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?

What happens when school starts?

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The carefree days of summer are behind us. Were they as carefree as we romanticize them to be? Summer means time – time spent outdoors, long stretches of time with “nothing” to do, time spent with siblings, neighbors and other kids with minimal adult intervention. Maybe you have memories of playing baseball on summer afternoons, hitting, missing, and throwing down the bat and heading home in a huff. Or perhaps you spent hours at the pool with your friends. Or maybe you lived in a more rural location and were able to amble through the woods, fighting imaginary villains, climbing trees and building forts – all without adult help.

Things change. And one of the things that has changed is the amount of unstructured time available to children. They are enrolled in programs after school, on weekends and sometimes in the summer months. If a child really wants to excel in a sport or interest, participating in it as part of a school program may not be enough. And everyone is expected to excel.

As school is starting, there are more and more articles appearing such as this one, focusing on the increasing levels of anxiety in our children. The upshot of this and much of the research about this topic points to the same things:Kids need recess. They need longer lunches. They need free play, family time, meal time. They need less homework, fewer tests, a greater emphasis on social-emotional learning.” And all of these things that are stated as “needs” are things less and less available in our culture today, for many reasons. We know what children need – what they’ve always needed: time to dream, imagine, play, and enjoy the company of their friends and families – just like they always have. 

The Discomfort of Growth

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I made the decision to take an online class this summer. It was a carefully considered choice, one which would push me personally and professionally, and one that I knew would lead to growth in both of those areas of my life. I did not fully think about my discomfort with much of the class – the format, getting to know new teammates each week, and considering ideas that are far from my everyday experience at work or at play. 

As I write this, I am exactly halfway through the course. I have met people I would never have met otherwise. I’ve entertained ideas about subjects I’d never heard of or read about. I was asked to consider questions and reveal aspects of myself that I typically hold on to tightly. It has been a great experience and a scary one as well. 

As I reflected on this class and all that it entailed so far, I was reminded of what we ask of students each day. We ask them to be uncomfortable without fail, and often without giving them the choice to avoid this discomfort. We ask them to work with others who they don’t know, don’t like or who we know won’t contribute fully to the group experience. We ask them to speak up, listen well, be creative, get along with others at all times, and do a good job no matter the subject or their interest in the work. We ask them to be superhuman. Most of us, as adults, would not take on that challenge. Most of us would try to negotiate another way to do things or ask for assistance at every turn. Some of us might even opt out of an experience if it did not have some comfort and familiarity built in. 

There are things we do each day that allow us to have choices, and some things we simply have to do. Children must attend school. Time in school can be spent in a variety of ways that involve student choice along with the “have tos.” How do we want students to spend their time in school and recall their days in school in the future? Will they remember the learning, challenges and enjoyment, or the intense discomfort and unknowns? Balance is the key to building the strength needed to learn and grow.

Making Connections

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If you’ve ever gone to a conference on anything, you know it can be hit or miss. The speakers you think will really motivate and interest you can be duds, or you can come across one you had little interest in that sparks your imagination and offers pearls of wisdom. At the National Small Schools Conference, that was the case for me.

Jordan Shapiro, author of The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World and professor at Temple University, spoke about a new way to view screen time. As he waxed on about his interest in ancient philosophers, it became quickly apparent that I would have to dig deep to connect to his message. And then there it was. He was speaking in a way that helped me understand how we teach kids the expectations around behavior – from learning to playing. His analogy was that he has to help his kids learn to cross the street. He wouldn’t trust them to do that alone until he did it with them hundreds of times and was certain they would remember to look both ways and could cross without getting hurt. Continue reading

Summertime

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Ahhh… summertime. We all anticipate the relaxing days that summer promises. With the end of another school year comes the promise of longer days to relax and engage in the activities we enjoy. Students and teachers alike create lists – on paper or in their minds – about how they will fill long stretch of days ahead. That may mean trying new things or enjoying the comfort of those pastimes we set aside until summer comes once again. 

Most educators spend part of their summers taking classes, planning lessons and generally continuing the work they do during the school year. Teachers may have a more relaxed pace to their days, but many spend some part of their summer “break” working on behalf of the students they serve. Learning doesn’t stop when the calendar turns to the month of June. Summer is the time to take a deep breath, hit pause, and continue to learn, create and grow in ways that time may not allow during the rest of the year. Here’s to another summer of learning!

Who are the teachers?

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In education today, there is a common understanding that the best environments promote learning among everyone in the school. We are all learners and we all benefit from being with each other. Wisdom comes in all shapes, sizes and ages. In a Montessori classroom, you can be sure that is true.

Montessori classrooms typically have a lead teacher or guide and an assistant teacher. Both are responsible for keeping things humming along. They differ in their responsibilities, but each has the training and knowledge to help the children learn. Montessori classrooms have other teachers as well – the students. In Montessori multi-age classrooms, children learn from other students. The student helping another is learning to do more than help; he or she is learning more deeply. Teaching strengthens knowledge of the teacher, whether the teacher is a child or adult. Asking students to help others who are younger or less experienced is a surefire way to benefit both students.

We often hear that schools are filled with learners, and lifelong learning is certainly recognized as a core value in many schools. Empowering students to share their knowledge and allowing them to lead the way is the best way to promote a dynamic learning environment.

My, how they grow!

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As another school year comes to a close, it is often a time to reflect on the students who fill our hallways each year. The end of the year at our school means celebrations for those moving up to the next level and those moving on to high school. It is bittersweet to see those you’ve watched for many years get ready to leave the nest. Graduation season brings ceremonies, speeches and, of course, celebration. (Watch this year’s Wilmington Montessori School eighth-grade graduation ceremony.)

Each year, our school has an alumni speaker as part of the graduation ceremony. Former students come back to share their journey since middle school. It is always fascinating. In preparation, we review what was said about the speaker when she/he was a student with us. We reflect on the contributions they have made to our school and others they have attended. We eagerly await their words of wisdom, knowing they will share not only what their life is like now, but how our school played a part in their future experiences. It is not only interesting but often surprising. Students we thought were quiet and perhaps reluctant to share their ideas with others demonstrate the ability to step up and lead a project, visit a far away country or invent something that will serve those in need. Students who maybe were a bit reluctant to take the stage and speak to a group, come back and speak to an audience easily and comfortably. They continue to grow and change, though always remain true to themselves.

Schools have the responsibility to not only teach academic subjects, but to help children learn about themselves – their strengths, challenges and uniqueness. Schools are places where children can try on a variety of “hats,” learning which fit best. Students can be readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, dreamers, artists, singers, athletes, caretakers, gardeners, friends and so much more. In the right environment, children can learn about themselves and take that strong sense of self with them as they move through life. The right school environment nurtures a sense of self, provides opportunities to grow, and sends students off confidently to their next phase of learning. The right school environment allows children the opportunity to know themselves well and continue to build on that throughout their lives. As this year’s graduates move on to the next phase of their lives, may they find the places that will continue to challenge them while allowing them to be true to themselves.