Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Connected School

One of the many passions of my heart when I opened my school was that I wanted to help create community and feel of connectedness.  I believe schools need to feed a child's spirit and be a place where they know they are loved, valued, and have a sense of purpose within the classroom community.  I believe strongly that building relationships with the children and allowing relationships to develop and grow among the students is one of the leading contributors to success in the classroom.  Unfortunately, schools are becoming machines for tasks, content, standards, and tests that individuality is being ignored and discouraged.  Children are not given opportunity to be themselves, share their strengths and interests, pursue things they want to learn.  I believe school should be just that-a place where children can be nurtured and supported, encouraged and loved.  Along with those things, they should be expected to be responsible and respectful and held accountable for their actions and work.  In Montessori classrooms all over the world, these things happen naturally.  We believe in children-we know they are capable and have a lot to offer.  We believe they can be responsible.  We listen to them-listen to their thoughts, dreams. and ideas and take them seriously.  This leads to very exciting learning!

This doesn't mean that there aren't challenges in Montessori classrooms-there certainly are.  Challenges and issues that are in the world enter the classroom. But the way they are dealt with is very different.  We approach conflict from a relational place-helping children understand how their actions and words effect those around them.  We give them words and help them express their emotions.  They don't necessarily know how to do this.  We are supportive of their development-not angry and punitive of their mistakes.  Don't get me wrong, teachers can feel frustrated, but we come back to what we believe-we believe in the goodness of the child even if the child is not showing their goodness.  We allow children to speak directly to one another and be involved in the problem solving.  The teacher doesn't have the answers-we are working together to find solutions and deal with conflicts as they arise individually.  I can't tell you how many times a child finds a solution for a problem that a teacher would not have thought about if she/he thought all day.  Children are empathetic, creative, thoughtful, caring, forgiving-we have to allow them time and space to show us and use opportunities that occur to practice these developing skills.

Sometimes, parents are shocked and disappointed when their child does something 'wrong' like hurts another child, or says something unkind, or takes something from another child.  But, these things don't mean there is something wrong with your child.  They are learning social graces and social skills while they are playing. They don't necessarily know how to ask for something or wait their turn or say things tactfully.  They are figuring it out and really need our support and guidance to help them learn.  Sometimes, parents go directly to punishment, or just telling a child what to do instead.  Sometimes, it's great to just ask questions to your child about how they're feeling or why they did something.  Often times, you will hear something you may not have thought of.  We should not assume the worst in our child or a child in the classroom when something doesn't go well.  Instead, challenge yourself to try and look at the situation through your child's eyes.  I'm not saying, they shouldn't be held accountable for their words/actions, but sometimes our tone/irritation or frustration comes through very strong which can overshadow an opportunity for learning.

Challenge yourself to observe your child/children vs inserting yourself into situations.  It is difficult to say nothing at all, but see what happens if you do.  Maybe even take notes-if you go to a park/playground observe other children and other parents and note how everyone is engaging.  It would be an interesting conversation to have if other moms/dads did this.  Let me know if you do it!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Discovering the Neurological Soundness of Montessori

The staff of  Community Montessori attended the Cincinnati Montessori Society's yearly conference a couple weekends ago.  It's always such a wonderful day full of meeting up with old friends, listening to wonderful, knowledgeable speakers and Montessorians and an opportunity to shop the vendors that offer such beautiful materials and supportive work for the classroom.

This year the keynote speaker was Dr. Dee Joy Coulter.  Dr. Coulter is a Neuroscience educator.  She applies brain research to educational issues.  She presented such a strong argument, along with research, for Montessori schools/classrooms.  I sat truly wondering why Montessori is not at the forefront of the education discussion.  What we're learning about the brain is providing incredible insight as to how children learn and what environments best suit their needs developmentally, cognitively, and otherwise.  To ignore this stunning research is letting our children down.   Not only is this brain research and it's implications being ignore, in many schools around the world, things are being done the polar opposite to what children need.

Dr. Coulter walked through many stages of brain development and what is happening at various stages.  Her notes can be found here   I won't go into all of those details, but I want to share some of what I took away.

Children need to experience learning rhythms, meaning they need to be given the freedom to choose, pace themselves and repeat activities many times to internalize information as well as build their focus, attention span, coordination and order.  Children need to be experiencing a beginning, middle and end to their activities.  For example, deciding to choose leaf polishing, taking the work off the shelf, taking the work to a table, putting on the leaf polishing necklace, getting the cotton ball wet, walking to plant and carefully polishing/cleaning the leaf, putting the dirty cotton ball in the garbage, returning to the work at the table, putting the necklace back on the tray, pushing in the chair and returning the work to the shelf.  In this work, there is a clear beginning, middle and end which brings about a feeling of accomplishment, an inner satisfaction and self confidence. 

Children need to learn how to calm themselves.  This may be things like taking a walk, reading a book, sitting outside, doing yoga, listening to music etc.  The ability to be calm and create calm is an important life skill.  Children are able to find peace and calm in the Montessori classroom-the rhythms and order of the classroom can help children develop the ability to be calm.  Montessori classrooms invite children to slow down, breathe and take time.  It's a natural part of the culture of the classroom.  Being respectful and calm in the workspace respects the work being done-it's not ok to disrupt one another when they are working-work is honored and the child working is respected and protected. 

In order to provide this space for children, teachers have to develop skills as well. Teachers ability to calm and bring peace is an important aspect.  Teachers can not be chaotic, loud, or disrespectful. Teachers need to call on children's higher nature.  Maria Montessori said, 'Look to the Child Who Has Not Yet Arrived'.....

I encourage you to read more about brain development and Montessori-it will no doubt impact you.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Who Are Our Kids and What Can They Do?

I used to be a mom to a 1 year old and 3 year old and a 5 year old and 7 year old and then a 10 year old and 12 year, today, I am a mom to a 15 year old and 18 year old......wowzee~how did that happen?  Time really does fly, life goes by so quickly....I used to always think, I can't remember my kids younger and I can't imagine them older, then, voila-here we are!  In some ways I have learned a lot being a parent, in other ways, I know nothing.  ;)

I have such a strong belief in children.  In the classroom, our view/beliefs of children are so heart felt and dictate how we are and how we function.  As a parent, it's more difficult to carry that through day to day, living out the hard stuff of parenting, the ups and downs of development, challenges, etc.  But, as I have continued on my faith journey, God has shown me so clearly how uniquely He has created my boys (and all of us!) and that He has given them such gifts and strengths and that as a parent, I want to encourage.  Unfortunately, the world has such a narrow view of people/children.  The world views children in a certain way and dictates what determines a 'good' kid over a 'bad' kid.  The world looks at behavior, grades, performance, looks, accomplishments, who they are associated with etc.  In our classroom, the belief is that every child is valued and has something to offer and brings gifts to the classroom.  We believe that, even if/when we don't see it.  The truth about our children is that they are strong, capable, resilient, flexible, creative, compassionate, helpful, bright, inclusive, insightful, patient, intuitive....need I say more?!

So, if/when these qualities are not being demonstrated (or, if a child is not yet 'normalized' as Maria Montessori says), what can we do to encourage them and how can we help a child bring those qualities to the forefront?  As a Montessorian, I believe that encouraging independence and allowing children to freely develop and become comfortable with who they are, knowing themselves and really stepping out in what interests them is the way to help these qualities develop. I have a couple of examples that may bring these things to light:

*  Try not to move in on your child too quickly when they are feeling frustrated.  In the classroom, we allow children to work through many things that they may be having difficulty doing.  Children at school are working on getting their coats etc on independently.  Allowing them to work through those challenges is giving them practice doing it themselves.  A child may work on zipping their coat for a minute or two and not be able to get it, but the work they do trying is valuable.  If we were to move in quickly and do it for them, that takes away the opportunity for them to learn how to do it themselves.  Sometimes, a child may try and then start yelling or crying or getting upset.  We encourage them to use their words. We may say, 'Let me know if you need help'.  It's amazing how they can pull it together and ask for help.  Our tendency is to move in and stop the frustrating moment or stop them from crying, but that isn't helpful to their independence.  And, the small areas of independence a child can have can actually decrease overall frustration because they are able to manage themselves in some situations.  This process is slow and happens over time as new skills are learned and mastered.  Thinking about our long terms hopes for our children can help us be strong in the small moments that are difficult.

*  Think about how you manage your time and the time you allow for your children to get ready.  Our environment at school is prepared, intentional and tended to multiple times a day to have our classroom ready to promote success and independence for the children.  At  home, you can think about how you can arrange your schedule to allow for the time needed for children to be more independent.  Are they able to reach their items to get ready?  Are their shoes/coats etc in a place where they can get them w/o help.  It would be great if those things are consistently kept in the same place and they can learn to return them to the same place.  Can you set up your kitchen in a way that children can get snacks/drinks independently?  You can place plastic wear in a drawer or on a shelf that children can access easily.

*  Listen more, talk less.  As adults, we can assume a lot about what a child wants/needs based on their behavior.  But, it can often times be inaccurate.  Allow/encourage your child to talk to you about his/her needs.  Help them figure things out by communicating with them vs moving in and doing for them based on what you think is going on.  Taking a child by the hand, walking them to another area, outside or away from the immediate situation can allow for a breath to be taken and the situation to be assessed.

*  Take emotions out-this is very difficult to do with our children. We love them so much that we are deeply emotionally connected.  But, not over reacting on either end keeps things peaceful and calm.  Our children will be sad, they will be frustrated, they will be angry.  Don't be afraid of these emotions.  Helping children develop strategies and communicate effectively during these times are important life skills.  If we swoop in and try to just 'fix' things quickly or apply a temporary band-aid, our children are not learning to manage themselves and their emotions.  If they can learn to do that, work through conflict and frustration, they are on the road to being an independent, functional adult.

Taking this road to allow your children to become more independent, confident and capable is challenging, takes patience and requires us to face some of our own 'stuff' as we deal with our children. But, I promise you, it will be the most fruitful.  We see amazing things in our classroom all the time-the children being focused, attentive, and orderly.  We see great strides in children as they learn how to do new things, communicate, and go about their day managing the processes and procedures of the classroom.  This is GOOD stuff!!  Bringing in that same philosophy to your home will no doubt bring you peace and help to build a loving, encouraging relationship with your children.

Friday, February 8, 2013

"Powerhouse Problem Solvers"

I recently viewed the following video

Anna Lee is the Director of Meadow Montessori School in Maryland.  She said, 'Children are powerhouse problem solvers'.....LOVE this!  Got me do we know what great problem solvers our children are if we don't allow them to sit in a problem, work through a challenge, or come up with solutions to a struggle.  As parents we love our children so's almost painful at times.  Often times, our instinct is to run and rescue them, save them from themselves or their problems.  For some reason whether it's our own childhood experience or even just our culture that says, don't struggle, don't fail, or don't go through difficult times.  However, these challenges, failures and difficult times can be such wonderful learning opportunities.  As adults, we can all recall times in our lives when things were hard, we had a challenge that didn't seem could be overcome, or we were very sad or hurt.  But, I think, if we're honest, we would also say those times were wonderful times of growth, times we realized we were stronger,more capable, or better prepared than we ever thought.  What does this look like for our children?  In our classroom, we see children struggle everyday with a problem or social situation that is difficult.  I have a couple of examples from just this week:  A new puzzle came out in our geography shelf.  It's indeed a challenging puzzle.  Two children were doing the puzzle-they took out all the pieces, worked about 2 minutes, then came to me asking for help.  Knowing they hadn't worked very long, I said go back and keep trying. They once again came to me asking for help.  I went to their rug and gave them a bit of verbal encouragement w/o touching their work, and they continued working.  They began having some success so I moved away, then voila,they finished!  They were so proud.  If I would have moved in and done the puzzle for them, they wouldn't have experienced or known their ability to push through and figure it out.  

Another example is that we have a handful of newer students who just started CMS in January. They have been learning how to get their snow clothes on to go outside.  This is BIG work!  If a child needs support, typically the teacher will give very detailed verbal suggestions as to how to put on a hat or coat.  Yes, this takes a lot of time and often times, many days and even weeks for kids to become independent.  We encourage our parents to allow their children to dress themselves as much as they can.  Again, the tendency is the put things on your child rather than be patient while they dress themselves.  If we put their snow gear on each time, they will not learn to do it themselves.  It is often times a big struggle and can take a lot of trial and error.  We have had kids go outside with their coats on upside down, but they are so proud that they can do it themselves.  Sometimes, we can hinder a child's independence by doing too much for them; therefore, making them think they actually can't do those things.  The fruit that comes from allowing our children to face their challenges  take the time to problem solve will outweigh the time it takes to help our children do it themselves. 

Allow your children to show you what problem solvers they can be~they really will blow you away!

Friday, January 4, 2013

I took this from Marc Seldin who is the head of The Center for Guided Montessori Studies.  I respect the words of this man and the work he does on behalf of children.  The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary is something that any of us can barely process.  Our minds and hearts aren't made to take in such devastation.  But, as long as we live on this earth and bear a responsibility to children, we must have these difficult and important conversations about what we can do to keep our children safe and protected.

Reflections on Newtown

No social problem is as universal as the oppression of the child. Historically, the oppressed - slaves, the servant class and finally the workers - were minority groups who sought their redemption through social change, often in open battle between the oppressed and their oppressors…
But the social problem of the child is not one of class, race or nation. The child who does not function socially is one who functions solely as an appendage of an adult. Those who oppress one part of humanity to the advantage of another succeed only in destroying social unity; to see this from the collective point of view, we need only glance down to see that among the suffering and oppressed there are also children. Almost all who care about children point out that it is the child who is the innocent victim of the wrongs that oppress that adult human being.
Dr. Maria Montessori
The Child in the Family, page 3
Once again a mad violence has swept its gaze across the most vulnerable among us. Once again the innocent young bear the brunt of a raging terror. Our inability to protect them rends our hearts, leaving it hard to breathe, hard to forgive ourselves. We must protect our children, and it is so painful when we cannot.
 The horror at Sandy Hook Elementary may have resulted from an earlier failure to help Adam Lanza, a sick little boy who grew up to be a madman. We can pity the child he was, while making no excuses for the monster he became. 
* * * * *
 According to the FBI, in the US alone, every year, thousands of children are victims of violent crime. Globally, UNICEF estimates the number to be in the millions. Everyone agrees we must keep our children safe, and we wring our hands about how best to do just this.
Gun control is the topic of the day, and though it is a discussion worth having it is at once both complex and hardly a sufficient response. Proponents argue, correctly, that certain weapons might cause more harm, more rapidly, leaving less time to intercede and stop a horrifying event. Those against gun control note that in Britain and Australia, where legislation made obtaining a firearm legally quite difficult, violence and mass killings have not decreased much as we would like. And should we get rid of all guns, it is worth noting that recently British doctors have been calling for a ban on kitchen knives in order to prevent "impulse stabbings". An opposing fact is that no children died in a Chinese attack less than 24 hours prior to the Newtown tragedy. The difference - the Chinese attacker used a knife rather than firearms.
But we cannot - must not - be happy in a world where success is measured by children stabbed rather than shot.
Because there have always been tragedies, it is difficult to know whether this particular one was inevitable. But the facts around the incident are striking. Adam Lanza was by many accounts a genius, but apparently no one was surprisedwhen he was identified as the killer. His behavior had been disturbing since he was a very small child, yet no one acted to ensure that he was kept both safe and prevented from hurting others.
And this is the tragedy-within-a-tragedy. None of us can say whether Adam Lanza was destined to become a brutal murderer of small children. But it should be clear to all of us that for many years he was a person who needed help, and received none. A straight line may be drawn from the tragedy of his neglect to the larger tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary.
In many places around the world, social norms are dissolving, perhaps nowhere faster than in both the US and China. Communities, where once each neighbor watched over the other, are now simply collections of houses. The best neighbors quietly mind their own business.
In another time, Adam Lanza and his family might have received the support they needed to avoid the Newtown tragedy, or failing that, a concerned member of the community might have noticed and acted to protect the innocent. It is remarkable that while his neighbors knew him just well enough to see that he was "troubled", in the weeks since the Sandy Hook massacre we have heard of no one who stepped up and took action. Even as a teenager, when Lanza perhaps could have most benefited from treatment and support, those who knew him saw a problem - and did nothing.
In the coming months our political leaders will almost put forward proposals making it harder to obtain certain types of firearms and making it easier to treat and possibly hospitalize persons with mental illness. Perhaps these steps are good and necessary. But it is clear that they are not enough. We must each act to protect the innocent, and it begins by understanding and acknowledging those around us who need help.
This, to me, is the final coda of the Newtown massacre. It is not about weapons, and it is not about legislation. It is about a sick little boy and a society that forgot about him. It is about the very real cost to our own children if we do not act. But it is also about the very real hope that we can do better.