Do You Want to Learn?

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If you want to learn something, I can’t stop you. If you don’t want to learn it, I cannot teach you.

– Wynton Marsalis

Heather Siple-First Day-Rm19-1As I listened to this podcast about creativity, I not only learned a great deal about the lives of a variety of people we would all consider to be creative in very different ways, I was inspired to apply these ideas and experiences to education and children’s school experiences.

At the same time, in talking to a teacher who was attending classes to become a certified Montessori teacher, she shared the idea presented that small class sizes can be detrimental to the idea of children gaining independence. The thinking is that in order to become independent, make the best decisions and learn from mistakes, it is important to have freedom. Children need freedom from adults watching every move they make. They need space for experimentation, for creativity to allow growth in ways they can’t experience if all they know is the “right” way to do things and the rewards are established by someone else, either a person or institution. We need to establish environments that allow students to set their own goals and assess their progress using criteria that continue to evolve through various iterations of a project or assignment. If we don’t allow for this process, students will struggle to become independent and make decisions throughout life. Continue reading

Get Ready

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polar vortex.jpgEveryone likes to be prepared for what is to come. Some of us may enjoy a surprise or two, but typically, we humans like to plan and be ready. This winter has done nothing if not taught us how sometimes even the best preparations are not quite enough.

Last week, many parts of the U.S. experienced a deep freeze of historic proportion. Residents of cities like Chicago and Minneapolis are quite accustomed to cold temperatures and snowfall during the winter. What they have not seen is the subzero temperatures that gripped that part of the country – temperatures that made it hard to carry out even the most mundane task such as starting your car or going to work and school. Meteorologists predicted this weather, but it exceeded expectations and was not part of anyone’s plans. Everyone had to adapt and adjust to new circumstances.

Life often hands us situations that require us to adapt and change. In some instances, nothing prepares us for the change ahead. In others, we have a few warning signals and can begin to think about what it means to change. One of the goals of school is to prepare students for the next steps in their school and work life. Educators pride themselves in helping students be ready for any situation that might arise. Is that reasonable? Or, instead, is it more beneficial to prepare students for the uncertainty that is sure to greet them, if not next week, then next month or next year, or years down the road?

Schools are preparing students for an uncertain future. We know what we know today, and we know the rate of change is faster than humans have ever experienced in history. We can embrace the change, adapt our mindset to one of seeking knowledge, understanding and learning rather than staying the course that was implemented when educating our citizens began. We continually face new and interesting challenges that require more from us. Are we ready? More importantly, are our children ready? They are our future.

The Power of Stories

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Today I happened to step into a classroom in which students were watching novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk. It was the starting point for a writing lesson about stories. If you don’t know it, it’s worth 18 minutes of your time. We all tell stories, and of course try to make them interesting for the listener or reader. What makes a story interesting? What makes a story balanced? Why do we have a need to tell stories?

Most of us probably don’t remember the first story we heard or the first one we told. We are surrounded with stories from the beginning of our lives, probably shared with us by loving family members. Some are the stories in beloved books. Others are stories handed down through our families, perhaps through generations. Through this sharing, the stories may have evolved to be somewhat different from the original. However, they are shared over time and become part of the way we define our lives. They provide comfort and add to our identity as we grow from childhood to adulthood and often repeat the same stories and share the same books with the next generation of little ones in our families.

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The Best Laid Plans

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Some days go along smoothly and stay that way. Others, not so much. One of the interesting things about working in a school is that there is seldom a dull moment. That may sound like things often go wrong, but that’s not the case. Things just go “differently.” A child who navigates assignments and social relationships nicely may hit a snag and need support. A teacher who is reliable and always on top of things may encounter a challenge that requires her to further develop her skills to best address the needs of one particular student, though these skills may eventually serve many. A well-designed schedule may be interrupted by a fire drill or an unexpected visitor. Things change, and we need to be ready to embrace the changes.

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Hard Work

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IMG_3200Most of us think working harder will produce better, different and desired outcomes. This may work when trying to learn to ride a bike or clean a room, but it may not. There is something to be said for hard work. It is the stuff the American dream is made of. However, it can also be said that some things that are easy for one person may be quite challenging for another. If you pay attention, you will notice this everywhere you look.

Most adults drive a car, typically learning it as a rite of passage of their teenage years. Some people are better at it than others. There is much more to driving than learning how to turn the car on, put it in gear and operate the various switches. For instance, figuring out where to look, how to make sharp turns, and how often to monitor the mirrors and cars around you matters… a lot. These skills may be intuitive or not. They may require lots of practice, which may or may not lead to substantive improvement. We all know those drivers who just aren’t as attentive, careful or skilled when we see them on the road. Continue reading

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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montessori observing

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.