It’s All Academic

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In schools at this time of year, children are often found doing things out of their typical routine – preparing for a show, baking or cooking, sewing, creating an art or craft project, wrapping gifts to be shared with others, or sending a note to a special friend, to name a few. They eagerly approach many of these tasks, enjoying the variety from typical school-day assignments and lessons.

As we continue to learn more about how we learn and how the brain engages when learning and performing novel tasks, we are reminded about how important it is to go beyond books, lectures and typical school assignments. As students prepare sets for the stage, learn how to run the lights, or cue the songs, they are learning so much about how to integrate technology to support the performers, how to juggle multiple responsibilities and how to work to support others. When baking, cooking and sewing, measurement and fractions reign supreme. You can’t do these things without math. The creativity involved in these tasks is crucial for the brain’s involvement in consolidating information learned in other domains.

Maria Montessori somehow knew, long before fMRI, through her education as a doctor and her observation of children, that children need to experience learning in many ways. Montessori classrooms are equipped with opportunities to go beyond what is contained in a typical school environment. From toddlers through high school, Montessori students are offered opportunities to go beyond the typical educational experience. Learning is an opportunity that exists in all forms and lasts a lifetime.

The Art and Science of Learning

It’s the time of year that begs us to follow traditions. One of the things I do every year is make toffee. Family and friends look forward to it, so I keep doing it. Two years ago, my candy thermometer broke. And I forgot about it – until it was time to make the toffee last year – and again this year. But, I made the toffee anyway. If you know anything about making any kind of candy, you know that temperature matters. Last year I decided I would try to “remember” the consistency, color and smell of the finished product. And it worked.

If you are a baker, cook or candy maker who values the precision in cooking, this is might drive you crazy. Guessing when the butter, sugar and water reach the right temperature? Though cooking is based in science, there is an art to it as well. There is a “sense” when things are going well and when they’re not.

The same is true with teaching and learning. There is a science to instruction. There is science behind how we learn and how the brain responds to the stimuli provided in certain ways. There is lots of research on the best ways to teach various subjects, how to help students store facts in long-term memory and how to provide enough variety in instructional practices to address most learners’ needs. Much of this is addressed in teacher training programs, and some in additional professional development. It is interesting and continues to evolve as our methods of discovering just how learning takes place become more sophisticated. It is crucial for the basis of understanding learning.

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Teaching or Learning

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Educators spend a good deal of time determining what curriculum will be used in each subject area. It has become an industry unto itself, with companies creating and updating textbooks and curricula. A curriculum serves as a means to an end, and the end is, theoretically, learning.

The more we learn about the science of learning, the more we know that learning does not happen in a straight line, nor does everyone learn in the same way or at the same pace. Following a strictly defined curriculum does not leave room for these differences in learning. If tied to a content delivery system and a specified curriculum, a school or school district can guarantee that information was taught. What they can’t guarantee is that the content was learned. Those are two completely different goals. Continue reading

Dreams

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Famous - Naomi Shihab Nye

No one dreams like children. They are freer than adults and dare to dream big, not allowing obstacles to inhibit their desires. Ask children what they want to do or be when they grow up and you hear things that adults don’t dare to say out loud – actors, professional athletes, presidents, astrophysicists, princesses and dragon slayers. The world and all of its opportunities are there for the taking.

How do schools keep dreams alive? What do they need to do to create both a literate populace and promote these dreams? Realistically, we know that most of the children we teach will not become famous athletes, actors or presidents. However, they will be famous to someone or something. Following their dreams will ensure fame in an arena that they may not yet be able to identify or articulate. Adults who work with children of any age, and parents of children can best identify with the last line of “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye:

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.

Educators and schools have the obligation to remind children of what is possible, what they are capable of and to help them “never forget what they can do.” That, above all else, is the way schools can support children as they grow into capable and educated adults. The dreams are theirs, not ours.

The Wonder of Childhood

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Kids can surprise us. They say cute and quirky things from the moment they learn to speak. They ask questions that catch us a bit off-guard and leave us scrambling for an adequate response. They are genuine, approaching life from a place of innocence and certainty that we, the adults in their lives, are there to accept them, guide them and help them as needed.

As children enter adolescence, moving quickly into their teen years, they are more reserved – at least when adults are present – and less willing to ask those questions and behave in those ways that are so endearing when they are younger.

The best thing that can be seen in schools is when adolescents don’t do what is expected – those times when we think they will shut down and they rise, times when they are expected to disengage only to lead the charge for a new idea or initiative. Experiences like these are quite simply jaw-dropping. What conditions allow this to happen? What circumstances allow kids to feel comfortable enough to take a risk, to dare to do something their peers may make fun of or laugh at? How do we create an environment that encourages them to put themselves out there, engaging in situations that are not always familiar and comfortable?

That is our charge as educators working with all children; it cannot be abandoned when the children are entering adolescence. They are kids trying to figure out their world, just like they did when they were younger. Our charge is to establish environments where kids can continue to surprise us, and where curiosity and wonder are the order of the day.

What are you reading?

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Reading is one of the most important things that schools are charged with. When children enter school, one of the first skills they are expected to gain is the ability to read. As educators, we continue to learn more about the science of reading and how to analyze reading skills that children must acquire. Once children gain basic reading skills, the emphasis shifts to comprehension – and boy, does it shift. Text is analyzed. Discussions are held. Highlighting happens. We ask children to look for details, answer questions and notice text features. And sometimes, just sometimes, we suck the joy right out of reading.

I read constantly. Every day, no matter how busy I am, I read. I read for information and I read for pleasure. In the past two days, I have read to plan visits to travel sites, to figure out “whodunnit,” to synthesize information about a student needing support, and to learn what is going on in the world, locally and internationally. I’m sure that you, like me, can remember some of the reading activities of your school years that were boring, painful, and redundant. As we learn more about fostering reading skills, one of the things we know is that the more children read or are read to, the better a reader they become. Entering the world of books, no matter their length, their format, or their subject, is one of the great joys we can share with children. What books have you shared lately?

Children are more capable than you know.

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If there is one thing that I have learned through my years in Montessori education, it is that children are capable of far more than we give them credit for. This goes for the toddler who is able to pour water from a toddler-sized pitcher and put on his or her own coat to a fourth-grader who shares insights one would not expect of a child that age. Children are limited only by our expectations.

The question becomes, how do we balance high expectations without stressing children? How do we make sure that our assurances of their capabilities don’t feel like too much pressure? This is not a new question, but one that appears to be asked more and more. As simple as it may sound, one of the best ways to accomplish this is to know the children. Some of us need to be pushed to accomplish our goals. Others are more self-driven, not needing anyone to remind us or encourage us to do more or work harder.

Think about the circumstances that urge you to do your best work. Is it with someone giving you encouragement, support and raising the bar higher and higher? Or, do you find that internally? Do external pushes and prompts feel like pressure to you? We are each different. The key is the relationship, the belief in each child’s abilities, and the bar being set at the proper height for children to thrive.

Seasons

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Heather Siple-Fall fun-029.JPGAt the produce stand today, the change of seasons is apparent. The berries of summer are replaced by pumpkins and apples, freshly picked from a nearby orchard. The flowers that were prolific in June and July are no longer around, but mums are everywhere in varying colors and sizes. Though the temperatures remain warm, fall is here. You can’t stop some things from ending their fruit-bearing season or others from bursting into full bloom.

The same is true for children – in fact, for humans of any age. There is a time for everything, a time of dormancy and a time to blossom. Maria Montessori carefully observed children and determined their growth generally fell into what she labeled the planes of development. Those planes take place over spans of six years (from birth to age 6, 6-12, 12-18 and 18-24), not one growing season. There is great wisdom here. She acknowledges the typical growth of children over time, while allowing for the fact that each of us grows in different ways at our individual pace. One child may learn to walk at nine months, another at 12 months and yet another at 15 months. All are completely predictable trajectories of developing this skill. The same can be noted in the acquisition of language, social skills and regulation of emotions. When asked to do something they weren’t ready to do, it is typical to see toddlers screaming and being incredibly unreasonable – not so a 12-year-old.

All of this is easily understood when our children are at the front end of the typical development and not so easily accepted when they take longer to arrive. That is human nature. What Dr. Montessori knew, and what we need to continue to remind ourselves of, is that most children will develop the skills needed to become adults over time. We, as the adults who guide, nurture and love them, need to develop the patience needed to wait for their season of growth and flowering. Trusting children to well-informed educators, specialists in their field, gives children the opportunity to take the time necessary to develop the social, emotional and academic skills they need. It allows them to bloom in their time – some ahead of the typical time frame and others taking more time – and grow into themselves as the amazing humans they are meant to be.

The Meaning of Numbers

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nullToday officially ends the palindrome days of 2019. Nothing set my mind soaring like hearing that the dates from 9/10/19 through 9/19/19 are all palindromes – numbers that are the same when written backward and forward. I love this! As we finish out these days of the palindrome, I have more questions that answers. When will this occur again? How often does it happen? Google helped me learn some of the answers and left some for me to continue to ponder. One thing was clear – the format one uses for dates drives the answer to the question being asked.

For some reason, numbers fascinate, inspire and soothe me. They are interesting and cause me to think beyond whatever fact they are describing. Recently I worked on a big project that required lots of data crunching. As our team crunched away, we asked more and more questions. We were working hard to make sure the numbers were telling the story that they appeared to be telling. It’s easy to find a numerical answer to a problem. It’s more difficult to make sure that the number being put forth is truly describing the situation clearly and accurately.

As palindrome week comes to an end, consider the patterns that are present every day. What do you notice? How are numbers influencing your thinking? What story can they tell?

Are you at the top of your game?

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Everyone wants to be on top of their game, no matter what the game is – soccer, math, work, relationships, etc. There is nothing like feeling you’re in control – you’ve got it. We tend to be more generous, offering to help others and imparting our wisdom when we feel we’re on top. Most of us have been on this earth long enough to know that we can’t be at the top of our game in every situation, though that doesn’t stop us from wanting to be. 

In schools, students are urged to be at the top of every single game. School is a child’s introduction to formalized education and, ironically, one of the most unrealistic places for that learning to occur. Is it reasonable to expect every child to meet or exceed each goal of a standardized curriculum? Is it reasonable or possible to expect every child to understand and learn everything in sync with everyone else who happens to be the same age? Is it possible that children learn differently and at their own pace? Is it possible that the quick math mind will have a struggle at some point in their school career? Is it possible that school does not allow our children to grow in confidence, understanding and broadening their knowledge? 

I spend all of my days in school. I watch children approach work gleefully, carefully and with slick avoidance tactics. School is so much more than the formalized lessons that make up most of a child’s school day. It is a place for children to grow into themselves… to learn, explore and experiment with all kinds of learning. Studies have shown that the things that are remembered from school are often related to extracurricular activities, not the hours of lessons, reading or homework that was done. Yes, students learn the basics, but the substance of their learning happens outside of those formal lessons. 

Does your school have enough of the “real” learning opportunities in place? Are students able to make choices, direct their own learning and try new things? Or are they confined by the constraints imposed upon them by what we “know best” in an effort to push them to be at the top of our game – and not theirs?