“The time is always right to do what is right.”

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MLKphoto9Our nation has just honored Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday. Dr. King is inarguably a hero to many from many past, present and future generations. His most famous speech is the “I have a dream speech,” delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. In thinking about the upcoming memorial to Dr. King, I came across a lesser known speech and quote from a commencement speech he gave at Oberlin College in June 1965: “The time is always right to do what is right.” Continue reading

How well do you know yourself?

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Knowing YourselfOne of my favorite thinkers, Daniel Pink, has just released a new book: When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. I began reading it yesterday and am completely hooked. According to my Kindle, I am about 20 percent into the book and have already learned so much. Things that I have spent decades “figuring out” about myself are presented with scientific evidence supporting my deeply held assumptions. For example, I am an early bird. I have most of my energy in the morning. I always have. If I have jobs to do, morning is the most productive time to accomplish my goals. However, I think more freely and creatively later in the day, as my energy wanes. I’m typical in these ways. I accomplish more before noon than I can hope to achieve after 7 p.m.; my best ideas come to me as I am feeling less energetic.

What do you know about yourself? Do you have evidence to support your beliefs? Montessori education supports students as they learn about themselves. What are the best times to accomplish work? How do they learn best? What do they need to be successful? Who can they go to for help? How should they prioritize their tasks based on individual needs and energy peaks and valleys? Learning about themselves serves them during their time in a Montessori environment and beyond. It gives them the opportunity to try things out, build on their successes and learn from their mistakes. We may assume that analytical subjects such as math need to be taught in the morning, when most of us are fresher and have more energy. According to When, there is a subset of people who actually peak after noon and would benefit from having math in the afternoon.

One of the things I have come to appreciate about Montessori education is the focus on children’s individual differences – not only academically, but socially and emotionally as well. As adults, we may know these things about ourselves, but it probably has taken the better part of our lives to figure them out. Montessori children have the opportunity to experience and reflect on their work, their friendships and their approach to problem solving. They have the chance to get to know themselves in a safe nurturing environment. As they move beyond their Montessori years, they take this self-awareness with them to the next school, their work and social lives. They have a leg up on the rest of us as they explore “when” might be the best time for them as they make decisions in their lives.

Montessori and Structure

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Math - Bead ChainMontessori education is unfamiliar to many. Some think they know what it means, but when the topic comes up, they often say that Montessori schools are loosely structured environments in which children can do whatever they like. The teachers are in the background, and kids move freely through the environment. Where is the truth in these statements?

Dr. Maria Montessori developed this innovative educational method by carefully observing children. She created materials that allow learning to occur through students’ use of their hands to manipulate materials in ways that demonstrate a certain concept, following the children’s path. What she did not do was allow children to do whatever they liked whenever they chose to do it. She did not have a loosely structured environment. Quite the contrary.

In order for children to be free to explore, the classroom environment must be organized, and a schedule must be firmly established. Children must understand the ways in which materials are used. They need to understand the expectations and know the rules. When I first encountered Montessori classrooms, I was amazed at how tightly run they were. I did not understand this before I saw them in action. I, too, was under the misconception of the loosely run environment.

Children feel safest when they know what to expect. Being safe and cared for are foundations for learning. Learning cannot take place in an environment that is disorganized and unpredictable. Though it may be difficult to view the environment as essential to learning, upon deeper reflection it is clear that, in order to build relationships, entertain new and challenging ideas, explore and risk failure, the structure has to be there to support and encourage each child to learn. Dr. Montessori made sure that those employing this educational method partnered with their surroundings to make it the best experience possible. Take a look around a Wilmington Montessori School classroom, and it’s easy to see this concept in action!

Shh… Top Secret

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Top SecretLearning is not a secret. Access to the facts we learn in school is open to everyone who is interested and able to learn. How do schools determine the best ways in which to present the information deemed important? How do they build student skills and improve their practice?

In industry, much of what comes to market is kept in labs and top secret files until it is ready to go public. Many iterations occur, each one slightly different than the last. Only the few people directly involved in a project are informed about the work. The edge that comes with releasing a new product is critical to a company’s success.

Schools operate differently. We learn from each other, asking questions of another school or offering information to questions posed online or in person. We don’t have to wait until someone lets the secret formula out to benefit from it. Most of what schools teach is open to others. Methods may adapt over time, research may be done, testing may occur, but in the end, anyone in education can learn from what others are doing. The difference is not typically the content or curriculum but the delivery. Teachers building relationships, honoring individual students’ learning styles and working on behalf of their students is the secret to learning. It’s a secret that is open to all willing to put in the effort. Most of us can recall a teacher who took the time to get to know us and make us feel important. Can you?

Building Blocks

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Building blocksNew math. Digital literacy. Executive function. Soft skills. None of these things were “things” when we were in school. Education seemed straightforward to us. We were taught something, memorized it, shared it on the test and moved on to the next topic. Most of us had no clue as to how rules of language, math or science came to be. We accepted what we were taught. The end.

Fast forward to 2017… or even 2000. Life has changed. Yes, there are still things that are taught today that were taught when we were in elementary or middle school and will continue to be taught forever. We learned to read, to compute and to write. We all have to memorize facts and figures. However, some things have changed. Are we to teach children the skills needed to function in the world or do we need to teach them the concepts that build those skills? What will serve them in the long run? Continue reading

Success in School… and Life

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Photo - Primary A Words

At many junctures in a child’s life, teachers ask parents what their goals are for their child. The purpose of the question is to understand what parents expect – what their hopes and dreams are for their child. Invariably, parents will say that they want their child to do her best and to be happy. We all want to raise human beings who are happy and well-adjusted.

Recently, many in the field of education have began to question the true purpose of school. Do we send children to school to learn facts, to be the “best” students or to question ideas that have withstood the test of time? Should an established curriculum be the focus, or is it important to learn to think and discover facts beyond what is taught in the set curriculum? What approach will best set children up for success in their future lives as adults in a rapidly changing world? Continue reading

Building Bridges

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Bridge - group.jpgA long line of children walked by the window, each carrying a board, following their teachers like ducklings. What were they doing?

These Upper Elementary students worked worked long and hard on a bridge project. Last year, through a study of engineering, they arrived at the idea of building a bridge across the creek in the woods. They worked with the facilities manager, parent engineers and their teachers to determine how they could cross the creek without hopping from rock to rock. Their initial project was lofty indeed, the Golden Gate Bridge over Perkins Run Creek. As it became clear this was an engineering marvel and beyond the scope of their expertise, they adjusted the scope of the project to one more manageable by 9- through 12-year-olds. Two weeks ago, they built a bridge that will be used by our students and campers throughout the year. They achieved their goal. Continue reading

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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steelers ravens

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