Mind in the Sand

Most adults I know have some form of coping mechanism. Reading, exercise, going on walks, drinking, smoking, meditating, outdoor adventuring—coping mechanisms, a way for us to process and deal with our current situation. Why do we assume that children are any different? They have to find a way to process information, transitions and emotions, hopefully it is not number 5 or 6 on the list above.

My oldest son is nearly 9 and since the time he was about 4 he started moving around the room sort with no apparent sense of purpose or rhythm, he would intertwine his hands above his head and make odd noises, sort of like noises or sounds from a video game. I don’t remember exactly how old he was when we finally asked him about what he was doing. He said, “I am playing in my mind.” Okay- the kid has an imagination. As he grew older we noticed that Playing in his Mind was clearly away for him to have alone time without actually being alone. He has special tactile pieces like rocks or legos that he uses and not any old thing will do, he is specific. Whatever is going on in that mind, obviously calms him down. It is his way of processing. We asked him to explain it to us…”what is going on when you are playing in your mind?” He tried to explain it, “there are different characters and different levels.” It seems very complicated to me. I try to imagine what is going on but from an onlooker, it appears as if he is walking through spider webs while making video game sounds and his feet are constantly moving–he is almost oblivious, often kicking things and always in motion.

We were at the beach one day last week. This move has been tough on this 9 year old, he is a boy that likes routine and he misses his friends. This move is BIG for our family but clearly it is taking him longer to embrace our adventure. My wife Alix was collecting treasures, I was playing fetch and the youngest was playing monster trucks in the sand- I glanced over and noticed that Sparks was playing in his mind on the beach and as we were leaving the beach I noticed his tracks in the sand. To me, the marks in the sand represented playing in his mind. If we had the time, it would have been awesome to sit and have him try to retrace or explain his steps, maybe next time but for now I simply said, “look Sparks you made map of your mind.”

Reflecting

When you think back on your childhood or growing up is there a phrase that you remember as if you just heard your mom or dad saying it yesterday? I grew up in suburban New Jersey. It was a great neighborhood and growing up there was a blast. Our block was full of families with kids all around the same age. Our parents had gatherings and we, the neighborhood kids would gather to shoot hoops, swim or play man hunt. I know for a fact, that the one phrase every kid on the block heard as they ran out the door was “come home when the streetlights come on.” Little did they know that occasionally we would shoot BB guns at the lights and blame the lack of light on coming home late but for the most part that was the rule, come home when the street lights come on. We would be allowed back out on the weekends but on weekdays, that was our curfew- street lights. There was one in front of nearly every house so the rule made sense.

This year, if I told my 2 boys to “come home when the street lights come on”, I may never see them again. I grew up with a streetlight in front of almost every house, and now my journey as a teacher has landed me to place void of tall imposing lights lining the road. Once it gets dark, the only shining beacon is a small solar light that illuminates my neighbors American flag and on clear nights, stars as far as the eye can see.

I would never have the moxie to say that I am a Mainer ( you can only be a true Mainer, if you were born in Maine). I have lived in Maine since graduating college. I have guided whitewater trips, hunted and enjoyed Maine’s woods but for some reason seeing this lone light made me think about my teaching path but more importantly it made me thankful for my journey.

By all means-go up the slide.

WHAT DO YOU SEE HERE? 

I have been thinking a lot about my teaching style and looking at the play structure we have in our yard for our two boys it suddenly made sense. A play structure and a slide can relate to my personal view on education. So what do you see in the photo above as it relates to school?

I see that there is one way up and one way down. The first time you make it up everyone is so proud of you. They cheer even louder when you get the guts to descend down the slide for the first time. Think of this in terms of learning. We are encouraged to go up the ladder and to learn along the way, yes, it will be hard but through determination you will make it to the top. And then you will get the reward of good grades. Now it is time to descend the slide. Do you remember what happens the first time a child goes down the slide? Gravity is a new concept the first time descent and you usually land smack on their ass. But you made it to the bottom and everyone is proud of you. 

Years pass and the slides get bigger, the stairs get steeper but the general approach remains the same. Take each step as it comes and soon you will reach the top. Don’t take too long though because soon a line will begin to form. Adults and children get impatient when a line begins to form so hurry up the stairs. You do your best, you try, you slip, you hang on the handrail and make it to the top but unlike your first few times, you have made it to the top with very little fanfare. To you the stairs are huge and the risk of getting hurt if you fall weighs on your mind but still you persist and there is no one celebrating your accomplishments, only another slide with even steeper stairs and when you get old enough the handrail is gone. 

The cycle of climbing the stairs is boring and it seems that no one is paying attention anyway so what else is there to do?  You look to make sure no one is looking and you seek out a new route to the top, something more exciting and then when you think there are no eyes watching, you make a break for it and try to go up the slide. You are halfway to the top only to hear “hey, don’t go up the slide, that is what the stairs are for.”  The excitement of a new, more exciting route at the top was dashed in an instant. There is no going back to the drawing board, just waiting your turn and going up the stairs because that is what you are supposed to do. 

This is the slide at our house and metaphorically it is how I view education and learning. 

There is more than one way to the top- and you will make it to the top only when you are ready and feel confident enough to head up a slide or maybe you will discover the ladder and find your own way to the top. And when you get to the top notice,

 the roof is gone.

Take time to enjoy the scenery and relish in your accomplishments. As the years pass the slides will get steeper but you have accomplished the hardest part- the first ascent. When the slides get too steep you will have the critical thinking skills to realize that hidden under the yellow slide is a set of stairs. Support is here when you need it  – but first, try and if you fail it doesn’t matter- you learned early on not to be rushed or pushed.

 You discovered how to get up the 

slide on your own time. 

baseball, my ass

I grew up in suburban New Jersey. Little League was a big deal. It was what you did as a boy. At the start of the season there was a parade through town that ended at the diamond followed by “Play Ball.” I remember it vividly. I had a maroon shirt with white letters, “E.E Construction” was my team. I was not very good at the game. I was often placed in the outfield since it was rare for anyone in my age bracket to actually  hit a ball to the outfield. There are photos of me somewhere in my moms house of me trying to catch butterflies while sitting in the outfield.  

But on this day that all changed. It is your quintessential baseball tale but it is not a tale. It is all true and I would remember this day for the rest of my life. Let me set the stage, que the dramatic music and imagine James Earl Jones as my narrator. 

It was the championship game- the whole neighborhood was there. The final game and my team was in the championship. It was a close game. It was the bottom of the ninth and I was the winning run waiting anxiously on second base. As I mentioned I was not the most attentive of ball players.  It happened, I heard yelling “run..run..run!”  I RAN, Forrest would have been proud but I was ahead of Mr.Gumps time. I saw my bench as I got to third, waving me to run more. I RAN.  Home plate was in my view. I did it. I was the winning run. The butterfly chaser was the winning run in the championship game.  There was a celebration UNTIL the catcher from the opposing team sauntered over and touched me the ball. “YOU’RE OUT!” exclaimed the umpire. Silence followed. “YOU’RE OUT!”  In my excitement I jumped over home plate without ever touching home plate. I don’t remember what happened after that..lots of discussing among coaches and umpires.  There was an appeal filed. In the end, we would play the last three innings over again at a later date. I would love to tell you that in our replay game that I again was the hero but that is not the case and this is why I hate baseball. We lost the championship game. There would be no hero run to home plate  from the day dreaming outfielder. 

We came in second place for the season and we were all given our trophies (because we came in second, not just for playing).  And this is the part that sticks with me. My name was called, I walked up to take my trophy and we were each given a ball from the coach with words of inspiration or so I thought. This is what my ball said. “Todd, it was a great season and remember when running the bases don’t forget to step on them.” The photo of the actual ball is real although my damn dog ate part of it. So America’s Pastime- I hate you, F—- baseball. 

I am 46 now and this ball has traveled with me through all of my school years, a handful of jobs, a large number of homes and it has landed in my junk drawer. Thanks Coach.

What If’s.

Occasionally, I feel like I have been hoodwinked. I knew becoming a parent would have both of its challenges and rewards but no one prepared me for this! Who can I be mad at for not preparing me for this? Curse you Doctor Spock- you left out this chapter. Yes, as a parent I have all of the usual worries, concerns, doubt and fears. Am I doing a good enough job? Was I too strict? Was I not strict enough? Did I hug them enough today? Did I smother them? What is that bump on his head? Will it be okay? These questions and a myriad more invade a parents mind at random times throughout the day. But it’s okay, these thoughts are typically balanced with the fact that being a parent is wonderful and that I wouldn’t want it any other way. The pride and proudness usually outweigh the What Ifs. Usually I said. This is 2020, the only thing usual is that everything is unusual. As I glance at my peacefully sleeping children I am caught off guard by the What Ifs- the balance is off, the scales are tipped and I am unprepared. As I watch them drift into a sleep I am unprepared for  imagining children being raised in a pandemic. I was not prepared for picturing my children wearing face masks throughout the day. I was not prepared that hugging a friend would be a cause to pause, I was not prepared for having Worry be a constant state of mind for me or them. There are so many What ifs that tug at my heart strings that it is a challenge to not let the What ifs win. But as I have said before PARENTS ARE SUPERHEROES. That is not what we do, for our children- we can’t let the What Ifs win. There is no magic. We educate without alarm, we hug more often and do what we can to give our children a sense of normalcy in a world that has flung normalcy out the window. We keep them as safe as we can while still letting them act like children. 

Work Play

Years ago I started this blog post as a simple way to record my history, an online journal chronicling my teaching career- all parts of it, even memories from my earliest days working with children. I kept up for a while but I eventually lost steam and the weekly blog post took a back seat. In the last two months I have run into folks I haven’t  seen in years, one of their questions was how come I stopped writing my blog? 

Now I will try again. I often write letters home and emails to parents. They are thoughtful and I  think about what I am writing. That became part of my issue with the weekly blog. I began to weigh the content, this time around I am going to try to write for myself and share it without worrying about the audience.

Many, many things about me and my life have changed since I started my teaching journey and it has been a journey. I didn’t simply find a position, apply and get hired. I surely took the path less traveled. I have experienced success followed by utter failure and a momentous collapse which lead to taking a break from teaching all together. Eventually I found my way back to working with children, it is in my bones, I am good at it, it comes naturally to me and most of the time, it doesn’t feel like “work”.   

I have been thinking about the word Work and the word Play. Are they opposites?  As I usually do I have been thinking about these words and how they relate to children. Lately I have been spending A LOT of time with our two boys and I find myself getting frustrated with them while we are outside. It baffles me sometimes. We are a lucky family, we have a yard, trees to climb, places to ride bikes,  it is safe and yet I often have to urge the boys to “just play outside!” Sometimes I feel like it is Work getting them to Play outside and then I realized. Children need to be taught how to play. Let that sink in. Do you agree? Children need to practice playing outside. Maybe too much freedom has its own challenges? Since we currently have a lot of family time, maybe more than we want but.. If you can, try adding a little structure into Outside Time. Join in, wrestle, play chase, be silly, it is good for the soul and will help you and your children. 

Chess=Math

It has always been my belief and practice that teachers should find ways to introduce material without the children realizing that they are learning. The basic approach is simple, spend time working in groups and figure out each child’s interest. If they like reading books about the ocean chances are if you use books about the ocean to support reading development there will be success. Today’s model for education is to disregard the needs and wants of children and attempt to teach them by sheer repetition and testing.

Over the years I have noticed that many children are interested in the game Chess. Not all play by the rules. For some children the King, Queen, Rook, Knight and Bishop are all just characters in a well created story and the chess board is the kingdom. A perfect time to introduce and focus on creative writing. Other children pick up the complex game of Chess quickly.

….and here is today’s story. There was a very shy boy in my class, not only shy he was clearly socially awkward. His mom told me that he really loves playing Chess and asked if she could bring in a Chess set so that he can play during the day. I sat down to play a match. My goal was not to beat this six year old, the goal was simply to get to know him better. He beat me in about four moves. We played again and he beat me quickly. I am no Master but I can usually hold my own while playing chess. So we played once more and I tried this time and I lost. I did notice that his classmates started to realize that the teacher was losing to a six year old. He started teaching other children how to play and before we knew it the room had five Chess sets and a handful of children learned how to play. Chess requires the children to use a wide range of math skills not to mention the ability to think ahead and remain organized. I was playing with my six year old challenger again and this time, in the middle of the game I knocked the board off the table. I wanted to see how he would react. I was expecting a meltdown of epic proportions. I said that we could just start over. He said “we don’t have start over, just help me pick up the pieces”. I watched in awe as he put every piece back on the board in the same spot they were before I knocked over the board. He memorized the layout of the board. He couldn’t recognize the alphabet or spell his name but clearly he had a fantastic ability to learn. I used chess as the jumping off point for most of his formal learning.

The progressive philosophy is not rocket science, in fact, it is education in its purest form. The focus is in on helping children learn to love the process of learning and not demanding that they learn what we have to teach them.

I played countless chess matches with him in the course of a year and I only won a handful of matches. He once walked in on Monday morning with a trophy. He came in second place at the local high school chess tournament.

Papa and Teacher- flashback

7 DAYS AGO..
One week ago today I watched and held my wife as she pushed with all of her might to bring our son into our home. One week ago today I heard my son’s first cry. One week ago today I held my son for the first time. One week ago today I fell in love for the second time in five years. One week ago today I realized what it means to feel a sense of connection that can only be felt between parent and child. One week ago today I became a better man and that will make me a better teacher. One week ago today an eight pound being changed my life.

I have seen how hard it can be for parents to leave their children on the first day of school, especially if there are tears. I have hugged crying children assuring them that their parents will be back at the end of the day. They cry huge tears simply because they don’t want to leave their parents. Soon, everyone always calms down but for that moment in their life, all they want is to be with their mom or dad. I always feel for the parents that leave their children with me as they go to work and some leave with tears. Both parent and child know that everything will be alright but I don’t think that makes saying goodbye easier, even if its just for a school day. And now I understand.

I have always been honored and thankful that parents trust me with their children. Above all else I have always tried to make sure that children feel safe, nurtured and comfortable while in my classroom. While interacting with children I always try to imagine that their mom or dad is behind me, listening to what I am saying making sure I am genuine, honest ,fair, and heartfelt. If someone falls down, gets a splinter or loses a tooth it is important to take the time to comfort and sooth them. Thunderstorms are never easy in kindergarten. Children need to know that they are safe, loved and free from judgement before they can truly begin to learn.

So here is my Thank You to all of the parents that have had faith and trust in me to take care of their children. Thank You for trusting me to be a good man as well as a good educator. And now I join you in that trust, this past weekend I became a dad. I now understand why saying goodbye in the morning is hard. I now understand the bond that only parent and child share. The other day I left my wife and son at home for the first time and all I could think about was how I wish were back home with them. I want nothing more than for him to be safe and joyful and I imagine that is how all parents feel when they trust another person with their children. For years I was and am the person that parents trust and I never take that lightly. Now, I have a new understanding, I see my profession with new eyes and I have no doubt that becoming a dad will make me a better educator and a better man.

Parents have all the answers??

As a parent I take pride in being able to answer most of the questions my sons have for me. If I can’t answer the question with my 43 years on earth I can at least let them know that we can look up the answer. Until a few nights ago. I was sitting with my back to my son and with a clear and direct voice I heard this question, “Papa, what are you scared of?”  I thought about answering quickly and then I decided to tell him that I would need a day or two to think about this one.

Through the eyes of a child a parent is larger than life, a shoulder to cry and lean on. Parents are the strong ones. I decided not tell him that as a parent I spend a great deal of time being “scared”. I decided not to tell him that I was scared 3 seconds after you were born that your head would stay cone shaped forever.  I was scared while I was at work that something may happen to you or your mom while I was away. I was scared when I was home and holding you and trying to stop your chollicly tears. I was scared when you were asleep. I was scared of so much crying and scared of silence. I was scared that I was not going to be a good dad and more scared that I was not going to be a good husband and partner to your mom.

And that time passed- you grew, your tears from a constant tummy ache stopped, you began to use words, sign language, your started growing but that did not stop me from being scared–just as you are changing ever day. I am scared of different things now. I am scared with each decision I make- am I too strict, am I too much of a pushover. Am I giving you the tools you will need to be a Good Man as you grow. Am I pushing you too much- am I not pushing enough? Am I still a good partner and husband to your Mom- who deserves the very best I have to give. There are some nights when everyone else is asleep that my chest hurts with questions. Am I giving you a good life- have I left a enough money in the account to buy you not just the things you need but ocassionally the things you just want because that what kids do. Have I upset you and not realized it- have you gone to bed happy with your day. Did I lock the backdoors before bed, did I leave the stove on (your mom is much better about that), are there batteries in the smoke detector and I hope we all wake up happy together.   Alone, at night is when I am scared, sometimes tears run down my face and I can’t even tell anyone why- not because I have no one to tell but because I have no idea why- I can not explain it.  I am scared that there are times when I can not keep you safe. There are times when your feelings will get hurt, times when your heart will get hurt and I will have to let you learn and grow ON YOUR OWN when this happens. I am not scared about the cuts, scrapes and broken bones you may get as you become more adventurous but I am scared that I will not be strong enough to hold you up when your heart gets hurt. Remember I almost cried when you got your first shots and your cried. Your mom can tell you. Just last week you cried during your first soccer practice, your mom and me knew you were crying but had to let you decide how to handle it.  That was hard.

“What am I scared of, you ask?”  EVERYTHING about being a parent is a mix of scared and joy, success and doubt, easy and yet the hardest thing I have ever done.

“What I am scared of Papa?” asks my 5 year old. After two days I think I have an answer fit for a Papa answering a 5 year old son. I am scared of trying New things–this does not mean I won’t try new things but I am always a little nervous about trying. The first time I was Guiding my first White Water Trip I was scared, it was new but I tried it and now our family enjoys our White Water trips.  Imagine if I never tried?