Student Engagement

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Recently, I came across a Gallup poll, polling students in grades 5 through 12 about their level of engagement in school. The poll measured hope, engagement and well-being of nearly 500,000 students from more than 1,700 public schools in 37 states. The poll found that nearly 8 out of 10 elementary students who participated in the poll are engaged in school. That number dramatically decreases the longer students are in school, with only 4 out of 10 high-school students stating they are engaged in school. The data suggests that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become.

Educators, both in and out of the classroom, are constantly striving to learn how to best serve the students they encounter each day. The best teachers and schools are continually wondering what they can do better, even when things are going well. They are lifelong learners as individuals and as institutions. School is never finished.

Interestingly, the high-school students who said they were engaged in their learning report that high school feels much like their elementary school. As a Montessori school, one of the things we pride ourselves in is student engagement. Students want to come to school. They can’t wait to see what the day holds for them. They engage not only with the teachers and students, they engage with the classroom materials, the environment, the ideas, lessons and the broader community. They yearn for more. And if a student doesn’t have this eagerness for learning, solutions are sought. What is the child excited about? What do they spend their time doing outside of school? How can we serve that student in ways that may be unique for him? What can we do to help them more and what can we do better?

Students come to us from a variety of situations. Schools are set up to help students gain knowledge, understanding and skills that will serve them throughout their lives. To think that simply imparting content will engage and interest them is a mistake. Students are just like adults in that they have interests, curiosities and are continually trying to make sense of their world. They enter school at a young age with hope and fascination as doors are unlocked for them. Our job – no matter the educational setting from preschool through college – is to help them find the keys.

Going Out

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Most students go on field trips. Some go on one or two trips each year, and others, like many Montessori school students, go on many. “Going out” is an important aspect of the Montessori curriculum. As adults – teachers and parents alike – we often enjoy these trips soaking in the sights, information and wonder of what each experience has to offer. Do children feel the same way? What is the reason for field trips? Many educators wonder about this very question. Some state that field trips are simply a change of scenery, offering no “real” learning. Others feel they are a distraction, and still others contend they open the eyes and ears of their students. What makes the difference?

In order to fully consider this question, one must return to the question of the purpose of education. Is the goal to convey the same designated body of knowledge to all students or to expose students to ideas, opening doors and provoking a sense of wonder? Field trips are no different. When children visit the fire department or the orchard, the goal is to show them a little slice of life, to help them understand the world beyond their school, home or neighborhood. They are learning about others, the work they do and the place that hold in their lives. Visiting a museum or attending a play allows them to experience culture in various formats and to look beyond their everyday world. The field trips they have today are the building blocks for future experiences throughout their lives.

Education, in the classroom or in the form of a field trip, has the higher purpose of showing the world to students. Each time they visit a new place or learn more about the world, they are building their understanding of their place in the world. They explore ways to contribute to the world and ask questions about it. Our goal is not to simply have students memorize a body of facts or to recall where the pumpkins are planted or the names of the paintings viewed. It is instead to help them see the world today, tomorrow, and many different days and times throughout their years in school and beyond.

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Frame of Reference

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Anything you see or do is interpreted through your frame of reference. As a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, there are teams I don’t like at all and others I might have a more benevolent attitude toward that others may not like. After all, we all have preferences.

The way we look at most things has a great deal to do with our experiences. The same is true of school. We tend to approach the idea of school in the same ways we experienced school as children. If we struggled with some aspect, socially or academically, we are not entirely surprised when our children experience the same challenges. If we loved school and everything about it, we may be disheartened to learn our children are not having the same experience. It can be challenging to entertain ideas that differ from our own experiences. Continue reading

The Feynman Technique

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Richard Feynman is considered to be one of the most important physicists of all time. He was a pioneer in quantum electrodynamics, won a Nobel Prize, and contributed to  solutions to many physics-related questions and problems. Though much of his work would be unintelligible to most of us, it has at its core a simplicity that merits our attention. Feynman believed that even the most difficult concepts needed to be broken down to their simplest forms, expressing concise thought and using easily understood language. His premise is that once you identify a subject you want to learn about and try to make it easily understood by a child (using plain language and making the lesson as brief as possible) you can then identify what you don’t know, go back and review your information sources, and provide a clear explanation of a more complex idea. Continue reading

Are you listening?

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Two-ears (1)You may have heard the common wisdom that “we have two ears and one mouth… so, use your ears more than your mouth.” How many of us reach that goal?

I come from a long line of talkers – rowdy, boisterous talkers. When I got in trouble in elementary school, it was for talking. I like to attribute this to my quick thinking and need to share my powerful insight and humor, but I’m not sure my teachers would agree!

As I have moved beyond my elementary school years (well beyond), I have tried to get better at listening. I’m much better at it than I used to be, and I try hard to really hear what people are trying to say. Mostly I enjoy listening because I also enjoy watching, people-watching to be specific. Watching and listening lead to powerful learning. Recently, just by listening, I’ve learned about an immigrant’s move to the United States, a child’s gratitude to a grandparent and several people’s ideas about a political occurrence. Continue reading

Relationships: The True Benefit of Education

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WW - Betsy first dayChildren spend more time in school than in any place other than their homes. Schools strive to make this time productive and worthwhile, but too many schools define productivity and success through the subjects they teach and the grades children earn.

Running into an acquaintance, speaking to former students and catching up with a former teacher recently provided me with perspective on what really matters in school – the true benefit of education: Relationships. As Rita Pierson is famous for saying, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” The job of a teacher is complex. Universities are good at helping prospective teachers learn how to teach academic content. They rarely include more than an overview on how to build relationships and teach the actual children in our classrooms.

Like adults, children are affected by what is going on in their lives. Their ability to pay attention, interact and learn is dependent on their lives, not just what is happening in the classroom at that moment. A teacher’s primary responsibility is to provide a safe, caring environment for those children. Each child must know that, no matter what, she will be cared for, nurtured and supported as she works to succeed in that class and in life. It’s what all children deserve and what we, as educators and adults responsible for their growth, need to ensure.

Teaching is a tough job with long hours. Many of these hours are not spent in the classroom with children, but are instead spent outside of school hours, learning and preparing for the days ahead. It is a job where great effort is put in and often the outcome of the hard work remains unknown. Teaching is a service to our future. Although a teacher almost never knows if or how he/she has made an impact on a student, our words and actions can leave lasting impressions. Teachers educate for the future; they help children see possibilities. They make it their business to learn about the children in their classrooms, respecting their individual differences and supporting their growth. They may never know the results of their efforts, but they will know the child is stronger, more confident and capable as a result of their time together.

How do you think?

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9-12 math graphingOver the past few weeks, I have had the privilege of working with some fourth- and fifth-grade students to learn more about their mathematical thinking. It has been fun and informative. I am an “old dog” and resort to my “old tricks,” so hearing some of their approaches to solving a math problem was nothing short of enlightening.

As we looked at various problems, I learned so many ways to solve them. For example, when given the problem 1000-998, one student did the following: 1000-900=100; 100-90=10; 10-8=2. Another approached it in a similar fashion, saying 900+100=1000; 100-98 =2. And yet another student counted up from 998 to 1000, realizing that they only had to count up 2 numbers. Each student arrived at the correct answer; each answer was the result of a different approach. They explained their thinking, and it was as varied as they are.

The thing that fascinates me about this is that when I was a student in upper elementary school, there was only one way to approach that problem: you set it up vertically, canceled the zeroes, borrowing from each previous digit and arrived at the solution of 2. There you have it! There was one way to do it and one correct answer. For everyone. No leeway allowed. And, boy, could those zeroes be tricky. Continue reading

The Definition of Success

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Screen Shot 2017-09-21 at 8.17.07 PMAssessments are performed at the beginning of each school year. Teachers use them to determine what children remember after a long summer, which skills are strong and where additional support might be needed. Most of the assessments are measured against the “norm,” or the average student of that grade or age. When the results are favorable, the student is deemed to be on the right path; when they are less than optimal, it is determined what skills are lacking and what help is needed to reach that benchmark or average. Though this information may be useful in determining an instructional path for the development of specific skills, it cannot serve as the guiding force for learning. Continue reading

Nurturing Creativity in Schools

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creativity.pngCreativity of thought and action is something that is regaled in our society. Have you thought about what allows creativity to blossom? Where it comes from? How it is nurtured?

Diane Ackerman is a recognized author of books and essays about the natural world and human nature. In her latest book, One Hundred Names for Love, she has written about her husband’s stroke that robbed him of his ability to speak. They were a couple whose lives centered around language and words. The book shares their journey, and also Diane’s approach, which moved beyond the conventional path followed by others in similar situations. She was forced to employ creativity.

In the throes of creativity, a lively brain tussles with a mass of memories and rich stores of knowledge, attacking them both sub rosa and with the mind wide open. Some it incubates offstage until a fully fledged insight wings into view. The rest it consciously rigs, rotates, kneads, and otherwise plays with until a novel solution emerges. Only by fumbling with countless bits of knowledge, and then ignoring most of it, does a creative mind craft something original. For that, far more than the language areas of the brain are involved. Hand-me-down ideas won’t do. So conventions must be flouted, risks taken, possibilities freely spigoted, ideas elaborated, problems redefined, daydreaming encouraged, curiosity followed down zig-zagging alleyways. Any sort of unconsidered trifle may be fair game. It’s child’s play. Literally. Not a gift given to an elect few, but a widespread, natural, human way of knowing the world. With the best intentions, our schools and society bash most of it out of us. Fortunately, it’s so strong in some of us that it endures. As neuroscientist Floyd Bloom observes: ‘Schools place an overwhelming emphasis on teaching children to solve problems correctly, not creatively. This skewed system dominates our first twenty years of life: tests, grades, college admissions, degrees, and job placements demand and reward targeted logical thinking, factual competence, and language and math skills — all purveys of the left brain.’ (245)

OBash the Trash - Noel - 13ur children deserve a rich and creative environment. School’s purpose is not to squelch the desire to imagine, play with ideas, learn and question. It is precisely the opposite.

As we begin another school year, our obligation to the children we serve is to allow and further the creative spirit of which Ms. Ackerman speaks – to encourage “a lively brain that tussles with a mass of memories, and rich stores of knowledge.” It is creativity that has led us to places we never thought possible and may take for granted today. And it is creativity that will continue to lead us to solutions of problems that have eluded us so far.

Redefining School

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As another school year begins, it makes me think more about the purpose school serves in our lives and in societies throughout the world. Most everyone reading this post has attended school and knows what that means to them personally. If asked, would we all have the same definition of school? Does it have the same meaning for a 2-year-old as a 12- or 20-year-old? Does it serve the same purpose for us no matter our age or station in life? What do we expect from school?

Many would define school as the brick-and-mortar building where children go to learn. It houses children who are educated so that they may contribute to society as they grow older. School is a place, and what is supposed to happen there is learning. This limited definition of school assumes that students of any age will learn what they need to learn in this space and in a specifically allocated amount of time. It assumes we are all able to meet mandated goals in the same way and along the same trajectory.  Continue reading