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.

Do you believe in your child?

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Heather Siple-Roaming 425-010

I was reading a blog post by Dr. Robert Brooks, a Harvard Medical School professor and speaker and writer about parenting and building resilience in children, and was reminded of a time when my daughter was driving to a new music teacher’s house and got turned around. She had a cell phone, but no GPS. She called in tears and asked if she could just come home. I said no because she had a commitment to the teacher. Well, she drove for over an hour (in circles) until she called me again, I pulled out a map and told her how to get there- giving her every turn- until she arrived safely at her destination. She was frazzled to be sure, but she did it. I could have rescued her – gone to where she was and led the way or told her to come home and we would take care of it. But, for a person who finds directions challenging, she had to prove to herself that she could manage. And she did. It’s now a funny family story, and she uses her phone’s navigation programs like a pro. She is no better at figuring out directions, but has the confidence to use the tools she needs to help her in places near and far.

One of the most important jobs we can do for our children is to believe in them. They need to know that we are there when needed and that we trust them to handle the decisions they are faced with each day. We need to demonstrate confidence in their ability even when we may not feel it. Rescuing them puts the responsibility for their decisions and actions squarely on our shoulders. It also sends the not so subtle message that we don’t think they can manage and need us to handle their difficulties. I am almost certain that most parents do not believe this and want their children to be independent, resilient and able to negotiate good times and bad. To do that, we have to step back, perhaps fret quietly, and exude confidence that we may not feel. That is what builds the skills needed for them to manage their future goals and to rebound from disappointment.

 

Standards

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Standards. We all have them, whether we name them as such or not. We have a standard for everything from the clothes we wear, to the food we eat, to the work we do and the relationships we enjoy. Some of the standards we live by are established externally – the FDA determines the health and safety of the food we eat and the medicines we take. The regulations by the EPA determine the standard for the air we breathe and the water we drink. OSHA determines what safety standards must be in place in every workplace. These standards were established so that we could all live safely and be unharmed in our daily existence. Most of us would agree that we are better off with these standards and regulations in place than without them.

Education has standards. We hear about them all the time – No Child Left Behind, Common Core, NSTA, NCTM, NCTE, ISTE and many other governing bodies. A school’s job is to live up to these standards. Again, most people agree that we are better off with the standards than without. However, how is it determined if a school, a classroom, or a teacher is indeed meeting the standards? How do we know it to be true? Is it the curriculum that is used? Is it the training of the teachers? Is it the performance of the students?

As a Montessori school, it is clear that some schools adhere to the Montessori standards of excellence more than others. Some classrooms within a school administer the standard differently. Some schools have “Montessori” in their name, yet make no attempt to adhere to the standards set forth by the American Montessori Society, the governing body for excellence in Montessori education. Though standards can sometimes push or pull in varying directions, it is important for schools to determine the standards to which they will hold themselves and work to uphold the excellence of those standards. Educating children is the work of schools. Using standards to inform instruction holds schools accountable as they work to serve all students in the very best ways.

The Montessori Difference

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Heather SipleRoaming Jan 23rd028

As a Montessori parent for almost 30 years and an educator practicing in the Montessori world for more than 20 years, I sometimes forget that others do not have the advantage of the Montessori perspective. I came across a blog that fully supported Montessori education, yet tried to find a way to adapt it to other school settings. While I appreciate this thinking and am thrilled with the endorsement, it’s just not that simple.

The blog endorsed student choice, supporting independence, mixed age groupings, focusing on the whole child and individualized lessons. Yes, and… While those are all essential elements of Montessori education and, we could argue, elements of the best standards of all educational models, there is so much more. Each of these elements may be visible to outsiders. What isn’t visible is the underlying structure which is the essence of Montessori education.

The Montessori philosophy and pedagogy are based on Dr. Maria Montessori’s study of children, specifically noting the planes of development: infancy/preschool, elementary, early/late adolescence and maturity/adulthood. Every decision about what materials are on the shelves, which lessons are introduced and what expectations are established is a result of a strong understanding of the students’ development at those ages. Nothing is happenstance. This was all established through Dr. Montessori’s scientific approach as she developed each material, each lesson, and the setting in which they occur. Continue reading

Learning with Purpose

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When we look at the things that each of us has learned most deeply in our lives, the same certain conditions almost always apply: Among other things, we had an interest and a passion for the topic, we had a real, authentic purpose in learning it, we had agency and choice, deciding what, when, where, and with whom we learned it, and we had fun learning it even if some of it was ‘hard fun.’

– Will Richardson

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There is not much more to say. When did you learn something that was quite difficult? What were the conditions under which you learned it – was it forced on you or did you want to learn? Did it matter to you? Was there a reason to learn it? In other words, did you have agency, choice and an authentic purpose for learning? This, more than any imposed requirement, leads to the deepest learning. Once we have acquired the basic reading, writing and math skills, it is then up to us to determine what we want to learn and how we will learn it. This is the work of schools and education.

What’s the recipe?

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Do you use a recipe or do you let your senses, intuition and previous experience guide you when you cook? Do you closely follow directions when assembling a piece of furniture or model? Are you willing to experiment with the “known” – the instructions provided?

When I first became a teacher I was surprised to learn that the teacher editions of all textbooks/curriculum provided the words to say when giving each and every lesson. They are the recipes for teaching – the precise recipes. That’s nice to have, I suppose, but what it fails to take into account is the dialogue and conversation that is essential to learning. If we stick too closely to the scripted directions of lessons, we can miss the very thing that makes learning so worthwhile.

Learning is a dynamic process. The dialogue between teachers and students is nothing short of eye-opening and inspiring. The conversation goes well beyond the directions and instructions, instead pushing us each to learn and grow in many different directions. There is not one best recipe for learning or teaching. There are millions. The first is to be who you are each every day and to recognize the children in your schools and classrooms for who they are. It is by being willing to put aside the mandated conversations and instructions that we grow as learners and yearn for more. Great cooks know that recipes are meant to be adjusted. The same can be said for great schools. Learning is an ever-evolving recipe based on the essential ingredients the students bring each day.

Decisions Matter

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If you’ve raised children, you know that there are millions of decisions made in the process. Children push us to be deciders, to give permission and, of course, question the decision or lack of permission. They want to know the boundaries, and we are typically quite happy to provide them. You also know that often choices are the order of the day. Do you want to wear this or that, eat this or that, or go now or in five minutes? We repeat questions similar to these every single day, often multiple times each day. We want to allow our children to have some ownership over their decisions and to learn to make decisions.

“How do we create leaders if we don’t let kids make decisions?” I was struck by this question posed by Alice Keeler, a leader in technology education in one of her recent blogs. I don’t know that I ever equated decision-making with the creation of leaders. It makes sense, but I didn’t draw a direct line. Leadership roles require the ability to make decisions but also to know what decisions are critical, somewhat important or perhaps inconsequential. Just as it does not really matter if a child wears a blue or brown shirt, it may not matter if a meeting is held today or next week. However, it absolutely matters if a child holds your hand to be safe in crossing a street just as it matters if this person is qualified for a position and another is not.

The trick is balancing these decisions and making sure that others know you have faith in their ability to decide and will stand by the decision that is made. If your children or your co-workers think you will second guess them at every turn, they will effectively be hampered from making any decisions in their lives. And, as Alice Keeler states, how will they assume leadership roles if they don’t have this practice along the way?

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