Friday, March 23, 2012

Smoothing the Flow

The idea of flow has been a lot on my mind lately. I'm reading a book called "Design in Nature" about how everything that moves is constantly self organzing into the most efficient pattern (which is why rivers, lightning bolts, and leaf veins among many things have the same design). At the refresher course, there was a section on improving the flow of the day in the classroom, in which the book "Flow" by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi was referenced as well. I've been noticing what obstructions (structural/organizational) are preventing smooth transitions in the flow of our day at school.

Here's what I notice:

Arrival: Children at our school are free to arrive between 7:45 and 8:15. They are dropped off at the gate of the school and they walk independently up to the classroom, wash their hands, greet the teachers and then begin their school day. The preparation for the day (moistening sponges, taking down chairs, opening windows, setting up the snack table, folding the dry laundry, sweeping the walkway) is left for them to do voluntarily as they arrive. These types of preparations for the day have helped children who are not yet ready to choose work from the shelves as soon as they arrive. However, this arrival time stretches occasionally and we sometimes have children saunter in at 8:45 or even later. Creating a narrower window of arrival times will help us transition into more focused work more quickly.

Outside time: After the three hours of work, we invite children one at a time to put their work away and go outside until our lunch is ready. I think it is very important to make it clear to the children (and to myself) that this outside time is choice based (there might be children that prefer to stay in the classroom and continue working). This is possible in our setup because the outdoor environment is right outside of the classroom door.

I'd love to make this transition non-verbal as well by establishing a signal for it. My friend Annie has a picture frame that flips both ways, one side is a bird in a nest, the other, the bird in flight. Establishing a signal like that for children who would like to go outside before lunch would involve less adult intervention and be less intrusive to the children who would prefer to stay and work.

For those who are outdoors, we can invite one child to remind others when lunch is ready.

Lunch: Our lunch routine is fairly smooth. We have a small lunch area with four large tables arranged to seat six people. Children have a designated place to sit at lunch. Teachers sit at the head of three tables, and the last table is where the third year children sit together. The heads of each table serve the others. Our lunch is prepared in the school by a teacher and three children every day.

Yesterday in a conversation with my assistant, we came up with the idea of having a "concert lunch" one day a week. This came about when she noticed that it would be good to find a way to help children be more mindful during lunch of tasting and really enjoying their food, and and perhaps play down the overt socialization which sometimes dominates the meal. We will pick one day a week to play a CD while we have lunch, and invite the children to only listen and taste. One day a week of no conversation at lunch might help with mindfulness. I look forward to trying this out!

Back to work: As children finish eating, they wash their dishes and go back to the classroom. In the classroom, one person sets up the toothbrushes for everyone next to our sink. Children return to their work calmly most of the time.

End of day: When it's time to begin our clean up for the end of the day, I sometimes ring a bell to signal to everyone to put their work away. I'm trying to move away from this because I think the bell sometimes creates a frenzy effect and children get excited about the transition and then there it a LOT of energy to deal with. This week I will try a new routine. I will play music to signal it's time to begin to clean up. We don't have a clean up chart to designate the end of the day tasks, so I'll be making that this weekend. When the music starts to play children can put their work away and go to the chart and see what their task is for that week. The music will be classical to help with the energy, a "classical clean up".

Pick up time: What we've been doing at school for pick up time is to let parents come through the gate when children start to come out of the classroom. They hang out sometimes and talk, others are more in a hurry to leave right away. My original vision was that this would help parents get to know one another better and help build our community.

However, this has not worked well for us for several reasons. The children get very excited to have all those parents there, and they also want to stay and play before going home. Transition anxieties are really clear at this time, and sometimes translate into unsafe behavior. Parents sometimes struggle to get their children to go with them, and sometimes the pattern is unclear or inconsistent for the children.

Another reason why this has not worked so well is that often parents (I'm guilty of this as well) want to have conversations with me about their children with the children present.

We decided to change it this week to be more like the "carpool model" that I've seen at other schools. As parents arrive and wait by the gate, we bring their child to them. This establishes a clear pattern for the child.

I'd be really interested if anyone has suggestions of transition changes or signals that they use in their environment that are really effective to share in the comments!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Simple Gifts

I don't know how this song escaped me, but I heard it for the first time at the refresher course in Dallas. I consider myself fortunate enough to have met the song when it was being sung by like, three hundred super enthusiastic Montessori teachers. I can't wait to share it with the children. It's my favorite song now.

Simple Gifts

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'Tis a gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
Will be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend, we will not be ashamed,
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right

(Shaker traditional poem)

Friday, March 16, 2012


"You don't have to be singing about love all the time in order to give love to the people."

Jimi Hendrix

No, you don't. You can be singing about being a cow (that's right), and singing the word "beets" over and over again, and lots of songs about bells.

Here's our sing along line up for anyone interested:

1. Our school community song
2. The National Anthem of Aruba (children sang the chorus)
3. I am a cow (version from "Singing in the Kitchen")
4. Mary Mack (version from Ella Jenkins)
5. Clap your hands together (with home made instruments, version from "Singing in the Kitchen)
6. Row row row your boat (traditional round)
7. I love the mountains (traditional round)
8. A ram sam sam (traditional round)
9. Oh how lovely is the evening (traditional round)
10. Sugar snap peas (version from "Singing in the Kitchen"
11. Mister Moon (I learned it from my Montessori training and don't quite know where it's from)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

All Together Singing in the Classroom

A few months ago while browsing through books, I came across a little gem of a book called "All Together Singing in the Kitchen" by Katrina and Nerissa Nields. The hand drawn pictures, and the simple and honest writing style drew me in immediately. The book feels like home. I'd been searching for music resources to enrich and reinvigorate our music curriculum at school and I've also been very interested in using music to deepen the sense of community and empathy among the children (and school community). I think singing is the vocal equivalent of walking on the line.

The book is filled with practical ideas on how to incorporate songs and music into daily life with kids. There are chapters on singing, movement, games, listening, making musical instruments, and creating musical traditions. There were so many valuable bits in it, that after finishing the book, we started incorporating much from it in our classroom immediately.

One place in particular where it had a major influence was in our yearly sing along. The sing along is basically an evening where the families come to celebrate the community through song. In the past, our sing alongs have had a feel of performance- children sitting on one side of the room, and parents loaded with cameras sitting on the other side. (I have lots of thoughts about how taping the whole thing, or even business with pictures puts a barrier between the camera holder and the present moment, but that's subject for another time.)

This year we changed all that, and moved away from the feel of performance towards a more collaboration friendly arrangement. The seating arrangement was of two concentric circles, the inner circle for the children, and the outer one for their parents. Several things were accomplished with just this simple change of seating:

*Children felt the support of their parents who were sitting right behind them (some of them took little breaks during the singing to sit in their parents laps and then returned to their chairs).

*It no longer felt like a performance because we were all at the same level and doing it together (something about adults in child size chairs and how one child stood up in the middle of a song, used the restroom- we heard the toilet flush- and returned to his chair to resume the song). In a more stage like setting this would have been perceived differently.

*Children were seated directly in front of their parents (with their backs to them), so people's view was of other families and other children (instead of a stage setting where they tend to only focus on their child)

*Even though we have a beautiful little garden and it was decked out with christmas lights, we sang indoors (where it was stuffy and cramped). We maximised sound in this way- even when we sang softly, it was audible. And when we sang loudly it was really it felt like rocking the house! We chose lots of call and response songs, rounds, and made use of our home made instruments.

My only intention at the event was for everyone to have a good time. That meant removing the pressure from the children to perform, using humor and silliness (the children's expertise) to help people feel comfortable with singing ("you don't have to do it perfectly and it doesn't even have to sound good"), an by being relaxed and enjoying it myself (which I often forget to at parent events).

The results of these changes were overwhelmingly positive. I mean dads were giving me high fives at the end of songs, and children danced next to their chairs, and people were happy. Now I'm thinking about how else we can adapt our other school traditions to this model that focuses more on strengthening the bonds of our community, instead of the accustomed use of children's performances to show how good they are and how much they've learned.(I think there's a time for that too, but it's good to know I have different-better?- options.)

The happiest people

"The happiest people don't have the best of everything, they just make the best of everything they have."

Karen S. Magee

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Play ethic

My friend Carol sent me this little piece in the email yesterday, and what struck me about it was the definition of play:

"Play is anything done in joy -- including "work"!

In our environment we call what we do with materials "to work", we call the objects "materials", but when I worked with another teacher in the past, she called them "jobs." And I've heard parents tell children "I have to go to my work now, and your work is to come to school." And I have a little slip of paper on my wall at school with Maria Montessori's words "Work is the cure". And I am well aware of work being a human tendency (and have experienced a year of unemployment and can attest to the difficulty of existing without a defined work). And although I love my work (see, I even wrote it in my blog description), all this talk about work, and no talk about play. And the article, although simplistic, was a nice reminder.

:: The Play Ethic ::

According to the *work ethic* of our culture,
happiness comes from hard work and toil.
"No pain, no gain."

This contradicts the *play ethic* of nature:
maximizing pleasure while avoiding pain.

Nature always follows the path of least resistance.

Children naturally express the play ethic, and a lot
of parent-child conflict reflects the clash between
the two value systems.

Joyful parenting begins the moment you abandon the
work ethic and start taking play seriously. That
doesn't mean never working; play is anything done in
joy -- including "work"!

So if parenting feels like hard work to you, set your
sights on a new career of full-time play. But don't
change your routine yet. Start with a change in

Focus on the pleasure potential in every moment and,
gradually, a joyful new routine will evolve to match
your intentions.

From here:

It also brings to mind a question that's been lingering since I had a conversation with some folks at an airport on my where to somewhere some weeks ago:

Do you work to live, or do you live to work?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Gentling the violence

While at the AMI Refresher Course, my friend Annie shared with me a technique for mediating conflicts that I've been trying out for a few days. It was shown to her by the trainer Janet McDonell, who was also the presenter at this year's Refresher course. It's called "Gentling the Violence". What I loved about it is how simple it is and how much connection it can convey with minimal talking and minimal intrusion. It seems very appropriate especially for the younger Primary age children, with whom a lot of explanation and detective work is never really helpful. Also, the adult presents herself like a calming force, and not like a problem solver.

Of key importance here is that there already an established trust between children and the adult. This is a topic in and of itself, but suffice to say now, if when you approach children they run away, it's not going to work.

When a conflict occurs where children could use some guidance, the adult can approach them and put her arms around both of them. I really think that if the adult is genuinely serene, and the arms are communicate love, just that simple touch and the closing of the space can begin the process of soothing.

With an calm facial expression, the adult asks the children "Is there something you would like to say?" This is not necessarily directed towards one of the children, it is just put out there as an invitation for either child to speak. Whoever needs it. In my experience so far, sometimes there is a barrage of words and sometimes the children don't really have a lot to say. It has been amazing for me to notice how when approached this way, the children have been much more clear about what their problem was to begin with, than when I ask a lot of questions.

When the talking is finished, the adult asks "Is there something you would like to do?" This is the invitation for action. In some cases in my experience so far, the children say no, they seem more calm, and they go back to what they were doing. But in some cases they want to actively make amends.

I want to give this system a little more time before I decide exactly what benefits it has in our community and in which situations it is best to use. But so far, with small disagreements where children want an adult to help, it has been great.

For independent conflict resolution I've found that having a "peace flower" or a "peace rug" are very helpful tools.