Friday, April 10, 2015

The Tao of Play

I was listening to NPR again. Don't role your eyes like that.  Okay, so Heather McElhatton was interviewing lawyer cum author, Allison Carmen, about her new book, The Gift of MaybeTurns out that Carmen was "addicted to certainty." She just couldn't cope with not knowing how things would turn out. It made her a really motivated, fastidious and aggressive lawyer, but it also made her an anxiety-ridden control freak. She was getting sick, having a hard time dealing with regular, day-to-day life. And then one day someone tells her this story:

There was once an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day, his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. 
     “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
     “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it two other wild horses.
     “Such good luck!” the neighbors exclaimed.
     “Maybe,” replied the farmer.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown off, and broke his leg. Again, the neighbors came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Such bad luck,” they said.
     “Maybe,” answered the farmer. 
     
The day after that, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army to fight in a war. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by.
     “Such good luck!” cried the neighbors.
     “Maybe,” said the farmer.

This is an old, familiar Taoist story. So familiar, in fact, I recognized in right away as "The Farmer's Luck" from Jon J. Muth's book, Zen Shorts. Muth's book is a favorite at our house. And the included tales often rise up from my subconscious to breach in my practical life. Of course, this particular story changed Carmen's life for the better; she was ready to hear the message. And hers wasn't just a shift from thinking about the glass as half-empty to half-full, she moved into an acceptance of the general pattern that defines life. 

We are born and then death waits for us all, ultimately, and those facts, along with the twists and turns along the way, define the nature of existence. And by "nature," I do mean nature. Nature teaches us, again and again that resilience, flexibility and adaptability mean survival, and not always. Failure and death happen. Those are just the facts. But success and living are also facts of life too.

A recent hike really helped me think about the "Gift of Maybe" as it relates to our general approach with young children here at Dodge. I like to observe, support and write about what educators and youth development organizations call "experiential learning." In early childhood education, we mostly call this "play" and we believe children learn through play, and I think kids learn special things through adventure in play. To my mind, adventure means embracing a new challenge or having unexpected fun, particularly in a group. Yesterday, our group encountered lots of land-based unexpected fun. 

Spring is good for this, as it is a time of flux and concrete physical change.

So we hiked, and we came to a point where we had to cross a flooded creek and we didn't have many good options to do so. We used a half-rotted, slimy, mossy log to help us part of the way across the muck trap, but eventually all six kids (and I) had an up-close and personal encounter with mud. It was an equal opportunity moment for an education in goo. We tried our best to extricate ourselves and to get out of our sticky spot and we laughed hard while doing so. Facing adversity with joy or aplomb is not always an option, but at Dodge, we get to hone our coping skills in gentle, and sometimes messy ways. To know that you will be okay, that you can try, and also fail, is not only an adventure, it helps us build that thing we refer to as "character" in youth development. Land-based group adventures, or experiential ed opportunities, seek to connect kids with their social and emotional selves and to let them experiment with how they feel in different situations. Kids, and adults, move through life trying, and sometimes failing, to cope with the unexpected or the adverse. On some days, we also get to experience joy into the bargain and yesterday was such a day.


After our education in mud, we wandered farther and farther away from the school building. Eventually, I invited kids to try taking the "Secret Path" to Tipi Hill. I was really looking for a way to get back in time for snack without tackling the longer trail known to us as the "Big Loop." But, I was also thinking about the fact that my proposed short cut was in fact a tricky option. What I was billing as the "Secret Path" is in fact a deer trail traversing fairly steep and rough terrain, even for seasoned young Dodge hikers. We'd have to negotiate some barbed wire, an old farm dump and a burr forest. And we'd have to skirt a mucky marsh under scraggly old leaning and low hanging boxelders. I weighed my options: Big Loop (they could get really hungry, and cranky) or Secret Path (they could get really frustrated, and cranky). Kids on the hike were having a good day; we had really bonded over that mud experience. I decided that it just might be a good day to have one more adventure-- maybe so, maybe not. "Maybe" is the nature of life, right? Well, it was indeed a "maybe so" day. 


We had a lot of fun traversing the tricky terrain of the Secret Path-- so much fun that kids eventually took the lead and I followed them to Tipi Hill. Upon arrival, kids exulted, jumping around together and laughing. Then we rested, enjoyed a marshmallow, and talked over our triumph. Just that little bit of reflection, talking about our adventure, really solidified the experience: "We did it!" "That was fun!" "We can show the other kids!" "We could bring other friends to Dodge and show them the Secret Path; they don't know about it yet."

This little "case study"of a typical hike, and the real time, practical decisions we teachers and mentors make on the fly, reveals a lot about what life is like on the front lines of experiential ed. We have the luxury of inviting challenges; most of us, students and staff, don't have to cope with an excess of unwanted adversity. We seek to develop ourselves with new experiences and small, manageable challenges every day, perhaps in an effort to grow and better prepare for those bigger challenges that living affords us, or offends us, with. Dodge is no Yemen, and the adversity we visit upon ourselves here is generally mild, and often actually lovely, but maybe we can all gain just a bit more perspective from the time we spend out in not-entirely-predictable nature. Outward Bound has this to say about their approach to adventures with youth:  

"the program strives to demonstrate that through discovery of their strength of character, ability to lead, and determination to serve their community, young people will become more resilient and help to shape a more compassionate world. Most importantly, the students find the confidence to empower themselves for the future they seek."  


Outward Bound works with school-age children, primarily, but here at Dodge, we know that land-based play and discovery can and should begin, as it historically has, at birth. "On the Day You Were Born," you joined the human race, and an ecosystem. Maybe you will face more adversity, or maybe you will face less and invite more in order to grow your own skills, discover your strengths (and weaknesses) and increase your compassion for others.

To read a U of M case study of social and emotional learning at the Voyageur Outward Bound School, click here.  

This post is dedicated to Bruce Kramer and Cathy Wurzer and their courageous and moving mission to teach us about the gifts of loss. I think the two deserve a Pulitzer. You teach us even in death, Mr. Kramer.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Predators & Anti-Bias Education


No, I'm not talking about bad guys in society. I'm talking about foxes, wolves, sharks-- the "bad guys" of the natural world. When we explore the animal kingdom, we inevitably bump into a whole slew of human prejudices and cultural tropes around predators. When you teach at a nature center, the "bad guys" of the animal kingdom are hot topics, delicious in their assumed danger or worried about for their potential threat to health and well being. Take the diminutive fox, for instance:

Last week on a hike, we stopped to check out some scat. We examined it for clues about who might have produced it. Size, shape, color, texture (ew), contents and location all help point toward the owner. This scat was smallish, twisty at the ends, in a few segments about the size of your pinkie, dark in color with some hair inclusions. The little pile was right in the middle of the trail, right next to an old coyote scat. The kids and I talked through the clues and then compared it to the well-known coyote scat. Like magic, someone offered, "Maybe it's from a smaller dog.  Littler than a coyote." Bingo! A few more tries and searching through potential perps, we landed on the enigmatic fox. As we mosied on, a boy said, "Teacher, are foxes bad?" I stopped. I've heard this plenty of times before and I knew where it was coming from, but for a preschooler, it's all new all the time and I have to approach the conversation with as much care as I did the first time. 

"What do you mean "bad?"  
"Like, are they bad guys?  Wolves are bad.  Sometimes bears are bad. Are they bad like that?"  

So much to unpack in that string of sentences. "Sometimes bears are bad," is a subtle reading of bears throughout history and in literature; I'm not kidding! We have teddy bears and their picnics and we have "Brown Bear, Brown Bear what do you see?" and then we have slobbering, snaggle-toothed grizzlies that eat you for a midday snack. My young friend was of course considering the predators of the world and trying to order more stuff in life. "So where do foxes fit in?" he was saying.  Here's how it went down:

"Well, how are wolves bad?"
"They eat stuff?"
"Like what do they eat?"
Now other kids were listening.
"People?"
"No!" said another kid, making a disgusted face, "Not people!"
"Foxes eat people," said another child, nodding his head sagely.
Yet another child laughed, "Foxes eat small things."
"Mice!"
"Yes, foxes eat mice," I concurred.
"What do wolves eat?" said the original kid.
"Does anybody know?" I looked around.
"Mice?" offered a girl.
"Yep, and rabbits. Sometimes frogs."
"Coyotes eat people."
"No!" said the disgusted kid.
"No," I agreed. "Coyotes eat mice too."
"And rabbits."
I nodded. "Yup."
"Sometimes they eat people's dogs," offered a child. "It said on TV."
I raised my eyebrows, "Really?"
"Yep. They can eat your dog."
"Maybe a small dog," I offered. "Coyotes are about this big." I borrowed a child's stick and showed how long and tall. "Not so big."
"But foxes are a lot bigger," said the sage kid.
"Actually," I said, "I think they might be smaller. Hold your hands like this."  I made like I was holding a largish loaf of bread. "We can go look at the stuffed fox in the Nature Center later."
"He's dead."
"Yes, he is."
"He's not real."
"He's not."
"So are foxes bad?"
"Well, they have to eat and they can't go to the grocery store right?"
Kids nodded.
"I don't think they're bad guys," I said. "I just think they have do what they have to do."
"Like Neil has to push me?"

Now, I should have seen that coming. "Neil" is a peer working on impulse control and struggling with body and boundary issues. Neil was not present on this hike.  Before I could answer, here's what somebody else said:

"Neil's a bad guy."
"Why?" I asked.
"He pushes."
"Did you ever push someone?" I knew the answer.
The boy shrugged.
"Sometimes you play with Neil. I think you like to build with him."
"Yeah."
"Is it bad when you play with him?"
"No."
Somebody else jumped in. "Bad guys kill people."
"Okay. Neil doesn't do that."
"He's not a bad guy like that."
"But he pushes me."
"All the time?" I asked.
"No."
"Is pushing bad?" I ask everyone.
They all nod.
Somebody pipes up, "But not on the swing."
"Sometimes Neil pushes and sometimes he doesn't," I say.
"Why does he?"
"I don't think he can help it sometimes. He needs help. So we say," (I raise my voice), "'Hey, give Neil some space guys. He needs some space.' Or we say, 'Stop it Neil.'" I raise my hands up,"'Cut it out.' Does Neil stop?"
The kids nod.
"Neil stops. He's learning to stop."
I turn my attention to the trail and we start hiking again.
My original friend appears at my elbow. "Teacher, sharks are bad, right?"

Bad guys popped up in my PTO meeting last week too. The principal of my daughters' school was looking for feedback about a new lock down drill the kids had gone through that day.  I hadn't been home yet, so I couldn't speak to what my kids thought about the drill itself, but I told the principal about one daughter's desire to talk through what her teachers and friends were saying about it during a prep session the week before. I asked my daughter why she thought they were doing the drill. She said, "In case a kid goes crazy."  I shared this with the principal and she said that it came as some surprise to teachers that most of the kids think this. So here's the disconnect:  the kids assume that a perpetrator of violence will be a child (a disenfranchised kid?). The adults are working on the assumption that the kids assume it will be an outside intruder. And, as I understand it, the lock down scenario was played out as if an unknown adult was roaming the hallways.  As the PTO continued to chat, I asked what kind of anti-bias or diversity education is included in the middle school years. I presumed that the mandatory health class is the delivery system.  While there is curriculum around bullying and how to stop it, it sounds like there is little anti-bias education that helps kids notice, talk through, reflect on and work to accept differences. While I think the school strives to be inclusive and community-oriented, I wonder if there is a need for children to talk about anti-bias stuff explicitly. What is the difference between teaching anti-bias and teaching kids how to stop bullying when they see it? Techniques for intervening in a bullying situation are valuable, but they are treating a symptom after the fact of bias.  Maybe anti-bias curriculum could help prevent it from starting?  Recent incidents in our own backyard at St. Cloud Tech support my belief that we should take a close look at our approach to anti-bias education.

The principal also shared information about new security systems going in district-wide. She expressed her concern about the possibility that the new system could scare away or disenfranchise some families. At least 19 languages are spoken in our district. The system will require all who enter the school to swipe a government-issued id and to be photographed. As we began to discuss the situation, another parent said that she supported the new technology and expressed the opinion that if someone wanted to avoid using such a system then they were probably one of the bad guys we want to keep out. "I'm all for it, if it keeps the strangers and the bad guys out." I think I'm worried about that assumption that people who worry about access and privacy issues are "bad guys." 

To me, the two conversations about the lock down and security seemed completely linked. In turn, those conversations seemed linked to our "bad guy" conversation at Dodge. It seems to me, that we all have to keep talking about who is "out" and who is "in." Data and research around the relationship between bullying and school violence is growing. I shared my thoughts on the meeting with my kids. I heard:

"The door doesn't matter if it's a kid."  
"Maybe if it's a criminal."  
I asked, "Who are criminals?"  
"People who do bad things."  
"Did they always do bad things? Were they born bad? Were they bad babies?"  
We all sat with that one for a while. 
Then my husband said, "Something happened to them, girls. They weren't born that way."

For anyone who thinks kids don't notice and absorb cultural assumptions and notions, think again. We have only to look to our long-standing assumptions about animal life and behavior to see fine examples of how kids absorb our bigger cultural assumptions and beliefs and even internalize them personally in the form of fear. Over the years, I have known many children who are fearful that they will be eaten by foxes, coyotes, wolves and bears here at Dodge.  Never mind the fact that the largest predators are not found in our metropolitan area, these kids are irrationally worried about being attacked by them and mostly because of their portrayal in literature I think. Foxes really get the shaft in "Little Red Riding Hood" and all those stories about hens and even Beatrix Potter.  These kids' fears are not based on encounters in reality, but based on traditions passed on to them passively, right?  Most Dodge families are also enlightened folks who would never dream of vilifying a fox, and yet, here are their kids soaking up the pervasive culture like sponges.  

Attitudes about race, class and gender run through our larger culture and kids soak them up too. Kids not only notice differences, they think about them, and, just like that scat on the trail, try to look for ways to categorize what and who they encounter in life. Young children may be predisposed to look for super-heroes and villains in life, seeking "yes" or "no" answers and arranging things into dualities.  Young children are immature; children are busy forming morality and attitudes about the world they share. It falls to adults to help children form their moral compasses and to begin to develop a sense of justice eventually. This is no easy task of course, as my transcribed preschool conversation indicates.  It is very hard for children to begin to see things in more subtle and complicated contexts; they seem to want to arrange their experiences into good and bad categories.  This time of year, teachers are busy conferencing with families, discussing their child's development across 3 general domains:  social and emotional, physical and cognitive.  We do not approach our evaluation in terms of good and bad, we look for evidence of change or growth over the period of time we have spent with the child and we try to get a picture of each child in terms of where they are in a continuum of growth.  Their physical development, for instance, is neither "good" nor "bad;" it is developing in certain ways through certain activities.  

We notice differences both subtle and great between all the children we teach. Noticing these differences helps us build a bigger picture of the learning community of our classroom, and that in turn helps us gain a larger perspective on what it generally means to be 3, 4 or 5. Having worked with young children across these ages for many years, my colleagues can tell you that we have very general expectations for how human development unfolds, but kids find an individual place on a very broad spectrum of development.  It is our mission to meet every child where they are at.  Due to differences in family structure, culture, history and parenting practices, all kids are at a very different place. To assess growth and development, we have to think of each child in context and to keep that context in mind. Children, like all of us, are individuals. Remembering that they have different learning styles and are at different stages in development helps us remember the importance of addressing bias in-general. Take a look at the four anti-bias learning goals for children set forth in NAEYC's, Anti-bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves:

"Each child will demonstrate self-awareness, confidence, family pride, and positive social identitites.

Each child will express comfort and joy with human diversity; accurate language for human differences; and deep, caring human connections.

Each child will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and understand that unfairness hurts.

Each child will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or alone, against prejudice and/or discriminatory actions."

It seems to me that these goals are inseparable from the domains of development that we traditionally use to look at general child development. Social and emotional well-being-- the meat and potatoes of preschool teaching goals-- are implicit in each of these goals.  General cognition develops through noticing differences, making comparisons, responding to and thinking about the world at large. It is natural and appropriate that conversations about differences and comparisons in people should evolve in early childhood.  Children are considering who they are relative to the rest of the community, and children are finding a voice and a sense of autonomy and purpose in this world.

Just the other day, at cubby time, kids were talking about trips many of them have taken; some families have been travelling, peers notice their absence, make inquiries and conversations bubble up.  I was helping a boy with his boots:

"Teacher," he said.  "I go some place too."  
"Oh, yeah? Where do you go?"  
He smiled, his eyes twinkling, "I go to McDonald's, but I don't need a airplane to get there." Together we laughed at his sophisticated joke. "Yeah, I go to McDonald's too sometimes."
He slapped his knee, "But you don't take a airplane either!"  
"Nope!"

Kids are surprisingly aware, and surprisingly confident in who they are. Teachable moments around anti-bias abound, out on the trail and in the classroom too.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.






Saturday, March 14, 2015

Special Needs or Special Rights: Preschool Practice Beyond Semantics

I recently attended a day long conference put on by the Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota.  The group was hosting Andrea Sisbarro, Director of the Boulder Journey School out in Colorado. Sisbarro shared a lot of information about BJS and lot's of photo and video documentation. Over the course of the morning, we saw many photos of kids and most of the children appeared to be white. The school is a private institution and tuition is costly. I was prompted to inquire about the make-up of the student body and demographics. Sisbarro shared that the school is in fact largely populated by the children of white collar professionals who are looking for a progressive educational experience; like Dodge, clientele is self-selecting. Sisbarro was careful to point out that Boulder Journey School accommodates students with "special rights."  I've heard this terminology before, and I know it to be a conscious effort to redefine a category of students who are often called, "children with special needs." But Sisbarro's effort to explain her student body more carefully stayed with me and I kept turning it over in my mind. In the second half of the day, we organized into small discussion groups in order to deconstruct video of kids in action.  We began to discuss the first clip, and just like that, "special rights," came up again. This time a colleague of mine from the Lab School at the University of Minnesota was using the terminology to describe how an inclusive classroom enriches the learning for all. So just what is the difference between "special needs" and "special rights?" Once again, I find myself re-examining my own experiences here at Dodge to suss out these semantics.

I've written about inclusion quite a bit before, in this blog and for presentations. Some of my colleagues have a hard time with the word "inclusion." I think their discomfort stems from a perception that the term can create. "Inclusion" suggests that there is a circle of expectation for child development and behavior in education, or in the classroom, and if one falls outside of that circle, the group (read "the right group"), must make an effort to invite you to join them inside said circle. I agree, there is the whiff of "clubbiness" about the word "inclusion." Although I think of "inclusion" as a generally positive term, meant to describe an effort (a "special" effort?) to welcome all, I do see that it draws attention to the converse of the definition! Similar to "inclusion," the word, "special," in our culture has many meanings. Remember the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live? "Well, isn't that special?" I went to a High School where "special needs" students were most commonly referred to as "retarded" (they also had to pick up trash around the grounds). Very ugly, but true. We now think of the word "retarded" as reprehensible, and for good reason-- it is about as negative and as unspecific and as pejorative as you can get. It's a word that creates a lot of distance and engenders bias. "Special," as fraught as it may be, is at least a step up the ladder of ethical terminology.  But leaving "special" aside for a moment, let's consider "needs" and "rights." I can see how "need" can engender a negative connotation; it has an air of taxation about it of a demand for service. But "rights," well, that's like "The Bill of Rights" or "Civil Rights" or "Equal Rights" or "Womens' Rights" or "The Rights of the Child." I think the term "rights" has almost universal connotations of equity, strength, striving and righteousness here in America. And the term has everything to do with society. "Rights" forces us to consider the social fabric in ways that "needs" does not.

It's important to choose your words carefully, of course, especially in education. Our culture moves so quickly these days, with the speed of media and social media, I think, in our race to "get the word out," we sometimes sacrifice the careful consideration of our language and we occasionally bandy about approximations of meaning. I'm no exception. It is hard to decide what is important:  more or better information? I'm not being flippant, but serious. In this the new era of Arab Springs and Ferguson unrest, more information, from more sources certainly has its advantages in supporting democracy. Misinformation, or incomplete information can be damaging as well. You may notice that those covering the recent Madison shooting are being very careful about how they are covering the story, for a variety of reasons, but certainly an awareness of Ferguson coverage is informing their choices now. What does this have to do with teaching preschool, you ask? Well, I'm delighted to connect the dots!

This sounds like a digression, but bear with me here:

Current research on whales suggests that they have complex social and emotional lives. Orcas have been documented protecting disabled members of their pods, and not just once, when let's say a shark was trying to eat a calf.  Scientists have followed Orca behavior over years, documenting whales hunting for permanently disabled family members, or helping them swim or breath. Since Moby Dick, Sperm whales have been documented seeking revenge for the murder of their brethren. Grey Whales in Baja used to be known as "devil fish" because they routinely attacked fishermen in open boats. But those fisherman routinely killed their calves or injured the adults, thinking that they were competing for resources with them. Now it's against the law to injure Greys. Fisherman understand that they are not competition and locals see them as a tourist economy boon. Now the Greys are as docile, friendly and curious as can be. Recent generations of whales have learned that people are not out to get them any more and their behavior has dramatically changed. Scientists have discovered that whales have a very enlarged part of their brains dedicated to emotional and social intelligence; this part of their brain is much more developed than ours!  Whale behavior debunks the notion that it is our sense of justice, of ethics and of morality that separates us from "the beasts." Cetacean researchers and scientists have made it harder for us to distance ourselves from these wild creatures; with new knowledge, we are forced to be more inclusive in our outlook and to take the perspective of another, very sentient, very intelligent creature. Whales might live very differently from ourselves, but there is certainly an argument to be made that we are not superior by virtue of our brand of intelligence. There are myriad intelligences in this world (see my former post on social intelligence in plants!). If we are to get along with each other and the planet, it makes sense to keep this in mind.

Difference is the lesson here.  Too often we couple difference with a certain amount of negativity. My mother-in-law has been known to call my outfits or activities "different," as in "Oh, that's different." There's no mistaking the Minnesota nice in her word choice. In the preschool classroom, difference and variation in people and things are great positives, they teach young people emotionally, socially and cognitively. We encourage preschoolers to get along, to be tolerant and understanding, rather than to subscribe to a dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest mode of being. Perhaps some would say that this is contrary to the nature of nature, but I would argue, that, like the whales, nature provides us with plenty of evidence that organisms can be highly cooperative. Besides, noticing differences is a necessary part of survival.  The ability to register detail, variation and subtlety is beneficial in the most rudimentary sense.  Can you tell the difference between poisonous and edible berries? The difference between a green and red light? And interpreting emotion helps young people make decisions, adapt behaviors, avoid misunderstandings or fights, communicate effectively and make friends. Noticing differences prepares students to accept those differences as well, to cope and practice patience. Empathy is born out of an understanding of another person's perspective and way of being. Now I'm going to cut to the chase. I know what "special rights" means, and all kids have them. At Dodge, I think most of us consider it our mission to "meet children where they are at."  Here is what this looks like in practice:

Yesterday, I took a small group of kids on a destination hike. We had a particular project in mind, and we needed to go some distance from school to pursue it. It was a beautiful afternoon and I anticipated a lot of happiness and social success, based on the fact that these kids know each other quite well now, they compliment each other in temperament (meaning they do not have a homogeneous approach to activity and life in general) and they have learned very well how to function as a group, with a high degree of tolerance (there's a loaded word) for their various proclivities and differences. This tolerance was hard won. I recently heard a female scientist say that "struggle" is a word we need to apply positively to kids efforts to experiment and take risks, particularly in STEM curriculum. Struggle suggests that you might fail. Tolerating failure is an important part of tolerance in general. Our class has struggled with learning how to accept, and celebrate their differences. Some children in the group have "fast motors." Others are very sensitive to stimulation. One child has very low arousal and another struggles with anxiety. Yet another wrestles with speech. Being a growing child, growing and changing every day is very hard work, and here we are doing it together and asking each child in turn to take stock of how his peers are growing and learning too!  This is the great "social experiment" that is school.  But, back to that hiking group.

It turns out that one child who struggles with high arousal was in the throws of over-stimulation when we set out on our hike; she was wrestling with regulation. So, we made a plan with everyone, just like we always do, when we can:  The big body kid could run ahead, to "the waiting place" as long as she agreed to stop. And the other children were asked to walk, not run, for that first leg of the hike. We adapted the plan for the next leg. My fast friend could run ahead again, and this time everyone else could run too, but after I counted to ten. This gave the racer the buffer she and her friends needed while she worked to regulate her body, and it gave everyone else the chance to have a good run too. We didn't dance around any elephants in the room during that conversation.  We generally strive to be up front about the needs of particular children at particular times. I said, "I think she needs some space for her body right now. Sometimes I need space for my body. Do you ever need space for your body?" A child answered in her own way, "Sometimes I need to hug something really hard!" Another said, "You can hug me really hard!" And in an instant they were squeezing each other gleefully (I did advise a touch of restraint). Later another child remarked on my running friend's speed. "She's really fast. I wish I could run that fast."  I said, "I can't run that fast, so I'm glad she knows how to stop."  "Me too. She knows how to stop. Some kids don't know how to stop. That's dangerous."  These conversations indicate a whole lot of perspective-taking and they unfolded with a comfort and ease which has been hard won through lots of practice-- less saying, "No," less tattling, less firm hand-holding, more noticing.

Young children are prone to seek fairness and equity, mostly for themselves, and they will loudly protest if they feel "that isn't fair!"  But fairness and equity are measured by how well we are meeting the needs of each individual and how well we are balancing those needs with the group's needs. A child with "special rights" might be the only child who sits at group time with a rice pillow on his lap, because he benefits from it, because his body needs that reassuring pressure. This is fair, if, and only if, the true, individual rights of all other children are honored too. Not long ago, a child asked why a friend's mother was always in our classroom. My colleague Julie was quick, but very relaxed, "Oh, he's practicing being at school. He's learning how to be at school and getting ready to say good-bye. You already learned that, right?" The child nodded, smiled and moved on. Remember, meeting individual needs doesn't mean chaos in the classroom, or every child for him or herself, it means that we notice and honor the rights of all kids and we make every effort to share activities, uniting children in purpose. If the boy with "special rights" can better attend during a story because of his "special" pillow, this is a win for the group as they all stand a better chance of enjoying the book. Every one's coping skills grow. Watching adults care for and acknowledge a variety of needs reassures students that their own true needs will be met too. In this way everyone is special, and no one is special too.

Again and again, the natural world functions like a decentralized classroom when it comes to anti-bias education. When we go out and experience nature in all of its variation and unpredictability, the playing field is leveled for students. Mostly, teachers did not design and alter the natural space for their aims and goals, and so everyone, including the teacher and facilitator must meet the environment on its terms, with our own set of strengths and interests, just as we strive to "meet children where they are at," with their own unique backgrounds, strengths and desires. While the classroom is a wonderful place that can be a real laboratory for equity and empathy, the great outdoors reminds us that we are just a part of the big wide world, and our needs stand beside those of everything else on earth.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Honoring our Differences, Honoring the Earth

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I had two very interesting conversations yesterday-- one with a grown-up, the other with a child.

The first conversation was with my new friend, Katie. Katie is a very experienced kindergarten teacher and she's volunteering with us here at Dodge right now. She just returned from Selma, and I asked her how it went. Katie is white and she told me about the power of being the minority in the large group of activists assembled there. She was also impressed and awed by the diversity of organizations present. The people there represented a wide variety of churches, civic organizations and social movements. We talked a bit about how it feels to be the minority in one sense and to be part of a big and diverse body coalescing around one commonality. We are teachers, so, of course, the next obvious leap is how it feels for non-white students in a predominantly white classroom, and the experiences of minority families in mostly white schools. Katie told me about the struggles of a scattering of Somali folks in her own school system and how they feel isolated if they are "tokenized" and evenly distributed across classrooms in a grade level. Katie suggested that the conscious effort to cluster kids of color in classrooms in predominantly white schools seems to work out better for families and for white kids too. Why? Probably because in conversations around empathy, diversity and differences, nobody feels really good about being the sole example, the one who is "the most different." And any group of people, even if they share skin color, is truly diverse. How does a teacher reinforce this? It seems easier for young children to recognize the differences in people, to discover real empathy, across a greater number of kids. White kids, when directed to notice the diversity of, say, hair color, in a group, will notice that everyone is just a bit different. Imagine mostly white kids, and one black kid embarking on the same conversation. Initially, with little practice, they might be prone to noticing the more extreme differences in hair color. In other words, one is the loneliest number in the social setting of school. The more we notice and celebrate differences of being and differences of approach with kids, the better. But the more subtle the differences, the richer the conversation becomes and the more likely it is to trend away from generalization and assumptions about groups of folks. My conversation with Katie reminded me of the work of Louise Derman Sparks and Julie Olson Edwards. They wrote a book called, "What If All the Kids are White?" The text provides an interesting look at race and research in child development in America, and the authors present some concrete strategies for shaping and supporting anti-bias curriculum in the classroom. Dodge Nature Preschool supports an anti-bias approach in the classroom, but, in a private school with only half day programming and a self-selected population of families and kids, it really behooves us to keep revisiting how we support inquiry into differences, even when many of the kids we teach are white.

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Louise Derman Sparks & Julie Olson Edwards
So that was the first conversation. The second conversation happened on my afternoon hike. I took a group of kids out to climb trees and to circumnavigate a thawing marsh out behind Tipi Hill. On our way, we passed the Community Garden. If you've been to Dodge, you may well know that the Community Garden has a sprawling hedge of raspberries flanking the eastern fence line. Preschoolers visit this thicket almost daily in the early fall. Picking raspberries from tall thorny canes and eating them out of hand is one of the most exciting, rewarding and age-appropriate pursuits for a preschooler just starting school. Nobody forgets the experience. So, we're walking by the Community Garden and one very petite child says, "Hey! Teacher! I'm hungry! Let's go get me some berries!" This girl happens to love being embedded in a group of fast and furious older boys who enjoy rambling and running on longer hikes. She usually requests to "go with the boys," and she has her sights set on growing up to be just as fast and furious as her counterparts, but she is quite a bit younger and therefore has less life experience under her belt. As the boys shot each other with sticks, we stopped and looked through the community garden fence.

"Do you see any berries?"
She stomped her booted foot in the mud. "I want some now!  I told you, I'm HUNGRY!"
I smiled. "But look, where are the berries?"
"Hiding from the birds."
"I'm not sure."
"Let's get some apples then."
The apple trees stand along the western fence. You can guess what they look like right now. "Are there apples on the trees?  Do you see any?"
She tossed her head, stomped again and squished up her face. "But I'm hungry and I want some apples!"
Ah, the self-centerdness of the young child. All of nature shall bend to her will.

This interlude was very funny, but it underscores an important connection. Helping children build empathy, to think beyond themselves, is one of the first steps toward joining a community and the world at large. We work to help young children grow empathy all day, every day. To consider the needs and wants of other people is the first step toward considering the general fabric of existence. Turn-taking, patience, impulse control-- these are all part and parcel of building empathy for the young. And, you have to practice, because here on earth, it all works together. No apples without sunshine, rain, dirt and bees. Ultimately, honoring differences=honoring the earth. Teaching empathy and supporting anti-bias in the classroom is a very natural function of learning how to be a functioning, conscientious member of society. We are in this together. Later, when children are older, and they have had more experience with perspective-taking and understanding differing points of view and experiences, they will be ready to take the perspective of the earth and its resources, to see how we all fit together and to understand the rippling effect of existence and the marriage of human life and ecosystem.

Readers of this blog know that one of my heroes is Winona LaDuke. LaDuke founded Honor the Earth and she is perhaps the foremost champion of land rights. She fights and she usually wins. She fights for our general right to an earth that is free from exploitation and pollution, and she fights for the specific rights of indigenous and minority people who often get the shaft when the land they live on is compromised or exploited by economically powerful forces. Economic power is often the legacy of a long history of majority rule by one group over another. And there we are, back to the subject of bias, where we started. I see anti-bias curriculum and empathy-building in the preschool classroom as the beginning of a lifelong conversation to mitigate imbalances of power. From Selma, to Ferguson, to Dodge, we people all have a right to a voice in this rich, complicated, civic conversation. And, it is our duty, as empathetic citizens, like the Lorax, to "speak for the trees" and to listen for those voices we sometimes have a harder time hearing.

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Listening to the Land: Winona LaDuke

Monday, March 2, 2015

Hollow Laughter

Playing the buffoon too often is not the wisest choice for a teacher, especially if she hopes to be taken seriously when it counts. If you are always a child’s pal and never the “heavy,” you can’t really get away with controlling a situation when you need to.

Well, that sounds pretty schoolmarmish, doesn't it? But, truly, it seems to me that teachers and parents alike have to “pick their battles,” and balance their roles with children. Sometimes, humor can distract a very upset child or diffuse a sticky social situation in just the right way, helping you avoid a “battle." Sometimes, especially in the case of imminent danger, there is no room for humor, and you just have to be totally absolute and serious in order to make your point stick (you will never hear me make a joke when a child tries to leave the group on a hike or “hide” from an adult at school). But humor does have an important place in developing bonds of trust and comfort with children. As my astute Dodge colleague, Julie, will point out, “Happy, well-adjusted, confident children don’t worry about how to behave.” Julie means that secure kids are often very likely to get carried away when something honestly silly comes up in a group situation. When kids let themselves go, and enjoy a good laugh together, we are usually seeing comfort in action. When we teachers let ourselves go in the company of children, the kids are usually delighted and we end up deepening our relationship with them. 

Now, we don’t “get crazy” with kids right away, we get to know them first, just as you would any other person you meet and form a relationship with. Usually kids get to know what makes us laugh, and vice versa. Kids and teachers, when the timing is right, will often try to make one another laugh, just like happy families do at home. One day, not too long ago, when we were off the trail and the sun was finally out, we all got a little silly.

We were in a pocket of woods, climbing on a tangle of fallen cottonwoods, enjoying that ephemeral winter sunshine. While the kids scrambled around and I spotted the risk-takers, we chatted amiably about one thing and another until the conversation waned. Then a girl asked, with a twinkle in her eye, if I remembered “that Pirate Song?” I responded by beginning, 
“When I was one, I had some fun on the day I went to sea…”  I have a terrible singing voice, and perhaps this is why everyone froze, like deer in headlights. I continued on in an extremely high, glass-etching, screechy voice and finished the next line in a Ricardo Montalban accent. The kids stared, slack-jawed. I went on and on, working through my repertoire of weird voices. When I paused, they begged me to go on. I did, and they all began to giggle. On and on we went with everyone singing in not-so-sotto-silly-voce, until we were too tired to go on. It could have ended there, but it didn’t.  

After a time, one child decided to stick her legs into a hollow section of tree trunk; this trunklet actually resembled a pair of pants and I had an inkling of her intent. Her friends watched closely as she wriggled her way into the trunklet. With some difficulty, and a little balancing help from me, she finally stood and announced, “There’s somebody inside ‘em now!” One child guffawed and jumped up and down with pleasure. He got the joke. You see, together, as a class, we have read and reread Dr. Seuss’, “What Was I Scared Of?” This is a story about a young fellow who meets a “pair of pale green pants with nobody inside ‘em.” One by one, the members of our happy band in the woods got the joke and danced around, celebrating the tree pants. Then, in turn, each child re-enacted the joke, shimming into the pants, getting stuck, laughing and announcing, “I’m inside ‘em!”

Great vignette, right?  But there is a nice little coda to this story:

Hiking back to school, the new kid in class, walking right behind me, says, “Marlais!”  
I turn back to him, “Yeah?”  
“Do you know what happens to all of our sticks at night? Our Dodge sticks?”  
I stop and the rest of the hikers gather around. “No, what do you mean?”  
He’s grinning like mad. “I know what happens to them.”  
“What?” says another kid. “What happens to our sticks?”  
The new guy looks around at us, carefully, then he comes back to me. “The Donut Man takes ‘em.”  
“The Donut Man?”  
“Who’s he?”
“The Donut Man is the guy who takes our sticks to poke the holes in the donuts.” He arches his eyebrows in high humor, turns his head slightly but keeps his eyes locked on mine.  
“Well, no wonder it’s so hard to find a stick around here!”  
We all laugh very hard, enfolding our new friend in mirth, as snug as a bug in a rug...or a kid in a hollow log.



This blog is dedicated to my teaching mentor and "life coach," 
Bev Nelson McDonough, 
who is well acquainted with Donut Men, and Women.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Chicken Soup for the Soul




I just heard a funny story from my teaching colleagues here at Dodge:

A boy in the Spruce Room was cooking in the play kitchen. He appeared to be making soup for a nearby baby doll who was ill. He said something like, "This soup's almost done. That'll make you feel better." As he stirred his pot of pretend soup, he walked toward a teacher, to tell her the news. He began to say, "I'm making some chicken s--," but as he walked and stirred, he brushed by the cage of the classroom pet chicken, Goldie, and she caught his eye. He began again, eyes on the chicken, "I was going to say, 'I'm making some chicken soup...'" His voice trailed off and it was evident that the wheels were turning:  chickens as pets, chickens as soup...

Our little friend was struck by a conundrum that we all face, sooner or later. If you stop a moment and think, whether you are vegan, vegetarian, omnivore or carnivore, you must account for your role in the food chain. I, personally, think it behooves us not to take food lightly. The latest plant intelligence research suggests that we have only just begun to understand the lives of plants; plants, it turns out, have a complex sentience that may supersede our own in terms of community orientation and biological imperative to nurture youngsters. Some plants can change their biology in a matter of hours, altering their DNA (!) to meet reproductive needs-- turns out that plants are uber "smart." And we eat them.  

I think that we should sit with a certain amount of discomfort about how we sustain our existence. Whether through food or fossils, we fuel our life by consuming other things. There is no getting around it. We can, and should, talk as much as we can about how to go about this consumption ethically, morally and sustainably. We should also honor the conundrum it presents to us every day in every way:  no life without death. I think the natural world helps us mull over our relationship to death and our role in the web that is life.

My grandmother died just after the New Year. She lived a long life and her death was relatively peaceful, and still I struggle to reconcile her passing. As my dad said, "It is stunning. We live this long, complicated life full of emotion-- worries, joys, desires, everything. We go and go and go and it comes to this one fine point, a moment where you are and then you aren't. Whatever life is, it's almost impossible to understand." My mother said, "I'm not spiritual, but to go from everything in you alive, cells and all, to not...It's sort of beyond comprehension." And then, both my mother and father, on the phone with me, late in the evening of the day my grandmother died, worked to understand what they were going through:  "Someone dies and you drive down the road and you realize that the trees, the leaves, the dirt, the snow-- The car! Houses, other people. Dogs! They all have bits of people and everything that's ever lived in them. We're carbon and we always will be. Again and again and again. That's the thing that is mystifying. It's bigger than us."

I am struck by how I can hear natural, scientific relationships in how my family talks through death. In my experience as a teacher, a mother and just a person, I find that the more I learn about the complexity and inter-relatedness of the natural world, the more I am moved to a deeper appreciation of life and a greater sense of wonder. Wow! That sentence sounds so hokey, but I really mean it.  

Not too long ago, a hiking group of mine met up with another small hiking group. David, lead teacher in the Willow Room, was poking around in the prairie with his students, looking at deer scat. There was a scrape of snow on the ground and his kids and my kids toed around the poop, chatting about what deer eat and mulling over the ins and outs of consumption. Some of us turned around to scan for more deer sign and we discovered blood and feathers in the snow-- clues of another sort. "Look!" I said with glee (for every naturalist loves a good kill site), "Whaddya think happened here?"

Then many things transpired. Kids bent over, or jockeyed for viewing position. Some looked up and around, trying to find more feathers. Some tried to stick their mittens in the bloody snow. Others just stood right on top of the evidence inspiring irritation in their fellows. One hiker shrugged and returned to the deer scat, bent over and decided to sample one jelly bean-sized poo. Commanding the adventurous forager to spit out the scat distracted us for a moment, but interest in the feathers and blood continued. While each child had a different response to the carnage, every child knew blood for what it is. I suspect this is because they have intimate, first-hand knowledge of their own blood. And most of the children remained interested for some time. A child shows her interest through gesture, gaze and language. Here are some of the things we heard:  "It got dead."  "Something ate it."  "I'm hungry."  "Animals get dead."  "Feathers."  "A turkey!"  "The deer ate it!"  "The deer ate a turkey again." "No, a coyote."  "Grey feathers."  "Pigeons are grey underneath."  ""Other birds have sharp beaks."  "It attacked."  "A coyote killed it."  "It's dead."  "Where is it?"  "It takes it."  "Ate it."  "The bird is gone."  

Now the bird was gone. Just feathers and blood. Not a bit of bone. I'm pretty sure the kids were just clocking a physical fact. Sign of a bird, but no bird. But the equation of grey feathers and blood, the implication of violence in the snow, added up to death-- just like roadkill, or squished bugs. Something is one way and then it changes. Something is alive and then it is dead. Kids and people understand the nature of life through this kind of daily exposure to what we often think of as the darker partner to it, death. It's that old yin and yang, the black and white cookie of a conundrum...again and again and again.  

I was thinking about the kids and the feathers when I sat down to write something about my grandmother. I was wondering about the life the bird had before another bird ate it (no coyote tracks at that kill site). I imagined the bird's parents, the nest they built, the other fledglings in the nest. What had become of the parents, the siblings? How would those lives work out? When and how would they end? What were the daily yearnings, loves and hardships that would be the stuff of those lives (yes, I think birds love and yearn). It got me thinking about how much I didn't know about my own grandmother, how many questions I have about her, now that she's no longer around to answer them. And then, of all things, I thought of eels.

Eels. Really. Grandma was like an eel, I thought. No, she didn't look like an eel. But the mystery of her life, the elusiveness of her interior self, that was what got me on to eels.

American Eel

You see, science still doesn't know a lot about eels. But here is a brief rundown of what we do know about the American Eel, Anguilla Rostrata. Anguilla Rostrata is born in the Sargasso Sea, in the region of the Caribbean (now you know how the island of Anguilla got its name). All eels migrate to this region to mate. Nobody has really seen this happen. But they find teeny weenie baby eels (they start life as nearly microscopic clear, leaf-shaped things) are found there. The leaf babies float toward the coast of North America. As they float, they eat and metamorphose into more eelish things and by the time they get to mouths of great rivers, like the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence, they are glass eels. As they swim up these rivers they change more, getting a bit bigger and streamlining. In this phase, between not-quite-an-eel and fully-realized-eel, they are known as elvers. Now, as far as science understands it, male eels do not continue to the farther reaches of these rivers and they never gain the Great Lakes as the females do. The females grow stronger, turning green and bronzy to match the terrain of the upper rivers and the lake bottoms they travel. They swim the Great Lakes, even Superior, and find their way up the tributaries of these lakes. They turn golden in color and and mature in the smaller streams of these tributary rivers, even finding their way overland to the inland lakes. And one day, when they are perhaps twelve, or even twenty years old, they begin the long journey back to the sea. 
On the journey home, the female eel turns from gold to silver. When silver, she can camoflauge more readily in the ocean, increasing her chances of surviving and arriving at her ultimate destination. Her eyes enlarge and migrate to the sides of her head, the better to see through the depths, and locate her partner in the end. What a life! So singular, so determined, and so secretive and solitary. And what happens in the end, after she meets her mate and gives birth? We presume death. But we can only presume. 

My grandmother looked forward to a reunion with my grandfather, who preceded her in death. Before my grandmother's memorial, I said to my mom, with some trepidation, "So where is she?" My mom nodded to the table behind me. I turned and looked at the array of photos and memorabilia from my grandmother's life that my mom had arranged and displayed for the family. I looked back at my mom, confused.

"Ruthie's right there."

Perhaps a certain part of my brain was willfully ignoring the plain square bronze box that sat amid the letters and snapshots. Something of my grandmother was physically right there all along, standing amid all those tokens of memory and history. But of course she had changed. The box was small, but so heavy. The weight was solid and still, so different than the weight of a child in your arms, or a bird in your hand. I think I began to understand the nature of my grandmother's death in another way in that physical moment. My grandmother, Ruth, looked forward to a reunion with my grandfather, George, who preceded her in death. We cannot underestimate the power of nature to teach us about ourselves.