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.Continue reading
Most 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
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?
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
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
Several 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.
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?
As this school year gets underway, I have had the pleasure of working more closely with a few classrooms. This has meant everything from meeting about supporting students, to discussing potential field trips, to helping plan lessons. Though these are not my “typical” responsibilities as head of school, they are things I thoroughly enjoy. Getting closer to student learning is always interesting and energizing.
When many of us were in school, each teacher was in charge of his or her classroom. Teachers followed the textbooks given to them from the school and were responsible for making sure all of the topics within each subject were adequately “covered.” Coverage. We may think of that when painting a wall or protecting a passer in football. Does it belong in school? Is the goal coverage? Or is it something much more? Continue reading
Time. It’s one thing many of us say we don’t have enough of. It’s finite, yet also unlimited. Thinking about the time that has come before today is, in many respects, incomprehensible – just as it is to think of time far into the future. Children know now... it takes years for them to understand yesterday or tomorrow. They truly live in the present moment, which is something many adults strive to do.
It can be said that time is an artificial construct. It is divided into seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries and so on. In other ways, it provides the structure we need to manage our lives. School years mean something different than fiscal years or calendar years. Within each of these “years” are other divisions of time. In schools, each year brings new classrooms and students as well as different aspects of the basic subjects taught there. Continue reading
As we prepare for yet another school year to begin, I find myself reflecting about what school is, and why schools are the way they are. Each year brings new opportunities and new challenges. Each year has a fresh veneer on it; a veneer of expectations and wonder, perhaps mixed with some uncertainty and fear.
We all know something about school because we live in a literate society where we have the opportunity to be educated in the public or private sector. We have choices about school. We know about school. We went to school.
I challenge you to think about the school of your childhood and maybe even beyond. Think about what you learned. Reading? Check. Writing. Check. Math? Indeed. But what did you really learn? My guess is you learned to do what was asked of you in the most efficient way for the adults. My guess is you learned reading, writing and math relatively easily if you didn’t have a learning disability and were a compliant student who could sit in a desk for extended periods of time. My guess is that you could either do school well or not. Continue reading