Preferences

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At a recent staff meeting, we conducted a survey of sorts. People were asked to line up along a wall according to their preferences about a variety of things: introvert/extrovert, lots of light/minimal lighting, quiet/background noise, math/language, spare/busy environments, etc. The goal wasn’t to solve a problem or change anyone’s mind about their preferences. It was simply to bring the preferences to light.

In our homes, offices and classrooms, our surroundings tend to reflect what makes us most comfortable or productive. For example, I prefer a very well-lit space at work because it keeps me alert and engaged. However, at home I don’t turn a lot of lights on, using only those for the task I am doing. As teachers we need to have an environment that is comfortable for us, but first and foremost, the environment needs to be conducive to learning for the students we are serving.

The environment serves as a teacher in a Montessori classroom. Through a well-prepared environment, students are able to have great success. They can easily move throughout the space independently, needing a teacher as a guide not a facilitator. They don’t need to ask where to locate materials or how to use them. Once a lesson is given, the children move independently throughout the space, gathering the materials needed to perform a task. The classrooms allow students to experience the same independence adults have; the materials are accessible to all.

In order to allow each child to succeed, teachers need to create an environment that is suitable for their needs. How many teachers have asked their students what they prefer or have experimented to see what leads to greater productivity and learning? Have we observed how children interact with the environment and remedied any glitches that are noticed? Classroom environments must allow for independence and access. They serve their occupants – students and teachers alike. Everyone needs to be comfortable and capable of navigating the space. How do your surroundings reflect your preferences? How do they meet the needs of the students who spend much of their days in them?

 

 

A Little Help from My Friends

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During the past few days, I’ve had several different educators outside of my school reach out and ask a question or two about something they are working to figure out. The topics have ranged from policy and procedure questions to challenging employee situations and “How did you handle this?” questions. None of the people expected a solution to their particular problem. Instead, what they were seeking was a listening ear and more information to help them as they work to solve their particular version of a problem that I may have struggled with.

This week I was also struck by the fact that we also ask students to help us as we try to accomplish our goals. Our school has a team of students who are working toward making the school a greener, more environmentally friendly school. Those students met for the first time this November and are buzzing with ideas, excited about the changes they will make to impact our school. Middle school students have been asked to run assemblies, create an admissions video and support other students in various ways. They’re invested in making a difference and making contributions to the community.

We do not stand alone. We are all part of groups, small and large. At times we lead, at others we follow. Sometimes we are the helper, and often we are being helped. The common thread is that we seek information and support from others, counting on them to help us learn and grow, not to do our jobs for us. As adults we recognize the need for this and seek information that helps us to make decisions or do a particular job. Schools must replicate these experiences for their students. Children need to see us asking for and receiving help, refining our thinking based on new information, and leaning on each other to do the best job possible. They need to know that doing “their own work” often relies on information and a helping hand from others. Schools, workplaces and all of life depend on our interactions with each other and conversation and questioning that leads to greater understanding, learning and action.

Personalized Learning

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We often hear the term “individualized learning” when referring to schools. It has been deemed to be the pinnacle of educational practice, serving students well. The assumption is that we are approaching each student as an individual and meeting his or her needs. I’ve said it myself many times. What if, instead of individualizing learning, our goal is to personalize student learning?

Attending workshops at the Learning and the Brain conference last week caused me to consider the idea of personalized learning more thoroughly. As we work in service to the children in our classrooms, we must consider their interests, abilities, passions and needs. We need to co-create their learning with them, sometimes with more teacher influence, others with more student direction and still others with a finely tuned mix of each ingredient. Personalized learning is collaborative and cooperative by its very nature. Individualized learning is meeting a child’s needs by matching them with the educational systems goals. It may be a subtle difference, but it is one that merits our attention. Continue reading

Paying Attention

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All learning occurs from a foundation of previous lessons and skill acquisition. As babies develop, they build muscles and learn from prior experiences. Children learn what they can and can’t do based on the feedback they receive from a particular action or activity. Smiles and affirmation reinforce behavior, and scolding or stern looks provide negative reinforcement. Businesses learn from their customers’ behavior. Over time, they provide more of what customers buy and less of the items that remain on the shelves. This works for just about everything if we are paying attention.

Maria Montessori did a great deal of research as she built her educational model. She observed what children were doing, created a lesson or material, and then observed how the materials were used to make sure they served the intended purpose. She learned from the children in her midst, and adapted lessons and materials accordingly. Continue reading

Making Learning “Just Right”

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brain based learningSeveral years ago, two friends and I led a two-week summer camp. The theme was the brain and how it works. We focused our efforts on offering activities that would allow campers to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to a variety of experiences. The goal was for them to discover what they find easy or enjoying doing, as well what they find hard or uninteresting. We all participated in activities that were easy, just right, or difficult.

Much of school is about just that. Easy. Just right. Difficult. One person’s experience is not the same as another’s, and yet schools persist in trying to make everyone’s experience the same – a factory model applied to individuals. Factories don’t exist to fit the individual; their purpose is to create conformity and uniformity. That simply doesn’t work in schools. It isn’t an effective way to learn. I may need more time to conduct an experiment or read a book but less time solving a math problem or applying logic to a given situation. We are each individuals, and many of us didn’t learn much about our learning style until we were out of school. If we were successful in school, there could be many reasons but one reason for many is that we simply knew how to “do school.” We understood the way school worked, could manage to meet most requirements with relative ease and fit into the mold. Some of us did not have that luxury. Instead, we may have struggled with things that others found easy; we may have not understood how to meet the mark and succeed in school. But, once we found something we loved to do, we figured that out, no matter how hard it was.

Many schools, like Wilmington Montessori, are trying to do things differently. We are looking for that “just right” level of instruction for every student, not just a select few. We strive to be responsive to the needs of the children in their classrooms today – not those who were there last week, last year or 10 years ago. This is a tall order but it is one that is necessary. We know much more about learning and how brains work today than we did a century or even a decade ago. We have the ability to design instruction with the student in mind. We know that we are preparing students to enter a workforce that is quite different from that their parents or grandparents entered. It is a new world, a world that is moving at a faster rate of change than ever before. We need to be responsive and adapt student experiences, ready to make it “just right” for the children who will be doing all they can to be contributing members of their world as they continue to learn and grow.

How do you do your best work?

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I do my best work in collaboration with others. Yes, some tasks, like writing this blog post, are easier done when working alone in a quiet space. Others require undivided attention or concentration. But, I am happiest, energized and motivated to push my thinking and outcomes further and further when working with others.

I realized this several years ago when working on a teaching team. It was a great team. We had the opportunity to share ideas, reject some, modify others and try new things. That process provided great instructional opportunities for us, but more importantly it served students in the best possible ways. Yes, most classrooms are one teacher’s domain. Not so in Montessori classrooms. Some have a lead teacher and an assistant or two, and others are fortunate enough to have two lead teachers. Teachers working together are bound to have more or better ideas than a person working alone. Everyone needs a sounding board. In the best partnerships that is what happens. Ideas are molded and created in direct response to student needs.

I am quite sure I could not have remained in the field of education if it were not for those who have worked with me in various capacities. I have benefited from the wisdom, humor, honesty, thoughtfulness and imaginations of more people than I could count. How do you do your best work?

What do you need to succeed?

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I’m a planner. I plot out how I will accomplish both small and large tasks, and I rarely leave things until the last minute. Over the years I have had to adjust my expectations. I used to tackle jobs with the intent of finishing them the same day I started. I no longer hold that expectation. I rarely have enough time to finish any job during the same day I began it. That would be a luxury.

So how do I reconcile reality with my preferences? How do I adapt? It’s not easy by any means. It’s hard to work against our preferences, many of which are firmly established and reinforced through experience. In work and in schools, many of the demands are placed by external forces and expectations. Most of us manage to meet the expectations because we want to do what is expected. Others struggle to meet them.

Schools, at their best, allow children to discover what they need to succeed. Are they planners or procrastinators? Do they dive in and get things done, or do they take the “wait and see” approach? Is a student more apt to work more productively alone or with a group? Where does their energy come from? All of these are things to be discovered and learned as children move through life and school. Our job, as educators, is to allow them to experiment, succeed, fail, and learn from their successes and failures. Telling them what to do and what works for us is of little help. Learning occurs best when it draws on experience.

Most of us wish we knew as much about ourselves as children as we do today. Not only do our schools exist to help children learn content – they also help them learn what they need to succeed and when they are their most productive. The best schools encourage children to be their best, learning along the way what that means for each of them.

Changes

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I love the game of football. I’m also a huge theater buff. What do these things have in common? Throughout my lifetime, and I’m sure before, both this sport and art form have changed. They have changed in their presentation to the public. The rules of the game and the rules of theater have shifted. Theater and football today are clearly different than they were 30 years ago. Suffering penalties under the new roughing the passer rules in the NFL or attending a performance of “Hamilton” highlight some of these differences. Things change.

The same is true in schools. The best schools today are not exactly like the schools of our childhood. The educational practices, curricula and even the buildings do not look like they did 20, 30 or 40 years ago. They have been adapted and changed to reflect what we now know through research, science and practice. We now know much more about how learning occurs. There are fMRIs and studies in neuroscience that allow us to actually see how the brain responds to varying stimuli and ultimately how different areas of the brain “light up” during certain tasks. There are years of data that guide educators as they make instructional decisions for students. To put it simply, we know more now than we knew then, whenever “then” was – 30 years ago or last year.

Learning brings the evolution of thought and change. What educators embraced even 10 years ago in teaching may now be dormant as other practices have taken their place. The best thing that can happen in education is to make thoughtful shifts in practice that make learning more accessible for all learners. Everything we do must be with the students, how to best serve them each and every day, in mind.

Teamwork

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Everyone agrees that the rate of change in our world is faster than it has ever been. We notice it in every aspect of our lives. Schools may feel it more than other places. As things are rapidly shifting, one of the things we hear more about is the importance of “soft skills.” These are not quantifiable and typically not part of a school’s evaluation system. However, they are important when setting the stage for a student’s future.

One of those skills is teamwork. How effectively can a student work with one or more others to set a goal, do meaningful work and meet a deadline? We’ve all been in groups where some members participate more fully than others. We know the frustration in doing more than our fair share and we know the wonder when everything clicks and everyone is working together toward a shared goal. Continue reading

Off to a Good Start

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We are nearing the end of the first month of the 2018-19 school year, and everyone is settling in. Many schools spend the first six weeks of school focusing on two things: establishing the classroom community and assessment of academic skills. These are perhaps two very different things, but both quite necessary to set the tone and the agenda for the year ahead. Continue reading