Sunday, March 29, 2015

The decisive element

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

Haim Ginott (1972)

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Smoothing the flow.

I was fortunate enough to have had the chance to ask a fellow teacher to observe our flow routine during a day of observation at our school. Her fresh eyes were able to see the moments where the routine of our day was getting us "stuck" and the transition times that were disrupting the calm flow of our day. With her help we made some changes that have really helped our schedule feel like a more gentle passing of moments instead of the stop and go, and bunch of control mechanisms necessary to get all the children to "now do this" and "now we are going to do this other thing."

Our schedule is blocked very simply:

8:00-8:45 Arrival and outdoor free play
8:45-11:45  Morning work period
11:45-12:15 Lunch
12:15-1:00 Outdoor free play
1:00-2:00 Afternoon work period and dismissal

Transitions among the blocks of time are signalled non-verbally. In the morning, I hang up a sign on the classroom door that lets children know the classroom is available. Outside, Noemi sees the sign and also invites children a few at a time to come to the classroom. The environment gradually becomes fully populated. When it is time to cleanup for lunch, a sign is hung on the lunchroom door to let children know lunch is available.

We divided the lunch tables into groups and have painted marks on the clock that let children in each group know when it is time to cleanup to go outside. Children who finish all their food can cleanup as soon as they are ready without having to wait for the clock sign. The sign is mostly for those who take a longer time to eat and 30 minutes is the limit for eating.

Since last year we have eliminated scheduled whole group lessons including any variation of circle time. Although we occasionally have group meetings, all group lessons in our room are optional attendance. During meetings or when we present something that is interesting enough for all children to want to join,  I notice there are always one or two or three children who continue to be engrossed in their own work and prefer not to join. This includes birthdays. Having a choice to participate in the lesson or not also gives me leverage with the children who DO choose to join about what participation looks like. It is obviously more difficult to manage a larger group lesson so we practice how to sit and join lessons, how to listen and observe, and what to do if you want to say something during the lesson.

Since there is no set time for these group lessons, we can do them when it is most convenient for our group. Sometimes I have a very exciting lesson planned and decide not to give it, because most of the children are engaged in their own work. It has taken time for me to develop the patience and humility to be able to say, "my lesson can wait." (And that means sometimes a day or two.)

The morning free play time I've also found to be a great moment for me to gather small groups in the classroom to practice grace and courtesy that may be specific to a smaller group of children.

Some days the environment calls for more small group lessons during the work period because there is less individual concentrated work happening, and other days I am giving individual lessons and observing for the whole work period. It varies depending on the needs of the group on that particular day. I actually enjoy this fluctuating level of normalization, when there is lots of opportunity for small group lessons it just means I get to play more games and that is also fun.

(Thank you Carol, for being our fresh eyes and sounding board often.)

Wait and see what happens.

“If a child approaches another child at work, should the teacher protect the child who works? This poses a problem in the teacher’s mind. We must remember that the child comes to school not only to work with the
material, but also to have social experiences. Amongst these social experiences is self-defense. To observe how one child defends himself from another child is interesting. We know that the energies of two children of the same age are more or less of the same intensity. When the teacher disturbs the child, it is like a big animal falling on top of the child. If a lion or a hippopotamus came near us, our nerves could not stand it! However, if another child disturbs him, he is just a comrade, a companion who comes around to help...

“Therefore, if one child goes near another child to grab a pencil, we must wait and see how the child reacts to this interruption. A child who disturbs another child at work may be send away at first, but may return persistently till the first one says, -‘All right, let us do it together!’ The two children may sit next to each other and start to work with the same material; a sort of association may arise between them while working together, helping each other to carry out an exercise.

“On the other hand, the child who is working may not give in. In both cases there has been a social experience, an experience leading to social adaptation. We must consider that if we defend one child from the interruption of another, the child may carry on with this work. However, his interest in the activity may
have been so great that he would have returned to take up the work later on. In the meantime, he would not have had the social experience needed for his character building. If the teacher constantly defended the child, he would never be able to defend himself. It is therefore important for the teacher to observe all that happens in this small world, where individual strengths are more or less equal.”

Montessori, Creative Development of the Child Vol 2, pp.32-33

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


He has all the children, the moms and dads, and the chairs singing... this is one of my favorites.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Genius Tweaks

It takes me a long time to refine the environment or the way we do things so that they work most fluidly and efficiently. Here are a few of my favorite (recent) tweaks:

*Music instruments round.

I love to sing with the children and use instruments. We have all kinds of instruments from around the world that we've collected over the years and it's really fun to take them out and play together as a group. However, in our space and with the amount of children that we have when each child has an instrument the activity becomes a ludicrous cacophony. A few weeks ago I took out only a handful of instruments, and whoever wanted to participate sat with us in a circle and I distributed the five or six instruments to every fifth or so child in the circle. At the end of each song, the instrument got passed along to the next person. In this way, the singing was audible and enjoyable, the instruments were happily played and shared, and the children wanted to sing more and more songs because they were eagerly awaiting turns with all the instruments (that didn't happen). This arrangement changed my life.

*Nonverbal cleanup signs.

We have a sign that goes on the door when the lunchroom is available. We've been practicing what to do when you see the sign on the door (because children LOVE to announce its appearance loudly to everyone else.) We now have one for the afternoon when it's time to clean up to go home. Practicing what to do when you see the sign has helped make the transition to lunch and to going home much smoother, happier and independent.

*Routine booklets.

We've had these for a while but I made one today that is called "Working in the classroom" that tells the story of what we do in the classroom (in very broad terms) and features photos of the children themselves doing those things. I've made it to remind some of the four year olds who are in a kind of work limbo, of all that's available (and therefore what is NOT available to do as well.) These booklets live on the shelf and get chosen often by children (and teachers) and have photos and simple text defining the sequences of how we do certain things (Using the Bathroom, Lunchtime, Using the Library, Eating Snack, etc.) It's like an extension of grace and courtesy lessons that's always available to remind yourself of how to do something. These booklets are super helpful, but this new series and another one I'm working on about living in a community is going to be so great!

*"Quiet as a mouse" and other visual reminder cards.

We have a set of cards that I can't live without. One is a picture of a huge ear (Listen only), another is of a child with a hand raised (Taking turns talking), and the third is of a tiptoeing mouse with a finger on its mouth (Quiet as a mouse). The first two we've used for a long time for when we have large group lessons, or visitors, or other times when it's not so clear whose turn is it to talk and when.  The new card "Quiet as a mouse" is for showing to a person when they are being a little too loud. Since noise makes more noise, shushing or even whispering doesn't work (they can't hear our whispering over the other noise) so, a flash of the card (which is a friendly and kind of funny illustration) helps. I've recently made the cards available to the children as well so that they can also use them if they are giving a lesson, showing a game, or just needing a friend to lower the volume. 

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. :)