Wigs and Worms

This is a speech that Wendy gave to parents at the Maple Street School General Meeting on April 2, 2014.

So before I begin, I want you to know that writing this speech feels a little like that show Chopped. Have you seen it? Well, you get three ingredients and you have to make something amazing. You’ll see I kind of tried to do that.

The title and topic of my speech tonight is “Wigs and Worms”. The title came from our pre-schooler, Osa, who I asked, “What should I speak about at my big meeting?”

She replied very confidently, “Wigs and Worms”, and pointed to her long flowy pink wig and the black, beautiful squiggly worm compost bin on the table.

I went with Osa’s topic for 5 reasons:

  1. I have never spoken about wigs and worms before.
  2. I love wigs and worms (equally and in different ways).
  3. Noticing and appreciating the present moment, the “wig and worm moment”, is essential to early childhood.
  4. I believe that wigs and worms are central to the philosophy of Maple Street and important to the field of early childhood education.
  5. I would even stretch to state that wigs and worms could help transform common core and high stakes testing back to critical thinking and experienced based curriculum with the trust, research, engagement, and passion of teachers, families, learners, and policy makers.

Before I begin, I would like to offer you some hands on experiential learning during this speech. So, if you would like to try on a wig or touch a worm, please raise your hand. (Many people raised their hands, and the wigs and worms were passed and share throughout the rest of the speech).

Also in the spirit of the Cooperative, I would love a volunteer photographer so we can pair our adult wig and worm experience with our children’s’ experiences of wigs and worms

So because I have never spoken about wigs and worms before, I embarked on my typical research process, which usually involves finding a quote or two and then interviewing children.

The quotes were a failure…
The wig quotes were really bad about monsters and closets, and the worm quote was that early bird quote over and over. Because we are admittedly not a school of early birds, in fact we could be called the late bird school, I decided to head right for the classroom conversation.

I did learn one thing in my Google search; there is a lot of rhyming with wig in early childhood: dig, big, fig, and pigs in wigs are a real highlight.

So I headed to the classrooms. It was nap time so mostly I spoke with the older pre-k gang who we refer to as the “schmoozers”.

We talked about wigs and worms, and what I loved the most was that no child thought the two topics together at once was weird at all (though the teachers did, and tried to combine them. Kristin mentioned a wig full of worms for a medusa like image).

So I began my wig and worm field research.

I asked Asa first, and for some reason whenever I ask the first child they shut me down and I have to re-think the whole process. I have to be honest and authentic and tell you all the truth. I asked Asa what he thought about wigs and worms. He stated, “I don’t like wigs because they are too fancy, and worms are yucky; they are dirty.”

Thankfully, Lilly offered a counterpoint immediately. She replied, “Well, I have 2 wigs at my house and I put them on, and they are red and white and I feel good…and I like worms. I like to garden with my mom and dig for worms and play with them.”

And then the love for wigs and worms began, and then when Sorley spoke I got that deep present moment feeling that early childhood is all about; intention and present moment.

Preschool is all about exploring, learning something new what you love, and being in the present moment. Thich Naht Hanh, a Buddhist monk, and one of the authors of a book we have been learning from at Maple Street, Planting Seeds Practicing Mindfulness with Children says,

“The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence, when mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”

Sometimes I feel that “blooming” in a conversation with a child, and sometimes an adult, when you listen to a story, or a thought, or an experience, and home connects to school and I connect to you.

Sorley thought for moment and said, “I like wearing wigs, my mom wears wigs like the ones with long hair, they are beige and shiny…and worms, I stepped on lots of them and I study them.”

I thought in that moment, “I love wigs too, because they are fun and funny, build community, make us laugh, and transform us into our playful selves; and worms too, they do the same thing. They are fun and funny, build community make us laugh, and connect us a little more to the earth.” Both feel so sensory and so playful and so preschool.

And, sometimes when you are in your own head and in that present moment and feeling like you have the perfect topic, someone throws you off your game. And that is preschool too at its best thinking, divergent thinking, and knowing who we are and what we like.

And so Daniel added confidently, “I never wore a wig, but I have a Wei.” And Zeca, who started last week, added, “I like horses, can you write that down.”

So I wrote that down and continued on my wig worm journey and asked Henry his thoughts on wigs and worms.

In terms of wigs Henry said, “No, I don’t like them. They are too funny and all hairy.” I asked him if he knew anyone who wore a wig and he said, “Yeah, you do.” Then he added, “I do know a lot about worms. They like dirt.”

So back to our list. We have covered speaking about wigs and worms, loving wigs and worms, and being present/mindful around wigs and worms. So our next question is.

Why are wigs and worms central to our philosophy of early childhood?

First of all they are connectors. Wigs connect us to play; the people who wear them. They lead to collaboration, participation, even passion. They let us pretend and dream.

Lilah explained, “Wigs are funny, I don’t wear one. Osa wears one a pink one to Brooklyn Kids Rock, and sometimes my mom wears a wig; a purple wig to go to Nani’s house. She’s the one with the orange hair and the bubble gum pieces, and sometimes she blows her hair with her wig on, and sometimes my dad wears a pink wig, and I love them.” Mae chimed in, “I don’t even have a wig, I want a mohawk wig.”

Worms connect us to wondering, to the earth, to critical thinking, to nature, to our own being.

Raz announced, “ I like worms. They are like millipedes but different. Millipedes have so many legs. I saw them at the garden and they were very shy.”

Jasper added, “I like worms because they are squishy, but you can’t squish them or throw them on the ground.”

Second they are sensorial touchable, feeling, hands-on.

Lucy sighed, “I don’t like worms because they are slimy.”

Kepler explained, “They are gross and you can’t eat them.” He then added that his parents have hats and not wigs.

And third, wigs and worms are transformational. Wigs transform us into who we might want to be even for the moment, and wigs are a metaphor for dress-up and pretend. Wigs are a symbol of play, which is essential, and our school’s core. Worms literally transform the earth; food scraps into nutritional soil, and by their doing so we understand that by participating in the world we can change it and have impact.

So our philosophy at Maple Street is “wigs and worms”: we connect, we have ideas, we touch and feel the world, we play, we pretend, we transform, we have impact, we have vision.This is our philosophy, and really brings us back to child and human development.

(I have some handouts for you, one on worms, one on wigs, and one on transformational education. You can read them, color them, dress up with them, compost them etc.)

Finally, I said in the beginning of my speech that wigs and worms could help transform common core and high stakes testing back to critical thinking and experienced based curriculum with the trust, research, engagement, and passion of teachers, families, learners, and policy makers. I know this is a bit of a stretch, but I thought I would throw it in there.

While I am not opposed to every test, and believe in solid formal and informal assessment, Diane Ravitch has explained that the reason we have so much testing is because our policymakers don’t trust teachers. If we trusted teachers, we would let them teach and let them do what is right for their students.

For the child development geeks out there like me, trust vs. mistrust is stage one in Erikson’s psychosocial development. It’s from infancy, it’s the very beginning of being safe and able to learn in this world. So, when worms and wigs are played with and studied there is trust there.

That is also true of fish, and jungles, and firefighters, and families, and feelings, and art. When these are explored, studied, and played with there is trust there.

At Maple Street we trust our teachers, families, and our students to learn and play, to have passion and vision, to research, to assess, to use the tools of accreditation, assessment, play, and learning that are valuable and effective.

Finally, we know that real learning and being happens from our authentic selves whether we are worms, or fish, or parents, or teachers, or wig wearing composting pre-schoolers.

So when Osa says, “I have a pink wig and a pink crown and a worm box”, amazing curricula can happen as there is a worm bin in the school, a park across the street, and perhaps Brooklyn might be the wig capital of the world.

And when Jasper says, “worms like dirt,” and Mae says, “Yeah, well they live in dirt.” And Jasper says, “I know that.” They are right, and true and learning…and we too are lucky enough to know what we like, and where and how we play, and learn, and live in the very same way.

Making a Kidstarter

Brooklyn Beta

This is a speech I gave at Brooklyn Beta 2013, an annual gathering of some of the folks who are changing the world by solving big problems on the web.

Welcome! I am the director of the Maple Street preschool. I am also a good witch, according to my daughter.

I have never spoken to a group of techies, and to start, I thought about the similarities of our lives…and imparting some magic.

Perhaps you are familiar with Kickstarter, the largest platform that raises funds to put forth ideas, creative projects, and hopefully joy, beauty, goodness, kindness, and happy people.

In my field being a preschool Director, I often begin with a “Kidstarter”. A Kidstarter: raising ideas that children think of and express putting forth coziness, care, love, awkwardness, and play.

For this Kidstarter here today, I wanted to tell you about a couple of classrooms full of deeply creative and surprising ideas that would help to show you how we at Maple Street think, feel, and create. “We” being the people who love the ideas of young children.

You know, or know of, a few of them I would predict. My assistants today are two of them. Maggie is my children’s ideas and community joy coordinator, and Marisa even has a blog called “Shit Preschoolers Say.” Here are some of her favorite lines (Marisa and Maggie read) link to Marisa’s Tumblr blog:

We the kid-idea-o-philes can be teachers, parents, directors, caregivers, therapists, fairies, or really anyone, like perhaps Bill Cosby as depicted in the show Kids Say the Darnedest Things from the late nineties.

We all know how to “Kidstart”. The way you run a Kidstarter is that you walk into a place with kids. I am not suggesting you go to Prospect Park and start interviewing kids randomly. Usually they find you in a classroom or at a friend’s party or in a restaurant. They have a special loud silverware-banging rolly-pollying running-around way of making themselves known.

So for my Kidstarter I began by asking our children what I should speak about at a really big, really fun meeting. (This is a really big fun meeting). I didn’t set up gift levels or anything like that because in a Kidstarter the gifts are already there. A Kidstarter is completed and the goal is reached when the grown-ups pay attention to the gifts of children, when they receive them.

Let me give you some examples. Remember the way to do a Kidstarter; we just walk into a classroom and state that we are interested in their ideas. So I did. There was a group of 5 or so children finishing up their snacks. I said, “good morning” and then asked them the Kidstarter question, “What should I talk about at a really big fun meeting?”

Lily smiled and said: “Talk about eggs” Her friend Nadia replied firmly, “No. No. No.” Lily then tried again with an effortful thinking face. “Talk about swirls and tornadoes,” she said. Then I asked Nadia, “You think I should talk about myself?” She nodded, nodded, nodded and confirmed, “Yes!”

Wendy Cole

Wendy Cole

So here I go, a little about myself. I am a preschool director. I came to preschool from being a social worker in the field of child abuse, and when I first started my job as a preschool director, people would say, “you have such a hard job.” And I would reply that it was good, happy and yes, hard.

Preschool can get tough and messy with poop, snot, biting, 50 children dancing around playing and singing and laughing and gurgling and turning and falling and sprawling and getting Band-Aids and hugs.

There are a million billion trillion emails, humongous-ly mad-faced parents, and confusing monstrosities of bureaucracies.

There are brilliant, stretched or stressed teachers who don’t get paid enough, a kindergarten admissions ogre and a ridiculous marathon to an exact idea of what success should look like, which is often stress and grades, and testing lots of it!

Preschool is tough and messy the way life is, so now you know a little about me. I am tough and messy. I want to continue with my Kidstarter, and in a Kidstarter if you want really strong ideas you go to the block area. Blocks get kids started. So I went to the block area and I asked the same question, “What should I speak about at a really fun meeting?”

Yasmeen said, “Talk about a monster.” I asked, “What kind?” “A monster baby” Then Ada said, “Talk about a princess. A beautiful princess who speaks Iceland.” And I said, “Like you?” And she said, “Yes.”

And the Icelandic Loch Ness monster curricula arose; Kidstarted.

So when I first began as a Kidstarter, I thought about individual children and the classroom and then over time I began to think more of the whole community, all the children, all the adults, everyone parents, siblings, grandparents, childcare providers, custodians, all of our friends and people in our neighborhood.

That’s when I began to notice two really special parts of organizations that grow children: rituals and surprises.

I have been working at Maple Street for thirteen years; long enough to have a Bat Mitzvah! And I began studying rituals and surprises about a year ago; writing about them, practicing them, loving them…and today is the first time I am talking about them, so it feels really special like my own ritual and surprise Bat Mitzvah.

Brooklyn Beta

Rituals and surprises; how they work together

I noticed that at my son’s older and more traditional school there were more rituals, like chapel, and field days, and annual dance concerts. And at my daughter’s newer beacon of creativity school, there were many surprises and some rituals too, though it felt new. There is stand-up comedy on Mondays, and formal Fridays, often with a guest chef and live music.

I noticed when the two interacted there was this magic joyous community feeling. Rituals connect everyone; make you feel safe and part of a community. Surprises keep us fresh! They make the rituals relevant and fun, and at their best, promote a culture of kindness, anti-oppression, and happy people.

So back to my Kidstarter. I went over to the water table; a table full of water, sometimes with props like shells, and this time it was dinosaurs. The children were playing and studying how water moves and changes.

I Asked Noah, “What should I talk about at my big fun meeting?” “Airplanes!” shouted Noah. “Dinosaur airplanes,” added Asa. “Transformer airplanes,” stated Henry. He added, “They transform into a motorcycles”. “It transforms into a robot!” exclaimed Asa.

Children, as you can hear, collaborate and innovate easily, and when we reflect on that, we too can transform things.

So Maggie, one of my lovely assistants, today often called an “administrative assistant”, came into my office one day and said she might want to teach. She wasn’t satisfied in her job so much. I was a little surprised, but I understood. I also thought her job was perfect for her. She did a little stand up when parents and caregivers came in, emailed with 3 year olds when they were feeling sad or mad, and made everyone feel part of the community. I explained this to her, that her job was right and that she could do it more fully and insert more creativity and laughter in it, and that we could do anything.

Maggie began emailing me instantly with band ideas for the lobby. Her coworker Zoe started making “free stores” with our lost and found items. We began a cafe called “Le Maple”, a pop up coffee shop. We served coffee and baked goods got a Yelp! review from parents and even have Le Maple aprons. We also created soda fountain with cool hats, and served flavored seltzer this summer.

We have had surprise trombone parades, a free original art sale, a diaper-wearing preschool comedian, board meetings with 4 year olds, spirit animal parties, traveling willaby wallaby madrigal singers, a superhero belt study disco party, and a two year old spa day.

We have a lot of artists, musicians, and theater people on our staff, and in our grown up body that are essential in inventing and producing our rituals and surprises.

It is fun, and it’s more than fun when grownups play, kids play more. When grownups learn, kids learn more…and the best surprises turn into rituals when grownups ask when the next Cafe Le Maple is happening. Rituals and surprises transform things, just like Henry said I should talk about transformers. Transformers…so let’s transform things together.

A few more things about me, while I am a fan of learning to be on task, I am a bigger fan of divergent thinking. Why? Because it is super fun having that crazy idea pop in your head, sharing it and doing it. For you all, that might mean Excel poetry, Google Calendars with made up holidays, Haikus about iOS 7. And children don’t filter those ideas usually though, when I asked Simon what I should speak about he said, “President Obama.” And then added, “I am just guessing.”

Kepler, Jeremy’s son in the audience, told me, “Speak about some people getting married,” and his friend, Zazie, interrupted him and exclaimed loudly, “No one. I am getting married to no one, and no one is gonna be there not my mom and dad.”

So now it’s time to try a Kidstarter which is hard to do with no children here, but imagine for a second you walk into a room and a child says, “Bunnies. You can’t hit bunnies, and your head is made of bunnies.” So I said, “What is my head made of?” And she said very confidently, “Your head is made of spinach.”

And then the group of children proceeded to let us know that Marisa’s head is made of mouths. Simon’s head is made of marshmallows. Kepler’s head is made of chocolate, and Willie’s head is made of strawberry rainbow ice cream.

So here we go. And I recommend you make this a ritual every day, or study it, or surprise someone at a party and ask, “What is your head made of?”

So now for a quick practice in Kidstarter rituals and surprises, turn to the people sitting next to you and tell them what your head is made of, and why.

How did that go? Any examples?

Amazing heads we have here, I love your brain.

So, before I finish, when Chris and Cameron asked me to speak, they asked me if I had any problems that needed solving in the world. The first thing that came to mind was to ask you all to please take that beautiful, silver, flat, Mac Apple, and turn into a juicy delicious tasty one; your favorite kind, Golden Delicious, Mutsu, Granny Smith, where children and their grownups can taste the sweetness point out the bruises and experience the grit.

Write an app about your passions, but play with it so deeply that there is a Kidstarter there, whether it is your kid, a kid you know, or yourself as a kid years ago. What is mostly out there now was not started by kids, it is not creative, it is consumptive.

I am happy to talk to all of you. You can help me turn a community supported agriculture curricula into an app, or I can find you people who tell trickster stories, create songs about cows and sea stars and cumulus clouds every day, and study artists so deeply that when you go into a class, everyone has decided they want to look like Frida Kahlo and has special painted eyebrows.

I want to end by thanking you all for being Kidstarters, and for being you and whatever your head is made of. I want to thank you for joining me in rituals and surprises! I want to thank Chris and Cameron and Juliette and Jeremy for having me speak. I want to thank Maggie and Marisa and Zoe, who is not here, for helping me; all for all Maple Street kids and all their grownups, every single one.

Finally, when you leave a big happy meeting, which could also be called a party if you are a kid, you expect a goody bag.

So Kidstarters, here is a goodie bag of surprises. It is magic, or so the preschoolers say, and it may be powerful. Enjoy it, throw it, create something with it, Instagram it, or take a bath in it, or do whatever you do for creating joy!

And let me know what happens…I can’t wait to see your surprises!

Thank you. Much love.

Follow @surprisewendy on Twitter

Preschool vs. College

Every day…or most days…I hear that preschool costs as much as college. In fact, at our last Board meeting Josh, a board member, was joking and said, “this costs as much as college.” Without taking a breath, I remarked in a snarky tone that it should cost as much as college, getting everyone’s immediate attention. I then added with a smirk, we don’t get our diapers changed in college. Here are some more special gifts we receive in our preschool that we usually don’t get in college:

  • Nelcia, Helen and Kimberly teach just 4 children at a time. They play on their lollipop shaped drum, dance together, eat yummy cafe food, teach children to name the colors and find the beauty in each one.
  • In preschool, we learn about friendship and feelings, we get our back rubbed and we learn about everything we wonder about from shuttle trains, to tired princesses, to new babies, to powerful mommies and mamas, to kind daddies, to weather, all kinds of weather. We learn all this while getting pushed in a stroller. You don’t get that in college.
  • In preschool, your teacher Peggy makes a song for every bird you see and know and love. Your teacher Sandra builds a papier-mâché sculpture with just you, and your teacher Mahesha does yoga poses with you while making a collage.
  • In preschool, your master teacher Jenn knows exactly how you feel, and what to say to make you feel good and settled and loved for the rest of the day, and then somehow gets you really excited about a hip hop poem… all in under 1 minute. This might not happen at college.
  • In preschool, your teacher Dory smiles at you and feeds you a new shape of pasta, and explains it, and names it, and you chew it remembering to tell your mama about the orzo you tried.
  • In college, your professor will not take care of your mother, or your
    mama, or your father, or your nanny and kiss her and tell her she is
    the very best the way Ann Marie does.
  • In preschool, you get to hatch silk worms and get cozy with Polly;
    you get to laugh with Marisa really hard, and you even get reminded
    to pee. Not in college. I don’t think so.
  • In preschool, you get a teacher like Maxine who smells like dreams
    and sings like the sand woman herself.
  • In preschool, you get a Dolly Parton cover band, Julia’s after school
    glitter, Nikki’s theater, Melissa’s stories. You even get
    receptionists Maggie and Zoe, who love your children, and you, and
    who laugh with you every day, whether it is a funny joke or a really
    hard schlep complete with rain, crying and losing really special
    things. You also get surprises like pop up cafes and 2 year old
    office helpers sending you emails.
  • At preschool, you get to talk to Kristen about her love of electronic
    music, philosophy, and feminism, and to Barbara about Joan Baez and
    Martin Luther King, and to Charlie about finance and cicadas. Maybe you got all this from college, but I didn’t.
  • In preschool, you get to learn from your Board and laugh with them.
    You get held to your vision and pushed to articulate and grow, and
    you get to sometimes tell your Board it’s OK to miss one meeting to
    see ZZ Top. I wish I could go to a college like this!

I went to hear Ken Robinson the other night. He is an education guru-knight and he said our lives are not linear, most of us do not do what we studied in college, and he discussed a study of majors of Silicon Valley. The majors, philosophy, psychology, etc., of course did not relate to the creations and innovations that people had made. My guess though, is that preschool does relate more to our lives than college majors.

It’s when we discover how good it feels to swing high, or name the planets, or make a beautiful doll that looks like us, or solve a problem with a friend. Preschool matters because we create who we want to be, not just what we want to study. Then we nurture it, grow it, sing it, dance it, and celebrate it.

I want to celebrate the teachers, the Board, the cooperative and all of our friends that support us by acknowledging that you matter. You matter to me as much as college. You matter to me as much as preschool.

We also want to treat our preschool teachers as well as our college professors and raise funds to send them to Puerto Rico, and Sweden, and Kenya, and Zimbabwe and NYC to research and learn about early childhood through the world forum foundation and other learning and growing opportunities.

We also want to raise funds to provide financial aid to more children from diverse racial, economic and family backgrounds who need a high quality, creative, joyful preschool like Maple Street.

We want to raise funds so we can support your children’s curiosity and learning, our Expansion, our diversity and our connection to the community. We want to raise funds, and I want to thank you for agreeing with me that yes, college costs a lot and so does preschool, and they matter because our hearts go into them as does our labor, all so that all of our children can flourish. So perhaps the next time we say or hear preschool costs as much as college, we remember our tushies are clean, our faces are wiped, we have sang silly songs, learned about birds, and subway trains, and New York families from all over the world. We have used our words, expressed our feelings and shared.

We have napped and played, and most of all we have felt love the whole time.

The Spillers: An Open Love Letter to Maple Street and her Teachers


About a month ago I stepped into the classroom; a powerful three year old was very upset. I asked another child, “what happened?”

The mad, sad child was screaming and crying in a very stressed way that made it so I couldn’t get my work done.

This is rare because as you know, most of my work is is done amidst tears, hugs, laughter, boogers, potty talk, play dough, outer space, dress up, and dance parties.

The boy answered, “he spilled.” I said, “Oh, that’s ok we all spill sometimes, right?” He said, “No, I never ever, ever spill.”

I watched as the teachers helped him sponge up his juice, and dry up his tears. He pulled himself together making us all feel a little better. His breathing did that sighing, crying, sighing, crying, sigh, sigh, sigh thing, and then he went back to chewing fruit snacks and outer space super hero conversation.

Surprisingly, I got a little nervous then. I am a spiller. I spill milk, juice, water, wine…

I have always been a little awkward and klutzy, and when I am the one to walk into yellow paint in a blue dress at Maple Street, I usually feel it is ok, that I don’t have much dry cleaning, that it is humorous, conversational, even color mixing curriculum.

I am a spiller.

When I open my seltzer, no matter how gentle I am, it explodes, and I surrender to watching the geysers and cleaning up the spills.

I continued on the with the spilling conversations, trying to make myself feel better. I asked a little girl, “Do you spill?” She shook her head stated clearly in a teacher voice, “No way, no way.” She then added, but “My brother is.”

I then thought of my morning at home and how I knocked over the coffee beans somehow when I pulled out the restaurant sized bag, and they scattered everywhere. It smelled wonderful. I said a bad word and swept them up.

I am a spiller. There is no denial, though I try to look forward, be aware, and pay attention to gravity. My spilling has gotten worse this year as I have had some inner ear issues. At this point I was nervous; the kind where you imagine everything not good happening, spilling everywhere all over and everyone pointing at you. I smiled looked over at Barbara, our art teacher-storyteller-matriarch, to try to feel better. I said Barbara, “Everyone spills right? You do?”

She looked at me with empathy-eyes and answered, “No, I can’t remember the last time I spilled anything.”

At some point after Barbara’s no spilling/spilling love, I started my research.

I began to observe and interview everyone, becoming an anthropologist on spilling from the toddlers who intentionally dump to the most professional parents who never ever even have any evidence of spills, stains, or messy children in their lives.

I swayed back and forth with this new identity, noticing my extra care with beverages, and my imperfections.

I asked more children about spilling:

“Never not ever ever” one child said.

“No. Then you have to clean it up,” another child insisted.

“It’s ok if you pour stuff outside,“ a third child proclaimed.

At this point, I really, really wanted someone to be like me, to agree with me, even to spill with me.

Then I asked Julia our afterschool director. I could tell she isn’t a spiller like me; she is graceful, an actor, in a band. Her answer made me feel a little better. She said, “Yeah spilling is great, it looks cool on the table, and we get to clean it up in a big group.”

I sighed, feeling loved, knowing she isn’t a spiller, and knowing spilling is not that great for teachers. I am not that naive.

Then finally, yesterday a little boy – the same one who pours stuff outside – spilled, or poured, his milk out four times at lunch. I went over and cleaned it with him, and cleaned it with him, and cleaned it with him, and cleaned it with him.

I had found another spiller. I watched him all day; the way he engaged the world with words, noticed the complicated shapes on the ceiling, and loved his friends so hard that they fell over.

I fell in love then, three times.

Once with the boy who was a spiller, because that was part of his beauty, his special needs and his specialness.

Once with my spiller self, and I admit at that moment I was tempted to pour; to pour something out just give in to the “glug glug swosh”, the shapes on the floor, and the sopping up.

And once, the most for Maple Street because I know it is a place where spillers, and hard huggers, and criers, and stompers, and spinners thrive.

We are not standardized here at Maple Street, we are humans here; children and grown ups with flaws, differences, and strengths, trying not spill and finding the beauty in it.

Maybe you are a spiller, a hard hugger, a crier, a stomper, a spinner or something else? Whatever you are we will support you, love you, and find beauty in your awkwardness here because that’s our philosophy, and it’s what our teachers do best.

I still worry about being a spiller. I hold my cup tightly and look in front of me, and at the stairs, and I know like Julia said, we are great, we get to clean it up as a big group.

We get to take care of each other.

Imagining Diversity

The threads of Diversity at Maple Street School:

Dynamic, Nurturing, Safe, and Playful

When you take a tour of Maple Street School and look around, you will see a lot of Brooklyn there, and a lot of the world. Some of this is shining evidently in the classrooms, or is in the children’s faces and the teachers’ voices as we sing about feelings or family. Some is reflected in our teachers’ daily commitments from the food they make at cafe, to the the books they read, to the conversations they have that let each child and adult in the classroom know they are safe and that they matter. Some of this is in the commitment of our board and cooperative to provide financial aid and to invest, through time and money, in our school so more children from families with low incomes can attend. And some of this is in small and large gestures, threads of learning and practice, that teach us new ways to see and be our children, families, teachers, staff, community and the world.

So when I am giving a tour of our school, I am often asked how do you define diversity? I do provide some of the deeply important, changing, and always-missing-someone list of lesbian gay bisexual, and transgender families, gender-fluid children, single parent families, race, income level, access to resources, culture, language, religion, ethnicity, family makeup, adoptive families, families with special needs and more.

The “more” is the expansive part, and is key because that is where it feels like we are now and that’s what we are beginning to do now: develop a collective and dynamic definition of diversity that serves our children and their families on a daily basis through learning and practice.

This definition of diversity is formed and reformed through:

  1. Observing and learning about children’s, teacher’s, staff’s and family’s needs and visions
  2. Listening to families and prospective families
  3. Learning through ongoing education, training and feedback
  4. Building collective and reflective leadership
  5. Navigating different opinions in a respectful, kind way, in service to the physical and emotional safety and well being of children and all of their grown-ups
  6. Assessing policies, procedures, and a responsibilities through a lens of diversity and inclusion
  7. Paying attention and having intention around the moments in the day, and our attitudes toward them, and our practices in them to value diversity, inclusion and community
  8. Understanding we all make mistakes, and through accountability and growth we further develop our community

Maple Street’s definition of diversity is dynamic. I remember five or so years ago there was pain and conflict over the celebration of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. A single parent family was concerned about celebrating Father’s Day as her daughter had no father. I agreed to not celebrate these days and then was met with a lot of resistance from the cooperative and families, and did not know what to do. I could not hold up my agreement, and apologized to this family knowing I backed out of my promise. What I learned from this is that my voice is a strong voice in this cooperative. But it is not the only voice. After listening and learning for two more years, Maple Street replaced Mother’s Day and Father’s Day with Family Day, celebrating all of our families in their mommy mama daddy papa grandma auntie friend ways. I know in the future this could change again and again with more learning for all of us. Additionally perhaps there are practices, holidays, language that I or we have not noticed yet that can become more inclusive and reflective of our school.

Maple Street’s definition of diversity includes nurturing: thoughtfully and compassionately caring for every child and grown-up for who they are. This does not mean allowing all kinds of behavior, but having the capacity to love and care for all the children and families that come to and through our school. It means reflecting on our own upbringing and sometimes surrendering to a different kind of behavior, teaching, style or more. When I first came to Maple Street, and I heard Ann Marie speak, it often did not sound like textbook early childhood. Then I watched as families and children fell in love with her idioms, culture and style, and I fell deeply in love too. When we hear something we are not used to, we must ask ourselves does this child or grown up feel good and loved, and not just whether teachers and children are acting like we expect them too. Today when a young girl spoke about her mother giving birth, a teacher asked her, “are you going to take care of the baby? She replied, “We all are, my family is a team.” We all are here at Maple Street too, everyone matters, everyone is part of the team. We all are nurturing each other.

Maple Street’s definition of diversity also includes safety, both physical and emotional. When someone in our community feels unsafe, it is our job to help them. This can be a child feeling teased or unincluded, a parent feeling like their issue is minimized, a teacher feeling vulnerable, or an administrator feeling isolated. The work of early childhood has risk in it and caring for each other through policy, practice, communication, and compassion is necessary to thrive.

Finally Maple Street’s definition of diversity is playful. I announce on tours that children at Maple Street School can be whoever they would like to be, as different as they want to be. They can wear dresses, or superhero clothes, or change their name to Thor, or Supergirl or Princess Awesome. Adults also get to imagine and become their roles at Maple Street through conversations, volunteer/coop work, and having fun. Adults can dress up too, and I have seen astronauts, clowns, superheroes and more over the years.

About two weeks ago, a parent returned to Maple Street after many years. Her children are eleven, nine, and a new two. We were discussing our families; hers African/Caribbean/American and mine Multiracial, African American, Irish and Jewish. She explained to me that her daughter has been invited to her first Bat Mitzvah. I replied, “amazing,” and we discussed the Bar/Bat Mitzvah age. Then I explained that we were not going to Barmitzvah our children because we were not religious and it did not resonate as did travel and other special things. She replied, “You have to, you have to Barmitzvah your children.” And while I did not have to, I adored this moment as one thread of many that makes our community so dynamic, nurturing, safe, playful and diverse

This is a lot of words, and I am a diversity and inclusion learner like you. I am a white Jewish woman growing older, slowly tripping and falling often here at Maple Street, and getting up each time knowing that my accountability and vision, along with yours, can shift Maple Street into what we imagine together.

2012 General Meeting Welcome

Welcome Families,

It is wonderful to have all of us here together tonight.

First I wanted to thank each of you for choosing Maple Street School for your child and family.  I also want to thank you for committing to our cooperative model, and the labor of love we participate in to create and support a diverse and creative learning and playing school for our children.

I had started a speech on reflection, and then read a quote by Loris Malaguzzi, an early childhood hero from the Reggio Emilio philosophy. He said,

Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do, and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before.

So I listened for thirty seconds, and I heard Mae in the threes class say to the children, at her table, “Why do mommies and daddies go away?”

This was it; standing back, and making space, and leaving room for learning and conversation.  I walked out with my notebook, and listened to this important question and the answers that were important, deeply interesting, wonderful and humorous.

The answers are a unique lens into what children see and feel. I will share them with you, and then of course in the coop spirit, I am going to ask for help turning this subject into a short film for orientation next year. So parents and children can hear about separation directly from those who have experience it.

So the question, Mae’s question, was “Why do mommies, and mamas, and daddies, and papas, and caregivers go away?

The answer:

Well first, Ben went huh hmm, and cleared his throat, and explained, “They have to buy things like comic books and superhero toys.”

Henry W. said confidently, “They go to work!”

Well then Nadia looked at Ben and said, “Well, they have to pull things apart.”

And so I asked, “What do they have to pull apart? And Ben added, “Computers,” and Nadia agreed, “Yes, their computers.

And then Zoe quietly whispered, “Money, she has to pay money.”

And then I traveled to the next lunch table to hear more answers, and Uma responded, “Mommies and daddies leave to get new money.”

And Varick chimed in, “They do paperwork and buy new stuff; toys, and you don’t know which one it will be.”

Osa then explained, “they type, type, type, and then they make a game for you.”

So it’s good to know what some of the Waves parents do after drop-off.  I continued down to the Roots, and most of them were napping, though a few had something to say.

Henry W. expressed that “mommies and daddies write books and make movies” when he is at school, and then added, “like my daddy.”

Eva then explained that her mom is teaching children and that her dad is in Manhattan and she does not know what he is doing. Then she asked me several times to write “love Eva, babysitter”. So I am adding that for her.

Nicholas then said, “They have to work and take a nap, well don’t say take a nap, well she has to get clothes from the Gap? Did you know that? Do you know how to spell Gap, let me get my shoe, here it is Gap. I can spell mom and Gap.”

Leo and Theo then had a discussion about where their moms were, and decided that they were working and writing notes.

Finally, I made it over to the Stars, and only Lincoln and Molly were awake.

I asked Molly where Mommies and Daddies go and she said, “He went home on the train. Daddy went on the train. He is on the seat.”

Then I asked Lincoln, and he said, “They went bye.” I asked if he went on the train and he said, “No, Not yet. Not yet.”

So how is teaching different from before with this knowledge of what children do and say, besides knowing that all of you are working and shopping? It is different in that when we reflect on how children experience the world with them, we grow deeper into our learning both as individuals and as a school.

We can separate children better. Make a video, engage in meaningful conversations.  We know what they need from us; to explain where mommies and mamas and dads go. We can add to their experience. Find out about what families do and where they go that is the same and different such as the train, shopping etc.

We can add to curriculum and have fun with it. Skype with parents during the day, create a work or office in our classroom, pull things apart like a computer. We can build our organization by reflecting on the thoughts of all of our learners in it, from our very youngest to all of you.

As I reflect for one last time on what it was about “reflect”, and then not, and then about “reflection”, that final piece is your thoughts and conversations with your children.

If your child has separated fully, have a conversation about what you do all day when you leave, and then perhaps turn it around and wonder what they do all day, and you may find out when you leave, we are shopping, pulling things a part, making games, and writing books and making movies too.

Thank-you again for being on this early childhood learning journey with us!

Finding Rhythm in Life

Sometimes in pre-school and in life, we choose themes to study such as, self, autumn, fairytales, the human body or Jazz. Other times in pre-school, and life, themes seem choose us.

Perhaps some of the themes that have chosen you and your 2-5 year old are express-subway trains, or green vegetables, or sandy beaches, or 80’s rock music, or Mexican food, or folding laundry, or avoiding parking tickets, or silly dancing.

This summer, the theme that has been choosing me has been rhythm. I remember when it first chose me. I was at the Orchard School in New Hampshire for Sankofa drum and dance camp and the drum teacher Saleem, was beating the drum as he compared it to the maternal heart beat we all heard even before we were born.

The pom pom pom then expanded and I began listening to the rhythms around me, and observing the daily rhythms of the children and grown-ups at the Orchard School, Maple Street, Brooklyn and beyond.

The theme of rhythm brought be back to when I first began teaching at the Maple Street school. I was introduced to a circle of children singing, and two wise women Barbara and Jackie.

As we chanted greetings to the morning and each other, often a child would wander off, cuddle up, hum, tickle a friend, or stay absolutely still. I would look over for guidance at my wise women, and they would say or nod in unison he or she has their own special rhythm.

I would watch and listen to the rhythms at Maple Street, the boy (who is now sixteen and six feet tall) lining up small jungle animals carefully, the little one who was two who knocked down blocks and fell asleep in the corner, and the older girl who was giving advanced lectures on paleontology. Each had their own rhythm.

I noticed rhythm then, but did not realize how much rhythm matters. This summer I began to notice how when we follow a child’s rhythm and support them, like a drum beat, they grow, create, stretch, and thrive. Sometimes we are speeding up or slowing down, meeting them where they are at, and adding energy, or relaxing breath.

Sometimes our rhythms don’t match our children or our surroundings at all. We arrive at restaurant and look forward to a cool drink, an appetizer, and a grown up conversation as our kids play a horrific game of hide and seek almost knocking over the table and the waiter. Our evening turns into dissonant flop of spilt food, halted conversations, whining tantrums, and a better plan for a picnic. If we really missed the beat, we might say I am never taking these children out to a restaurant again ever or until they are grown! We might threaten to sign them up for manners school, which at that point we need more than they need.
Often even after a night of chaos, our rhythms do find a way back together, and steady. This happens we breathe in, spend some time alone, take a bath, or read a story. We are slowing down, and finding a similar tempo.

Sometimes we can’t even find the right rhythm in our own bodies, and we can’t speed up or slow down, and find that drum beat dance in our lives. Children, and especially children with special or sensory needs have a hard time finding a keeping a comfortable steady beat to the world. When this happens I look to intuitive parenting and teaching as well as special needs teachers, occupational therapists and children’s yoga and mindfulness teachers for tools such as a long train ride, soothing music, a bath, a run in the playground, and more therapeutic tools like massage, compressions, swinging, brushing and spinning and more…

This year, it is my hope to observe more children and family rhythms than ever before, to follow their beats, and to honor them. I watched my mentor Eleanor and her teachers doing that this summer, often slowing down to greet a child with autism, or to watch bees creating a new hive, or to give a mama bird space, or speeding up on bikes and trampolines (a trampoline is kind of a giant drum for a human).

Also, in studying rhythm, I hope to slow down my beat a little through meditation and mindfulness, and begin practicing with my own internal drum. So far, I have rediscovered horseback riding and a long sunset boat ride.

At the Orchard School, ironically one of the drummers (Saleem’s first born) name is Rhythm. He is 14 and we would go to the pond each day after camp. The other children would quickly dive into the pond and swim to the dock. He would say, “I don’t know why I can’t do it I am just cold. We would laugh, and I would say, “You’ll get in, we all have our own rhythm,” and of course he did.

After thought —
Finally, my hope is to be able to share theories and practice on the themes that choose us. Please share the rhythm of your family or teaching practice, and together we can join in a drum circle of life.