Sunday, December 12, 2010

Thinking Outside the Worksheet

What follows is the final essay for my Seminar 1 class and answers the question, "What issue have you seen in during your observation hours, what is the relevancy of the this issue, and how would you have solved it?"

During my observation hours this semester, I saw many worksheets given to students as assignments. I also saw many bored students. I think that these two occurrences are related and that this is a problem in the classrooms I observed in as well as others across America today.

The first grade boy in the general education classroom I wrote about in an Exceptionalities essay worked well and participated during whole class instruction, but displayed AD/HD characteristics and couldn't concentrate when given a worksheet over the material that was covered only moments before. I highly doubt that this was because the boy actually had AD/HD, rather I believe that the worksheet was not a creative enough assessment approach. It did not meet his learning style needs, and he was not engaged enough to work on it.

While I observed a high school special education classroom, one boy showed me the Lego creations he had been making in his free time before I arrived, vehicles fueled by solar power. He was passionate in his descriptions about how they worked, and when I asked him where he learned all his information about solar power, he explained that he liked to do research on the internet. He was still describing his Lego vehicles when the special education teacher walked over to say, almost rudely, that it was time for math and pointed to a worksheet of word problems on the desk. Although the high schooler sat at the table and didn't talk to me again, he seemed upset and fiddled with the Legos until the teacher gave him one-on-one assistance with the assignment.

Worksheets are easy. Find a page in the book or on a website and print off 25 copies. Worksheets are easy time fillers and easy to grade. Perhaps they are too easy. Giving such an assignment, one with a lot of ink and a little area for the student to write the single correct answers, creates students that are forced to think in one perspective, forced to be the same—cookie cutters. Instead, we should be teaching innovation, creativity, and how to think outside of the box, or worksheet, if you will.

The first grade classroom was learning parts of a book cover (title, author, illustrator, and publisher) before being given the “boring” worksheet, and while I observed, the student spent the entire time allotted doing anything he could think of but completing it. Because I could not intervene in my position as the observer, watching him and knowing that the assignment was not holding his attention or interest was almost painful. Couldn't there be a better way? I asked myself, and of course there was. If the teacher wanted to assess if the students retained the information about what is found on the cover of a book, they could have created their own book cover on a blank sheet of paper. At the very least, they could have done it together on the white board with more assistance.

The high school special education teacher, with fewer students in his room, had more time to spend with his students individually. He was aware of his student's interests, and yet still printed out a sheet of generic word problems for his technically-absorbed student to complete. Sure, it would have taken more time, but couldn't he have created problems catered towards technology or alternative energy sources? In fact, because the student is in high school, the creation of the problems could even be included in the assignment.

As a teacher, I must keep the interests of my students in focus. How can I expect my students to learn, let alone retain, any information I attempt to teach them, if they are too disengaged to pay attention? I must be a model for my students in regards to creativity and innovation, and that includes the assignments and assessments I give. I will not have cookie cutter students, and thus, I cannot give cookie cutter assignments.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Notes from the end of the semester

*By teaching our students differently (based on SES, culture, race, etc.), we are securing their position in society. Break the mold.

*Students must learn to self-advocate. They need to know how to stick up for themselves, their beliefs, interests, and passions. They need to learn to have the confidence to do this while remaining respectful.

*Overcoming a learning disorder is NOT done through motivation. Offering bribes or punishments will not help a student that simply cannot do the task.

*Comprehension has more to do with background knowledge than vocabulary. A student may understand all vocabulary but still not comprehend the question. On the other hand, a student may answer a question correctly but not understand why.

*If you want to reduct the risk of plagiarism, decrease the opportunities to plagiarize. Students cheat because it's easy. Make it hard. Alternate and personalize assignments.

*Discuss what plagiarism is. "I want to know what you know, not what your neighbor knows. You will not get in trouble for not knowing content. Just be honest!"

*Introduce Stephen Hawking during science. He is one of the smartest people alive, and he has a disability. Encouragement that anyone can succeed.

*Cute math jingle: "Dividing fractions is as easy as pie; just flip the denominator and multiply."

*If something is boring, there is a reason why. It may be too hard or a skill they've already mastered. It may just not catch their interests. Let students feel free to tell you, and make efforts to make their learning more fun!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of the Tipp City Exempted Village School District

Last night I came across a news article about a teacher criticized for teaching about banned books in her high school English class. I was frustrated to the point of tears upon reading it.

This morning, I came across the report of the incident from the Court of Appeals. In 2001, the subject, Evans-Marshall, taught a unit on censorship, assigning Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451 and Herman Hesse's Siddhartha. The next assignment was for the class to break into groups and choose another book to read and discuss together. Two groups chose the children's book Heather Has Two Mommies. Around two dozen parents complained at the next school board meeting, raising the issue to the community and media. (It should be pointed out that one parent asked for an alternative assignment for their child and was given an option of three other books.) The principal and teacher fell into bad terms, he gave her a poor evaluation, and at the end of the year the school board voted unanimously to not renew her contract. Evans-Marshall appealed the non-renewal to the board, testified, and another vote was held with identical results. She then took her case to court under a First Amendment (Freedom of Speech) claim. The court reviewed three similar cases, particularly the 2006 Garcetti v. Ceballos decision that employees in the public sector are not protected by the First Amendment because their actions are to be "pursuant to" their duties. The court declared that the school board is responsible for making decisions, "legitimately giving it a say over what teachers may (or may not) teach in the classroom" (United States Court of Appeals, Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of the Tipp City Exempted Village School District).

Law states that the school board is ultimately in control of the curriculum in any classroom. This frightens me--I am on the path to licensure because I believe in teaching students important things, things that they may or may not be learning in classrooms today. Things that parents and school boards may or may not think they should learn. Things like censureship.

When I read the news article and became practically inconsolable thinking about the all the things I would not be able to teach my future students for fear of backlash from parents and how thin the thread of having a license may be, my husband attempted to comfort me in the exact same way the last pages of the Court of Appeals case report pdf does: If one teacher can choose the curriculum for her classroom, think of all the other teachers that now want to as well. Specifically, conservative teachers--those on the other end of the spectrum as me. Those that want to teach extremist theories as the fact. If a teacher flaunts her First Amendment rights, what's stopping principals and superintendents from doing the same to support contrary opinions?

So yes, ultimately, the decision should rest with only one group of people, the school board. If one wants to teach a different curriculum than what is being taught, they have every right to apply for a position on the school board.

I feel still feel a little sick thinking about this case and the ones prior that it relates to, but I also feel somewhat relieved. It isn't a matter of not being able to teach what I want, it's a matter of the law, I suppose. As my husband tried to assure me, I can still make a difference in the classroom, and my foremost goal is to spark curiosity. What will, in fact, make more of difference than if I am able to teach a curriculum I feel covers important topics is teaching a lifelong love of learning. They can always learn the important things on their own, after all.

But that's not that I can't merely touch on the topics I feel are important...

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Pledge to Guide Today's Students--draft 1

About a year ago, I realized that the content of the curriculum taught in America's schools today has been the nearly identical since the creation of the American education system. It's been quite some time since the 17th century, and the world is a very different place. I've tried the political/activist route of provoking change, and there is a lot of talk about education reform in the news these days, but still, little seems to be getting accomplished. One place I know I can evoke change is in my own (future) classroom. Students need to learn about the world as it is today, not as it was when the lessons we teach were created, and I will be the one to teach them.

As a soon-to-be teacher, I began writing a pledge to myself and to my future students a year ago. It's still in its draft stages and probably will be until my first day with my own classroom. However, while reading the news today, I came across an article that struck a chord with part of my pledge. I decided that I should put my pledge, work-in-progress it may be, out for others to see.

Teachers often complain that there is not enough time in the school day to teach everything they want as thoroughly as they want. I know some may scoff at my pledge and claim that I won't find the time to fit more lessons into an already overflowing schedule, but I am passionate about my pledge. I KNOW my students need be taught these things and that they probably won't get it from anywhere else. I WILL find a way.

Pledge to Guide Today's Students
I pledge to guide my students in learning about the world they live in.

Respecting and honoring others
-Learning about cultures and societies across the world

Respecting yourself
-Self concept, eating well, exercising

Respecting the Earth and the environment

Living in the age of technology and information
-Respect and honesty while using the internet
-Critical thinking skills when learning from any media

Seeing the big picture of life
-The universe and how we fit into it
-The Earth and its inhabitants

Respecting and honoring others is the most traditional part of my pledge. The Golden Rule has been taught since the beginning of recorded history, and it will continue into my classroom. Having respect for others is a discipline every human needs to have. Where the differences begin is in the honoring. I hope to teach my students that students in every country are the same, that every human has the same needs, and that at the same time, we share different cultures and histories that are equally as beautiful. This includes sharing stories and photographs (from the internet) of people from all around the world.

Respecting yourself is a trait that many teachers think they are teaching but very rarely have an actual discussion about it. I will teach my students, through conversation, about what it means to take care of their bodies and spirits and how to grow strong and healthy.

Respecting the Earth and environment is where my pledge really starts to deviate from a traditional classroom's curriculum. Obviously, this will include discussions of recycling, but also lessons on geology.

Living in the age of technology and information may be the most pertinent subject for today's generation of students. It's so important to me that I teach my students how to use media and the internet correctly because students today are getting bombarded with examples of how to use it the wrong way. There is a great resource I discovered today on this topic.

Critical thinking skills was my most recent addition to the pledge, and the wording doesn't quite fit yet. What I wanted to get across was that I want to teach my students to question, "Do I think this sounds true? Where can I learn more from another source?" and "Is this a reliable source?" I want them to know what credibility means and how it's determined.

The big picture of life component came from my dabble into Montessori. Cosmic education is a big part of the Montessori style of teaching, some teachers basing every lesson on part of it. As a public educator, I may face great difficulty teaching about the universe, especially in my beginning years. I plan to teach as much as I can without going into anything controversial, hopefully saying just enough to spark the curiosity the leads to further investigation in my students' free time.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Observation explanation and Notes

This semester at my university, I am required to take an Observation class. It seemed a bit below me at first, being in my fourth semester of working as a Para-educator through the Co-op, but now entering a classroom where I am not allowed to interact. I've grown to love it, however, because I take notes during the two hours a week I am there. The notes sometimes come from watching the teacher I am observing, but most often from little things I've been thinking about but have not had a chance to write down yet. Previously, I had just been taking notes (about things that are truly important to me, not the class itself per se) during my classes at the university and occasionally when I got home from work, but now I usually save them for writing during my observation time--unless one of my instructors say something incredibly important, then I scribble it in the margin of my paper. I need to organize my notes into categories (Classroom Organization, Instruction, Discipline, etc.), but, as I am still compiling them, I'll leave them as jumbled as when they enter my head.

Also since the beginning of this semester, I've realized the importance of observation. There's something to be said about allowing yourself to merely sit, relax, watch, and reflect. Often, the teacher I am observing makes a small comment or does a small action that normally I wouldn't think twice about, but because I am watching from an outsider's perspective, I have the time to think, "Could this have been handled differently?" In your own classroom, everything happens so fast, you have to think on your feet, and you don't have the liberty to reflect until later--later enough that you most likely have forgotten what it was you were thinking about. Besides, it's always wonderful to watch the teaching of another. Everyone has something to learn, even if it's the incorrect way of doing something. I hope to remain humble enough to observe other classrooms throughout my career.

* On the board of my observation teacher's classroom--"I am responsible!" and bullet points of chores. What a great mantra.
* Observation teacher's alphabet letters (first grade)--"My name is [letter], and I stand for [sound]." "My name is B, and I stand for buh."
* Observation teacher seems to let students sit for a long while. Let students be readers; let them keep a book in their desk for downtime when work is finished. I did as a child, but would it work for all students? Specifically, would it work for younger grades?
* Observation teacher's library is separated by subject--Fantasy, Nonfiction, Pets, Seasons, etc. Might consider organizing my library as such.
* Observation school has an extra recess! Lunch recess plus 15 minutes in the morning or afternoon, depending on when specials are. Is this unheard of in today's schools? Even the Montessori school I volunteered at only got one recess. Could I include a scheduled extra recess even if the rest of the school I teach at doesn't have one?
* What would I do with a playground as big as this one!? Just the same as I would with a smaller one, what I learned from the Montessori school--call the student that needs behavior modification over and talk with them. But I might have to blow a whistle to get their attention.
* Observation teacher to student talking with a classmate: "What was your question?" "Can you tie my shoe?" "What should be added into that question?" "Can you please tie my shoe?" "That's better!"
* Poster in the hallway of Observation school:
Be a STAR Student!
S-afety first!
T-hink before you act
A-ct responsibly
R-espect for everyone
* Observation teacher's assignment: "______ is the best sport. I like to ______." Slightly advanced for first graders because the paper doesn't begin with "I like _______." Although, I might teach my students to write more objectively.
* Bookmarks! Made from colored construction paper, with the students' names written beautifully at the top by the teacher and laminated. They're gorgeous.
* I think I prefer writing the day's schedule on the board every morning as opposed to arranging pre-made schedule cards. And each task should have a place to be checked off upon completion, not a set time. Sure, set times help students keep track of the time, but I just prefer a more fluid time table when it comes to education.
* At the beginning of the year, let students browse all the way through their textbooks, as much as they want! They're going to anyway, and if I don't give them the instruction to do so at the beginning, they'll do it at inopportune times--namely, when I'm in the middle of a lesson.
* Obviously, ask students what they want to learn. Do mini lessons on whatever topic they're interested in. Students learn better in other subjects when they can learn about a topic they're interested in.
* Voice scale used at observation school:
5 - Screaming, Emergency - Red
4 - Recess, Outside Voice - Orange
3 - Classroom voice, talking - Yellow
2 - Soft voice, whisper - Blue
1 - No talking at all, silence - Green
They don't seem to use it much. I, however, want to base a lot of my classroom off a scale similar to this. I want to find a nice decibel reader I can set to whatever decibel I want and the class can self regulate itself to. Third grade teacher at Griffith has a decibel reader shaped like a stop light that beeps when the light is red. I'm not sure how it works, but she doesn't use it often. I would use mine almost constantly.
* Criss-cross applesauce, Indian style, pretzel style--is there anything else I can call this, specifically with older students? Peaceful style? I suppose they'd say they don't need a cute name for it.
* I like observation teacher's classroom because a lot of decorations are close to the floor. It makes it seem more cozy somehow.
* I need to have awesome posters in my room: beautiful pictures from NASA and geographical wonders.
* No matter what grade I teach, I will not put up cutesy traditional school posters of cartoon students.
* No matter what grade I teach, I will not patronize my students. I will treat them with respect and speak using words worthy enough to be added to anyone's vocabulary. I will not dumb down my speech when I talk to my students.
* Remember Teacher Tom's hot glue story. Don't think, "My kids can't do this." Think, "How can I help my kids do this for themselves?"
* Remember K, Montessori teacher, "Is this your most beautiful work?"
* "What you focus on is what you get more of." Not sure where I learned that, but remember to focus on the positive.
* Third grade teacher from Griffith teaches "Social skills," getting along with your peers. I need to look more into this and learn more from him.
* Part of teaching students to be respectful to others is teaching them to speak respectfully. Use "I-statements." (e.g., "I feel angry when you cut in front of me," "I feel ignored when you don't play with me.")
* Respectful speaking should be taught with modeling. Para in observation teacher's room, "You need to be quiet because you are not the teacher." I believe Montessori teacher, K, would have said, "I am speaking now, so please control your voice," or something similar.
* My friend, Jana, told me about a boy that wrote bad words on the bottom of his paper. I loved her conversation with him about it. My first response would have been, "Why did you do this?" and "This is unacceptable." Her first response was, "Were you angry when you did this?" and "You could get into big trouble for this." I need to think more about what I say.
* Idea from another friend, "I was never allowed to use the word 'hate' growing up." I could disallow my students to say "hate." Is this a good idea?
*Lesson plan idea from a long time ago--teach students about future career prospects. Teach them about different occupations and then let them role play or write about what it would be like to have that job.
*First grade teacher from Griffith has a sounds chart her students go over every morning that illustrates different letter blends: "B-R, br" while shivering, "C-R, cr" while crying. It includes sounds that have different spellings, "I-R, E-R, er and ends with "...and A-E-I-O-U are the vowels."
* I watched a student in observation teacher's class lean back in his chair and balance a pencil on his face. Watching him, I realized that the work he had been given really was boring. "What's the point of this worksheet?" I asked myself. It was boring for everyone involved, wasted paper and ink, and didn't even have much for the students to write. Here's a better way: "I just want to see if we know the parts of a book." Discus first--title, illustrator, author, publisher. Then point them out on a book in the classroom. The assignment? Create your own book cover. Worksheet? Who cares.
* Keep in mind what's boring for my students. It may be more than what's boring to me. More discussion, less worksheets.
* Also, use more blank paper. Get creative.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Book Review: Children of the Universe

The second book K. lent to me is one she says she tries to incorporate into her teaching as much as possible, Children of the Universe: Cosmic Education in the Montessori Elementary Classroom by Michael and D'Neil Duffy.

Some time ago, probably within a month or two of discovering Montessori education, I came across the most amazing and wonderful lesson that Montessori herself taught, The Great Lesson. Even before reading much into it, I could tell that it was one of the things that truly made Montessori education different and far more special than traditional education.

The Great Lesson begins by sitting down with the students in a darkened room. The teacher begins to tell a story, just like the storytellers of times long gone by. She starts off softly, "In the beginning, there was nothing. And then," (she presents a black balloon secretly filled with silver glitter) "there was a burst of energy," (she pops the balloon and the glitter fills the air) "and particles were set into motion."

This lesson, even merely reading it and not having the opportunity to experience it, awed me. To explain to children at that age, and with such emphasis!, something of that philosophical weight and significance, stuck me as something of great importance that had been lost to most teachers before me. Why had no teachers the courage to entrust their students with this knowledge?

Michael and D'Niel showed me that, although this was the only Great Lesson Montessori taught in her time, her son, Mario, and those that followed her work, wrote four more and expanded on her original. Collectively, they are sometimes referred to as Great Lessons, implying the significance of the content, and sometimes, Great Stories, implying the significance of the presentation. The five Great Lessons/Stories are:
-The Story of the Universe (Creation Story, The Story of the Beginning)
-The Story of Life
-The Story of Humans
-The Story of Language
-The Story of Numbers
These five stories are broken down even farther by some Montessori educators to include individual stories about Earth, Civilization, etc. Because the are not lessons set in stone, any teacher can create a story about anything she feels needs to be talked about with the greatest of importance.

Cosmic education (and the Great Lessons it includes) is, according to Micheal and D'Neil, the foundation of Montessori education. It is the basis on which every other subject is taught, and every lesson in the Montessori classroom should be constructed with the Great Lessons in mind.

The Stories are told from large scale to small scale, Universe to individual level, which is directly opposite how traditional education is taught. The student in a traditional classroom might be taught about their neighborhood in kindergarten, their state and perhaps the nation in elementary school, and the world (and possible the stars if they had the opportunity to take the elective) in middle and high school, considering all the while how they can relate their studies to themselves.

Montessori students, on the other hand, begin their studies considering the universe as a whole, before they were born, before the Earth even existed, and the unquestionable laws of physics. They reflect on how stars and plants were created, then how the Earth was formed and what it was like before it contained the conditions for life. Then they learn the life that first began to exist on Earth and how it transformed and grew stronger and into billions of different species. Only then are they ready to consider themselves and humanity as it is today. It instills in the students an incredible sense of humility and lets them see their place in the world, their place in the universe. Cosmic Education teaches students to be one with the universe and to be at peace.

Reading Children of the Universe was quite an experience for me. I loved every bit of Cosmic Education (with the small exception of the option to include a divine creator in the Story of the Beginning), and yet at the same time, I felt as though I were an outsider looking into something I could not be a part of. I realized that the whole of Montessori is based on science, definitely not my best subject. I could just picture myself trying to give these Great Lessons, stumbling myself for the correct account, being asked questions I had no idea how to answer. Of course, this road block may be smaller than I see it as, because the Great Lessons are not given to show all the answers to students. They are merely to introduce concepts and inspire the students to research, teaching themselves the answers to their questions. Still, I'm not accustomed yet to students researching things in my classroom that I don't have the ability to clarify myself.

The second hesitancy I had was, of course, reading a purely Montessori book as a public school teacher. The majority of these Stories have no place in the American public school classroom due to separation of church and state. If I started teaching my students about the Big Bang and evolution, two very important pieces in Cosmic Education, I'd have enough public outcry to take away my license in a heartbeat. I know that there are ways to tame down what I've read enough to introduce it to my classroom, but I think I would always be afraid I was saying too much. In any case, I think I might be able to at least guide my students towards the gravity of topics such as the universe and world outside their backyard without making parents upset.

My own issues aside, there are a few notes I took from the book to share:

*"Montessori saw no contradiction between her acceptance of evolution and her religious beliefs as a Roman Catholic. In fact ... she considered human beings as collaborators with the deity in the work of continuing creation," p.21

*"'If the idea of the universe is presented to th child in the right way, it will do more for him than just arouse his interest, for it will create in him admiration and wonder, a feeling loftier than any interest, and more satisfying,'" p.31 (Montessori, To Educate, p.9)

*"The job of the Montessori teacher/directress is not to teach information so much as to guide or direct the children to an area of study by stimulating their imagination and interest, and then letting them go on their own as far as they wish using both the classroom materials and outside resources. The story part is the principle job of the teacher, the study part is primarily the job of the students, although some presentations involve an introduction of information by the teacher as well," p.34

*History is taught first with story, then with the making of a clock or timeline (such as the Clock of Eons, Timeline of Life, and Timeline of Humans), p.36

*When materials are used during a lesson or story, cover them with a black cloth to provoke mystery and suspense, p.44

*"It was only because of these billions of years of star life and death that the fragile conditions for life were created on this speck of rock we call home. We are the children of the universe," p.62

*Although the works with scientific names and classifications of life seem complex and daunting, they are not meant o be in depth studies like that they will receive in high school, merely a glance at what they will study in the future, and more importantly, a foundation for the appreciation of evolution. (It is important that while students are learning, teachers don't force regurgitation of facts), p. 91

*Students learn about early humans and evolution to current humans to learn that humans are animals, but also to consider real, physical differences between humans and other animals, p.106

*"The recognition that people in very different places in the world and in very ancient times all had the same needs that we have today is a deeply spiritual insight for children on the fundamental unity of all human beings," p.117

*Teach history not through the use of national boundaries. Humans are ll related--the world itself should be the only boundary, p.122

*"To attain true peace, she [Montessori] wrote, "We must create a different sort of man in order to have a different sort of society,'" p.127 (Montessori, Education and Peace)

*"Montessori students are taught to see themselves as citizens of the world, a species within the family of living species on Earth and, ultimately, as descendants of the universe," p.128

*"In a 1936 address to the European Congress for Peace meeting in Brussels, Montessori summed up her position: 'Preventing conflicts is the work of politics, establishing peace is the work of education,'" p.130

*"So why teach Cosmic Education? Montessori would answer that we must teach in this way so the children of today can understand more fully who they are and grow up to create a new kind of society, one in which peace is based on an understandin of the fundamental unity of humanity," p.130

Read more about the Great Lessons from Montessori for Everyone or Miss Barbara's website.

Read more about Cosmic Education from The North American Montessori Teacher Training blog or the Rose Hill Montessori school in Boise, Idaho website.

Buy Children of the Universe on Amazon.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Book Review: Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful

K recommended Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful to me when I first started volunteering at her school, and I must say, I am incredibly thankful she did. Donna Bryant Goertz shares 19 stories from her Austin, Texas Montessori school in her 2001-released book. Each chapter describes a student that could have been (and in many cases were) not properly cared for in a traditional school, but through interventions, time, and love, Donna, almost miraculously, turns every situation around. It was my first glance into what makes the Montessori method so very wonderful, and I found it more inspiring than any other education book I have read.

Donna's classroom, like Montessori classrooms across the globe, is made up of six- to nine-year olds that have learned to help and rely on each other with little assistance from the adults in the room. They solve problems on their own, speak politely and respectfully to one another, and only involve an adult if there is a problem that they can't resolve together. They are learning to become independent, self-functioning children.

Donna also helps her students before they even enter the door by explaining to parents what is most beneficial to them while they are at home: little tv and video game time, ample encouragement and love, healthy food, and reading together every night. She insists that none of her students, despite circumstances, are on medication, as it interferes with their growing minds and bodies.

Having established these two important prerequisites, a classroom where students can thrive and a caring home life, Donna welcomes, throughout the chapters, children with many different complicated situations into her classroom. She describes with great illustration the struggles of each child, and then details how, with what seems to be ease but may merely be patience, she leads them to overcome. A child that purposely destroyed is guided to make creative and artistic messes, a child that lied is guided to tell the truth, and children with aggression are guided into a calm.

When I read Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful, I was reminded in every chapter how little public school teachers actually help their students to overcome problems. They have so little time and so much to do (testing and paperwork and whole-class lessons that only half the class understands) that solving every students struggles is an impossible task. We build a temporary fix for the school year, caulk the growing hole in a dam, until we can send them off to the next teacher, to the next grade level, and let them fix things.

A few of the chapters even reminded me of children I work with now as a para. When I realized that I was seeing my students in the characters, my heart began to break. My students could benefit so much from the Montessori method, but I realized then that it was impossible to hope that for them. Donna lives states away, and Montessori schools are far more expensive than these Title I students' parents can afford. Even then, it is probably too late to reach the students I fear for, some of which will be graduating 5th grade in just weeks.

I knew, after reading about Donna's successes, that it was up to me. I may not be able to do much as a para, but when I enter the classroom with my degree, I pledge to be different. I pledge not to let any solvable struggles pass me by. Using the Montessori method as a beginning to my guide, I will use love and patience to reach all of my students. I will guide my students to become self-reliant and respectful. And for those children who are not yet peaceful, I will find the time to somehow lead them to calm.

Read a few chapters from Donna's book on Google Books
and then buy it on Amazon.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Missed Opportunity in The Montessori Language

Today was the first day of gardening at my Montessori school, and everyone was very excited. A had stepped out to buy a few more things we needed before we began, but some of us were a bit too excited to wait. "Andrew," K's son (it's so weird to make up names! Haha!), a first year, asked several times to get his shovel from the shed, and when the answer was still, "No," he began to get frustrated. K was sitting in a chair helping a student organize her work, and Andrew, in anger, pushed with all his might on the K's chair, perhaps it was to knock her out of it, but at least he wasn't pushing her, I suppose. "Andrew, please go the the peace pillow right now," was the response he got from her, and he obediently stormed to the corner where the pillow was waiting for him.

A returned soon with all of the supplies, and Andrew was able to join his classmates in bringing them in from the car. He was clearly still not at his best, but I could tell he was working hard on keeping his emotions under control. The first thing that needed to be done was assembling the wheel barrow from the box. There were two bolts that screwed the handles to the body, four students this day, but only one wrench to get the nuts onto the bolts. Two students took turns screwing the nut onto one side, and then K began to work on the other.

"Can I have a turn with the wrench?" Andrew asked K.

"Yes, in a moment."

She had been working on it for a moment already, and kept working as she spoke. The bolt wasn't very long, and Andrew wouldn't get a very long turn if she kept going. "Shelly," K's daughter, the oldest of the class, a third year, must have noticed this at the same time I did, for she giggled and said something to the effect of, "You'll get one turn, Andrew. You only asked for a turn!"

Just then, a thought came into my mind: Shelly, Andrew is feeling frustrated right now, so we need to be especially gentle towards him.

But I didn't speak. I did not say these kind words that had formed in my mind, and the moment quickly passed.

At first, I was frustrated at myself for not speaking. This was a time to step up and say something helpful towards people that needed guidance, and I did not provide the guidance, though I had the guidance to give. How terrible of me to keep peaceful thoughts towards others to myself when others would have benefited more from them.

In hindsight, however, I might have been too hard on myself. I have only been in this environment for a short while, and I can't be expected to master the kind way of the Montessori language immediately. At this time, it is enough to merely have these words in my mind. Next time, I will speak them.

Andrew, thankfully, did not respond to his sister's remark. He gave her a short, angry stare, kept his mouth closed, and let it pass.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Montessori Experience--pt II

About a month and a half ago, I was accepted into a volunteer position at a nearby Montessori school. Since then, I have experienced an educational environment I had no idea existed and have learned so much. Everything about Montessori is still so new to me, and I have been hesitant to write about it for fear of stereotyping parts of the teaching method, theory, or school because of my limited exposure. Finally, after six weeks of volunteering my four hours, I feel ready to start putting what I observe into words. I am so thankful to the director, "K." for allowing me to have this experience.

K. must have thought it strange when in our first emails to each other, I made reference to her "teachers." Before my first visit, when I imagined a hypothetical Montessori school in my mind, I pictured something similar to the public schools I have worked at as a paraeducator, similar to the schools I went to when I was younger. I had no concept, besides the odd ideas of Waldorf schools I had briefly researched, of a school with so few students and teachers. There is another Montessori school in the city where I live that seems, from what I have heard, to be as large as what I had imagined, but the school where I volunteer, which is in it's first year, has only K., the director, and A., (an assistant? I haven't asked, but she is mostly there when I am, coming and going some of the time on errands) as teachers for the six students, two of which are K.'s children. There is another teacher I have met a couple of times who is the head of the early education division, on the opposite side small building. I do not know much about the early education, because they do not meet on Fridays, the only day I am there. I remember that when I was learning about Waldorf, I found it so strange that the teacher of those schools stayed with her students throughout their elementary years, but after having experienced my Montessori school for a while and having read a little more about Montessori schools in general, it seems only natural in this environment.

Almost immediately upon my first visit, I noticed how much emphasis the students put on manners. When I sat down at the table during lunchtime, (a thought never contemplated in public schools!), they told me that they were "practicing polite table conversation," an idea adorable and novel to me at the time. Politeness and consideration is prevalent in all areas, but it is not strictly reinforced, as in families that have strict, written rules and punishments. In fact, the school has no written rules that I have seen, only gentle, oral reminders of what is expected, and the only punishment that has been given while with me present has been, "Please go sit for a little while on the peace pillow," a big pillow in the quiet library section of the building, merely a chance for the student to catch her breath and settle herself. Without strict rules and punishment, students are allowed to explore their actions, view the reactions of others, and decide for themselves how they wish to act. That being said, the students at my Montessori school are (for the most part) extremely well behaved.

Another thing I realized after only a few visits was that Montessori students seem to need a lot less physical attention than I am used to. At the public schools I have worked at, there are little ones that attach themselves to me immediately, even after having just met me. It's a sort of gradual effect, actually. A couple immediately love you, a few only need a short amount of days before they are comfortable with you, some need only a month or so, and then, of course, there are the ones that take a lot of time and effort to warm up to strangers. Nevertheless, I have come to expect receiving a sudden hug at some point or another from every one of the public school children I work with. But even after six weeks, I have not seen any affection from my Montessori students apart from tone of voice and facial expression. That's not to say that it bothers me, it's just something that I find curious.

There are a few explanations I have mused on for why this is. The first is the amount of non-physical attention received in the classroom. With 20-30 students in the public school classroom, it's hard to address each one as often as they'd like. Because they get fewer chances to speak to a teacher, they might show their affection in quick hugs. Montessori students (at least, the ones I have observed), on the other hand, have a teacher available almost literally whenever they need her. Because they can talk to her whenever they have something to say, they need less of a physical expression.

Or perhaps the parents of Montessori students treat their children on a higher, more mature level than public school parents. After being able to solve problems on their own and live day-to-day becoming more independent, the children need less and less physical affection, at least from strangers.

One last idea, I'm almost afraid to voice (and please don't think me heartless for saying so!), assuming that Montessori students come from financially better off families than public school students, and thus presupposing that their families are more frequently able to show their children physical affection, they would not require as much from strangers. It does sound horrible to say, doesn't it! I hope this is not the case, but it is something I have mused on.

Anyway, more about Montessori later. I have a coffee date with K. in a couple of days, and I hope she will shed some light on some other questions I have so that I will feel comfortable sharing them.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Montessori Experience--pt I

I have been speaking with the director of a new local Montessori school through email for the past couple of weeks. I told her I was interested in volunteering, and she replied that she would love to have anyone interested in Montessori. So today I went for an interview. Having done very little research on Montessori (it's still on my to-do list), I had no idea what to expect.

The school was brand new, hidden behind a maze of miscellaneous office buildings, camouflaged with its neighbors, bearing no brightly colored school sign like one would expect. It didn't even have a somber-colored sign, no attempts to mark this building as a place of learning what-so-ever. Beginning to doubt that I was in the right place at all, I finally noticed a few small, colorful paper snowflakes in a far, dark window giving the identity of the unknown building away.

The entry way of the school was a tiny, security enhanced room that sounded a "Front door open" alarm when I arrived. It had two doors on either side leading in. I later learned that one was to the elementary side while the other was to the early childhood side. Both were shut, and finding no buzzer to push to announce myself, I wondered what to do. I didn't have to wait long; the director, having heard the door alarm, soon came to greet me.

On the inside, the school was a large, open room, learning materials organized neatly against the walls, low tables and chairs to the sides, a big colorful carpet in the center, everything cleaned to the expectations of a surgery room. There was a courtyard in the center of the school, where, I was told, vegetables and plants would be grown in the spring, and a large, fenced-in yard around the back perimeter for a playground. In the back of the building was a kitchen for learning for the elementary students and a shared library in the process of being filled. I understand that the school had been open for less than a year, but I couldn't believe how clean and perfect everything looked. The children all had their shoes off, showing their tiny socked-feed, and the three adults wore slippers. I felt awkward for having kept my shoes on, although I was not told to remove them.

The director showed me around the building, introduced me to a few key learning materials, and then we sat at one of the low tables while the seven students (one-third of a normal class-size, they didn't have many families sign up. There were four first-years, two second-years, and one third-year, the director's daughter, no one over the age of eight), who had been learning with the teacher on the carpet when I arrived, ate lunch at the long table at the other side of the room.

The children seemed intellectual, while still child-like and silly, of course, and the two teachers (the director and the teacher I saw when I came in, the other I only saw briefly--the early childhood teacher?) seemed amiable enough. The environment, however, struck me as more like a home than a classroom. Because the student-to-teacher ratio was so low, the students seemed more like children at their own home, rather than at a school. They were addressed quickly whenever they had a question, they were allowed to learn whatever they wanted (this group was fond of science, and a few had taken up crocheting), they were reprimanded easily (one boy had poured a glass of someone else's soy milk and was told he must drink it because he had already drank from the glass today), even the fact that they all ran around in socks, it was like being home-schooled by someone other than your parents (with the exception of the director's daughter).

The director asked if teaching Montessori was a future goal at the moment, to which I had to admit, it is not. When I started my education career, I told myself that the best place I could be is at a Title I public school, reaching out to as many students that need a positive role model in their lives as possible. I had considered teaching in a private school, back when I was considering teaching English, because I wasn't sure if I would be able to handle public school children. However, having now worked at a public school for a year, I realize that it is where I belong and where I can make the biggest difference. Every day when I walk into a classroom at Griffith, I am greeted with 20 small bodies that depend on me and their teachers to grow. A lot of them don't have anyone else they can rely on, anyone else that tells them that they are smart, capable people that are special and really matter in the world. They need that. At the Montessori school today, I met seven children whose parents care the world for them, read to them at night, and probably hug them constantly. I know that they need the devoted attention their parents pay good money for them to have, but I feel like I have bigger problems to attend to: the kindergartener that doesn't know his letters, the first grader that doesn't talk to any teacher, the third grader whose mother was taken back to jail last night.

I would love to explore Montessori. I want to spend as much time volunteering as they need me. But I don't think that it holds much future for me besides gaining experience in different fields of education and in learning new techniques to take back to my own students.

The director said she would call after she contacted my references as to if she had a position for me. I just have to shake that awkward feeling that every adult there was afraid for me to touch anything, lest I get my dirty public school hands on them.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Power Teaching, part II--Exploration

When I discovered Power Teaching a week ago, something about it just didn't sit right. Everything seemed to align perfectly for the students, as I said in the post, they got many opportunities to speak aloud, do motions, and have repetition of concepts. The teacher seems to be at an advantage as well, staying in constant control of her class. But there was something wrong about the video clips I watched that I couldn't explain. After a few hours of not being able to put a name to what I was feeling, I wrote it off by saying, "Well, this method is too energy-intensive, anyway. I would never be able to pull it off in a class of my own."

I started my third semester of co-op yesterday, and part of my day was assigned to a first-grade class I had been in only a few times before. While I was there, the teacher had her children sit at the carpet and discuss a book they had read together the day before. The class was talkative and eventually the teacher had to send them back to their seats (still staying positive and not raising her voice) for being unruly. Despite my previous feelings, I couldn't help but think how well Power Teaching would have gone in that situation.

That caused me to rethink. Maybe Power Teaching isn't so bad; after all, I had given it a lot of praise. It was just curious to me. Perhaps it seemed too good to be true.

Today, browsing through education blogs, I read something about the "quest for knowledge," or some idealism like that, and wouldn't you know it, that's what Power Teaching is missing. Critical pedagogy, a four-letter-word in every public school teacher's mind, actually applies in this situation.

Upon more consideration, I've realized that Power Teaching is, in entirety, fact memorizing. The job of the teachers in the videos I posted last week is to explain. They are the ones standing at the front of the room, stating facts and waiting for them to be repeated back by 20 voices in unison. The teachers teach, the students receive information, but little real "learning" is occurring. This is the essence of critical pedagogy. There is no praxis, learning by problem solving.

Power teaching, though seemingly useful as a form of classroom management, is not effective as a way of learning. With it, there is no exploration by anyone in the classroom, students or teacher. In any classroom, children should be free to consider what they are learning, why it matters, and if they fully understand it. This does not happen in a fast-paced power teaching classroom because the teacher has already moved on to the next thought of her lesson.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Power Teaching

Whole-brain teaching, or as I like to call it because I think it more aptly describes the method, power teaching, is a high-energy level instructional method. Here is Chris Biffle, the creator, to describe it himself.

But does it work with small children? Absolutely.

Power teaching stresses two very important keys of learning: high-energy for maintaining students' attention and gestures to get through to the ever present kinesthetic learner (a part of every student). Everything about power teaching makes it perfect for the students, the knowing when to talk and when to listen, the micro-lessons and 'tell your neighbor' which allow for short bursts of learning coupled with lots of soaking in time as well as the ability to talk about what they're learning and feeling in-control of learning, as opposed to being talked to death by the teacher.

However, despite all of the positives, my first impressions of power teaching were intimidation and of being overwhelmed. It does take a lot of energy to maintain a class in this fashion. The way I speak, I don't think I could handle 20-some voices saying, 'Yes?' every time I addressed them as 'class.' I don't think the gestures (apart from kindergarteners writing P in the air) reflect their meaning well enough; they aren't specific enough for me. And the 'teach-okay' step (the words, not the actions) just seem silly to me.

Power teaching seems to be a wonderfully effective way of teaching, and though it would not work for me, there are a few points I can take away from it to benefit me. The fact that the teacher has the whole class's attention at "Class," or more importantly, "Hands and eyes," is crucial to any classroom. It is not wholly a power teaching trait, but having a key word, phrase, or action to silence the class is essential. Allowing students to discuss with a partner what they've just learned cements the learning, and the short bursts of information is ideal, especially for younger children. And of course, most students learn better with actions and movement. Also, having the students say, "It's cool," when a classmate answers a question incorrectly creates a positive atmosphere in which children aren't afraid of being wrong, although I might use "That's okay," with students in 2nd grade and below.

Whole Brain Teaching--detailed descriptions and instruction of the Whole Brain Teaching instructional methods
Chris Biffle Youtube profile--more videos from the creator