Food, Architecture and Montessori Education

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One of the last places one might expect to find an article about Alice Waters, the owner and chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., is in an issue of Architectural Digest. She may be best known for urging us to eat local and healthy foods, but she is also dedicated to education, helping children learn where their food comes from and how to prepare it. She is a Montessori teacher.

Alice WatersI was awakened around design when I went to France when I was 19. I was living in a culture that really cared about food in a big way. They valued how it was served in all aspects, in terms of what was on the plate, what that plate looked like, and what that napkin looked like, and what things were in the room that reinforced what was on the plate. I just absorbed that sense of beauty connected to food and the aliveness of food. I also see this as a Montessori teacher. Dr. Montessori really believed that the senses need to be educated, that they are the pathways into our minds, and so the idea of something looking right and being able to touch, to be able to smell, to be able to taste, to hear, to listen, these are all ways that we can reach people and we can awaken them. I had that real experience when I was in France, and then I thought about the restaurant in that way, using that subtlety of reaching people through aroma and through their actually touching the food, engaging them and sort of winning them over.

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Fly, Eagles, Fly!

My team isn’t in the Super Bowl this year, but I will watch because I am a football fan. During my years as a classroom teacher, I had ample opportunity to share my love of football with many students. They know my home team is the Pittsburgh Steelers, and even alumni will still talk to me about football (mostly teasing me when things aren’t going well for my team or letting me know when their team is successful). None of my training to be a teacher or school leader has ever focused on football. Yet, this is a way I have built connections with students, families and staff.

This week, the Philadelphia Eagles are playing in Super Bowl LII. Everyone is beyond excited. One of our WMS dads was so enthusiastic he had a giant Eagles cake made for our entire school. Our facilities manager is also determined to share his love of the Eagles with all of Wilmington Montessori School. This morning, he set up an Eagles display in the lobby, including a lucky football helmet from the movie “Invincible.” He even cut out hundreds of Eagles ribbons for all of us to wear to show our support for the team.

Though most of us are not as enthusiastic about the team as he is, he is building connections that allow the entire community to see him in a different light and invite us all to share in his love of the game, even if it’s only for a brief moment.

Taking the time to learn about what is important to others is a way to build community. It is the way that we learn about each other, create shared moments and have a little fun. This week as we chant, “Fly, Eagles Fly,” we will experience the game through the eyes of someone whose enthusiasm brought us together to create a moment that we’ll remember and talk about for a long time to come. Good luck, Philadelphia!

Photo-what???

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Photosynthesis 9-12Much of what we learn in school is memorized, tested and forgotten. Dr. Maria Montessori believed that children must experience learning through multiple senses; sensory experiences are crucial in the earliest years of development. She developed materials that you will find in most Montessori schools. These materials allow children to explore a concept through their hands, their eyes and language. They provide more than one pathway to learning.

Experiencing learning in a variety of ways provides more opportunity for learning and retaining information. Just about all of us learned about photosynthesis in science class. Some of us probably learned it more than once. Yet, if asked explain the process, could we do it?

As a school that focuses on integrating the arts AND Montessori education, Wilmington Montessori School’s Upper Elementary students had a tremendous opportunity to learn more about photosynthesis. They not only read about it and watched a movie about it; they also actually became photosynthesis. Students collaborated to demonstrate the parts of a plant (root, stem, leaf, flower) and the process of photosynthesis.

When learning about this process again in a higher level of biology in high school, do you think they’ll remember what they read or what they did? Will they know that a certain child represented the roots while another was the sun? This is learning that will last. This is how the arts impact learning. This is Montessori education at its best.

“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