We have some choices to make.  What we do at Dodge, the fact that families and schools choose to participate in land-based activities with us has an impact.  We can carry land-based, project-based, hands-on learning values forward by participating in our communities.  At my first ever middle school PTO meeting I said, "Could we have a school-wide outdoor learning event  here on our own grounds?"  The principal nodded enthusiastically and said, "That's a great idea. We have a spectacular woods right out our own back door and we don't use it enough."  Another parent, a teacher said, "At my school we now do a bunch of all outside days, and we invite naturalists-- teachers and kids participate together."  

So tomorrow's gonna be a better day, if we decide to make it that way.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Pandemic of Acceptance

This morning, on my drive in to work, I was listening to the radio.  I heard a story about enrollment at West Point, specifically female enrollment.  There is a push to enroll more women at the Academy.  There seems to be an argument about whether the previous enrollment of less than 16% women was a goal or a ceiling.  I don't know, but I got to thinking about diversity at West Point.  Apparently they are striving to enroll more cadets of color too.  Purportedly, West Point culture has to change a lot of it is going to be a welcoming place for women and people of color to matriculate.  What if West Point does change and becomes as diverse as the general population?  What if the Academy culture alters to accommodate and include everyone?  What of the results, of the West Point graduates themselves?  What will the generals and colonels of the future be like?  What decisions will they make?  What will the prospects for military engagement be?  Suddenly, I could see a pandemic of acceptance, tolerance and a general rise in social skills sweeping the globe.  Wow!  Would we be as likely to wage war if we were all on speaking terms?  You know where I'm going with this, don't you?  For an early childhood teacher, it is all about the social skills.  Getting along means tolerating differences, and even celebrating them.  Because we are all wonderfully different.

So project-based learning is terrific.  There is no denying it.  When you are teaching, longer term projects that emerge from a group's collective interest can be super rewarding to support.  Watching inquiry push forward into new territory is amazing, as kids sort of lean forward together, anticipating a new discovery around the next bend.  Time and again, here at Dodge Nature Preschool, we see great ideas flame up and then fan into a bonfire of excitement and long-burning learning.  At the Preschool, we have some special success stories that we tell, to each other and to our professional colleagues far and wide:  the time "Owl Fever" struck the afternoon class and then the entire Preschool, the interest in shadow play that carried us through an entire year, an obsession with mixing and stocking colors to match everything we encountered outside, a deliciously dangerous attraction to snakes which lead one class into new territory...These stories, the way we document the exciting projects that unfold, come to inform our mission, the way we teach and how we prepare for a new school year at Dodge each fall.  They are important stories to tell and keep telling and they lead teachers to anticipate and look for signs of new projects developing.

New ideas emerge, like mushrooms popping out of the ground, and many become veins of inquiry that we follow for as long as we can.  This fall, actual fungus emerged everywhere, in great number and variety.  Kids noticed mushrooms and we noticed that they noticed and soon things snowballed and we were cataloging mushrooms, hunting for more, making books and spoor prints, cooking Puffballs (even trying to roast them like marshmallows!), drawing pictures and telling stories.  All because of a seasonal phenomena that got noticed.  Who knows how far this mushroom thing will go-- we are still in the developing stages of this project (the snow will likely put an end to it eventually), and kids don't know each other all that well yet, although jockeying for space to view small fungi is helping.

No, those aren't marshmallows...
To my mind, this knowing each other seems to be integral to the greatest kind of project-based learning.  The most rewarding class-wide projects seem to emerge and then to take hold in late winter and then they carry us right into spring.  Why?

I have a hunch that these later projects end up being more rewarding and go farther because the children and teachers know each other much better by mid-year.  The beauty of a mixed-age classroom is that we often have a coterie of children returning to a classroom each year, and they carry with them a special kind of consciousness.  The returners know the "drill," they've had experience with routines and habits, and they also know something else:  they know that people collaborate together in the classroom.  Maybe they haven't actually participated in collaboration previously--maybe they were too young and enjoyed solitary of parallel play--but, still, they've seen collaboration happen, they know it exists, that it is a practice here at Dodge, and in life.

Experience tells me that collaboration follows social development, of course, and social development leads to an ability to collaborate-- to observe and act on, react to and build on what your peers are doing.  As a whole, the classroom community generally solidifies after the turn of the New Year.  Kids not only know each other by name and sight, they know particular things about each other; they expect and anticipate things of each other; they look forward to social interaction with peers.  This is the trajectory of development we want to see.  I think early childhood teachers value this social and emotional development more than anything else, because it means that the child is learning how to be a person, and a person in a community.  These are life skills we're talking about.  And without these life skills:  suppressing your own desires and impulses in order to get along, sharing, seeing the value of sharing, interacting, and finding the joy in interaction, mastering your emotions enough to hang with your peers successfully--these skills get us through middle childhood, adolescence and adult hood.  These are skills that get us jobs and help us keep them.  And the beauty of social and emotional success is that it prepares you to learn more about the world around you and to acquire knowledge in the years to come.

This morning, a mom took me aside and told me that her child was expressing worry about friends.  "He wants to have friends.  He's worried he doesn't have any."  The worried child is three.  I said, "Terrific!  That's what we want to hear or see, an interest in peers!"  As a child develops, we look for his or her interest in other people, that awareness of society, to appear.  When we know a child is interested in the people around him, we know he's on his way to joining society.  Playing alone, or next to peers is perfectly normal in early childhood, but as a child moves through early childhood, we look for, and usually find the interest in peers emerging, like a mushroom after the rain!

We recently held our annual "Curriculum Night" for new or interested families at the Preschool.  I always want families to hear and see how curriculum emerges at Dodge.  Of course, socializing constitutes the bulk of early childhood curriculum.  It is my belief that the natural world provides the best catalyst for development, whether social or cognitive, for young children.  The playing field out there is delightfully uneven, for all of us.  Nature is largely unstructured or managed by teachers, so teachers too are placed out there, alongside their students-- more shoulder to shoulder, rather than in front or above them.  Out there, we are all people in our element; we share it.  As I have written before, it is all too easy for us to forget that we are of nature, part of the planet, animals in a network of animals.  And out there, I argue, children, and groups of them, develop socially faster and easier.

We had a class that liked to play on a giant log.  We found this out after visiting the log log and environs through the fall.  First a few kids, the older, more skilled kids, climbed the log.  Younger or less skilled kids couldn't help but notice, because we were all out there playing together in close proximity.  The less experienced kids either began to attempt the log, or to engage in other things, like drawing in the dirt with sticks.  The dirt drawers, in turn, were noticed by the skilled log climbers, who, attracted to the notion of drawing with a stick, came over to try their hand at it.  Some of the older, more skilled kids wrote letters in the dirt with their sticks.  Younger kids noticed and tried to do the same.  Around and around these exchanges went, with all the attendant skills developing on the fly, simultaneously:  eye contact, language, turn-taking, impulse control, emotional regulation, motor control and ultimately lots of cognitive development too.  An experienced teacher, used to looking for clues to developmental readiness, could easily step in and support interaction-- pointing out connections, making invitations, modelling behavior, encouraging collaboration, suggesting challenges, providing tools and support...One child in that class hung off to the side right through the fall.  She could climb trees really well, though.  So she went off to one side and did that with a teacher.  Of course, other kids noticed and wanted to try.  We invited the tree girl to demonstrate her skills, to explain "how to do it."  At first she balked at this suggestion, but eventually, perhaps overcome with annoyance at watching the little guys failed attempts, she began to snap out directions, "Put your foot here!  No here! Then grab this.  Like this."  Gently, we asked her to be patient, appealling to her sense of self, "They want to learn how to do it s well as you do it.  You're an expert.  It would be great if you could help them out.  You're really good at this."  Reluctantly, she slowed down and stopped barking at her peers.  Then she went off and climbed tougher trees and began to show off.

Her young fans followed and the exchanges continued.  Eventually, on hikes, kids would stop at certain trees and wonder aloud, "Do you think she can climb it?"  This girl became known, right along with her peers. The log place became known too, and loved.  Then, with encouragement, kids mapped all their favorite places, where they had done favorite things together.  At year end, we had a class party, hiking to five different places, planting a kid-made flag and belting out a favorite song at each site for families hiking with us.  When we sang the Pirate Song, the entire class stood shoulder to shoulder, arms slung around each other's necks.  The Favorite Places Project is my favorite project of all time.  Friendship is the best project.

This year, the tree girl is hamming it up right and left, looking for opportunities to make connections and lead the pack.  Now the whole class knows how to roll logs and find interesting bugs, how to be a "werecat," how to follow a deer trail through the prairie, how to snort when you laugh, all because she showed them the way.  When kids are together outside, I have noticed that there is really no place to hide.  Okay.  So a kid can hide, but she really isn't allowed to unless we're playing a game.  And, while playing, a kid is either going to notice other kids, or get noticed.  Usually the child who removes herself physically during play in the field becomes an object of particular interest.  Children either think she is experiencing something they haven't yet experienced, or they want to draw her into their play in some way, or they point out her distance to peers or teachers.  Outside, with the group, there is no such thing as really disappearing.  Most often, somebody is going to get in a kid's business in some way.

I would say that inside, it is entirely possible to hide from your peers and retain a large measure of anonymity.  A child may "fly under the radar" in the classroom (not under teacher radar), if she continually chooses solo activities.  Think of puzzles, drawing, cutting-- anything that is a one woman show.  These activities are great and we want children to enjoy a balance of independent and collaborative exploration, but a kid can resort to these activities if she is for some reason reluctant to join in group play.  Social development and social risk-taking can take a lot longer to emerge in a child who plays solo inside a lot.  It's no stretch then to imagine that a classroom that starts each day outside together might just gel as a community faster.  They might just access the rewards of group activities and projects a little sooner too.

So project-based learning is terrific, but true collaboration, listening and responding to peers, teaching one another (rather than more didactic teacher-led, top down inquiry), seems to be born of lots of social practice and skill development.  Maybe Dodge graduates will be the ones to integrate West Point... playing with stick guns instead of gun guns?  This week I asked two children strenuously waving sticks what they were doing.  The new friends turned and smiled, "We're fighting the air.  We're having an Air War."  That's the kind of military intervention I can support.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Coping with Apple Pie

So last Saturday night, at our big annual fundraiser, the Dodge Ball, we auctioned off three apple pies.  The pies were made by students representing each of the three classrooms here at the Preschool:  Willow, Oak and Spruce.  Dodge apples, some of them wild, were used exclusively in the pies.  Our pies did pretty well, yanking at some heart strings, setting some mouths to water and finally tugging loose purse strings to the tune of cold hard cash.  But, we were in such a hurry to get our pies out of the oven and on to the auction block that we didn't get a chance to make extra pies to enjoy in the classroom.  Kids had to practice the ultimate in delayed gratification.  Finally, today, here in the Spruce Room, we made a pie and ate it.  Most kids were pleased with the result, but some were not.  Love it or leave it on the plate, there is no getting around that eating food is one of the ultimate sensory experiences.

Kids peeled apples.  Some sampled raw apple.  Others declined due to vestiges of skin still on the slice.  We sniffed at spices.  Some kids were afraid to take a whiff, which always happens.  Some kids like to squeeze dough, others find it repulsive.  The making of pie, let alone the eating of it, is a full on party, or assault, for the senses.  I, the adult, anticipate the final product, and tolerate, even enjoy, the process because of the pay off.  I don't find dough threatening.  Most of my young chefs were not really able to conceive of the end result.  The idea of apples and nutmeg and dough did not set their mouths to watering.  They were living in the exciting, new moment of making something I fondly called, "pie."  They trusted me enough to push on, even when I waved nutmeg under their noses.

We recently enjoyed a staff development meeting with therapist Kathi Calouri of PACE Place.  Kathi works primarily with children and families who are adapting to ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).  One of the big challenges for some people with ASD is sensitivity to food.  Kathi shared techniques and therapies for helping kids adjust and acclimate to doing things they find scary or abhorrent, from visiting Target without melting down, to getting a haircut, to flushing a toilet to eating a carrot.  Eating a carrot, or even a tiny sliver of one, can be a major triumph for someone who finds carrots challenging in the worst way.

Early childhood teachers know very well that many kids, ASD or not, find food challenging. A kid's sense of taste and smell is much more acute than an adult's (unless you grow up to become a "super taster").  I certainly don't find apple pie at all threatening (sort of wish I did), but some kids do.  Some kids have to overcome the fear of the unknown, or overcome an experience that is overwhelming their senses.  Calouri's methods (which are basically behaviorist in nature), include exposing kids to new or challenging foods (or experiences), in small manageable doses.  There is usually a reward involved for trying something tough and perhaps the biggest piece of her therapy involves revisiting the experience verbally and emotionally.  It becomes important to acknowledge the challenge and to remind the kid of the fact that they survived, that they didn't die at the end of the day:  "Wow!  You ate like half of that carrot!  Yesterday it was like a quarter, and today, you ate at least a half.  That was hard, but you did it.  Way to go!"  These observations are accompanied by reinforcing touch and eye contact.  This revisiting sets the stage for meeting the next challenge.  This is an effort to build flexibility and resilience.

ASD kids benefit from this sort of approach, but really, don't we all?  So maybe I'm not going to high-five my super taster eleven-year-old six times for touching her tongue to a pea, but I am going to put at least a few peas on her plate (and I'm going to stop making alternative meals for her, really, I am.), and I'm going to give her maybe one goofy fist pump if she eats something I didn't expect her to.  It is interesting to note that our twins' middle school principal recently advised parents to re-vamp our praise.  She pointed out that if a kid does well on a test, or gets a good grade and the parent says, "You're so smart!  Way to go!"  we might actually be setting them up for failure when they face a challenge or adversity in the future.  When they don't study and bomb a test, they might think, "I'm not smart after all," and then, potentially, a cycle of low self-esteem can set in.  If, instead, we say, "Dude!  You worked really hard.  You did a lot of research and it paid off:  you aced it," you are acknowledging hard work, flexibility and study skills and an approach to learning and succeeding.  In other words:  life is challenging and you have to work at it.  We've got to anticipate adversity and learn how to cope.  It is interesting that, as a forty something year-old teacher and parent I get this, professionally speaking.  For me, social and emotional flexibility in students and my own kids equals social and emotional strength, and growth.  It's that coping part we look for in a developing children.  And it's that coping part that kind of nails me, the adult, to the wall.  The word cope actually calls my bluff.  I'm the one who is likely to come home from yoga class, survey the kitchen, and go, "I can't cope with this mess!"  I can undo sixty minutes of deep breathing in two seconds flat with that word.  Boy do I love to help other people solve problems, but man do I hate solving my own!

Why the embarrassing admission?  Well, I think that watching our own students and children face challenges invites us to perform a bit of self-examination.  Watching kids work through the stuff that really drives them nuts, and holding their hands as they do so, is very humbling.  You cannot easily ask a child to do something you yourself are loathe to do.  Self-reflection when you are teaching is practically unavoidable (I say practically, because a busy teacher can always avoid some things!).  If you are humble, if you exercise humility and empathy around your students and your own kids, it seems likely that you'll earn their trust in the long run.  And if they trust you, they are more likely take risks at your urging, right?  Hopefully becoming more flexible, with more self-esteem.  Nice idea, but really hard to put in to practice day in and day out.

Originally, I thought I was going in a different direction with this post.  I was thinking about all the great learning opportunities and challenges that fall presents for people, young and old.  Autumn, in the Northeast, where I grew up, and here in the Midwest, is a time of tremendous sensory stimulation.  Every day the world seems to alter:  color, shape, scent, texture.  Trees turn.  Fruit ripens, falls, rots.  Wind rips leaves from trees and throws them across our path.  Light and shadow are suddenly big players on the stage again.  Flowers seed out and scatter to brittle dust.  Autumn is perhaps predictable in its final outcome:  winter.  But the day to day changes are often surprising.  One day is 85 and sunny and tomorrow the frost will kill my finally ripening tomatoes.  Change can be challenging.  My mom hates fall because of what it means to her:  inevitable death.  And I love, love, love it for the very same reason.  The apple is all the sweeter to me because it will rot tomorrow.  I think of my mom, or I watch kids spit out the apple pie I seasoned with too much nutmeg and I reflect that perhaps I myself am a stim freak, tending to love change a bit too much.  But I do love the challenge of this time of year.  I have a weird Puritan streak of really loving the coldest morning air, loving the way the sharpness of it demands my attention.  Maybe, having reached middle age, my senses are so dull that I require all the hooha of autumn to stay awake.  Autumn helps me practice being three again, when everything was new.

I guess, in the end, I'm saying that I do have a healthy respect for the fear and loathing stimulation and change can engender.  Each and every moment in the life of a three-year-old presents something brand new.  Even if they've already experienced it, they likely don't remember the experience in a way they can verbalize.  All this stimulation is exciting, and it is exhausting.  We adults have to remember how challenging the world is for children (it is, after all, a challenging place for us too, isn't it?).  We have to exercise patience, even as we encourage kids to face their fears or challenges again and again.  And we have to stay awake and alert, or else we'll miss those opportunities to find humility, earn trust and learn how learn how to cope.