Becoming a Teacher

I have never considered myself to be a teacher. Despite leading five college courses, I never felt much connection to the identity. Considering the rest of my former day job in Student Affairs and the countless workshops that I prepared and facilitated, I often claimed the moniker of educator, but never teacher. Even as an assistant last year, when I started responding to “what do you do?” with “teacher”, I didn’t feel the ownership.

education-is-spontaneous

And then it happened: I started calling myself a teacher and meaning it. Simultaneously, I realized the great privilege and responsibility of the title “teacher” as I delved deeper into my Montessori certification requirements, observing other classes and considering how I would apply various strategies and ideas to my own (future) classroom. It has hit me like a ton of bricks – the responsibility of preparing the environment in a way that allows the children to learn is enormous. The sheer number of factors that have to be considered and decided upon is overwhelming.

I may be able to remember which order the shelves should go, and consult my dutifully prepared albums to decide where work should be placed upon them, but I will also have to decide every other micro and macro thing that makes our classroom function. Should we put day numbers on the calendar as they go by, or take them off? Should we have class jobs and what should those jobs be? Which of the thousands of possibilities for work should go on the shelf at any given time? What topics should we focus on to supplement the Montessori curriculum? The number of details that comprise a functioning classroom is stunning and the thing I am most confident about is that I haven’t even scratched the surface of conceptualizing all that I will need to figure out.

But it also feels right. Daunting, but conceivably manageable, and hugely exciting. These days, as I tell people I am a teacher, it feels like it is solidifying as a part of who I am. The back of my brain is working to try to piece together how my classroom might work, searching for ideas and analyzing every option for possibilities. Each day, the children that I work with fill my heart with joy, making it easier and easier to feel up to the challenge that preparing their environment creates. Perhaps by meeting this challenge and owning this responsibility of being their teacher, I will get to fill their hearts with a bit of joy as well.

 

**Views expressed in this post are my own and not necessarily shared by Millhopper Montessori School.

Making Bread

Name: Making Bread Area: Sensorial / Gustatory
Materials: Large bowl, 1/3 cup measure, flour, honey, tray, teaspoon measure (2), yeast, hot water, measuring cup, dish towels, paper, pencil, baking sheet, parchment paper, spatulas, food service trays, paper towels, salt, ¼ tsp., small bowl, bowls for mixing, plates, knives, cutting board, oven mitts, cooling rack, butter, jelly, oven, timer, quantity signs, recipe
Direct Aims: Concentration, Coordination, Independence, Order Indirect Aims: Use hands to make a simple bread recipe
Preparation: Practical life activities Age: Second year student
 making-bread

PRESENTATION BY THE TEACHER:

The Montessori Lesson:

  1. Wash hands.img_8228
  2. Get one tray with a towel, spatula, and paper towel per group.
  3. Get one bowl and place it on the tray.
  4. Measure one scoop (1/3 cup) of flour into the bowl.
  5. Measure one scoop (1 tsp.) of yeast into the bowl.
  6. Measure two scoops (2 tsps.) of honey into the bowl.
  7. Pour a generous 1/3 cup (3 oz.) of hot water into a measuring cup.
  8. Pour the water into the bowl.img_8227
  9. Carry the tray with the bowl to the workspace.
  10. Use the spatula to stir all the ingredients in the bowl together until combined.
  11. Cover bowl with a kitchen towel.
  12. Mark whose bread and what time it is, and leave the bowl to rest covered for 30 minutes.
  13. After 30 minutes have passed, wash hands and return to the bread.
  14. Uncover the bowl and set aside the kitchen towel.
  15. Add two scoops (2/3 cup) of flour into the bowl.
  16. Add one scoop (1/4 tsp.) of salt into the bowl.
  17. Return with the tray and bowl to the workspace and stir the ingredients together until combined.
  18. Place the bowl on the workspace.
  19. Take the tray back to the large flour bowl and get a pinch of flour, sprinkling it on the tray.
  20. Return to the workspace.
  21. Pour the contents of the bowl onto the tray.
  22. Knead the dough together for 3-5 minutes, collecting the loose clumps and adding flour or water (tiny amounts) as needed for the dough to come together and be manageable.
  23. Using hands, flatten the dough as much as possible onto the tray.
  24. Roll the dough up like a rug and press the seam together.
  25. Press the ends of the dough in to help create the loaf shape.
  26. Place the loaf onto a large, parchment papered baking sheet, and note where the loaf is on the pan on a separate paper.
  27. Cover the loaf(ves) with a towel and let rise at least 30 minutes.
  28. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  29. Bake the bread for 25-30 minutes, or until golden brown. Finished bread will sound hollow when you tap it.
  30. Remove the bread from the oven and allow it to cool for at least 5 minutes.
  31. Slice the bread and serve with butter and jelly.

Points of Emphasis:

  1. Following the steps of the recipe.
  2. Measuring accurately.
  3. Mixing completely.
  4. Kneading for 3-5 minutes.
  5. Letting the bread rise.
  6. Noticing the work of the yeast.

Control of Error:

  1. Size of measuring cups and ingredient containers.
  2. Adults present.
  3. Food service tray as a contained workspace.

WORK OF THE CHILD:

Points of Interest:

  1. Making edible food.
  2. The ingredients.
  3. Seeing the yeast work and the bread rise.
  4. Feeling the dough with their hands.
  5. The smell of the bread.
  6. The taste of the bread.

Points of Consciousness:

  1. “I can eat this bread that I made.”
  2. “The yeast makes the dough get bigger.”
  3. “The dough feels good in my hands.”
  4. “We roll the dough just like a rug.”
  5. “I can measure ingredients.”

Self-Correcting Indicators:

  1. Too much of one ingredient: the dough is too crumbly or sticky.
  2. The bread doesn’t rise.
  3. The containers – dough spilling out of the bowl or off the tray.

Language: names of ingredients, sizes of measures, knead, dough, bread

Variations & Extensions:

  1. Add herbs to dough.
  2. Use a rolling pin to flatten the dough.

Notes:

  • Works well as a whole class activity using groups of three.
  • Needs two adults for support (i.e. assistant and parent volunteer)

Check out the photos from our bread making adventure!

 

**Views expressed in this post are my own and not necessarily shared by Millhopper Montessori School.

Montessori and Nature

One of the tenants of the Montessori philosophy is what Dr. Montessori called the Prepared Environment. It has seven components which combined allow the classroom to function the way she envisioned in her early work:

  • Freedom
  • Structure and order
  • Reality and nature
  • Beauty and atmosphere
  • The Montessori materials
  • The development of a community
  • The adult

Several of these are unique to Montessori classrooms, but the one that I want to talk about today is the idea of infusing reality and nature into the classroom. The items used in the Montessori classroom represent real things, not fantasies or cartoons, all the way down to the books read to the children (in most cases). While fiction is certainly still a crucial part of our library, we strive to include books that depict realistic scenes, not mythical or anthropomorphized creatures. Children use real tools that are child sized, and clean things which are actually dirty instead of pretending to clean.

Effort is given to utilize natural materials as much as possible within the materials to increase the child’s connection to nature. Montessori believed this connection to be critical to the child’s development as a person and a learner. Many Montessori classrooms include one or more pets, and a variety of flora, helping children to gain respect and appreciation for all living things. Further, many Montessorians try to extend their classroom to include the outdoor environment. They might choose to set up some work in the open air, or have work that is only available to do outside. This can be a logistical challenge, but it is something that we strive for to increase children’s chances to be in nature.

This TED talk gave me a wonderful reminder that nature doesn’t have to be as hard to find as it sometimes seems, especially for children. I see the appreciation for exploration of nature amongst the children even on our playground – they are always finding sticks, leaves, nuts, and creatures that fascinate them. Dr. Montessori believed that this connection to nature was not only good for children in its own right, but gives them the foundation they need to become learners and scientists. As they explore, they are forming questions and theories and seeking explanations to complex systems, not to mention gaining an appreciation for the world that they live in.

Where’s your nearest nature? Have you explored it lately?

**Views expressed in this post are my own and not necessarily shared by Millhopper Montessori School.

The Power of Positive Thinking (Work Edition)

Montessorians approach children in a unique way. We believe in positive discipline, encouragement instead of praise, and utilizing power collaboratively instead of imposing our will upon the children we work with. Though it may sound normal, it is actually one of the most counter-intuitive pieces of learning Montessori – for most people, it requires unlearning a lifetime of socialization about how we should deal with children.

The basics of the approach look something like this:

  • Provide limits, structure, and routines
  • Give love unconditionally and avoid rewards and punishments
  • Model appropriate behavior (especially social etiquette)
  • Limit intermediate devices (like cell phones) when interacting with children*
  • Minimize time spent with poorly regulated influences (i.e. television)*
  • Offer encouragement instead of praise
  • Find ways to share power with a child instead of wielding power over the child
    (*Not applicable within the Montessori classroom)

Observing these guidelines goes a long way in creating a peaceful classroom and building student-teacher relationships and this approach is one of the things that draws me to Montessori. In short, we aim to treat children like people instead of children, a distinction that aims to respect their humanity and development and is often missed elsewhere.

In practice, this makes our classrooms incredibly positive places. There are any number of guidelines that children must follow, but any failure to do so is met with kind words and a gentle reminder. For example, if a child fails to push in their chair after leaving it, we simply say, “Oh, I think you forgot to push in your chair.” in a calm, kind voice. The most typical response is some sort of gasp and smile as the realization that they did indeed forget washes over them followed by quick replacement of the chair under the table. While we try to avoid praise (things like: good job, I am so proud of you, you are the best ________), encouragement abounds. We acknowledge hard work, focus, concentration, teamwork, and other positive behaviors with observation (i.e. our classroom looks neater now that you helped put things away).

These tactics teach children that it’s okay to make mistakes and to fail. Plus, they go a long way in showing them positive ways to deal with other people. Instead of assuming the worst of a friend who has done something wrong, the children have hours of examples of adults assuming the best to pull from. Perhaps most importantly, this approach helps children to develop internal motivation and a sense of responsibility to the community at large. By observing the impact of their action (positive or negative) instead of framing their work in relation to ourselves (i.e. “I like…”) they learn to work for their own fulfillment rather than merely to please someone else.

I have known this approach to be wonderful for children for a couple of decades, but I never considered what a difference it would make in my  day. Instead of coming home feeling drained and negative about all the little things that had gone wrong (even on generally good days), last week, I had a hard time coming up with anything negative to say at all. For the first time in a long time, I left work feeling good about myself, my work, and the students in my care multiple days in a row. I know the novelty of this work will likely wear off, but it seems almost impossible to leave feeling miserable when you’ve spent the entire day looking for the good in and assuming the best of others.

**Views expressed in this post are my own and not necessarily shared by Millhopper Montessori School.

Welcome to Our Classroom!

I started my new position as a Teaching Assistant at Millhopper Montessori School this week. We spent the days preparing our room for the 25 preschoolers and kindergartners that will join us on Monday. It’s an inviting space full of work that 4 and 5 year old hands can’t wait to use and learn from.

Montessori classrooms are usually unique, put together based on the materials chosen by the teacher from their own stock and what they think will both interest and advance their student’s development. But, most Montessori classrooms are characterized by materials dedicated to certain subjects that comprise much of the Montessori curriculum.

Sensorial
The Sensorial curriculum has materials designed mostly by Maria Montessori that encourage children to develop their various senses. Like most Montessori work, it’s designed for students to be able to manipulate, but it also aims to isolate one of a child’s senses, whether visual, tactile, or gustatory (among others). Children get an introduction to geometry through these materials and develop their ability and vocabulary to discriminate between sizes, textures, smells, tastes, colors, etc.  These skills serve as a strong foundation to later math work, as well as encouraging students to problem solve and become researchers – finding a variety of answers to big questions, like how many rhombi can be made from putting together a variety of triangles.

Language
In a typical pre-primary Montessori classroom, children ages 3-6 share the space and the language materials, meaning, some children are just learning their letters, and others are reading at 1st or 2nd grade levels. As such, the language materials are varied and extensive, comprised often of naming, spelling, or matching object names with movable letters. Montessori also places a heavy emphasis on auditory and verbal language development; we not only spend a large amount of time reading stories and sharing songs and rhymes, but place an emphasis on using the real names for even the most complex things and giving students an opportunity to develop their vocabularies  through interaction with the environment.

Math
Montessori math extends from the Sensorial materials and spans a spectrum of learning to recognize and write numerals to dynamic multiplication and division with numbers in the thousands. All of these learning goals are achieved with the use of manipulatives, from wooden numerals, to golden beads representing units, tens, hundreds, and thousands. Before heading to 1st grade, most students will begin to move toward abstraction, making calculations mentally without manipulatives to aid them. Math materials can be expanded into weights and measures, money, and other areas as students’ skills demand.

Practical Life
The Practical Life area is foundational to the Montessori 3-6 classroom, serving as a connection to home and a place where all students can work to build their manual skills that will support them throughout their time at Montessori and their independence at home. These activities serve to develop basic skills for the youngest children in the class, like grasping, twisting, and caring for the environment, and as a point of rejuvenation for older children who need to reenergize after doing complex work in other areas of the classroom. The area encompasses art, food preparation, and care of person and environment. Students learn how to independently clean up after themselves doing everything from blowing their nose and hand washing, to sweeping the classroom and doing dishes.

Other Areas
These are the main areas of the classroom, but most include science and culture work as well. Every teacher makes their Montessori classroom unique, and each group of students demands materials that meet their own needs, so a classroom might look different not only from year to year but from month to month. 

*Views expressed in this post are my own and not necessarily shared by Millhopper Montessori School.

Room for (Mis)Behavior

My year as a traditional teacher was extremely challenging. Yes, we had a particularly challenging mix of students, but more than that, I was often derailed by the need to give up so much of what I believed to be right or wrong when it came to interacting with their challenging behavior in that environment.

On my wild days of being the substitute and the only adult in the classroom, I would often try many of the behavior redirection techniques that felt more congruent with my beliefs. Nine times out of ten, I met failure. I could see my students were not prepared to handle the freedom I offered them; did not know how to make the choices I presented them with; and certainly were not ready to abandon their regular behaviors simply because I tried to approach them in a different way. But beyond the explanation of a strong reaction to unexpected freedom, it was hard for me to nail down why my attempts were not working.

The last week of my Montessori teacher training course was a class called Cultivating Cooperative Classrooms. The class explored many of the behaviors my third-graders spent all year practicing and taught us many ways to deal with them. As you might be able to guess, several were entirely contrary to what I saw day-to-day in the traditional environment. But I also saw that many of the things that I tried with my kids were along the lines of what Montessori classrooms do. So the question burned even brighter: why didn’t they work for me?

My conclusion, after 225 hours of instruction on how to be a Montessori teacher, is that it must be the environment. Montessori teachers are able to meet their students needs and challenges in humanistic ways because the environment they operate in allows them to. When a power struggle ensues, a teacher can simply walk away. When children are begging for attention, they interrupt only the teacher and one or two other students, not the whole class. When a child is lashing out or feeling inadequate, there is space for both the child and the teacher to adjust, collect themselves, and try again. The traditional classroom, dictated by a teacher’s need to churn through curriculum and a schedule chock full of places to be allows for none of these things.

Setting up the classroom in such a way eliminates a huge amount of misbehavior before it even happens, and, when it does happen, teachers are able to interact with each child and treat them like the small human that they are. They can problem solve with patience, compassion, and humanity, all of which are often  unavailable to teachers bound by a traditional environment.

A Teacher

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“A teacher!”
6 year old me

My response was a no-brainer and came as no surprise to any adult who asked me. I was a child who spent hours upon hours making a school, complete with a classroom and a full curriculum, to teach her dolls in. I cherished opportunities to share knowledge with my classmates and had already been indoctrinated with my father’s wisdom that I would be an excellent teacher someday. My life plan was complete.

“What do you want to be when you grow up, a teacher?”
“Ugh, no, I’m not going to be a teacher. They don’t get paid enough and no one likes them.”
12 year old me

After only a year and a half in a traditional public school, I had wised up to the ways of the education world. It was painfully clear to me that few teachers got the respect they deserved, either from their students or from the general population. At 12, I could already see that teaching is billed in society as a sub-par career, even if we would never dare speak those words aloud. Teacher hours are long, salaries minuscule, expectations grandiose, and success hard to see.

“What do you plan to do with your life?”
“I don’t know, but it has to be in education and I don’t think I can be a teacher.”
22 year old me

My own education spooked me from the traditional system, showing me how difficult typical teacher jobs really are. I found a home in universities, educating students co-curricularly, and while I loved that, it wasn’t close enough to my passion to satisfy my motivations. I realized in grad school that I was not on my final path, but couldn’t see a place for me to fit into a system I hated. My advisors understood my predicament and cautioned me against entering the public school system, recognizing its power to either break my resolve or make me explode.

“What’s your long term goal?”
“I think I’d like to teach teachers.”
Current me

I still don’t think I can by a traditional K-12 teacher for any length of time, the system is too messy and the expectations too out of sync with my values. But more than those issues is that I like teaching about how kids learn much more than I like actually teaching kids. I enjoy watching a kid finally understand equivalent fractions under my direction, but I go weak in the knees watching someone fundamentally change how they are going to work with children.

I’m open to what the world brings me, and I know that I could still change my mind. My work with younger children in a Montessori setting could set a fire in me that flares just as bright as the one for engaging education in general. I am floored to have the opportunity to learn and share the Montessori method at all, but there’s still a big chunk of my heart that can’t wait to share it with future teachers who can then spread it to the world.

Despite my attempts at denial, my six year old self knew my passion better than I have for all the years since. I wonder what else she could teach me?

One Child at a Time

In my Montessori philosophy class this week, we got a piece of paper titled “The Unfolding Montessori Teacher” which outlines ways we could continue to grow and give back to the Montessori community over the course of our Montessori career. It was presented as a guide, not a choose your own adventure, and the last item is:

Takes a global responsibility: Helping Achieve World Peace

While this is a beyond lofty goal, it is the most succinct way I have of knowing that I have found my people. Dr. Montessori felt very strongly that education serves as a peace-builder, and that tradition continues in many of her namesake schools. But how? The Montessori answer is simple – One child at a time.

Everything about the Montessori style of education is based on following the child, serving their developmental needs, and doing so in the name of creating a good human, not just a good student. While this spans their academics, meaning everything they do is personal to them, it also stretches into their personal development, which is very much a part of the curriculum.

Children as young as two-and-a-half are actively taught grace, courtesy, manners, and conflict resolution. From the very beginning, students are taught about kindness and respect. Arguments over playground toys are met with an adult mediated session where each affected party gets to share their side. The goal is collective peace, and a transference of resolution skills, not mutual tolerance. Further, an enduring respect for life is cultivated throughout the Montessori experience, from caring for classroom plants and animals, to a universal no kill attitude – even roaches and mosquitos are humanely caught and returned to their outdoor home.

Being in Orlando made Montessori’s call for peace education all the more timely and painfully important. Montessorians, and educators collectively, must continue to show children ways toward peace that they can carry with them and spread to others throughout their lives, one child at a time.

We’re Going to Hogwarts!

Months ago, our class began reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone together. Harry Potter is something my teacher and I share a passion for, and we both thought it would be a good way to help our not always kind children think more deeply about what it means to be a good person.

I can’t say that we changed any behaviors, but we did manage to inspire almost the entire class to become HP fans. Despite initial skepticism (like moans of “I hate Harry Potter”) some were enthralled by the time the snake’s glass disappeared. Others took longer, but almost all of them have become invested in the story. Several have already made it through Chamber of Secrets! They also managed, over the course of the year, to earn a full jar of marbles, given for a variety of reasons, but mostly for good behavior. We learned on the first day of school that as a reward for earning all of these marbles, they would get a “marble party” as determined by the teacher.

So what did we decide to do? Throw them a Harry Potter party, of course!

The party would be in the last full week of school and img_6656provided us an opportunity to go all out. We made them img_6659Hogwarts letters, complete with individualized desk locations, and presented them as though owls had dropped them off. We spent an hour block of writing time having them write back to Professor McGonagall with their responses. Most were thrilled, some merely smiled, but some (unexpectedly) shared fear. We had several kids who didn’t want to leave their families to attend, regardless of their magical abilities. It hadn’t occurred to us that any of our children would consider this as anything but imaginative play, but we swallowed any doubt and kept selling it.

We had a local actress (the teacher’s mother) dress up and visit the class playing ZuZu Trewlaney (Professor Trewlaney’s equally sighted sister), who identifies which muggle born children will have magical capabilities for Dumbledore. She did a phenomenal job, explaining to the children that they would be attending an orientation (Hogwarts has never had so many muggle borns from one place invited to attend, after all!) the next afternoon.

After countless questions about “when are we going to Hogwarts?” and “is this our marble party?” leading my teacher and I to seriously question whether we were messing with their minds a little too much, the party arrived.

Students entered the classroom via a fabricated Platform 9 3/4, rushing through a faux brick wall. They were sorted via cupcake (I colored frosting img_6683inside to indicate which house they would be in), though we got a witches hat from our music teacher to fully simulate the experience. Our kiddos got to try Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, don Harry Potter glasses, andimg_6666 wave plastic (or pretzel) wands. Before we could watch “a documentary about castle life” (the first Harry Potter movie), each child got a personalized Chocolate Frog.

This was my favorite project that we took on, though it ended up taking an excessive amount of time. Each child had their own picture on a img_6649chocolate frog card and the box was personalized to explain what had made img_6650them worthy of
such a wizard honor. We created fictional lives for each of them, from being a famous quidditch Chaser, or volunteering at a Unicorn Sanctuary, to becoming the Minister of Magic via groundbreaking work with Muggle Relations. We tried to personalize each story based on the students interests and what we thought they would most enjoy and it was a really fun reflection tool at the end of the year. 

Our students had a wonderful time feeling like witches and wizards and it was fulfilling to be able to bring them that joy. They were invested in the story and their imaginations, and we invested in their interests. While we could have made this adventure much more academic, the effort we gave and the immersion that came out of it is a good model for how kids could be learning at school every day, not just for an end of the year party.

Full Circle

I have taken more than 20 trips around the sun since I first walked into Danville Montessori School, knowing little about what awaited me. I left feeling enormously grateful for the education I was afforded and have carried nuggets of the Montessori philosophy with me ever since.

Now, it is with great excitement that I share that I will be embarking on another Montessori journey in just a few short weeks — to become a teacher. I will spend most of my summer learning how to craft the Montessori environment and then spend next year as an intern in a classroom full of 25 four- and five-year-olds starting their own Montessori experience. I will have the opportunity to work side-by-side a veteran teacher while actively applying what I learned in the classroom to see how all of the Montessori pieces come together.

Despite feeling like I’m fulfilling a lifelong dream, I couldn’t have told you this was something I wanted five years ago. I’m still not confident that it’s what I want to do for the next 40 years, but I am absolutely certain that it’s a step in the right direction. So here’s to new adventures and bringing life full circle!