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