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.