Archive for October, 2009

Awareness of mortality

Recently, I was driving in the city with my kids. I saw a woman walking on the sidewalk who looked very, very old. I asked the kids how old they thought she might be. We guessed in her 80s or 90s. Then my daughter (6 years old) asked if the lady was going to die soon. I told her I don’t know but that there was probably a good chance that she would die within the next few years.

We reflected on the fact that everyone dies and no one knows when their time will be. Right then, my youngest son (3 years old) picked up on the conversation. “I don’t want to die!” I looked in the rear-view mirror and could see that he was sincerely horrified at the thought. I tried to say something reassuring, but he whined and tossed his head back-and-forth a bit, “but, no, I don’t want to die!” letting out even a bit of a cry. Fortunately, his mind was onto something else soon enough. Either he got distracted or he accepted this newfound truth after seeing that the rest of us were not particularly worried about it at that moment.

It’s not as if death, dying, and killing were not already a part of his vocabulary. He’ll often play games with other kids, in which wild animals attack and kill each other, or he gets stabbed to death, lying on the ground, playing dead. But this interchange in the car told me in an instant that he actually understood what death was, having assumed it was not something that would ever apply to him (except for when pretending during a shoot-out or fighting match).

So I was struck by two things: 1) the fact that he already understood what death was (inasmuch as any of us can), and 2) the suddenness of his recognition, at 3 years old, that he too would die someday.

I’m not sure what lesson to draw from this, other than a reminder that kids often understand more than we assume they do. So be careful what you say in front of them. They’re always watching and listening. :-)

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Clearwater Is a Swirl of Activity

The new school year is well underway and characterized by great excitement, a mature culture and a wealth of activity. Everyone is happy to be back at school and enters into interactions and activities with focus and anticipation. The days feel very full and fun.

A subset of students initiated and joined in on a number of organized group activities and projects, to the extent that we had to create a weekly schedule just to make sure that activities wouldn't conflict and preclude students involved in more than one from doing all or most of the things they want to do. The master schedule looks like this, for now, with an addition of singing two mornings a week.

In addition to these activities, a large number of students are involved in the cooking class which has created the Clearwater Cafe, the playwriting/acting class and a movement class inspired by student interest in martial arts. Individuals are also involved in guitar, drum, math and French classes, sewing and piano practice. The Clearwater Singers are rehearsing for a December concert. Magic, the Gathering and Settlers of Catan are played on a regular basis again this year.

The newest sport is Whiffleball and an invented variant that can be played in the Active Room. A bus load of students travels to a nearby soccer field at least one day a week. As in all previous years, many students continue to create and develop rich worlds, stories and characters as part of live-action roleplaying games that reflect their particular styles and interests. A film committee selects older or lesser-known movies for movie Fridays. The current movie theme is visions of the future. (More about many of these activities in later posts. Stay tuned.)

The list of specifics doesn't even begin to give a sense of the heart of Clearwater education--the daily work and rewards of creating and re-creating relationships with fellow students and staff members and making constant decisions about how to prioritize one's time, where to focus one's efforts and what it means to be responsible in any given situation.

Students spend time in the art room on a daily or occasional basis.

In the waning days of late summer, intrepid young students braved the creek water, which is much cooler than it was during the summer. Their tolerance for cold water is truly impressive.

To see more photos and snippets of the first weeks of school, click on the link below.

A Magic game in full swing.

Selling delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies to benefit equally the school and themselves.

Working on a sewing project.

Putting the new drum set through it's paces. (More on the new set in a later post.)

Caring for a lame hen.

A monumental, multi-day Lego creation. (More on this later.)

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Mastery, Part 3

See also Part 1 and Part 2.

How do we ensure that kids don’t lose touch with their natural state of being fully engaged, playful, free, and having endless reserves of energy?

One way to approach this question is to identify how kids do lose touch with this natural state of being. Or more specifically, identify what we as a society do to contribute to this loss.

Don’t get me wrong. Growing up is at its very nature a loss of childhood. The idea here isn’t to pretend that kids don’t have to grow up or that they should stay kids forever. On the contrary, kids would never allow such a thing. From the moment they’re born, they’re constantly striving to figure out how to function in this world, and as they grow, their drive to become highly functioning adults only grows. We shouldn’t try to work against that drive or try to “keep them children”.

So the question is not: how can we help them remain childlike? Instead, how can we help them become engaged, playful, free adults? And then—once we observe that they are already engaged, playful, and free as children—how can we ensure that they don’t lose that ability as they grow into adulthood?

The simplest answer that I can think of is this: get out of the way. Our society has shown in general that we don’t know how to do this. Instead, we intervene endlessly.


This is nowhere more evident than in that orphan of industrialization we call traditional schooling. We put our kids into environments—for extended periods of time—in which their freedom, and their ability to play and converse with each other, are severely restricted. We tell them what we think is important to learn and thereby devalue anything they might have otherwise been interested in. We act as if they won’t learn or won’t want to learn anything unless we make them do it. It’s incredibly antithetical to and ignorant of the actual nature of children.

Schools are obsolete, but we as a society don’t realize this. We forget, or never realized, that schools were designed by social engineers at the height of the Industrial Revolution to create a docile, massive workforce in which people aren’t burdened by curiosity and instead are satisfied to do exactly as they are told, day in and day out, making widgets or helping machines make widgets.


People are resilient. While school destroys some, most of us get through it okay, and a number of us go on to live happy, fulfilled lives. But my strong suspicion is that we do so in spite of, not because of, our experience of being traditionally schooled, of having our freedom and play severely restricted for large segments of time during our most formative years. We survive; we don’t thrive as we might have. We conform to the contours imposed by the sliced-up world of academic subjects, and we don’t grow into the actual contours of our abilities and interests—the actual contours of our potential.

When I see a person who is a master at their art or craft, I see a person who has grown into the contours of their potential, a person who has either escaped or overcome the cookie-cutter stamp of traditional schooling.

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Pushing Competition and Damaging Health: Making Play Offensive

If American football were a food additive or a drug, it would be banned by the FDA. Or, if financial interests prevented its banning, its package would at least carry a surgeon general's warning: Football causes brain damage. The evidence that football causes brain damage is now indisputable. But the deleterious effects of our strong focus on winning go beyond football and brain damage. The compulsioin to win, in general, may be bad for our health.

Primary Topic:  Parenting

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Mastery, Part 2

Part 1 concluded with a question:

When do you ever see kids fully engaged, playful, free, and having endless reserves of energy?

When I read that question again, it sounds almost silly. When do you not see kids fully engaged, playful, free, and having endless reserves of energy? Left to their own devices, they seem to find that state automatically! I’m sometimes astonished when I watch kids play, at how deeply a given “game” goes. The imagination seems to never run out. “I’ll be the pirate, and you be the dragon!” “How about…we do this…and then you do that…and then I do this…” ad infinitum. The kids energize each other with their ideas. They’re naturals at what adults often forget and have to re-learn in improv class. And they’ll do this all day if you let them. And the play gets more and more sophisticated and complex, and can span multiple days even.

So maybe I’ve got things backwards. Instead of starting with adults who are masters at what they do and then trying to find ways to introduce such experiences to children, maybe it should be the other way around. Maybe the adults are the ones who need to learn from the children!

I suddenly get the sense that the greatest masters of art, the greatest business people, the greatest athletes—they’re the ones who have somehow maintained a connection with their childhood. They managed to not lose that youthful energy that’s so characteristic of children. They’re children-at-heart; only the scenery and the materials have changed. They’ve moved on from the playground to the business world, for example, but the structure is the same. They’re still playing and having fun and doing what engages them and what they’re good at.

So now here’s my answer to the first question: The structure of mastery is no better exemplified than in a child at play. The problem isn’t one of finding out how to help kids be masters. The question instead should be: How do we ensure that kids don’t lose touch with such natural states of being?

That sounds like a good question to address in Part 3. :-)

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All In Favor Of Honesty?

“She wouldn’t play with me, even after I asked her!”balance-409

She’s young and she’s upset. Her friends at school console her in the stairwell when she cries about the incident. Staff members, including me, check in, see she’s upset but okay, and move on. Although the intricacies of why these friends are in conflict are lost on me, whatever happened out on the swings really matters to them. I listen to their concerns, but do not try to “fix’ their dispute, leaving them in the capable hands of an older student.

Although the adults at other places may intervene, here is where our school culture stands: the other girl does not have to play with her if she doesn’t want to, even if her friend is very upset. Our students have the right to decide their playmates. Many, many elements compose the educational experience of Fairhaven and other Sudbury schools, including an array of freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and  freedom of thought. Add to these freedom of assembly, a civic right that usually calls to mind people gathering to protest government actions or policies. The right of our students to play with whomever they want, and to not play with whomever they don’t want, is perhaps a cousin to their freedom of assembly.

If curiosity compels me to dig into why someone doesn’t want to play with someone else, there’s almost always a compelling reason. Sometimes it is “I want to be alone,” but more often a it is version of  “she’s not nice.”

Welcome to the world of honest feedback, people. At Fairhaven School, we value candor. A recent School Meeting had many questions and comments for Judicial Committee (JC) candidates, questions that did not pull punches about their qualifications for the crucial job of overseeing the system that maintains order at school:

“Both of you are intense and passionate, and you’ve had problems with each other. Do you really think you can work together?”

“No offense, but sometimes when you ran it before, JC was really slow.”

“Because you stay up too late, sometimes you lose focus during JC.”

Straightforward debate and inquiry, the lifeblood of a free society, is a hallmark of our school culture, nowhere more than at School Meeting. After hearing what her peers said, one JC Clerk candidate smiled knowingly, nodding. She did not storm out of the room. She knows herself and is comfortable with hearing about her shortcomings. After everyone had their say, including the candidates, the School Meeting Chair called for a show of hands: “all in favor of Lucy and Daisy for Clerks?” He counted hands. “All opposed?”

Every six weeks, we elect new clerks, and often people do not succeed. School Meeting members (staff and students) have a keen sense of who’s qualified for the complexity of running daily judicial meetings. One student tried for years before getting elected. Each May, candidates for staff undergo the same rigorous scrutiny during our staff election process. (Nobody has tenure at Fairhaven.) Is this candor difficult? At times. Is it beneficial? Absolutely. In a transparent, honest, democratic community, people at Fairhaven tend to know where they stand.  Establishing this culture has taken time, but could there be a better starting place for healthy development than “knowing where one stands?”

Ten minutes later, the stairwell is quiet again. The girls have worked out their differences. Despite a little redness around her eyes, the upset girl seems fine. Or maybe she’s a little better than fine, because she’s on firm footing as she runs out back, laughing with her friends on the way to the swing set  for another go at this thing called life.

Mark McCaig

October, 2009

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Mastery, Part 1

Isn’t it a wonderful thing when you witness someone doing something they were just designed to do? Think of masters of their art: musicians, actors, singers, dancers. Or in sports, think of people like Michael Jordan. There seems to be a match between who they are and what they’re doing, such that the lines between the person and the activity get blurred. You stop seeing a person doing something and start seeing a single phenomenon, beautiful in its purity. There’s no part of the art that isn’t engaged by the person and there’s no part of the person that isn’t engaged by the art. They’re doing what they were made to do. I’m sure you can think of lots of examples.

Here’s an example that I liked, Jason Mraz singing “I’m Yours” live in Korea. You can tell that he chose the right career (and of course millions of fans agree).

In every case that I can think of, in addition to the aspect of full engagement, another essential element is play, or playfulness. This is sometimes more explicit in the case of improvisational arts. But even in highly structured contexts, such as a pianist performing a piece of classical music or an actress performing her lines, there is so much that can be improvised, if not the notes or the words themselves. The master has a freedom that they’ve built up from their talent and discipline and hard work, such that now it looks effortless, and they can experiment in the moment, playing with possibilities, trying things out, exploring new pathways.

Another aspect: seemingly endless reserves of energy. These performers just keep on going and going. Encore after encore. I have a neighbor who is studying tap dancing in New York City. He was made for his art. I can’t believe how long he can keep dancing in a single evening. His shirt might be drenched with sweat, but he keeps going and going, drawing energy from the enthusiastic crowd.

So how does one reach one’s full potential? How can we help kids have experiences like this? How can we find out what activities, or art forms, or sports, or careers will match up with who they are? More importantly, how will they find out what fits them, what they enjoy doing, what they’re good at doing?

The inimitable Guy Sidora in action

The inimitable Guy Sidora in action

How does someone like Guy Sidora invent a new art form, a new way of teaching, a completely unique career not heretofore invented? A combination of speech and bouncing balls and sound and movement that perfectly fits who he is and what his talents are.

First, my hypothesis: practice makes perfect. More specifically, if you can create experiences like the above for yourself, you should keep on doing it and let it develop fully into the particularities of who you want to be and what you want to do. If we can identify moments like the above in the lives of children, we should see to it that they keep on with it. They’re on the right path to mastery. They’ve captured the structure of the experience, even if they’re still exploring what details will ultimately work best for them as they approach adulthood.

So, before returning with part 2 of this article, I’ll leave you with a question to ponder: When do you ever see kids fully engaged, playful, free, and having endless reserves of energy?

To be continued…

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Clearwater is Snohomish County’s First Rain Garden Project

Our rain garden was featured in the Snohomish Conservation District's Fall Newsletter. Unfortuantely, the article is a PDF so I can only link without graphics. This is part of the Clearwater Reach grant project.

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Reasoning with a 3-year-old

Little boy thinkingTo some, this blog post title might sound like an oxymoron. On many days, it seems that way to me. On the other hand, when I’ve taken the time to truly try and connect with my 3-year-old son, it’s amazing what kind of mutual understanding we can have.

He has been going through a phase of wanting things to be a particular way and then getting upset when it doesn’t turn out that way. (Actually, that sounds like most adults when I put it that way.) But they’re ridiculous things like, “I want to go with you to get my glass of water! Put it back, leave it there, come back upstairs, and then we’ll go down together!!!” Over and over again.

But yesterday, during one of these moments, I took some time to speak calmly with him, go into the other room, and get through to him (distracting him from his current pain and frustration). I explained how he doesn’t have to be a slave to his every desire. Of course, “slave” and “desire” are still big words for most 3-year-olds. So I demonstrated what I meant. I pretended to be the slave, while he was my master. He told me to do different things and I reluctantly but obediently did everything he told me to do. Pick up this, move that, go over there. That way he could get the concept of “slave”. Then I told him how he was acting like a slave to the things that he said he wanted. I told him he has a choice and he could choose not to be a slave. He could also choose to want something different. Right then, our eyes met and I could see he understood at a real, significant level. He instantly let out a big sigh, and said, “Okay”.

It was a nice moment of connection. I cherish moments of connection like this. But I think there’s a prerequisite to having these moments: you have to respect your child’s ability to reason and understand. And to respect that ability, you have to acknowledge they have this capacity in the first place.

This may seem obvious, but I challenge you to evaluate your own behavior. Are you acting as if you believe your child has the ability to reason and understand? And are you respecting their feelings? I challenge you, regardless of your child’s age. In our culture, it’s acceptable to treat kids of all ages with disrespect and disregard. To respect your kids as human beings, you have to resist some things that are culturally acceptable.

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Mimsy Sadofsky on play and talking

The Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) recently posted a free video recording of Mimsy Sadofsky’s keynote speech at the 2006 AERO conference. Mimsy is a founder and current staff member of Sudbury Valley School. I had the good fortune of meeting her at the SVS staff conference last summer. The video is rather long, but here are some quotes worth transcribing.

On innate curiosity and survival in the 21st century:

Every child has a deep drive to become a highly functioning member of the adult society into which he or she was born. That’s what survival is about in today’s terms. And curiosity is the tool that guarantees survival.

On how traditional schooling messes things up:

All children have done a great deal of exploration on their own before they begin in school. They’re channeled into specific curricula usually once they’re part of a school setting. With enough exposure to learning things in the way that other people have chosen, with enough time learning what other people have chosen for that person—at the time that others find it important—most students lose touch with their own curiosity. Most children become less effective learners each year that they spend being taught by others.

On the importance of conversation (a.k.a. talking) to a person’s development:

It’s not only the way we are exposed to new ideas and to find ways to refine them and to make them more sensible and strong. It’s the way to get into another person’s head; it’s the only way to really get into another person’s head and incorporate what they think into what you think. And we engage in it for long periods of time, every single day of our lives.

What that should mean for our approach to education:

Children should be in situations for most of their waking hours in which there are opportunities for real and intense exchange of ideas through talking. To have conversation restricted thwarts their education.

On the importance of play:

The other major area of learning for people is through play. Play is following a path of action or thought freely…We each have our favorite kinds of play. And often when we think about it, the kinds of things that are our favorite kind of play are the things that restore our spirits, the things we return to when we need a lift. Play is vitally important to creativity. If one cannot be free to follow new paths, one can’t accomplish much….Not only do you accomplish things while you’re playing, you reinforce the knowledge that you’re someone who can always accomplish more, who can push your own boundaries. Through play, you get in touch with yourself as a creative human being. Through play, your horizons expand constantly. There’s nothing more important, from the earliest age on.

Schools (including Sudbury schools) did not invent these “methods of education”—play and talking. They’re natural and automatic and they work extremely well. The genius of a Sudbury school, in my mind, is the acknowledgment of these realities and the creation of a structure in which they can both flourish freely. Of course, there’s more to it than that, and Mimsy goes into these as well, such as the nature of participatory democracy, how School Meeting functions, how discipline is handled through Judicial Committee, etc. Some essential ingredients that go into creating the structure in which play and talking and thus learning can flourish: respect for people of all ages, freedom to pursue one’s interests, and responsibility to create and uphold agreements in one’s community.

But my biggest takeaway is Mimsy’s affirmation of what I’ve been learning over and over again. Two “secret” ingredients of any person’s education, regardless of what school they go to, are play and talking. The Sudbury approach is to let kids go as deep as they want in both areas. The traditional schooling approach is to drastically restrict both and then replace them with time spent doing something else. Relative merits of “something else” can be discussed, but that’s telling it like it is.

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