Saturday, February 21, 2015

Takeaways from the Refresher Course (part 1)

This years AMI refresher course in Atlanta was a huge inspiration and affirmation of the great things that can happen in a Montessori classroom. Directly from my notes, here are some of the takeaways (in my own words and interpretations) from the presentations.

From the keynote speaker, researcher Alison Gopnik (author of "The Scientist in the Crib"): 

*Childhood is stage of human life that is defined by the brain's need for exploration. The agenda of the child is to learn through play. Defined basically, "babies are for learning".

I love it that I work with an age group that is defined by wanting to creatively explore things and whose brains are primed for learning all the time. When I think of how those characteristics change, it really makes the children seem like a different species. If I try to imagine an adult with a mind like a four year olds, it is a scary thing. However, to have all that in my face all morning long is really exciting and wonderful. 

*Research shows that when an adult shows a child exactly how to work with new material saying something like "Let me show you how this works", she is limiting the child's own drive to manipulate the material creatively. Instead if she introduced the material by saying something like "I wonder how this works?" the child is more likely to deeply explore the material. 

This was really an eye opener for me. There was a lot said about it later on in the Primary presentation. About giving lessons that "destroy the possibility of imitation." It was one of the big points I took with me.

From Primary trainer, Sarah Werner Andrews from Montessori Northwest:

*Children's explorations challenge us at teachers. While we observe, we often ask ourselves "Did they learn what I intended?"

I ask myself this often when I observe after giving a lesson. When I sometimes don't see the child doing exactly as I showed I am sometimes quick to jot down - re-present lesson. Instead, I could spend a little more time actually noticing what the child received from the lesson and whether their own exploration of the material may lead to the purposes. They may take a different road than the one I laid out.

*To become a better teachers, we have to become better observers.

Interpreting the children's interactions with the materials and with each other is the key to finding out what they are actually interested in learning. So much of what was said about observation reminded me of the great course on Observation that is offered by the CGMS.

*Children need to feel safe and secure in order to carry out their work of exploration. Their relationship with the adults is crucial for these feelings of safety.

If the environment is too rigid, the children will probably feel too insecure to actually manifest in full their tendency for exploration. There has to be a feeling of friendliness with mistakes, and of openness and curiosity expressed especially by the adults so that the children can really dive deep in what is before them.

*The adults perception of the child is more powerful than the child's actual behavior. It's not the child itself that bothers the adult, it's the idea of the behavior or the child that does it. In order to change the adults perception of the child, spending some time connecting with the child in a child centered, non-directive activity is the key.

I recommend this so often to parents who come with complaints about their children's behavior at home. It is like a miracle cure. Twenty minutes of connecting time, just fun together. I've found it so helpful and loved to hear the trainer talk about it. It reminds me much of the Conscious Discipline training I have been taking for several years. Connection is one of the main foundations for learning.

*Trust the learning to the child. Part of trusting the child is to understand that mistakes are part of the the learning.

I often forget that the child will learn all by himself if I offer what I have and then get out of the way. Sometimes I feel responsible for what he must learn and micromanage the work a little more. I've been finding in the last years that trusting the group is a huge part of the step towards normalization, to trust that children want to learn and will do it as long as there is space. What I often find is that the more space I give them, the more I trust their choices, the greater their learning becomes. If I step in too early to solve problems, I sometimes rob them of the opportunity to exercise their own self regulation.

*When connecting the child to the environment, notice Who chooses the work, and What is motivating the choice? Sometimes we make the child obey in form but not in substance.

In order for children to really want to explore a material, it usually has to be self chosen. I think about the children who have not yet learned to make consistent choices and how if I am rescuing them all too often and making the choices for them, the quality of their work will probably not be great. They will do it once or twice and then put it back on the shelf. I know how important it is for children to learn to make their own choices, but sometimes the wandering and observing others probably is the fuel for developing the interests that will translate into more meaningful work.

*Give presentations that destroy the possibility of imitation.

This was one of my favorite things said at the refresher. The idea that children don't necessarily have to do exactly what you showed or be limited by the presentation. The idea that you are giving a suggestion and asking through the presentation- "I wonder how this works..." And that the teacher's parameter for knowing whether or not the work is meaningful is to understand the purpose of the material. If the purpose is being honored, even in some initially unrecognizable way, the exploration is probably valid.

*There are different kinds of presentations: Directive ones (like the teen boards), Process ones (like cleaning a plant), and Exploratory ones (like the knobless cylinders).

Each kind of presentation will have a different kind of response from the child. Understanding what kind of presentation best suits the purpose of the material will really help with giving a lesson that conveys that purpose clearly.

*Exploration needs boundaries. The purpose of the material is the constraint, even the material itself, but not the content of what can be learned. Specific, limited materials in the classroom doesn't mean a specific, limited curriculum.

"Thoughtful limits release learning. They help the child ask more questions instead of just finding "the answer" and being "done". " (from Education for a New World)

This made me feel that I still have such a long way to go with learning how to be a better observer. Glancing across the classroom when almost everyone is connected to a material deserves a much closer look into what each child is learning from his connection to the material. What endless beautiful work. :)

Friday, January 30, 2015

Systems of Independence

Last week, my assistant and I sat together for an online one hour seminar by Becky Bailey from edWeb which was free and great. Any opportunity to listen to that lady talk is worth ones while, and one sentence that has stuck with me since was this:

"Instead of thinking,
How do I MAKE the children to do ______________
transition to
How do I help the children become independent and successful at doing ___________________."

A version of that is what we do all the time in the classroom, but hearing it put that way, as two opposing statements was very clear and helpful to me. Sometimes, because my assertive voice and piercing eyes can instantly persuade a child to stop doing something, I lose the opportunity to take note and teach instead of correct. The power spoils the key and uses the pickax.  

What a difference it makes to be problem solving in terms of their independence and success at the tasks. I'm trying to find the sustainable solutions that they can carry out on their own without a police to regulate the smooth functioning of the small society of our classroom.

These days as I spend some time observing in my stool, I look at the glitches, the moments where there is conflict or hurt, and think about how to help the children succeed through that difficulty independently. I brainstorm the lessons right there from the observation stool and they become the lesson plan for the next day.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Unfold, leaf by leaf. Become more and more intimate with life. Ask no cold question of any joyous thing. Go to all living things gently, listening for the wonder of the breath and the heartbeat. Ask all successful and happy creatures for a clue."

--Stuart P. Sherman

Monday, September 8, 2014

Things I love about primary aged children.

There are things that I particularly love about working with children ages 3-6.
Although my mind and way of being would probably better suit me in a classroom full of elementary age children with their questions about the universe, I think I belong with the ones who are historyless, the present ones. 

That's the first thing. Children of this age group are unforgivingly present. Being with them requires quality of attention, no mental multitasking. They teach me constantly to drop the six other things I'm thinking about to really see and be where I am with them. The joys are enormous, the sadnesses cavernous, it is transparent and wild, like the presence of animals.  Wildness, yes. The classroom is a wilderness.

If you look hard enough, but really not that hard, you can see that  forgiveness is their way of being at this age. They have a natural compassion. When do we lose that capacity in growing up? How many bruises before we learn to carry grudges and fear? I watch the children in their unfiltered learning process, constantly making mistakes, getting up over and over and over again. Hurting each other and making up a dozen times a day. Capable of full absolution to themselves and others. Their language for compassion is so much more subtle than that of adults (like Eskimos have all those words for snow, little children have a million ways to say "sorry.") When do we forget those subtle ways?

There is such a boldness in their way of learning. Unafraid as they pick up a new language, a movement, a skill. They try and try and try as long as I don't get in the way to offer judgement or help when it is unasked for. I'd love to learn like that again, without the self consciousness and doubt. With such conviction. To regain those powers of childhood, even for moments of the day. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


We have a lunch program at our school, which is a great responsibility. We've run it for seven years and it has had its ups and downs. Being in control of all the snacks and lunches in the children's day means we also have great power in helping them create a varied palate and solid nutritional habits. That's all great when children are willing to eat most of what we provide. Brown bread? Sure! Tomatoes? Yay! Spinach? Sure!

However, at the beginning of the year we are often confronted with children who are not only in the process developing trust in the adults at school and the other children, but on top of it, are only becoming familiar and trusting of our foods. This process can take some time.

We've tweaked and varied our approach to the presentation of our meals and lunch routine always with the intention of helping the children become independent in their ability to enjoy a healthy meal. I found a website a few weeks ago that described in a way I found very helpful and in accordance with Montessori, the relationship between adults and children when it comes to food. (See below)


Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility in Feeding

Children develop eating competence step-by-step throughout the growing-up years when they are fed according to a stage-appropriate division of responsibility. At every stage, parents take leadership with feeding and let the child be self-directed with eating.

The division of responsibility for infants:
  • The parent is responsible for what
  • The child is responsible for how much (and everything else)
Parents choose breast- or formula- feeding, help the infant be calm and organized, then feed smoothly, paying attention to information coming from the baby about timing, tempo, frequency, and amounts.

The division of responsibility for older babies making the transition to family food

  • The parent is still responsible for what, and is becoming responsible for when and where the child is fed.
  • The child is still and always responsible for how much and whether to eat the foods offered by the parent.
Based on what the child can do, not on how old s/he is, parents guide the child’s transition from nipple feeding through semi-solids, then thick-and-lumpy food, to finger food at family meals.

The division of responsibility for toddlers through adolescents:

  • The parent is responsible for what, when, where
  • The child is responsible for how much and whether
Fundamental to parents’ jobs is trusting children to decide how much and whether to eat. If parents do their jobs with feeding, children do their jobs with eating:
Parents' feeding jobs:
  • Choose and prepare the food
  • Provide regular meals and snacks
  • Make eating times pleasant
  • Show children what they have to learn about food and mealtime behavior
  • Be considerate of children’s food inexperience without catering to likes and dislikes
  • Not let children have food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times
  • Let children grow up to get bodies that are right for them
Children's eating jobs:
  • Children decide how much they will eat or whether to eat at all
  • They will eat the amount they need (according to their body needs)
  • They will learn to eat the food their parents eat if that is what is offered
  • They will grow predictably
  • They will learn to behave well at mealtime (with the example and help of their parents)
For more about feeding, see Ellyn Satter’s Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense.


We've changed our lunch routine over the years and found some key helpful aspects:

*We have lunch immediately after the 3 hour morning work period at 11:45am.

*A pair of alternating older children serve the others as they arrive. The meal is served complete on one plate or bowl, a small dessert bowl (always fruit), and a glass of water. Serving in this style allows children to eat what they enjoy most first and whet their appetite for the other things on their plates. It hast also considerably cut down on waste, and created a more relaxed atmosphere since there is no confusion about whether or not there will be seconds.

*Children eat as much or as little of what is offered. We don't negotiate about foods. Our way to encourage tasting is to offer (almost daily) tasting lessons in the classroom that are related to foods we will offer later at lunch.

*We've created a rotating 9 week menu that's based on simple, nutritious, and whole foods. The rotating menu creates enough predictability and familiarity for the children with the items offered which hopefully will lead to independence.

*Three children sit at each table, instead of our former long table serving setting. This creates a more intimate atmosphere and really sweet socializing among the children in each small table. The volume of our lunchtime is much lower because of this!

By the time I make it to the lunchroom, there is a soft buzz as children converse, eat and look out of our windows. It is a pleasant meal!

We've been working a lot more diligently on grace and courtesy for lunchtime which has also helped remarkably with independence during eating and cleaning up. Sometimes it just takes this many years to figure out something that works.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

I am me

by Virginia Satir

In all the world, there is no one else exactly like me
Everything that comes out of me is authentically me
Because I alone chose it – I own everything about me
My body, my feelings, my mouth, my voice, all my actions,
Whether they be to others or to myself – I own my fantasies,
My dreams, my hopes, my fears – I own all my triumphs and
Successes, all my failures and mistakes Because I own all of
Me, I can become intimately acquainted with me – by so doing
I can love me and be friendly with me in all my parts – I know
There are aspects about myself that puzzle me, and other
Aspects that I do not know – but as long as I am
Friendly and loving to myself, I can courageously
And hopefully look for solutions to the puzzles
And for ways to find out more about me – However I
Look and sound, whatever I say and do, and whatever
I think and feel at a given moment in time is authentically
Me – If later some parts of how I looked, sounded, thought
And felt turn out to be unfitting, I can discard that which is
Unfitting, keep the rest, and invent something new for that
Which I discarded – I can see, hear, feel, think, say, and do
I have the tools to survive, to be close to others, to be
Productive to make sense and order out of the world of
People and things outside of me – I own me, and
therefore I can engineer me – I am me and
(thank you Ursula)