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Montessori Mid-Year Move Ups

November 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Montessori Math and Writing

Stay at a Montessori school like Evergreen long enough and it will happen to you: the inevitable question about your child’s ‘move up date.’

At schools like ours, we firmly believe that children grow and develop on their own timeline—not according to arbitrary dates on a calendar.  Students are able move from toddler to primary and from primary to elementary at almost any point during the school year–  just as long as they are ready for the increased intellectual and social demands of the new setting.

This is in strong contrast to traditional schools where everyone in a class can automatically move up on the first day of school in September. Ready or not.

Mid-year move ups require careful planning, observing and communicating between teachers and parents.  Are they worth it?

Absolutely.  Consider Anahad O’Brien’s  latest New York Times’ Well Blog that worries “students born at the end of the calendar year may be at a distinct disadvantage. Those perceived as having academic or behavioral problems may in fact be lagging simply as a result of being forced to compete with classmates almost a full year older than them. For a child as young as 5, a span of one year can account for 20 percent of the child’s age, potentially making him or her appear significantly less mature than older classmates.”

O’Brien quotes research from Iceland that examined over 10,000 children and found those in the youngest third of their class “were 90 percent more likely to earn low test scores in math and 80 percent more likely to receive low test scores in language arts.”

And students in the youngest quarter of their class are significantly more likely to be proscribed ADD medication.  Should we be medicating immature children?  Why can’t we give them time to learn and grow at their own pace?

Author and researcher Malcolm Gladwell has found that the link between age and grade placement makes a difference into the college years.  In a study of 4-year colleges, “students belonging to the relatively youngest group in their class are underrepresented by about 11.6 percent. That initial difference in maturity doesn’t go away with time. It persists.”

Schools should not punish children because they have the wrong birthday.

As long as there is interesting, meaningful and challenging class work, there is no advantage to rushing a child through the grades.  It is better to give him ample time to be the most mature; the leader. Savor the time when your child is at the top—and take comfort in knowing that a school like Evergreen, he can move up just when the time is right.

Educational Apps, a Skeptical Look

November 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Old School iPadThe more I look at the educational potential of iPads, the more aware I become of their potential and the limitations of ‘educational apps.’

Can you believe there are already 74,000 educational apps available for iPhones and iPads—and the number keeps growing. Even more startling, 72% of the top selling apps are designed for preschool or elementary children.  There is no denying that learning with iPads is here to stay. Sadly, the market is filled with low quality ‘edutainment apps’ that obscure many worth-while experiences for children.

The promise of digital education is great. There are marvelous programs such as the apps from Montessorium and the activities from Khan Academy. These programs allow children to act as agents of their learning experience. A child takes ownership and pride in his or her accomplishments with these high-quality programs.

Unfortunately, parents have a difficult time finding these superior activities in the haystack of bingo-math-cute-bunny-video-game-type drill activities.  At their core, these types of learning-blaster apps create a demotivating, passive learning experience. Rather than genuinely internalizing their learning, children are led through programs and rewarded by tokens, beeps or other external rewards.  Here is an example of typical, but misguiding game design: an award-winning software company brags that your child is “motivated to continue learning by ABCmouse.com’s Tickets and Rewards System.”

Creators of these programs don’t seem to understand the key insights of Montessori education. That is, “tying extrinsic rewards to an activity [like tokens, tickets or money] negatively impacts motivation to engage in that activity when the reward is withdrawn.” Angeline Lillard, The Science Behind the Genius, 2005.

It is sad to see that so many educational app makers seem compelled to offer more flash than substance.   And we know that that the hyper-stimulus of electronics can impede the development of qualities such as patience, calm and persistence.   These skills are absolutely necessary for genuine learning and development to take place.  Have app makers thought about how these essential skills get learned?

What criteria should parents use when selecting educational apps for their children? Look beyond the arcade-style apps that allow children to rack up points.  Choose apps that allow them to be active agents in the learning process, encourage quiet perseverance, and inspire. Just like the classic ‘physical world toys’ that offer open-ended play like Legos and Lincoln Logs, high quality, child-friendly apps will be the ones your child will return to again and again.

At Evergreen School, we see the great potential for technology in the classroom.  Yet we are very selective about which materials, books and apps are appropriate for our older students. After all, the facts our children know may seem important, but it is their attitude about learning that will matter most in the long term.

Beyond Classroom Management (and tennis)

October 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Classroom ObservationA little less than a year ago, I wrote my eleventh blog post about classroom observations in a Montessori school.  At that point, I had been working at Evergreen for only three months. The “Montessori Way” was still new to me.  I was not used to seeing children making choices in the classroom, learning by doing, moving quietly around the room and discovering answers to their own questions.  I was amazed by what I saw at Evergreen. It was so joyful.  I had to share my reflections; I had to Blog.

How time flies.

Today, for the first time in months, I visited a traditional public middle school.  Out of respect, I will not mention the name of the school—it’s known as one of the best middle schools in Maryland.  It’s a place filled with good kids, smart kids, ambitious kids.

I was in for a surprise. After one year at a Montessori school, I had forgotten the texture of a school day in a traditional school. My first observation: the children were polite, obedient, and self-possessed. Students raised their hands to answer teachers’ questions.  They opened their books to page 73 when asked.  They stood up quietly when the bell rang.  No one was loud, rowdy or unruly.  It started as a pleasant morning.

Until… my second observation: where was the passion for learning?  I can hardly believe the lack of energy I felt. Sure, students were passively well behaved.  But classrooms lacked the vitality that I am accustomed to.  You could see it in the students’ body language.  No one craned forward or perched at the edge of her seat.  Heads were lazily propped by hands and elbows.   There was no buzz. There were no animated conversations—just a muted tennis volley: a teacher lobs questions at her students, and they lob back, one at a time, with a hand raised. How I wished for Maria Sharapova’s grunting. Sharpness.

My school, Evergreen School, a Montessori school has changed me. A few years ago, I might have complimented this school.  Well-behaved children, well-managed classrooms– once this seemed like an extraordinary achievement.  But now, how I appreciate the energy and enthusiasm of children who feel ownership of their learning! Joyful children. Passionate children.

Schools should be as alive as childhood itself.  Learning is an active, energetic endeavor.  Isn’t it?

A Great School, Deconstructed

October 1, 2012 1 comment

face painting ideas

What makes a great school?

To me, there are just four fundamentals: The first essential: passionate teachers who strive to understand and meet the needs of each student.  These are Evergreen-type teachers who consistently create an environment that is supportive, challenging and safe. They are more than experts in their field; they are compassionate, patient and understanding.

The second essential: engaged parents who participate in the life of the school.  Again, Evergreen-type parents regularly visit the school, participate in family playdates and coffees, attend ESPA meetings and lend a hand at school functions.  Thank to our parents  for enthusiastically giving us their time and your talent.

The third essential: a vision for education that aligns with our modern understanding of how children learn and develop life skills.  On this measure, our Montessori philosophy supports current research in education and emphases a holistic approach to learning that is proven to be successful.  The fact that our system of education allows children to learn in a natural way, free from coercion, is why their is so much joy here.

And the fourth essential: open, honest and frequent two-way communication.  From parent coffees to parent association meetings, to newsletters, observation days and conferences, our goal is to let our parents know what is happening at school– and hear how their children are doing at home.  Its a two-way road.

There  are more qualities that are important in schools, but these four: great teachers, engaged parents, a guiding philosophy of learning and communication are key.

What Do You Want Your Child to Be Like?

Jump RopeIt’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.

A Statement of Purpose, A Draft

Learning Machine

Learning through Senses

I have been taking time this summer to reflect on our school’s purpose statement. Below is a draft that came out a brain storming session.  Reading it makes me so excited to be a part of Evergreen!

Children are learning machines, naturally.  Their minds are absorbent; they thirst for knowledge and understanding.

 At Evergreen School, by using proven Montessori methods, we free children to learn the natural way.  Senses come alive: touch, movement, language, sight, sound and music are part of their everyday experience. Our students have choice in their work and a sense of control of their lives. The result? Children experience a stress-free classroom, develop a greater ability to concentrate and an increased sense of independence and self-sufficiency.

I would like to hear your thoughts and reflections.  Comments are welcomed…

Why Teach? And Why Here?

Teacher Appreciation WeekIndependent school admissions is a competitive field.  Thank goodness. When a family has many viable choices, no school can afford to be mediocre.

Each school, including my school Evergreen, works to distinguish itself among its competitors. For this reason, the “Why?” button is ubiquitous on independent school web sites.  These buttons or links lead readers to pages that promotes the school’s unique benefits. Some Why Buttons are simple: Why Roycemore? Why Woods?  Some are more elegant: What distinguishes Chapin? Why Choose Landon?  Other Why buttons are direct: The Collegiate Advantage, The Columbus Academy Advantage, etc.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan asked another important “Why” question this week in his blogWhy do teachers choose to teach? He writes:

When I ask teachers why they teach, they almost always say that it is because they want to make a difference in the lives of children. They talk about the joys of teaching and the singular rewards of watching children learn…

Duncan continues,

Yet stories of lasting and life-changing teacher-student relationships contrast starkly with what teachers say when asked about their profession. In short order, they lament inadequate training, top-down reforms, teaching to the test, budget cuts and a lack of time to collaborate.

No doubt, Arne Duncan spends much of his time speaking with US teachers who feel underappreciated for their efforts, their professionalism and their dedication to making a difference.  He notes that half of new teachers quit within five years. Data shared by Charles Blow in the New York Times (The Teacher Paywall 5/6/12) shows distressing levels of low morale among teachers. It is a pity to read such bad news, this being Teacher Appreciation Week and all.

Fortunately, this is not the news from Evergreen.

In the next several weeks, I will be collecting our teachers’ reflections on the Why of teaching at Evergreen.  Just like our families choose our school, our teachers have many choices about where they spend their careers.  They elect to teach here– and stay here (sometimes for 27 years or more).  Why?  Perhaps it is because of the respect with which they are treated as professionals; perhaps it is the way their efforts are honored by our families; perhaps it is our strong sense of community that makes every faculty member feel like an indispensable part of the team; perhaps it is our dedication to the school’s Montessori philosophy and the difference it makes in children’s lives.

I look forward to hearing our teachers’ answers to the Why questions. I will share their responses on my blog. For when you are choosing a school for your child, you will want to know why your child’s teachers have chosen, too.

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