The first thing you notice is the quiet. What you can’t hear is the sound of children discovering their capacity to learn.
Stepping into our Elementary classroom invites you to whisper. Why is it so quiet? It takes a few seconds to register that this isn’t perfect silence; there are sotto voce conversations all around the room. These discussions are serious, focused and calm. Standing in one of the out-of-the-way niches, I hear two children talking about multiplication. Two others talk about a frog’s anatomy. And I hear Mrs. Sesko giving a lesson about nouns. Mrs. Hatziyannis soundlessly reviews a child’s addition work. Other children are working alone, mostly in silence. One hums. It is clear, these children are using what we call their indoor voice.
The learning here is more that cataloging facts or acquiring data. In this mostly quiet, self-directed classroom, affective learning—the kind that fundamentally shapes the way children view themselves and their capacity to learn—is taking place. If I could think of a better place to learn, I’d tell you.
There is a peaceful buzz in the Elementary classroom because children are engaged in activities that are meaningful, motivating and personal. Affective learning has been described as the fuel that students bring to the classroom. (**) It connects them to the “why” of learning. Mrs. Sesko and Hatziyannis understand that motivation is as important as acquiring facts. Affect goes beyond simple enjoyment, and it plays a part in the development of persistence and deep interest in a subject. Teachers who emphasize skills and knowledge to the exclusion of emotion, turn off students and create adversarial relations with their students.
As you watch these Elementary students working, you will see that something extraordinary is happening. This just isn’t like other classrooms. Trevor Eissler, author and Montessori advocate wrote about his experience in a traditional classroom, “I remember two noise levels in [my] elementary school: very loud and very quiet. When the teacher’s back was turned, or she was out of the room, pandemonium broke out. As soon as she turned around or came back in the room and shouted, “Quiet! NOW!” there was a terrified hush. The noise bounced from one to the other: loud, quiet, loud, quiet, loud, quiet—punctuated by the teacher’s occasional shout.”
Why is our Elementary classroom different? Simply put: it is because the classroom culture is different. Mrs. Sesko and Mrs. Hatziyannis believe that their students are naturally interested in learning. Their role is to build upon their interest or at least preserve it. The teachers have filled the room with age-appropriate challenges that their students want to master. And rather than demanding that children submit to their will, the teachers have set up an environment that respects the child’s and channels it. The class culture builds each child’s self-concept of a person who is competent, capable, and self-directed. Being a multi-age classroom, of course, supports the idea that each child isn’t in a race or competition with each other, but is learning upon a path that is as customized and individualized as it is interesting and motivating. This is respecting the child.
The notion of respect turns the typical teacher/student relationship on its head. Mrs. Hatziyannis and Mrs. Sesko do not rule the classroom like authoritarian dictators. They are facilitators. Children have to ‘do the thinking’ to get the learning. As teachers, their goal is to create the opportunity for the children to think. There is not cat-and-mouse game of rule setting/rule breaking. There is a team mentality and a sense of community and cooperation. As Eissler describes a Montessori classroom that contracts the one he grew up with, “The [Montessori] teacher was like a chess grand master. A grand master is one of only a handful of elite chess players so accomplished they can play five, even ten chess matches simultaneously. They stroll around a room of tables, each with a chess board and a determined challenger, glance at each board in turn, make a move, and stroll to the next board. This teacher reminded me of that type of demonstration. She had keen skills of observation and quick analysis. She glided about the room giving a nod here, a whisper there, a glance, a suggestion. Then she would sit on a chair and observe the room, taking notes.”
Ask yourself: what are the most important goals I have for my child in his or her elementary years? Chances are your list will include the following: I want my child to…
- Be inquisitive
- Enjoy learning
- Have a positive self-image
- Have confidence about his or her capacity to learn
- Acquire the skills and facts necessary for academic success
As I observe the quiet buzz of our Elementary classroom, I am delighted to see our children fulfilling our hopes. It is worth a look yourself. Just use your indoor voice.
**Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning (2001) Chapter 6
David H. Rose & Anne Meyer
Life feels back to normal at Evergreen after being closed for Hurricane Sandy. We are so fortunate that the storm left the DC area unscathed. Children came into school today ready for the predictability of our routine. We quickly regained equilibrium. Teachers told me that there were no discussions of the recent storm in circle time nor were there conversations on the playground or at lunch. I appreciate our parents’ care shielding their young children from media images and news reports. Pictures of burning homes or waterlogged streets can be disturbing to old and young alike.
The lack of discussion of the hurricane doesn’t mean children have not been affected. Some children may have relatives in New York or New Jersey. Some may have anxiety about another storm. Children are deeply aware of stress in the adults who surround them. Please be ready to talk to your child about the storm. Let them know that being prepared is the key to safety. Fire drills, tornado procedures and our emergency plans are in place to ensure that we are safe at Evergreen. Most of all listen to their worries and reassure them with love.
Please speak to your child’s teacher if he or she seems worried, too. It helps us so much to have insight into what you are seeing at home. We can also point to additional resources to support your child. I am so glad that everyone in our community is safe– let’s not wait until Thanksgiving to appreciate all of our blessings every day.
No one needs me to tell them that the first week of September is a major time of transition– for children AND their parents.
Bedtimes shift, driving patterns change, even grocery shopping habits are different. Remember how hard it was for your child to adapt to daylight savings? That was nothing compared to the first week of school. Has the dust settled for your family? It takes time for routines to be fully ingrained. Be patient.
We will talk about routines, predictability, intellectual development, perseverance, independence, classroom expectations, community, optimism and all the other Evergreen values at our Back-to-School Night on Wednesday.
Today, we welcomed nine new students to Evergreen. Some were two years old, three, four and older. First thing in the morning, I could see a wee bit of excitement and a boat load of apprehension in each one’s eyes. Imagine being dropped into an unfamiliar environment filled with strangers. Grownups call it ‘culture shock.’ We expect so much from our children! On the outside, they put up brave faces. Inside, they were asking: Where am I? What do I do here? How long will I be here? Will it be safe? Will I be loved?
And then, suddenly, there is a kindly teacher and a warm face. There is something interesting to do. A picture to paint. A tower to build. A friend to talk to. It is such a joy to see anxious students’ faces unclench. And then the first smile.
For parents, the first day of school can be just as nerve wracking. Our babies depend on us for everything: food, shelter and love. We are biologically programed to protect our children. Should we override these instincts? Do we want our children in a place that is working to make them independent from us? Our brains tell us that we need to help our children grow into confident, independent, self-assured and capable beings. Our hearts tell us to hold them safe (until college, at least). Letting go is the hardest part of parenting. I know from experience– ask my son.
The transition to a new school can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few weeks. Different children react differently to new environments. Changes in routine are not easy and we do not expect children to adapt right away. It is a process that takes time, patience and love. It is important to establish consistency and predictability in classrooms. Consistently gentle and kind teachers. Consistently welcoming friends. Trust is won through actions.
The start of school can be both the most stressful and the most joyful time of the year. We love introducing our students to new experiences, new ideas and new friends. And together, we will have a great year.
Enjoy your year in school, too!
It’s the most common question at open houses, back-to-school nights and parent meetings: “what do you want your child to be like?” As a School Head and a parent, I have been both the asker and the askee.
Pause for a moment. How would you answer? If you are like me, your responses includes the following: I want my child to be happy, well-adjusted, academically prepared, faithful, well-rounded, smart, and fulfilled.
Are these answers universal or do they represent the cultural biases of affluent suburban Americans of the early 21st Century? Recently, two cultural anthropologists attempted to answer this question. Carolina Izquierdo and Elinor Oches looked at an indigenous tribe in the Peruvian Amazon as well as thirty-two middle-class families in Los Angeles. Their reflections are documented in an article by Elizabeth Kolbert in last week’s New Yorker. Read here.
In her sometimes hilarious, sometimes scathing article, Kolbert comes to the sad conclusion that the one thing American parents do not want for their children is for them to be independent, self-sufficient or self-reliant. While six-year-old girls in the Amazon catch, clean and cook crustaceans for their families without any adult direction, in L.A. no adolescent child “routinely performed household chores without being instructed to.” Most often the LA children had to be coaxed, bribed or threatened before they would perform a household duty– including bathing, themselves.
Raising children in times of great affluence is a prodigious challenge. We are torn between providing the greatest opportunities, learning activities, toys, digital tools and other by-products of American affluence on the one hand and teaching the values of hard-work, duty, responsibility and sacrifice on the other. Do we want to raise our children at all? If we wait until they reach adultescence, won’t they be able to raise themselves?
Kolbert relates the story of an exasperated parent of twenty-somethings. Sally Koslow, a former editor at McCall’s, bitterly writes in Slouching Toward Adulthood “Our offspring have simply leveraged our braggadocio, good intentions, and over investment,” They inhabit “a broad savannah of entitlement that we’ve watered, landscaped, and hired gardeners to maintain.”
Montessori education—and our friends at the Parent Encouragement Program—are outliers in the child raising conversation. Why? Because, more than anything, we emphasize life skills and unity of experience over isolated academic skills. When mainstream schools, pedagogies and well-intentioned teachers think about outcomes for students, they rarely mention self-sufficiency or independence. Maybe it is because there is no standardized test to measure self-reliance.
At Evergreen, we believe that children are far more capable, competent and resilience than they are given credit for. Let’s give them a chance to show us.
How do you approach the end of the school year? For some, the countdown to summer begins immediately after spring break. For me, I am in denial until the very last week: “It is NOT almost over!” I protest. But even when the end comes, there is still Evergreen Camp and next year to look forward to.
To make the transition to summer meaningful, we are planning two special events to put closure on the year. The first honors our elementary class. On Friday, we will recognize the special journey of our elementary students—in particular those who are departing after many years of learning and growth at Evergreen– through songs, poems and presentations. We are so proud of our students and their accomplishments! If you are familiar with the elementary class, you will understand how sad it will be to say goodbye to our beloved students and their families.
The second event takes place on the last day of school. Students will gather in the gym for a giant Montessori birthday celebration for the school. We will simulate the earth’s path around the sun and represent the journey we have been on this year. We will recount highlights of the year, sing, say goodbye and conclude with cookies and lemonade on the playground. The snacks may be sweet, but the end is always bittersweet.
I read a great article on optimism by Jane Broddy in the Tuesday Health Section of the Times (A Richer Life by Seeing the Glass Half Full, 5/21/2012). Optimism, as you read in my blog last September, is the greatest gift we can give our children. And Broddy gives a short primer on steps we can take toward that goal.
My favorite part of Broddy’s article recounts the way confidence and optimism opened doors for he. She writes,
“When I applied at age 24 for a job as a science writer at The New York Times, an interviewer said I was foolhardy to think I could be hired after just two years of newspaper experience. ‘If I didn’t think I could do the job, I wouldn’t be here,’ I told him.
It turned out to be just what he wanted to hear, and I was hired. Since what I loved most was researching and writing articles that could help people better understand science and medicine, I stayed focused on my goals and declined opportunities to move up in the organization by becoming an editor.”
Broddy cites a book on optimism called Breaking Murphy’s Law by Suzanne C. Segerstrom, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky. To be more optimistic, according to Segerstrom, you should act optimistically. Optimistic attitudes arise from patterns of optimistic behavior. She applies the addage “Fake it until you make it,” to optimism. Or in Broddy’s words, “If you behave more optimistically, you will be likely to keep trying instead of giving up after an initial failure.”
And Broddy adds, “Research has indicated that a propensity toward optimism is strongly influenced by genes, most likely ones that govern neurotransmitters in the brain. Still, the way someone is raised undoubtedly plays a role, too. Parents who bolster children’s self-esteem by avoiding criticism and praising accomplishments, however meager, can encourage in them a lifelong can-do attitude.”
Yes, we can.
And our children can too!