Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why the Author is Getting Her Degree

I'm having a hard time right now thinking that going to public university to get my bachelors in education was the right idea.

I had a short conversation with the cooperating teacher I'm student teaching with yesterday. It went a little like this:

Her: I know you're looking to go into Montessori, but the reality for me, as a public school teacher, is that I have to get these guys ready for the state test in March. I HAVE to. It's my job.

Me: I know. I know that's reality, and while I'm student teaching here, that's my job, too.

Her: *sigh* I wish I could go back to how I taught when I was teaching fifth grade, which was thematically. When I taught thematically, I could encompass ALL of the subjects, and the students were naturally more engaged because they were earnestly interested.

Me: But you won't be able to teach that way now, anyway, because the district has adopted math and reading programs.

Her: ... You're right. *gets up*

*ten minutes later*

Her: You're right. I wouldn't be able to teach that way anymore. It sucks. *sigh*

She had obviously been thinking about it after our conversation ended.

Today, a friend linked me to this article about play based learning. Reading it, I knew that my heart firmly agreed. To requote from the article's source, Scientific American,

"...parents might be surprised to learn that “just playing” is in fact what nearly all developmental psychologists, neuroscientists and education experts recommend for children up to age seven as the best way to nurture kids’ development and ready them for academic success later in life. Decades of research have demonstrated that their innate curiosity leads them to develop their social, emotional and physical skills independently, through exploration—that is, through play."

So why am I doing this to myself? Why am I jumping through all of the hoops that are a bachelor's degree in education when I'm doing my own research online and it's telling me not to structure the lives of small children with "school"?

The semester is over in two weeks, and obviously I'm more than a little stressed about all of the work that's required to be finished.

But aside from that, the question still remains. Why am I getting my bachelor's in education, anyway?

I'm passionate about teaching children, but honestly I feel deep down that my real life's mission will be raising my own children one day.

Why, then?

Because, first of all, I need to show others (including future parents and employers as well as those involved at the Montessori training school) that I am capable of diligent, professional research, reflection, and self-growth. Sure, I can tell them that verbally, even show them research I've done, say, on this blog. But in today's society, the only thing that really gets the message across, unfortunately, is a degree.

Second, because it IS teaching me. It's teaching me the WRONG way to go about education. A good way to know that I'm teaching the way I want to be teaching is by knowing that I'm NOT doing something I don't want to be doing. Plus, all of the experience is certainly good for me.

So, as stressed as I am, as much as I may feel that what I'm being asked to do is asinine and counter intuitive, I really just need to hold out a little longer. Graduation is in six months.

Friday, November 4, 2011

No Need for "Practice"

Of all meditational cleaning, dish washing may be the most effective. Somehow the calm flow of the warm water helps my thoughts to surface and come cleaner. Today it helped two formerly unrelated thoughts connect and become stronger.

1. Children should not be given "practice" plastic cups and plates before they are trusted with glass ones. (This is a Montessori idea.)

2. Children should not be taught to master addition and subtraction without regrouping before they are allowed to move on to addition and subtraction with regrouping. (My university math methods teacher taught this idea.)

Upon meditation, this is the same principle applied to different areas of life, and it comes down to trusting that our children can handle bigger ideas and concepts. The things we trust our children with do not need to be broken down into smaller steps. If we tell our children that we are trusting them with something, they will live up to our expectations. Sure, a child may break a plate or regroup incorrectly at first, but helping them clean up their mess and letting them grow through experience is easier in the long run than babying them and expecting constant growth.

Teaching simple addition connects certain synapses in children's brains that tell them what math is like. When we teach regrouping as a separate lesson, it tells the student, "Remember how you thought math was easy? Well, it's not really. There's actually a whole other step that you have to do now." They see it as an entirely different (and more complex) process. Contrariwise, if regrouping is taught first, not only is the base ten system emphasized (because children, especially English-speaking children, need all of the help with base ten they can get. More on that later), but simple addition seems even easier.

Similarly, if we hand toddlers a plastic cup (usually in the form of a sippy cup, in most societies today), it connects synapses that tell the child the properties of a plastic cup--it's light-weight, liquid stays in if I tip it over, it doesn't break when I drop it, liquid only comes out at this specific point, etc. Then it doesn't make sense in a child's mind that her father's cup has different properties, and he's upset when she breaks it. However, if we give the same toddler a miniature glass cup to begin with (I've seem shot glasses used for this purpose), she learns an entirely different set of mental rules about the properties of glasses and any glass thereupon requires no other handling consideration. Yes, the first one will be broken. Yes, a few others may be broken in the next couple of years. But that only emphasizes the properties of dishes.

Rather than giving children "practice" cups and plates when they are small, cut out the middle man and give them smaller sized glasses.

Rather than teaching children "practice" addition, cut out the middle man and teach regrouping first.

Rather than babying children with a modified version of life, let them experience reality.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Book Review: Highly Effective Questioning

On the lookout for good Socratic education books, I stumbled upon Highly Effective Questioning: How and Why to Ask Questions in the K-16 Classroom by G. Ivan Hannel. It's a short textbook, less than 200 pages, and I flew through it.

Hannel absolutely confirmed my thoughts about last week's lesson to my peers, so I'm glad to say that I was on the right track!

I also noticed that it conflicted directly with a few things I'm being taught at the university, particularly where tests are concerned. In public schools, we teach students test-taking skills to better prepare them for assessments. If assessments weren't necessary, as implied in Highly Effective Questioning, we wouldn't teach test-taking strategies but learning strategies.

At any rate, what follows is my notes from reading. It was a wonderful read, and I found myself writing and quoting a lot! Thus, I think I'll put them under a cut.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Teaching Reading

I got into a conversation with my husband today about teaching children to read. A lot of alternative schools don't--Waldorf, Regio Emilia, Montessori for the most part. They don't sit down with the students and have reading lessons. More, they teach the love of reading and allow the children to pick it up on their own or come to the adult to ask for help "when they are ready."

For some reason, I was thinking about this and asked my husband for his thoughts.

He did not approve.

"It has taken us thousands of years to get where we are today," was his response, in essence. "It took us thousands of years to develop oral language, thousands more to be able to write it down, and now, finally, we are at the point where we can teach it immediately. The basics of letters and numbers are taught for an entire year (kindergarten) because they are such an important basis upon which the entirety of our education system exists. If we neglect to teach reading properly, children must forever afterwards read through cargo culting."

Cargo cult - a term used for the act of applying something that is not entirely understood.

I guess that means we'll personally be teaching out own children the rules of reading and spelling. It's just that English, being a pidgin language, has so many of them, and so many exceptions. It's a nice fantasy to say that explaining all the rules and exceptions would just confuse children, and that they'll pick everything up just fine on their own.

But what about how the differences in reading between Montessori-, Waldorf-, and Regio Emilia-educated children and children from a public school background disappear by graduation? This is what I've heard, but I suppose I don't have any research to back it up.

Little did I know that all of this spawned in the back of my mind from the 30 hours I've had with the third grade class I'm student teaching this year. Their classroom teacher maintains that they are exceptionally "low" and is scrambling to prepare them for state assessments in the spring. We both know that many of them will not pass, and I'm worried about the kind of stigma that must come with that. Not passing a test that everyone says is so important, being classified as "low," and coming to think of yourself as dumb or inadequate. These are sweet kids, and I don't want that for them. I guess in the back of my mind, I kept thinking, "If these children weren't in a public school, they wouldn't have to go through this. It wouldn't be such a big deal that they don't have any number sense because they'll pick it up when they're ready. By the time they graduate, all the difference between them and other students will have disappeared."

Now that I know where all my thoughts stemmed from, I can focus on that. I suppose I need to figure out a way to keep my third graders this year to keep from feeling the pressure the state assessments are going to put on them.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Socratic Teaching in Practice

Today I was required to teach a math lesson to my university methods class. I taught it Socratically, and in hindsight I realized that it was my first experience doing so! My peers hated it. They were polite, but I could tell the only thing on their mind was, "We didn't do anything! There were no activities! There's no difference between lecture and what you just did!" Part of that was because it was my first time teaching using this method, and the other part was because the group I taught was not familiar with it. If I had a regular class of students I taught using this method frequently, they would have been more at ease with it.

I did think, however, that because teaching Socratically is so different than a regular lesson, I should announce what kind of teaching I will be doing before I begin. A good way to do this might be, "We are going to have a Socratic dialogue about decimals, so please turn your desks into a circle." Having the circle will definitely indicate to the students that they will be working collaboratively to answer questions. Having my "students" sit normally today indicated to them that I would be teaching a normal lesson, and they were confused when my lesson didn't meet their expectations.

I may also need to work on the questions I ask. I tried to use a new classroom management today, as well, using the word "together" to indicate when a choral response was requested. It didn't work so well because it was my first time using it and I wasn't in the habit of using it, but more importantly because it clashed with the dialogue. I asked a lot of low order thinking questions that were answered in one word responses so that I could use the "together" trick, and this did not lead to good dialogue. The "together" trick would have been good in a classroom that needs a lot of management, and it seems that Socratic discussion works better in one that doesn't need as much management, at least after the students have gotten used to the routine of the discussion. At any rate, the technique as unnecessary and a hindrance.

This is what I should remember for my future Socratic teaching:
*Announce in some way when I will teaching Socratically
*Remember those higher order thinking questions. Refer to Bloom's as much as necessary
*There should only be one classroom management technique used at this time, respect. Remind students to raise their hands any time they have something to add to the discussion.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Pledge to Guide Today's Students--draft 2

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
-Using resources and dealing with waste properly

Living in the age of technology and information
-Respect and honesty while using the internet
-Critical thinking skills when learning from any media
-(How to multitask and monotask where appropriate)

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

I've made just a couple of changes to this draft.

First, the category of "Respecting the Earth and the environment" was the only one that didn't have a subheading. I added "Using resources and dealing with waste properly," which basically speaks for itself--I'll be teaching the three R's. I barely remember reading somewhere a new list of R's more appropriate for the 21st century. I need to do more research on that.

Second, I took another look at the category, "Living in the age of technology and information." I wrote down some notes a week or so ago with the thought of adding it to this category,

Marketing. Kids need to be able to see through marketing schemes. "What are they trying to sell me? How are they doing this? What kind of tactics are they using?"

What is planned obsolescence?

Also, "What is the REAL price of this item? Although the monetary cost is low, what am I paying for? What kinds of practices am I helping support when I buy this? What kinds of work practices? Who gets the money I pay? Do I want to support these companies or stores when I don't know who they are or what they do?"

However, in retrospect, I believe ALL of this is covered in the subheading, "Critical thinking skills when learning from any media." Maybe I should make some bullet points under each subheading? I may do that in a subsequent draft.

Also in my notes, I had written, How to use technology and multitask, but also how to monotask and slow down to enjoy the moment. (((Monotasking Mondays? It sounds nice, but wouldn't a better day for monotasking be Friday, because we are all stressed from the busy week that we need to slow down?)))

I couldn't decide whether this point was important enough to include or not. I finally added it as "How to multitask and monotask where appropriate," in parentheses, considering that I could always exclude it in a subsequent draft.

A Second Look into Cooperative Education

I've been avoiding thinking about cooperative education.

After my first day of basking in the glow of its concept, I spoke with my husband about it--my realistic, down-to-earth husband. I don't even remember what he said, but after that, my glow had burned down to a low fizzle. Teacher Tom, after receiving many comments from others also realizing that this type of education had been staring them in the face all this time as well, began a week long special all about coops. I read them along with everyone else, but could no longer get excited. It wasn't until the last day when I was finally able to (almost) put my thoughts into words. Tom asked if there were still questions to be answered and I finally choked this out,

I love the community that evolves from a cooperative school, but I'm concerned about teaching students that don't already have parents that are that engaged in their children's learning and future. How could I create a cooperative-like atmosphere when a full-fledged cooperative school isn't appropriate? I'll do my best to engage parents at whatever school I'm at, but what about parents that can't come into class to help? Or parents that can't pay the tuition for a cooperative school (I know yours is cheap, but I expect getting costs low is a difficult task that not everyone has the skills to do).

I guess what I'm trying to ask is, how do I get my low-income students into the wonderful atmosphere a cooperative school creates?

Someone else must have asked the same question. In his next post, he referenced the question and someone else's name. (Which is good because I just realized when I went to find my comment that I placed it on the wrong post. So there's a possibility he didn't even see it.) His full response can be found here, as it's too long to quote in its entirety, but the most important part of the answer was,

I'm only half joking when I suggest that instead of putting money into things like high stakes testing, new buildings and text books, or getting teachers competing against one another for bonuses, we might want to consider paying these poor parents to get involved with their kid's school. That's what the research seems to indicate will make the most difference.

(He goes on in an elaborated follow up post here.)

You know, one of the reasons I got into education was to make a difference in the world. The biggest difference. The greatest impact. The students whose parents love them enough to send them to an alternative preschool and go into the classroom to work once a week? They're already guaranteed to get a great education whether I'm involved with them or not. The kids that concern me live with their single parent who works three jobs and is too tired when she comes home to cook anything more than macaroni or read a bedtime story. Those are the ones that need me the most.

So to my question, "How can I make cooperative education work for students in low socioeconomic standing?" I'm pretty sure the answer is, "You can't."

And that's why I've been avoiding thinking about it.

It's a wonderful model, especially for today's world of parents who are choosing to stay home with their young children, homeschooling them, providing them local and organic diets, and keeping them away from anything plastic or corporate-made. Not that there's anything wrong with this type of parenting--honestly, it's how I see myself parenting when the time comes--but it's a luxury choice that the middle-class have. It's simply not an option for a lot of families in the United States at this time.

It's a wonderful model, but I no longer see myself getting involved in it. I'm thrilled to hear that it exists, and I loved learning about it. I wish everyone involved in cooperative education the most sincere best of luck.

Now, like Tom suggested, if we could only rearrange some government spending to pay the parents of those inner city children to come into the classroom instead of picking up an extra job...

To learn more about cooperative education, read Teacher Tom's Cooperative Nuts and Bolts series:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5

Also of interest is Montessori Candy, a blog about a cooperative Catholic Montessori preschool. Here is a list of their posts with the Coop tag.

Just a note, October is Coop month.

Friday, August 19, 2011

What Worksheets Are For

A friend handed me a stack of worksheets the other day and asked if I wanted any of them. My immediate reaction was to politely and simply hand them directly back to her and reply, "No, thanks." But then I thought that maybe I should look through them quickly and see if any of them gave me any new ideas. So I had an inward sigh and sat down with the stack.

Among the coloring pages, dot-to-dots, and math board games, I found one choose-the-right-word on needs and wants. Needs and wants is an important topic that's actually taught in public schools today, although I don't think any students or teachers actually internalize any of it. This paper listed scenarios and wanted students to decide if something is a good or service and a need or want. I'll list some from what I remember.

"Sally went to the barbershop. She paid for a __(good, service)__. Getting a haircut is a __(need, want)__."

Easy. She paid for a service; a haircut is a want. Alright, let's move on.

"Sally went to the mall. She paid for a __(good, service)__ at the store. Clothes are a __(need, want)__."

Okay, this one's a little trickier. Clothes are obviously a good, but because Sally had to go to the mall, the clothes she bought there are probably a want, not a need. However, the question just asked about "clothes" in general, which ARE a need. It's a little questionable, but acceptable. Let's check out the last one.

"Sally went to the pizza parlor. She paid for a __(good, service)__. Food is a __(need, want)__."

This one really got me. Because Sally went to a restaurant where food is prepared for her, she paid for both the good of the food and the service of having it prepared. Because it merely talks about "food," the answer should be "need." But again, because it specified that she went to the pizza parlor, pizza is a want, not a need. So although the "correct" answers are a "good" and a "need," you could easily argue either way.

And come to think of it, on the second question, when Sally paid for the clothes at the mall, which were undoubtedly overpriced, she probably paid for the service of having children in third world countries gather the materials and construct the clothes at the American equivalent of one dollar a month and at terrifying working conditions, the shipping of the finished products, the paychecks of CEOs that decided to outsource the company, and the employees of the store who marked up the price of the product by 75%. So, in fact, she paid for their services as well as the good itself.

With all that in mind, I wrote off the worksheet as stupid, cookie-cutter fodder common in most traditional classrooms across the country and handed the stack back to my friend.

But today I thought back to it and all of the comments I had. Wouldn't it be great if my students thought these thoughts as well? Wouldn't it be cool if I could use this silly worksheet to ignite these thoughts?

And then I thought, couldn't I use these silly worksheets to explain the molds that other teachers and other people in the world will try to fit them into? I could tell them, "This is what they will give you. And you know the right answers. That is, you know what answers they will be grading for. And you can try to talk to them about it, like we did together, but chances are, they won't listen. So you just have to put the answer you know that they want. And if you don't know, just guess. You may have guessed what they want correctly, and you may have guessed incorrectly, but it doesn't matter. Take your C and go sit back down because there's nothing more you can do with that kind of person. They just want to grade for what they think is correct and give you a score and label you and fit you into a category. And it doesn't matter. What matters is that you know that there's more to knowledge than that."

So that's what worksheets will be for in my classroom--preparing my students for the terrible teachers they will have in the future. Steeling their hearts for it and instilling more confidence into them. I look forward to the wonderful conversations about worksheets I will have with my students.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

An Introduction to Cooperative Education (with links to Teacher Tom)

Earlier this month, my husband and I took a trip to Kansas City. On our first day, we had a nice, romantic walk along the plaza in search of a local gourmet burger place he wanted to check out. We found it, and other nice-looking businesses, right next to an early childhood Montessori preschool connected to a temple. I wish I had a picture to show, but even a picture wouldn't do it justice. The feeling I got as I walked along the outside the building I knew wonderful things had and did happen inside, it was a sort of excitement mixed with recognition and nostalgia. What an atmosphere it had! We walked down a little ramp and into our hip burger joint, and the feeling wouldn't leave me alone. I was considering the dream I had recently. I looked the school up on my phone while we waited for our order. Could it be? Was this the school I had dreamed about? Was this Marketplace Education in action?

It was not, of course. It was a regular Montessori preschool, just located on the plaza next to some local businesses. The website did have me intrigued at, "families work together to provide children with the best possible educational environment," however. That was part of my dream, after all, the parents as the business owners and education assistants inside the school.

But that's about where the similarities ended between my dream school and the school on the plaza.

Today an education blogger that I follow posted a new post about coop schools. He's been teaching in a cooperative preschool for the entire time that I've been following his blog (for way longer, actually, more than 10 years). It's been staring me in the face from his sidebar all this time. Of course I had read many of his posts in which parents take a center role. But I wasn't ready to learn yet. "When the student is ready to learn, the teacher will appear."

I read Teacher Tom's post about teaching in a cooperative preschool and subsequently, every post he has written with the "cooperative" label. I nearly cried at each word. THIS was closer to the school in my dream.

I have a lot of learning ahead of me. How does a coop school really function? How does one get started? How would an elementary coop differ from its preschool counterpart?

"Sometimes I describe us as a bunch of families who have decided to homeschool their kids together." It sounds perfect, Teacher Tom. I look forward to learning as much as I can, and perhaps even my own venture into cooperative education.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Classroom Libraries

Teachers will go to great lengths to keep their classroom libraries looking nice. Many have checkout policies for borrowing books to prevent them from being stolen. Some even include a kind of temporary barter system by taking something that the student will obviously want back by the end of class, like a shoe.

These teachers are very concerned about their books because they, undoubtedly, have funded them out of pocket from expensive bookstores. New books aren't cheap. But children don't care if you bought your books from Barns & Nobel. Worn books represent loved books. They have been read and enjoyed by many people. Even books without pictures on their covers will find their way into students' hands.

But many children in this country don't have access to books. Many don't have a single book in their home. They may not even be able to make it to the public library safely. There are organizations that work very hard to supply these kids with books to read. But for some, it's too late. Many children already despise reading. It's a horrible truth that hard for me to even think about.

So, in my opinion, if a student cares enough about a book in the classroom library to steal it, someone's doing something right. If a student cares enough about a book to steal it, I believe that they should have it. Sure, the student may not have the proper ethics yet to know that stealing is wrong, but at least they haven't given up reading. At least they have the motivation to want to own something that will lead to their own growth. And perhaps they may get to the point where ethics matter more.

I have a large collection of picture books and young adult novels that I've gotten for cheap from half-priced bookstores and garage sales. I don't even have a classroom of my own yet, I don't even know what grade I'll be teaching, but I've already gotten my classroom library ready to go. And I hope many of my books are stolen.

Edit: My husband says it still promotes miscreant thievery and ill ethics to have these philosophies, even if I don't announce them to my students. Perhaps I will have some sort of no-checkout take-home policy of my classroom library books. I don't want to give books as any type of reward (perhaps other than for simply completing a year in my classroom), and I don't want to have a situation where I'm allowing each student to take a book but "Megan" already took the one that "Jose" wanted because she got to go up before him. I'll have to see what I can come up with.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"Marketplace Education" Idea

I was having a fast-paced, full-fledged action and suspense dream last night, driving a semi-truck across country and chased by aliens in a flying space ship. But when I arrived at a something called a "marketplace school," everything slowed to a halt. Suspense ended. I got out of my semi and went inside to see what it was about.

It was a wonderful little school in its first year of existence, and it got its name from the half a dozen little shops bordering the patio down to its front doors. I believe they were all owned by the parents of the children that went to school there, or if not, they were community members fully supporting the school. My favorite was the bakery, full of delicious sweets and breakfast pastries and selling its wares quickly to the parents and children coming to school that morning.

The patio itself was a brick-laid downhill path, with big, thick wrought iron gates opened every morning and closed off from the street every evening. There were no cars, I don't think the gates would have been wide enough to let a car through--everyone walked. There were tables and benches in a little lounging area where one could eat a pastry they had just bought or sit while they wait for a friend to meet them, but being morning, no one was sitting, everyone was seeing their children off.

The school, at the bottom of the downhill grade, was separated by another set of tall, wrought iron gates. A bicycle rack sat just inside the gates, and some older children were taking off helmets and putting bikes up as they came in. The school doors were made of tall panes of beautiful glass. Inside, I was met by a lot of open space, brown walls with a bold stripe of green paint, and a black leather circular couch. There was a blackboard next to the door, which a handful of children, seated on the floor, were facing; tall shelves of books and materials; and a few wooden tables with four wooden chairs each along the back three walls. The back of the school was as well-lit as the front, perhaps it had floor-to-ceiling windows, and perhaps it led to a small garden out back.

I spoke with the head instructor / principal (whose name was Heather or Feather) after the day began, and she told me all about the school, but unfortunately either I have forgotten it, or my dream-brain made something up that didn't actually exist. The school may or may not have been Montessori-based, but it got a lot of support from the store owners it shared space with. Looking around, there were many parents sitting with their children, laughing and watching them work. Apparently, they also received a lot of support from parents. Who may or may not have been the same people. I talked to a few parents, too. The only thing I remember from what they told me was that I was somewhere in Kansas, remarkably.

When I awoke from my dream, I searched Google for this new concept, "Marketplace Education." I even tried, "Marketplace Montessori." I tried "Market Education," and "Market Montessori," all to no avail. What was this wonderful concoction my sleeping brain dreamed up? Does it exist, in some form, in the real world? Would it, could it, work in reality?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Minimalist Teaching Redefined (An Introduction and Musings)

Inspired by a recent personal interest in minimalism, the other day I found myself wondering, "What would minimalism as a pedagogy look like?" Immediately I turned to Google, but every search result referenced what I've heard called silent teaching, standing back to let students discover knowledge for themselves. While I admire this approach, it wasn't quite what I was looking for.

I have two large tubs full of "teacher stuff" in my living room closet. The quotes are used in the previous statement to imply that not everything included is actually useful as a teaching tool. Honestly, it's been a while, and I'm not exactly sure what all is in there. I know that there are plastic paper organizers, small containers, stickers, ink pads and a couple of stamps, a few sets of bulletin board borders,... And that doesn't include all of the supplies (pencils, paper clips, sticky notes) that are kept in a separate box in my bedroom closet, the countless children's books that have crowded themselves out of an entire two-shelf book case, or a shelf full of professional books in my bedroom bookcase. And I don't even have a degree yet!

During my time as a paraeducator, I worked with a teacher that, frankly speaking, I shall call a hoarder. She'd been working for 26 years, and her room showed it. The first thing one noticed upon entering her classroom was, despite having one of the larger rooms in the school, the complete lack of space. Stacks of papers lined every surface. The students' tables were topped with a small plastic tub each, but the tubs were overflowing with worksheets in various stages of completion, broken crayons and various bits of their boxes, dirty ziplock baggies, pencils to be sharpened, and fragments of destroyed pink erasers. Boxes and boxes of worksheets stood around the perimeter of the room. Her walls were covered with faded, outdated, childish cartoon character posters. Stuffed animals lined top shelves. And the closet? I had to work with her for a year and a half before she let me take a glimpse. The door could only be partially opened because it was crammed full of tubes of wet wipes (for cleaning?), countless boxes of untouched construction paper, a million worksheets, and a tower of unopened boxes of tissues (literally around 50).

I also worked with a new teacher that had only been out of college for two years. She was unfortunately let go because of cutbacks, but found a position elsewhere in the state. I helped her clean out her classroom at the end of the year. Despite having worked for such a short period of time, it was surprising how much she had accumulated. She had let her students know a couple weeks before school let out that she had a new job in a different city, and they helped her pack most of her materials into boxes. Still, it took the entire morning to finish cleaning out her desk area and closet. By the end, she was tired and frustrated and kept saying variations of, "I don't care, just throw it all away!"

How do these kind of situations come to be? What does it mean? How can we prevent them from happening in the first place? When I did a preliminary search for Minimalist Teaching, I hoped to find more along these lines.

Just the other day, I got a catalog in the mail (who knows HOW they got my address) full of page after endless page of cheap junk. Apparently teachers are just another source of income for capitalist corporations wanting to make a buck. But is it at the expense of your students?

My political stance aside, when I first began looking into minimalism for my personal life, I noted to a friend what a contradiction it would seem to be both a minimalist and a teacher. You never know what might interest or help any particular student specifically. Therefore, everything must be saved in preparation for having that one student in your class. I've come to believe that this is the mutual though process of most teachers.

It's either, "Oh, look at this thing! I could use this in my X lesson!" or "Hey, that's an interesting thing. It might come in handy sometime."

I've learned a lot from Leo Babauta recently about how to quell these feelings and fears. (Personally, I have a fear that I might be able to use something for making something new or for a craft, but I'm not even a crafts type of person!)

Back to my original question, what would a classroom concerned with minimalism in regards to "stuff" look like?

I've been a fan of Socratic teaching for a few years, but since I haven't made a post on it, I'll have to reference this article, in which the author teaches binary to third graders. In my ideal classroom, we wouldn't need a large quantity of materials because we would spend more time in dialogue and discussion.

But how realistic is that? As a pre-service teacher, I'm not entirely sure, but I may be able to approach the topic with more of an open mind than an experienced teacher whose judgement may be clouded with personal bias. The main issues that concerns me are the areas of tactile learners and (with a hint of bias picked up, whether truthfully or not, from media and popular conception) boys. Would I be able to reach them as fully without objects for them to hold and manipulate about every matter we discuss? The obvious answer, at least in the case of the tactile learner, is no, I would not. But perhaps the question I should have asked is whether I would be able to reach them as easily. To which the answer may not change, but the ideas to which it alludes might. It may not be easy to reach these learners, but maybe, it would benefit them more.

Perhaps, a good friend notes, children who are "inundated with the stuff and the entertainment of their parents" would benefit from a blank canvass. It could be a healthy break from the fast-paced, invasive life of our current society. She also suggests bringing in a new set of found objects every once in a while to study, perhaps from nature, seashells, feathers, pine cones, etc., which I thought was a wonderful and simple idea.

Above all, what I want to accomplish the most with this study is to get students to question more. "What is this doing here?" "What do we use it for?" "Why are we keeping it here?" I want for us to constantly re-evaluate and look for ways to improve our shared environment. And, hopefully, our dialogues themselves will be entertaining enough to keep the children's attention more than materials and manipulatives would. I want to teach the powers of community, thinking, and sharing, not the power of items.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Eat, Exercise, Excel

The PE Methods for Classroom Teachers class I took this summer briefly mentioned a program called Eat, Exercise, and Excel, but just enough to catch my attention make me want to learn more. What follows is the research I found.

Anthony School in Levenworth, Kansas was the elementary school that no one wanted to go to. Teacher turnover rate was high, student grades were low, bullying was rampant, and everyone was unhappy. No teachers wanted to work there, and no parents wanted their children to go there. Until Janine Kempker took the position of principal and turned the school around with a new program she developed, Eat, Exercise, and Excel.

Main points of the program:
-Daily vitamins for the entire school population, students and staff
-Replacing recess with 40 minutes of structured PE
-PE/recess before lunch
-Lunch in the classrooms with polite socializing while learning manners and nutrition
-Teacher eats with students
-Constant access to water (bottles on desks)

It also seems that the school staff cracked down on discipline. The entire school, though happy and healthy, seems almost prison/boot camp-ish from the videos (links below), although I suppose it was a necessary measure to fight the bullying that once owned the playground (and probably every other part of the school).

The lunch aspect struck me as similar to the Montessori school I volunteered at a year ago and as possibly the most important aspect of the changes Anthony made. Eating is a time of vulnerability and sincere humility. Lunch time resembles an assembly line in most public schools I've seen--stand in line, receive plate, receive utensils, receive milk, sit along a long table, eat silently and quickly, line back up, exit, repeat for next class. Anthony has returned to a more natural lunch, calm, peaceable, and social. The teacher that eats with the class (on a daily basis, not as a reward), shows that she is human as well. She needs to eat to stay healthy, just as students do. Oh, and look, she's eating her vegetables! She's drinking her milk! Those things must not be so bad after all, maybe they're worth a taste. And there's no rush to eat quickly because the students have already had recess, and they can chat quietly with their friends as they eat. That results in less upset stomachs and more food eaten rather than thrown away in a rush to the playground.

The vitamins were an aspect I'd never considered before. What a great way to give students, especially low income as these are, a little extra advantage and nutrition. Available only to those with money or grants, but if you have it, use it!

And the test scores, every politician wants to know? Reading from 56% to 84% passing and math from 46% to 82% passing.

What a great program and a wonderful way to build a community. I wish every public school would/could implement something like it.

Eat Exercise and Excel program home page, unfortunately down.
Anthony School before and after, from the EEE website, somehow still available even though the main page is down
PDF explaining program from Kansas State Department of Education, Child Nutrition and Wellness website
29 minute video by Hugh Riordan, M.D.
5 and a half minute video from Fox News

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Masters Programs in Montessori

I never saw myself as a Masters type of person. I figured I'd get a Bachelors degree, and that'd be good enough. But during research for Montessori training schools, I came upon an affiliation program with a university. Once I saw it and realized that a Masters degree was actually attainable, I wanted it. Here are the results for my further research on the subject, arranged according to my interest in the program. I did not include any online programs.

Loyola University (Baltimore) / Montessori Training Center of Minnesota (St. Paul)
PDF Info Pamphlet
Outcome: AMI Montessori diploma and Masters of Education in Montessori degree
Three summers of classes beginning June 2013 + 4-day winter seminars
9 hours (2 papers) at Loyola as a fourth summer or during semester
(27+9=36 credit hours total)
$10,000 for Montessori training, $? per out-of-state university credit
Applications available May 2012
Must take Primary Foundations course before program
Financial Aid SELF Loan through the State of Minnesota
Loyola student loans for MTCM
Loyola financial aid
MES Scholarship through AMI/USA. Application deadline is May 1st of each year
Information video

St. Mary's College of California (Morgana, CA)
Outcomes: AMS Elementary Education credential and Masters of Arts - Montessori Elementary Education

32 credits
$410 per credit hour (roughly $13,000)
Program length: Roughly 2 years + 1 year (of 2 more classes and culminating project)
1 year of classes, 1 year of paid internship or student teaching

Xavier University (Cincinnati)
Outcome: AMS Montessori diploma and Masters of Education degree
Full-time, part-time, or summer class options (20? seats available)
51 hours required for Elementary I. Take an intensive additional summer for Elementary II.
$? per university credit
Must take Primary Foundations course before program

St. Catherine University (St. Paul)
Outcome: AMS credential and Masters of Education degree, optional STEM graduate certificate

39 credits
STEM certification
$? per university credit
Primary Foundations included in credit hours

Chaminade University (Honolulu)
Outcome: Masters of Education with Emphasis on Montessori

31 credits

Belmont University (Nashville)
Outcome: AMS Early Childhood certification Master of Arts in Teaching and State Licensure

Hampton University (Hampton, VA)
Outcome: Masters of Education in Montessori Education

33 credits

Sienna Heights University
Outcome: Masters of Arts in Early Childhood Education: Montessori

36 credits


[Redacted text about choosing a program]

Edit (Feb. 2012): I found another great program. Although I've already decided which school to go to, I'll list it below.

Hershey Montessori Training Institute (Cleveland) / Loyola University
Outcome: AMI accredited Elementary Montessori license, Masters of Education in Montessori

Available as a one academic year (9.5 months) program or a three summers program (next three summers program begins 2014)
Cost: $12,500
Financial aid, scholarships, and discounts available
As well as being accredited by AMI, HMTI is also closely associated with NAMTA. It sounds like a great school. If I hadn't already chosen another school, HMTI would be the obvious choice.

Edit (Sept. 2012): Here's a site that would have been helpful while I was still deciding on a school, a list of all (currently 16) AMI certified training centers in the US, Training Center Locator. There's even a page of Degree Options With AMI Training Centers from the same site.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

University has pushed me further towards Montessori

Spring semester took its toll on me. I was so stressed, I really had no time for anything else but school, pre-student teaching, and 20 hours of co-op internship work. I had no time at all to research anything on my own time and never once cracked open an education book. As I progress further into my education, I get to experience more and more what it means to be a public school teacher. And I hate it.

During spring semester, I taught science and social studies to second graders in a technology-focused magnet elementary school. My cooperating teacher says I did great, but my science professor (who graded all of my work) wasn't as fond of my ideals and practices. I felt more comfortable addressing the students Socratically, through dialogue and thinking aloud. Unfortunately, I was graded most of the semester on how well I could adhere to the Inquiry model of teaching, which works well for science lessons a lot of the time, but not 100% of the time, and not much at all with other subject, specifically the other subject I taught, social studies. It's a good model. It focuses on students learning scientific concepts by working hand-on with experiments and developing thoughts on their own about what they're seeing and doing, rather than being spoon-fed the concepts and doing the experiments to see if they can apply the knowledge well enough to get it to work. Perfect for a science classroom. But I'm not running a science classroom.

For the unit I taught, I was required to administer a pre- and post-test in order to calculate growth and, therefore, the accuracy of my teaching. I used backward planning, creating unit objectives, basing a post-test based on the objectives, and finally, developing lessons to reach the objectives. And then, as I taught the lessons, before I realized it, I... I was teaching to the test! Me! The non-traditional teacher! Teaching to the test! *sigh*

It wasn't a total disaster, though. I did teach a lesson on the March 2011 Japan natural disasters. The students learned a lot and wrote about what they thought the world could do to help. I was inspired. My science professor was outraged. She sent me an angry email saying that she did not approve or think the lesson was appropriate. She said she would not like her second-grade-aged niece learning what I taught in the school. I promptly responded with an email stating that I thought it was not only appropriate for second-graders to learn current events happening in the world around them and how to rise up and show compassion for their fellow man, but it was imperative. Personal regards to philosophy of educating family members not withstanding. It goes without saying that I received the poorest of my grades for that lesson, regardless of my justifications.

I also taught a couple of lessons about environmentalism, which I thoroughly enjoyed. We learned what composting is, what kinds of materials are recyclable, how to sort them, and even how long certain materials take to decompose (which, I admit, may have been over their poor heads. I wish I had had more time to explain that part). I even got them writing a little, which their classroom teacher didn't hardly bother with because of the high ESOL population (which I thought was all the more reason to focus on it). Good times were had.

I can't decide whether or not I'm looking forward to next semester and my senior year. I'm excited to meet the students I'll be working with next year, and I'm excited to teach and interact with them. But I'm not looking forward to having the lessons I want to teach frowned upon and more teaching to the test.

Public school teachers, I've found, have their days practically already planned out for them. Lunch, recess, and "specials" (music, art, and PE) are already pre-set, and teachers work in grade teams to determine the rest of the schedule. Schedules and routines are great for children. They thrive with a daily schedule. But it leaves no room for spontaneity, which grows flexible children. What if a lesson sparks a big dialogue? In my ideal classroom, we'd continue it because the students are engaged and learning from one another. Who am I to say, "Stop, we don't have time to finish that thought"? Who am I to say, "Stop, we've talked about this enough today"? But that's exactly what the public school teacher would do. What if students are incredibly more focused in math one day, for whatever reason, because somehow something just finally clicked. Why would you say, "I'm glad you finally understand, but now we're going to switch gears and go into English" instead of giving the students more time to apply what they've just figured out?

Unfortunately, I think I know part of the answer. It comes down to funding, No Child Left Behind, and assessments. It always comes down to one of those three these days. It's rush rush rush in public schools. It makes me frustrated, angry, and sick.

At the end of spring semester this year, I took a day to visit the other Montessori school in town, the one I had never been to. It was bigger than K.'s Montessori class of 6-7 students. This one had roughly 10 students per class, pre-K through fifth grade. The students shared three open spaces, one for Kindergarten and pre-K, one for 1-3, and an upstairs for 4th and 5th. The most distinct difference I found in this Montessori school was that they seemed to teach a curriculum based half on traditional Montessori and half on whatever the public school district taught. How unique! They had also embraced technology, from what I could see, something I was thrilled to see! The teachers were friendly and chatted amiably with me about any questions I had until the director kicked me out because the students 'needed to stay focused,' or something. I asked if I could return in the future, but the director edged around saying no. The reasoning seemed to be that I interfered with the atmosphere. Sadly, it appears that they have a closed door policy.

As I fell asleep the other day, I had a random memory of a small marimbula I saw in a store recently. I began to imagine, in the haze of sleep, a scene in which students could pick small instruments, such as the marimbula, a small flute, an ocarina, a triangle, etc., out of a basket to play. I humored the thought for a few minutes until I realized that this scene would not be practical in a traditional public school setting. At that moment, suddenly wide awake, I rejected public schools entirely. It would be acceptable in a Montessori classroom. And at that moment, I fully embraced Montessori. I wanted to be a Montessori teacher.

I did a little research on getting a Montessori license before I went to the second Montessori school at the end of spring semester (which I should call the first, as it was founded in 1985, I believe, and K.'s school will be beginning its third year of operation in the fall). There are few schools that offer Montessori training, and even fewer that offer it for elementary level. And they are far from where I live. And they are expensive, upwards of $10,000. Another option is an online license for around $4,000, which is not recognized by either school of philosophy (AMI--Association Montessori Internationale, AMS--American Montessori Society) but may still get me a job if I try hard enough.

My husband had a job offer for a computer science company that offers Montessori as a company preschool. Wouldn't it be amazing if they hired us both? But I don't want to work with Early Childhood, even though it'd be nice. My heart lies with the elementary age.

The only other thought I had was, with an immediate panic, "What about my pledge!?" Traditional Montessori doesn't lend itself to "Living in the Age of Technology," the fourth section of my Pledge to Guide Today's Students. But then, perhaps I don't want to work in a traditional Montessori school. Nontraditional here, remember? What's more important is that I've decided that I want to pursue a Montessori license, not the particulars of what goes on in the classroom. The Montessori school I visited recently used technology, what's to say I won't end up working in a school more like that?

In the meantime, it just so happens that I'll have Fridays off next semester. I think I'll do some more volunteering, if I can.

EDIT: I didn't want to add this last night because I didn't want to admit it to myself and I needed to rethink a couple of things. Going into Montessori to some people (namely, my husband) means giving up on public schools. It means not reaching as many students. It's hard for another part of me to accept that--the activist part that shouts, "Education is a right!" and wants higher taxes and a good, quality education for all.

But I'm not giving up on public education, per se. I don't want to be the elitist teacher of the private, prestigious Montessori school, I want to be the brave teacher at the alternative school (which just happens to be Montessori) that accepts children that public school has rejected and helps them find success. And besides, there are public school districts that have adopted Montessori methods into their curriculum. I found them during research one day. They don't accept teachers without a Montessori license.

So I'm not going into Montessori to reject public school. I fully support public schools, I just think they need to be remodeled. Having lost the full-out activist kick I was on a few years ago, being a Montessori teacher is doing my part in education, but not having to put up with the system in its current state, and without having to barrel head first into the activist world (and maybe, maybe not making a dent).

Yes, he's right, I won't reach as many students that need my help, but I may be able to help the students that need the MOST help, assuming I find my destined school (or start my own, WHEW, WHAT WORK!). Besides, from what I experienced last year, going into public schools at this point may spell early burn-out for someone like me. And then where would we be?

Who knows what the future will really bring. All I know is that my heart is telling me that going into Montessori teacher training is the next step, and I hope to have the courage to listen.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Musings on the Control and Role of a Paraeducator

I realized objectively today that I wasn't in control of the students in the third grade class I work with. Little girl swiped my keys from me during recess! That's when I noticed. I guess I was acutely aware of it before that moment, but when she actually grabbed the lanyard dangling from my hand and dove, following the momentum of the movement, to the ground, and then wouldn't give them back upon my request, that's when it really hit me. These students don't view me as I would like to be viewed. I mean, I guess it's not that big of a deal because I'm only a para, I only see them 6-8 hours a week, but it is nevertheless my intention to be construed as an adult.

There is not much I can do in my current position that I would do to change the situation as a classroom teacher. The teachers I work with have rules and expectations (or the lack there of) that they set themselves, and who am I to walk in and change them? When I am in another's classroom, I must abide by their atmospheric intentions. But to what end? Even if it means losing what little control I once may have had with the students? How can I convey order in a classroom whose teacher doesn't demand it?

I remember having these very thoughts after my first semester of para-educating. Blatantly, I had blown it. The first graders hung on me and called for me to stand by them and to be their special friend. After my first semester, the school I was at lost funding and I found a position at another school, one I've held for a year and a half now. And before beginning here, I asked myself how I had gone wrong, how I could have let myself be seen in such a manner. The answer I found was presence. I needed to harden my presence and let students know that I was an authority figure, one to be respected but also obeyed.

And apparently I have been lax in doing such, because I find myself in this position yet again. Only this time I don't have the newness and mystery of being a new employee for support. I have to stand even taller and tell the students who already know me that I will no longer tolerate such behavior.


Writing those words just now somehow hurt my spirit. How can I say such things in the place where I wish to evoke creativity and unconventional educational ideas? But doesn't any effective classroom deserve a strong, firm educator? Where does the line between strong/firm and oppressive/authoritarian really lie?