Education

They’re On Their Way to the Ivy-covered Halls!

Lehigh University

Today many tearful mothers and stoic fathers will pack the car and for the first time haul yesterday’s babies off to an “institution of higher learning.”

Tonight the babies will sleep in a strange bed; tomorrow a stranger will make their breakfast. But no one will wake them up or do their laundry when the time comes. They will have unaccustomed responsibilities. No one will nag them to do anything; they will be expected to get to class on time and to the infirmary if they are sick.

A few lucky ones know exactly why they are there; they have known since they were children what they wanted to be when they grew up and now they are ready to learn how. 

Others will figure it out in the next two years before it is time to declare a major. 

But four years from now, some will be wondering “Now what?” And others will have made a false start only to discover that what they thought they wanted to be was in fact not what they wanted at all.

But for all of them, the four-year college will serve as a half way house on the road to independence. And that’s no small thing, although in most cases, it’s a pretty expensive way to learn to do the laundry.

The fact is that college today is too expensive—absurdly expensive. Young people (or their parents) should not be burdened with debt in order to prepare themselves for the adult world of work. Last year, 69% of graduating seniors took out loans, graduating with an average debt of $29,800. That’s just not right; it’s really wrong. It can’t go on—and so it won’t. 

It will take a long time, of course. Cultural change happens slowly. Still there are already signs that the four year college as a necessary path to the adult world of work and social status is undergoing slow transformation.

But for now, for families who can swing it, it seems the obvious course of action. 

So good luck to all those young people who are starting the four-year journey. May you choose wisely and make your parents proud.

Education · Folklore · paintings

A Painting about Play

Ring Around the Rosie
Oil on canvas by Herbert Knapp

I have looked at this painting by Herb for hours. In our apartment in New York it was hanging in a spot opposite the couch where I tended to recline with some frequency. Over time, I grew to love it, not only because I just like the way it looks, but for what it says about children’s play.

The figures in Herb’s painting are not real life children. Their bloodless limbs, their simple monochromatic dress and the dark moonlit setting suggest to me that these figures and what they are doing transcend time and place. They are playing a circle game in which children reach out to one another, join hands and move in an unbroken circle, learning the rhythms of human interaction. No doubt you remember some of these games from your own childhood.

Or maybe not. It may depend on how old you are, for these and other folk games that are passed on by children themselves without mediation (or sometimes even the knowledge) of adults no longer have a fertile ground in which to thrive.

Pete Gray, professor at Boston College, who is an evolutionary psychologist, contends that the need and impulse for play is biologically embedded in our nature as human beings. In his book Free to Learn, and in his blog for Psychology Today, he explains that it is through play that children learn the skills and behaviors that they need to thrive.  

In our incessant drive to encroach further and further on playtime that is free from adult authority, we are making a tragic mistake. If you are a parent, grandparent, or just care about the consequences of our education system, I strongly suggest that you check out this very readable blog post by Gray.

* * * * * * *

In 1976 Herb and I were studying at Indiana University, on leave from our teaching positions in the Panama Canal Zone.

Our study of children’s traditiional games and practices of children that have been passed down by children for generations began as a paper written for a folklore course we were enrolled in. Since we were English teachers, we were focused on the verbal accompaniments to these games and practices— something that most people dismiss as trivial childish rhymes and formulaic sayings that are of no particular significance. I mean who can take “I’m rubber; you’re glue” or “I see London, I see France; I see someone’s underpants” seriously?

However as we watched children at unsupervised play we realized that what they were doing was anything but trivial. We saw that unsupervised children playing together on their own learn how to govern themselves, according to a system of rules.

They learn how to deal with cheaters and crybabies and how to make sophisticated juridical decisions. They learn the joy of team spirit and group solidarity without suffering from the depersonalization and bitterness that characterize competitive supervised sports.

They let off steam, releasing tensions created by the repressive atmosphere of the classroom. They play with the emotion of fear, thus becoming less fearful.

And we decided that the subject deserved more thorough study and exposition. Thus the idea for our book, One Potato, Two Potato, was born. It was eventually published by W.W. Norton and is still in print after 43 years! Some twenty years after our book was published, Herb painted the picture.

Like most artists, he is reluctant to discuss the “meaning” of his work or the creative process that results in a painting. However, he assures me that he did not have the study of children’s folklore in mind when he set about to paint this picture, What eventually appeared on the canvas simply “emerged” as he painted.

Herb seems to have dimly and unconsciously recognized what Gray is telling us: Play is part of our human nature; we are sorely in error when we impose our ideas of how our children should structure their time and activities, thus denying them opportunities for unsupervised play and the development of their humanity.

Childhood learning · Education

How I Learned to Read

Eastman-Johnson-Boy-Reading

The other day in one of those internet searches that leads you somewhat astray, I stumbled down a track that dealt with the teaching of reading.

In an article titled “Yes, There is a Right Way to Teach Reading,” the author maintains that some kids are just not sensitive to the sounds of the spoken word. For example, they don’t hear that there are three sounds in the word “bag.”  In teacher-speak they lack “phonemic awareness.” Therefore what is called for is at least 100 hours instruction in phonics early on.  

This triggered a memory of how I learned to read, I was apparently one of the lucky ones to whom phonemic awareness came easily although I certainly did not get off to a good start.

 * * * * * * * * * *

Some drink, Some take drugs. I read. It’s my mother’s fault. Not that she taught me. Oh, no. That was my teacher’s job. She got paid for it. But when Miss Morgan failed to do her job and passed me on to second grade “with reservations,” Mother took charge, and the first glorious day of summer vacation just as I was on my way outside after breakfast to play sword fight with my friends, she grabbed my arm, marched me out to the squeaky glider on our screened-in front porch. plunked a stack of library books down beside me, and said. “Now read! No more monkeyshines!” (So much for Progressive education.)

I learned I was going to sit there until noon every day all summer, except to go to the bathroom. I whined. I pouted. I amused myself by turning a slow backward somersault on the glider. “Is it noon yet?” No answer. Boredom. Boredom. So I began teaching myself to read.

Mother was pleased. She looked forward to the day when “we” would “show” those old teachers of mine. Reservations, indeed!

“We” showed them, all right. But then I went right on reading.

Mother began to worry. “Too much of anything’s not good, son.”

Too late. I was hooked. Before long, when my mother started parking my sister and me at the library while she grocery shopped, I got a library card and eventually began making long walks on my own—14 blocks—to the nearest branch library. In those days—the late 1930s and early 1940s—nobody felt obliged to intervene if they saw a little boy walking alone—unless he was bleeding.

Mother wouldn’t have minded if I’d read how-to books, or inspirational books, or books about science. But all I read were stories. She thought stories were fine for relaxing. But a person couldn’t spend his life relaxing. (I didn’t see why not.)

If my teachers had known I loved to read stories, they, too, would have disapproved. In the 1930s, all the experts agreed that students who loved stories were introverts, loners. They were trapped in “the romantic realm of yesterday.” (The science was settled.) A teacher’s job was to discourage “outmoded individualism” and to focus children’s attention on the present not the past, to teach them to face facts—like dates, names, and statistics. Every “social studies” test I took in elementary school seemed to include the question, “What are the chief exports of . . . ?” The country didn’t matter. The answer was always “copra, bauxite, sisal, flax, and hemp”—whatever they are.

But my teachers could see I wasn’t one of those romantic loners. I didn’t act like a bookworm. I was simply a good reader. They approved of that. Being able to read well helped a person solve problems, and solving problems was what modern life was all about. Besides, my scores on their reading tests reflected well on their “progressive” teaching methods.

Dick and Jane

I don’t remember the names of the books Mother plunked down beside me, Ferdinand the Bull? No, I think that came later. But knowing nothing of theories of reading, she did not bring me any books with scientifically tested “age appropriate” vocabulary about Dick, Jane, and their beloved Spot. (Run, Spot, run. See Spot run.) I’m sure my poor performance in first grade was solely the fault of these boring books. Has anyone ever cared if Spot ran or not?

Books · Childhood learning · Education · Folklore

“Ladies and jellyspoons / I come before you to stand behind you / To tell you something I know nothing about.”

In her last post, Mary wondered if a playground culture still exists.

Since today there are so few informal playgrounds where no adults intrude, it is doubtful.  Adults always want to organize children’s play. The assumption is that children learn only that which adults teach them. But the best laid plans of adults cannot accomplish what children used to accomplish for themselves, guided by a folk tradition that had been passed down in some cases for hundreds of years.

stacks-image-e920aaa
Still in print after 42 years.

They learned, for example, to handle conflict verbally rather than physically. When the linguistically unsophisticated and emotionally immature child was teased, insulted or ridiculed, he could choose from a number of ready made responses, for instance, “I’m rubber, you’re glue / Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you, “ or “Twinkle, twinkle, little star / What you say is what you are.”

When a little girl heard, “I see London; I see France / I see Velma’s underpants,” did she run to a safe space and tell the teacher? No, she probably shouted back,  “Liar liar, pants on fire,” or maybe “XYZ!” If the boy fell for it and checked his fly, she won. The one thing she did not do was grow up to be a snowflake.

Left alone, children organized their own games, making fine juridical adjustments: one good player for this side, but three fumble fingers for that side. They learned to compromise, because they didn’t want the game to end.

And They Learned About Language

They learned that poetry could be fun. Without fear of the speech police, they could sing about their school lunch: “Great big gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts / Chopped up parakeet / Mutilated monkey meat / Pig snot and camel rot,” etc. A child who sang that song was introduced to alliteration and hyperbole early on.

And the child who recited the mock oration beginning, “Ladies and Jellyspoons / I stand before you to stand behind you / To tell you something I know nothing about / Admission free, Pay at the door / Pull up a seat and sit on the floor” experienced the satisfaction of employing rhetorical tropes that gently raised college students only learn to label.

How We Did It

In the seventies we were living in the American Canal Zone in Panama. Since almost everybody in the Canal Zone came from somewhere else, we were able to collect examples of children’s folklore from recently arrived children as it was practiced all over the States as well as in foreign countries and military bases abroad. During the summer when we were on leave from our jobs, we also did something that we couldn’t do today without getting us in trouble: we sat on park benches, taking notes while watching children at play.

We learned that what seems to be trivial and silly was extremely functional in the social development of children. We wish some young folklorists would write a sequel documenting what traditions are still around and what new customs children might be creating to help them cope with the digital world. If you have kids or grandkids, ask them about this.

You can buy One Potato, Two Potato on Amazon, but last time we looked there were 20 used copies available from abebooks.com for $3.50 to $4.00, free shipping. If you want to take a trip down memory lane and be reminded of things you have probably forgotten, you can get one cheap!

 

 

Childhood learning · Education · Folklore · Political Correctness

One Potato, Two Potato: The Secret Education of Children and My Eight Minutes of Fame

hideseek-blog
No adult needs to teach kids how to play Hide and Seek.

Forty-two years ago this month, our first book: One Potato, Two Potato: The Secret Education of American Children was published by W.W. Norton. As was their custom, they submitted their newly published books to The Today Show, hoping that they would select one to be featured. Much to our publisher’s surprise (and ours), they selected our book!

Before the Today Show would book me for the eight-minute interview, however, I had to audition. I don’t remember much about it, but I do know there was a wait of several weeks before I appeared on the show, during which time I lost ten pounds.

I had been given the questions and practiced in front of a mirror (with daughter Sarah’s coaching), but apparently Jane Pauley didn’t get the memo. Nevertheless I managed to deal with the unexpected turn of the interrogation, and the interview was deemed a success by the publisher and my co-author.

Still eight minutes is hardly enough time to explain why children’s folklore is worthy of serious consideration when it seems so trivial. Who can take “King’s X” or “liar, liar, pants on fire” seriously?

As we watched children playing we discovered that the traditional customs—the rhymes, sayings, games, and stories that children teach each other and that have been passed down for generations without the mediation of adults —play a critical role in their social and emotional development.

From the book:

Unsupervised children playing together learn how to govern themselves. They learn how to deal with cheaters and cry babies. They make sophisticated juridical distinctions that strike a fine balance between the self-interest of individuals and the good of the group.

They are competitive, but winning is not their goal. They come together voluntarily for a good game. Thus they learn the joy of team play without suffering from the depersonalization and bitterness that mark fiercely competitive supervised contests where the goal has been reduced to mere victory.

They let off steam, releasing tensions created by the repressive atmosphere of the school.

They play with the emotion of fear, thus becoming less fearful.

In all this, they are guided by their folk tradition.

Is there still a playground culture? Today children have so little opportunity for unsupervised play that it seems doubtful that it flourishes to the extent it did 42 years ago. On the other hand, we sometimes see evidence that it has not disappeared altogether: a tell-tale hopscotch diagram chalked on the sidewalk, two little girls playing a clapping rhyme on a cross town bus.

Certainly kids have learned by observing their elders’ attitudes to clean up some of the politically incorrect or racist rhymes that we collected. It’s very doubtful that today any publisher would publish a trade book recounting the history of childlore that included these rhymes.