Thursday, February 28, 2008

5 Years and a Day

For all my rants about television, one guy got it right:

Get a tissue and go here: Link
We lost this treasure five years and a day ago. I miss him.

Crazy Hair Day

Lots of kindergarteners came dressed for Crazy Hair Day. But none of us could hold a candle to fifth grader, Shane, who stopped by at snack time to show us his crazy hair. He used almost a can's worth of hairspray.

I thought the spikes would be fragile, but he bent one of the spikes over about 90 degrees and it popped right back up. Amazing!

Helpin' Out

After lunch on Tuesday, Miguel helped me clean the tables until they shined. He knows how good being on "Level One" can feel. Level One is doing the right thing without being asked and with no other reward than the good feeling that comes with it.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Blessed Sunshine

The yellow tables got time outdoors today. What splendid late morning sunshine!

Aden adds litter to the plastic box in the basket.
It was surprisingly difficult to find litter even after many days of being indoors.
What little we could find we picked up.

This Saturday's Pasta Feed Notice


Mrs. Wilding wanted me to remind everyone of the Pasta Feed, the PTO's biggest fundraising event of the year. It's happening this Saturday, March 1.

The kindergarten class opens entertainment portion of the evening with a couple of songs.

When we finish singing, please come to the right side of the stage to collect your child so he or she can join your family to see the rest of the show, called Dunham Rocks, which will conclude with a special rock and roll performance by the teachers that you won't want to miss.

Please arrive about 4:45 at the Petaluma Veteran's Auditorium and dress your students in ordinary blue jeans and a white shirt with a collar.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Cultivating Happiness: Attention

(This is the first of a six plus part series on cultivating happiness.)

Part One: Attention

I know. Yesterday’s post was somewhat depressing. In case you missed it, it discussed a (now) four year old report about how the Pentagon is—I mean has been—taking global warming seriously.

Global warming worries me. So do many other things. I regularly cherish more than a baker’s dozen: the health care crisis, the many ecological crises in addition to global warming, domestic spying, California's soon-to-be-defunded public K-12 schools, random shootings in schools, electronic voting machine fraud, road rage, corporate-financed campaigns, dependence on foreign oil, the household debt/mortgage crises, out-of-control federal spending on the military, illegal torture, the national debt, foreign ownership of what we think of as American companies, and—an issue I have touched on before—mean and meaningless television and movie entertainment.

Add to these more personal worries: retirement savings, my kids' futures, my as-yet-unborn grandkids' futures, health issues, not to mention smaller irritations and worries.

You might wonder how I can drag myself out of bed to face the day.

That's easy.

I put my alarm clock on my dresser so I have to jump out of bed to silence it. Then I head directly for the meditation room where I wrap myself in a blanket my wife knitted me years ago and I spend about an hour quieting my mind and cultivating my aspiration to bring a bit of happiness into the lives of the kindergarteners who I care for each school day.

Happiness as a Value

Happiness is one of my values. It’s right up there with safety and helpfulness and kindness.

My worries are the reason I value—and nurture—happiness. Without real happiness I would be tempted to numb myself using one of the common, but futile distractions: alcohol (fine Sonoma County wines, mind you), spectator sports (the Sonoma County Crushers, remember them?), prescription antidepressants (once many year ago, briefly, to get through an especially difficult period), television (in hotels, not at home), and gambling. Except for the last one, I’ve dabbled in—and abandoned—all of them. Gambling I've never tried. It has always struck me as a tax on people who aren't good at math.

Real happiness cannot arise from numbness. Numbness comes from numbness and feels lonely. Happiness is alive, and is shared. (Did you know that studies have shown that people very rarely laugh when alone?)

So what is real happiness, anyway? And how can do I cultivate it? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I have studied happiness and I would like to share some of what I have learned, both from my own experience and from several books and articles I’ve read recently.

A week ago or so I was at Copperfield’s Books and I saw this book on display at the cash register:

Against Happiness
by Eric G. Wilson

I picked up this book because I believe that it’s good to inform yourself of opposing views. I thought I'd find a lot to disagree with here. To disagree without being disagreeable is what Americans must relearn if we are to keep our democracy, so I practice that.

Wilson makes a lot of points. I agreed with him more than I expected. He states that happiness isn’t found in a cheery smily face. Happiness isn't giddy excitement either, like the sort of ersatz happiness you see on television commercials for kids or on Disneyland’s Main Street. Happiness, says Wilson, has nothing to do with pretending that everything is hunky-dory when deep down inside there’s a voice quietly insisting, “Everything ain’t hunky dory.”

Life’s difficulties cannot be walled off. Even in gated communities people get old, get sick, and die. Difficulties are built in, a part of the deal. We must face them. And, when we face our difficulties a lot of good can result.

In his book Wilson defends melancholia as the source for many of humankind’s greatest achievements. He explores this theme by discussing the lives of cultural giants of the Western civilization: Melville, Coleridge, Keats, Beethoven, Blake, John Lennon, and others. The point he drives home is that each was touched with melancholia.

Less ambitious people like me might settle for plain old-fashioned happiness. Many scientists have noted that lowered expectations are conducive to happiness.

So, a first step to finding happiness is to accept the fact that life is going to contain difficulties. When—not if—difficulties arise, we can see them as opportunities to create something wonderful, to grow in empathy and compassion, to be more useful to others, or, as Ann Landers would say, to make lemonade out of your lemons.

A good example of this is my recent experience with cancer. So many of you expressed your concern for my well being and shared your own stories of this disease, I ended up feeling more connected to all of you, and happier. I'm not sayin' throw out your sunscreen and get some skin cancer to find out how nice everyone is. I'm just sayin' that not-fun things like cancer can have silver linings.

A second step is to understand that while pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

In the Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner travels the whole world in his quest to discover the secrets to happiness. He meets with experts from science and religion to learn what they might teach him about happiness.

Georaphy of Bliss
by Eric Weiner

It’s a fun book. It made me laugh loud enough to repeatedly wake my wife in the wee hours.

Weiner makes many points about happiness. Before signing off for today, I’d like to leave you with one of them:

Are You Paying Attention?

To quote Weiner:

"Attention" is an underrated word. It doesn’t get the...well, the attention it deserves. We pay homage to love and happiness and, God knows, productivity, but rarely do we have anything good to say about attention. We’re too busy, I suspect. Yet our lives are empty and meaningless without attention.

My two-year-old daughter fusses at my feet as I type these words. What does she want? My love? Yes, in a way, but what she really wants is my attention. Pure, undiluted attention. Children are expert at recognizing counterfeit attention. Perhaps love and attention are really the same thing. One can’t exist without the other. The British scholar Avner Offer calls attention ‘the universal currency of well-being.’ Attentive people, in other words, are happy people.” -- pg. 54 Geography of Bliss

Want to give your kid or your students something they really need? It's simple. Give them your attention. Put down whatever you're doing and pay attention to them.

It's the best pay you can give.

Next in this series: Not Thinking

Saturday, February 23, 2008

What's the Pentagon Got to Do with Kindergarten?

As your local kindergarten teacher, I sometimes peek outside the classroom at larger issues that may affect my students in their future lives. I take their safety and happiness seriously enough to extend my concern beyond June.

Current kindergarten are members of the high school class of 2020. The connection between the Pentagon and kindergarten will become clear as you read a report that the Pentagon has written concerning the year 2020.

I came across this story on the internet this morning. It's a report on the website of the Guardian News (a British paper).

With fair warning that this is strong—and not very happy—material, here are some quotes:

"Climate change over the next 20 years could result in a global catastrophe costing millions of lives in war and natural disasters.

A secret report, suppressed by the US defense chiefs and obtained by the Observer, warns that major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a 'Siberian' climate by 2020. Nuclear conflict, mega droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world.

The document predicts that abrupt climate change could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy as countries develop a nuclear threat to defend and secure dwindling food, water and energy supplies. The threat to global stability vastly eclipses that of terrorism, say the few experts privy to it contents.

'Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life,' concludes the Pentagon analysis."

Bob Watson and Rob Gueterbock are quoted near the end of the article.

"Bob Watson, chief scientist for the World Bank and former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, added that the Pentagon's dire warnings could no longer be ignored.

'Can Bush ignore the Pentagon? It's going to be hard to blow off this sort of document. It's hugely embarrassing. After all, Bush's single highest priority is national defense. The Pentagon is no wacko, liberal group; generally speaking it is conservative. If climate change is a threat to national security and the economy, then he has to act....' said Watson.

'You've got a President who says global warming is a hoax, and across the Potomac river you've got a Pentagon preparing for climate wars,' said Geuterbock."

This sort of material has surfaced before, but not in the mainstream broadcast media. (A close reading of the article suggests that it's been held in secrecy for almost 4 years: it mentions John Kerry as the Democratic front runner in the presidential campaign.) Many years ago the Atlantic Monthly magazine ran an article about global warming that mentioned the Pentagon's planning for an Arctic Ocean so free of ice that it will be navigable by ordinary warships. It's the sort of work they do.

If you have a stomach for this sort of stuff, you can read the Guardian article in its entirety on the web:

Link to Article

Meanwhile, find a light you can turn off.

Grab an umbrella a walk or ride a bike to the nearest video store and rent An Inconvenient Truth if you haven't already seen it.

Read a book to your kid.

Stay close to home this weekend.

How to Cultivate a Happy State of Mind

Ty's Triumph

In Kid's Klub Friday afternoon, Ty demonstrated to me that he knows the uppercase Soundabet. With that behind him, mastery of the lowercase Soundabet cards is not far off.

Ty is now standing at the gates of literacy.

With some practice putting the sounds he's learned to use in early reading and writing projects, Ty will cross the threshold into the land of literacy and, interestingly, soon forget that there was ever a day he didn't know how to read.

Though I didn't snap a picture, we celebrated his with a tea party and cupcake.

Achievements like Ty's can make my day.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Building Character

Kindergarten these days is narrowly focussed on teaching early literacy and numeracy skills.

When I first student-taught kindergarten the shadow of Stanford University in the seventies, teaching early reading and math skills took the back seat to promoting social and emotional development.

Back then kindergarten was a place to introduce children to a new and larger social world of classmates and friends. The kindergarten teacher was expected to:

(1) to provide students with guidance in navigating the social world; and

(2) to offer opportunities for students to express themselves creatively through the arts.

Happiness and contentment were the norm. It was all very relaxed. In Ohlone School where I first taught, it was up to the kindergarten teachers to decide if they wanted to teach something about numbers and letters. Most didn't. No big deal.

Over the course of my career, expectations have changed. Social and emotional development have been demoted. In some schools I've been told that social and emotional development have been kicked out of the back seat and dumped onto the roadside of yesteryear.

Today's kindergartens are driven by standards, benchmarks, and assessments of academic performance. All of it delivered with a breathless "don't leave Johnny behind" urgency. What once waited until first grade is now crammed into kindergarten. And the noble purposes of kindergarten have been almost forgotten.

Do we expect students to develop social and emotional intelligence by osmosis? By watching TV?

What a mistake we have made to give social and emotional development short shrift! We train students to read and do numbers but fail to teach them how deal with their own feelings or the feelings of others. No one had time to teach them. If they act up too much, well, too often we drug them. The pharmaceutical companies are happy, I guess.

Do we really want to live in that sort of world?

Last week in the United States there were four school shootings. Last week's shooting in Illinois recalled the shooting last spring when Seung-Hui Cho student at Virginia Tech killed 32 of his classmates before taking his own life. Here's the thing: Cho could read: was an ENGLISH major, a college senior. It wasn't academic skills this guy lacked: he lacked emotional and social intelligence.

School shootings in the seventies were practically unheard of. Four decades later and we've got four in one week. It's time to question what we're doing in schools. Reading and doing numbers ain't the whole story. We need to get social and emotional intelligence nearer to the steering wheel, at least in kindergarten.


With thoughts like this in the back of my mind, it is with a real sense of purpose that I do things other than kindergarten "academics."

Today Trey, Ty, Isaac, and I finished up the school day by building with clear plastic building blocks called Crystal Climbers. We enjoyed working together, sharing the materials, helping one another find the needed color and shape for the project. We relaxed and enjoyed a few precious moments of being together, talking together, building together. We connected more than pieces of plastic. We connected our thoughts with our feelings. We connected with each other as people.



And, happily, they helped clean up when it was time to go home.

Monday, February 18, 2008

So, if I turn off the TV, what can I do?

Come to the bike races in Santa Rosa.

In 20 minutes my wife and I are going to hop on our bikes and pedal over there to see the pros zoom around downtown Santa Rosa on their racing bikes.

True, I'm not a fan of bike racing or any professional sports, actually. I like bikes, though.

On race day, the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition provides free bike valet parking (you check your bike like a coat at a fine restaurant—I've done that once!). No worries about locks, bike theft or any of that.

I'll be wearing sunscreen, a long sleeve yellow t-shirt, and my big straw lifeguard hat.

If you see us, say hi!


There is an article in today's Washington Post about the corrosive effects of television on our nation. Here's a link to it: The Dumbing of America

For those of you who aren't inclined to read a column about how television viewing erodes the quality of our national discourse, perhaps you'd be interested in reading a book about how television erodes the quality of your personal life.

There's an engaging book on this subject called Get a Life by David Burke and Jean Lotus. It's a hard book to find on this side of the Atlantic because it's published in Great Britain by a small publisher. Its cover looks like this:

It's full of attitude and opinion. The authors are feisty and provocative. They strike me that way even though I'm on their side. They write things like,

"Television doesn't give you experiences. it takes them away."

Here's more:

Myth #6 Television gives parents peace.

Many parent say, "Sometimes I just need some time to myself and I put the kid in front of the TV for a bit." They think television is helping them deal with the demands of parenting.

But just the opposite is true. TV is designed to wind kids up. Frantic cartoons, screaming presenters and loud multicolored commercials go streaming into your child's eyes and ears. They they come out again with a bang, at mealtime or bedtime.

TV spoon-feeds children a steady dose of rapid-fire, happy noises so they never learn to create their own good times. They become more needy and more demanding of:

• hyperactive stimulation

• ...products you can't afford in ads that are designed to make your child pester you

• TV ideals that have nothing to do with the upbringing you wanted to give them

• reassurance and comforting after watching violent programmes.

I'm already convinced of their point of view. I haven't had TV in my house since 1969 when I moved away from home to go to college.

When our kids were little, they sometimes spend time in other people's homes where TV was on. We could tell: on the next trip to the grocery store our kids would throw tantrums for Captain Crunch (or whatever) cereal they'd seen on TV.

"Have you ever tasted it?" we'd ask. "No but we want it! We need it!"

We learned to avoid the cereal aisle.

Here, click on the photo below of two pages of the book to get a sense for what's inside this book.

Thanks to the internet, I'll bet you can find a copy of the book online.

If it gets you to cut the cable/satellite TV out of your life, you'll be glad you tracked it down.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Important Book: Daven

Here is Daven's page in the Important Book.

Daven's a Level One kid in kindergarten, a real pleasure to have in our class.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day

I hope that everyone stopping by this blog will be safe, helpful, healthy, and kind on this day, Valentine's Day, 2008 and for the whole year ahead, as well.

We had a fine day in kindergarten. We began by singing my favorite Malvina Reynolds song, Love is Something.

The students knows the chorus—and the main message of the song—by heart:

Love is something if you give it away,

Give it away, give it away.

Love is something if you give it away,

You end up having more.

That's the Express Train to Happiness.

The photo below show the class decorating grocery bags with paper hearts cut from red pink and purple construction paper. We had lots of help to keep frustration to a minimum.

Thanks to all the moms who stayed through the first hour.

In Kid's Club Blaine, Sammy, Sergio and I played a Ravensburger Game whose rules I modified so that we were all on the same team. This small shift in the rules completely transformed the game. Instead of the usual way, where players are pitted against one another until there is a winner and three losers, we all played all the pieces. We all shared happiness together as each "winner" got to the end. We all shared consolation when pieces were sent backwards. The game drew us together instead of apart.


I don't have TV at home, so whenever I do see TV (usually in a motel) I am horrified by how much TV is built around the "survivor" mentality.

This "last man standing" regime is deeply corrosive to the human spirit.

In my kindergarten I hope to show another way of looking at the world. I prefer to look at our situation as Ben Franklin did during the effort to win American independence from King George.

He said, "
We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Today, I believe, that's good advice not just for America, but for all humanity, nay all forms of life without exception.

To survive and thrive, we must take care of everyone, including—as all religions teach—the least among us.

Our little board game this afternoon is evidence that the taking care of everyone is A LOT more fun, too.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Yay, Blaine!

Today was a big day for Blaine. He showed me that he knows the whole Soundabet in uppercase letters. That's 41 big steps on the road to reading and writing.

Blaine was excited today to go home with his own personal deck of the Queen's lowercase cards. I am confident that he will soon master these cards. Soon after that, he'll master the 41 Soundabet sight words from apple, boy, cat, dog.... children, thumb, and ring.

I asked Blaine who was most helpful in his learning the cards—he knows them really well—and he said, "My mom." He was definite about that.

Congratulations to you, too, Debra.

Blaine also showed me that he knows all of his classmates' names.
This is the face of a happy boy.

What better way to celebrate than with 15 minutes of bike riding?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Quiet Monday at School

I thought that it would be a good idea to stop by the classroom over the weekend before tomorrow morning. A week away is a long time. I needed to check on things.

Had the eggs in the incubator hatched?

Would I find little yellow chicks running around the floor?

You never know.

I wanted to come up with some center activities to do in the coming weeks. Jot down some plans.

I needed to decide on an art center to start things off on Tuesday.

So I drove to Dunham in the mid afternoon.

I was the only person at Dunham today as far as I know.

It was lonely.


When I opened the classroom door, the first thing I saw was a big box of oranges. A note said they were from Sergio.

We'll make orange juice out of these.

On my cajon I found this yellow book. I picked it up and read every page. Books like this can be hard to read because you have to blink back tears. I was touched. It occurred to me that I should post each page, but, no, that's nuts.

I decided to post only two pages, the first and last. Here's the first page:

And here is the last page:

Up on the chart pad, I found this message from everyone.

It was cheering to come to school and see all this kindness.

I was glad to see these things when I was all alone and in time to dab away my tears.

Thanks, everyone.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Levels 3 and 4

Yesterday I talked a bit about Levels 1 and 2 in identifying classroom behavior. Both Level 1 and 2 allow kindergarten to unfold successfully. The important difference is the motivation:

Level 1 is internally motivated positive behavior;

Level 2 is externally motivated positive behavior.

In kindergarten we talk about two more levels of behavior: Level 3 and 4. Both of these levels interrupt the flow of kindergarten.

Level 3 is the classification for annoying, bothersome behavior.

Level 4 is the classification for dangerous behaviors.

I like the simplicity of this way of thinking about behavior. There are two kinds of behavior, not good or bad, but instead:

Behaviors that promote getting along together (Levels 1 & 2)


Behaviors that disrupt getting along (Levels 3 & 4).

It's a system that is simple enough for kindergartners to understand. At the same time, it's sophisticated enough to be useful even to adults.

When I came up with this system my kids were teenagers. They loved to apply it to their parents. They might say something like,

"Hey, look! Dad's on Level 1. He's doing the dishes even though no one asked him."

The whole family would apply it to our dog, may you rest in peace, Champ. When he would bark at school girls walking past our house we'd say,

"Champ, you're on Level 3! Stop barking."

Or, when he curled up with a kid home sick from school, we'd note his Level 1 behavior.

It was fun to talk about our behaviors with each other this way.

I know parents find it helpful, too. If you search in the Important Book index for Bud's page, you'll see reference to Bud's being on Level 1 at home.

Important Book: Clayton

Here's Clayton's Page in the Important Book

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Level One and Two

The images above are posted on my classroom wall.

They identify two levels of behavior, Level 1 and Level 2.

One of the most important things we can do as teachers (and parents) is to help our students and children learn to distinguish the two.

Level 1 is doing "the right thing" without being asked.

Level 2 is the same behavior, but motivated from outside.

The difference between the two is motivation.

So how do you get there? By talking about it. Simply put, if you take the time to discuss the feelings (yours and your child's) behind showing a little kindness or showing a little responsibility, your child and you will naturally discover that there's no need for any other incentive (like a treat or money). Doing the right thing feels good!

That's why, in my classroom, we talk about "Level 1" behavior when students do something helpful or responsible without being asked to do it.

"Level 2" behaviors are the same behaviors, but the motivation is extrinsic: they've been asked to do it, or perhaps they may expect some praise for doing it.

tomorrow Levels 3 and 4

Friday, February 8, 2008

Did You Do Your Best?

In 2002, we sent our daughter away to college—far away, to Philadelphia—a city I grew to love as I became more familiar with it. It's full of history and charm, at least I thought so.

Today's story is about David Sylvester, a man who left Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, on a mission. I found his story inspiring and I want to share it with you.

It's about David Sylvester, his bicycle odyssey, and the values he learned from his dad.

Click HERE and enjoy!

P.S. I found this story thanks to Kent's Bike Blog. If you like bikes and bicycle advocacy, you'll like his blog. Just click his name.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

A Neck Full of Stitches

As I was driving to work Monday morning I still hadn't decided what to tell the class about the stitches on my neck.

My neck hurt.

I had undergone outpatient surgery the previous Thursday to excise a basal cell carcinoma, and the resulting 3+ inch incision was longer and more visible than I liked. (Under the doctor's direction the wound is open to the air and covered in a glistening antibiotic ointment, shining without shame.)

I didn't want my stitches to scare my students. And, if possible, I wanted to say something that would help them avoid my path to the pathologist.

Halfway to school, my mind went back 15 years to a time when my daughter and son were little. I remembered our skirmishes in the sunscreen wars. I could see their reproachful faces looking up when I slathered sunscreen on their shoulders.

That's when it came to me: I'd tell my students to listen to their caregivers and comply when asked to wear sunscreen.

I like to begin by telling stories from my youth. (Note to teachers: students love to hear stories of your childhood. Tell them.)

My family would take vacations in Southern California near Newport Beach. We'd bob all day on inner tubes between the piers in Newport Harbor and look out into the main channel to watch the rich float by on yachts.

I got sunburns bad enough to blister my shoulders. This was a time when words like "sunscreen," "sunblock," and "SPF" had yet to been coined. A time when there were 3 channels on TV and 2 suntan lotions, Sea 'n Ski and Coppertone. A time when lotions weren't worn to prevent sunburns, but to promote tanning. I suppose today those products would be rated SPF 0. Or maybe SPF +4.

I told the kindergarten about my sunburns. I told them about not always wearing sunscreen myself. I told them that now I was sorry. The doctor found some skin on my neck that had to go. I told them that I wished I had listening to my mom and worn sunscreen.

My little talk went well.

I ended with a flourish by showing them the stitches my neck and admonishing them to listen to their parents and wear that sunscreen.


Because teaching kindergarten is an art, and not a science, I'm now wondering if I didn't overdo it.

It's occured to me that kids demanding to wear sunscreen might be just as big a problem as kids refusing to do so.

Feedback from my readers is hereby solicited.

(Note: at the time of my little talk Monday I did not know that I would be back in the operating room in a matter of hours to have more cancer removed; I thought I was safely past that possibility. I just got word that the second operation was a success. And so now, with a more ghastly looking wound, my job is to rest and heal. I expect to be back on the cajon again, stitches removed, next Tuesday.)

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

More Geography of Bliss

If King Jigme Singye Wangchuck were running for King of America, I’d consider campaigning for him. He is younger than me, but he has more experience running a country than all the Democrats and Republicans put together. If he were a kindergarten teacher, I’d transfer my kid to his class. Imagine your kid telling his friends, "I'm in the King's class!"

What’s so special about King Wangchuck?

In 1973 King Wangchuck did something truly remarkable. He decided that it would be his kingdom’s official goal to increase Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product.

He was king, a decider. He could decide things like that, even though at the time he was still a teenager. Really.

You probably have never heard of Bhutan, let alone of its former king. Bhutan is a small south Asian country perched high in the Himalayas between India and China. It’s a poor little country. The Bhutan National Highway, a mostly one-lane road, serves as the country’s whole “highway” system. Bhutan was the last country on earth to get TV and the internet—they came when the king lifted a ban on them–in 1999. If you remember Lost Horizon, the 1934 Frank Capra movie based on James Hilton’s novel about Shangri-La you’re getting the picture. Remote. Poor. Happy.

Bhutan isn’t famous for being isolated or poor. It’s famous for Gross National Happiness.

Gross National Happiness makes sense. I feel a close kinship to this idea, and not just because it appeared the same year I graduated from college and joined the workforce.

Gross National Happiness is a kindergarten value. Where did we lose track of it?

Why do we chase after money—Gross National Product—so mindlessly? We should give it some thought.

Actually, Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss, in his chapter on Bhutan has done some thinking about this subject. I’ll let him take over from here:

What do the following events have in common? The war in Iraq. The Exxon Valdez oil spill. The rise in America’s prison population. The answer: They all contribute to our nation’s gross national product, or what’s now referred to as gross domestic product, or GDP, and therefore all are considered “good,” at least in the dismal eyes of economists.

GDP is simply the sum of all goods and services a nation produces over a given time. The sale of an assault rifle and the sale of an antibiotic both contribute equally to the national tally (assuming the sales price is the same). It’s as if we tracked our caloric intake but cared not one whit what kind of calories we consumed. Whole grains or lard—or rat poison, for that matter. Calories are calories.

GDP doesn’t register, as Robert Kennedy put it, “the beauty of our poetry, or the strength of our marriages, or the intelligence of our public debate.” GDP measures everything, Kennedy concluded, “except that which makes life worthwhile.” Nor does GDP take into account unpaid work, the so-called compassionate economy. And elderly person who lives in a nursing home is contributing to GDP while one cared for by relatives at home is not. Indeed, he may be guilty of reducing GDP if his caregivers are forced to take unpaid leave from work. You have to give economists credit. They have taken a vice—selfishness—and converted it into a virtue.

It's probably too much to expect that McCain, Romney, Huckabee, Paul, Gravel, Clinton, or Obama (did I leave anyone still running out?) will get us off our GDP addiction and make GNH
America's priority policy goal, but we can hope.

And do what we can to make our classroom a small, remote corner of America where happiness reigns.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

One Way to Feel Good

When you're recovering from two surgeries in one week, reading is a good thing to do. Right now I'm enjoying Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss---

Weiner talks about an experiment in Japan that you could use at home to help your kids be more helpful and happy. Here is what he wrote in his chapter about a visit to one of the unhappiest countries in the world, the former Soviet Republic of Moldova:

What the Moldovans fail to recognize is the power of selfish altruism. It may sound a bit Sunday school-ish, but helping others makes us feel good. Psychologists at Kobe College in Japan proved this. They divided a group of college students into two groups. One group did nothing differently for a week. The other group was asked to count the number of kind acts they performed during that week. They weren't asked to perform any kind acts, merely to take note of them. After a week, this second group reported a marked jump in happiness levels compared to the control group. "Simply by counting the acts of kindness of one week, people become happier and more grateful," concluded the researchers.

So, how to do this at home? Give your kid a 3 by 5 index card, a golf pencil and something to carry these things around in. A pocket would do. No need to make this complicated.

Ask them to tally their acts of kindness. Maybe jot a word about what the act of kindness was: "MTDWStBsct" Review the card each day. Translate. (They emptied the wastebasket.)

If you try this idea, I think you'd find that it's better than a chore list with money paid for each chore done. It'll be less record keeping for you. Cheaper, for sure. And your kids gets things money never bought: inner self worth, satisfaction, occasions to connect deeply with mom and dad, and, yes, happiness.

And practice writing. Your VISA card can't give your kid practice writing.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Reflections on Being the Classroom Menace

Note: Ari Cowan wrote this in 2002 soon after my "Dennis" story appeared in the Christian Science Monitor. My article and Cowan's are collected in a book edited by Denise Nessel entitled From Dubs to Marbles and published by Xlibris Corporation in 2002. It's available through online booksellers.

By Ari Cowan

I came across an article on the internet which I read with some interest. Dan Gurney, a kindergarten teacher in Petaluma, California, wrote an op-ed piece entitled The Classroom Menace (Christian Science Monitor, April 2, 2002). In it he describes the challenge to the teacher of having a child who acts out to express his discomfort, frustration, and fear. I understood well who that teacher was talking about.

Yesterday my older brother began serving time for a drug trafficking conviction. This is his “second strike.” He can never return home again because our state has a three-strikes law. Neither of my brothers had the good fortune to have a teacher like Gurney. I did.

I was a menace, much like the child Gurney describes in his article. Teachers like him got me in the relentless grip of their compassion, wisdom, understanding, insistence on excellence, and patience. When I showed up at school bloodied and trembling, they made sure I was treated by the school nurse and kept safe. When I was angry, disruptive, intrusive, hurtful, inattentive, or lost, those teachers were there, leading me away from the edge of darkness. I feel the heat from the light of their caring upon me as I write this.

They saved my life.

Miss Henderson. Mrs. Lewan. Miss Reader. Mrs. Nerheim. Miss Nightingale. I remember these teachers. All women. (There were good male teachers but, because I was terrified of men, I never allowed them to get close enough to reach me.) These women were patient, understanding, demanding. I hated them. I did everything I could to turn them away. I didn’t want anyone to know the truth about me—the ugliness, the failings, the repulsive history of my being in the world. In the face of my genius for alienating others, they held fast until the carefully crafted walls I build to keep them out collapsed under the weight of their collective caring.

They were among those who changed my view of the world helping me see beyond terror, suspicion, and dread. Their touch is indelibly upon me and, because of it, I’m forever changed. When people speak to me of “ordinary teachers,” I laugh. What a contradiction in terms. There’s no such thing. To undertake the stewardship of children and teach them is a singularly extraordinary undertaking.

Why is it that I collided with these extraordinary teachers and my brothers did not? I don’t understand. Now I write books and my brother, (a beautiful soul) is doing time. My heart aches.

What am I to do? I can’t repay what I got from those teachers. About the best I can do is pass the gift on. And give thanks, endless thanks.

Ari Cowan
Bellevue, Washington

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Dennis the Classroom Menace

I wrote the following article and it was published on Apr. 2, 2002 in the Christian Science Monitor and other papers around the country. It appears here in a slightly edited form.

Illustration courtesy of James Gurney. There's Dennis on the left.

As a kindergarten teacher, I have important work to do when "Dennis" walks through the door in August.

Dennis isn't his real name, of course, except in the newspaper's comic strip, Dennis the Menace.

Just about every kindergarten has a Dennis (or Denise) in it. He's usually, but not always, a boy. And, he is an important person in the class.

Still, his classmates and their parents seem to wish Dennis were in someone else's school.

Dennis doesn't mind. He's loud. He cuts in line. He pushes. He wants things his way. Sometimes he'll hit someone to get what he wants, especially if no one’s looking. By accident, of course.

He takes too many blocks, knocks over other kids' buildings, and takes off when it's time to put them away.

At story time, when I tell him, "Sit on your bottom!" Dennis gets on his knees. If the story doesn't interest him, he finds someone to annoy, makes a rude noise on purpose, then laughs.

At table time, Dennis paints on his neighbor's paper. He can't use scissors, except to cut someone else's paper.

He likes to play rough at recess. He chases. He takes other kids' bikes without asking. He splashes in puddles.

If someone's in "time out," it's probably Dennis. He's in time out more often than any other child. He's the first one to visit the principal.

He doesn't have friends.

Dennis is a lot of extra work for me. But there is no work more urgent, because helping Dennis is the key to having a successful year.

Here's why: If I can bring out the helpfulness and kindness that's in Dennis, everyone will know that I care for all the members of the class – yes, even Dennis—yes, everyone.

Everyone can relax and feel secure.

Bringing out the best in a child like Dennis takes grit and gumption. There's no fast formula for success. Every Dennis is unique.

Finding the keys to Dennis's heart requires fluctuating combinations of intuition, gentleness, honesty, clear expectations, firm limits, and sensible consequences, all applied with patience, courage, consistency, calmness, and compassion.

To start, it helps to remember to take some slow, deep breaths to find some calm so I may be able to see clearly enough what to do to help him. I must open my heart.

I imagine being in Dennis's place. I breathe in his anger, his fear, his discouragement. I go inside the dark woods and sit there with him. I breathe out calm. Then I see myself through Dennis's eyes, hear my voice through Dennis's ears. Before I say anything, I relax my face. I imagine the kind, wise, and forgiving teacher I would want to help me if I were Dennis.

I give that compassionate teacher a chance to say something, to smile. To understand. To relax and find a way out of the darkness and into the light.

It may take months to earn Dennis's trust. But as winter melts into spring, I see clear signs of change. He sees I understand. Dennis stops denying he's lonely. He wants friends to play with.

Gradually, he's brave enough to try new skills at making friends, at being helpful and caring. He finds pleasure in his new playmates. He cares about what others think of him. He smiles and cooperates.

Gradually, Dennis becomes a likable and well-liked member of the class.

It's not just Dennis who benefits. As the teacher, I benefit. The class feels more secure. I’m happy to come to work because I like Dennis. He’s my bud. Dennis's classmates benefit, too. They know their teacher cares for everyone. Everyone.

There’s a good test to find out if my work with Dennis is really done: I find the most socially aware and outspoken member of the class (usually a girl), take her aside, and say, "I'm such a lucky teacher. What a great class this is! I like every single kid in this class."

If she asks, "Even Dennis?" I know I still have some important work to do.

Tomorrow: A "Dennis" remembers his teachers.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Heidi Sings

Heidi and Mr.Gurney at the California Kindergarten Conference

Kindergarten teachers today have been assigned the work of teaching beginning reading to five and six year olds. State-approved reading programs vary, but most demand that public school kindergarten teachers teach at least 20 sight words by the end of kindergarten.

Sight words are the most common words in early reading materials. Some sight words are easy to teach because they’re single letters or because they exemplify the phonics rules we teach for sounding out words. In this category are words such as “I,” “a,” “like,” and, well, “and,” itself.

Other sight are more difficult because they don’t follow phonics rules. Examples are: “the,” “said,” “of,” and “have.” Students must disregard what they may know about phonics and learn these sight words by rote.

Because rote learning requires sustained attention and effort, we once waited until first grade to teach sight words. A first grader's mind is far more mature than a kindergartner's mind. Waiting until the learner is ready makes good old-fashioned common sense. Wise patience is why we don’t try to toilet train toddlers when they first start walking. We wait.

But educational policy makers are bereft of patient wisdom. Today, we're required to teach reading in kindergarten. Problem is, many kindergartners don’t have much interest in or ability to learn 20+ sight words. The majority of five year olds have not developed attention spans long enough for successful rote learning. So, to satisfy the expectations handed down from on high, we either demand children soldier through lessons that don’t come easily or naturally, or way too often, in desperation, to get the job done, we drug them with Ritalin. How sad!

Or some genius comes along and invents a new more child-friendly approach to teaching early reading.

One such genius is Heidi Butkus, a kindergarten teacher in La Verne, California. She has developed one of the best tools I’ve come across.

I met her at the California Kindergarten Conference last month in Santa Clara.

Heidi’s approach is to teach these sight words using music, movement, and sight. The songs provide a melody to keep repetition pleasant. Movement helps anchor the information kinesthetically while enlisting the body to the task of learning the words. The words to the songs include their spellings. This multi-sensory melange works magic. Most students learn.

I bought Heidi’s DVD for my kindergarten and we play songs from it as part of our daily routine. I can see for sure that works.

You can visit Heidi’s website. If you’d like to give your child extra practice in mastering the sight words, you can order her DVD and play it at home. My recommendation is to buy DVD Collection #1.