Sunday, November 24, 2013

Really Big (and Really Small) Numbers

A couple of months ago, I realized that fractions and decimals were coming up in the third grade textbooks. This would be the first introduction to decimals for most of my students and a far more in depth look at fractions on top of that. So before we got to that point, I would need to make sure they had a handle on place value.

How would Montessori do it? I asked myself. I somewhat regret my decision to drop out of Montessori training. No matter. I could handle it on my own.

So we all got out pieces of paper and some crayons, I went to the white board with my dry-erase crayons, and we accomplished this: (click on the images to view them full sized)

They caught onto the pattern very easily, as I was hoping they would. I started with Ones, Tens, Hundreds, Thousands, Ten Thousands, and Hundred Thousands, noting all of the colors aloud, some of them catching on before the others and verbally prompting me. Then I let them do most of the work. "What comes next?" I asked, and they all replied, "Millions!" "And what color is it?" "Green!" "How many zeroes does it have?" "Six!" We continued in this fashion, hesitating when we reached the next unit. "What comes after Hundred Millions?" I asked. "What comes after Hundred Billions?"

(There was a moment after I asked one of these questions when the class became silent, considering. One student blurted out a concept he vaguely knew as a very large number, "A Google! ... And after that comes a Google Chrome!" I lost it. The entire class burst out laughing. It's a wonderful, carefree memory that I cherish.)

We had to turn to the internet to help us after Hundred Trillions, because I honestly didn't know what came next, and we were able to authentically search for knowledge together.

I ran out of space on the board after Hundred Quintillion, but many of them were eager to go on. I let them go as far as they were able, though the color pattern became a bit skewed for some.

A few days later, we did the same going backwards, which was much more difficult. We didn't go very far, but having done the previous exercise was definitely a benefit.

From there we just followed the textbook, but they were definitely far better off.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Multiplication Tables

Third grade is the year when children are typically asked to master basic multiplication facts. I haven't let myself think too hard about this because I'm not sure what conclusion I would come up with. I know that by the end of the school year, my students will be expected to have reached mastery in this skill, and that's the end of it. No way around this one, really. Besides, some things just have to be memorized, right? Simple multiplication must be one of them. Yes, we've talked at length about what multiplication means, and my students are all aware that 4x5 means taking four groups of five items. But when it comes to working through problems, it's good to have the facts memorized so that one doesn't have to spend a great length of time finding the answer. At least that's what I tell myself.

I, for one, never finished memorizing my times tables as a child. When I multiply, I struggle when I get to points such as 7x8 or 6x9. And of course, I'd like to spare my students from that struggle.

So we studied our multiplication tables.

I began with the assumption that my students, who were blessed with a wonderful teacher last year, were already proficient with 2x (which was correct). So our proper start began with 3x. I stood at the white board and asked the students to count slowly by threes. (I amended this for all later sessions to, "Give me the multiples of [x].") I wrote them down as the students counted, stopping at 30. Then I circled the multiples into groups of three, leaving 30 by itself, to give more easily remembered chunks. We said them aloud with a little rhythm, "Three, six, nine. Twelve, fifteen, eighteen. Twenty one, twenty four, twenty seven. Thirty!" We did this little chant three times, then repeated the process every day of the week. On Friday, while they were working on another assignment, I called them individually to my desk to recite. If they stumbled, I asked them to go back to their seats and practice a little more, then called them back at the end of the rotation.

I didn't take grades on it. I didn't put their names on the board. I just kept track of it in a little notepad and gave only the reward of a small praise. Hopefully it kept the intrinsic motivation going.

The next week, once the multiples of four were on the board on Monday, the students commented on an easily follow-able pattern. On Tuesday, they kept going past forty. By Thursday, they recited multiples of four up to 100. On Friday, when I called one boy up, he kept going past forty. I remained quiet, merely listening. Other students came up to ask questions about an assignment, but I signaled for them to wait. Around 120, some groaned with boredom. Closer to 500, an excited crowd had gathered around him. By 800, nearly the entire class had gathered, and at 1000, the crowd burst into applause. The boy grinned and went sheepishly back to sit down.

It wasn't repeated, however, because whatever excitement they found in the game somehow became lost after the first initial run.

At any rate, we DID manage to make it through our 9x tables. They wondered if I would have them continue on through 10x, 11x, 12x,... where would we end? I didn't see the need to go on, though, because while it might have been an interesting venture, I wanted to spend more time making sure that they were all completely confident with 3x through 9x.

The next week, we started our timed tests. I found this useful website that generates multiplication problems, however many of them you want and with whatever maximum and minimum numbers you want. We started with 30 problems, minimum of 0, maximum of 9, then graduated to minimum of 3. I gave them one minute to complete as many problems as they could. Again, I took no grades, just kept track of progress in a notebook.

When they began asking for more time on the clock, I became a little concerned. After a week and a half of no progress, I decided that we needed to have a conversation about what was happening. They told me that the timer was putting too much stress on them and they could hardly focus on the problems for the want to finish on time. So we stopped the timed tests.

"But what should we do?" I asked them. "You all need to master these facts before you go to fourth grade so that you don't struggle."

We decided to give flash cards a try. So I guess we'll see how that goes in a few weeks.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

On Autism and a Book Review: The Reason I Jump

I have a secret to admit.

I am a discriminatory person.

I don't do well with people with special needs.

One of my best friends is a special education teacher, and I don't know how she does it. The stories she tells me about her work... It takes a certain kind of wonderful person to be a special education teacher, and I definitely am not one of those people.

My husband and I have decided that if we find through in utero testing any disabilities in our future children, we will terminate the pregnancy. Having a special needs child is a stressful situation that would put a strain on our marriage we know we wouldn't be able to handle.

But autism is different. It is not detected in utero, and is rarely even detected until after one year of age. Believe me, I understand the hype. If I had a healthy, lovable, regularly developing baby for one year that suddenly seemed to regress and turn into something I hadn't known my child to be, as some anecdotes suggest, I'd look for a cause, too, and the vaccine I just recently gave him might look like a pretty easy excuse. But the science just isn't there.

There are plenty of sources I could choose to link to here. Let's go with a recent National Geographic article that's easy to read and sums up the situation pretty nicely, a CDC article saying that there's nothing to worry about, a CDC faq, and, for good measure, a Skeptical Raptor post that perhaps conservatives wouldn't accept as legit but links to many important studies and gives valid reasoning for why myths are incorrect.

So. The science isn't there. Let's move on, shall we? We know where autism doesn't come from, and we know that we don't yet know where it does come from.  Causality aside, what about dealing with already existing autism?

No matter how many times I tell it not to, my brain discriminates, specifically, against those that seem to have the incapacity to comprehend the world around them and social order as we, as a society, have come to create. People who can't seem to understand what is going on around them or make sense of anything. People who act without reason against societal norms.

Can they think logically? Do they even have thoughts? Are they even self-aware? "No," my brain tells me, "obviously they can't. And I can't handle people without intelligence." And for the most part, I left it at that. I put it out of my head as much as possible, because it's so difficult to think about.

But when Jon Stewart had David Mitchell on The Daily Show to speak about translating the book, I listened. I was struck by how sincerely Jon recommended the book. It seemed as though he did not have enough words to praise it as much as he wanted to. "The Reason I Jump is one of the most remarkable books I think I've ever read. It's truly moving, eye-opening, incredibly vivid... It is the most illuminating book I think I've ever read on the syndrome... I don't normally urge you," he told his audience. "The Reason I Jump is on the bookshelves now. Please. If you get a chance, please pick it up. It is remarkable." With that kind of authenticity, I could hardly say no. I swallowed my pride and went to the bookstore.

The Reason I Jump is a series of question and answers from then-13-year-old Naoki Higashida. The questioner asks things that anyone observing an autistic individual would want to know. For instance, "Why do you speak in that peculiar way?" "Why do you echo questions back at the asker?" "Why don't you make eye contact when you're talking?" "When you're on one of your highs, what's going through your mind?" "Why do you flap your fingers and hands in front of your face?"

And Naoki answers the questions, all of them, with sincerity and honesty. And it's abundantly clear that he is way more self-aware than I ever would have given him credit for. He can articulate most of the reasons why he does the things that he does, and in the few instances that he can't, he can even articulate that he doesn't have the exact reasoning, it's just pleasant to him in some way. Furthermore, he has the comprehension to acknowledge both what's going on around him and what other people must be feeling because of him.

Naoki is at no loss for intelligence, but he feels as though he is trapped within a body that he cannot control, one that doesn't follow the directions his brain gives.

And realizing this, truly, was a redefining moment for me.

The most remarkable question for me was 39, Why do you like being in the water? Here's the response Naoki gives:

We just want to go back. To the distant, distant past. To a primeval era, in fact, before human beings even existed. All people with autism feel the same about this one, I reckon. Aquatic life-forms came into existence and evolved, but why did they then have to emerge onto dry land, and turn into human beings who chose to lead lives ruled by time? These are real mysteries to me. 
In the water it's so quiet and I'm so free and happy there. Nobody hassles us in the water, and it's as if we've got all the time in the world. Whether we stay in one place or whether we're swimming about, when we're in the water we can really be at one with the pulse of time. Outside of the water there's always too much stimulation for our eyes and our ears, and it's impossible for us to guess how long one second is or how long an hour takes. 
People with autism have no freedom. The reason is that we are a different kind of human, born with primeval senses. We are outside the normal flow of time, we can't express ourselves, and our bodies are hurtling us through life. If only we could go back to that distant, distant, watery past--then we'd all be able to live as contentedly and as freely as you lot!

Deep, deep, powerful stuff, man. Naoki Higashida, this 13-year-old Japanese autistic boy who screams, doesn't speak or look anyone in the eye, who runs away from home and has a panic attack when he spills a drop of milk from the pitcher, is an intellectual. Is a creative author who has a wonderful sense of language and a powerful sense of empathy, particularly for those he loves. He's just trapped inside of a body that can't express it in a way the rest of us are familiar with.

It's still quite hard to think about, but Naoki mentioned frequently how just having patience was helpful. And that's all we can try to do with all children, I suppose. *sigh*

The Reason I Jump can be purchased from Amazon here. (I am not affiliated and am no way compensated from sales.) I couldn't find anything else from him translated, but if you want a screwy half-intelligible Google translation of his blog, it can be found here. He apparently has a new book that just came out in Japan.

A few months ago, my special education teacher friend posted a video of Carly Fleischmann, a teenage autistic girl that communicates with a computer. Her story is similar to Naoki's, but she's American, so if you want to learn more, she might be the better bet. She keeps a website, a Facebook, and a Twitter.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Project Time

In August, I found myself, finally, in a classroom of my own. There I was, two days before students, sitting alone in the room, faced with the task of development. In a public school, everything is thrust upon you--scope and sequence of curriculum already created and, in some cases, scripted. But not here. I had next to nothing to go on. All I had was a list of 15 names, some desks, a few shelves of reading books, a cupboard of junk left over from last year's teacher, and some text books I could use as curriculum. There was no foundation upon which to build--I had to develop it. It was perfect. Everything I could ever hope for. Mine to create anything I liked with. A block of freshly cut clay waiting to be molded by my hands.

My only hindrance was the knowledge that last year's teacher's contract hadn't been renewed because she let the children have too much freedom. 

Wow, that's... well, that's... interesting knowledge to have. Because I chose to work at a private school, I knew I wouldn't have the same troubles I had seen in the district with administrators micromanaging what I taught, but this left me with an entirely different problem--how was I, as a first year teacher, going to maintain enough classroom management to not follow in that teacher's footsteps and yet still create a classroom that allowed children to thrive?

The fearful first year teacher side of me won, I'm sorry to say, and I veered on the side of caution. I moved all the desks into traditional rows, three of five, all facing the white board. I started diagramming a curriculum map based on the textbooks provided. I created a short list of classroom rules, rather than having the students generate their own. I set everything up nice and neat like a good little school teacher. I prepped my stern voice. No one was going to tell me that I had no classroom management. I can learn from others' mistakes.

There was one thing I couldn't resist putting a tiny twist on. When I wrote up my schedule (which I was amazed to find that I could actually do. That's when I knew I was in a private school), I left a period towards the end of the day open for "Project Work." I think I may have done it subconsciously. I definitely wasn't sure what it meant at the time. I just wrote it down without understanding why.

The first few weeks of school was chaotic, anyway, what with both my students' acclimation to change as well as my own. We didn't follow the schedule until nearly September. But all the while, the kids kept asking, "When are we going to do a project?" The way they said it made it sound like an important work. Apparently their second grade teacher had done a lot of hands on projects and science experiments with them, and they were craving that type of work again. But I was caught up in the stress of a new job at that time and couldn't think that far ahead. All I could tell them was, "Soon."

When my mentor came in to observe me, she noted that I didn't do any sort of intervention. "Yeah, that's not really my style," I hinted as politely as possible. I hadn't seen any beneficial results from my experience with intervention in the district. I knew that maybe I just hadn't seen the right methods, but again, I was still trying to figure out how to do the basic functions of my job and couldn't handle that much on my plate yet. Still, there were those students that I had been meaning to work one-on-one with. To pull some students aside, though, I'd need an extended period of time in which the rest of the class could be working independently. Then somehow it just clicked. If I gave the class some time to work on anything they were curious or passionate about, I could pull those students that needed extra help. The Montessorian in me grew giddy. I couldn't wait to begin.

I don't really do much with my intervention time now that I have it, to be fair. Even though I made a big show about how it's a privilege to come to intervention because you get the chance to practice something you're struggling with and learn more, the students are still resistant to coming. And I hate to force them. They're not receptive learners when they're frustrated or upset. They just dislike missing project work, so for the most part, I leave them to it. Sometimes I pull students one at a time to check for comprehension or fluency or the like, or sometimes I pull students that I know didn't understand a lesson, but most of them get a minimally-interrupted 40 minutes of project time a day.

My only rule for Project Time is that all projects must be written down in the form of a proposal and approved by me before they can be begun. There are expectations, like "You must work quietly enough that the students I'm working with can focus," but they weren't really stated in the form of a rule. (Perhaps they should have been. Occasionally when that expectation isn't met, everywhere except for my group becomes a No Talking Zone, in which all communication must be carried out non-verbally. We switch back to whispering after a few minutes, but I still have to go through with the process every other day or so. They get so excited for project time. But that's to be expected, I suppose. We just have to have rules because classmates are distract-able. But I digress.) No rules about what types of projects are available, grades for projects, or even that one must do a project were ever stated. We spent a day or so working on proposal writing, and then I just set them free.

And they've completed some pretty cool projects, only two months in. I'll take this opportunity to throw in some pictures. All thumbnails open into full-sized images.

First, an example of a proposal. Most don't go into as much detail as this one, unfortunately. These girls went all out with the proposal, spent nearly two months working, and just recently gave a presentation on their accomplishments.

Working hard. The girls in front are working on the solar system project. The ones in the back are working on a wildlife diorama. The boy in the back is, of his own initiative, grabbing some wipes to clean up a mess he made.

Unfortunately, the only computer I have available during project time is the one the school provided for me. I can't send students to work in the computer lab unsupervised, and I can't ask everyone to come to the computer lab every time someone needs to use the computer, so I just let the students use mine. This student is typing a story he wrote to publish on the class website.

Finished wildlife diorama featuring plastic figurines and easter grass. They decided against gluing anything down so that they could scrap the cardboard when they were done and use the figurines for something else.

An exploded baking soda and vinegar volcano. One of the many. This one features a clay model that took three days to create and lava rocks recycled from another presentation.

Elephant's toothpaste (hydrogen peroxide and yeast). This student painstakingly copied down the instructions from a YouTube video in order to do this. Word for word. It took three days of writing and a lot of patient listening.

Finished solar system diorama. They had trouble connecting the styrofoam balls to the yarn. It was difficult first to make a hole in the ball (which they did using scissors), and then to get the string successfully through the hole. The latter took a lot of trial and error, but they finally realized that they could tie the string around a pencil, push the pencil through, and grab the string on the other side.

Borax-and-glue slime, illuminated with glowsticks. A big hit for all of the boys. He even shared some of the final product with anyone that wanted to take some home.

And now for some observations.

-First, this group of students seems to gravitate towards science experiments. Since they had experience with it last year, it's safe ground. We had a long run of volcanoes and baking-soda-vinegar-based projects, probably five or six presentations. Currently we're having a run of sensory projects--slime and silly putty.

-The students often inspire each other. The volcano thing started with a project from one boy at the beginning of September, and after that, the rest of the boys wanted to do their own. I'd like to encourage them to make minor changes to projects when they do similar projects and record the differences, but for now, I know they just like having the experience of doing the work for themselves.

-I do have a few students that can rarely ever "think of anything to do." At first, I told them to sit and plan something, but after a while, the started getting up, wandering around the room, watching, and occasionally helping others. Now I have a few students that regularly spend all project time assisting others.

-And I do have some students that occasionally prefer to read at this time or use it to do their homework, like a study hall.

-When doing a project, though, especially an involved one, the students rarely like to work on their own. I specifically didn't set a limit on group size, so occasionally on longer projects, there are normally three to five students working together, though participants can come and go. If participation in a project drops to one sole member, it is usually abandoned.

-Sometimes students have several simultaneous projects occurring at once, spreading across multiple groups. The one they choose to work on each day varies.

-Occasionally if I assign a longer assignment during the day, or one that the students get deep into, they will choose to continue the assignment during project time.

-And watching the natural leadership roles play out is certainly very interesting.

A couple weeks ago, this Edutopia article, titled Just Ask: Harnessing the Power of Student Curiosity, came across my radar. Turns out that my Project Time is already a thing. Employees of Google are given the opportunity to use 20% of their time working on personal creative ideas. This has led to many innovative programs, such as Gmail and Google News. The initiative has spread to education, becoming known as Genius Hour or 20% Time, and some books have been written on the subject, including Passion-Driven Classroom by Angela Maiers and Amy Sandvold, which is now on my To Read List.

This is all well and good, and I'm happy for these people, but honestly, I'm already looking towards my next big venture: a Montessori-inspired modern classroom. I think Project Time was necessary only as a transitional stage until I can get the ball rolling on my Menu-based Modern Montessori-inspired classroom.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Flipped Classroom and Its Possibilities in Elementary

In a traditional classroom, students gain new information by reading a textbook or listening to a lecture. They are then assigned homework to practice using the new information or to reinforce the knowledge and increase retention.

A flipped classroom is one in which this method occurs backwards--the students are given the new information at home, by way of video lecture hosted online, and then have the opportunity to practice or reinforce in the classroom.

There are some drawbacks, of course, such as how it takes time to create the videos and upload them, how it's an initial investment to purchase the software and hardware to create the videos and the space to upload them to a host, how all students must have internet access at home, and how the student that doesn't do his work will be lost in class the next day.

But overall, it seems like the positives outweigh the negatives. The videos, which are typically similar in style to Khan Academy, may be paused or watched again and again in order for a student to focus on a confusing concept. It's like a personal tutor.

(Yeah, in the case of a bad video lecture, a student may be confused and have no way of asking a question like they would in the classroom, but that can be handled with a system to contact the teacher or professor or a forum in which the students can help each other. Or all questions can be written down to be discussed in class the next day. My philosophy is that if one student has a question, others are thinking the same thing but are too shy to ask. So if it IS the case of a bad video lecture, it will have to be recovered in class, regardless.)

The point of the video lectures is merely to introduce new concepts that will be discussed and played with the next day. The students shouldn't be required to memorize information or even fully comprehend the material--the only thing they need to do is watch and absorb as much as much as they can. Isn't that the nature of an in-class lecture, as well, though? Just absorb as much new information as possible? The real learning comes from the application of that knowledge.

And that's where the big advantage comes in. Because the application of the knowledge is where true learning happens, the flipped classroom puts this in the classroom, where teachers and professors have more control over activities and discussions and can clear up any misunderstandings or go into more depth. The learning becomes more significant because no longer is it done a home, sleepy and alone, in one's room. Rather, it's done with peers, in the excitement of daylight.

The initial attainment of information is the easy part. It can be done at home just as easily (with the properly prepared instructor) as it can in the classroom. The critical part is the application of knowledge and in depth exploration. It can be done at home, but teachers in a flipped classroom would argue that it is much more effectively done in the classroom, with peers to discuss with and teachers to guide and clarify.

There is a myriad of resources available online that go into more detail, but that's the basis of it and all I feel necessary at this point. I'll link below to any specifically good articles if I find any.

I've been thinking about flipped classrooms recently as I've been preparing for my first year teaching. I don't think I'm prepared to jump face-first into anything, but I'm seriously considering including some adaptations. I'm not a big fan of homework, and I had decided a while ago that the only homework I wanted to assign was reading. I still want to do that, but.. well, as a first year teacher, I'll be teaching from textbooks. I'd hate to devote a lot of classroom time to merely reading textbooks, so I thought, "What if I had the kids take their textbooks home and read just a chapter?" They wouldn't have to memorize it or anything, like I mentioned above, but just get a general gist of what we'd be talking about the next day. I think it's entirely reasonable, and I don't see any problems with it.

Of course, there'd definitely be some students that would try to get out of it. I could require a parent signature, but that's beside the point. When I was in school, I remember being given reading assignments and not completing them. Honestly, I got a good understanding of the material from the class discussion the following day. If that works for my students, who am I to complain? I'd still assign the reading, and expect a good discussion. If the discussion went poorly or if students showed obvious signs of lack of comprehension during other formative tests, then we'd have to do something different, such as requiring parental signature. Or looking into the situation to discover what was going wrong. But that goes without saying, as that's just good teacher practices.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Book Review: The First Days of School

When I was getting my undergrad, this book (and accompanying VHS tape) were referenced constantly during my classes. So when I saw it at the half-priced book store, I picked it up immediately, and it has forever since sat on my bookshelf. Finally, now that I have a class to prepare for, I decided to actually read it.

And boy, was it a bore.

You see, The First Days of School was written in 1991, at which point I assume it was groundbreaking. And the trouble is, twenty-two years have passed since then, and all of that groundbreaking information is now commonplace. Honestly, since it was referenced so much in my undergrad program, I didn't actually learn much from reading at all.

I did take notes on a couple of things, however, so I'll share them now. Interestingly enough, they're all from Chapter 24, "How to Get Your Students to Work Cooperatively," one of the last chapters in the book. Again, most of this isn't new knowledge, but it is written succinctly and comprehensibly in a way that I like.

p. 246, Compete Only Against Yourself. 
The message to your students is this:
-There is only one person in the world you need to compete against, and that is yourself.
-Strive each day to be the best person possible.
-Your mission in life is not to get ahead of other people; your mission is to get ahead of yourself.
-But while you are competing against yourself, you are expected to work with everyone else in this classroom cooperatively and respectfully.
-You are responsible not only for your own learning but for the learning of your support buddies as well.
The illustration accompanying this is of a classroom with a sign on a bulletin board reading "Cooperate with Each Other. / Compete Only Against Yourself."

p,252, As students become more skilled in working together, they can practice more sophisticated skills, such as these:
-Asking for and giving help
-Showing that they are interested in what others are saying
-Talking about several solutions before choosing one
-Criticizing ideas, not people
-Asking questions to try to understand another point of view

p. 257, The Four Basic Elements Needed to Make Cooperative Learning Work:
1. Positive Interdependence
2. Social Skills
3. Individual Accountability
4. Group Evaluation
And specifically about Social Skills,
The basis of cooperative learning is social skills that help students share leadership, communicate effectively, build trust, and manage conflict. Generally, the students do not come to the classroom with those skills; the skills must be defined clearly and taught in much the same way that academic subjects are taught.
Lots of verbal face-to-face interaction, explaining, arguing, resolving of conflicts, elaborating, consensus-forming, and summarizing will occur and should be encouraged.

p. 258, How to Get the Students to Work Cooperatively on an Activity:
1. Specify the group name.
2. Specify the size of the group.
3. State the purpose, materials, and steps of the activity.
4. Teach the procedures.
5. Specify and teach the cooperative skills needed.
6. Hold the individuals accountable for the work of the group. 
7. Teach ways for the students to evaluate how successfully they have worked together.
Specifically, I thought the teaching of group work procedures was interesting, because I rarely see it done. There is an accompanying illustration of a sign on a bulletin board reading:
Procedures During Group Work:
1. You are responsible for your own job and the results of the group.
2. If you have a question, ask your support buddies. Do not ask your teacher.
3. If no one can answer a question, agree on a single question and appoint one person to raise a hand for help from the teacher.

On page 262, there is a sample assignment that is quite lengthy--definitely more appropriate for a high school class than my group of third graders. It begins with a discussion on groups, which in my opinion is a better verbal discussion. Perhaps it was meant that the verbal discussion would occur at the beginning of the year and each group assignment would be written out in this fashion to remind the students why this is done. But again, that's unnecessary, in my opinion. Nevertheless, because it's well written, here is how the sample assignment begins:
In this activity you will be working in support groups of four. Your teacher will choose the members of the support group. The reason you work in support groups is because when you discuss new ideas with your classmates, you understand the ideas better.
Sometimes you will work with your friends, and sometimes not. No matter who your support buddies are, your responsibility is to help one another and complete the activity. This is why you are called support buddies.
Your teacher will explain what jobs need to be done. Either the teacher will choose or you will be asked to choose who does which job.
You need to work together and talk about your assignment so that each member of the support group understands what your groups has done and why. When it is time for your support group to report to the class, your teacher will call on only one member of your group. That member will explain the support group's results, so make sure that you all know what is happening before you get called on. When your support group looks good, you look good!
It continues on to explain the assignment and give the group jobs, their definitions, and their specific tasks throughout the activity.

Finally, saving the best for last, p. 264,
There are teachers who spend five to seven hours a day advocating a competitive, individualistic approach, telling students:
"Do your own work." "Don't talk to your neighbors." "Don't share; don't help." "Don't care about each other." "Just try to better yourself." "Think for yourself."
Conversely, there are teachers who spend five to seven hours a day saying:
"Help each other." "Share." "Work together." "Discuss the material in groups." "Explain things to each other." "Figure it out together." "Put your minds together." "You're responsible not only for your own learning, but for the learning of your support buddies as well."
Wow! This type of thing looks like it was written last week, not twenty-two years ago! To be fair, Wong was referring to how what teachers say to their students reflects on how well they collaborate with their own peers, not, obviously, what to say to be an innovative teacher in the age of collaborative learning and open source knowledge, as one would be if they were to write this today. But regardless, I was still surprised to see it, and it stands to serve that this information, while pertinent in 1991, is possibly even more important in 2013.

In summary, The First Days of School may have been groundbreaking when it was released in 1991, but don't waste your time today. Everything in it is now taught in teacher college, thankfully. If you come across it at the book store, it may be beneficial to spend a few minutes flipping through Chapter 24, the one on cooperative learning, but it's not a necessary addition to your collection.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Why the Author Chose to Discontinue Her Pursuit of Formal Montessori Training

Well, I'm back home, and if the title is any hint, it's earlier than expected. I completed the Foundations course (which is basically the 9-month long Primary training condensed into a five-week course) but chose against continuing into the actual Elementary I and II training. There were a number of reasons why, which I will go into at length below, but briefly, it just seemed like life was telling me that now is not the appropriate time. I've gone through my blog and rewritten every mention of which school I attended (though it probably wouldn't be difficult to figure out, regardless). I just don't want anything I have to say to reflect badly upon the training center. It IS a good school and a good program; it just wasn't the right program for me. I'm glad I had the opportunity to study there, even if it was only for a short time. I did learn a lot, and I consider it to have been a positive experience, during which I grew as an educator.

That being said, more after the cut.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Tying Shoes

In the interest of trying to write more, here's a thought I had. I'm not sure how far into it I can explore, because it seems like just a small thought, but I'll try to go as deep as I can.

While I worked at the day care, I was constantly tying shoes. Why do parents keep buying shoes that tie for children that don't know how to tie them? Is it because they want to retie them multiple times a day themselves?

It's so that the kids can learn to tie, one might reply.

Yeah, that's not practical. In today's world, there's no time for that. When the shoes go on the feet, that means it's time to go. Ideally in that situation, a parent could announce that it was time to leave, tell a child to go put on his shoes, and then wait patiently until the child has his shoes tied. In reality, a parent doesn't have the time or patience to wait and inevitably winds up tying the shoes herself.

The Montessori way would be to never buy clothes or shoes that a child can't put on my himself (okay, past infancy). To teach shoe tying, a parent could provide, during down times only, one of their own shoes or a tying frame and slowly model. Shoes for a child that tie would only come after tying is mastered. It might even be considered an incentive for learning. Child asks for shoes that tie? They must first demonstrate that they can tie the shoes.

Montessori curriculum uses dressing frames to assist children in learning these practical life lessons. Again, they're used during down times, not at the time a child is expected to dress herself. As far as shoe lace learning is concerned, here is both a lacing frame and a tying frame. Here's a video of the actual lesson a Montessori teacher would give using the tying frame. I love how everything is done multiple times to reinforce each action. (I've linked to Nienhuis because their pictures are nice, but you could definitely make them yourself using fabric, ribbon, and an old picture frame from the thrift store. Michael Olaf made a gorgeous one while teaching in Bhutan. Or, you know, whatever. Cardboard and cardboard boxes work just fine.)

Or if your child is struggling with his fine motor skills and just needs to get the right movements down first, you can always turn tying into a gross motor activity by using a giant shoe or giving him a jump rope.

And if the method is difficult, there are a myriad of alternative ways to tie shoes. One of them will surely be easier for your child than the traditional method! There are a lot of videos on the Ian Knot, and it sure does look promising!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Year In Review--Facebook Statuses from My Time at the Daycare

Well, another chapter in my life has come to an end. Yesterday was my last day at the daycare. 

Overall, it was a good experience. Having not had the opportunity to babysit when I was younger, I didn't really have any experience with very young children, and actually, before I started, it was quite daunting. I hadn't ever really talked with kids this age, hadn't played with them, hadn't changed a diaper.

Now I can say that I'm confident working with small children. And what a feeling it is to be able to say that! I am certain that I don't want to work with this age as my career, but confidence was absolutely worth the year I put in.

To celebrate the end of this chapter, I have compiled ALL of the Facebook statuses I've posted about the children over the past year. I've also annotated some for further information. Listen under a cut because there are so many.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Not a Book Review--A Look at Gun Play

About six months ago, I read Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super-Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence by Gerard Jones. It was a fantastic book, and I learned a lot from it. I began taking notes, like I normally do, but I soon realized that it was too time-consuming, so I began highlighting instead. In fact, I found so much of the book important that I probably literally highlighted a full third of the words in the book.

And that was my trouble. That's why I never posted a book review of it--I wanted to take so many clippings from it that when I imagined finally finishing the post, I almost feared I'd be arrested for copyright infringement. You know, for publishing so much of the book online that it doesn't even seem to be a review anymore, but rather an abridged copy.

Anyway, I lent the book to my boss at the day care, hoping it would spark his passion as much as it did mine. He seemed to be excited for it, but then he gave it back to me, partially read and stained from a coffee spill, saying that he didn't have enough time anymore. (And yet I saw a copy of Ayn Rand on his desk. Yep.) I told him that it was fine, but what did he think of it? He replied that, while he certainly didn't agree with everything in it, there were some things that made him think. I let the issue drop, deciding to be happy with that at least.

I've always allowed gun play in classrooms that I've been in at the daycare. My Montessori background leads me to believe, and my reading now supports, that whatever children play is something that their mind is trying to make sense of, and thus beneficial to their development. I always try to observe closely and watch for children that are made uncomfortable by it, but actually, that's never come up. The other children either play along or ignore the gun-player completely.

The only time it's ever an issue is when another child remembers rules that adults have enforced upon them and looks to me to see if I will enforce consistent rules. And then I ask the child why we have that rule, to which they reply with something like, "Guns are bad." Again, I ask, "Why is that?" Usually they shrug and wander off at that point, but if they reply with, "Guns hurt people," then it seems that they have a clear concept of a gun as a weapon and I bring the other child into the conversation with something like, "X says guns hurt people. Are you trying to hurt people?" and so forth until we establish that the play is pretend.

But honestly, I prefer gun play to a lot of other types of play, especially horse play. (What a silly term. It's absolutely fine to pretend to be horses!) There was one class of two-and-a-half-year-olds that played guns more frequently than the others. (They have since been broken up into separate classrooms through the natural progression of aging in a medium-sized daycare center, and a couple of them have termed, dropped out for various reasons.) They were a rambunctious bunch of boys and girls, but when they were standing, pointing their fingers at each other, and then falling over, I didn't have to worry that they were tackling and physically harming one another. (Not that bumps and bruises aren't a natural part of childhood, but, as I learned in Killing Monsters, adult women are less comfortable with physical play than adult men and the children themselves are.) Plus, I saw a lot of compassion in that play, led by a certain female child. When someone would fall over after being "shot," she would rush to their side, smush their chin between her palms, and coo sadly, even if she was the assailant! Sure there was a lot of, "Get 'em!" but there was also a lot of, "Help me!" and friends running over to comfort an "injured" buddy.

Once while I was in this class, a neighboring teacher looked in, saw gun play occurring, and reprimanded the kids. My kids. Okay, they weren't really "my kids," because I'm a float teacher, not the lead teacher in that classroom. Aaaand, technically, a few of them were drop-ins from her classroom, so they were more her kids than mine. But still! She was undermining my authority while I was in charge of the class and confusing the children with mixed messages about what was allowable and what was not. So I told her, still with the shy and polite manner I have, even though I was frustrated, that we have different philosophies on this topic. She proceeded tell me about a child in a public school where there was a no-tolerance policy for guns that got expelled for pointing a breakfast pastry, fashioned into the shape of a gun, at a friend. "We have to stop it here," she explained. "These kids will be going into the public schools," though, admittedly, perhaps not the ones with no-tolerance policies, "so we have to stop it here." I was at a loss for words. What? What about all the amazing things I had just read in Killing Monsters? What to say? What to say? Had I learned nothing? Seeing as I didn't have a reply, she left, smugly.

Another time, I was in a preschool classroom with four-year-olds. It was nearing the end of the day, and a number of children had decided to play guns with Legos. One of the boys' mother came in and saw the play. Visibly shaken, she addressed her son, "Are you playing guns?" She roughly took the blocks out of her child's hands and threw them on the ground. "You better not do that again." I have to say something!, I knew. I couldn't let this turn out like last time. "Children absolutely know the difference between pretend violence and actual violence," I offered, not quite as firmly as I could have. She addressed me for the first time, "Well, I don't know. I'm a gun owner, myself, but I don't know... Come on, we need to go tell [boss's name] about this," she told her son passive-aggressively, taking him by the hand. There was nothing else I could do.

A few minutes afterwards, an expected appearance from the boss, but not, by the way, the one who I offered the book to. He confirmed that the child was in my class, first, then told me that his mother had made a complaint about gun play in my class. "It's a policy here that we don't allow gun play of any kind. No weapons at all--no guns, no knives, no swords," he told me. Huh. Well, I had seen a number of teachers disallow gun play, but it was never discussed, not in any manual I read upon hire, nor on any signage on the walls. "Really? I've never heard that. Is it posted somewhere?" I asked. But instead of responding to politely as I had done, he chose a snippy reply, almost hostile, complete with finger pointing, "I'm posting it to your brain right now. Don't. Do it." He left, leaving me to finish out the day in my tearful frustration.

Whatever, I decided. At that point, I only had about two months left to work at the center before leaving for Montessori training, so I decided to play by the "rules," unposted or not, rather than ruffle any more feathers. I heard later from a coworker in the office that said boss actually thought the complaint was silly. He sure didn't act like it when he spoke with me. Since then, every time a child has mentioned a gun in their play, I've told the child compliantly, "No guns."

Gah, what happened to all the facts and insights I had read? Had I not internalized it? Perhaps I really had highlighted too much. And, definitely, not going over the notes again by posting them here wasn't helpful. So.. actual book review of Killing Monsters to come.

But on the day that I was spoken to, after the boss left, the remaining children still wanted to resume the game. I told them, "No guns," a couple of times, but one child was adamant. Eventually, after a few trials of what he could play without comment from me, his gun turned into a "flower wand" that turned everything it shot into a flower.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Reflections On Reflection

A month ago, a blog I follow posted this article about daily writing. As an educator, I immediately agreed with everything it said. As soon as I began writing reflections about education (which would soon become the basis for this blog), I recognized how valuable it was. It soon became a goal to have my students reflecting on their own education as much as possible in a daily journal, as well as constant, continuous reflections on everything, myself. Reflections will be a huge part of my classroom--questioning and critical thinking and metacognition!

But reading the article as a blogger, I realized how infrequently I had actually been writing.


When true reflection is done, it takes immense mental work. It takes honesty, a sincere heart, an ability to admit mistakes and submit to being wrong. It takes an ability to show vulnerability and weakness. It takes the patience and sincerity to examine experiences, ask, "Why?" and explore trains of thought. It takes a reasonable and rational attitude and mindset.

It takes time. It takes patience. It takes work.

And frankly, sometimes I don't care enough to force myself into what it takes.

Okay, recently it's been a lot of the time. Okay, most of the time. Little ones are a lot of work, and a lot of the time it's hard enough just to keep my eyes open, eat some nominally nutritional substance, and fall into bed at the end of the day.

What's happened to me? Have I diverged from the path of Innovative, Insightful Teacher that I once tread pridefully? Or have I just become lazy? There have been several things I've been wanting to write about, but somehow I "just haven't gotten around to it."

Obviously I know how important reflective writing is. I want to write, and I want to care. Part of it is just that I've been under even more stress than usual lately with buying a house, applying for a new job, and preparing for my first summer of Montessori training. Another part of it, I'm sure, is lack of habit, as Leo Babauta would be the first to tell me.

So, with these thoughts secured by the act of physically typing them out onto the screen, let's see how I move forward.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Pledge to Guide Today's Students--Draft 3

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

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

Respecting one's self
-Developing a healthy self-concept, eating well, and exercising

Respecting the Earth and the environment
-Using resources wisely and dealing with waste properly

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

Seeing the big picture of life
-Coming to understand the universe and how we fit into it
-Developing knowledge of the Earth and all of its inhabitants

Updated wording slightly. It's difficult to decide if I need every bullet to begin with a verb or not!

It's also difficult to decide if I need to fully describe each main point using the bullets, or if the main point stands for itself.

Still trying to figure out if I want to add the whole multitasking thing or not.

Added communication skills under "Respecting and Honoring others"! This has become a big thing for me recently. Perhaps it's from working with little ones, but I've decided that communication skills is one of the most beneficial things I can teach children. Included in that is a growing vocabulary that students can use to articulate themselves, but I'm not sure if I need to include that or not.

Added effective research under technology. How could I have missed putting that there? Another thing I've been thinking about recently.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Checking for Consistency

"Don't do that, Joseph!" I protest. "Don't let the blocks fall like that! They'll get chipped."
"I didn't!" he argues, staring at the pile at his feet.
"Do-not-let-the-blocks-fall-like-that!" Jason repeats, swooping a shelf of blocks onto the floor. I know what he wants me to do. It is what everyone in the block area wants: to repeat, in the same voice, my words to Joseph.
"Don't do that, Jason! Do not let the blocks fall like that! They'll get chipped."
Satisfied, Jason resumes his helicopter play. Joseph somehow feels validated, and all who witnessed the scene are content. No one else, right now, needs to find out if I am ambivalent about the rule. Nor do they need to worry if someone will get punished for breaking the rule. Every event contains the answer for some child's unasked question.
--The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter, Vivian Gussin Paley, p. 107

There's a phenomenon I've come to terms with while working at the daycare. It can happen two different ways, but I'm sure that the reasoning behind both are the same.

Case 1 -- Independent. A child performs the same task continuously until mastery. For example, putting blocks through a shape sorter, or even dropping a spoon on the floor for Mommy to pick up.

Case 2 -- Social. A child will watch a peer perform a task and receive commentary from an adult, then will perform the task himself. See the quote above.

I believe that both of these cases occur because the child is checking for consistency. He needs to interact with his environment and cause an event to occur multiple times in order to fully understand what is happening.

Either event is difficult for a disconnected adult who has already mastered what the child is struggling with. Unfortunately, most of my coworkers fall into this category. At times it can be difficult for me, as well, until I remember to observe and follow.

Edit (4/2013): Here is a little about repetition in the Montessori classroom from Teaching From a Tacklebox.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Initial Thoughts About Teaching Montessori in a Public School Classroom

As crazy as it sounds, I've been thinking about going back to public school. I know that's where the kids need me the most and where I can make the biggest difference, I just have to convince administration that I'm a professional and that they can trust me to make professional decisions. I'm not sure how likely I am to find an administration like that, especially in Kansas.

Although there was some unexpected and unprecedented news out of Seattle yesterday, when an entire high school decided not to administer a standardized test. There may be some hope yet. I just don't know how much I want to fight. I'm only 24, but I feel as though my activist years are coming to a close.

Come what may, it may be time for me to finally step up and take a class of my own under my wing. For better or worse, I have chosen teaching as my career, and I need to stop beating around the bush and answer my calling.

All of these thoughts have led me to think--if I COULD run a classroom anyway I chose, without administration breathing down my neck, how would I do it?

Montessori style.

And, for the record, I'm talking MY Montessori style, not traditional with all of the approved and endorsed Montessori things. You don't need to spend thousands of dollars at Nienhuis to have a quality program, and I don't plan to. That's not what Montessori is truly about. Honestly, I plan on taking my Montessori training (I DID enroll in a Montessori training program, did I mention that?) and mixing it with little bits and pieces of whatever I feel is beneficial, no matter where I end up.

At any rate, here are my initial thoughts about teaching Montessori in a public school.

To begin with, I'd like to have a regular routine of work periods in which children can decide what to accomplish for themselves.

Because there will be many activities occurring simultaneously, it will be expected that the volume-level of the classroom remain low, so that everyone can concentrate--not an easy task for a traditional public school classroom.

I would probably have to rely on a menu system, as in the Montessori school I volunteered at for a semester. I couldn't find a link explaining it, so basically, the guide and individual children cooperatively decide what objectives need to be met, lessons need to be learned, and works need to be practiced for a week or set period of time. It sounds like a daunting task, but I see it as necessary. Eventually the children and I will get into the habit of it.

Similarly, I will need to teach reflection skills and how to document and be responsible for one's own learning. So not only will they help to choose what they need to work on each week, the students will record their progress and how well they met those objectives.

As far as teaching itself goes, I will probably be expected to teach from a specified curriculum, no matter how wonderful administration may be. Obviously, some children will not be ready for information, and they will not learn at that point even (or perhaps especially) if I made them sit down and listen to it. Thus, every child will be responsible for learning the material on their own terms. I will give the lesson once at a time specified on the board at the beginning of the week, and the children will be welcome to join me for it or not. They could alternatively read the material on their own, with a peer, or have a peer teach them at a later date. I DO hope to inspire a lot of peer teaching, somehow. That's something else I will have to look into how to create.

I will maintain that the students join me for morning circle, however. It's an important time to build the classroom, give important updates and news, and discuss anything that needs to be discussed.

And, of course, there will be what is referred to currently as "specials," (P.E., art, music, etc.), recess, and lunch that will be at determined times, but other than those and morning (and perhaps closing) circle, all other times will be work time. (Uggh, I can just imagine now how disruptive fire and tornado drills will be for this kind of setting.)

And then there's the environment--a classroom designed for highest efficiency by the children. Several small areas for different activities, walls showing off posters and projects the students use to document learning and teach peers about their own learning, a large classroom library, a number of laptops (perhaps supplied by a grant? I could do that, I think), a water cooler with individual student cups or water bottles, a small fridge with snacks of fruit or other healthy snacks brought in by students and provided by me...

So, walking into my classroom during work period, you'd see students working quietly on a number of activities:
* a small group with me learning a new lesson from mandated curriculum
* one child tutoring another in a lesson he is unsure of
* a child researching information on the internet and writing a cited report of her findings
* two children working on a project to present to the class
* a child watching others work to familiarize himself with a work before attempting it himself
* a child practicing by himself a skill learned earlier in the week
* a child writing a story
* a child writing a self-reflection about her own learning
* a couple of scattered children reading to themselves

A lot going on. A lot of responsibility and a lot of learning. I'm thrilled at the prospect. I hope I get a chance to make it work.